HUNDRED LEAF BLOSSOM

By Tao Changchang

(aka Nasu Hasami)


CHAPTER ONE

约会Yuēhuì (Rendezvous)

Where we walk, the path is of our own choosing.

Where we run, the path has been thrust upon us.


Little months and moons had lapsed since that auspicious evening under the stars. A peculiar looking soldier-girl whispering farewells to a rigid looking soldier-boy. The thought both of them felt, and the thought both of them feared was that this greeting would be stilled and severed by custom and manner and tradition. There were fears there would never be another meeting. Fears that convention would prevent another excuse to tarry so in the moonlight and speak bluntly, as equals and as friends, without the harsh bindings of society. Fears that there would be no prospect to linger so again under the stars and under her smile; fears those eyes that made him drunk and pulled him in would never have another evening to sway him so.

Nearly half a year passed before Imperial decrees would silence those thoughts and fears. A small peace offering would be awarded to the woman who would wear the armour of a man. A token the world may have been too young for, yet desired all the same; a woman that may have been too young for her world, but had adorned the colours of war freely and confidently.

Her China needed her still and she needed her China.

Such was the fear of her name that few skirmishes had crossed the Wall since folktales of the woman-warrior had surfaced. Fewer threats — the Courts presumed — would cross their World's borders now that a title and an allotment were thrust upon her too. Superstitions were left in her wake, myths and legends. Hua Mulan only enriched her present endearments to her people when she had initially declined offers of positions of State leadership, military enhancement and a thousand other enchanting titles the Son of Heaven wished to bestow upon her.

Softly, over those little months and moons her resolutions were swayed though. Swayed by men now her comrades and comrades now her friends; swayed by visits and by Fate's fortunes. Soon, those little months and moons would lead her to return to the Forbidden City and to a life and a fate that was unlike any woman's before her. Hua Mulan, however, was not like any other woman before her so it was unlikely her fate would follow such a flattened, rigid, straightforward path. She had made her fate so far, she could make it further still.

The day she met her true destiny was the day she held a private audience with the Emperor, months from the last moment she had wielded a sword. It was an afternoon squandered in divine banquet in the palace she had half destroyed. An evening wasted discussing the many and varied intricacies and delicacies of how she was to be treated and accepted by society now. A night wasted on reviewing her feelings on being the recipient of such treatments and excesses; how she would handle Court life if she were to sit the Keju and be selected for endorsement on Council.

The Emperor hoped she would take the Imperial examinations and confessed he had a position in mind for her already as Madam Minister of the Masses. She would, of course, be equal to the Minister of Works and the Minister of War, and be answerable only to his Eminence, the Son of Heaven.

There was also some faint hope she would retain her sword and bow and return to war should the call ever arise. For this too, considerations and commendations would be made.

Mulan, then a mere twenty years of age, grew wide-eyed at the potential of her life's prospects. Men pressed with the burden twice her years would scarcely be offered such greatness and never advanced through rank and grade so swiftly.

She would be offered a measure of space to consider these proposals and what she may give in return to her country. That space would retain her and delight her, the Emperor hoped, and its full intent would sway her to his will.

She was given until the next full moon to decide upon her answer. A total excursion of twenty one days within the walls of a city villa she could call home should she agree to sit the exams and take the address of Lady Wei, Madam Minister of the Masses and the military office of Captain Hua.

Twenty one days that would soon pass with little sleep, little rest, and little thought of the world she had known and called home for those first of her twenty years.

Mulan was only given twenty one days until the hour of an evening assembly in which she was to provide the Emperor with her answer, and to celebrate her union with the Country in a banquet feast, or to mourn her loss to China should she chose to return home to her parents, and her family as nothing more than the lady, Hua Mulan.


Li Shang was not ready for this battlefront. He had not prepared for this, for her. Somehow, despite the forewarnings and the excitements of recent days passed, she had snuck up on him in her heavy daxiushan and her ornate phoenix crown, preened and primped in the same fashion as the Empress and her princesses. Her face white with powder and her lips painted ruby red. She had slipped into place beside him too easily, and though there was still something of Ping's manner about her, that manner was clipped and refined.

There was something about this woman that had taken residence in Xianyang and now called it home. This woman was not the same woman that had toyed so innocently with his bridle and whips in a sweet parting those few moons ago. This Captain Hua — this Madam Minister of the Masses — was a much stronger woman than that. This Lady-Marquis of the Kingdom of Wei knew her virtues and her talents and used them too well. This woman had the schooled manner of a luminary about her. This woman presented in her finery and offered as China's bride was too dignified to have disguised herself as a boy-soldier.

Still, they had seemed to find each other easily enough at the assembly where she accepted the Emperor's positions, and he — amidst a handful of comrades — was also given military advancements. Again, there had been a pause in formality and that fragile, impartial friendship between them had flared into life. They had spoken together discreetly, discussing the polite niceties and pleasantries of new and casual acquaintances before lightly moving to more intimate discussion.

Her mother and father were well; besotted with the City mansion she had been gifted and generously outraged that such a spoiled child should win herself servants, certainly more than what was good for her deviously lazy disposition. Her father had earnestly thought the eunuchs were unnecessary and her mother had reprimanded her for exploiting her own indolence.

Hua Mulan would never learn to sew or to weave properly now that she had a throng of seamstresses at her beck and call to entertain her whims, nor would she ever learn to prepare a meal now that her household held a slew of cooks and kitchen hands. The Captain did not seem to mind the convenience. Rather, she seemed well-pleased that she could humour herself however she chose in place of mending a slipper or boiling a vat of rice. Her eyes were as mischievous as he knew them to have ever been when she spoke of whiling away hours reading, plying herself with wine and spirits in a most unbecoming, unbefitting and unladylike practice. She was even so bold as to dress in trousers and tunics within the boundary of her own home.

The cosmetics she wore that night and the extravagant gown that graced her person had been Her Royal Highness's idea, or so Mulan she had been quick to declare. Shang had found the sheer fabric of her sleeves and her scarf half in his lap when they had been seated at the banquet dinner when she had folded herself next to him. He had enjoyed the sight of her struggling with the dress a little, too. It was not a style she was accustomed to, or so she had grunted through gritted teeth, what with its low slung bodice, too-long skirts and layering upon layering of silk and brocade.

Mulan had shifted uncomfortably before noting the young woman beside Shang and how gracefully she moved in a similarly styled gown. A glimmer of envy may have crossed her features as she studied those movements. A glimmer of hope replaced that envy as she swiftly adapted the same dance-like movements to control the flowing dress, derisively grinning at Shang as if to prove her small victory. He had choked on his wine at the sight of her bared teeth and the smirk he had known to belong to another. Her teeth were whiter than the flower-powder of her face and gleamed brightly up at him.

It seemed that no matter how Mulan would change, in her heart, there would always be a certain charm about her. A certain innocence and purity that was strangely unique to her.

It wasn't until the banquet had passed that Shang realised how ill prepared he was for this onslaught. It wasn't until then that he had acknowledged to have seen her loveliness. Not until that moment, late in the evening, when lesser men were dallying with concubines and princesses were pining after courtiers in secret places. It stole upon him swiftly then, encouraged by her innocent sensuality and the heady perfumes she wore.

His sister — his honoured companion for the evening — had led the pair of them to the Imperial gardens under some pretext of sharing womanly confidences with Mulan, yet no sooner had they crossed the threshold of the gardens gates had Li Meixiang disappeared, abandoning them to wander those gardens alone, as man and woman. It was unheard of to be so isolated together, under the moonlight, without parent or guardian, and Mulan's current wardrobe frightened Shang slightly. He knew too well where nights like this would lead for too many men of his years and status, and despite the feelings surging through him attempting to overwhelm his senses, he was not in want of ruining China's Madam Minister to sate a need he could not supress.

There was little doubt as to Mulan's femininity with her dress designed explicitly to entice such wandering thoughts in a man. But those dark eyes he was beginning to know were huge and lost on the white orb in the sky, and those lips he was beginning to wish he knew better were lush and alluring, calling to him and bewitching him. The bareness of her breasts did little to calm his meandering thoughts. The bust of her gown was shaped particularly low and half her attributes were clearly on display. The wide, delicate collar tempted his eyes to the arch of her neck and all the impious desires he harboured towards that tower of naked, unpainted flesh.

She looked too beautiful in the moonlight. She was too beautiful: willowy and gentle and womanly, with a smile that should have been masked by a fluttering silk fan and manner that shouldn't have known how to tempt a man so subtly. Her black eyes shimmered as they beheld the twinkling glow upon the still water's surface and flickered across its indigo depths. His breath caught a little at the way her throat shivered with the chill evening air. Her portrait, he felt, belonged to a silk tapestry where artisans could capture her beauty for all eternity. Dressed in her finery she belonged in Court where poets could serenade her and princes could worship her and the Emperor could praise her. There was no possibility that this woman could disguise herself as a man. She was too gentle and too soft. She was too beautiful.

A chuckle that had belonged to Ping escaped her painted lips and the image should have been shattered; the smile that had belonged to the hapless recruit broadened her mouth and he could see her teeth, chortling and giggling as her tongue flickered over her lips. Still, even with Ping's shadow passing her features his heart swelled with some terrifying pulse. He pulled her to him abruptly, holding her closely for a second before he let her away, pushing her back as if the moment had never occurred.

He wanted to draw her to him and hold her tenderly. He wanted to caress her, to kiss her devoutly. He wanted to carry her home with him and make love to her in a thousand ways he couldn't name or make sense of. It didn't matter that he didn't know how; he was too passionate on her to care for anything beyond her lithe curves and her tender smiles. Shang cursed his honour for not allowing such indulgences. But neither did the Palace grounds offer such privacy as what his indulgences required for execution. His judgement and his morals would catch him and berate him if he couldn't temper this yearning, and he would hate himself if he cheated her of anything she was less than inclined to offer him freely. He wished though, and her eyes did nought but encourage his wishing.

There were eyes lingering and lovers indulging in stolen moments; concubines and soldiers, gentleman's daughters and warriors. For them, China's General and Heaven's Madam Minister, there was no reason to linger, none belonging to anything more than kinship and warm wine. Shang's senses were lightened, and though it felt something else warmed him, his mind was fast to accuse the wine and spirits and the drunkenness that comes from an overly decadent meal. At length he was able to clear his mind of the swell of her breasts and the fall of her shoulders long enough to speak.

'Congratulations on everything, Mulan. I just wanted to say, Gōngxǐ. You have earned it all.'

The evening had been confusing and the last few days felt longer than they should have. It had been painful to learn she was residing in Xianyang through gossip and whispers; more pain ensued when he learned he could not pay her visit without invite.

In the fields of a civilian life he didn't know what he could say to a woman that wielded as much power and authority as the Empress. What would such a woman want to do with him anyway? It was unfortunate that the world had seemed far less complicated before he knew her as a woman.

'Gōngxǐ to you too, General.' She looked confused and tired as she met his gaze. He fought the burning to lean over and kiss her open lips, pursed and pert in thought; bewildered and befuddled. He blamed himself for the disheartened gloss that had slipped over her eyes. If only it did not burn him as fiercely as the wine.

'You have been greatly honoured, Hua Mulan.' He amended quickly, lamely attempting to sound friendlier and less agitated. Tonight, it seemed, he would be tripping over his words as much as she was tripping over her gown. 'To be made Captain and given your own men is quite the achievement. The procurement of an official title and your own Fiefdom is something else entirely. Tonight's merriment was all homage to you, you should be proud of such veneration.'

'You don't sound entirely enthusiast Shang, not particularly. It could just be the night, but your words sound as though they carry a double meaning, or that they are pained with jealousy. I didn't ask for the ministerial position. I am glad for it, and I will venture fulfilment of the great expectations before me, but I didn't request it or demand it. I would have thought you knew me better than to think that or to believe the idle gossip of rumourmongers.'

'I'd rather you did not presume to read my thoughts, tonight. If you were capable of such a feat you would know my concern is far from what you assume. Although, I am man enough to admit I don't believe you need Court in your life alongside war, if that is what you're hinting at in regards to my troubles. If the Emperor was so convinced of your worth he should have simply made you Captain, not Ducal Minister and Lady Hua of Wei as well.'

'Court is only as evil and ruinous as the minds and men within it; those that try to dictate and control it. I intend to challenge that with my presence and with this privilege. It will be an honour for me to serve the Son of Heaven in this capacity and I am excited for it.'

'I still feel uncertain about your service in that manner, Mulan.'

'I wasn't gifted the position if you think I have not passed the Keju. I sat the examinations seven days ago. I passed.'

'I am not accusing you of securing your new positions through falsehoods. You may have deceived me as a soldier but there is no great reason for you to employ such veneers now. I don't know what I'm saying, my lady. I'm sorry. Forget I said anything.'

In truth, if he was daring enough to utter his baser concerns Mulan would know it was not the Court itself that made Li Shang uncomfortable, but the more handsome, younger consul members and the virile, eager princes. He feared the decadent and wealthy men that made game of women like Mulan. He feared the men that made a personal quest of taming and bedding such women. He feared the Emperor a little too. She was worthy of a being made a princess or something considerably grander. Then, there was also the small fear of Mulan's personal ambitions.

How long would she need reside in Xianyang, serving in her own place at Court until the desire and rapaciousness common to Heaven's servants overwhelmed her, and she pursued something more than a title? All guān were guilty of such a crime at some point, destroying others to further their own careers. He could only pray Mulan was stronger than that.

She turned to him and eyed him strangely for a moment as his mind wondered in thought.

'I can defend myself from a wandering eye or a lusty hand, if that is your concern.'

The comment caught him off-guard. 'That's not at all what I was saying!'

'I think it might have been by your manner at dinner. I had thought you were about to face off in a death-match with that young Captain Liang when he offered me a smile.'

Shang fought to stop his voice from pitching with tension and anger. The headiness surrounding him was twisting his sensibilities. Tiredness was beginning to wear him. Briefly, he wished they were not alone, or that she was not a woman, whichever was the lesser of the two evils.

'You are mistaken.'

'No I'm not!' Mulan spat with confidence. 'Court is full of men and you're being petty and jealous and drunk and ridiculous! Formal council will play such a small role in my life for the next few years! My duties as your Captain will take precedence, and I seemed to have survived thus far. No man has tried to take advantage of me yet and I've certainly entertained my fair share of opportunities for such nonsense to occur.'

'No man has seen you appear this sumptuously yet! Tonight you have been made up for nothing more than to present an image that ignites passions and delights the senses. I'd have thought you knew that when you agreed to such revealing garb!'

She sighed with a long-suffering pain and looped her arm over his, stepping a little closer, swirling her scarf around his shoulder and his elbow. The gossamer mass still stretched out beyond her, rustling across the ground. Shang fought a whimper that threatened his lips as the silk passed between them, drawing them closer still. He knew it was mostly to prevent the fabric mass from dragging or catching on his shoes, as it had done moments before their argument. He also knew that it was so she would not trip again, but he felt it was a little symbolic for them too, always being paired together, as though Yue-Laou had tied them together and that Fate was determined to hold them entwined.

This night wasn't worth wasting on a weak quarrel or trifling disagreement. When would the next evening come that they could be so intimate without cares or worries? When could she next tie her scarf about him without reproof or reprimand? When could he next wish for her to do so and know it was no other man that was entertaining her thoughts as she slipped silk between them?

Mulan trained her eyes and straightened her mouth, looking away from the moon to turn her steady gaze to him, glancing aside to the consort pines then peeking up to meet his unmoving stare. She smirked a little when she noticed his eyes were lower than they should have been. He blushed and corrected his gaze, muttering an apology to her for his brashness.

'Thank you for showing me the gardens, Shang,' she breathed, taking his hand.

He nodded, knotting his fingers with hers. Their arms were wound and bound together and they were stepping fairly briskly into secret darkness. The lapse in formality and tradition nagged at him. He was only here walking her through the gardens because his sister had pushed him towards the path before disappearing into the night. His suspicions as to why Meixiang had wanted to be alone nagged at him, too. Shang had noticed the glances she had been sharing with the son of a family friend, and his concerns were only growing the longer they were separated.

He was not fond of the idea that his sister may be alone with a poet of all things. He could think of few more dangerous breeds of man to be alone with on a night such as tonight.

'The gardens are very beautiful at this time of year,' he said in an effort to remove himself to a more pleasant light. 'The snow is not yet vanished; Spring is not yet here.' He could be a poet too, if he wanted.

'I'm sure Heaven's gardens would be beautiful no matter what time of year.'

'I'm sure that you will be the better judge of that, in the years to come.'

Mulan pulled away at his words, or she tried to, fighting and pulling at their conjoined limbs; stopping and staring at him, her mouth slightly open and the hurt evident in her eyes. She had motioned to untangle her hand from his but her scarf held them together.

'Sorry, I hadn't meant — it's the wine!' Shang said, scrambling for the thing that was holding them together, hoping it would hold them together still. 'I'm sorry, it's the wine and the food and the night and the moon and yes, you're right, Mulan. I am suffering under some bitter demons this evening, but what with the fact that you look so, so enticing and I just can't seem to pull my eyes away from you! I know there's a soldier underneath those layers of silk and gold and that painted face, but gods help me, I'm still a man and I'm not the only man here tonight that's looked at you that way!'

She wrenched on the scarf but the knot caught and formed a tighter twist. The force of her pulling and tugging had brought Shang closer to her, their shoes scuffling together fighting for space. His chest brushed against hers as his free arm had settled about her shoulder, freezing her wrenching movements. His fingers experimented with the touch of her skin.

'That's just stupid. This is stupid. You're arguments are stupid! You're the only one I'm unchaperoned with in the gardens! The only man I allow myself to be alone with, without an audience.' She said the words angrily, still fighting and pulling.

'I'm not the only one that looked you over with xìngyù!'

'Good thing I can't make a pot of tea to save my life then,' she snorted, huffing and giving up on the silk mess with a growl. 'I also wouldn't know the first thing about pleasing a man!' She said the word as though it confused her, and the confusion made her laugh. 'I'm fairly certain I'm safe from xìngyù. I'm not wifely material. I wouldn't be here if I was. I would have been married off to some pretentious cuckold of a man.'

He curbed his manners with a stilted twist of the head and a crack of his neck. There was little to excuse his behaviour beyond euphoria from the banquet and the enjoyment of her presence. It was not her fault that his will was not as strong as he had thought it was. Nor was Mulan to blame for the heady balm that assaulted his nerves and bested his emotions. She had not chosen it deliberately for that purpose. This foul misjudgement was on his part. To have such the chance of a night like this with one another — this wonderful chance of an evening together — and to make such a mess of it with aggression and misspent lust warranted neither of them joy or pleasure. There were other soldiers and other courtiers she could have asked to escort her about the palace grounds. Mulan had not needed to seek him out especially. And she had beneath a small whisper and a coy smile.

'Our friendship is too new for this.'

'And to think most wives meet their husbands on their wedding night! In that context, I should think our friendship is doing quite well.'

'We are not husband and wife, Mulan.'

'No, that we are not.'

Again, her delicate hands pulled on the rough silk knot between them and that symbolic tie felt stronger and more meaningful than it should have. The deepness and the richness of her garments jostled against his and it struck him that hers were new and crisp and his were old and worn. He wished he had thought to seek a tailor and order a new mianfu, one ornamented with delicate gold petals so that he might have matched her; one that had been weaved of jade and ivory silk, like hers.

'I would rather you be a friend and know you can be honest with me, Shang. You are drunk, I can see it, and your eyes are swimming. The evening is only what we make it. A little like war I think.'

'How can you possibly compare this to war?'

'In both,' she grinned happily, her lips pert and haughty, 'it seems I have the upper hand.' She found the juncture in the knot and pulled it free quickly. The strip of crimson floated in the space between them. How she had managed to untangle the fierce binding was beyond him.

He said nothing. His eyes locked on the red scarf. He caught the fluttering silk fairly and looped it around her, pulling her to him, coiling the excess length of sheer fabric about her and drawing her flush against him, lightly kissing her chin and her cheek as their bodies bumped into each other. It was sweeter than when it had been accidental, somehow more succulent and delicious. The pressing of his lips to hers was hasty and he had meant nothing more than a simple touch, yet, her hand had danced across that silk about them and quivered over his shoulders, whispering a farewell across the hairs of his neck.

The earlier temptations reared themselves and that simple thought swelled in his mind: the rouge, the kohl; her pale face in the moonlight and the pale skin of her breasts brushing the embroidered brocade of his chest. His lips lingered on the side of her mouth, afraid and unsure. If this dance dared an intimate acquaintance, their mouths would reshape this new and insecure friendship.


Pinyin Glossary

约会Yuēhuì, 'Rendezvous'.

科舉Keju, title given to the Imperial Examinations.

大袖衫Daxiushan, ceremonial gown of princesses and high ranking women of court, literally 'large sleeves gown'.

咸阳Xianyang, Capital of Qin during the Warring States conquests.

恭喜Gōngxǐ, ' Congratulations'.

Guān, 'Mandarin' or 'Bureaucrat' (officials of the Imperial Court).

性欲Xìngyù, 'Sexual desire'.

月下老人 Yue-Laou, literally 'the old man under the moon', or 'moon gentleman'. Yue-Laou was a god of marriage [in Chinese folklore] that bound couples together spiritually.

冕服Mianfu, ceremonial court attire of high ranking officials and nobility.