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The Guardians

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Li Chunhua stood very still, copying the pose of the willow tree. She closed her eyes and listened to the wind move gently through its branches. Spring was her favorite time of year, as the cold winter moved away and the garden began to grow in all of the colors of the sky—not only the bright blue of daylight and snapdragons, but also the sunset colors of the cherry and plum blossoms. Color and light were her medium, through ink and vellum, but she also believed that in order to truly capture an image, you must also work to understand the subject.

So she was standing with her eyes closed, trying to understand the feelings of the tree, when a small white dog ran into her knees, bowling her over. She hit the ground with a yell and opened her eyes just in time to see several chickens knock over her easel and ink stand in pursuit of the grain the small dog was carrying.

She scrambled to pick up her inks and painting as the noisy menagerie continued across the garden, and sighed with dismay when she saw that several of her small green and blue ink bottles had leaked out nearly all of their contents. Her family was not poor by any means, but neither did they approve of waste. Chunhua knew, though she dearly wanted to blame the animals, that standing with her eyes closed and attention wandering would be no excuse for not stoppering her inks at feeding time.

At least her stretched parchment had survived the poultry attack, and she thought she had enough green left to finish the willow branches. Willow was mostly grey anyway, she reflected, pausing in her cleanup to look again at the tree in front of her. Perhaps it was trying to tell her that only a little green was needed, that she had been trying to use too much.

Still, if it was feeding time, that also meant her precious painting time was at an end. She gathered her tools into her painting bag, checking carefully that the inks were each tightly closed, and walked through the garden gate towards the house.

********

Her mother was feeding the horses in the courtyard, and smiled as Chunhua approached. “And how was the willow tree this morning?”

Chunhua sighed and reached to pet Khan, the giant black warhorse that was her mother’s favorite. It was well-known that her mother was Khan’s favorite as well. Her own horse, Daiyu, looked like a pony in comparison, though in truth she was a respectable size for a lady’s horse. Both of their dark coats shone with red and gold highlights in the sun.

Mushu, their tiny family guardian, was sitting on Daiyu’s back and Chunhua gave him an affectionate pat on the head as well. “Little Sister knocked over my things, running from the chickens,” she admitted. “My painting was fine, but some of my ink was spilled.”

Mother’s mouth quirked in a half smile. “I knew I should have fed them myself today. Your brother always takes shortcuts, and look what happens.”

Mushu snorted from his perch on Daiyu’s hindquarters. “Don’t you go telling this little girl tall tales, young lady! I know for a fact that it was you in charge of chicken feeding today.”

The half-smile turned into a full, if slightly apologetic, grin as Mother shrugged her shoulders at Chunhua. “Well, it’s the way it’s always been done. The chickens are used to it—I don’t think they’d know what to do if we just scattered the feed at their feet.”

When Chunhua refused to laugh, she added, “I think your father will be going into town later to buy your grandmother some tea. Ask him to bring you back some of what was spilled.”

Her mother’s humor had faded at the mention of Grandmother, and Chunhua knew a similar dark shadow was passing over her own face. A second reason she spent so much time among the trees in the garden was to hear the voice of her grandfather in the wind. He had been gone for nearly a year now, and the family still mourned, but her grandmother most fiercely of all. She rarely went out of the house—while Chunhua’s grandfather had been alive, her grandmother would have never allowed anyone to buy things in town for her; she would have gone herself to browse and talk with her friends.

The dark look on her mother’s face passed quickly, although her bright humor didn’t return. Mushu jumped down from Daiyu’s back to land on her shoulder and lean his head against her cheek. Mother patted him absently and went back to feeding the horses.

Chunhua walked slowly inside the house silently wishing that the mourning in her family would grow gentler soon, and at the same time missing her grandfather with a sharp intensity. His presence, though usually quiet, had been a strong force in the house, and the large rooms felt empty without him.

She stood for a moment in front of his armory, looking at the chest plate and helment that he, then Mother, had both worn in wars. In the dim room, sheltered from the outside light, the metal reflected dark blue and purple hues. Reminded of the bravery of her family, she squared her shoulders, schooled her face to show no sign of grief, and went to find her tutor for the morning lesson.

********

The first lesson of the day was swords, as it turned out—Chunhua’s least favorite. Her younger brother, Hao, was already there, bouncing on his toes in eagerness. He loved everything to do with fighting, while Chunhua preferred the arts. If she were going to kill someone, she would do it quietly, with an arrow or poison.

It occasionally bewildered her mother, how she had managed to produce a daughter who not only enjoyed more quiet, feminine tasks, but excelled at them. Her father had claimed once that it was his influence that had led Chunhua to embrace traditional ladylike ways, and her mother had snapped at him that he was probably right, since he was much more of a woman than she.

Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the subject, Chunhua still learned well and could best her younger brother. She was no prodigy, but she never shirked her lessons or practice, and so spent the hour focused on the sword in her hand and the forms that the swordmaster called out for them to practice.

Near the end of the lesson, she noticed her father watching from the edge of the room and increased her effort to extend her reach and move with grace. Though her nerves threatened to make her movements jerk and her balance fail, she calmed them with the thought of the tree in the garden and was able to complete the series of forms without succumbing.

Her father thanked the swordmaster for teaching his children and dismissed him, both men bowing to each other in respect. He regarded his children, and despite her weariness and the ache in her limbs from the practice, Chunhua held herself straight under his regard.

He smiled at both of them and addressed her brother. “Hao, that was an excellent lesson. I see you have gained the strength to move up to a heavier blade.”

“Yes, Father,” Hao replied, ducking his head. Chunhua could see the tiny smile that crossed his face at the compliment, though he tried to hide it. Praise from their father was not rare, but was always honest. His criticism could also be earned, though it was never given in anger and was always useful.

Hao added, “Master Fei believes that I will be tall and strong enough to learn with the two-handed sword by the summer.”

Father nodded. “With the way you’ve grown this winter, I think Master Fei may be right.” He clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Go now and help your mother with the horses—I wish to speak to your sister.”

Since horses were as high as swordfighting on Hao’s list of favorite things, he grinned eagerly and set his practice sword quickly on its stand before running like a little boy down the hall and out the door that led to the stables. He really was still a little boy, Chunhua reflected. Eleven was not so old. She was five years from eleven, though it felt like more. She turned her attention back to her father and waited.

He smiled down at her. “Little Flower,” he said, and the childhood nickname that he had never stopped using made her feel eleven again.

“Father,” she replied formally, inclining her head slightly with an inquiring glance up at him.

“I have a task for you,” he said, and Chunhua’s attention was instantly sharpened. A task? He continued, “Your mind is bright and your curiosity is endless, so I believe you may uncover the answer to a riddle that has plagued the Fa family for many years now.”

Like her brother, she was unable to completely hide the glow she felt from her father’s praise, but she kept her voice moderated as she asked, “What riddle is that, Father?”

He led her to the window, where they could look out over the family grounds, across the pond and the gardens all the way to the ancestors’ shrine. “What became of the great stone guardian? Why was he not awakened by the gong, and why did his statue tumble to dust?”

Chunhua drew in her breath and looked toward the pedestal where the great stone dragon had once stood, before Mushu had sent it crashing down with his gong. No one had ever been able to explain what had happened, only that the guardian had not been summoned for centuries. “That is a great riddle indeed,” she said carefully. “And one that has been unsolved since long before I was born. Why do you seek the answer to it now, Father?”

He smiled fondly at her. “You always ask the right questions, Little Flower,” he said. “Mushu has said that the ancestors grow restless, that rumblings of a danger to the guardians has come to them. I wish to know what this danger is and from where it hails. Will you accept the task?”

Chunhua was afraid that his confidence in her might be misplaced, but there was only one answer that was possible, really. “Yes, Father. I accept.”

********

She chose to start with Mushu, the only one who had been present for the collapse of the great stone guardian. She found him by the smallest of the ponds, unsuccessfully trying to catch a goldfish. “My mother will file your claws down to nothing if she finds you’ve eaten one of her fish, you know,” she said, sitting down at the edge of the water.

“Hmph,” Mushu snorted, breathing a tiny flame. “There are so many fish in this pond here, your mother would never notice one little one gone missing.”

“Well, only if it was her favorite one,” Chunhua reached forward and trailed a hand in the pond, scattering the fish.

Mushu looked down doubtfully at the water. “And which one is that?”

Chunhua shrugged and leaned forward, peering at the fish. “That one,” she said finally, and pointed. “Or maybe that one. Oh, you missed it, it moved.”

Mushu now looked at her doubtfully, clearly trying to decide if she was serious or only trying to save the fish from his tyranny. Since the latter was true, she quickly changed the subject. “Mushu, what do you know about the great stone guardian?”

Distracted from the pond, he skittered over in his lizard-like way to sit on her knee. “Old Stony? Not that much, he was never very fun. Just sat out there on his pedestal, watching all of us lesser guardians take care of the family. We only had to call him out once, you know, before your mama. Five hundred years ago that was, when your great-great-great-great-GREAT grandfather, Fa Jun, he got himself tangled up in quite a mess with an emperor’s daughter. Hoo boy, that kid was trouble. Didn’t work out quite so well as your mama’s story did, either…”

Fascinated, Chunhua asked, “What happened to him?”

Mushu waved a claw dismissively. “Well, Great Stony got up and rescued him from the execution, but he didn’t really have any place for him to go, see, since he couldn’t come back here. He’d disgraced the family and all, and besides, the palace guards would have found him again right away. So Stony goes and flies him a thousand miles away and leaves him on a mountain somewhere, doesn’t think about food or anything, just leaves him right there, and comes back.”

“Did he live?” Chunhua pictured her ancestor, dropped on a mountainside and abandoned, waving and yelling for the guardian to return, and felt some sympathy for him.

“Oh yes, he lived. When old Stony got back and told us what he’d done, some of us lesser guardians got out there and found him, brought him some sheep and helped him build a farmhouse. One of us stayed with him there, to start the line of his own family guardians. I hear they’re doing quite well now, got a lot more sheep.” He glanced up at her out of the corner of his eye and smirked. “He got that emperor’s daughter too, you know. He sent her word about where he was--dangerous, that, if she’d betrayed him he’d have gotten himself killed—and she showed up at his door not one month later.”

Chunhua smiled at this ending. Her family had always had some measure of luck, it seemed. Maybe that would be useful with her task. “So when you went to summon him for Mama, what happened?”

Mushu shook his head. “He just wasn’t there anymore. Just gone, all stone with no brain. Not that he had much of a brain in the first place,” he added, rolling his eyes. “He was mostly there to save people when only muscle could help them. I don’t know what happened, though. I just rang the gong like always, but I could tell right away that he wasn’t going to answer it this time.”

Chunhua processed this, then asked, “When was the last time you knew for sure he was there?”

“Oh, that would have been…” Mushu furrowed his red brow in thought. “Family party for your grandfather’s safe return from war, I think. Maybe ‘bout ten, fifteen years before I had to help Miss Mulan with her war.” He looked up at her, suddenly suspicious. “Why are you asking about all this anyway?”

“My father wants me to find out what happened to him,” she explained. “I think he’s worried that it could happen to the rest of you.”

If tiny guardian dragons could have paled in fear, Mushu would have. Chunhua put a hand on his back to steady him as he stepped back and almost fell off of her knee. “I never thought of that,” he whispered. “Like…some sort of guardian disease?”

“Well, maybe not a disease,” Chunhua said quickly, slightly alarmed at the fear that had appeared in the little dragon’s eyes. “After all, if it were contagious, don’t you think you’d already have caught it by now?”

He calmed down a little, but nervousness was still clear in his features. “Maybe…but time don’t work for us guardians like it does for you humans. It might still be catching up with us.”

“Have you ever heard of a sickness that affected guardians?” she asked.

“Let me think about that…” Mushu taped his foot while he thought and Chunhua waited patiently. Finally he said decisively, “No. Never heard of nothing like that.”

Chunhua was relieved that his centuries-long experience had come to the same conclusion as her hunch. “So it probably isn’t that.”

He brightened. “I guess not. I must be just fine, then.”

“Right,” Chunhua agreed. “So then, it must be something else.”

Mushu nodded soberly, his small face serious again. “Let’s go talk to the ancestors. They’ve been bouncing around that shrine with anxiety, but none of them have told me what’s going on.”

Chunhua nodded, too. “Maybe it’s time to ask.”

********

The visit to the shrine was not much of an event to Chunhua, as the ancestors could not speak to her and she could not see them. She knew they were there—the Fa and Li families had a much more complete understanding of how things worked with ancestors and guardians than other families did, thanks to the strange journey her mother had taken with Mushu nearly twenty years earlier, but still they could only communicate with the little dragon. Even the other small guardians had not chosen to reveal themselves, and Chunhua was unsure if they could or if it only worked in times of great need, when a guardian was assigned.

So she waited a little ways away from the shrine, as patiently as possible, while Mushu paced and waved his arms and spoke to the ancestors. She tried to remain still but found that entirely impossible, so she contented herself with moving only her head and looked around the garden at the midday colors. Now was when the true colors were at their brightest, unaltered by the shadows of morning of evening. The leaves of the trees shone bright green and the few flowers that had begun to bloom so early in the spring stood out with their reds and pinks and yellows.

After what seemed like a whole day to Chunhua, Mushu returned. His face was grim and a little scared, but also determined. “The ancestors say, the guardians of many families have disappeared, and they are disappearing more quickly than ever. They don’t know the cause, but they say, look at the house on Whispering Hill. There have been stirrings there of an unnatural kind.” He emphasized “unnatural”, and Chunhua shivered. She stood up, picking up the little dragon with her and setting him on her shoulder.

“All right,” she said, “then Whispering Hill is where we’ll go.”

********

It was not a long walk, if they took the small path through the forest, and they were there too soon for Chunhua’s liking.

They stood at the base of the hill, looking at the small sign that denoted the start of the path up to the mansion at the top of the hill. The sign only gave the title of the mansion, Whispering Wind, and did not also say “Stay Out”, but the foreboding that Chunhua felt when she thought about walking on the path kept her from needing explicit instructions.

Still, she could not stand here, and the fear, which was insidious enough to feel strangely artificial, only confirmed that this was where they were meant to be. She set a foot on the path, and the fear suddenly diminished, leaving her only with her own worry, and her determination redoubled.

The path quickly grew dark as she started up the hill itself, larger and larger trees blocking out the sunlight. Mushu tapped his claws nervously against her shoulder, but Chunhua was not afraid of the dark.

As they climbed the hill, stone statues began to appear on either side of the path. She stopped at one that was close and looked at it. It was a large creature, almost like a lion, but with wings. “Mushu,” she whispered, “is it a guardian?”

Mushu jumped from her shoulder to the statue’s head, landing with a tiny thump. “It is,” he confirmed. “But this one’s alive, it could still be woken up.”

Chunhua reached out to touch the guardian’s strange, lionlike face, and as soon as her finges brushed the stone, she felt a rush of emotion—anger, and a feeling of being trapped. She gasped and pulled her hand away, but the feelings persisted, and she realized that they came not only from this stone statue, but from all around her.

She turned slowly and squinted against the dimness. There were hundreds of stone statues in the surrounding woods, many guardians here. This was not a family guardian that she was touching, then, although she’d never really thought it was. This was a prisoner.

She walked faster up the rest of the hill, Mushu back on her shoulder, hiding a little behind her head. When they reached the top they could see the house, rising up in the darkness in front of them. The anger of the trapped guardians increased here, and there was fear in them as well. This was the place, then, and whoever lived in here had the ability and power to capture the most powerful of guardians. A sorcerer? How could she defeat him and win their own guardian back, and free the others?

A plan began to form in her mind, and she conferred in whispered tones with Mushu, to see if it was possible. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it would work. They would try, but first they needed supplies.

She walked quickly back down the hill, sending out thoughts of apology to the guardians in the woods, hoping they could feel her as she could feel them. I will come back for you. I will not leave you here. I will come back.

********

It took them much less time to prepare than Chunhua had expected, and within the same afternoon they were back at the foot of the hill.

She adjusted her belt one last time and hoped that she looked old enough to be an actual apprentice. The disguise was not the most important part of the plan, but she knew that they had to get inside the house for the plan to work at all, so perhaps it was just as important as the rest. Her makeup she had applied carefully so as to look older and more beautiful, but not so much that she looked cheap or desperate. She was trying to look like an artist, not a whore, but a lovely artist who would be appealing to a man.

She patted the ink pouch that hung from her side, which contained only two bottles in case they were needed for proof, and one secret weapon. Three paintbrushes were tucked into the other side of her belt, and Mushu sat, invisible to all but her family, on her shoulder.

This time, she walked all the way to the large wooden door at the top of the steps, trying not to cringe at the feelings of helplessness, fear, and pain coming from the statues that surrounded the walk. Taking a deep breath, she pulled on the bell cord and waited.

She heard no steps approaching, but the door swung silently inward and a voice asked, “What do you want here?” She could not see the speaker. A guardian, perhaps, relegated to butler duties?

Another breath. The gloom behind the door was grey and blue to her painter’s eye, and she could see only a few feet into it. The floor looked like fine wood, but was covered with a layer of dust. No footprints were visible.

She let a little of the fear she was feeling into her voice, and was pleased with its tremulousness when she spoke. “I—I have come to see the master,” she said, sounding weak and frightened. “I have heard that he is—is wise, and powerful, and can help those who can…” she let her voice trail off slightly, until she judged that several meanings could be read into her next words. “Who can pay.”

There was a pause, then the gloom receded slightly, beckoning her in. She hesitated only an instant before entering. She was unsurprised, but jumped anyway, when the door slammed shut behind her.

She was in a hallway of mostly darkness, though the space directly around her was lit by an unknown source. Mushu remained quiet, which she supposed meant he had no insight to what magic was at play here, or had trusted her to figure her way through it as much as he had. The resident here was clearly a sorcerer of some kind, to have trapped all the guardians in the first place, and the question remained as to the rest of his power. He could be generating this light or he could have commanded a guardian to do so. It mattered little to her plan.

She walked forward and the light followed her. She could see tapestries dimly lit and dusty along the walls, and stands with vases that had not been cleaned in months, if not years. A mirror over one of these stands only reflected her shape as she walked past, so covered was it in grime.

At the end of the hallway was another door, this one inlaid with gold and silver, though in no better repair than the rest of the house. Who would choose to live in such a place?

Mushu shifted on her shoulder as she approached the door and she glanced at him. He shook his head and shrugged, as if following her thoughts, but didn’t say anything. After another bare second’s hesitation, she pushed open the door and walked through.

********

The chamber that they entered was lit brightly in contrast to the dim hallway. Plants and flowers of all colors lined the walls so that Chunhua felt she was walking through a greenhouse. In wonder, she gazed around her, and started when she heard a small laugh from directly ahead. Her eyes snapped forward and she realized she had completely failed to see the small throne that occupied the center of the room, and the large, beady-eyed man that occupied the throne.

He was looking at her greedily, but of whether he was seeing a fat purse or a meal, she was unsure. She stopped where she was and bowed respectfully. She knew instinctively that she must be facing the sorcerer for her plan to work and she did not yet know if this was he or another, meant to trap her.

He spoke first. “You wish help. For your family or you? And you can pay.” His sentences were short, clipped, and his accent was slightly foreign, but not so strong that she could not understand his words.

She bowed again, deeper. “Yes, Master,” she replied. “I am an apprentice to an artist in the city and he has become ill, and the doctors can do nothing for him. If he dies, I will be given to another master, this one crueler. I wish my master to live.”

She dared a glance up at him; he was sitting impassively, no sign of whether he would say yes or no. Time for flattery, then. “I have heard rumors that the great man who sits in this hall has the power to do things no other man could and the wisdom to see that a request is worthy.”

“Look at me,” he commanded, and she brought her gaze up, though still bowing. He held in front of him a small flame, hovering over his hand.

Mushu leaned close to her ear and whispered, “That’s him, I can feel him drawing that magic from within himself. You got yourself a sorcerer, girl.”

The sorcerer, oblivious to Mushu’s presence, continued speaking. “Do you see this fire? It is difficult to hold and I tire a little for every second I maintain it. I do not care for worthy, but I do care for what my time is worth. I ask again, can you pay?”

Chunhua straighted up fully, all traces of obeisance gone from her stance. “No,” she said clearly, proud of the steel she heard in her voice. “For I am Li Chunhua, daughter of Fa Mulan. You have stolen our family’s guardian from us, and for that, YOU will pay.”

She opened her satchel, seeing his surprise and knowing she had only a few seconds before he understood and used his sorcery to hurt her, and drew out her weapon—the small gong that had hung in her family shrine for centuries. Handing it to the now-visible dragon perched on her shoulder, she said firmly, “Mushu, wake the guardians.”

As the first sounds of the gong rang out, the sorcerer seemed to come to himself. He made a motion as though throwing something at her and she dove out of the way, though not quickly enough. A streak of pain lanced through her side and she gasped, looking down. A small burn only, though it had burned a tear in her shirt as well.

She huddled on the ground, afraid of the next attack, and then the guardians started to pour through the door of the chamber, howling in anger. She had a split second of fear that her plan hadn’t worked, that the sorcerer had called them, when she saw them swoop down on him and heard him cry out, only once. Then it was over, and the room, bright as it had always been, was quiet.

And all of the guardians were hovering over her, looking down at her, helping her up, brushing against her, thanking her. It had worked. Finally, after several minutes, they stilled, looking at her. One of them, a sinuous serpent guardian made of mist, spoke to her.

“You have ordered us awake, child, and so we are yours to command. What would you have us do?”

Chunhua looked out over the gathered guardians, finding none that matched Mushu’s description of the great stone guardian. “Please,” she said respectfully, “will you tell me where the Fa family guardian is?”

A collective sigh came from the crowd, and the mist-serpent answered regretfully, “He is gone. He resisted the sorcerer’s attempts at capture, and so was turned to true stone, as an example to us all. I am sorry, child.”

Chunhua felt her words as a physical blow and staggered slightly. She had been so sure that she could bring him back to her family, build his stone back up for his spirit to once again reside in. Several guardians behind her held her up, helped her regain her feet. She had finished the task set out for her by her father, but she had been so sure that she could bring back the family guardian. To only bring back news of his demise technically completed her work, but she felt only an empty failure rather than triumph.

When she was steady again, and Mushu had come from within the crowd to crawl up her arm and sit in his usual spot, she said, “Thank you. Please, return to your own families. Guard them well.”

The guardians began to disperse, murmuring gratitude and some bowing to her as they flew away through the windows and doors. The serpent guardian remained behind and regarded Chunhua thoughtfully. “Do not despair, child,” she said in her hissing voice, “you have saved many of us today, and the one you could not save would not want you to feel such grief at this outcome.”

She wound a slow circle around Chunhua as she continued, “And a guardian does not have to be made out of stone, after all. Stoneworking was the talent of your ancestor that created your great guardian, and that is why he took that form.” One last lazy circle, then the mist-serpent followed her comrades through the window, leaving Chunhua bewildered.

She pictured for a moment the formation of the guardian, her ancestor chipping away carefully at the block of granite until an image began to take form…understanding came suddenly, and she whirled around towards the door, eager to get home.

********

Chunhua ran past her mother, leaving Mushu behind to explain. She took her easel and supplies from her room and ran through the garden, pausing only for a moment at the willow tree, holding her hand to its bark to calm her thoughts and still her excitement, until only concentration remained.

She knew immediately upon seeing the wall that it was her destination—the low brick structure was strictly decorative, and went in a circle around the shrine of her ancestors. The brick was light grey, made of the same granite that the great stone guardian had been composed of, and was in good condition.

It was here that she set up her paints and gathered her thoughts. As she set her first brushstroke to the stone, she began to pray in earnest to her ancestors. She asked them for guidance and help, for luck. She poured out her love for her family through her brush and into the ink, and as the shape began to take form, she felt it respond.

Encouraged, she continued, thinking of bravery, thinking of her mother and father, thinking of her grandfather. She felt the ink take that, too, and continued on. Her green ran out quickly—she had not remembered to ask her father to bring her more—but that did not matter, she was done with it anyway.

The shape under her brush was transforming as she painted, green and blue fading into red and orange, making her think of fire and ferocity, and she added that to her painting. Hours passed, but she took no notice.

Her mother appeared to watch her at her task, silently left rice and soup near her, but she ignored it. After a time her mother took the bowls away, but returned to sit near her daughter and watch her work.

When the painting was complete, she felt that something was missing. A great, brightly-colored water dragon wrapped around the full length of the wall, but something else was needed. She paused, contemplating, looking in its eyes, which almost looked back. Ah. She knew.

Closing her eyes, she called out silently. Grandfather, hear me. Our family needs a guardian, and you were so strong and wise and good. You would watch over us well, and keep us safe. Will you take this dragon form, to guard the Fa family throughout all its generations?

She opened her eyes and saw that the dragon form was looking back at her, its steady eyes telling her that her call had been answered, and for the first time in nearly a year she felt her ever-present grief lessen.

Her mother, who had not left her daughter’s side throughout the long journey of painting, reached out and touched the ink on the wall, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Oh, Father,” she whispered, “Oh, Chunhua. Thank you.”

Chunhua felt herself falling back to land in the grass, her exhaustion at fighting a sorcerer and creating a guardian overtaking her at last, and she slept.

********

When she awoke, she was on her own pallet in her room, Mushu curled up by her side. Her parents were kneeling next to her, looking anxious. Their worry melted away as her eyes opened, to be replaced by smiles, and…pride?

Chunhua sat up slowly, helped by her father. “Little Flower,” he said, “you have given our family a great gift today.”

Her words tumbled from her mouth in grief and apology, not understanding why he sounded grateful. “I couldn’t save the guardian. I couldn’t bring him back.”

“Sh,” Father put a hand on her shoulder, looked her in the eye. “I did not send you out to save the guardian. Mushu has told us he was long past saving before you were even born. He perished honorably, resisting the attempt at capture. He was a good guardian for our family, but he is gone. But you painted us a new guardian, Little Flower. The ancestors say that he will be just as powerful as the stone dragon, for by painting him, you have created him of water and air.”

Water and air. She remembered the awakening of the guardian after the painting was complete, and thought that Grandfather would enjoy being made of water and air after being enclosed so long in a failing human body. She nodded wordlessly and her father’s hand tightened on her shoulder for a moment.

Mother leaned forward and took her hand. “You have given our family a great gift today, and sending the other guardians home shows that you have great honor as well. But I will tell you something that my father told me when I came home from war. I never truly believed him until I had a daughter of my own, but I understand now what he felt. Chunhua, our flower—the greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.”

Chunhua leaned towards her parents and embraced them both, whispering, “It is only because I was taught by such honorable parents.” Her voice cracked on the last word and then she was crying, and her mother was holding her like she had as a child.

When Chunhua’s tears ran out, she reached down and patted Mushu on the head. “And thank you, little guardian. I never could have done any of it without you.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that, little girl,” Mushu replied sleepily, “That’s what I’m here for. Just wake me up when it’s your brother’s turn.”

Chunhua smiled. Her family was a strange one, but it was hers, and she knew she’d never trade that for anything. She sank back down to her pillow, still exhausted, as her parents patted her hand and kissed her brow before quietly leaving the room. She fell asleep with a feeling of great contentment.