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.)
你好再见Ni Hao Zaijian (A Welcome Farewell)
When the history fades, all we have is what remains.
Within the waters, and beyond the mists, and when the myths depart,
all we will ever remember will surely be written on our hearts.
Soft sleeves brushed against each other in the stillness of a shy embrace. Hands shadowed, whispered and traced each other. They learned curves they did not know and marked contours yet to be explored. They traced angles and lines and unchartered paths, memorising those newly formed maps, and committing those wanderings to this space in time. The shimmering moonlight was their only witness, wide and white and swimming against silken, sunken hues. The evening sky was steadfast in blue, dancing in black, sparkling and glimmering, and hinting at the unknown. It was calming and beautiful and bright.
It was a sky she knew, glistening in a lake she knew, in a home she had always 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. Not a spark of mystery to rouse panic or stir the breath of fear.
Although there was the exception of one thing that was a little new and a little strange.
He was, in the most astonishing sense, new to her home and strange to her life.
Standing stiffly, he was a little stilted, stoic, sombre, and sincerely shy. He was a little unsure, though he knew her and he desired to know this. His manner was as cold as the cold stone bench he sat upon, and he continued to shiver within his brocade despite the sweet spring air, or her friendly warmth and this growing familiarity that fell between them. This stranger, the man that had been her Captain, he continued to shiver despite Mulan's good humour and her generous smiles. He continued to shy away despite her kindness and quiet affection. Li Shang was stiff and pensive despite their acquaintance, and despite whom she was and all that had passed between them in the recent months.
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 battle and this season 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, and a thought occasionally lost on Hua 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 embroidered brocade and soft silk smiling coyly she drew the lines of a woman. She curled her laughter around his words, thrilling and delighting him as any well-trained courtesan might. Ebony locks brushed by her shoulders and danced in the wind, delicate and sweet and soft against her skin. The perfume was sultry and exotic, and it both intrigued and intoxicated him, leaving him in a rush of confusion and pleasure. There was a smiled on her face that lit her eyes and bared her teeth. It was a grin too familiar and much too strange drawn across such a delicate, pale face. This woman beheld a laugh that delighted him and a voice that charmed him, and in turn, made him smile and laugh and wield his own enchanting charismatic powers.
Yes, she was a woman, but she was so, 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 Chu insurgence, and it was her hands that saved the Han empire: a woman's hands. Hua Mulan's hands.
The name still felt strange on his lips, and the memories blended with what he thought he'd known and the greater myriad of things he always believed 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, delicate and small, 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 speaking candidly with a woman.
It was all very, very strange.
'I'm not any different than how I was two days ago.'
In truth, she was not any changed since this morning. When she smiled, looking up at him through hooded eyes, it was Fa Ping's grin that spread across her mouth. Her nervousness was barely disguised by the fingers knotting themselves into her hair and pulling slightly.
'It's the dress, I suppose,' Li Shang mumbled, very inelegantly. His voice was half caught in a laugh, though he knew it unkind to laugh at any woman's wardrobe.
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, is it?'
'I wouldn't say you were a girl.'
'It's not because I'm a woman, then?'
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 Fa Ping, even though Fa 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.'
Out of the robes of war, however, he was a different man, 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 or the mark she had made for herself.
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 a request from the Emperor, all bundled with 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 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.
In the hours since she had been pardoned, and he had cantered after her as fast as his horse could carry him. In that moment, he wasn't so sure where the soldier finished and where the man began. And though he tried to justify his actions, Li Shang did not believe it was a soldier's instincts that had carried him to her.
Though, if it had been a man's intent, he did not know exactly what that man's intent was.
Then there was the Hua family banquet and the mess that had been.
Hua Mulan spoke little, if at all, and he had been too overawed in her father's presence to speak much of anything beyond strategy and battle tactics. Mistress Hua quieted Mulan every time she attempted to speak. It seemed Mulan's mother believed she was not entitled to join the conversation between two military men, regardless of what Mulan considered her own military prowess or prestige. And his plans seemed futile, though Shang 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 was neither shy nor delicate nor quiet. She giggled and chortled and hacked out laughter as though it pained her to keep it in. Mischief shone and reigned as it glistened in her smile and sparkled in her eyes. She was determined to see him off on his journey back home, despite this stilted silence and their unsure, uneven friendship.
'I can go inside, put some trousers on and a tunic if that will make you more comfortable. I could punch something, kill something, cook something outdoors.'
'No. It's fine. You're fine.'
'Still, you say this and refuse to look at me.'
With that he turned, returning the smile with his own lopsided grin as he grabbed his horse's reins, looking as though he may hoist himself astride any moment now.
Mulan was very pretty, blushing and scratching her neck as she looked up at him, the expression on her face lost somewhere between amusement and befuddlement.
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. They had begun this journey together. Surely, the path had not come to an end so soon.
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. Something inside of him nagged at him and told him he should have noticed that long ago.
'We've never been introduced properly. It's an honour to know you, Hua Mulan.'
She met his bow. Rightly, it was with somewhat less grace than he, and a snicker that echoed into the night accompanied the jolted shift in her weight.
'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'. Colloquially the title would read 'Hello, Goodbye'.
你好— Ni Hao, (greeting as stated above).
咸阳—Xianyang, Capital of Qin during the Warring States conquests.