The realization nearly made her call him back again, if only to tell him that she understood now. But she held her tongue, for once listening to the voice of reason in her head, a voice that sounded much like Shang's now. Instead she stood silently inside the tent, listening to the sounds of packing up outside.
Soon, the rest of the men would all be gone. And then it would just be her, the guard outside with the desperate eyes, and the howling winds of the pass. Mulan glanced down at her hands, remembering Shang's last touch as he'd loosened the ropes. Then she sat down on the cot to wait, thinking of the sadness in Shang's eyes in their last moment alone, when he'd been about to speak. "Mulan...I will..."
When the cloth door to the tent was pushed open a while later, Mulan looked up at the soldier with a faint smile. She held her bound hands in front of her.
"Please, let me go," she asked, only the tiniest tremor in her voice. The man shook his head and grinned at her, coming further into the tent. She stood up, cringing slightly as he came closer. "Please," she said softly again, hoping that she looked as helpless as she had been only a month ago. He shook his head again, and tossed his helmet to the floor, the sense of sudden power in his eyes like the cruel light she had often seen in the face of Chi Fu.
Thinking of him, Mulan spun around quickly, extending her leg in a strong kick to the man's stomach. With his armor on it did little more than knock him off balance, but it was enough of a distraction for her to move close enough to disarm him.
She slid his sword from its sheath smoothly and had it at his neck in the next moment. That her hands were still bound hardly mattered. She could slit his throat in an instant and he knew it. His eyes widened to their limits with fear. A little surprised that it had worked, Mulan blinked before recovering herself.
"What should I do with you?" she asked harshly, thinking of Chi Fu. Shang would say he lacked honor. And those without honor had no place here. She pushed the sword's edge further into his skin, cutting into the skin above his artery. Mulan watched the blood stream down his neck like a flood with every beat of his heart, then froze when a wordless roar shook the mountains.
Before she could stop to think, Mulan flipped the sword in the air, catching it backwards, something she had only seen Shang do before. She swung it, hitting the guard on the head with the heavy hilt. She'd thrown the sword to the ground and undone the ropes around her wrists before he'd fallen to the floor. She barely noticed the blood on her hands as she crept out of the tent, only concerned with getting away. But the sight outside chilled her as the thought of that lone guard had not.
High up the pass hundreds of figures were moving around, freeing themselves from the snow that had buried them. The Huns! She had to warn Shang!
She ran to Khan and threw herself onto his back, spurring him towards Ch'ang-an, uncaring of her own fate. She knew her duty. She left the guard to the mercies of the Huns.
~ * ~
The clamor of gongs and drums did nothing but stir an ache in Shang's head. His tired eyes did not pan over the color and canter of the Imperial City with any appreciation. He was grim, angry and exhausted. They had reached Ch'ang-an just an hour ago, and instead of discussing official business the Emperor had decided to hold the victory parade, a spectacle for the citizens. Shang did not care to be a spectacle, or to endure the thousands of adulating eyes in the crowd. He wanted to face the Emperor and be done with it, then go home to camp at Louyang and drown himself in Du Kang. Maybe Tai-shan would join him.
He wanted to scream, to strangle the drummer before him for increasing the pounding in his head, and then the lion dancers whose movements only contributed to his nausea. The piercing blue flashes of intense pain burned behind his eyelids more brightly than any colorful festoon in the street. He hadn't slept for three days, and was ready to drop unconscious any minute.
"Make way for the heroes of China!" An official intoned, sending the crowds parting wide in the street, all eyes fixed on him atop his white horse. Some splendid war hero, he could hardly keep his eyes open. He hated them all, and made little effort to hide it, turning the force of his glare on the prostitute who winked at him invitingly from the crowd. She flinched, fading back into the masses. I've had enough, he bit his lip to keep from yelling at them. A woman has saved you, honor her. They would be hammering for her blood tomorrow.
Then he heard a rustling behind him, the clacking of a bridle and the clatter of hooves, a few gasps from the crowd. "Shang!"
It was as if something had pulled out the invisible sword that had been driving so ruthlessly into his skull, triggering a double high of relief and elation. "Mulan!" She was here? Alive? Away from those guards he wanted to carve into pieces merely for the way they looked at her?
Here? He remembered something, just barely. He had left the ropes loose so she could escape, away from harm. Here they would kill her, Chi Fu was here. Never lay siege to walled cities, his father's voice echoed through his mind. It had been his favorite saying, clearly learned from Fa Zhou. When you act boldly and rashly, the unforeseen consequence will always destroy you.
When he turned to face her, he saw she wore the soldier's uniform. Doubly foolish, but he supposed she had nothing else to wear, hair left loose, not even attempting to disguise herself as a boy. His temper flared. Didn't she have any sense at all? "You don't belong here, Mulan," he snapped, more harshly than he meant to. The grasp he held on his composure was too tenuous now, so tired he had run out of patience indiscriminately. "Go home." If he had left her the means to escape the least she could do was make good use of that.
Undaunted, she pulled Khan to ride in beside him. "The Huns are in the city." He kept his profile to her, trying to make it seem she was no more than a member of the crowd come to close, before someone dragged her away. He wished she would be quiet and let him worry about the Huns. Too late, she had already steered Khan in front of him, blocking his path, a fiercely determined light in her eye. Didn't she understand the danger? "Shang, I saw them in the mountains. You have to believe me."
"Why should I?" he grumbled irritably. He hadn't meant to say that, not just that. He meant to ask her why he should care. She was already going to die, and tomorrow these people would be hungry for the sight. Why did they deserve any kind of preservation? They were not worth dying for, they were not worth more than her life.
Her expression flickered between hurt and anger. "You said you'd trust me in the mountains, why is it different here?"
It was his turn to flinch, no answer to that. Finally he tugged his rains and trotted his horse around her. "Get out of here," he ordered her sharply. People were already staring at her, at any moment, the wrong person would be as well.
Leaving her behind, he dismounted, handing over his reins. The Emperor had appeared on top of the Palace steps, behind two women with crossed fans. They parted to reveal his stately, yellow clad form gliding towards the edge of the steps.
That was his cue. He began his ascent up the steps to meet the old sovereign, parade dragon slithering behind him as he climbed. Chi Fu was there at the top, standing silent and pleased as he held Shan-yu's sword across his arms, something Yao had dug up in the snow on their way out. The sword... He blinked, eyes darting left and right suddenly. She had said Huns. A new sense of nervousness crawled under his fatigue.
"My children!" The Emperor raised his hands, the long sleeves of his robe billowing in the night. "Heaven smiles down upon the Middle Kingdom. China will sleep safely tonight, thanks to our brave warriors!" A storm of cheers swirled up from the crowd. Chi Fu smiled, Shang lowered his head. Plainly put, he would never sleep again.
Chi Fu handed him the sword. "Your Majesty," he bowed with a mechanic numbness, the formal words seeming to come from someone else entirely. "I present to you the sword of Shan-yu."
The Emperor paused a long moment as Shang held the sword out for him to take. "I know what this means to you, Captain Li," his voice dropped to one of affection. Of course it was affection, Shang had known the man since he was a child. "You're father would be very proud." Shang smiled, a false smile.
A screeching cry cut through the air. Shang looked up just in time to see Shan-yu's falcon swoop down, snatching the sword from his hands. The bird soared for the rooftop, clutching the blade in its talon's, then letting it go. The shadows shifted against the tiled roof, one of the carved statues moved, reaching a massive dark hand up to catch the blade. The figure rose on one knee, the night shadow slipping from its face like a veil, falcon alighting on his shoulder. Shan-yu.
Shang turned, something under his weariness fighting to make sense of the situation, stirring an adrenaline rush. The dragon, the Huns were in the dragon, breaking out now and storming the landing where he stood. He reached for a weapon but it was too late, a sword hilt struck his head, causing him to fall over, vaguely aware of the massive barbarians dragging the Emperor away. High on anger and instinct now, Shang scrambled to his feet, making a run for the doors. He had to save the Emperor, and maybe he would die in the process. At that moment, he was thirsty for death.
The doors slammed shut just as he reached them. Leaning his head against his arm he fought for a hold on himself, trying to drown out Shan-yu's rumbling laughter from the rooftop.
"Break down the door!" Chi Fu was shrieking, as panicked as the crowd. "Get something to break down the door!"
The other soldiers had already made their way up the steps, Yao and Chien Po heading for a lion statue. Shang ran over, helping take up the load. Between him and Chien Po they could manage it, driving the heavy bronze into the doors like a battering ram. The doors were iron, it would take too long. At this point, Shang no longer cared. As long as it looked like he was doing something.
"Hey, guys!" They heard a whistle. "I've got an idea!"
All eyes turned to Mulan on the platform, standing there shamelessly. Shang held his breath, not angry with her anymore. She had more honor than him, not ready to give up, not willing to die without fighting bravely to the last. The soldiers dropped their burden immediately, spirits lifted at the sight of her, running after her enthusiastically. Shang only stood there, wondering if it was all worth it. It was a suicide mission. It had been worth it yesterday in the mountains, no hope, no chance, until she had saved them. But that was before her life had been claimed by the law, the consequence that was sure to destroy him. She did not seem to care, law or no law what was right was right. Maybe if he followed her they would die together, as two ghosts, slain by that law that had no regard for innocence or integrity. No honor.
Like a shadow, he crept after her, watching silently for a few moments where she could not see him. He could not let her see him this away, no longer a leader but a fool who stumbled from choice to choice. It was his duty as a commander to make his men believe in their mission, to lead them with strength. Who would follow a ghost? It did not matter anyway, she was in command.
As expected, her plan was ridiculous and even given his mood, faintly amusing. She had dressed herself and her three friends in silk skirts, busily applying make-up to their faces though wearing none herself. Shang could not take his eyes from her, hidden behind the column, so willowy and graceful in a lady's dress. Grudgingly, he had to admit new respect for her companions, they endured their disguises without complaint. Even the fruit that filled out their garments.
Realizing she intended to carry out her plan without enlisting his help, or even seeking him out, Shang ran after her, fighting a stab of hurt. Maybe after the way he had treated her a few moments ago in the parade she did not wish to speak to him at all, not that he could blame her. But it killed him, that she would end her life with ill will towards him.
He met her as she was prepared to climb the red columns that would lead her onto the balcony where the Emperor was held. "Mulan," he laid his hand on her shoulder gently.
Turning around, she gave him a smile that held more warmth than her words. "You're here," she said quietly, showing no real sign of hurt, but no affection either. He frowned at himself. "We could use your help, so long as you don't tell me to leave again."
He nodded uncomfortably. "I promise," winning another smile from her. How could she be so full of faith, he wondered, wasn't she afraid? He was afraid, tired.
Once on top of the balcony, they huddled around a corner that gave them a view of the hall. Two massive Huns stood there, guarding the tower doors, shirtless monsters with vicious, feral eyes.
"All we have to do," Mulan was saying, "is get the Emperor off the balcony. First we need to distract Shan-yu."
Shang shook his head. "First you need to distract the guards."
"That's what the three of them are for," she glanced at the silk clad trio with a smirk. "Who could resist Ling's apples?" Yao chuckled, until Ling slapped him quickly with his fan. Shang leaned his sore head back irritably. How could they joke at a time like this? He supposed in some sordid way he could understand. When you were already dead what else was there to do but laugh. "I'll take on Shan-yu, and you get the Emperor, Shang."
"You can't," he said too quickly, sharply.
Her posture stiffened stubbornly. "Why can't I?"
He glared at her, temper rising again. "Because you're... you're," making a motion with his hand, he looked to the others for help. A lone woman could not go up against Shan-yu, even if she was skilled at martial arts. The man was a monster, no conscience, no heart, killing thousands like a hungry beast, leaving a legacy of rape and slaughter. He would rather see her die at the hands of the executioner than... than that. "Because you're too little." He decided upon finally. "I will fight Shan-yu, for my father's sake." There, no one could argue with that. It was a matter of honor.
"Shang, you don't look well." That made him drop his gaze, her tone
too intimate for their
"I'll do it," he repeated stubbornly. "You stay here, help distract the guards. Give me the signal to move."
"Fair enough." With a sigh, she turned to Chien Po. The bald giant frowned as he pulled a sword from beneath his dress, handing it to Shang. Mulan searched each of their faces "Any questions?"
Yao posed his artificial cleavage. "Does this dress make me look fat?"
Unable to resist, Shang slapped him with the back of his hand.
Readying themselves, the four moved out from the shelter of the wall, making a slow advance on the Huns. Only Mulan managed to conjure the grace the disguise demanded.
The guards turned, eyeing the four of them as they glided forth, hiding faces behind their fans in an attempt at flirting. An apple tumbled out from Ling's bosom, rolling on to the ground, betraying them. Shang buried his face in his hands with an exasperated sigh. But the guards were still in motion, one bent to retrieve the fallen fruit, averting his eyes just long enough for Yao to pull the melons from his bodice and slam them on either side of the guard's head. On to their ruse, the Huns advanced, but not before Ling managed to deliver a strong kick to one of them, knocking him to the ground.
"Shang! Go!" Mulan ordered, overcoming a Hun archer with his own bow.
Not wasting a breath, Shang burst through the doors and bounded up the steps of the tower, Shan-yu already in sight, jagged blade poised to strike the Emperor's throat. Spinning into the room, Shang skidded balanced on one hand, dropped to the ground to crash his blade into Shan-yu's with maximum force. With a growl, the huge Hun lunged for him, claws extended, flinging Shang's sword away. Gripping the column for leverage, Shang swung himself around, kicking both feet into Shan-yu's chest, sending him sprawling. He jumped on his back, the flood of violent energy almost euphoric, a killing rage. Shan-yu threw Shang under him with one powerful jerk of his body, they flailed around for a desperate moment. Slamming his boot into the other man's knee, Shang rolled them over again, throwing himself over Shan-yu's back, pinning him there with an elbow twisted behind him painfully, Shang's arm around his neck in a choke hold. The sword Mulan had given him rested below his foot, he inched his leg to slide the thing closer, where he could use it to slit Shan-yu's throat.
Mulan rushed in, shouting to Chien Po. "Get the Emperor!"
Through his limited vision, Shang saw the fluttering of yellow silk lifted from the ground. Mulan was standing at the balcony's edge while Yao, Ling and Chien Po used their scarves as pulleys to slide along the lantern string to safety on the ground.
It was then Shang made his mistake, gazing up at her, eyes pleading for her to leave too. His grip loosened on Shan-yu instinctively, as if she had been the one he was holding.
Seizing his chance, the Hun leader managed some powerful move that threw Shang off of him. He grabbed Shang before the captain could recover himself, slamming their skulls together in a fierce head butt that sent Shang rolling on his back, swimming as his earlier pain was magnified a thousand fold. He turned over groggily, ready for death, praying only that Mulan had gone.
With that hope, he felt a small hand on his shoulder, rousing him. He would have known her touch anywhere, no matter how dizzy and half coherent. Everything seemed to pass in slow motion, his body longing for the solace of sleep, refusing to cooperate with his frantic mind. He sat up, Mulan at his shoulder, Shan-yu stalking towards them, armed again, with no escape from that golden, predatory gaze. His first instinct took over, the reflex to protect a woman from harm. Flinging out a hand, he ordered Mulan out of the room, thanking every god and goddess silently when he saw her rise and obey.
Still struggling to fight through his daze, Shang drew out a knife without really knowing why. It was just something he had been taught to do even in his sleep. Shan-yu kicked the thing out of his hand roughly, sending a sharp burning pain through his arm.
He did not feel a thing when Shan-yu seized him by the throat, pressing the sword point into his skin. "You," the growl seemed to roll through the air like thunder. "You took away my victory!"
Something struck Shan-yu across the temple, forcing him to lower the sword. "No," Mulan was still there, staggering a minute to put her slipper back on, the thing she must have thrown at Shan-yu. "I did!" And she said it with pride too.
Shan-yu turned to her, disbelieving, enraged, taking in her face as she pulled her hair back for him. "The soldier from the mountains," he recognized her at once, letting Shang slump to the floor as he took off running after her.
It seemed like hours that he laid there, the moments stretching with unshakable exhaustion and pain. Mulan, her name crept into his thoughts, dragging him to his feet with alarm. He ran down the steps of the tower, the way she had gone, the cracked doors and broken pillars clear evidence of a struggle. He ran faster, making his way down another flight of stairs. An explosion burst through the air, a shower of color and light, fireworks blooming into the night sky. He was halfway down another flight when something collided against his back, throwing him from the steps onto the ground of the landing, leaving him with nothing to do but twist his body to ease the impact of the fall. The entire Palace seemed to shake under him as something slammed into the tower, igniting a second explosion.
When he opened his eyes, Mulan was beside him, Shan-yu's smoking sword clattering at their feet. She looked at him, smiling sheepishly, not a hair out of place.
"Are you alright?" He demanded quickly, helping her to her feet, not letting go of her arm until her three friends came running, as worried for her as he was.
Nodding, she took a step back from him, smoothing her silk skirt. "You?" He only shrugged for answer. Shan-yu was dead, killed in the explosion. But they were still alive, unscathed. All that was left was the law. It did not matter that Shan-yu was dead, nothing had changed.
"That was a deliberate attempt on my life!" Chi Fu's voice squawked through the smoke, shrill as ever as he stalked towards them. Shang planted himself in front of Mulan protectively, his hatred for the other man bringing him fully alert now. He did not even hate Shan-yu as much as he hated that man. "Where is she? Now you've done it, what a mess! Stand aside, that creature's not worth protecting." Out of the corner of his eye, Shang saw Chien Po take Mulan by the shoulders, ushering her to stand safely behind the four men where Chi Fu could not reach her.
"She's a hero," Shang stood directly in front of him now, too close for Chi Fu to avoid his eyes. Once again, taking a special thrill at the wariness there.
Still, Chi Fu managed to look away, over his shoulder in Mulan's direction. "She's a woman!" He protested bitterly. "She'll never be worth anything!"
Shang had his hands around the scrawny man's throat in a heartbeat, lifting him off the ground, the words throwing him over the edge. After three sleepless nights, his father's death and two close encounters in battle, he had no restraint left in him. "Listen you pompous son of a bitch!"
"That is enough," A regal voice commanded from the top of stairs, low, but one Shang did not dare disobey.
As stately as ever, the aged monarch descended the staircase, yellow robes billowing behind him, the picture of dignity. Shang dropped his hold on Chi Fu, coming forth to meet the Emperor quickly, with a measure of desperation. "Your Majesty, I can explain."
He was prepared to plead for her life, to take the blame, and if that failed, he was prepared to die beside her, whether by the executioner's blade or his own hand. After all she had done and endured, if she was condemned to suffer death, then there was no justice left in this world. The only honor would be what he took to the grave, devoting himself to the last, like disciple to teacher. That was true honor. There were some things one should never let go of, some things that should never be sacrificed. She was a symbol, he saw it now, a symbol of selfless, seemingly unattainable courage, uncompromising strength. It was all there in the arrow she had thrown at his feet. All his life he had been in love with that idea, finding it embodied in her so beautifully. An idea was worth more than an empire.
Yet there was an understanding look in the Emperor's eye when he waved Shang aside. With no choice, the four men parted to reveal the small girl they had been guarding, leaving Shang to fidget nervously with his sore wrist.
She stepped respectfully before the sovereign, deeply bowing her head, patiently enduring the older man's grandiose words, just as still as she had knelt there in the snow. He would have given the world for that kind of courage.
"I've heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan," he began sternly, sending shivers of anger through Shang, who watched nervously. "You ran away from home, stole your father's armor, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese army, destroyed my Palace, and..." he paused, the tone of accusation growing stronger with every named crime. Shang held his breath, clenching his fists, but Mulan seemed to take it all in stride. "You have saved us all."
Exhaling with disbelief, Shang blinked. Surely, he hadn't heard correctly, surely... The Emperor lowered his head, bending his proud back in a deep bow before the stunned, small girl. Chi Fu was just as stunned, dropping prostrate in a panic at Mulan's small feet. Shang smiled, lowering himself to his knees and then touching his forehead reverently to the floor just beyond the point of her slipper, Yao, Ling and Chien Po following after him.
When they rose, the Emperor was smiling too, seeing Mulan for what she was, a treasure. Her face beamed, alight with triumph and a new sense of self worth. She was offered a government post, but refused it, asking only to go home. So humble, like a true follower of the Dao. The Emperor placed his crest around her neck, Shan-yu's sword in her arms, still smiling.
"Take this, so your family will know what you have done for me and the world will know what you have done for China."
Then it was time for farewells, he watched her sadly as she embraced her friends, then turned to him, an expectant look on her face. That was when it all struck him.
The relief at seeing her pardoned must have been too much to fathom then and there, he did not even allow himself to try. Flashes of what had happened between them last night flitted through his mind, the passion and desperation they had shared. She was alive and returning to her family, if her father found out... He was suddenly frozen, any traces of eloquence gone. "You fight good," he patted her shoulder, as close as dared come to her here. All he could think of was were her bold words then, her fire. He wished though that she would have embraced him too, remembering all too clearly the weight of her in his arms.
A look of uncomfortable understanding and disappointment crossed her face. "Oh," she managed quietly. "Thank you." He knew what she wanted, what she deserved, some profession of love, something profound and full of meaning. He wished he could have given it to her then, but he was too weary and stunned to even begin.
He was still frozen when she walked away, climbing on Khan's back and riding away proudly amid a shower of cheers, riding for her home, torn away from him just like in one of his dreams. The familiar sadness wrenched his heart like no other, the longing to run after her so strong he found he could not move. He only reached out one tentative, adoring hand, groaning in pained disappointment when it only held the air.
The Emperor must have recognized the look upon his face, must have seen the torture for what it was. But of course he did, the man was like an uncle to him. He cleared his throat, stepping over to Shang and speaking with his quiet wisdom. "The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all."
Astounded, Shang turned to him, wanting to have the blessing in more plainspoken terms. It was just that, a blessing, a hope that he would court her, marry her. It was almost too much, too frightening, they way he felt as if he were flying inside, restored to life by those few, pretty words. "Sir?" His informal address held a new softness. There was no need for titles between them when they stood here alone, the man was like any other older comrade.
The Emperor glared at him as if he were being deliberately dunce. "You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty!" Putting his hat back on with a chuckle, he moved away, leaving Shang to his foolishness and confusion.
~ * ~
Shang managed a quiet exit from the Imperial Palace that night. The last thing he wanted was to be confronted by the officials, men trying to find influence with one who had recently fallen into the Emperor's good graces. And worse than that, the string of women hoping to find themselves in his bed. He was far too tired and preoccupied to even pretend to endure it and politely refuse.
Instead, he made his way through the city itself, having heard that some of the officers from Louyang had returned here. There was a tavern not far from the Palace where he was accustomed to finding his friends, chances were there would be someone there now he recognized. Not even a battle and a victory parade could keep a tavern empty for too long, not when soldiers were around.
The noise of the place was enough to make Shang groan the moment he entered, drowsily scanning through the dimmed sea of faces for one he knew. The place was a mess of men drinking, gambling and arguing over the sounds of musicians and singers. Just like the parade, it made his ears ring. Still, he felt more at home here, second to being back at camp.
"Li Shang!" A familiar deep voice called cheerfully from somewhere in that crowd, turning every head towards him with the shout. The rumble of gossip began at once. By now, everyone in the Imperial City knew his name, he was the one who had turned a woman into a hero. He was surprised really, at how much credit and praise had been heaped upon him for her accomplishments, deserving none of it of course.
A tall figure stood, garbed in silk civilian clothing, making his way towards Shang with his usual swagger, a cup of liquor in his hand. Shang shook his head. The man never missed a chance to show off, a smile on that face which sent countless women fawning. But Shang smiled back, inwardly at least, Tai-shan always greeted him flagrantly, even back when no one had known his name at all.
"I heard what happened," Tai-shan began, leading Shang to a table. "We just got here an hour ago, missed all the fun, I guess." Then he grinned, taking a seat, never losing his knack for finding humor in sore subjects. "I heard you had a young lady with you, among your troops. Everyone's talking about it."
Propping an elbow up on the table, Shang leaned his forehead on the back of his hand. How could he just let her go? She seemed so lost beyond regaining now. His pride could not stand the confession, that he had been unable to find the self control to resist his desire for her, that she would return to her family having lost her honor as a maiden all because of him. The worst was when people whispered of her when they thought he could not hear, saying she must have been his lover to survive that long without discovery, and knowing there was a grain of truth to it.
Tai-shan took one look at his troubled face and shouted immediately to the serving girl. "My friend needs a drink! Make it strong, too!" Satisfied when she ran for a cup, he turned back to Shang. "They said you just there watching her go, the look on your face, like a horse had run over you." He laughed softly until Shang kicked him under the table.
"This isn't funny!" he growled sharply, picking up the cup the serving girl had brought him, taking a sip. "She's Fa Zhou's daughter. How could I have let this happen?" Sighing, he set the cup down to rub his head.
The other man's eyes widened with interest. "Let what happen?"
"She and I... we," He swallowed hard. Tai-shan was like his brother, he could tell him anything. He could trust him. "At first I didn't know who she was, just this girl in the river who was more than willing. When I figured it out, I couldn't stop thinking of her, I should have sent her away. When we both she would be executed, neither of us thought it would matter if we..."
"You slept with her." Tai-shan finished for him, unflinchingly blunt. Laughing a little, he sipped his own drink, his worried look reminding Shang just how much trouble this could be. Shang knew what he was thinking, how unlike him this was, normally so restrained and in control, falling helplessly for this girl. He knew it showed in his face, that it was more than even he could hide. "It's not like you raped her," His friend added quickly, with a note of seriousness. He may be a playboy, but Tai-shan disliked men who hurt women.
Rape, the word still made Shang flinch, pushing an image to the front of his mind. Her hands had been tied, a frightened look on her face, all he had felt was desperation from the night before. What if he had moved away before it went too far? What if he hadn't have been so forceful? But she had never told him to stop.
Awash with guilt, he downed the rest of his cup. "What am I going to do?"
Folding his arms, Tai-shan half smiled. "You're the great hero now, every noble's going to want you to marry his daughter, you know how you hate courtiers." Shang nodded, that was a true as anything. "So you have to be a soldier about it, do the honorable thing, or you'll never let it go. I know you. It's obvious you're in love with her - beyond hope might I add - so you can't just let her go because you're afraid her father has a sword waiting for you. That's not being fair to her, she wasn't afraid of anything from what I hear. If she has the courage to join the army and face execution, then you could at least go ask her father for her hand. The Emperor likes you, ask him for an Imperial decree if you have to."
"Tai-shan," his head slumped comfortably on his friend's shoulder. "It isn't supposed to be like this."
Putting an arm him, Tai-shan picked up Shang's cup and held it for him to drink. "What are you afraid of? I heard they're already composing poems for the way she looked at you."
Shang's face was grim though, disappointed at his own hypocrisy. How many nights had he spent berating her in his mind for not coming to him with the truth? How much anger? And here he was, sitting with Tai-shan while she rode for him probably waiting as he had, waiting for a confession of a different kind. It was not so easy, he realized now, and it had nothing to do with honor. Deep down, he was a common man afraid of suffering, the soldier was just a mask. And her, she was the brave one, the river goddess was just an illusion.
~ * ~
The Fa family land was the only real sign of wealth in the village, the place of a man accustomed to finer things but choosing to dwell in only modest imitation. Still it managed to project its majesty, a quiet paradise. Such places were rare for him. Shang was at first confronted by a stone wall bordering a courtyard richly hued with green trees spreading cherry blossoms across the grass, reminding a forlorn warrior that it was springtime. At the wall's gate, a pair of women stood, one short with gray streaked through her hair, yet radiating a mature beauty befitting this place. The other was much older, with no such aura, but appearing cheery all the same.
They were talking, or rather the older woman was voicing some complaint while the younger - no doubt Mulan's mother - was listening quietly but shaking her head.
"Excuse me," he intruded as politely as he could upon their conversation. They turned to him, speechless and stunned. "Is Fa Mulan here?" Their startlement increased with the mention of her name. Hadn't any man come asking for her before? She hardly looked like the sort of girl who could be demurely confined to the house. But all the two women could do was point. Brushing past them, he murmured a polite "Thank you," with a quizzical look for the eldest, eyeing him appreciatively.
"Sign me up for the next war!" She muttered behind him a little too gleefully. He shook his head, laughing. But it did lighten his mood a bit.
A tall man rose from a stone bench when he saw him, seating calmly under the cherry tree on the hill. Despite his obvious limp, the man had an aura of grace and dignity much like his wife, a presence that commanded respect. Shang had heard much about this man from his father, how he had left the battlefield forever changed by the things he had seen, becoming deeply religious, almost a mystic, searching for peace on his small plot of land, surrounded by beauty. Looking at that man, he saw his own future, from the war wound to the towering solemnity and the soldier's bearing that never left him with age. It was the mark of a hard life that refused to fade.
"Honorable Fa Zhou," he bowed quietly, "I..." I am the son of your old friend, I have come to see your daughter, to apologize..."
He never got the words out. She appeared suddenly from behind her father's shoulder, smiling and nervous. "Mulan!" He could not hide his excitement, then frowned. That was no proper way to address the young lady of his house. "You... um... forgot your helmet," He held out the thing he had been clutching all this time. "Actually it's umm... your helmet isn't it?" His nervous smile was for Fa Zhou this time.
It wasn't until father and daughter stared at him that Shang realized how ridiculous he must have looked. He truly had intended to simply return the thing, as she had only given it to him as an excuse to speak those last poignant words in the tent. She seemed to know that, to recognize the same pathetic excuse, avoiding her father's eyes with obvious discomfort. It was more than that to Shang, remembering how he had donned it so she could not see his face as he turned away. He was tired of hiding now. Still, Shang had not meant to return it so quickly, just as an afterthought, something he thought she might want back, any soldier would.
Fa Zhou looked amused, understanding even, stepping aside to let his daughter take command of the situation. That was not so wise though, as she was blushing horribly at the heated memory the thing must have conjured. It made him smile though, to see her recall that night with more shy embarrassment than pain.
"Would you like to stay?" She asked politely, the courteous tone making him look her over more carefully. It still seemed strange, the silk skirts and free falling hair, making her appear just a shy maiden at first glance. It was hard to believe his river goddess, clumsy Ping, and this refined young lady were all one in the same.
"That would be nice."
"Father," she turned back to Fa Zhou, very in control now but still leaving him off balance. "This is Captain Li Shang."
The old soldier's eyes brightened in instant recognition. "Your father was a great and loyal friend to me. I mourn him." He gave a little duck of his head to no one in particular, perhaps the late General's memory.
Nodding his thanks, the solemn subject allowed Shang to recover himself. "I came to see how Mulan was doing, and to give her a message from the... the Emperor. Mulan, did you tell your mother and father that you were wounded?" From her earlier blushes and Fa Zhou's easy manner with him, Shang gathered she hadn't told her father anything else important. He wasn't sure if he was pleased with that or not.
"No..." She seemed to be squirming under her father's sudden glare of concern. Glancing up at her father, she smiled reassuringly. "I was going to tell you, baba, I just getting around to it." Spoiled girl indeed, the only thing Chi Fu had been right about.
Sharing a look of fond annoyance, Fa Zhou smiled at Shang slightly before making a move to leave. "I'll go tell your mother for you, and that we have a guest. Stay here, Mulan, and let Li Shang give you the Emperor's message so he can be at ease and make himself comfortable."
As Fa Zhou turned away, Shang was grateful the man took his presence
as being perfectly
natural, with no snickers or knowing smiles as he left Shang alone with his daughter.
"Shang," she said softly when her father was out of earshot. "I've missed you.
He smiled, once again put off balance by her honesty. "I couldn't have stayed away for long." Then he sighed, the past few days had taken a heavy toll on him. "I kept thinking of you. I can't believe you're still alive."
Her smile was warm, adoring. "I knew you wouldn't let me die, not if I made you promise." He laughed softly, she had a way of making him defenseless with her words.
"Mulan, you know I did nothing."
"You helped me escape, didn't you?" Her eyes challenged him to protest it.
His laughter faded. The motive behind that was an unpleasant subject he vowed never to dredge up in her presence. His words were very serious now, almost impatient. "Mulan, when I thought you were going to be executed I told myself that if things were different I would have married you, shown you that I had some honor as a man to redeem yours. I have spoken to the Emperor, he favors the match. I hope your parents will be pleased, and you of course."
She was silent for a moment, but when she spoke her words were faint. "I am." He must have come to know her very well, after all the days of studying her, to know the question before she even asked it, and why she was asking it. "The other night in my tent, before Chi Fu came in, what were you going to say?"
The expectation in her face was so much, so daunting, that all he could do to escape it was answer teasingly. "Something flowery and dramatic and completely unlike me." It was simple really, just a promise to honor her in death as if she had been his wife.
Stepping closer, she placed a hand on his chest, her eyes wide with amusement. "Some would call that poetry."
Instinctively, he grasped that hand, holding it over his heart, just as he had in the river. They stood that way for a long moment, as he gazed at her and tried to think of words to assure her that it was love. But even with a clear head, he realized he still did not know where to begin.
~ * ~
The water was clear, reaching just below the small soft hand he clasped over his heart. Shang gazed at her face, dropping her hand to brush the loose dark hair from her forehead. Mulan was smiling at him where she leaned against the rock, pleased and anxious, lips parted for him to kiss her. He did so, demanding as always, pressing her back into the rock until she shifted her legs around him with a little moan.
They had been here in the water for long moments now, taking their time. He enjoyed torturing her this way, she was impatient and impulsive, he meticulous and deliberate. But being the soldier she was, she held her own, finding her own advantage. It was like a battle without armor.
Laughing softly, his mouth slid along her chin, lifting her by the shoulders out of the water so he could kiss lower. She unwound her arms from around his neck, letting them brace her against the rock as she arched forward, exposing herself to him in the moonlight.
His mouth skimmed slowly to her breast, smooth as white jade in the darkness. Then his hand trailed up from her hip, finding the rough red line across her ribs. It was the scar from Shan-yu's sword, fading and healed now. He pressed a kiss to it gently before raising his head to look up at her.
"It's still ugly, isn't it?" She was frowning a little. But there was a playful danger in her eyes, just daring him to agree.
"No," he assured her quickly, remembering how bravely she faced Shan-yu in battle all those months ago. That scar was a priceless reminder of courage, and never to abandon a righteous hope, even against certain death. "Better than this, anyway."
Taking her hand, he placed her fingers on a quick red mark just below his shoulder. She touched it curiously, the way she always touched him in moments like this, taking full advantage of the fact her hands weren't bound, or held away by him. That made him smile; he wanted her to touch him freely.
"Shan-yu's arrow," she mused quietly. "I never understood why you hid the wound at the Pass. It must have hurt you."
"I forgot about it," he dismissed it just as softly, remembering how the thing had festered days later. "I was hurting so much then already."
Smiling in her soothing way, Mulan leaned forward to kiss him, her hands moving over him again. He groaned, felt her mouth on his neck, making him force his body closer to her. Her nails were relentless when they dug into his skin, demanding, shifting her legs so he could push his way inside of her. A hundred sensations confronted him, warmth, desperation and a sense of abandon. Those feelings drove him as he struggled for release, only half aware of the sting of her fingernails in his skin.
Collapsing in her arms, he allowed his heartbeat and breathing to slow. There was only the feel of warm skin soaked in sweat and water as Mulan clung to him just as tightly, seeking comfort after that overwhelming sensation.
"Beautiful goddess," he murmured into her shoulder, smiling. "Who are you?"
When she pulled back, there was a playful light in her eyes. He knew what she was about to say.
"I must go," she feigned sadness, touching his face. Before he could stop her she had pulled out of his hold, already swimming for the shore.
Shang knew it was only a game, his cue for him to chase her if he wanted her again. He made his way through the water in quick powerful strokes, stepping on the shore to don his clothes quickly. But a distraction made him pause there a moment, a memory of the first night he had met Mulan here. That night, he had promised himself a day to reason out that sense of loss with a clear head. It may be months later, but he understood now, recalling his efforts to caution her away, speaking of the danger there for a lone woman. But she was brave, she had never feared the danger, she did not fear herself. She was like Yaoji in his dream, a mirror of everything he wanted to be.
Even though it was only a memory - and a game now - that old pain still
rose from deep in his heart like a wave never seen by this river. But he
was not the tired king in that story, King Huai had given up too soon.
Smiling again, Shang ran after her through the willow trees. He would not
let her go, not for all the myriad things in this world.
Copyright © 2001 Illyana, Lian-hua and Wendybyrd