"France?" Mulan lifts her head from her hands. "The France that's on the other side of the world?"
"Like there's some OTHER France!" Mushu declares with his usual drama.
"Yes, FRANCE. Land of garlic-breath snail eaters." He gestures wildly. "Guillotines! Wine with bubbles! Stinky CHEESE!"
"Are you sure?" She asks, wiping her tears.
"Yes, I'm sure their cheese is stinky!" He makes a face.
Mulan closes her eyes, not able to deal with the tiny dragon's antics right now. Of course, he keeps on. "Trust me, girl, I talked to your ancestors, and they talked to your ancestors' ancestors, and that's where you gotta go!" He flips upside down and peers out from the very top of the mirror, whispering loudly. "Now, you know I don't like talking smack about your husband's ancestors..."
"Mushu, I've warned you about that--"
"Shh, I KNOW." He cups his hands and shouts, "The LI FAMILY ANCESTORS ARE VERY, um, GOOD LOOKING," then under his breath, "idiots".
Mulan shakes her head.
Mushu beckons her closer and whispers again, quietly this time. "Look, girl, there's a battle going on in the temple, ever since Shang brought in the new guys. It's gonna get worse before it gets better, and this is only the beginning. We need help!" His eyes get huge. "Otherwise, your General Shang is gonna be beastly for all time! And your parents--"
Mulan can hear her mother, now a pair of chopsticks, clattering in the kitchen. Her father, a sword with a pronounced limp, clanks sadly in the courtyard. Shang, as far as she knows, is in the barn with the horses.
Mulan returned home from a week at the Imperial Palace to find her husband a beast and her family transformed. And now she needs to go to France, where someone else has suffered this same curse and defeated it.
Mushu is spinning circles in the mirror now, making her dizzy.
"Look, I'm not going to be stuck hanging on this wall for the rest of my days! You get moving, girl!"
Mulan nods solemnly. She straightens her shoulders. She will find a way to fix this.
Ping must go to France.
Mulan rounds the bend in the road and stops as the castle comes into view. It is a different style than the palaces back home, but it is obviously a place of great importance. She dismounts, relieved to be at the end of her journey, after traveling so long .
The months at sea were difficult, first on a Portuguese caraque out of Macau, then a Dutch galleon, and finally passage on a French frigate. Not knowing the language was only the beginning. Mulan had spent much of the time lurking and listening to the crew, eventually learning enough French to ask questions. By the time she landed at Marseilles, she was spending her evenings discussing European philosophy and politics with the other passengers.
While the French food and dress are very different from what she knows, the politics seem very familiar. In the past year, she has learned that while husbands can be beastly, princesses are people, sailors are people, and people are the same the world over. Mulan reminds herself that the people inside this castle are only people, too. She hopes they can answer her questions.
She carefully pushes open the iron gate and leads her horse into the courtyard. Before she can knock, the door opens and a man gestures her forward. "Well, are you coming in?"
She bows her head, trying to recall the proper greeting for a manservant. Before she can respond, however, the man urges her inside.
She is ushered in to a sitting room. She feels out of place in her bulky traveling clothes.
A beautiful woman comes in and welcomes him. "Mr ... Ping, is it? Please call me Belle. Cogsworth tells me you're a Chinaman." She holds out her hand, and Mulan touches her fingertips, bowing deeply.
Mulan doesn't know what to say. She met only a few western women on her journey here, and none who looked at her with such interest. She is distracted by the woman's blue eyes.
Mulan opens her mouth, but can't find the words. She suddenly realizes what she must do.
"I apologize, Miss. I've misrepresented myself." She reaches up and pulls her hair down. In her normal voice, she says, "My name is not Ping. I'm Mulan."
"Oh, my!" Belle exclaims, her hand at her throat.
"I'm sorry." She bows again. "You must realize how difficult it is for a woman to travel alone."
"Oh! Of course I understand." She smiles. "That must be so exciting! To be able to just go where you want, whenever you want, without worrying about... wolves, for example."
"Something like that," Mulan murmurs, but Belle is distracted.
"Oh, what am I thinking, Miss -"
"Call me Mulan, please."
"Mulan, you must be exhausted. Please, you must stay the night. I'll have Cogsworth arrange a bath, and just let him know if you feel like joining me for dinner later."
Mulan thanks her. It's only after she arrives at her rooms -- which are lovely -- when she realizes that Belle never mentioned her husband.
She sees that someone has brought in her saddlebags. There is a knock at the door, and a large, pink woman is offering to attend her in the bath. Mulan thanks her but sends her away.
Feeling more human -- as well as more female -- Mulan ventures out to find her hostess. She overhears a woman sending dinner for the Prince down a long, dark passage, and stops her to ask where she can find the lady of the house.
Belle is in the library. It's floor to ceiling with books, and Belle has an atlas open on the table in the center of the room.
"I was just looking at China," she says, eyes bright. "Where are you from? Can you tell me the route you took to get here?"
Mulan smiles. Belle is no child, but is so eager to learn. She is so at home in this room of books. It doesn't take Mulan long to find the Imperial Palace on the map.
While they talk, a gentleman with curious eyes sets the table under the window for dinner -- for two. Mulan bites her tongue; she has questions for the Prince. Soon, a cart arrives filled with a variety of hot and cold plates.
They sit, and Belle pours wine. "Now, tell me why you are here."
Mulan takes a breath. "Yes. It's about my," she searches for the word in French. "My husband. One day I came home, and he was a -- " She gestured a large shape.
"Oh, no! Don't tell me! I wouldn't wish this on anyone." She holds up her hands, but then peeks through her fingers. "Was he a beast?"
Mulan nods, watching Belle intently.
"Ah, now I see why you came here." She leans forward. "How did you learn about the Prince? I hadn't realized the story was known outside our village."
"Our family guardian --" Mulan hesitates at sharing so much knowledge with this woman she has only just met, but realizes she is also asking much in return. "Our family guardian is a magical dragon -- a small one, but powerful. He gained much strength when he destroyed the Great Stone Dragon who guarded the Fa family for centuries. He told me how to find you -- and that I must come."
Belle takes a drink and sets down her glass. "I don't know how much I can help you, but I'm certainly willing to try."
Mulan looks at Belle imploringly. "Thank you so much! It's not only Shang, you see, it's my entire family. Well, they are not beasts, they are magical objects. My grandmother is a turtle shell, and --"
"Oh! Yes, that does sound like the same curse. When I first came here, everyone in the castle was, was, well, something else. Teapots and clocks and furniture, and all of them talking and walking! It was quite a shock."
Mulan breathes a small sigh of relief. This is it, just what she came to find out! She sends silent thanks to Mushu and a prayer to the ancestors. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I really only know the story from Lumiere," she says, with a nod to the man ladling soup into her bowl. "It has been... has it really been ten years? Yes, more than ten years ago, an evil enchantress turned the Prince into a beast because he was cruel to her. He had to love and be loved in return to break the spell."
"And the others? The clocks and teapots?"
"A side effect of the spell, perhaps?" the man, Lumiere, answers. "When it was broken, we all returned to our natural bodies."
"I am very glad to hear it," Mulan tells him. "How long were you ..."
"A candelabra? It was several years. I find I enjoy playing with fire more now than I used to." He smiles. "May I say that your transformation was also quite impressive?"
Mulan blushes. "More survival than magic, in this case. And I can't believe the curse is quite the same. Shang and I have been married for months. We love each other very much! But whatever it takes to break the curse, I'm hopeful that my family will be safe."
"Yes, if it is the same type of curse," Belle nods. "I know the staff here was very grateful that it didn't last," she says, smiling. Then a wave of sadness crosses her face.
Mulan is afraid to ask, but she cannot stay silent. "Can you tell me what happened to the Prince? I know he lives, but --"
"Yes, he lives," Belle says quietly. "When he was a beast, he had something to strive for. Now, well. I don't know. It's as though he's a man on the outside, but the beast inside him died." She swallows. "At first, it was only that he wouldn't leave the castle. Over time, he's shut himself away from everything, and nothing I do will draw him out."
Mulan reaches across the table. "I'm so sorry," she says, taking Belle's hand.
Belle nods, holds onto Mulan's hand tightly for a moment, then lets go. She wipes her tears. "This is far too depressing to dwell on! I refuse to talk about it more tonight. Now," she demands, "we must eat and you must tell me about your journey here. I want to hear everything."
Mulan has been at the castle for four days, and has learned little else that will help. She keeps remembering Shang turning away and begging her to go. Belle finds her in the garden. "So serious, Mulan. What are you thinking?"
"Oh, about Shang. We were in the army together for ten years; of course, he didn't know I was a woman then. We were comrades, the best of friends. I knew his weaknesses better than he knew himself, and he knew mine. We were an excellent team. And then, I went home and let my hair down, and everything changed."
Belle sits next to her on the iron bench. Mulan has never had a friend like Belle; her best friends up until now were the men she served with in the Army. Belle is so much easier to talk to, it doesn't take long before she is confessing her deepest worries. "My mother and father told us that we were Yin and Yang, two different parts that make up the whole. That in our differences, we were stronger. I found we are alike in many ways, but we are so different, at times. Sometimes, he would seem like a total stranger to me. Other times, we were just like brother and sister."
Belle sighs, and puts her arm around Mulan's shoulders. "It's a puzzle, isn't it? I'm sure you do love him. Magic is funny, though. I just don't know that love is always enough."
Mulan fears she's right. "I must return home and find out what the curse needs. I just don't know if I can."
"Of course we can," Belle says, standing. "I've already packed."
Mulan blinks. "You're packed?"
"Of course!" Belle laughs. "There's a mystery, and I might be able to help. Your guardian sent you here for a reason, did he not?"
"Belle, don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have you come, but this is your home! What about your Prince?"
Belle sighs. "Perhaps he will appreciate me if I leave for a few months."
They depart the next morning for Marseilles. Lumiere and one of the grooms accompany them to bring the horses home.
Mulan had been dreading the return journey, but with Belle along, she is looking forward to it. Belle's excitement is contagious, and Mulan can't help but smile when Belle confides, "I've never been at sea, you know."
She smirks at Belle. "I think I could tell that from your luggage."
"Oh," Belle says, blushing. "I couldn't decide which books to bring. I finally just packed a few favorites."
"Uh huh," Mulan says, and hears Lumiere snort behind them.
They arrive at the bustling port and Mulan leaves Belle to move their bags into their lodgings. She easily settles into her role as Ping, like an old suit of clothes that is worn comfortably. Luck is with her, and she finds a captain with a good reputation leaving tomorrow for the east. She pays for two staterooms.
She returns to hear shouting through the door. "Of course I'm going with you! Do you think anyone at the castle would have let you go without me?"
Mulan is only a bit surprised. It's clear that the entire household loves Belle and is worried about her safety.
"I can do what I want -- you don't own me, he doesn't own me --" Belle is shouting, now, and Mulan pushes the door open, not sure whether to get between them.
Lumiere crosses his arms. "No one owns anyone here. But I am going with you -- two women alone? Are you --"
"Ahem," Mulan says, standing in front of Lumiere. She is taller than he is, and knows she is imposing in her battle dress.
"Yes, well." He turns and sniffs. "I am still going."
Mulan smiles. "Belle, it's fine. I've booked two rooms. You and I can share. I'm sure everyone at the castle will sleep better knowing Lumiere is with us."
Belle pouts. "Only if he helps carry the books."
"Of course, Mistress."
Mulan finds Belle at the stern, looking out over the moonlit water.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Belle sighs, turning around and leaning on the railing. "And my father would have been so fascinated by the engines! I wish he could have lived to see this."
"It's certainly faster than relying on the wind." Mulan is both appreciative and apprehensive about their pace. They will be back in China in another week. "You're not homesick yet?"
"Oh, no! Not a bit. The other passengers are so interesting, and the food is something different every time we stop at port. It's like opening a new book to read every day." She pulls her wrap around her shoulders against the cool air.
Mulan puts her arms around Belle's shoulders to warm her. The rest of the passengers assumed they were husband and wife, and this is something a husband would do. Belle tucks her head under Ping's chin and they watch the horizon disappear into darkness.
Once they make port in Shanghai, the peace she felt at sea evaporates and Mulan suddenly fears they are too late. They quickly acquire horses and set out for the countryside.
But when they arrive, things seem quiet. Normal. The chickens are in the yard, and the trees have been trimmed. Mulan dismounts and motions for Belle and Lumiere to stay back. She creeps into the house, and sees her mother, still chopsticks, but safe and sound!
"Mulan! We are so happy to see you!"
"It's been so long," her father says, clanking into the room.
She is so relieved to see them both, and is even more compelled to defeat this curse. "I'm so glad to be back. And I will fix this."
"I'm sure you will." her father says. "I am a little tired of swords."
"And I of chopsticks," her mother adds.
Determined, she asks, "Where is Shang?"
They slowly point to the family temple. "He has looked after us since you left. But he rarely leaves the ancestors."
Mulan feels her knees wobble. Suddenly, Belle is there holding her up.
"Hello, I am pleased to meet you," she says in passable Chinese. Mulan smiles.
"Mama, Papa, this is my friend Belle, from across the sea."
"We are also pleased to meet you, friend of our daughter."
"I made tea!" her grandmother calls from the kitchen, and Mulan runs in to greet her.
Together, Mulan and Belle go out to the temple. Shang, a handsome and noble beast, is sitting on a hill near the family shrine, looking across the valley below.
"He's a dragon," Belle says, sounding surprised.
"I told you he was a beast," Mulan murmurs, approaching him slowly. "Shang? It's Mulan. I've brought someone who can help."
The dragon blinks. He moves infinitesimally, and Mulan can see the pain on his dragon-face. "Mulan. You've returned."
Mulan wants to hug him, but he is so large, so beastly, she can't do it. She hesitates, then puts a hand on his shoulder.
He rears back. "Don't touch me! I am a BEAST!" he roars, and a blast of fire sears the air.
Mulan doesn't shrink from him. "I know that. But you are still my husband."
At that, he sinks to the ground. "I am useless, Mulan. I can't be your husband, I can't be a General, I can't leave this place, I am NOTHING."
"Mulan?" Belle emerges from the temple, carrying a wilted lotus flower. "I think this is the flower that represents the curse. When the last petal falls-"
"When the last petal falls, I will be useless forever." Shang looks at Mulan helplessly.
Belle nods. "It seems to be the same curse. If that is so, you must truly love and be loved in return to break it."
"But I love you!" Mulan declares, and Shang looks away.
Belle sits next to him. "Who did this to you? Was it an enchantress?"
He shakes his head. "It was my ancestors. They knew."
Mulan sits on his other side. "What did they know?"
"They knew... that I didn't love you as a husband should. Mulan, Ping was my best friend for ten years, and all that time I thought you were a man. Then the Emperor practically ordered me to propose. I --"
Belle says, "You loved Ping."
Shang nods. "And because I cannot truly love someone who doesn't exist..."
"Well, Ping is a wonderful person! It's completely understandable," Belle says, standing up. "But I wonder--"
They look up at her.
Belle looks at Shang, then Mulan, then back to Shang again. "Well, I read a book once, about a man who turned to stone in order to live forever and protect his family."
Shang looks at the lotus flower, now with a single petal. He turns to Mulan. "I would be proud to be your guardian."
"Then it's worth a shot," Belle says. She raises her hand to Shang, closes her eyes, and shouts, "I call upon Medusa's bones to turn this beastly flesh to stone!"
The earth beneath them rumbles, and Belle is tossed to the ground. Mulan quickly helps her up, and then watches in horror as a stone platform rises underneath Shang.
"Thank you," he says to Belle. Then to Mulan, "Be happy. I'll be watching over you."
Mulan throws her arms around him, shouting, "Shang, no! Shang!"
But the dragon is turning to stone, inch by inch, from the ground up to his head. Mulan clings to him, crying out his name, but it's no use.
Belle pulls her down, eventually, soothing her with calm words. "It was what he wanted, Mulan." She smoothes Mulan's hair back from her face.
"He could have told me..." Mulan sits up, more angry than sad now, and smacks herself in the forehead. "Or someone else could have told me. Mushu! You get out here right this minute!"
Mushu pops out from behind the stone dragon. "Mulan! Welcome back! Great to..." If Mulan was standing, she would have kicked the little dragon from here to the Imperial Palace! "see you?"
"Mushu, you little traitor! You could have said something!" She crawls toward him on her hands and knees.
"He forced me to send you away! He couldn't take it if you knew." He holds up his hands and closes his eyes as she bears down on him. "He loved you, Mulan, even if it wasn't the way he wanted to."
Her anger bleeds away, and she cradles Mushu to her chest. "I still love him."
She feels Belle's arms around her. "I'm so sorry, Mulan, so, so sorry."
"I am, too." And she cries and cries.
It's a week after the ceremony to separate the temples when Mushu assures her that the Great Stone Dragon Shang is established as the guardian of the Fa family. The sun is low in the sky when Belle joins Mulan on the temple steps. She puts her head on Mulan's shoulder. "I wish I could stay with you. This has been the best adventure."
Mulan turns to face Belle. "You could, you know. Stay with me."
Belle laughs, "I wish I could, it would be so interesting. I've only started reading the scrolls for children your mother gave me!" Then she looks at Mulan. "You're serious."
"Why not? Are you planning to go back to your castle and stay in one place for the rest of your life? You lost your Prince, and I've lost my General." She takes Belle's hands. "You came to help me without a backward glance. Let me take you to see the world. Send Lumiere home, with letters. You can write to him and to Mrs Potts every month from a different city. And if something changes -- if your Prince wants you again -- you can go home."
Belle shrugs her shoulders. "He's no more likely to change than your Great Stone Dragon."
Mulan glances at Shang, and remembers his wish for her happiness. "Then let's go. There's a lot of world we haven't seen." She gestures to the east. "We could start with Japan."
Belle smiles up at her, her blue eyes sparkling. "And I don't have any ancestors who will be unhappy if I love Ping, do I?"
Mulan smiles. "Ping might care quite a bit for you, too."
"And Mulan? Does she care for me?" Belle asks, quietly.
Mulan doesn't reply right away, and Belle chatters nervously, filling the silence. "Japan! Do you know how many books I've read about Japan! They eat raw octopus as a delicacy!"
Mulan stops her with a hand on Belle's cheek. This may be a mistake, but she needs to follow her heart. "Belle --" she starts, but then she gives up on words and kisses her.
"You make me happy, Belle," she whispers.
Belle's mouth, her beautiful, kissable mouth, is hiding a grin. "You make me very happy, Mulan," she says, and the next kiss they share goes on for a long, long time.
And they lived adventurously ever after.