By Pooky

Chapter Eleven:

The coronation for Li Longji was held three days later. When the sun rose in a remarkably clear sky that morning the city deemed the day most auspicious, lifting the fog of tragedy which had surrounded the capital for many, many years. At last, the people would have a strong king, not a puppet, not an effigy, but one who would truly lead them. Because the sun god was said to smile on the city that morning, Li Longji declared himself Ming Huang, the Shining Emperor.

Shang stood on the high platform overlooking the Great Square, watching the masses gathered below press each other eagerly for a better look at their new sovereign. The festivities in the streets had begun at dawn, and the feasting would last for many days after. Even Shang was able to put his enmity aside and appreciate the joy of the occasion. Longji - Emperor Xuanzong - looked nothing less than regal, proud, strong. It was just what the country needed.

Mulan was beside him, looking almost stately herself in her formal armor. They had been standing there for hours while the ritual blessings and prayers were said, adorned for decoration, but secretly charged with keeping their eyes on the crowd. Soldiers had been placed all around the square, and the city. They had come too far to lose their new king now.

Finally they turned, joining the procession back into the Palace where the banquets and entertainment would start, lasting into the night. The dancers had already begun performing in the brightly decorated halls, but Shang did not catch sight of Lady Jiang.

"Shang, Mulan," a voice whispered urgently behind him, attempting to be discrete and carry over the noise of the crowd at the same time. It was Tai-shan, catching his breath as though he had been running, his face troubled. Shang felt a twinge of fear, afraid his friend had come to inform him of some rebel activity inside. They had worked out a plan yesterday though in case of that. He grabbed Tai-shan and Mulan in each arm, ushering them out of the way where they could talk. "It's Princess Taiping, she sent me to find both of you. She wants to see you now, she's in her rooms. I think you'd better hurry, Shang."

Nodding, Shang still held Mulan's arm. "Stay here a few more minutes and then follow me, so it doesn't look too suspicious."

Leaving her with Tai-shan, he slipped out of the hall, running when there were no guards or servants in sight. The entire morning he had been worried about Taiping, there was no sign of her during the coronation at all. Surely the Emperor's aunt had every right to be there. But perhaps she was not feeling well, perhaps she preferred to watch from inside the Palace, It would be uneasy, to face that crowd which hated Wu Zetian, but Taiping was stronger than that.

It was odd that no guard or servant stood outside her door. Shaking his head he pushed it open gently, hesitantly at first, before stepping inside. The room was empty, silent, she appeared to be dozing where she lay on the sofa, propped up by the pillows.

"First Aunt," he called softly. "First Aunt, wake up. The banquet has started. The people are already cheering Li Longji."

But she would not wake. He stepped closer, dropping to one knee, gently shaking her arm. He drew his hand back instantly, she was stiff and heavy. His eyes sought her face, her cheeks russet as though from a fever, her mouth drawn and white. He rested a shaking hand against one side of her head, the flesh was cold, there was no pulse in the vein through the temple. No, he blinked frantically, this had to be a dream.

There was a half emptied goblet of wine on the table, beside a letter on pale parchment. It was addressed to him. Kneeling there, he unfolded it slowly, he could almost hear her voice as he read the words.

When you find this, you may wonder why. I don't know if you can understand the answer. With my birth the people hoped for Tai Ping, great peace, yet in my lifetime China has only seen one long spell of rain. It is no wonder that my yearning for death is almost like a thirst, a thirst for the next world which I believe is a much more beautiful place. Wu Zetian's ghost will flee with the last of her children. Yet my death is so much brighter than my birth, because once her shadow is lifted, the rain will stop and my people will find Tai Ping at last.
Clutching the letter in his unsteady hands, he lowered his head and then pressed his forehead to the carpet before her, the way he often had when she was still alive. It wasn't until the door opened again that he realized he was crying. Mulan took in the sad scene in one glance before coming to kneel beside him.

"You were right," she said softly, on the verge of tears herself. "It is a bloody story."

He nodded, taking in the silk figure, arms folded over her middle, the still features. Was that the thing they called eternal peace? "It feels so strange."

"I wanted something more than to be a village wife, and you wanted to be free of her. I guess we should be careful what we wish for. We got what we wanted in the end." She sighed heavily.

"Tie-lin says things happen precisely as they should, but it isn't supposed to be like this."

Her fingers curled around his, he clung to her hand for comfort. "I can't imagine what it was like to be her. She watched her whole family die."

"I can," his thoughts swam with remorse again, he sighed painfully. "I can never forget when I discovered you were a woman, when I had to choose between you and the law. I've never felt such pain. There is nothing worse than learning too late what your duty means, when you can't escape it." He sighed again, unable to take his eyes off the poisoned cup, remembering. "And all this time, she was the only one who understood me."

"I understand you," her voice was a low whisper. His faint smile was grateful.

They just knelt there in silence, clinging to the other's hand, like any other grieving husband and wife.