Hundred Leaf Blossom
By Nasu Hasami & Chang Lieng Bui
XVIII (Love), i (Sacrifice): All of Myself
A smile threatened her lips in the candlelit stillness. The breeze jingled her headpiece, delicate jade beads whistling faintly as they brushed and bumped together. Meixiang clasped a hand over her mouth biting off the giggle that rustled inside her chest. The hours of teasing were still yet to come, and she was waiting patiently in the bridal chamber. Again the beads clinked in the breeze, pulling the elaborate veil with the wind and reminding her neck of the pains of her suffering. A demure bride would not laugh as she waited; a true bride would carefully study the pillow book her new mother had handed her. An honourable bride would not find the descriptions amusing.
An honourable sister certainly would not picture her eldest brother and his love entwined and enraptured within the depictions. But her brother was not there – could not be there – and he was truly the only family Meixiang wanted nearby on this day. Shang should have been there to tease and implore her, with Mulan at his side, married or not, Meixiang wouldn't have cared – they should have been there – her brother and her sister at her side.
She had once overheard them speaking of marriage on one of Mulan's many visits to their home. The pair of them sprawled out under the stars on the tranquillity pavilion: close enough to touch; far enough apart to deny any kind of implication; intoxicated enough to break down their walls and their beliefs. Shang was speaking as though he ought to marry; Mulan expressed that it was expected of her.
There were whispers and feather light kisses.
Shang propped himself up on his elbow and leaned over her, his fingers entangling in her hair. There was sadness in his voice as they mumbled and whispered further. Mother did not approve of Captain Fa as a woman, let alone a potential daughter or bride for her eldest, and Mulan seemed to know too well her chances with the matchmaker and what fruit they would yield. The hands that had sought each other fought each other and held and pushed each other away. They had quarrelled that evening, later in the night, before Mulan had departed for her own villa. It seemed that elopement was not an ideal prospect for them either.
Her brother's relationship with his most trusted soldier was peculiar. Meixiang was certain he loved her, as men love Goddesses that visit them in dreams and beauties that bewitch and entice them. She was also certain that Fa Mulan reciprocated that love, the way she hung off Shang's words and traipsed around after him. That night on the pavilion her spying only lasted so long. She had witnessed heated kisses and caresses too intimate for friends. She had seen how his hands seemed to know hers as hers did him. Whatever they had decided, until that night marriage seemed a moot point for them: Shang loved Mulan and she returned that affection.
The kiss Meixiang had been privy to was like the kiss drawn in the first story: long and soft and playful and delicate. Mulan had caressed Shang's face so gently, rolling him beneath her in the movement, her fingers slipping into his collar and her hands disappearing within the silk folds of his hanfu. They had been drunk and giddy. The movement sent the wine jug rolling and they did nothing but laugh, pausing only to catch their breaths and return their lips to each other.
Shang should have been there, and her sister, Mulan, teasing her and telling her how to please her man. Mulan should have been Mistress Li, head of their estate and the bride that managed to keep her warmongering husband keenly interested in his home above anything else. Mulan would have made a beloved sister, who would share her knowledge and experiences of her marriage bed with her. She should have been there. Mulan and Shang should have been married first. China's Greatest General and China's Heroine, a phoenix and a dragon reaching their zenith together.
Shang had been so angry after seeing the matchmaker last. 'Ill fated,' he yelled again and again, muttering it to the furniture and muttering it to himself. Meixiang had never seen him so hysterical or so angry.
'I'd give my life for her, and my love is ill fated?!'
He'd smashed things in the house, tossed scrolls and wall hangings; books and furniture. Despite the destruction, their mothers had been pleased that the threat of Fa Mulan becoming Mistress Li been vanquished. Shang needed to marry a docile petite thing that was willowy and delicate: a traditional bride; a fragile girl that could be broken and controlled, preferentially a Courtier's daughter. He told them that if they found him such a bride he would ensure that Fa Mulan was the mother of his children. He didn't have to bed anyone he didn't want to. It was nothing to do with pride or honour or duty. The only woman he was indebted to in such a nature was Fa Mulan. If he ever had progeny, she would bear them.
Mulan did not visit so often afterwards. She had not witnessed Shang's outburst but she'd heard of it; the rumours spoken of by maids and such costing her reputation. She refrained from touching him, and if there were intimacies, they were no longer witnessed by any spies. He sank back into his pensive shell and she was awkward with him, extending herself in a masculine way, dismissing her femininity and anything it might lead to.
It had been some months since these stiffened squabbles that Mulan had called to visit Meixiang, not Shang. They had whiled away the evening pleasantly enough, talking of their mutual acquaintances and of the delicacies their youth had enchanted over them. All had seemed well until Mulan abruptly confessed to her that Shang did not want to marry her, nor had he ever intended for her to be led on in such a way. Meixiang felt her heart swell and constrict in her throat. She couldn't bring herself to tell Mulan that the union had been nullified by a Matchmaker; not that Shang did not desire her or want her or love her. She didn't have the certitude to confess of her own Mother's hatred and second Mistress's jealousy, or that Third and Fourth Mistress were terrified of the warrior woman. If Mulan was to wed Shang, he would undoubtedly make her the Mistress of the household and she would outrank them. Shang was pious enough that he would want his wife in charge of his household, particularly if it were that wife.
In the awkwardness of a broken friendship Meixiang had watched a beloved brother and sister revert to General and Captain; leader and subordinate; officer and soldier. There were no more stolen caresses by moonlight or secret kisses in secret alcoves, there was just Li Shang and Fa Mulan: portentous, self-righteous man and conceited, haughty woman. Occasionally they seemed in flux about their status: neither married nor unmarried; neither friends nor lovers but somewhere betwixt the two.
Still, Shang should have been there, today, tonight, cajoling her with his wife at his side.
The beads jingled and the pompoms rustled in the wind. Meixiang's gaze turned towards the door where her mother was teetering on the threshold, wringing her hands together nervously. She scuffled across the floor to her before bending slightly to kiss Meixiang on the cheek and take hold of her by her arms, shaking her slightly.
Li Hong was such a small woman, tiny really, and very traditional with her moon-white skin and her coiffed ebony locks intricately pinned high. Her dark almond shaped eyes looked dampened with moisture and slightly wrinkled from tears.
'Your father should have been here,' she whispered, barely louder than the autumn breeze, fierce but fiercely silent. 'Shang should have been here', the squeeze on Meixiang's arms tightened. 'Shang should have been here with his wife.'
Her eyes dropped to meet Meixiang's and more tears spilled over. 'Yes, with her. I might not agree with her, but he adores her and she is sworn to you as sister isn't she, what with your secret pacts and such?' Another kiss and she left: a mother's farewell. She was no longer her Father's or her brother's responsibility, she now had a husband. She would likely never see her mother again and Shang and Mulan would need her husband's permission to call. She had no remembrances of her mother kissing her outside of that moment.
Grief consumed Meixiang swiftly. The loss of things never known until passed and the loss of things never desired until they too were gone. Too many lives had vanished from her own with her father's passing and Shang's unconditional absence, Meixiang felt too young to lose her mother as well. Li Hong may have never known how to love a daughter; it was foreign and unfamiliar and far from acceptable, but it didn't change the fact that she was Meixiang's mother, and that in her own way, she had loved her. The love of a daughter had just not been as important as the love and desire of a son and the duty and honour bound therein. After all, sons were more important than daughters. But Meixiang wanted love. She wanted what her father had shared with the world. She wanted what Junjie had been raised with. She wanted what Shang knew, entwined with another and in want if nothing else.
Tonight she would ask for love and offer her heart as its price.