A/N: For those readers who are not familiar with it, koumiss is the fermented mare's milk, a traditional drink of the steppe nomads.
Chapter 28: Endings and Beginnings
As he waited on the balcony overlooking the square Shan-Yu managed a small smile when he caught sight of Suren soaring toward him. The message had reached its first intended recipient. Now it was just a matter of time before the other leaders joined him, making theirs a vast Empire.
They wouldn't all move southward necessarily. Many of the nomads would stay where they lived rather. Or they would continue to raid the villages just over the border for badly needed resources that had been taken from them and then retreat back north. Though they all moved from place to place as the seasons changed, there was still a strong connection to the land of the northern steppe.
He sighed wistfully. It had been years since he lived that life, having been a soldier on a mission for so long now. But he had to admit that he missed it all; the sweeping grasslands of their summer camp, carting everything by horse to their autumn camp and back again, rebuilding their lives anew with every new season, the simple life of herding sheep and keeping the small, swift black horses that were the pride of his people. It had been years since he enjoyed a batch of koumiss with friends and family. There were more important supplies for the army to keep on hand. It was not plausible to lug along a supply of koumiss.
Suren swooped around and set down lightly on the ledge of the balcony. A small folded note was tied to a leg which he raised and held out to his master. Shan-Yu untied it and opened it, stroking his faithful falcon's head absentmindedly as he read Chakha's response.
With a broad grin he refolded the message and patted Suren's head once more before signaling him to follow him inside. He turned and went off to summon Batu, Altan and Qulan and let them know that his plan was already in motion.
Bi's tavern was warm and comfortable and they sat at one of the tables drinking hot tea and conversing.
The rain fell heavily and for the first time since they'd left Chang'an Shang was thankful that they'd allowed Mulan to travel for so many weeks, as tired and pale as she'd appeared. If they had remained in their camp east of the Imperial City, she would have been sleeping outside in this weather, no doubt growing gravely ill. And they had found no village along the way where she could stop. They'd had to press on.
It had been a slow, tough journey, but they'd made it to Bi's tavern that morning, before the weather took a turn for the worse. She put the men up in the house behind the tavern. Mulan was given a room upstairs. The rest of the rooms had to be kept available for business.
Shang shifted uncomfortably as he thought of it and of Mulan being there. He shook it off and turned his attention back to his companions.
"We may bring on more problems than we already have," Chien-Po commented. "Even if we get rid of Shan-Yu, who will lead the country? We'll have chaos."
"Surely the former Emperor had family. They must have fled into hiding when the Huns arrived in the Imperial City and the Emperor was killed. The trick is finding them again and restoring their place on the throne."
"That may be more difficult than you think, Captain Li," Gao spoke up. "There are rumors from villages near the northern border of more nomads infiltrating China."
Shang shook his head in amazement, marveling at the amount of information that passed from village to village. No Imperial messengers would come anymore; the envoys from Chang'an were all Hun soldiers who came to converse with the local leaders on behalf of Shan-Yu. Information then trickled down to the people, haphazardly and most likely censored. Yet somehow these men in the tavern had heard about activity at the border, through some network of their own. He was certain that the Hun soldiers hadn't told the prefects that more of them would be coming to the Middle Kingdom. How had these rumors started?
"I believe that's a good place to start anyway," he mused, pushing the question aside for now. "We can set up a base near the border. If the rumors are true about more incursions from the north, maybe we can stop the flow of Huns into our land. We'll gather as many good men as we can and I'll train them. If we can pick off the additional invaders little by little, maybe we can discourage more from coming in. And then, when the time is right and we've built up our forces, we can march on the capital and oust Shan-Yu."
"That's an ambitious plan," Mulan interjected from the next table where she sat with Bi. They had been speaking in hushed tones for a long time and Shang didn't even think they had been listening to his conversation with Gao and the three soldiers from his former regiment.
"You disagree then?" he asked defensively, turning to her.
She shook her head. "It's not that. Right now I think Shan-Yu is doing a good job as leader; he's kept peace and he's ruling wisely. But I'm as concerned as you are about these rumors of incursions from over the border. More invaders could mean serious violence, whether they are here by his invitation or not. Stopping them is an immediate priority. But marching on the capital is another story. You will need to build up a strong force before endeavoring it and that will take time."
"And patience. I know it, and I'm prepared."
"There are other rumors, too. Rumors that a small regiment of the Emperor's army survives," Mulan continued.
Shang gawked at her. How did she know that?
"We were just discussing it," she answered his unasked question, indicating Bi with a nod of her head.
"Where did you hear about it?" he asked the tavern-keeper in astonishment.
"I have varied clientele here, Captain. And they don't worry about what they say to me or to my girls. The regiment is said to be somewhere near the northern border as well, hidden in one of those villages no doubt."
"Unbelievable," he muttered to himself.
These last few months had certainly been an education for him, in more ways than one, but especially when it came to women. His entire view of them had been turned on its head thanks to Mulan. He would never again think of a woman the way his father spoke of them, as an object for a man to possess or as a silent, helpless and obedient slave that would just do as she was told.
Mulan had inner strength and resilience that he'd never seen in himself or any man for that matter. He couldn't imagine the pain that she'd had to bear lately, and yet she hadn't fallen to pieces because of it. She'd kept her wits at all times, helped him when he needed it and continued to do what she believed was right. Even if he didn't agree with her viewpoint or her actions, he had to admire the way she wouldn't ever back down. And she'd saved his life again, nearly at the cost of her own, to prevent Shan-Yu from harming him.
And now here was this other woman, with a very questionable background and livelihood, who not only knew about the existence of a surviving regiment of the Imperial army but also of their probable location. An older yet still very lovely woman who probably seduced information like that out of the officers who frequented her place as artfully as any soldier could wield a sword.
He would never again judge anyone by their gender.
"And what about the Emperor's family? They will be in hiding somewhere if they survived. But finding them will be another story."
"Agreed," Shang conceded. "But we can worry about that later. The first priority is to stop the influx of more Hun soldiers. If we can seal off our border, that will be half the battle right there."
"What about you, Mulan?" Yao asked. "What do you plan to do?"
"For now I'm under strict doctor's orders to stay here and rest. If I'm to help you, I'm afraid it will have to be at a later time."
"I hope you will wait until this bad weather passes, Captain," Gao spoke up again. "It will do you no good to travel in this."
"We should get new clothes, too," Ling suggested. "So we're not suspected of being soldiers."
Shang nodded. "We'd be better off traveling as thieves."
He turned to Mulan, turning over a thought in his mind. If she was joining them later it would mean that she would be traveling alone. She could take care of herself, but still…
"I have a guardian," she stated simply, as if she knew what he was thinking as he stared at her.
"Well, we'll be here for a little while," he responded softly, nodding at her. "Gao is right. We should wait until the bad weather passes."
Her guardian attempted to comfort her once again as they sat together in the dark outside of the tavern. Everyone was inside and asleep but she was too restless to lie still and memories of her past actions plagued her. She didn't know what was wrong with her or why she was so moody. Sometimes she wept for no reason at all these days and her nerve endings felt frayed.
According to Dr. Kong, it was because of the Dong Quai tea. He had been trying to counteract its effect with a "calming" beverage; but she was actually feeling somewhat nauseous that evening after downing three cups of the good doctor's revolting tea, at his insistence. That concoction had been part of her daily diet ever since they left Chang'an, even in the wilderness where he brewed it nightly over their campfires. And she wasn't feeling any calmer.
"No one blames you, Mulan."
"I know they don't. But I know the truth, Mushu."
"What truth? You were a prisoner and you acted the way you did because of that. I don't know about all the men from the village that tagged along, but your three friends understand and don't blame you. They care about you. Even Shang cares for you more than he'd like to admit. I think he has feelings for you…"
He trailed off as she frowned at him.
"No spark anymore for your captain?"
Mulan shook her head. Though she still thought Shang was the most handsome man she'd ever met, she no longer felt the same stirring in her body that she used to when she looked at him or was close to him.
"I don't think so," she answered. "Funny, isn't it? I was crazy about him and he didn't know who I really was, that I was even a woman. Now the feeling is gone, and you think Shang has feelings for me, when it's too late. I never knew that love was such a funny thing."
"It sure is."
"Well, I don't know what Shang's feelings are but it doesn't matter; whatever my feelings would be, I can never be a part of his world. Thanks to the Dong Quai tea and the fact that I miscarried in front of him, there's no doubt in his mind that Shan-Yu and I…"
"Yeah, yeah, I was there. I don't need you to elaborate."
"A traditional guy like Shang could never accept me after that; after another man had me. Don't all men like to be in first?"
Mushu's jaw dropped nearly to the ground, shocked that his baby had grown so wise in the ways of the world to make such a remark, and she couldn't help but scoff slightly in amusement. It was a sad, wistful sound that hardly qualified as a laugh.
"He could never get past something like that, even if he believed that I was forced. And why should he? Besides, I don't know that I would be happy even if he did want me," she continued. "I really had a thing for him before. But now, after everything that's happened…even if he could live with me, I don't think I could live with myself."
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't know," she sighed.
"What about Shan-Yu?"
"What about him?"
"Well, it was obvious you felt something…"
"It was different."
"Different than Shang?"
"Yes…Mushu, I don't want to talk about this anymore. It's late, too late for a lot of things."
Mushu fell silent and turned to stare out into the distance, his reptilian features becoming sad. She opened her mouth to speak but faltered, almost afraid. He sensed her hesitation and turned to face her.
"Everyone thinks that I was forced and that it wasn't my fault. But I know different. I know that a part of me wanted it. Things weren't so cut and dry. I am to blame; at least a little bit. And I have to take responsibility for that part of it. For many different things. I've really hurt a lot of people."
Her guardian sighed heavily. "I wish you weren't so down on yourself, Mulan. Could you have resisted more against the big Hun? Probably. But under the circumstances that you were faced with…maybe it wasn't that easy. Besides, what you said to Shang was absolutely right. Everything is Shan-Yu's fault when you think about it."
"I didn't say that."
"But you wouldn't have had to go into the army in your father's place if he hadn't attacked."
"True," she answered with a sigh. "Maybe things were meant to be this way."
"See? So it's not all your fault."
"Maybe. Still. I've hurt so many people. My father…my family. I broke their hearts."
"Then go home and try to make it right."
"I can't," she whispered.
She brought a hand to her eyes and dabbed at the corners where the tears had begun to collect. He leaped up and perched himself on her shoulder in his usual manner. A ghost of a smile flitted across her face as she felt him begin to stroke her hair lightly.
"You don't even want to try?"
"I'm so different now. I can't imagine ever going home. Even though it was purely by accident, I became a decent soldier. It's actually something I can do right, sort of," she added with another half-hearted snicker.
"So, you're going to help Shang and the others then?"
"Yes, as soon as Dr. Kong finally concedes that I'm just fine. Not the way a woman usually serves her country, but at least in some odd way I can do what's right. I think that Shan-Yu really is acting as a wise leader; but I worry about the additional incursions from the north. I have no doubt that he invited them. That could signal the building of a vast army on his part, and things could take a turn for the worse with that. It's a good thing they're leaving soon. And I will be heading to the northern border and Shang's base as soon as I'm able to travel again. You'll come with me?"
"Of course! If you can't go home, neither can I."
"Nah, don't worry. I'm your guardian. It's my job to look after you. And who knows? In my opinion you're already a heroine, though unrecognized. If events go the way I think they will, I may get you recognition yet!"
Real laughter escaped her for what seemed the first time in a long while.
"I see you haven't lost track of your agenda, Mushu," she teased. "And at least you forgive me."
"It's not up to me, or anyone else, to forgive you. But maybe one day you'll forgive yourself."
Her three comrades wished her well as they prepared to leave and hugged her goodbye, Chien-Po catching them all up in a bear hug again.
"We hope that we'll see you soon, Mulan."
Shang approached her when they broke apart and the three other men moved off. She turned to him, wanting to embrace him too, her friend. Her arms began to open and she started to lean in; but she found that she was worried that he would take it the wrong way and stopped herself. In that instant she suddenly realized that his movements had mirrored hers. He paused, his arms still open, then let them drop to his side. Clearing his throat, he uncomfortably shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
"Mulan, you need to recover," he began finally. "But when Dr. Kong says you're better…if you wish to...we would be glad to have you join us."
"I'd like to. Then you would want me, a woman, as part of your army?"
"You're one of the bravest, most skilled soldiers I've ever known. I would be honored to fight alongside of you again."
She couldn't help but smile at him. His words were spoken with complete sincerity.
Shang surprised her then by making the first move, taking her hand firmly. He leaned in and draped an arm around her loosely. She responded, encircling her arm around his waist. His other hand released hers and that arm closed around her. He tightened the embrace and she responded. The hug was warm and genuine, comforting.
As relieved as she was to be alone for a time, pangs of grief tugged at her heart as she watched Shang and her three other friends head off. She swallowed hard, attempting to force back the lump that formed in her constricted throat. A slim figure turned and waved at her from the end of the street and she smiled broadly as she raised her hand and waved back at Ling. The knot in her throat began to dissipate as she told herself there was nothing to be sad about. She would see her friends again soon enough.
With a deep sigh, she turned and walked back into Bi's tavern.
END OF PART 1
A/N: I've decided to make this a multi-part story since it's already very long. Part 2 will be a separate fic and I will add a chapter here for those of you who have been getting alerts to advise when I've posted. Thanks to all who took the time to read this and for the lovely reviews and encouragement. And I can't say thanks enough to Taulai who beta'd for me and helped me through my extremely difficult moments of writer's block.