Hundred Leaf Blossom
By Nasu Hasami & Chang Lieng Bui
XIX (Tears): 分但我的服和 (Share my Burden)
The first legion marched out at dawn. The sun burnt down on them. The mud slowed them. Death shadowed them through the night. Disease followed in their wake. Chang'an glimmered from the distance; close enough to abide by temptation, willing them still closer and closer homeward, far enough to disorientate and haunt them. The terrain was treacherous though, through the hills; slippery melting ice and snow enough to prey on their sanity. Night sounds tempted their fates while stars guided them. Most – but not all – made it home. For some, the Capital was the first night of a longer journey yet. For others it was the sanctuary they had prayed for, day-by-day and moon-by-moon. For a devout few there were still charges of duties to complete, orders that lingered beyond encampments and battlefields, whether by honour, duty or friendship to their leaders. Captain Liang Longwei was General Li's second; a friend as much as the cold, stiff General allowed, and a confident formed upon years of acquaintance and an established camaraderie as well as the added strength of family ties. Liang's orders stood firmly before him, and stretched many days into his future beyond this sunset within the Imperial City and its foreboding stone walls.
Eventide was begetting her orange hues as he trotted the streets of the city, his ancestral home and the dwelling place he and his family were still faithfully cleaved to. His horse, a wilder, darker horse than most imperial stallions, was weary and sweaty, and he was exhausted. Weariness had plagued them for months: the dryness that a lack of battle brings and the trauma of an over stimulated, immaculately trained mind. Liang steeled himself the way the General had taught him, sucking in air and spitting away the bad spirits of those that haunted and tormented him.
The paved thoroughfares and boulevards were much as he remembered, decorated with ornate gardens and high stone walls. Affluent and imperial connections still abided in their secluded compounds; expansive villas and orchards filled with every imaginable delight, brightly decorated doors that shielded and whispered of more. Li Shang's home was no exception, humble though it was considering the family's lineage. Liang had played there as a boy and knew the land, but the beauty of his commanding officer's home still astounded him with the renewed sighting. There was an intimidating presence marking the Li territory and an equally lavish stone path leading to the villa's Imperial red doors. Liang wished he was dressed in clean robes or washed and draped in his courtly attire. He wished that his socks weren't stained from the journey east, and that the icy grit that clung to his face did not form too much of a likeness to their Northern neighbours.
He was careful when he extracted the silk bundle from amongst his saddlebags, bracing himself and breathing deeply as he strode down the path he knew, towards the house he knew, clanking the brass knocker as he remembered. A fearful maid opened the door, mincing into the shadows and refusing to make eye contact with the soldier as she simpered from the chasms darkness.
'Ma'am,' Liang bowed. His calloused hands proffered the item and he straightened slightly, though bent informally and awkwardly as not to frighten the young maid further. 'I am under explicit orders from General Li to deliver this to the youngest Master Li, Li Junjie.'
The maidservant flushed deeply, nodded, and scampered away down the corridor, tripping about her brocade as it thrashed the floor. Silence and candlelight filled the doorway, then silk whispered across the lacquered floors and an eloquent lady appeared some moments later, a small Shang marching after her. Liang may have described her as wise, but he feared that his friend's mother only wore her age as she adorned her grief and suffering, that maybe, beyond that painted mask there was a woman no more than twelve or thirteen years his senior.
'You have news of my son?'
Her voice was stilted with formality, schooled, restrained; prepared for heartbreak or too well acquainted with it to faint from unknown woe. A little head poked around her silk folds, curious eyes darting about the officer in the doorway. The resemblance was too striking for coincidence: this was the child Shang had described. 'You will know him, Longwei. If you remember me, you will know him.' The General had said. By all appearances the boy was the General's spirit locked into the limbs of an infant. Maybe the efforts of the eldest Li son could secure the path of this one, ensuring the ominous spectres that followed Shang never followed him. Maybe this boy would never know the horrors of war or the demons that stalked his brother.
'General Li Shang is unharmed Ma'am. He ordered the delivery of General Li Chen's sword to Li Junjie.' Captain Liang bowed again, lifting the sword higher.
The boy bounded forward snatching the article, bowed, and darted away with the swiftness with which his elder brother moved. A grin and a giggle were all the was left of the child's spirit.
'Are you returning presently?' the woman asked, scuttling away without presenting the officer a chance to provide a response. She returned in a flurry of emotion, thrusting a collection of papers and parchments at Liang. 'Please give these to my son. I worry for him.'
The young captain smiled, accepting the task despite what is meant. He parted with words of gratitude and sympathy towards the late General's wife, whispering guarantees of the accolades her son would no doubt receive. He did not return to the barracks that night for rest, not wishing to tarry; instead Liang exchanged his steed for another and slept atop the marching beast as he returned in the direction from whence he came.
Shang was shirtless, chuckling in his selfish way as he blindfolded himself and fired three arrows simultaneously at a poorly made and long suffering straw dummy. The dummy itself seemed to share an uncanny likeness to a Lieutenant from within the General's own troop. Liang was certain his comrades knew well enough not to question their leader's motives for his artistic licence in the target's design. If the chubby straw-man had been a living being his body would now be greatly compromised, with an arrow pierced betwixt his thighs, one in his belly and another through his brains.
'I see your aim has improved,' the Captain stated, resting his hands on his hips and studying the line of soldiers before him. There was an anomaly within the men, the daintiest and most loyal somehow absent. 'That or you truly hate the man you have made an effigy of.'
Another series of arrows were dextrously fired into the straw-man as the shirtless General's face contorted into a painfully serious expression.
'Do you have news Longwei, or are you simply here to antagonise me?'
'I would never consider such a thing!' Despite his best efforts, a small smirk did spread across his lips. 'But I do have some news from the City, if you wish to leave your men to their own devices. Captain Fa could lead them through formation training if necessary, that is, where I presume she is.'
Shang tossed his bow aside and deftly swiped his discarded robe from the ground. He barked out some instructions and named one of the more advanced recruits to continue the training. His scowl deepened in reference to Captain Fa, though. Mulan was a comrade and these idiots had no idea about the longstanding damage their whispers and jests could incite. Shang appreciated that Liang knew him well enough to follow him silently towards his tent without question or quarrel, though he was no doubt intrigued by his coldness when Longwei was someone with whom he was rarely cold, and never so openly. Sighing slightly, Shang ran his fingers through his hair and straightened the ribbon, absently reminiscent of the fact it was green, not red, and the memory of its origins thrust forth within his mind; the memory of her fingers and her lips and a few stolen moments under the stars.
'I presume by news of the City you refer to personal news, not Imperial orders.'
'That is true enough. The Emperor is pleased with things as they are, your mother no doubt wishes differently.'
'No doubt all our mothers wish that.'
'For most,' Longwei could not help the smile, 'it is our wives that wish that.'
Shang growled. 'You have quite made your point.'
'Your mother is well. Rather swift for her age I'd say. She liked for me to pass these on to you.'
The General unfurled the scrolls and barked at his captain to leave him be. Silence fell over him in the stiff, cold way he wore it. Longwei had never seen him so vulnerable or feral looking. No more than ten nervous strides from the man's tent than did the General poke his head through the folds. His voice was eerily quiet as he requested Captain Liang's return, not for his confidence, but that he could find Captain Fa to relieve that burden from him.
She had been wound too tight to move. If she approached him she was pushed aside. If she said nothing and dared not move he glared at her for reassurance. Forced at the crossroads, she did no more than shrug, nod and agree with her General's presently fleeting moods. She could do nothing right and nothing wrong and nothing was enough.
Mulan didn't understand why this news sat so differently with him than that of his father's death. Something had fractured, something was unbalanced and broken. Maybe, it had been because she was so innocent and pure; maybe it was because he didn't want her to ever know misfortune or the evils of fate.
'My sister is dead,' he said, shrugging it off as though it was nothing. 'Swiftly, my mother writes. The child came too early.' He rubbed his mouth and blinked his eyes. 'My sister is dead and my niece is dead. Her father had named her Xia. She lived three days.'
Mulan didn't know the answers, not with certainty, and Shang didn't need her sympathy or her condolences. All she could do was offer to hold him when he needed it, or take her sword beside him when he called for it. She did not know where else she stood other than beside him. When silence had settled over him she broached the space between them and wrapped her arms about him, kissing the armour that covered his chest and his heart. His arms sat loosely about her, his lips brushing against her brow softly and slowly. He didn't pull her to him, but he didn't push her away either.
'Xia,' he would whisper; 'My sister is dead.'
The moon was high when Mulan was awoken by a sobbing man. The sight was almost too distressing for her sleep-drunk body to comprehend. Shang was sunken on his knees next to her, the silent tears he had so valiantly fought flowing freely now. The only visible sign of his distressed state was his shaking shoulders, the same shoulders that had nurtured her when she was so disposed and distraught with news of the arrival of her infant brother, and Shang had fought so bravely then to breach those bindings, kissing her and reassuring her.
He was chanting her name, his fists pressed into his knees, his knuckles white from pressure. She shifted the thick sable fur, slowly righting herself and wrapping her arms about him. His head fell into the crook of her neck, his shafted breaths warm and wet against her skin and his tears spilling into her matted hair.
'You need sleep,' she muttered, stroking his face and pulling him towards her.
The reprimand sounded maternal even to her ears. Exhaustion had overwhelmed her too much to contend with a broken man.
'You'll feel better in the morning,' she mumbled, tugging him onto the cot with her despite his stiffness. Her body curled about him and she sunk into their combined warmth. Shang calmed a little in her arms, kissing her hair and muttering her name at slower intervals, yet the supplication to the Heavens remained.
'Mulan, my sister is dead.'
She stroked his cheek and nodded softly. Mulan held back her own tears and tired understanding. Shang had been so cold when he'd read her the letter earlier that evening: distant and miserable, shielding himself and striking a foreboding rampart about him. Further commentary was lost to her; his father and his sister were gone. A niece he'd never know was dead. He was brooding and mourning and at a loss to comprehend either death; Meixiang had been young and healthy, and little Xia had committed no crime apart from that of arriving too soon. The spectres about him darkened.
'Meixiang's dead, Mulan!'
She kissed the side of his mouth, hoping it would settle him a little. He pulled her closer, clinging to her as he convulsed against her skin. She whispered the order that he needed to sleep. He fumbled, struggling to settle, hot tears still slipping from his control.
'I need you!' He cried, crushing her in his arms, his head buried into her neck. His desire was forced upon her as it overwhelmed him. Hard kisses that were more like bites littered her neck and rough caresses that bruised her littered her skin. The need to feel something other than pain was too great for him to suppress. She struggled out of his grip some and shoved him away. If his determination forced him down this path their friendship was ruined.
'Right now you're hurting me Shang! Look at yourself! This isn't you. You're exhausted. You need to sleep. You aren't going to do anyone any good in this state! Go to sleep!'
His sobbing desisted slightly, but she could still feel his tears on her cheeks and on her shoulder. He whispered his sister's name solemnly, drawing her closer with each shaking breath. His mouth still seeking refuge in the woman he adored.
'She knew you loved her Shang. I only saw you together a few times, but even I mistook her for your wife when you introduced us.'
He choked on a laugh, gulping down a sob that twisted in his throat and tried to suffocate him. His stranglehold loosened into an embrace, though still a marginally violent one.
'I remember…she told me to walk you through the gardens. She said you would like that.' There was a heavy note of deflated affection in his voice. He wanted to be passionate about that particular memory, but that saccharine moment was dispelled now with a darker shadow, his lust dying as he meditated on his sister's face. The sister that was now dead.
'Aiqing', Mulan whispered, tasting the word and rolling it across her tongue. 'Shang, you need sleep.' She kissed him soundly, twisted around in his arms and pulled her body tight against his. His stilled a little but he continued shaking, tears still weaving paths across her skin where they fell. She tugged the fur rug over the top of them and nestled into his hollow, pulling his arms around her and kissing his knuckles, tracing those invisible lines she knew by heart.
'Wan an, Shang.'
Chien Po woke her as he usually did, if she overslept. He smiled peacefully at the tanned face breathing softly into her hair and nodded as if in thanks for something.
'The General needed rest,' he stated in his soft, effervescent voice.
Mulan shifted to study Shang's face; his eyes snapped open the moment she moved, hands deftly searching for her pleadingly for a final embrace. His lips brushed against hers; a kiss too heartfelt to disguise from a heart too broken to pretend. The moment lingered longer than it should have, the entwined officers oblivious to the lieutenant amidst their presence.
'Come to me tonight,' Shang whispered, pulling her to him and cradling her in his arms. 'Stay with me, tonight.'
Mulan kissed him again, slowly and kindly as she nodded into the embrace. Their hands only slipped away from each other when he stood and it was with a languid reluctance that they parted. Both Mulan and Chien Po were silent as Shang straightened himself out, bowed to both her and the priest, ducked to kiss her one final time, then took his leave.
He was too dishevelled to retain his reputation. The early risers would see him with knotted hair loose about his shoulders and wrinkled robes. They would speculate and whisper. Truths would be harder to believe than deceit.
'You don't want to be a bride,' Chien Po asked in his unassuming way. The promise she had sworn to her General seemed to allude to a compromise of her honour, if the night before had not already been seen as such a compromise.
The female Captain shook her head as she hugged her knees, watching the space where Shang and where his shadows remained.
'I've never wanted to be a bride, Po. But it's not what he means. His sister died in childbirth. The baby only lived three days. He's lost and he needs me, right now, in a different way. There is no ill-will intended. He just needs his friends. I think, he just needs to know he's loved, and that he'd be mourned should it have been him.'
That day Shang was clipped twice for his behaviour by General Xie, the self-proclaimed Marshal, and once by Qifu, the self-proclaimed future Emperor. Mulan came good on her promise, and she held while Shang punched. The Peacock of a Chamberlain feared the pair too much to mention it to Xie or Fong, though it did slip into his Imperial report.
Many years later, when the issue was raised at court, the Emperor denied having ever seen such a report, and proudly boasted against such magnificent lies. It was with a barely disguised smirk he refuted the hypothetical behaviour of China's heroine and his great-grandson. The former Generals most certainly would never attack a Councilman without explicit orders to do so; the pure notion of suggesting such an abomination bordered on treason.
In the midst of the debate His Eminence refrained from clarifying whether or not they had been ordered to perform such a duty, should the need ever arise. Though, the Minister of Defence was present, and did have a rather suspicious sneer on his face, and the Chancellor, whom was hovering in his shadows, shared a pointed look with her husband.
'I do not recall such an incident,' she shrugged, though the blush on her cheeks spoke volumes of secret memories.
'Nor do I,' smiled Minister Li.
Qifu glared at the pair as he simpered past them at the sessions close. Mulan offered him a mocking smile which did nothing but needle the elderly clerk further. It was absurd that a woman was in charge of the court, more absurd than it had been that she was made a ranking officer in the military.