Once upon a time, in a faraway land, Mushu was in trouble.
Which is to say that Mushu existed, really, Mulan thought as she groped for a new handhold. She loved her guardian. He’d been with her through thick and thin, saving China, serving in the army, leaving everything behind because the spirit of adventure called to her in her dreams too loudly for her to do anything but obey. But even she couldn’t deny that he hindered the process as much as he helped things along most of the time.
Crickey chittered softly in her ear, which made her reevaluate that handhold and reach for another one. “Are you doing all right, Princess?” she called over her shoulder.
There was the sound of panting. “Just...wonderful,” Princess Jasmine said. Mulan heard her exhale and reach for a new rock. And then she asked what was on both of their minds. “Who builds a tower that is impossible to climb?”
Mulan thought of the training pole back at camp. She’d seen her most gorgeous sunrise from the top of that pole, Strength and Discipline dangling from her wrists. “Sadists,” she said, and left it at that. She heard a chuff of laughter and, risking a glance at the ground, saw Khan and Rajah both rolling around in obvious amusement at their predicament.
It made her smile, despite the gravity of the situation. They’d found an abandoned tower in the middle of the woods, two days from the last town they’d seen. It was a spindly thing with a thatched roof, built of cobblestones and obviously quite old and sturdy, given that storms hadn’t blown it away. The wisest course of action would be to simply regard it as an oddity and travel on, as they had miles to go before they slept, but the mystery had proven too great. With no doors, it had been prudent to send Mushu up to investigate.
The problem was, they’d heard an “Ack!” and then nothing.
Mulan had her sword strapped to her back, and she was sweating under her armor, but she climbed on with Crickey on her shoulder. The tower wasn’t impossible to climb, per se, but she hadn’t been jesting about the sadists.
At least she had Jasmine with her, and Jasmine had always regarded walls as things to be climbed and conquered.
“When we get up there, I’m going to skewer that dragon and make shish-kabobs,” Jasmine muttered.
“Probably wouldn’t taste very good. Too stringy.”
Crickey chirped in agreement. Mulan decided not to think about how many times the cricket might have pondered a nice dish of Mushu Pork.
“This would be so much easier if we had a flying carpet,” Mulan said.
She heard Jasmine’s annoyed grunt. “Aladdin needed Carpet more than I did to travel the realm and learn the ways of being a sultan. You know that.”
“I’m just saying.”
Her muscles burned as she approached the tower’s main entrance point, a window that had been left open. For a place that had been built with the seeming intention of being a highly defensible fortress, it didn’t seem very well-defended. Nobody had looked out the window. Nobody had shot any arrows or poured boiling oil over the side. In fact, there hadn’t been any movement at all. So either the people inside were waiting for Mulan and Jasmine to reach the top so that they could knock them down to their deaths, or the tower had been built to keep something in rather than out.
Mulan really did not like either of those options. At least she had her sword.
“I’ll go first,” she whispered to Jasmine as they clung to the side of the tower. “If something happens, get down as quick as you can and get away.”
Jasmine gave her an unimpressed look. “And leave you behind?”
“You’re royalty. I just—”
“Saved an entire country, yes, we know.”
“That was not what I was going to say.”
Jasmine pushed her hair out of her face and gestured for Mulan to get on with it, which made the warrior grin. There was a reason they’d hit it off when Mulan had visited Agrabah on her travels. “If you’re going to get on with it, may I suggest doing so?”
Mulan didn’t reply; she only sent a prayer up to her ancestors to protect her and gripped the windowsill with both hands, twisting in midair so that her back was to the tower. For one perilous, exhilarating second, she hung there, adrift in the world. That sensation faded when she started to swing, building up enough force to catapult her in a wide arc and through the open window. She landed facing the window, yanked out her sword, and spun, ready to fight any manner of creature under the sun.
Instead, all three of the room’s occupants gaped at her, two of them open-mouthed. Mushu’s mouth was only closed because somebody appeared to have bound it closed with twine.
Mulan raised the sword. There was a small green lizard standing in front of her guardian dragon, threatening him with a...was that a straight pin? Looming over them both, clutching a frying pan and looking impossibly wide-eyed was a young woman with very, very blonde hair. A lot of it. It went to the ground at her feet, but Mulan was more focused on the fact that these two had assaulted her guardian.
“Drop it!” she said, and it was so quiet that she did indeed hear a pin drop.
The blonde was on in her feet in an instant, brandishing the frying pan. “You don’t tell him what to do!”
Mulan gave the weapon a funny look. On the floor, the lizard turned red and tried to look threatening.
“What are you doing in here?” the blonde asked. “What is this creature? He’s not in my zoology book, and he talks like a man. Or I assume what a man talks like. I’ve never met one.”
“Never met what?”
“A man,” the blonde said. Her hair went beyond the floor, Mulan realized. It was all over the place, falling in long golden tresses and draped over the furniture. How did she move around without head-pain? How did she move around at all, actually?
“He’s a dragon, and of course he talks,” she said, looking away from the hair. “It’s getting him to stop that’s the problem.”
Mushu hopped in place, his eyes conveyed entire multitudes of betrayal. Mulan sent him a ‛sorry’ shrug. “Who are you?” she asked the blonde.
“This is my tower. Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” She raised the frying pan over her shoulder, like she was going to use it to hit a piñata. Mulan wanted to point out fifteen reasons this was a bad idea, but until she knew if the blonde with the hair was an enemy, it was best not to give fighting tips.
“She’s Mulan,” said a voice behind the warrior, and Jasmine, panting and sweating, pulled herself in through the window. She gave her traveling companion a rebuking look. “Do you know how difficult it is to simply cling to a wall for ages like that?”
“Yes,” Mulan said.
Jasmine gave her a waspish look. The blonde had gasped and was holding the frying pan out like a jousting lance now, pointing it first in Mulan’s direction and then in Jasmine’s like she wasn’t sure which was more dangerous. “As I said,” the princess said, looking at the tower residents and the trussed up dragon, “she’s Mulan, the cherry blossom warrior of China. And I am Princess Jasmine of Agrabah.”
“Oh!” Immediately, the blonde lowered the cooking instrument. “I’ve never met an actual princess before. That’s exciting. I never thought I’d see one outside of my history books. Am I supposed to curtsey? I should probably curtsey.” She dropped into an approximation of a curtsey and Mulan warily lowered her sword. “That’s right, though? I’m supposed to curtsey, I think, yes, that’s right. I’m—oh, I’m being rude, I’m so sorry! I’m Rapunzel. This is my tower, and that’s Pascal.”
The lizard on the floor managed what had to be the stateliest bow Mulan had ever seen.
“And I’m sorry, we didn’t mean you or your dragon—wow, he’s a real dragon? I didn’t think they were real, and he’s so small.”
Mushu’s eyes widened in offended outrage. A tiny wisp of steam emerged from his snout. Crickey, on the other hand, nearly fell off of Mulan’s shoulder from laughing so uproariously.
“But we didn’t mean you any harm,” Rapunzel said. “It’s just that we’re not used to strangers.”
“You? You and the...”
“Chameleon,” Rapunzel said, and Pascal turned an interesting shade of yellow and preened. Mushu’s glower deepened and he kicked the chameleon.
“Mushu!” Mulan said, putting her sword away so that she could kneel and untie the guardian. “Just to warn you, it’s about to get—”
“Why, you bug-eyed rainbow reptile, you think this little sewing tool is enough to threaten the likes of the Great and Powerful Mushu?” Mushu slithered out of Mulan’s grip and dove for the dropped straight pin. He snatched it up right as Pascal scampered to a pin cushion and grabbed a pin with a red ball at the end. And to Mulan’s amazement, the two lizards faced off. “En garde!”
“Okay, enough of that,” Mulan said as she plucked Mushu up. She took the straight pin and put it back in the pin cushion. “We’re not here to make enemies. We’re here to explore.”
Mushu crossed his arms and looked grumpy. “He called me a lizard.”
“He doesn’t talk,” Rapunzel said, a confused line appearing between her eyebrows.
“You think just because I’m a dragon, I can’t speak lizard? I took a correspondence course! C-minus, people. That’s a passing grade.”
“Okay,” Mulan said. “Enough. We’re not here to make enemies.”
“He started it,” Mushu said, and Crickey’s laugh filled Mulan’s right ear, making her want to sigh.
Thankfully, Jasmine stepped forward, sparing her any more of the fight. Rapunzel was gazing at them in wide-eyed wonder, though she’d snatched up Pascal (who still held his pin and looked kind of smirky, Mulan noticed) and was holding the chameleon in her arms. “We didn’t mean to intrude,” the princess said, diplomatically. “We just happened upon the tower and were curious.”
“How did you even get up here?” Rapunzel asked, crossing to the window.
“We climbed,” Mulan said. “We didn’t see a door.”
“You climbed just like—eek!” Rapunzel let out an ear-splitting shriek and scrambled away from the window, eyes wide in terror.
“What? What is it?” Mulan had her sword half-unsheathed as she crossed the room.
“There’s a tiger down there. At least, I think it’s a tiger. I’ve never seen one, but it looks just like the one from my zoology book.”
“That’s just Rajah,” Jasmine said, crossing to the window. She leaned out and waved, and Mulan heard Rajah’s happy roar. “He’s with us.”
“You have a tiger? And a horse? Oh, it’s so pretty. They’re both so pretty.”
“Don’t tell the cow that,” Mushu said under his breath. “Won’t be able to live with him for—wait, you didn’t call me pretty. Don’t you think I’m pretty?”
“Oh!” Rapunzel turned red in contrition. “Of course. You’re the greatest dragon I’ve ever seen.” She extended a hesitant hand.
Unfortunately, Mulan knew the look on Mushu’s face well. “Be nice,” she said under her breath, and Mushu shot her a glare of pure malevolence.
“Oh, you’re so soft,” Rapunzel said.
Crickey snickered, but Mushu preened.
Jasmine craned her neck to look around the tower, which was certainly homier than Mulan had expected it to be. It was built of wood and brick, with plenty of natural light flowing in from dormer windows near the top of the roof. A small kitchen area held a table, there were books lining shelves, and if it weren’t for the yards and yards of golden hair everywhere, it would have been completely spotless. When Jasmine noticed Mulan’s attention, she glanced purposefully at the hair, and Mulan shrugged back. She’d seen some strange things since leaving her friends in China behind to adventure abroad. A woman with yards of hair shouldn’t be considered that odd.
“Oh! You’re visitors,” Rapunzel said. She bounced toward the kitchen, her hair following her in golden waves. “I should be offering you tea or biscuits or something. Mother Gothel brought me some tea infusions the other day, I should have offered one to you right away. I’m sorry. I’m not used to having visitors.”
“How many have you had?”
“Um, you’re the first.” Though she’d seemed bursting with energy a moment before, Rapunzel suddenly stopped and kicked shyly against the floor. “It’s just me and Pascal and Mother Gothel, usually. But you’re completely welcome.”
“Rapunzel,” Jasmine said, looking wary, “are we the first people you’ve ever met? Besides Mother Gothel? And Pascal?”
Rapunzel nodded. “It’s scary out there. In here, it’s safe.”
“It’s hard enough to get to,” Mulan said. “I could go for some tea, though.”
“Ooh, I can do that. Here, have a seat. This is so neat. My first guests for tea.” The energy came back and Rapunzel began bouncing around the kitchen with Pascal assisting, preparing all of the things needed for tea. She chattered away at the chameleon, and Mulan got the feeling that was an everyday thing here in the tower.
When Mulan took a seat at the table, Jasmine removed her cloak and hung it politely on a peg in the corner. She sat next to Mulan, eyes wary.
“What is it?” Mulan asked, keeping a grip on Mushu’s midsection to prevent him from challenging Pascal to another duel.
“Something feels strange about this place,” Jasmine said. “It...feels like a prison.”
Mulan didn’t bother to ask if Jasmine was sure; she’d heard the entire story during their travels, of Jasmine’s sequestered childhood, of her adventures sneaking away into Agrabah, how she and her beloved had taken on her father’s evil advisor, who had turned into an evil djinn. Though Mulan had Mushu in her life, it was still difficult to believe in magic at times, but Jasmine had more than enough experience with it for both of them. And she knew a great deal about being imprisoned.
“I don’t see any bars, but I believe you,” she said. “Why keep somebody like Rapunzel prisoner?”
“I don’t rightly know. But I think she’s not allowed to cut her hair, and when you consider that the tower’s impossible to access…”
“Must have some way up here or she wouldn’t have been so surprised we climbed it.”
“You have a point.”
Rapunzel brought over pretty teacups that had been painted in the same bright style as the tower walls. Pascal looked very self-satisfied as he used all of his strength to pull in a dish of sugar cubes. Seeing his favorite thing, Crickey’s tiny eyes lit up with pure joy and he wasted no time jumping from Mulan’s shoulder and helping himself to a cube.
“Oh!” Rapunzel drew back at the sight of the cricket.
“Back, you greedy insect,” Mushu said, but the cricket chose to focus on Rapunzel instead, making a very courtly bow to her. When Pascal’s tongue shot out, Mulan reached out and snatched it before it could wrap around the insect. Then she clamped Mushu’s mouth shut before he could retaliate.
“Oh, I am so, so sorry,” Rapunzel said, scooping Pascal up. “He eats bugs. I mean, he prefers brownies, but—”
“It’s fine,” Mulan said, though her companions looked annoyed. “Why don’t you two actually go outside and tell Rajah and Khan what’s going on? And stay there.”
“I was promised tea,” Mushu said.
“You don’t like tea.”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Go,” Mulan said, pointing.
With one final glare at Pascal, who actually looked a little apologetic, the two slunk toward the windows. “I’m going, I’m going,” the dragon said. “But I highly protest this twist.”
“Yes,” Jasmine said. “We got that.”
Mushu flicked his tongue at them as he jumped over the side of the window.
“So are you grand adventurers, then?” Rapunzel asked after she (and Pascal) had apologized a couple of times more and they were all seated with rosehip tea. “Are you on a quest? I don’t have any books about quests, but I used to have one. Mother Gothel said it might go to my head, but it was so exciting.”
“No, we’re simply exploring. Where is Mother Gothel? Will we get to meet her?” Jasmine asked.
Rapunzel visibly drew back and glanced furtively at the window. “She went to collect herbs. She’s been gone a week. I imagine she’ll be back in another week or so.”
“And she left you all alone?”
“I’m very self-sufficient. And I have Pascal. And now you. Do you have any fun stories? Have you explored anywhere nice? You know, I wondered if I was special because of my hair, but seeing you two, maybe I think I am. You both have such nice black hair like Mother Gothel, but mine is yellow. Well, blonde, I suppose.” She played a tress between her fingers, like spun silk.
“There are plenty of people we’ve met with blonde hair,” Mulan said, taking another sip of tea. “In this kingdom, it’s quite common. We’re foreigners here.”
Because their hostess seemed like she might hang onto every word, Jasmine began to tell stories of their adventures, of meeting in the market in Agrabah, of how they’d traveled far from Agrabah and across the continent. Rapunzel listened with her chin propped up on her hand, her eyes wide. “You’re like Scherherezade,” she said.
Mulan didn’t know who that was, but Jasmine smiled. “Hers were tales. I’m telling you of things that have actually happened.”
“And you really fought a dendan?” Rapunzel asked Mulan. “With that sword?”
“Sure.” Mulan pulled out the sword and offered it to her hilt first, wincing a little at the way that Rapunzel gripped it. But then, she herself had been worse at one point. “He was bigger than the legends say, but it was a hard won fight.”
“Scherherzade said that one could swallow a ship whole,” Rapunzel breathed. “I am so envious of you and your adventures. I can’t even imagine what it would be to face a beast that mighty.”
“You’re welcome to come along with us, if you like,” Jasmine said.
Mulan raised an eyebrow at her traveling companion. Jasmine just gave her a What did you expect? look, which she supposed was fair.
“Oh, but I can’t. Mother Gothel…”
“Won’t be back for days, you said. We’re exploring this land. You could come along and nobody would be the wiser,” Mulan said.
“I’ve never done anything I’m not supposed to, and I’m not supposed to leave the tower.” But Rapunzel was looking reluctantly at Mulan’s sword. Her reflection on the blade was clear, her eyes filled both with worry and longing.
“We really do have grand adventure, and we could use a third,” Jasmine said. “Just think of the possibilities.”
“Is it safe?”
“Mulan’s kept me safe for nearly a year,” Jasmine said. “She saved China once, you know.”
“Not this again,” Mulan said under her breath.
But Rapunzel was looking at her with complete hero worship. “All of China?”
“I had help,” Mulan said. “From a very...interesting cast of characters, even.” She doubted her friends would enjoy that description, but they were out patrolling China, so she doubted they would ever hear tell of it. “I could teach you how to use that.”
“Oh!” Rapunzel nearly dropped the sword. “Really? It’s so shiny. I don’t know…”
“Come with us for a little while. If you’re uncomfortable, we’ll return you to the tower and your Mother Gothel will be none the wiser.” Jasmine’s voice spoke of pure sensibility. She could go from sarcastic to pragmatic in a blink, which was why Mulan knew she would make a fantastic ruler one day. But for now, she crossed her arms over her chest and smiled, encouragingly.
“Well, I suppose I could just leave a note,” Rapunzel said, worrying her lower lip between her teeth as she thought over it. Pascal was eyeing Mulan and Jasmine suspiciously but when Rapunzel looked at him, he suddenly brightened to a shade of happy lavender and gave her a thumbs up.
Mulan suspected that Pascal was probably bored quite a lot in the tower.
“All right!” Rapunzel said, straightening up so fast that some of her hair nearly knocked the tea from the table. “I’ll do it! I’ll go on an adventure with you!”
“Great,” Mulan said, and she was a little surprised to find that she meant it.
“Just let me pack a couple of things. What should I bring? I don’t have very good adventuring clothes, but maybe I can sew something together really fast, perhaps—”
“What you’re wearing is perfectly fine. We can get you some sturdier clothes at the next town,” Jasmine said. She rose smoothly to her feet and pulled her cloak on, and the look that she shot Mulan was self-satisfied. Her plans, Mulan thought, were constantly getting the pair of them in trouble. She had no idea if this one was leading to disaster. They weren’t much in the habit of picking up complete strangers, but she supposed that all of the stories she’d heard from taverns on the road did include rescuing a fair maiden from a tower. Maybe they were simply due.
She crossed to the window and waved down at the rest of the caravan, letting them know it was almost time to leave. When she turned back around, Rapunzel had gathered up a cloak similar to Jasmine’s, and the blonde’s eyes were shining with trepidation and excitement. “We’re going on an adventure,” she said. “Like in the books. And someday, I’ll get to see the stars.”
“For sure,” Mulan said. “One question, though.”
“How in the heavens do you expect us to get down from here?”
“Oh, that,” Rapunzel said, and her smile grew secretive. “You’re going to love this.”