0plum4 A special note for Maddy: As for "screwing up" a "perfectly good G-rated movie" (or whatever) I'd advise you to pick up a history book, learn a few FACTS and tell me just who screwed up what? In my far from humble opinion a war movie should not be G-rated in the first place. I'm SO sorry my integrity as a writer disagrees with you, but the fact is, I'd rather paint an ACCURATE picture than a watered-down one (no offense to the movie or Disney) so at least someone who reads my work might actually find it informative - whether it be about what a misogynist Emperor Xuanzong actually was, or what it feels like when a woman has an orgasm. So instead of me "doing that with some other movie" why don't you keep your uneducated, immature, narrow-minded, puritanical paws of my R-rated story and go read/write a G-rated one! I'm an adult, my writing reflects that. Goddess forbid!

~ The Very Irate but Apologetic to the Rest of You

Part Four

~ * ~

It was the sense of heaviness that first greeted Shang when he returned to consciousness. Everything was dark, even before he opened his eyes, his limbs felt so weighed down, as if he were drowning in black water. He heard the crackling of the torches before he saw the light, swimming and smeared through his watering eyes against the far wall.

It was their smoke that stung, acrid, burning. He made a move to rub his eyes and clear his vision, but turned puzzled in half alert amazement that his hand would only go so far. The clank of metal rang in his ears and suddenly his mind made the connection. He had been captured and taken to the dungeon. Shang wondered if he had been drugged, the watery feeling in his limbs was from more than the struggle with Longji, and never before had he been so sluggish in coming around after being wounded in combat.

Mulan, Meifei, the first clear thoughts rushed to him with a prickling nervousness. Meifei had been captured too, but had Mulan escaped with Tai-shan?

Suddenly Shang realized he was not alone. Blocky figures sailed into his line of vision, two, three of them. Prison guards. No, Longji's bodyguard, men he had appointed himself.

"He's awake," the first one said.

Shang blinked, recognizing the face and voice of the speaker. "Chen, you bastard. If it weren't for me, you'd be dead right now." The words may have been drowsy, but the anger was still sharp. Yang Chen, a man whose life he had saved with quick reflex at the Wall. A man he had gone on to train and appoint as one of Longji's guards.

With a snarl, the older man slung his arm back to deal him a harsh blow across the face. Shang endured it without crying out, he was too groggy to realize pain. "You gave me a black eye the first day of training. I always wanted to repay you."

A second guard pushed his way in front of Chen, yet this one's name Shang did not know. "You broke my ribs then made me pick up rice all night!" Standing back, he landed a kick to Shang's chest. He waited for the third to approach and have his revenge, but the man only stood there. Strange, but he felt more disappointment than anger, that he had wasted his time and skill on them. Poor judge of character.

He looked his two attackers in the eye by turn. "You have no honor," he said quietly.

The third blow came too quickly to see who had delivered it, but within the blink of an eye Shang fell unconscious again.

~ * ~

Mulan lowered herself to one knee on the grass, beside Tai-shan whose eyes were darting around worriedly. Darkness had fallen already, leaving the landscape deeply saturated with shadows, though the moonlight was muted tonight.

Removing his helmet, Tai-shan turned to her. "I don't know, Mulan," he said quietly, as if she had posed a question. "Shang and Longji have hated each other for years. Longji won't waste the chance to kill him. If we're going to do something, it has to be quickly. But if we enter the Palace grounds it might be trouble."

"What do you mean 'if?'' Mulan returned hotly. "We have to do something."

"I know but..." He let his words trail off, replacing his helmet again and rising to his feet. Tai-shan might have thought to hide it, but Mulan could see his nervousness. "Just give me a minute to think of something. What would Tie-lin do?" Tie-lin? Mulan groaned, this was no time for the soft way.

"Look, all we need is a plan to reach the Emperor before he can issue orders to execute Shang. I'll sneak into the Palace and-"

He cut her off. "Mulan, do you know what he'd do to me if he found out I allowed you to endanger yourself? I'll gather some of the men, march on the prison and free him. The Emperor would not miss making Shang's execution public, so we have time."

"I don't care what he'll do, at least he'll be alive to do it." Mulan did not have time for their silly ideas of honor. "I'm going. Besides, I'd like to get my hands on Longji. Matter of honor." There, he could understand that. Standing up, she donned her own helmet, surveyed the scene and made ready.

His hand was on her arm. "Just be careful, alright? Carrying a child and all."

Glancing down at herself, she nodded. The armor may have hid her pregnancy but she was still well aware of it. "Wait here, and if I need you to go get your men, you'll know." With that she left him, climbing over the Wall to see out a guard she could trust.

~ * ~

It was the sound of footsteps that wrenched Shang awake this time. In the haze of pained sleep those boots pounded like thunder, the throbbing in his head increasing with their every step. He was vaguely aware that his clothes had dried now, but still the chill remained, clinging to him in the dankness of this place.

"So you're awake?" The familiar voice did not conjure any rage this time, not yet, the triumph it held only made Shang more aware of how drained and tired he was. "I suppose you want to know how I've managed to catch you."

The general shook his head, neck and shoulders aching. "It doesn't matter," he told his cousin quietly.

Longji's mouth drew itself in a sneer, masking disappointment. "Well for your own peace of mind, it was Yang Chen. I set him to follow Meifei and that led me to you." Folding his arms, he paced in front of him, speaking with soft disapproval. "So the men want you as their new Emperor. You should tell them to care what they say when they're drunk, their conspiring almost cost Meifei her life, and it has delivered you right into my hands."

"Betrayal and defeat are in the life of a soldier." Yet his apathy seemed to nettle Longji.

"You know, cousin," he lowered his voice, his eyes taking on an almost remorseful cast. Or maybe it was only the candlelight. "I will have to execute you tomorrow."

Shang sighed, letting go of his resistance a moment. The burning from the chains around his wrists stopped, the silence of this place like a tomb. It stretched, reached out and consumed him and in it's space allowed him to feel a longing he had never felt before. He had placed so little value on his own life, the military had taught him that it was worth nothing against the righteous preservation of his country and his people. But all of a sudden it seemed so precious, so delicate, a taste of something he had never thought had a taste at all. But when you lived your whole life for others, and for ideals, your own desires only haunted you when it was too late to pursue them.

Dying so discontent was he doomed to become a ghost? One of the gui whose pain and regret was too much to be held by a tomb.

"My family?" Shang said at last. "Mulan? If you harm her I will haunt you from the grave. You will never escape the wrath of my angry spirit."

Longji's hand came up slowly, hesitantly as if to comfort him, brushing his fingertips tentatively against Shang's cheek. The tension returned in him and Shang strained with that unwelcome touch, no longer too tired to conjure the enmity which had fed this conflict in the first place. He felt his eyes burn as he stared at the other man. It was hatred, such pure hatred, and sadness under that.

"Cousin," the Emperor's deep voice was uncharacteristically soft. "I do it all for Taiping. You have posed a threat, they have made you a threat to me. If I let you live how can this empire be strong?" He stepped closer, half whispering now. Shang would have given anything for a sword then. "But you will not die in vain. Your death will prove the Mandate of Heaven is mine. And if the people believe that, my power is absolute." Instead of withdrawing his hand as Shang's eyes demanded, Longji only continued running a finger along one side of his face. Shang felt his rage burn in the pit of his stomach. "I warned you never to defy me. Who would have thought my little cousin would become my greatest rival. Li Shang, you can take away my army but I can still conquer you."

"Be careful," Shang growled, jerking forward in a clash of metal. "The people will hate a tyrant."

"And as I said, they admire muscle."

His slid his palm over Shang's chest, moving closer still, the touch lingering amorously. Shang straightened, the taut manacles burning into his wrists again. "I'm not afraid to die," he managed the lie well enough.

Shaking his head, Longji's smile was cold, lifting Shang's face with a hand under his chin. "When did you become so hard? Somewhere inside there must be a spark of fear, a seed of doubt. Somewhere inside you must have a secret longing, that after tomorrow will die with you." The Emperors eyes were intent on his face, tinted with amber in the torchlight, a tiger's eyes. "Tell me cousin. I cannot let you die without ever really knowing you."

"The Tao," Shang was surprised to find his answer honest before he could think up a lie. "I've always wanted to follow the Tao."

Laughing softly, he took to stroking his face again. "Such a lofty dream, but your eyes have always been so full of a pain. If I hadn't hated you I might have wondered why. Look at you now, so powerless, you have no idea what a potent effect that has on me." His voice held a certain raspiness to it, Shang drew back as Longji leaned even nearer.

The feel of the Emperor's mouth on his neck brought a sickening feeling into his stomach. It had him paralyzed, that intolerable sensation somewhere between repulsion and fear. He closed his eyes against the gentle pull of Longji's lips, fighting to push the scene from his awareness as the Emperor took too much care in letting his mouth linger over sensitive places.

"Come now," The Emperor rasped in his ear. "Don't tell me the brave general is afraid of a jade spear." Pressed so close to him, Shang could feel the heaviness of the other man's breathing, seeing his face flushed when he opened his eyes again. "I promise you I'm quite skilled at blowing a bamboo flute."

Fighting for some control over his own repulsion, Shang swallowed, managing to speak. "I'm not Meifei." The words resounded roughly.

"You're right," Longji stepped back. "I regret that. I was drunk and thoughtless then, all I wanted was to destroy something. I have made it up to her. But I love her and I despise you, though that is really not so different."

Then without preamble, he bent his head, pressing a kiss to Shang's shoulder before biting down on the delicate skin there. Shang's head jerked as he cried out in pain and surprise, straining against the chains once more.

"To remind you," Longji murmured as he backed away. "That you are conquered."

Shang watched him slip away into the shadows, vaguely aware of the door slamming behind him. The general glanced over at his shoulder, the skin reddened where Longji's teeth had punctured the flesh. His head fell back, eyes closed, wishing he could wash away the feel of the other man's lips on his skin. Some things were even worse than dying.

~ * ~

Spreading the sheets over himself with a sigh, Longji closed his eyes and lay back dizzily. In the afterglow of his spent frustration, he thought he could surrender to sleep easily, but his thoughts were very lucid and troubled. His head echoed with Taiping's spoken words, telling him the Li family was being destroyed one man at a time. With the memory of those words Li Shang became a symbol, just another token left behind by her. She had been a part of him too. The truth was, the shameful truth, Longji had been so controlled by Taiping's ghost in his dreams that he had lashed out at everything in reality, especially Meifei and Fa Mulan. He had sought to undermine any vestige of female power left in the Court, yet when he closed his eyes at night, there was still Taiping.

Li Shang did not understand, how torn he was. His indulgence towards Meifei was out of guilt, and yet his dream for the empire remained. How to balance the two? The Tao spoke of non-interference, claiming the best rulers were those who managed affairs so smoothly that they were forgotten themselves, the next best ruler was the man who was loved, and the worst feared. He had a mind to wipe out the Buddhists and Legalists, the tired teachings of Confucius that bound the court. His dream was for a Taoist China. Meifei had brought him to this revelation, the long nights of lying in her arms had shown just how tired of his old life he was. Do nothing, the Tao advised, keep to the role of the daughter. But what was all that worth when the people begged for a tyrant? He did not want to execute Li Shang, not practically speaking, the man could be of use to him. But the people cried for a conqueror now, the most base of standards. Let the two most powerful men cross blades, and they would take whoever was the winner. They cheapened the Mandate of Heaven to a mere trophy won by cunning and sport. Spectacle and victory, hadn't he given them enough of that in his warrior days? Wasn't it time to move on?

Of course Li Shang did not understand, he was corrupted by all their ideals. He was too perfect. His obsession with Li Shang was far more destructive than Meifei. Even when he saw him an hour ago, chained and bruised, his still claimed power. A perfect martyr, unbending to the last. There was simply no yielding in him. All Longji had wanted since Taiping's death was to see the man on his knees. It was that which had distracted him, not Meifei, beautiful Meifei. For that Li Shang must die tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the word sent him drifting into sleep, accompanied by swimming memories of the other man's face, Taiping's face...

He awoke to being roughly seized by the arm. Jerking upright, he fumbled for a weapon. There was the rasping of steel being bared and then something shoved between in his lips. A sword's point grazed his torso, and then lower, just beneath his sash.

"Imagine the worst," a woman's lowered voice hissed in his ear.

A strong panic crept into him when he realized what it was that had been forced into his mouth, and quickly understood the threat considering where her sword was aimed. A boiled egg, something given to those about to be unmanned as punishment. His mind urged him to react but he dared not move, not with something so dire at stake.

In his desperation, he tried to conjure a name to match the voice. It was not Meifei, not any of his concubines or servants, but familiar nonetheless.

"You want to know how I got in here?" She continued, reading his mind. "I replaced one of your guards. I know what you did to my friend..." He gulped. Meifei, she wanted revenge for Meifei. Women could be dangerous, viscous, no honor. It was that knowledge which had him terrified.

Turning his face to her, he fought to speak through the gap. She grumbled something but pulled the egg away. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed, suddenly realizing who his assailant was." Fa Mulan, you go too far. I could have you killed."

Instead of relenting, she pressed the weapon just enough so he could feel its point. "I can't change Meifei's mind about staying with you, but I can still make demands. Call your guard, order them to free Li Shang, or you'll spend the rest of your life as a eunuch." He shuddered, he had heard of ransom but this was extreme. Then again this was the woman who had decimated an entire Hun army.

"I can't do that," To his shame he was pleading with her. "I'll lose face before my people, they'll never respect me."

"Would you rather lose something else?" Instinctively, he drew back before the prick of the blade dug any deeper. But for such a little woman, she had a strong grip.

He drew in his breath, grasping for some inner stillness. Ten years he had spent on the battle field, eluding death his fair share of times. Yet in all those combat situations, none had taught him to deal with an angry woman.

"Can we talk?" He ventured quietly.

Her restraining arm did loosen a bit, but she made no move to lower her sword. "If you think you have no choice, you're wrong. You could tell the truth, that she ran away on her own. He was only trying to help her, and you know it. Only a coward let's an innocent man die so that he might save face."

"If I say she ran away, I would have to execute her. I cannot do that." He lowered his head sadly, all this pain he had brought to Meifei.

But suddenly she was the one who was pleading. "Think of Taiping." He flinched, he could not bear to hear that name aloud, Taiping, who haunted him endlessly. "She told me you were the only who ever really loved her, she spoke of all this faith in you. It was her faith in you that let her leave this world in peace. She told me how it tore her apart to see her family die. Think of how disappointed she must be in you, to kill the last man of her family. It must break her heart up there in Heaven."

It took him several moments to realize she had withdrawn the blade, but even still he did not move. Of all the words that could strike him, torture him, she had chosen those. It was as if she knew about his nightmares, as if Li Shang had told her. Still, it was like some realized dark prophecy, in his mind's eye he could see Taiping turning away. All his life she had been the only one he truly loved, and now when he died he could not dare show his face to her in Heaven.

"Alright," he sighed quietly. "You have won. But both of you leave Ch'ang-an, let me say I have banished him, allow me that much pride. Return to Louyang, Meng Tai-shan with you. Never return to Ch'ang-an unless I call for you."

Facing him now, he saw the little woman fold her arms in the darkness, fully armored. Yet there was something soft about her. Had she been in his army, he would known instantly that she was a woman.

"I think he will accept that," she answered at last. "Marshal Yu is in Louyang, and his family." It did not matter, anywhere were he was not a distraction. Giving him command of the troops at Louyang was nothing beside that.

Finally allowing himself to be at ease again, he reached over to his bedside table. "Take this," he handed her his seal. "Tell the guards to free him. But leave tonight before the rumors spread though the city."

Halfway to the door, she paused, turning slowly. "He said that deep inside he believe you are a good man. He may never see you again, but do not disappoint him, Or her," she added more softly."

Watching her leave, just a shadow moving across the darkness - like Taiping's ghost - he sunk into the pillow again. Pulling the coverlet around him a second time that night, the Emperor closed his eyes, wondering if after Li Shang's parting, his dreams of Taiping would be freed of their former bitterness and pain.

~ * ~

Shang lifted his head groggily when he heard the jostling of keys, raising heavy lidded eyes to see just who appeared inside the iron door. He was beyond dread now, resigned to his fate, so tired he had been dozing where he stood.

It was a guard who entered, unlocking his chains. "The Emperor has pardoned you."

The rough words reached his ears with some measure of disbelief, but he was too exhausted to really savor it. Instead he followed the guarded stoically, squared shoulders, even steps, numb to everything but the pain the wrists he kept rubbing. The brightness of the hall came as a shock to his burning eyes, stinging from hours of staring at nothing. In the flinching discomfort, he almost did not see Mulan standing there.

She did not touch him, but fell in close at his side as they made their way up the stairs. "I struck a bargain with the Emperor. We must leave for Louyang tonight, with Tai-shan." Ah, the quick words, so insufficient. Before he realized it, he was staring at the mark on his shoulder again, just a covert glance out of the corner of his eye.

Then pausing in step, he stiffened with worry, but his words were tenuous. "How?"

Looking down, she avoided his eyes. "He may be the Emperor, but it's not impossible to sneak into his room at night." Under her shyness, he could have sworn she was boasting.

"Mulan," a quiet scolding entered his words. "Never endanger your life for me."

Her eyes met his briefly with a faint spark of stubbornness before she shook her head and continued walking. "Well I didn't do so bad. We're going home."

"Home," he repeated, smiling to himself. Home was where Mulan was.

~ * ~

"Read us a poem, Meifei," one of the other concubines pleaded. Several heads in the circle of women nodded their encouragement.

Sighing, Meifei looked away from them a moment, her gaze lifting from the bright pavilion and turning east. An autumn mist had lingered just above the horizon, even thought it was nearly noon, shading it gray and aqua and such a pale blue that parts of the cliffs seemed indistinguishable from the hazed sky. Not far over those mountains lay the city of Louyang, where Mulan and General Li had gone. A wistful ache stirred in her heart, she had been given no chance to bid them farewell.

"Alright," she nodded quietly, turning lightly through the pages of the book on her lap.

"The plum tree is made steadfast to bloom in winter
But only to bear fruit under the springtime sun
While the fragrance of magnolia whispers of freedom
Like the dragon, how it desires to soar."

End of Part Three