Needle & Sword
A pale moon watched down from its height, shadows of mountains below. Faint trails of smoke rose like thin dragons, while faint embers and gray ash kept barely alive, feeding on light breezes. Crickets and frogs sang faintly amidst tall grass.
In such silence, even the world seemed to hold its breath, waiting just as he was.
Hunched over his fireplace just outside his tent, he stared into the yellow-orange flames, mind wandering through a myriad of thoughts. Earlier, in a meeting with other officers, it had been pinpointing needed tasks and last-minute preparations. But now, it seemed like the only time to let his thoughts go without rein.
In the midst of such mild chaos, a memory emerged.
"There will be justice, son. You'll see."
"Justice? That scum escaped without punishment. It's barbaric."
"…the heavens have eyes. So does the earth. Whatever we do, wherever we are, we are watched. The heavens will make sure he is repaid in kind – be assured of that."
Four years from the day he received such advice, General Li looked up at the heavens his father had trusted. He hoped they could see it was not their intention to be here, that their hand had been forced. If the heavens were just, they would understand wars were rarely of right and wrong. They were mostly of strength and weakness. The strong kept their people safe. Those weaker were swallowed whole.
So if Heaven blessed the righteous, surely they understood that these men were only defending their homeland. Surely they would bless their imperial son, who waited at the capital for good news, with victory.
For tomorrow would be the day everything hung upon. The day their fate was decided.
It was curious when he thought about it. In the grand scheme of things, what was one life compared to thousands of others? What was his own life compared to the heavens and the earth, the mountains and the seas? They would remain long after his death, whether by the sword or by age. All things passed eventually.
Thus there was no question of him dying for his country if need be. He would not run. Better to die a soldier than a coward.
Yet, deep inside in spite of everything else, young General Li knew he wanted very much to live.
And even more than that, he wanted her to survive this war.
Looking up from the small fire, just enough to keep his hands warm, he glanced over at the tent adjacent to his. Candlelight glowed from within, indicating its occupant was still awake. No doubt she was keeping busy, writing reports, letters to home or looking over the maps. Perhaps she was even conversing with a guardian.
He smiled to himself. Such ancestral protection, however tiny, was somewhat reassuring.
The emperor had appointed her one of the imperial counsels and sent her off just as they received rumours of another invasion. He had been concerned at first, not that she had been given such a post, but she would be placed in such danger again. One argument later – involving duty, honour and safety – two horses set off from their home. Upon one, sat a general resigned to his situation.
Things were slightly different from before. Her tent was closer to his, although also within range of the other soldiers. Half the men acted differently with her in their midst – less uncontrolled, more refined lest the imperial counsel be disgusted by particularly coarse habits. The other half who knew her couldn't have cared less although they were slightly more polite than they had been with 'Ping'.
In a way, she had said with an amused smile, it was a little lonely not being one of the boys. He'd laughed, understanding her meaning. He was feeling lonely too, though in a different manner.
Imagine being unable to stay with one's wife even if she was just five feet from him.
For the sake of his men, he'd decided that she would have one tent of her own. Other soldiers had also left wives and loved ones back home. How could it be fair that their commanding officer got to have his wife by his side, no matter if it was the emperor's decision?
She smiled. "As you command, General."
He wondered at such a mild reaction. "…very well."
The slight surprise in his face had not been missed. "You'll be fine without your wife to warm your bed, General. It will get easier with time."
Shang jolted at this remark. He raised an eyebrow at her, one side of his lips curled upwards. "Was that meant to be sarcastic, Imperial Counsel?"
"If it helps, she probably misses you too," she replied with a smile. With that, she went inside her tent to organize her belongings, leaving her husband outside to smile resignedly.
He stared at the tent for a moment longer.
Then getting to his feet, he dusted his hands off and walked quietly over, figuring it wouldn't hurt to say goodnight. Again.
He waited for a response. But seconds passed and there was no answer from within.
Raising an eyebrow, he slowly pushed the tent flap inward to take a look. Inside, at the far end, he saw her slumped over her short writing desk. Her candle had melted midway, its faint glow illuminating her form.
Shang stepped inside, curiousity mixing with concern. As he got closer, he breathed out, crouching down.
Mulan was fast asleep, head propped on her arms, face calm in her dreams. All around her were scrolls and loose pieces of paper alongside her writing ink and a brush. He could see she'd been rereading reports over the last few weeks and saw the corner of a map poke out from under her elbow.
Her husband didn't resist a smile. He wondered if he ought to wake her so she could sleep properly.
The peace on her face moved him to decide it wouldn't be worth it. Moving to grab her folded blanket, something caught the corner of his eye.
Turning again, Shang looked closer at his wife's hand, gently curled round a vaguely pale object. It didn't look like paper. Gently, he reached over and slid it from her loose grasp.
A piece of off-white cloth came away. As he smoothed it out, he blinked.
In the middle was his full name, embroidered in dark green. Below it, a small Yin Yang circle. And under the circle, done in the same green thread as that of his name, sat one singular Chinese character.
His surname had been shakily sewn, as had been the not-so-perfect circle. The character of 'Duty' was slightly lopsided as well. It was rough work, messier than what was considered acceptable, obviously made by hands that didn't embroider regularly.
Yet, anyone who knew the simple cloth's meaning would have understood.
Yes, a little clumsy and true, not flawless. But it had been done with all the goodwill and love she possessed. It was an expression of hope and a small token of thanks. Her heart had told her it would be right and she had duly listened.
Such handiwork was the mark of Fa Mulan.
He looked up and grinned to see her shock. In one movement, she practically snatched the cloth from him, blushing furiously. Then she turned away and tried to babble an explanation. Undoubtedly, she knew the faults he had noticed all too well. Such lack of finesse was embarrassing, especially when skillful embroidery was a characteristic of a respectable Chinese woman.
"I, It's not done actually- I was going to try and fix it tonight so I could give it to you tomorrow if I could-"
Her protests were cut short when Shang reached over and removed the cloth from her.
"Wait a minute-!"
"It looks complete to me."
Mulan groaned and continued to grope for the cloth. "Shang, you know it's not-"
He shook his head, stopping her in her tracks by grasping her hands for a moment. The stricken look she gave him was matched by an amused quirk of the lips. She wasn't going to get it back anytime soon. Deflated, she groaned again and settled back, frowning.
Shang paid her frown no attention as he let go. After that, he folded the cloth and tucked it inside his shirt. It settled next to his half of the pendant round his neck.
Now he turned to her, grinning a little. "What made you embroider?"
She hesitated for a moment before smiling awkwardly. "I was halfway through before we even heard of this war. I didn't want to leave it behind unfinished… just in case."
There was a moment of quiet, stretched by deeply hidden fears. 'Just in case' could mean plenty of things. Shang could think of very few positive implications.
Mulan looked up at him. "You remember my mother saying that I use my needle like I use a sword?" When he chuckled softly at that, her smile strangely wavered. "Embroidering reminded me of such things. That's also why I took it along."
She enfolded his one hand with both of hers, looking at them. "…I know it's a frivolous thing to do. Especially at a time like this. But it felt… right."
He paused for half a moment, wondering what to say. She seemed to expect chiding for bringing things like thread and needles to battle when she should focus on more important things. Maybe she remembered the arguments they'd had before their marriage, about honour and duty, what was right and what was not. In that respect, he supposed it wasn't so strange for her to wonder about his approval.
Shang had learned many things since then.
He leaned in and raised her chin a little, making her look at him.
"You may use needles like swords. But you honour those you love by wielding both." His eyes looked straight at her, trying to convey some of the gratefulness he felt then. "Don't ever feel guilty for that."
Mulan looked long at him, taking in every nuance of his expression. Then she smiled, warmth spreading through her very being. For the rest of her life, she would remember those words and the moment they were said.
When she nodded, he sat back, a boyish grin on his face. "Besides, talismans aren't frivolous."
"What talisman? It's just thread on cloth."
He let out a low laugh. "Sewn by Fa Mulan's sword hand? I don't think it's that simple." At her laughter, his spirits rose and he relaxed, shifting to lean his head on her lap as he stretched out on the mat.
She peered closely at him, observing the dark circles beneath his eyes and the scars on his face that were just beginning to heal. More were hidden by his clothing.
Mulan shook her head, pushing some loose strands of hair from his ear. "You should rest, Shang. You need your strength for tomorrow."
Although he nodded, he made no effort to move, unwilling to get up and leave. She didn't budge either, one hand gently stroking his brow and hair.
"…maybe you should sleep here tonight," she murmured.
He let out a blissful sigh at such a thought. "…it wouldn't be fair."
"…no, I suppose not."
There was another long pause.
Then Shang found himself blinded when the candlelight suddenly winked out.
"Wha- wait a minute, I'll go-"
In one instant, Shang made a quick decision.
Mulan's attempt to relight the candle was stopped short when he sat up and pulled her into his arms, onto her sleeping mat.
There was no immediate answer as he sent a silent apology to the heavens and smiled to himself. Only when he'd made himself comfortable and pulled Mulan's thin blanket over the both of them did he say anything.
"Have I ever abused my authority as general, Mulan?"
"Of course not. You know better than that."
"Then there's at least one chance I may be forgiven for tonight," he said, enveloping his wife in both arms. It'd been too long.
Mulan laughed softly, settling against him. She'd missed his presence. "At least one."
Some way away, in Shang's tent, a red dragon shook his head in exasperation.
"Four years they've been married – ya think they wouldn't need my help. But as usual, there I go: selfless old Mushu, playing cupid!"
A cricket chirped in what seemed like rebuke.
"Okay, maybe blowing out the candle was your idea but if I hadn't gone and actually done it, we'd still be in there watching those two make goo goo eyes at each other till sunrise!"
Cri-Kee just shook his little head and settled into Shang's scarf for the night. Yawning, Mushu hopped next to the general's sword and curled up. Muttering something about slow romances, he blew out the candlelight.
A/N: This version of Mulan (c) Disney. Hope you enjoyed reading!