Chapter One

"Alaric, you are one of the best Assassins in England." The elderly Assassin regarded his former apprentice, the former the Grand Master of England's Assassins.

At twenty three years of age, Alaric was already more skilled and confident than most of the Assassins twice his age. He stood at nearly six feet tall, was muscled and broad shouldered, and was a survivor in every sense of the word. He had long red hair and grey eyes that radiated with an inner fire.

He was a man of cold steel, a killer with a detached air that he had taken from his difficult lifestyle. He stood out among his peers, but he didn't care what they thought of him, as long as they feared him.

"I am what you and my parents have made me, Mentor."

The man nodded. "Indeed. You have excelled in every mission that I have given you, but your next mission will demand a great deal more than your past missions."

I nodded, hiding my skepticism. "I am ready."

The old man returned the nod. "You will assassinate a former Assassin named Shan Yu. He was our best Assassin in the East until he turned on the Brotherhood and wiped out every Assassin in China and Mongolia. Now he is the leader of a great and deadly force poised to wipe out all of China. When this is done, you will rebuild the Order in the East."

I nodded, impatient to get started on my journey. This man, this traitor, would die slowly and painfully. "Understood."

His Mentor nodded, and clapped me on the shoulder. "Good luck, and good hunting! The fate of all the Assassins of the East depends upon you."

I snorted slightly. "Fate is what we choose it to be, Mentor. I will not fail you."

Arthur, Alaric's uncle, nodded. "Your father and mother would be very proud of you." Both parents, Master Assassins in their own right, had died in a Templar ambush five years ago, leaving a devastated Alaric, who had witnessed their death while fighting beside them, in his uncle's care.

I nodded, and took my leave. I hated talking about my parents, as the pain from their death was still too near to bear. As usual, I would bury the pain by killing my enemies.

It took me two weeks to get to China, and if you think that was a short time, then you don't know us Assassins. We have many connections throughout the earth, and that is all I am permitted to say. Everything is permitted, but our security is tight nonetheless.

I received a few looks when I traveled through many Chinese villages in my Assassin robes and carrying my sizeable sword, the latter being rarer to the locals than the former.

My sword, fashioned in the fires of my homeland, was hefty and double-edged, about three feet long and over ten pounds in weight, and had caused great and terrible havoc in the hands of me and my father.

I intended to make my way to the Imperial City, where the Emperor resided, but I was sidetracked by something I didn't expect.

I entered one of the towns, and I could hear a woman screaming with rage at someone. "You are a disgrace! You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!"

The woman who was doing the yelling was a large, corpulent creature, whose face was a mess of make-up mixed with tea, perhaps done by the woman I saw next.

She was yelling at a beautiful young woman, whose attractive features were marred by the make-up she wore.

It was the older woman's rudeness that rankled me, but I had a feeling that it was something about the lovely girl as well.

Ignoring the crowd gathered around, and my own common sense, I stepped up next to the young woman, who was tended to by a middle-aged, kind-faced woman who bore some resemblance to the young woman, and an elderly woman who bore some resemblance to both of the women next to her.

My Chinese came easily, thanks to my language training that all Assassins received. "I think that will be enough!"

The over-weight woman turned to me. "You'd protect her, foreigner? This clumsy-" Before she spoke further, I sent her a glare that stopped her cold, quailing under my cold stare.

"You will leave. Right now." I growled, the tone of my voice leaving no room for debate.

She swelled like a bull-frog. "How dare you! I am the Matchmaker of this entire village, and you have no authority here!"

I smiled my most dangerous smile, my quick wit coming to my aide. "Listen, you toad, I don't see your husband defending you. I doubt any man would take you, but I've seen quite a few of mangy curs in the past who would have you. Mind your tongue, or I'll hold it in my hand!" As I finished my threat, I gave her full view of my sword.

That sent her packing! She was exceptionally quick for a woman so large, but bullies were cowards at heart, so I wasn't that surprised.

Shaking my head in disgust, I turned to the young woman, who was staring at me as if I had just sprouted an extra head.

"Do you have a home nearby?" She nodded, but the middle-aged woman answered me. "I'll take her home, stranger. Follow us."

I shrugged. "I'd better not, Madam. I must get to the Emperor, and fulfill the task that I was sent to complete."

I blinked as the elderly woman took a firm grip of my right arm. Her grip was strong, despite her age, and I had to fight against my reflexes to stop myself from breaking her arm for the audacity of touching an Assassin.

The elderly woman was small, but her dark eyes were intense and rather wise. "It's the least we can do, young man."

I paused, then nodded. "Lead the way, then."

I turned to the large crowd of onlookers. "And as for the rest of you, you can clear off!"

Nobody moved. Well, they were warned. "Did I bloody stutter? MOVE!" I chuckled as they did so, then turned to the three women.

"I'm sorry, where are my manners?" I bowed, and kissed each of their hands in turn. "Alaric Rose of England, Assassin by trade."

Mulan considered the young foreigner in front of her. He was very tall, and judging by the tight-fitting leather armor he wore, extremely well-built. He was wearing an outfit of white robes, a hood shaped like the bird of prey's beak, and armor, held together by many clasps and buckles.

His accent was clipped and cultured, his voice deep and sonorous. His long hair and beard was the color of fire, the former reaching his shoulders. His eyes were grey, almost white. His face was oval and chiseled, and his gaze was calm, almost detached.

Mulan cleared her throat. "I'm Mulan, of the Fa household. This is my mother, and my grandmother."

I smiled, enjoying the sound of her voice, which was melodious and slightly breathy. Wait, what? Where did that thought come from?

"The pleasure is mine, ladies. Mulan is quite a lovely name." Mulan blinked, and reddened.

Damn, she could have been Aphrodite herself! Mulan's skin was soft, tanned, and warm, her heart-shaped face and slanted brown eyes taking my breath away. Her brown eyes, although saddened by her failure, glowed and twinkled with intelligence and passion.

I shook my head suddenly, finding these new unexpected feelings quite unnecessary and unprofessional. I needed to stay with the mission at hand! "Lead the way, Ladies." I said, straightening myself.

I followed them back to their large villa, which was at least an acre in diameter, surrounded by a stone wall. I could see trees, ponds, benches, and other such things through the archway which we stepped through to enter the property.

A tall, middle-aged, and proud-looking man stood on the front steps, clearly Mulan's father, judging by his appearance and the authority that he carried himself with. He was balding, wore expensive-looking clothing, with the customary Chinese bun. His hair and eyes were dark, and he had a thin mustache and beard.

Lady Fa spoke briefly into the man's ear, and they both looked sadly at Mulan, who sat on a bench, her beautiful head bowed.

"He saved Mulan from disgrace. He put the Matchmaker in her place with a strong tongue. He deserves our thanks, and perhaps he might prove useful to us."

Fa Zhou listened to his wife, his eyes meeting the grey eyes of the stranger standing patiently a few feet from him, the Assassin's eyes following his daughter, his cool expression unreadable.

Fa Zhou approached the young man. "It has come to my attention that you rescued my daughter Mulan from further shame, stranger. For that, I thank you. I invite you to stay the night as my guest. I am Fa Zhou, Mulan's Father." I bowed to him, noticing suddenly that the man was leaning on a crutch, perhaps favoring an old war wound.

"That is very gracious of you, Fa Zhou. I accept your hospitality, and offer you my sword, should you need it. My name is Alaric Rose of England, Assassin by trade." Fa Zhou eyed the youths' sword and his extensive array of weaponry.

The youth's eyes were full of intelligence and confidence, but most of all, they spoke of a man who knew how to kill men in various ways.

Fa Zhou held back a sigh. So young for such cold eyes. However, when the eyes of the stranger gazed upon his daughter, they softened ever so slightly, showing that he had a good and compassionate soul, and Fa Zhou was fervently thankful for that.

That evening, I joined the family, sitting on a spot on the floor that had Mulan to my left, and Fa Zhou on my right. I knew that the questions would come soon, and they did.

"You come from a long distance, young man. I can easily tell that you have a goal in mind, otherwise you would not be here, would you?" Fa Zhou asked, shortly after we began to eat.

Although Chinese eating habits were far different from English habits, I was a quick learner concerning the chop-sticks that replaced the use of handling the food by hand.

"I do not deny that I have a target that I need to dispose of." I replied, and Mulan shivered at his cold, calculating expression and almost unfeeling tone, as if he were discussing the weather.

"His name is Shan Yu. He used to be an Assassin, but he betrayed our Order, much as he betrayed China. He is responsible for the death of his fellow Assassins, and other murders."

Mulan frowned, leaning closer to Alaric to make sure she didn't miss a word. Fa Zhou sent her a warning glance before putting his bowl down. She returned it with a defiant glance, as Fa Zhou continued. "Only you were sent? You are barely out of youth, while he is a seasoned veteran. He's killed many a good warrior, and injured me as well."

I smiled. "He is known for being overly arrogant and reckless. That will be his downfall. I'll make sure he won't escape. I know several ways to take him down, most of which he won't even see coming."

Fa Zhou raised a critical eye-brow, noting that the youth was being arrogant himself. "You seem confident that you can defeat him, yet you are almost half his age. Perhaps you are too certain of victory, which is not a good quality for a man of your prowess."

Alaric's eyes narrowed over so slightly, not caring for the elder man's tone. "I speak confidently because I deliver results. I will not fail, and when I remove his head from his shoulders, your doorstep will be the first place I will display it, so that none shall question me."

Fa Zhou harrumphed, not liking the boy's attitude. "If that is how you speak to your elders, it's a surprise your father allowed you to come here at all."

Alaric's face darkened. "My father was killed in an ambush, as was my mother, so they didn't have much say in the matter!"

Silence reigned, and Mulan covered her mouth in horror. "Forgive me, I tread too far." Fa Zhou said, but I ignored him, and Fa Zhou changed the subject. "Do you love what you do?"

I frowned. "I have no other skill." Fa Zhou sighed, saddened by the youth's almost careless, even dismissive answer. "I've heard your creed, Assassin: Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

The youth tilted his head slightly, frowning deeply. "You know the code?"

Fa Zhou nodded. "I was good friends with one of your fallen brothers."

I nodded. "Odd of my brother to do so, but thank you for telling me."

Fa Zhou returned the nod. "Let us say you killed Shan Yu. What then?"

I shrugged. "I find a location to rebuild the Order in China."

Fa Zhou nodded again. "That is no easy task."

I shrugged. "It must be done, and it will be done. What is the current state of China's forces?"

Fa Zhou paused, and I felt the atmosphere in the room change. "All able-bodied men are being called for duty. As I am the only man of our household, I expect to be called back to duty."

I shook my head, surprised at myself for actually caring. "You are in no shape to do anything other than to stay here."

Mulan sent me a glowing look, but Fa Zhou glared at me. "I have no choice. It is a matter of honor, and I will not let shame come to my family."

I snorted, rolling my eyes. I had heard this speech to many times, and I was quite sick of it. "Honor! How many people has honor saved? None! I've known many good people that wasted their lives for bloody honor, and I've been forced to watch some of them die!"

Mulan stared up at the young man, and she realized that she was afraid of this man, a man of danger and fury. She didn't like seeing him like this at all, but she was amazed that he could speak to her father as an equal, perhaps even a subordinate.

"My Lord," I said, fighting my temper, "You must see common sense. I see no gain in dying for such a petty thing like honor."

Fa Zhou paused, and Mulan said, "Please listen to him, Father. You cannot do this."

Fa Zhou glared at his daughter. "I know my place, and it's time you learned your own!"

Mulan flinched, and I stayed silent, although I respected her courage in standing up to her father.

Chinese society, well, all society, rarely had any place for such a strong-willed woman.

The thought of offering to go in his place flashed through my head, but that would have complicated my mission. I couldn't afford any distractions.

We finished our meal in a tense mood, with Mulan glaring at her father. This conversation wasn't over.

After dinner, I was placed in a room next to Mulan's room. Could they be any more deliberate? Mulan was an astronomically beautiful young woman, so I sure as hell wasn't going to refuse them.

During the night, Mulan woke to a cry from Alaric, and she crept into his borrowed room. The Assassin was sleeping, but judging from his thrashing, he was having a nightmare. Mulan closed the door behind her, and approached the troubled Assassin carefully.

She blushed as she realized that he wasn't wearing anything above the waist. By her ancestors, he was gorgeously made! She jumped as the slumbering Assassin cried out: "No! Mum, Dad, don't go! Wake up, please!"

Mulan bit her lip, realizing he was reliving his parent's death in his dreams. She realized how fortunate she was to have a family, and her heart ached for Alaric, who had no family to return to. His arrogance and coldness towards others and his lifestyle was his way of dealing with such pain.

She leaned forward, and cupped his right cheek with her hand. His skin was warm and scratchy because of his beard, and was soaked with sweat from his nightmare.

If his smile was enticing, it was nothing compared to his scent: a mixture of leather, sweat, and a foreign musky odor that she couldn't place. She had never been so close to a man her age, and she didn't mind it at all.

"As much as I enjoy your company, luv, I don't remember requesting it." She gasped, and saw that his eyes were open, and his blade inches from her throat, a reproachful smile on his face.

"I'm sorry!" She yelped, leaning back, but I caught her wrists to keep her close, allowing my Hidden Blade back into my wrist sheath.

"Never touch an Assassin while he's sleeping, luv. You're very lucky you are so lovely, or I would have done you in."

She flushed, then pryed his fingers from her wrists, her defiant glare earning her a chuckle from yours truly. I did like a woman with spirit!

"You were having a nightmare." She said, and his smile melted away. "About my parents?"

Mulan nodded. "I'm sorry. I suddenly appreciate my parents being around, despite my father's demands."

I nodded. "I'm happy that you realize that. I am sorry that I woke you."

She shook her head. "I couldn't sleep anyway."

I nodded, and she squared her shoulders. "As you've seen, I'm a bit of a klutz."

I smiled. "True, but I see raw potential where others see flaws." "Really? Can you train me, or help me realize such potential?"

At my skeptical expression, she folded her arms, a mulish expression on her face. "Why not? Because I'm a girl?"

I shook my head. "I've trained women before. This is different, and it has nothing to do with potential."

She frowned. "Stop being so cryptic! Say it right to my face."

I nodded, my respect for her growing. "All right. I don't see any benefits coming to me."

Mulan was taken aback by his blatant selfishness, and not even his good looks rescued him from her ire. "Have you ever done anything that wasn't to your own benefit?"

To her fury, he chuckled again. "If the situation calls for it, luv. The life of an Assassin makes you hard and cold, a killer like me. I don't want you to go down that path."

I reached out a hand, and touched her cheek. "But since you are a brave and daring little thing, I'll keep an eye on you, and see what I can do."

Mulan smiled. "That's altruistic of you. I didn't know you had it in you."

I chuckled, noticing that her bed clothes were enticingly revealing. "You'd be surprised at what I can do when the situation calls for it."

She growled as she realized he was openly ogling her. "You disgusting pervert! Don't get any ideas, or I'll get my father's sword, and remove your eyes the hard way."

I snorted. "Get some sleep, Mulan."

As she left in an angry huff, I couldn't resist taking in her substantial bust. What a goddess!

Next morning, I watched her going through her daily chores. At least, some of them. She was clever and inventive, often coming up with ways to get out of doing her chores. She was supposed to feed the chickens with a sack of corn, but she got out of that by tying a bone onto a small white dog named 'Little Brother,' then attaching the sack of feed to the little dog's tail. While the dog growled and chased the bone dangling over his head, he deposited the feed while doing so. The results were impressive, and I laughed until I was crying watching the dog do his 'assigned' work.

Mulan was not al all shy, and she loved her family with a passion, especially her demanding father. She had no hard feelings towards anyone, even those who laughed at her. She had a quick and agile mind, and was also a decent scholar, spending much of her time reading and writing.

Her clumsiness always seemed to occur when her father put pressure on her who was a proud, firm man who demanded much from his daughter. But he loved her and his family with an everlasting passion.

He was wary of me, naturally, but I had a great deal of respect for him because of his past career as a warrior.

Lady Fa was a loving, dutiful woman that was in firm command of the household, and protective of all those in it. Like my mother, she was an excellent cook and a compassionate soul, always ready to offer help when asked. She was very welcoming to me, and I began to think of her as another mother.

Grandmother Fa, although small and aged, was a fiery woman who liked to be somewhat of an enforcer, her wooden cane giving me a few bruises when she thought that I wasn't being respectful to Fa Zhou. Mulan had inherited her quick wit and dry humor, and was always ready to exchange spirited moral debates with me.

From nearby, Lady Fa watched the young man. Did the young man not realize how obvious he was, of how he could not take his eyes off Mulan while she was in his presence? Did the youth think her so blind? Although he was a man of stealth, he wasn't showing such a thing concerning his obvious infatuation with her daughter.

In times of clumsiness, he would gently help her to her feet, offering encouraging and soothing words. After about a week, Mulan's clumsiness faded away, and Mulan began to regard Alaric as her best friend, and she treasured his friendship greatly. As a whole, the Fa family grew to care for their resident Assassin, who spent most of his time in the background. He was aloof and calm, still emotionally detached, not really letting the Fa family into his heart.

Confident and charismatic, he was a maverick, but was growing more and more deferential to Fa Zhou as the days progressed.

The Fa family was starting to grow on me, and for the first time in years, I almost forgot my mission, but duty came back to bite me, when horsemen from the Emperor came to the village, calling the names of the various families in the village in muster.

"The Fa family!" I swore silently as Fa Zhou voice sounded through the village square:

"I will answer the Emperor's call to service." Fa Zhou walked up to the horsemen, placing his walking stick in his wife's hands, standing proud and strong, as I approached from Fa's garden, having been sharpening my sword.

Mulan rushed forward, trying to stop him, and one of the soldiers moved to strike her. He never got the chance, as my hand knocked his aside.

My voice followed a second later, cold as ice and hard as steel. "Touch her, and you will answer to me. Pick on somebody your own size!"

Fa Zhou addressed Mulan and I, his voice full of stern regret: "You both dishonor me."

Mulan flinched, tears filling her eyes, as I watched the horsemen depart, my hand on the hilt of my sword. Trouble had come, and with it, my responsibilities.

That evening, at dinner, Mulan slammed down her cup, and spoke to her father angrily. "You shouldn't have to go!"

Fa Zhou rose angrily. "It is an honor to serve the Emperor. I will die doing what is right!"

I said nothing, biting back a curse.

He turned to Mulan. "I know my place. It is time you learned yours!"

I shook my head as Mulan fled the room. Fa Zhou turned to me. "You know I could not have done anything else."

I shook my head. "I know, but it's a crying shame." With that, I left to find Mulan.

I found her sitting by the poor, tears sliding down her cheeks. I sat next to her, and drew her into my lap as she sobbed. After a while, she looked up at me, and despite her tears, her eyes were hardened with resolve.

"He's not leaving this house, but I am."

I frowned. "Mulan, this is not the answer."

She raised an eyebrow. "Do you have a better idea? I will dress in my father's armor, and ride to war, with or without your support."

I rose angrily. "Don't take that tone with me!"

She rose also. "You would do the same in my position!"

I threw up my hands. "This is different, and you bloody well know it! If you don't die in battle, then you will die when you are discovered. You are more than likely never to see your parents again. Is that what you want?"

She nodded, her jaw clenched. I could see no fear in her eyes. I sighed, then nodded. "Then I'm coming with you."

She smiled. "I was going to ask you to do so anyway."

I followed Mulan to the family shrine, where the tomb-stones of her ancestors sat. She lit the lamp, and bowed to the names of the Fa ancestors, asking for their help and their blessing.

And then she turned to me. "Meet me by the stables. I need to get the sword and armor." I nodded, and watched he reenter the house, which was now dark because the occupants had gone to bed.

In the house, Mulan dressed in her father's armor, using his sword to cut her own hair short so that it resembled a man's look, using a cloth to put it into a man's hair bun.

As rain poured from the sky, and thunder rumbled through the house, Mulan entered her parents room. Replacing the scroll calling her father to war with her precious hair-comb, she left after giving her parents a loving look.

As all this was going on, I looked around at the different tomb-stones. "If you do have some kind of power, or exist at all, I wouldn't mind some help."

I turned to leave, but a voice stopped me. "Knowing that and admitting it, Alaric of England, reveals strength."

I whirled, sword out, then dropped them in surprise. A ghost of a fairly corpulent old man floated above the center tomb-stone. "You are a ghost, the ghost of the oldest of the Fa's! Maybe this bloody incense is causing me to hallucinate."

The old man waved his hand airily. "I admit that I should not be in the natural realm, but in your case, the Divine Architect allowed it. I'd hate to put more burden upon you, but you are the sole hope that the Fa family has."

I nodded. "I understand. I'm starting to think that my arrival here was no accident." The old ghost smiled, his deep soothing voice echoing throughout the small shrine. "You are wiser than I thought. I assure you that we will offer what help we can. Know this: your love for her is stronger than you think. This is a great strength, but remember to keep on your guard. One mistake, and you will fall. As much as we are counting on you, we also believe in you. Good luck!" With that, the transparent figure sank back into its resting place.

I turned from the stone, but not before bowing. "That was something I don't see every day! Luck is for the weak, and I set no value in the weak. Your blessing, however, is appreciated."

I joined Mulan in the stables, and saw that she wore her father's sword and armor and cut her hair short, pulling into a bun.

Without saying a word, we mounted our horses, and galloped out of the gate, into the nearby forest, and into the night.

And that's my first chapter! Read and review, guys, and let's hear if you like the new changes to the story!