They toasted China's victory in the Imperial City. On the last day of the Ghost Month, the wise and the great, and a few of the mediocre, sat down at the Emperor's banquet table to sumptuous fare. It was not a florid assembly. Many who gathered there were still in mourning for those who had fallen victim to Yumen Guan and her treachery.
Still, there were some things that could not wait for China to recover.
Mulan, almost but not quite late to the banquet, hastened in to find her beloved's mother and her own parents in avid conversation. To her surprise, everyone seemed to be getting on rather well. As she slipped into her seat, she caught the words "...four months? Usually longer..." and "...how many miles to the summer house?"
"Ah, there you are, Mulan," said Fa Li, turning around to face her. "We were just discussing the Emperor's scroll. He is a generous sovereign, the Emperor."
"Yes," nodded Lady Li. "We were debating whether or not it would affect the wedding plans."
Wedding? Our wedding? Shang must have told them everything!
Mulan shrank back and bowed her head. "I...I'm sorry if this arrangement was not what you hoped for."
Lady Li drew herself up. "The Emperor has visited a privilege on you, young lady, and I'd expect you to be grateful, not apologetic. I do not presume to argue with His Majesty on such a point!"
She looked Mulan's way.
"By the way, when you've wed, don't let Shang push you around," she said out of the corner of her mouth. "He doesn't command in the house as he does in the field; make sure he remembers."
Mulan tried to cover her shock by gracefully pouring a cup of tea...into her soup bowl.
"Besides, as any good scholar knows," said Tang primly, "The Five Emperors bore their mother's last names. In a strange way, you're being more traditional than anyone else in the land."
A hundred thoughts whirled through Mulan's head in a mix of ecstasy and confusion. Among these was, Just when you think you know someone inside out...
"Welcome to the family," added Tang.
"Tang," Mulan whispered, "how does everyone in both our families know about my scroll?"
Tang shrugged, deliberately avoiding her eyes. "I happened to be the one who wrote it down."
A gong rang for silence.
"I believe Fa Mulan has something to say," called Marshal Guo. "She faced our enemy alone and returned. Hear her words!"
Mulan rose shakily to her feet, but her words were spoken evenly and without affectation.
"For a few weeks, the dead and the living switched places among us. Many died; now let us honor them. Bao Ssu, murdered by one of Guan's men. Lieutenant Shueh, Lieutenant Nau, Captain Wan...killed because they knew too much. Those massacred in the palace...and those who fell in the storm on the festival day, who were my men." She recited their names. Not one whisper broke her concentration. "These are those whose names are known." Here she raised her voice. "There are many, both aggressor and victim, who will remain faceless to us. I'll ask something unusual of you tonight: not that you remember, but that you imagine. Ask yourselves how great the temptation must have been for those heroic, nameless spirits who refused to follow Guan. Imagine what made Guan's lieutenants serve her, and how terrible the scars on their souls must be for theirs acts. You cannot hold their names in your memory, but I ask you to recall them in your actions, from this day until the ends of your lives. And last," she inhaled deeply. "We can return to the cycle of life in this good land. Marshal Guo will serve China once more; he will help give new life to our army. The spirit Liung Zhao, now Guan Zhao, and Bao Leiyi have agreed to marry and seal the breach of tradition and decency that caused us so much suffering. I also," she faltered here, and her eyes searched for the words she'd painted on the back of her fan, just in case.
It is my great pleasure to announce the wedding of two honorable families, to the mutual benefit and prosperity...
She found herself tucking the fan into her sash and speaking clearly.
"I'm going to marry Li Shang!"
Over the cheering and laughter, Mulan sat back down, not minding how much of her heart she had shown. She only wished Shang could be there with her, instead of helping shepherd the bothersome recruits back to Wu Zhong.
A question crept into her mind. Since Shang wasn't there to witness her announcement, she couldn't ask him how exactly he'd brought this about. Maybe his relatives knew.
Mulan took a sip of her wine and tried to sound nonchalant. "Tang, what did Shang say when our betrothal was made final?"
Tang and his mother exchanged a very Li look.
"Oh, he doesn't know a thing," answered Tang. "I just asked him how things were between you, and he wouldn't stop grinning at me! So I told Mother, who met with your parents to start planning. We didn't know you would announce the tidings in front of hundreds of people! You certainly have pre-empted us, Fa Mulan." With laughter in his eyes, "Shang's probably the only one in China who doesn't know about his own wedding!"
Mulan's usually quick mind went numb. All she could think was, Shang…not…know?!
"Yes, we thought it best to leave that to you, dear," said Li Bo-yin as she fanned herself serenely. "We can't do everything for you, you know!"
In search of sleep that night, Mulan wandered hither and thither through the palace, easing each door shut to avoid detection. The only one she'd woken so far was Mushu, who refused to leave her side, even after she'd told him off for being noisy. There was so much in front of her, with her life speeding ahead, that she felt as if she needed to catch up to it but didn't know how.
Restless, she picked her way through the gardens and came to a halt before a round little pond. The fish there ignored her, but she still felt watched...
A curtain of rain enclosed the pond, veiling the outer world but not so much as dotting her clothes. Clouds blocked out the moon, and Mulan felt a tingle up her spine.
"Well done, mortal."
Had she thought herself prepared for Thunder God? The booming words were so laden with power; she could feel his presence in her bones.
"Not afraid to look at me, are you?"
Mulan peered into his ancient, set face. "Yes, but I'll still do it."
He threw back his head and laughed. "That's more like it, Fa Mulan! And as for you..."
She felt Mushu bury his face in her shoulder.
Thunder God beckoned. "Come here, you rascal."
"I swear, it wasn't me, whatever you want—" Mushu clung to Mulan's nightclothes, but it didn't matter: he was plucked away and swung up to face his benefactor.
To the surprise of Mulan and her guardian, Thunder God only touched Mushu's eyes and set him back down gently, with a, "I'll take my gift back. Better not make so much trouble next time."
Mulan made herself ask, "Yumen Guan. Where is she?"
His face clouded. "Banished from all realms, mortal and high. Even she doesn't know she exists. As for me, I pity the mother. A good soul; not like her spawn."
His expression cleared and he waved to Mulan. "Chin up. Watch the skies! You'll see me look in on you. I know your face now: defender of justice below."
"With all due respect, Sir..." Mulan winced. "I'm very grateful for all you've done. Just...try not to be at my wedding?"
The celestial being shouldered his hammer and winked out of sight.
"You name the day, and sun will shine on it."
She followed the path of Shang and her troops, eventually, lingering east of Xi'an for a day or two. Mulan tried to see something of that small, hard-faced bride in anyone she came across. Faces flitted past her, a recollection of so many she'd gazed at earnestly on her return journey. Was it futile? Even she doesn't know she exists...
She and Khan were on the outskirts of another province, farther away from Guan land…Mulan had almost caught up to the men…still she leaned forward in the saddle every time someone passed by. She dreamed of the lost voices, of the castaway tablets, but could find no piece or remnant of Guan's bloodline in the present. She had prayed for answers, but wasn't certain her ancestors could even grant that. Had Yumen Guan had daughters, sons? What was her mother's family? How many bodies had she turned to clay before the latest war? Mulan's China remained, but some of what it had lost it would never find again, and that loss dogged her while she rode Khan west.
And then, when she finally let her eyes close, a clear voice like a birdcall cried her name.
"Fa Mulan!" said a child. "I hoped you would be here!"
Mulan's eyes opened; the youngster ran forward, skirts waving.
She was only about ten, but already smiled much more with her radiant eyes than with her dark, solemn mouth. She stood straight, small as she was.
The round-faced girl reached up and tugged at Mulan's sleeve.
Mulan dismounted. She'd seen a face like that before. The stature was about right, too. For a moment, she wondered if it really was...
"I'm thirsty," said the girl. "I heard there's a well near here."
Ancestors, is this the one? The descendent of Yumen Guan?
"I only know of one, far to the east, and it's gone," said Mulan. "It ran dry a long time ago." She brought Khan over and rummaged through her saddlebags. "I have some water with me, if you like."
She took out the waterskin and they shared it.
"You sound like Mama," sighed the child. "She told me about it—she says that it's only a grave." The girl stared to the east as if sightless. "Sometimes her spirit goes there, weeping. But she always returns to my heart." She glowed with happiness. "She's there now, I can feel it."
Seeing Mulan's perplexity, the girl added, "Not my real Ma. She's much different, closed off. Mama is a ghost. She told me she's from long ago."
Mulan motioned for the girl to face her. "Tell me about her."
The girl bowed obediently. "Mama came to me on the day of the Festival of Ghosts. No one can see her, not even me, but I hear her whispers." She laughed, not a girlish giggle, but a low, melodious sound. "I know you think I'm silly, but she helps me so much, just knowing her. There are a lot of days when I feel like I'm just nothing, and they're so hard to carry."
"I know those days," sympathized Mulan.
"Mama taught me to store them all up…so that I'd know how strong I was 'cause I got through each one of 'em." The girl bit her lip. "I wish she was alive."
Mulan shivered. This is too much for coincidence, she thought.
"Where's her temple?" asked the woman warrior.
The girl tilted her head to one side. "She doesn't have one. Hasn't had one for a long time. She had a daughter, a spirit, too, who talked to her. But her daughter liked power so much that she became blind and deaf to what her mother said. Now Mama doesn't even have a daughter. She has no one left. That's why she cries."
Mulan struggled with the words. "If she has no temple, then how does she…endure?"
The girl raised one eyebrow as if the answer were obvious.
"I'm her temple. Mama has found her home with me. She needs no more than that."
Would she hate me if she knew? Would they both? Mulan asked herself, knowing in her heart that she would not and could not take back a single blow with which she'd felled Guan. But where she couldn't reach, one beyond her could. She felt a stirring of her spirit, like a breath of wind sailing through a harbor. A whisper grew inside her mind, but the voice was so old…so foreign…it was a speech she could not decipher.
Maybe it was just a melody.
The girl returned the waterskin; Mulan nearly dropped it when they touched hands. The girl bowed to the warrior and set her stride towards an unknown village across the plains.
Mulan pushed Khan hard and caught up to the men the next day, when they were camped outside a healer's hut by the foothills near Tung Shao. Shang doubted more than a little when he heard the story, but he respected what she'd shared with him. He was paying the doctor to tend some of the men, with the unspoken stipulation that he and Mulan—that is, the senior officers—would have a short respite indoors from the heat.
They sat together on a splintery bench, watching the light wane through the rice-papered windows.
"He's done some remodeling," Shang noted, bringing the lantern nearer to the window. "He must have saved someone's life, gotten paid well."
Mulan took his arm. "All the better for us?"
Night fell, and Mulan knew they were silhouetted against the window. Stealthy movements outside told her just how much her trainees valued their privacy.
"They're out there, aren't they?" said Mulan resignedly.
"Oh, yes," Shang answered. "Waiting for us to make fools of ourselves, so they can laugh about it across their campfires. While they wait…" he went and fetched a small cloth bag. "I wanted to give you this after our victory. A potter made it while you were confined."
It was a tiny clay statue of Shang.
She had barely taken in the unusual gift when he handed her a small hammer.
"Its soul is trapped within the clay," he explained.
"Ohhh," Mulan said knowingly. She took the hammer. "I have to free it?"
"Yes. It's deliberately fragile. I'd start with the—"
"—head," Shang finished.
Mulan hoped she hadn't wrecked whatever was inside, but soon she swept the shards away, and found a blue silk scarf embroidered with dark red dragons.
"It gets cold in my house, sometimes," he explained, "and if you were to…stay there…"
She kissed his cheek in thanks.
"For dinner?" she said impishly.
It was not Shang's way to be cavalier. He simply found her gaze and said, "Not...only...for that."
Badly-muffled whispers arose outside. Mulan glared at the window. Something would have to be done.
She glanced around the hut's interior, trying to find something useful. For some reason, the remnants of the figurine caught her eye—she couldn't tell why they had, until she saw the writing on the shards.
Before it was broken, Mulan's Shang had been carved on the bottoms of its feet.
Shang saw where she was looking, and cleared his throat nervously, but she stilled his mouth with her palm before he spoke.
"Trust me, General?"
"Let's not have the men hear this, hmmm? Ready weapons," Mulan whispered. "One…two…three…"
At once, they drew their swords and pointed them at the window.
"Chaaarge!" hollered Mulan.
The less said about the ensuing chaos the better. The two heard their recruits bumping into each other in the dark and swearing as they did. Even Shang couldn't hide his amusement.
While he listened to see that no one remained, Mulan reached over to a pot of dye that lay by the medicines. She stretched out her left forearm and wrote on it using her finger as a brush.
"Shang?" she said. "I have a gift for you, too."
Had any of the men stood their ground, they would have heard a low female voice mumble a few words about an upcoming sunny day, and how Mulan's mouth sometimes got her into trouble.
These innocent phrases had to be explained, which they were, so softly that they had to be said twice. When her listener understood, a huge crash echoed as the healer's ointment table was completely upended.
A few daring witnesses swore they saw, from afar, the shorter silhouette and taller cling to each other.
Yet it would take a close observer indeed to pick out a little red shape in the dark, right below the sill, seemingly talking to itself. At least, there were only crickets in the tall grass to answer it.
"She chose a great atmosphere," Mushu applauded. "Simple, close quarters, an' both of them makin' each other whole again. Plus, havin' swords on hand sure can't hurt. Yep, she's still got a few things bangin' around in the noggin."
"Just like always? Nah," said Mushu. "Look at ole Shang, look at her men, an' all the stories she inspired. She's not just solving things, now; she's helping others think great thoughts, too. Where she can't be, she'll know that other people are. Now that's a captain." Mushu gazed dreamily at the window. "You go right ahead and pass it on, girl. There'll never be more than one of you." He rubbed his chest proudly. "Not to mention the Mulan-Mushu team savin' China once again! Oh, yeah!"
"The ancestors! Who asked them? Heck, I'll deal with them if they don't approve of the match. Though, if they do, you can bet ole Granny Fa will be the first to know."
"You'll speak to her, my foot! Half the time even I can't understand you! …What's that? You what? And my mother is HOW scaly? I oughta fry your exoskeleton!"
Behind them in the hut, there came the clatter of weapons, wholly forgotten by their wielders.
Reverberating through the dream world, that sound woke Grandma in Yu-Wen.
Voices left her with a murmur and blue light. She sat upright as the scene washed over her. Two swords cast down on a bench, one face meeting another in gold lamplight.
The vision was vague, but in seconds, it made sense to Grandma.
The entire village was roused long before morning by a resounding "WOOOHOO!" from the Fa compound.
They might think her mad, but what did Granny Fa care? She sped to the temple, lantern in hand, and kowtowed to the Fa stones six times.
It's up to me to plan the next great festival…but maybe these old coots can help a little.
"Oh, great ancestors!" she called to them. "What should we name the next Fa child?"
That set them all arguing around her…each wanting to be the one to name the next in line.
Granny paid them no mind, patiently keeping her head bowed, until a grumbling voice louder than the rest shouted, MUSHU, you incompetent lizard, this is all your doing!
Granny's eyes opened.
"It is?" she mused. "Mushu, huh. I like it."
For some reason, she felt horror emanating from the ancestors, as if they had made a grievous error.
Oh well, what did they know? They were dead.
"Thank you, wise ancestors!" she said, exiting the temple. Now, she had the perfect name for Mulan's descendant!
Author's Note: You have been wonderful readers. I've gotten so much help and encouragement from all of you. I hope this doesn't disappoint, and I will be back in this fandom, whether or not I continue this plotline. Let me know what you think!
Thanks again to Akari Kou for betaing.