HUNDRED LEAF BLOSSOM
By Tao Changchang (aka Nasu Hasami)
(English Translation: Across the lines of [China] this land/across all time and space/ where I belong is beside where you stand/when I say I love you/I mean forever/forever by your side.)
PRELUDE: 你好再见Ni Hao Zaijian (A Welcome Farewell)
(Theme I: Introduction)
When the history fades all we have is what remains.
Sleeves brushed against each other in the stillness of a shy embrace. Hands shadowed, whispered and traced each other, curves, contours, angles and lines: memorising and learning. The shimmering moonlight was their only witness, wide and white and swimming against silken, sunken hues: steadfast in blue, dancing in black. It was calming and beautiful and bright: a sky she knew, glistening in a lake she knew, in a home she loved, in a place she belonged.
No unknown mountains. No foreign hills or valleys or rivers or fields. No new and strange things, hiding and lurking in shadows.
Except, maybe, there was something new and strange.
He was stilted and stoic, sombre and sincere and shy. Stiff and unsure, though he knew her and he desired to know this. Cold as the cold stone bench he sat upon; shivering despite the sweet spring air, despite their warmth and despite this new familiarity. Shivering despite her good humour and her generous smiles; shivering despite her kindness and quiet affection. Stiff and thoughtful despite their acquaintance, despite who she was and all that had passed between them.
This was new: this warmth and want and need to linger in this moment under the moonlight, by his side and in his presence; this desire to trust in the moments between now and yesterday and forever and all the fervent prayers that would fill yesterday and swallow tomorrow and pray—pray that it lasted longer than now—longer than one moment, longer than this. This wish to stay here, beyond self and thought and time. They'd walked through this war side by side. They'd fought this war side by side. Despite her gender and despite her deception, he was here, tonight, by her side, his eyes lost on the water and in the sky. A smile occasionally lost on her; occasionally lost on Mulan.
Not a boy or a girl in her father's clothes. Not a fraud or a fiend, but a friend and a comrade.
Not a man, but a woman.
Maybe, maybe she was a woman. Dressed and sheathed in silken brocade smiling coyly she drew the lines of a woman, curling her laughter around his words, thrilling and delighting him as any courtesan would. Ebony locks brushing her shoulders and dancing in the wind. Perfume sultry and exotic: intriguing and intoxicating him, confusing and pleasing him. A smile that lit her eyes and bared her teeth; a grin too familiar and much too strange drawn across such a delicate face. A laugh that delighted him and a voice that charmed him, and in turn, made him smile and laugh.
Yes, she was a woman, but she was so many other things too.
She was his friend, and a fellow soldier. She was a warrior in her own right—maybe her father's blood revelled a little there—but it was her hands that fell the Hun army, and it was her hands that saved China: a woman's hands. Mulan's hands.
The name still felt strange on his lips, and the memories blended with what he thought he'd known; what he knew and trusted.
He thought he had known those hands when they were a man's hands. They felt different wrapped inside his hands now, lightly brushing in farewell. They looked different, fingering invisible lines across his bridle and saddle, mussing and stroking his horse's mane. Touching things that weren't there, knowing things in that subtle way that revealed she knew him.
He had traced those same invisible lines a thousand times.
Silence filled the space between them, and that silence was filled with small gestures and light smiles. This was all very unusual and strange, standing in the moonlight, unchaperoned, and talking to a woman.
It was all very, very strange.
'I'm not any different than how I was two days ago.'
She smiled, looking up at him through hooded eyes. Ping's grin was spread across her mouth. Her nervousness barely disguised by the fingers knotting themselves in her hair and pulling slightly.
'It's the dress, I suppose,' he mumbled, very inelegantly; his voice half caught in a laugh.
The image was too strange. Ping in a dress, acting licentiously.
She giggled, leaning against his horse and nuzzling it. 'It's not because I'm a girl?'
'I wouldn't say you were a girl.'
'It's not because I'm a woman?'
She was grinning and looking up at him again, catching and arresting him with her eyes the way she did. There was something about her and her eyes. Something different about her when she wasn't Ping, even though Ping had shared those eyes, there was something there that had never shined up at him from a boy's eyes.
'You're not any different either, Shang.'
But he was, and she shouldn't be calling him by his name. It was too soon and too intimate and they were standing on an unknown ground with loose footing. He was just a man from the Capital and she was just a woman from a village. The world didn't yet see her for the deeds she had done.
Apprehension had affected him since his arrival with this woman from the village. A smattering of sentences twisted together, some mumbling about a helmet, and an awkward grin. He had tried in vain to ease the tension, yet it lingered, thick and coarse between them. The memory was too fresh and the days too new. He had been a moment or two from executing her and she had been wanton in seeking her death in the Xianyang, instead, through her rambunctious nature, she had become the saviour of all China.
She had been pardoned, and he had run after her as fast as his horse could carry him. In that moment, he wasn't so sure where the soldier finished and the man began. Was it the soldier's instincts that had carried him to her, or a man's? If it had been a man's, what exactly was that man's intent?
Then there was dinner, and the mess that had been.
They hadn't spoken much. He had been overawed in her father's presence and she was continually silenced by her mother. Mulan wasn't entitled to join the conversation between two military men, regardless of her own military prowess. And his plans seemed futile, though he wasn't certain, not entirely, what his plans were beyond returning her helmet. He had been expecting a woman, but not so much of a woman that he stood stunned and afraid. He had been expecting a soldier a little too. Yet, this strange culmination that stood beside him rattled him beyond reason. She wasn't shy or delicate or quiet. She giggled and chortled and hacked out laughter as though it pained her to keep it in. Mischief shone and reigned, glistening in her smile and in her eyes. She was determined to see him off, despite this stilted silence and their unsure, uneven friendship.
'I can go inside and put some pants on if that will make you more comfortable. Or punch something. Kill something…cook something outdoors.'
'No. It's fine. You're fine.'
'Still, you won't look at me.'
With that he turned, returning the smile with his own lopsided grin as he grabbed his reins, looking as though he may hoist himself astride any second now. Mulan was very pretty, blushing and scratching her neck as she looked up at him, the expression on her face lost somewhere between amused and confused.
He didn't want to say goodbye to her, not like this, not yet.
Neither did she wish to say goodbye to him, not after everything they'd seen.
Shang's smirk fell a little as he dropped his reins and bowed to her, taking her hand in his. His lips danced across her skin lightly, whispering softly against the lines his fingers had traced. It was softer than a true soldier's hand.
'We've never been introduced properly. It's an honour to know you, Fa Mulan.'
She met his bow, though with somewhat less grace and a snicker that echoed into the night.
'Ni hao, Li Shang.'
你好再见 — Ni Hao Zaijian. (Ni Hao) Welcoming greeting (literally, 'have you eaten'), commonly understood as 'hello' or 'it's nice to meet you'; and (Zaijian) 'Farewell'.
你好— Ni Hao, (greeting as stated above).
咸阳—Xianyang, Capital of Qin during the Warring States conquests.