A/N: Sorry for the long wait on this. I know where I want the story to go but I'm having trouble getting it written. Thanks to everyone for continuing to read and for taking the time to review.
When she woke up in the morning she was bundled up in layers of blankets and lying on the ground. Bewildered, her eyes darted around, searching for him. She didn't remember falling asleep.
"Shang," she whispered, her lips curving into a smile as she glimpsed him. He'd wrapped himself up in one of the extra blankets and stretched himself out beside her, his sword placed between them and acting as a barrier. His idea of making sure that custom was observed and that her honor was safe, she thought with a grin. It was a sweet gesture actually.
The last thing she remembered were his kisses, searing and tender all at once. Her lips tingled at the memory and she closed her eyes as her fingers moved up to touch them. Some time afterward she'd settled down in his arms, feeling warm and safe. She was glad he hadn't left the tent.
Opening her eyes and reaching over, she ran her fingers gingerly through his hair, not wishing to wake him yet. They were all weary, all dirty and scraggly, but it didn't matter. She loved looking at him.
"I'm going to have to scold him when he wakes up."
Mulan jumped at the sound of Li Meng-shi's voice as he poked his head inside the tent and she snatched her hand back.
"He just came in to see how I was," she replied quickly, her cheeks beginning to flame.
"I know. But he still ought to be sleeping in his own tent. Especially now that we have an enigmatic guest traveling with us."
He laughed and she fought the impulse to pull the blanket over her face, instead rolling onto her side so she didn't have to look directly at him. A part of her didn't care anymore. They were living under extreme duress and she'd been in such close proximity to Shang for so long now, feeling as if she would burst if she had to go any longer without touching him, and without him touching her.
But the other part of her was well aware of custom and the opinion that her peers would have.
"But then, we are living in unusual circumstances these days." His words echoed her thoughts, startling her. "How are you feeling?"
"A little better," she answered in a muffled voice.
"So, is anyone keeping an eye on our enigmatic companion?"
"He's still asleep. I'm brewing some more healing tea for you now. I'll bring it in when it's ready."
She flipped onto her back with a soft sigh, feeling disappointed in herself. They needed to get to Taiyuan and she was holding them up. She'd tried so hard not to get sick.
A soft groan made her turn to her right. Eyes still closed, he shifted onto his back then settled down again. She sat up and leaned over him, studying the handsome features, the way his hair tumbled loosely around his angular visage. Without thinking, she allowed her fingers to lightly trace the contours of his face, flushing with warmth as she recalled the way that he'd caressed her the night before and the loving gaze in his eyes. It took her breath away to realize it; she had always thought it was too much to hope that he'd ever look at her in that way.
His hand suddenly covered hers, holding it against his cheek, and she jumped. She went to withdraw her hand but he held it against his skin firmly.
"That feels nice," he drawled sleepily. His eyes were still closed.
"Li Meng-shi is on his way back here with tea for me."
With a start he opened his eyes, immediately releasing her hand. He hurried to sit up. "Oh!…I'm sorry, I shouldn't have fallen asleep here…"
"I'm glad you were here when I woke up."
Shang smiled gently and reached for her hand again.
"That was a great idea, leaving the sword there. But what if I had rolled over onto it?"
He chuckled lightly. "I would have been more likely to roll over onto it."
His thumb lazily traced the back of her hand.
"Are you feeling better?"
"A little. I slept very well. Did you sleep alright?"
"Mm," he answered absently.
His dark eyes were intense and serious as he gazed at her.
There was a soft rap on the material of the tent from outside and Mulan cursed inwardly as Li Meng-shi pushed the flap back, quickly letting go of Shang's hand. She had no idea what Shang might have been about to say, but she had a sense that it was something important judging from his expression. As for the priest, he really had lousy timing and she was certain that her father had asked him to keep an eye out to ensure that a proper distance was kept between them. And perhaps it was just as well, she thought with an inward sigh. Who knew what foolish things she might do otherwise?
"Here you go." He handed her the cup. "Drink it while it's hot."
"Good morning, General Li."
"Did I interrupt something?"
"I was just about to say that we should move out today and try to find some place for Mulan to rest. Hopefully we won't need to go far."
"It's okay. I'll be fine," she protested.
"Mulan, you shouldn't push yourself. It's my opinion that we shouldn't travel too far…"
"And it's my opinion that we need to get to Taiyuan as soon as possible. I don't want to be the one holding us up. We're supposed to be escorting you, Li Meng-shi, and instead it's ended up that the two of you are protecting me and taking care of me."
"That's okay…" Li Meng-shi interjected.
"It's not okay with me. Let's just get there already, where it's hopefully safe. Then I can rest all I want."
Shang sighed and turned to the priest. "What about our guest?"
Li Meng-shi shrugged. "We'll keep him close during the day, and I'll try to make sure he's knocked out at night."
"He may figure it out and stop drinking your concoctions."
"Maybe. I'll worry about that when it happens."
"Do you trust him?" Mulan asked apprehensively, unsure what she wanted his answer to be. In a way she hoped they could trust him. On the other hand, maybe he had lied to them about everything, including her family. Perhaps they were at home still, safe; though she doubted that. Everything seemed to have fallen apart, and it was wishful thinking to imagine that her family continued as before.
"I'm not sure. And to be honest with you I don't think he trusts us, which makes me believe that his motives may have nothing at all to do with us. Maybe he's on the run, too."
"Don't you have any herbs that will make him tell the truth?" she muttered. "You seem to have them for everything else."
The priest laughed. "Unfortunately it's not foolproof."
They rode side by side under ominously grey skies, Unegen in the middle, flanked by Mulan on one side and Shang and Li Meng-shi on the other. The priest chatted casually with him, managing to draw the young man out somewhat. At least he got him to admit that he was headed for Taiyuan, just as they stopped to rest and water their horses.
"A fortune teller read my palm and directed me to Taiyuan," Unegen explained as the four of them sat on the bank by the stream. A thin sheet of ice covered the water, but it had begun to melt in patches. "He told me he believes there are auspicious signs surrounding that city and that important events will be happening there. As you well know things are bad where I came from, where you came from. I'm hoping it will be better in Taiyuan."
"What are you going to do when you get there?"
"I'm not sure, really. Prefect Liu directed me to Li Jing, the garrison commander. Perhaps I can help the three of you." His gaze fell on Mulan. "You are General Hua Zhou's daughter, aren't you?"
The three of them froze. Then Shang leaped up ferociously, his fury getting the better of him, and grabbed the lanky youth by the collar, lifting his feet off the ground.
"Ever since you've joined us, you've been dropping hints about what you know. If you have something to say, then say it. Otherwise shut your mouth or I'll shut if for you."
Unegen struggled, straining to touch the ground with his toes. Shang tightened his grip on the young man's collar.
"Talk, before I kill you with my bare hands!"
"What do you want to know?" the young man cried, genuinely afraid.
"First of all, why have you been following us? And don't lie and say you haven't been."
"Prefect Liu sent me after you."
"Why should we believe you? For what reason would he do that?" Shang demanded.
"Things are very bad in that area. Many people in those villages have been forced to flee, not just Mulan's family. And someone from Hua Zhou's location was supposed to come to Prefect Liu. But he never arrived, neither in Prefect Liu's office nor at the school in Xiayi."
"Who was supposed to come?"
"One of the students. I don't know his name. He never showed up. We think he might be a traitor…"
Dismay clouded Mulan's features. Shang caught her look as he gazed past Unegen, and remembered immediately that one of the students that she was friendly with, Ao-li, had disappeared a day or two after he'd arrived at the school. Hua Zhou had sent him on an errand.
She caught his eyes on her and nodded, knowing what he was thinking without having to ask. "It might have been him. I never thought him to be a traitor. Nor did my father...maybe he never got there because he was caught."
"We're in just as much trouble if he was caught as if he was a traitor," Li Meng-shi answered gravely. "Most likely he would have been tortured by his captors, for information."
Shang winced at the thought of what the boy had probably gone through if that was the case. He was well aware of the methods of torture that were resorted to in order to extract information from people. As a military man he'd been prepared for it somewhat in his training, in the event that such a thing happened to him. And even that wasn't really enough. But Ao-li was young, a teenager who had studied calligraphy, not the military arts; Hua Zhou had gathered together a village full of desperate people who were willing to learn to fight for their lives, not military professionals like him. If Ao-li was caught it was understandable that his captors would have broken him easily. And had probably killed him once they had the information they needed.
Either scenario would explain how General Huang knew they were coming. And it also meant that all the men and women in the calligraphy school, possibly most of the people in that village, were in a precarious position, not just Mulan's family. There was no doubt that they'd all had to flee.
"We still don't know whose side you're on," Shang spoke to Unegen again. "Maybe you've come from the men who detained him for whatever reason."
"I swear that I was working for Prefect Liu. When I told him about the fortune teller he recognized the name of the city. He released me from my duties and sent me to warn you. The movement in Henan province has failed…"
"Yes, I think I believe that you worked for him. But you could have been working for him and still in league with our enemies. And now you're here to lead them to us."
"No, I swear…"
"If he sent you to warn us, why didn't you just say so?"
"I had to be sure…things are bad…no one is to be trusted…"
"That's true. And that's why I think I should kill you just to be on the safe side."
Unegen flailed in terror, attempting to break free of Shang's iron grip. "I swear on my ancestors twelve generations back that I was sent by Prefect Liu to help you. He sent me to Li Jing, figuring that I'd meet you through him. I'm on your side."
Shang looked him over, pondering. As far as he was concerned this guy was a liability and they couldn't take the chance. But Mulan was watching him tensely and he knew that she didn't want him to kill Unegen. She believed him to be the only person who might have information about her family, though he denied it, and she was afraid that information would be gone with him were he to be killed.
He released his grip on the youth and Unegen stumbled as his feet touched the ground again.
"You…are not like other priests…" he stammered.
"Li Shang is a priest with special skills," Li Meng-shi chuckled. "Potentially dangerous ones, I might add."
"Don't forget it," Shang told him pointedly.
Unegen dropped to his knees before him, kowtowing.
"Honorable Priest, I am your humble servant."
After the incident at the stream, their still mysterious guest remained fairly quiet as they continued on toward Taiyuan for the next two days.
"We're not far. We should arrive by nightfall."
Shang nodded, maintaining a watchful eye on Mulan and Unegen who rode ahead of them. The air around them was thick with fog; it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead and he stayed ready to spur his horse on in the event that the sight of them became swallowed by the dense mist in the air.
He dearly hoped that they were making the right choice keeping this dubious stranger with them. While it was true that it was better to keep him in sight if he was the enemy, Shang was still concerned. Every remark that Unegen made to Mulan was provocative in some way, and she was so vulnerable now. Between wondering about her family and now the latest news about her friend, there was a lot troubling her.
A pang of guilt tugged at him. Just a couple of nights before he'd taken advantage of that vulnerability, of her need to somehow find solace. He'd sworn to himself that he never wanted to do anything that would dishonor or shame her, yet in a thoughtless moment, a split second, he'd forgotten all about that. She hadn't minded at all and they'd only kissed, after which she settled down against his chest and eventually fell asleep. Still, he scolded himself inwardly, he should have had more self-control.
Unegen was afraid of him at least. And he'd kowtowed to him, recognizing his superior status. Li Meng-shi felt that this would keep his behavior in check. Had Unegen been Chinese, Shang would have agreed. But he wasn't, and it was possible that he'd merely learned to imitate certain Chinese customs to blend in. And to convince others that he was of no consequence to them.
The outline of the two figures ahead became blurred and he spurred his horse to catch up to them.
Night had fallen already and it was raining again when they reached Fengyang Bridge and entered the city of Taiyuan. After taking care of the horses they stumbled wearily into the nearest tavern to get food and water.
"How are you doing?" all three men asked as they seated themselves at a table.
Even Unegen, who'd somehow managed to ingratiate himself to Shang somewhat, had become overprotective of her and it took every effort not to snap at all of them.
"I'm fine. Stop worrying about me."
She sighed ruefully. It wasn't her intention to be rude.
Under the table, Shang's hand settled on hers and she glanced at him curiously.
"I'm sorry about your friend," he murmured.
He was talking about Ao-li, she realized.
Maybe that was why she was in such an irritable mood. Ao-li had been a nice young man, and it saddened her to think of what might have happened to him. He was a comrade and not a close companion; men and women rarely were close friends. But she'd still considered him a friend.
And what of her family? She knew that her father and many of the others would be leaving the school, to regroup later. Hua Zhou had said as much to her before she left. But if Unegen had been telling the truth, if Ao-li had been caught and tortured, everyone in the village was in trouble, wherever they were. Even the people that hadn't been involved were guilty by association.
Mulan turned to him, heartened slightly as she suddenly remembered something. "Shang, it wasn't him. It was someone else."
Ao-li had gone to Sui Xian. Her father had also told her that just before they left. Sui Xian was in the opposite direction from Xiayi; whoever Unegen was talking about, if it was for real, it wasn't Ao-li. Prefect Liu had been waiting for someone else.
"He went to Sui Xian. Not Xiayi."
Shang squeezed her hand firmly then released it as a man came over to serve them.
"Excuse me," he asked him. "Do you know a man named Li Jing?"
"A madman. What could you possibly want with him?"
"He's a friend of my father's. I've come to visit him, knowing he lives in this city, but I don't know where his house is."
"You don't need to go to his house to find him. Just look in all the bars. He's sure to be in one of them."
"What about the garrison?"
A large bearded man at a neighboring table laughed. "He's even less likely to be there."
"Don't you know it's rude to eavesdrop on other people's conversations?" Shang retorted, flashing him an annoyed glance.
"Well, you won't find him here," the tavern keeper continued, sniffing. "He nearly destroyed this place a few weeks ago and I've banned him. It took four men to hold him back and stop him. And with the Emperor's emissaries here."
"The Emperor's men were here?" Li Meng-shi asked.
"Yes. They came to summon Li Jing to court. After all, he is the Emperor's officer. The good general had already been here for hours drinking. He went on a rampage. Picked up a chair and threw it at the men from the palace. Can you imagine? Throwing a chair at the Emperor's men…"
"Perhaps they were summoning him to his execution," the priest interrupted him. "That's a common occurrence these days."
"Well probably with good reason if that's the case."
"I'm not so sure about that."
"Now, Li Jing's son…he's a good man and an excellent warrior. He just reached his twenty-second year. In my opinion the Emperor should kick the father out of his post and raise Li Zhi-xu to provincial general."
He shuffled off, muttering to himself in a huff about all the work it took to fix up the place again.
"Well, now what?" Shang sighed. "It sounds like the important man we're seeking has lost his mind."
"Li Zhi-xu may be the one we are seeking actually, not Li Jing," Li Meng-shi replied with a shrug. "We should meet both of them."
"Important?" the same bearded stranger at the next table piped up again. "Li Jing?"
"You're very rude. And unless you have something helpful to offer, you ought to mind your own business," Shang snapped.
"Still listening in?" the priest asked, speaking more politely. "Maybe you can tell us where to find him."
The man shrugged. "I don't know where he is."
"What about the garrison?"
"He's probably not there. But after you're done eating I can direct you to where it is if you'd like."
"Thank you. That would be very helpful."