Thank you all for being so patient while waiting for me to post this chapter. I'm very grateful for all the encouragement you have been giving me. I really couldn't ask for better readers. You guys rock!
You should know that I've changed and added several historical notes, so those of you who are interested should go and have a look. This has been done because I have finally determined that this story takes place during the historical period of the Tang dynasty. During the time of emperor Taizong (reign: 626–649), commonly believed to be one of the wisest and best emperors of China. The Tang conducted several campaigns against the Western Turks, one of them lead by General Su Dangfeng (also spelled Dingfeng, like in this story). There are also other plot-related reasons that make this period the best one for the story to be set in. This means ONE noticeable change in the story: Mulan's Turkish friend has now a name and military title befitting the time he lived in: Shad Kubrat (he was also a real person), instead of the previous name and title which were more appropriate for the times of the turkish caliphates that existed several centuries later.
Now finally on to the chapter! Hope you like it! Remember to review and win the prize for the 400th reviewer!
Disclaimer: All characters in this story are the rightful property of Disney, except for Luo Jin, Captain Hsiao Tso-liang and Captain Ma Yuan, who belong to icedragon6171 and Captain Wo Chen, Huo Feng, Hsien Loong and Tsai Lin who belong to me!:)
Towards the Setting Sun
General Su Dingfeng was not so proud as to be unable to admit when he had been wrong. And he certainly had been wrong about Mulan. The training she had received at Wu Zhong had certainly been enough for a recruit in a time of need, as was the Hun invasion. But her crazy and reckless stunt at the Tung Shao Pass, and later at the Imperial City had earned her a promotion that took most men years of training and military studies at the officers' Academy in Luoyang.
He had thought her more of a good luck charm for the Army, someone who had got her promotion to Captain not based on skills and knowledge but due to a whim of the emperor, who had taken a liking to her unusual behaviour and had thought that her "heroic deeds" against the Huns might inspire other men.
He had believed the emperor had disregarded the biggest issue of all: she was a woman, and as such, unfit for battle, for a life in the Army. The incident with Luo Jin had further confirmed his opinion in the matter, and he had been adamant she should be sent home.
But he had been proved wrong. He had failed to see what the emperor saw so clearly: she was truly unique. She had shown him time after time that despite her unusual circumstances she was as capable as any other Captains, and although he still had certain qualms about the position of a woman within the Army, he could not deny she had a bright mind and a gift for strategic warfare.
And of course, he could not forget that were it not for her, he would have died at the Battle of the Canyon.
The plan she had proposed to the rest of the officers before leaving with the scouting party was finally paying off, and so hopefully, they would soon be able to return home victorious.
The results of the Turks' ambush had been catastrophic for the Chinese camp. Now they had even more wounded men, whole sections of the camp to repair and not to mention an unconscious General who, after several hours hadn't even given the slightest signal of waking up.
In conclusion: the situation was a disaster.
After having more or less organised the camp, taken the wounded to the medical tent, and having done all the things which required an officer's supervision, General Su called an emergency officers meeting in the mess hall.
"We cannot continue like this. If we want to return home any time soon, we have to find some sort of solution." Said General Su once all the men were reunited. This ambush has had disastrous consequences for our troops. No matter how many battles we win, more importantly, how many battles we make them lose, they always find a way to counterattack."
Mulan slowly stood up signalling that way that she wanted to say something.
"Captain Fa, please, anything you'd like to add?" General Su said motioning for her to stand beside him facing the rest of the men.
"Fellow officers." She started in an authoritative tone. "As General Su just said, no matter how many battles we win, they keep charging back. We were able to see tonight that they know our weak points, and that even if we dominate them on the battlefield, they do so in the matters of strategy. So I think it's time that changed, don't you? And for that I think I might have a plan..."
Everyone inside the mess hall looked at her expectantly. General Su knew they were as desirous to win this war and return home as soon as possible, and in their eyes, Captain Fa had proved to be a valuable officer time and time again.
"This is not the first time we have gone to war against the Turks," Mulan began, looking everybody in the eyes. "During the earlier years of our emperor's reign, the Chinese Army had to confront the Eastern Turks on several occasions, and we managed to emerge victorious then. There is no reason we can't repeat such a feat.
"If I am not mistaken, there are certain Turkish tribal leaders with whom we maintain diplomatic relations. Many Tang loyalists now govern these lands. Why not enlist their help? Our two main disadvantages are our lack of knowledge of the area and the fact that we are outnumbered. With their help, we can surmount both of these problems"
"Politics is a dangerous game, Captain Fa." General Su said after she finished. "Diplomacy with foreign lands, even more so. We have already taken these relationships into consideration, but requesting their help might end up creating more problems for us, and for the politicians back in the Imperial City.
"The relationship we have with the Turks relies on a very delicate balance. One wrong move can tip the scale against us. Asking them to lend their troops and knowledge of the land puts us at a disadvantage: there is no knowing what they will ask in return, and have no doubt, they will ask for something.
We also have to take into account that these chieftains are Tang loyalists, but they share the blood of the Ashina royal family. If we force them to choose the diplomatic alliance with China or their own family, they may very easily betray us."
"That is all true," added Captain Ma Yuan. "However, I think Captain Fa's idea shouldn't be discarded. If we don't ask for help many more of our men will die, and it will be a long time before we can receive reinforcements. Not asking for their help would inevitably lengthen our campaign, weaken our forces and could ultimately mean our defeat."
"Indeed. I'm no diplomat," Mulan said. "But I think this is our best chance. Winning this war will mean Chinese control of both the Eastern and Western Turks and their territories. Complete control of the Silk Road trades. What we have to prove to them is that if we lose this war, we'll come back for more. Our forces are strong enough to withstand such a loss. However, if we win, and they have not proved their loyalty to us, there will be consequences."
He was happy to have listened to her. After agreeing that requesting help from their allies was the best course of action at that point, they had sent out delegations to do so. Both Ashina Mishe and Ashina Buzhen had agreed to help. Not only were they loyal to the Chinese emperor, but they were also sworn enemies of the Turkish Khagan, despite their shared familial ties.
So far, these side forces had proved to be very useful, defeating some key Turkish outposts further south.
The opponent had never been weaker than they were in that moment. Both of the Generals believed this was the best time to attack their main camp.
After having carefully studied the information gathered by Captain Fa on her scouting mission, they were ready to advance and attack.
Captain Fa Mulan's death would not be in vain.
Mulan's kiss with the Shad did not last more than a few seconds. He quickly pushed her away and looked at her, a mixture of lust, confusion and despair written all over his features.
"Mulan," he began in an outraged whisper, "what are you doing?"
"Isn't this what you want?" She answered with fresh tears in her eyes. "Surely your protection must come at a price, and you and I both know I have nothing else to offer you."
Kubrat stood up and started to pace in the tent, fists tightly clenched. Mulan was confused. This was not how things were supposed to go
"I protect you because you are worth protecting. You are intelligent and wise and that vermin Luo Jin is nothing but dirt beneath your boots. Besides," he turned away and looked to the side. "You are not for me. You are the Khagan's prize."
Mulan was suddenly angry: angry at Kubrat's rejection, at his words; angry at Luo Jun's treatment of her despite their past friendship; angry at Shang's failure to rescue her; angry at how her whole life had been turned around since the Emperor gave her this assignment. Angry at everything.
And it all exploded then and there.
"So that's what really is about. You haven't been protecting me, teaching me about your language and culture because you believe I'm worth anything. I see your true colours now, Shad. You just don't want me to be soiled by another, and want me to be well trained like a circus animal so that I perform satisfactorily once you hand me over to your precious Khagan. Maybe he'll be so pleased he'll let you have a go with me. Wouldn't you like that?" It had begun as a whisper but her voice became louder and louder until it became a shout. Once she had started, she was unable to stop, her tears now falling freely as they had before, when he had tenderly held her.
The tenderness was gone now. He slapped her.
His open palm left a red mark on her cheek.
It was painful, but it was not the pain that stopped her. It was the shock. She looked at him with eyes wide open.
"Nobody is entirely black or white. Stop being so childishly foolish." He said in a calm voice that didn't match his angry expression. "Of course I desire you, Mulan. You are a beautiful intriguing creature. You think for yourself, and you don't fight for mindless power, but for what you believe in. You have honour. But I know my place. I cannot just take what I wish regardless of the consequences.
"It seems however that you yet have to learn yours. You are a prisoner here. Not a guest. You will never again talk to me as you have done, or you'll face the consequences. And trust me, it will not be pleasant."
"Save it. I don't want to hear it. I believe I have been insulted enough for one day. Return to your cell."
After telling her that, he called one of the guards waiting outside his tent and told him to escort her there. The burly man saluted, and then roughly grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the exit.
Several days had passed since her argument with the Shad. They hadn't talked since. She had made an effort to keep a low profile, only exiting her cell to help the other women with their daily chores.
Thankfully she hadn't been visited by Luo Jun anymore. In fact, she rarely saw him, and when she did, it was always from afar. They never talked, and he never approached her.
So what she did throughout her days was observe: watch and learn from her surroundings. And she had been very surprised by what she saw. She had learned from Shang that Ashina Helu had once in fact been a Tang vassal, but he broke away from the Chinese imperial regime to rule his people, severing all ties of cordiality with the Chinese. But being here made her question why he had done it. Power, she had assumed before. When one is part of an army, the enemies are just that: enemies. People that threaten all that is good about one's country and all that he fights for. One's side is the "good" one, while the enemies are the "bad" ones.
Now, however, she realised that things weren't so simple, so black and white. They were made up of many different shades of grey. These people were truly different from her and her fellow countrymen. They spoke a different language, had different customs, and another way of looking at life. Maybe because of all of the differences, the emperor had lost their loyalty because, despite his wisdom, he failed to understand them fully and thus, was unable to defend their interests. That was the greatest advantage Ashina Helu had over the Chinese. Not his greater numbers of men, not his better knowledge of the territory, but his understanding of the people.
Therefore, even if the Chinese won the war, they would have to change their ways of governing the territory. If they didn't, the Turks wouldn't hesitate to rebel again.
"Mulan," said one of the girls, managing to bring her thoughts back to the present. "Aren't you going to eat that?" She pointed at the food.
"No, you go ahead Sara." Mulan answered pushing her plate towards her with a half-hearted smile.
"You should really eat," the other woman insisted. "You are going to need your strength now more than ever. I heard today that Ashina Helu is heading for this camp. He has taken several blows from the Chinese Army and is coming this way to gather more men."
Mulan sat straighter and looked straight at her. The Chinese Army seemed to be making progress. That was good. However, the man whose personal plaything she was destined to become was coming. That was bad.
"Do you know what he plans to do? Will he fight the Chinese from here, or will he flee somewhere else and take us all with him? How many men does he have? Are the Chinese close?"
"Slow down, Mulan!" Sara laughed. "I don't know that much. Just that a scout arrived this morning and said that some of the General's lost a few battles, and that so the General was coming here to replete them."
So, the main Chinese Army hadn't encountered Ashina Helu in open battle yet. If it were so, the war would have probably been over. Mulan supposed the defeated forces must be secondary ones, and Ashina Helu, wherever he had been before, had finally decided to come and fight beside his main army.
Suddenly one guard burst into the tent where Sara and Mulan were having lunch.
"Clear the area. The prisoner needs to go back to her cell, and stay there until further notice." He roughly grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up and away from the table.
"Why?" Sara interjected. "What's happening?"
"I'm not at liberty to say much." The soldier looked at her in a way that made it clear to Mulan that he was one of Sara's less platonic friends. He continued, "but we are waiting for the General to arrive. In the meantime, we are to pack everything. Once the General arrives, we'll move out. The prisoner cannot interfere with any of this, nor take the opportunity to flee."
Four days passed, and she wasn't allowed to go out of her cell for anything at all. A man came in once a day to deliver some food, and to empty her waste bucket. Although she couldn't see it, she heard the frenzied preparations to move out.
That night she tried to chase off boredom by looking at the hand drawn map she kept hidden inside a cavity by her cot. The rock she used to cover it with lay beside her seated form.
She was thinking of what improvements she could include, when she heard unusual noises outside. It was too loud to be so late in the night. She didn't have a window in her cell, so she was unable to know for certain.
Suddenly her door opened and a man came in, before she could hide the map away.
"What are you doing here?" She asked pushing the drawing behind her back as discretely as possible.
"Ashina Helu has finally arrived. Apparently the Chinese followed him here and won't take too long to arrive."
Her stomach did a flip, and she fought hard to keep a neutral expression on her face.
"That doesn't answer my question, Jin."
"Well," he smirked in that horrible way of his. "That means I'm probably going to die tonight. However," he approached her slowly, "if you'll allow me, I will have my way with you first. I'll also have my way with you if you don't allow it. I dismissed the guard, so don't bother trying to call for help."
She remained frozen, sitting on her cot, not knowing what to do. He kept coming closer, and then he knelt in front of her. He raised a hand and touched her cheek, moving her hair away.
And then Mulan acted automatically, without even thinking about her actions. Every ounce of rationality shut down to give room to her instinctual drive to survive.
She grabbed the rock that had up until then sat innocently beside her on the cot, and with a quick move, raised it to hit Luo Jin on the side of his head. The rock hit his temple, knocking him down and leaving a bleeding wound. She didn't take the time to check if he was unconscious or not, when she bought the rock down on him again.
When she managed to stop, his face held no resemblance to what it had once been.
Her face was stained with tears she didn't know she had shed, and she realised this was the very first time she had killed a man outside of the battlefield. In cold blood. Her once friend was dead by her hand.
She didn't know for how long she sat there crying beside Jin, but she was forced to look up when she heard noises outside.
The Turks were mobilising. They were getting ready for battle.
That could only mean one thing: the Chinese Army had finally arrived.
She wiped her bloody hands on her shirt, grabbed her map from the floor, and took the knife from Luo Jin's belt.
She was going to escape.
It was time for her to join her Army.