Once upon a time, a young princess stood by and watched her brother die, watched her beloved give his heart to another woman, watched that selfsame woman kill her brother, who would have made a puppet of her, and worse, to bear his children and the mark of his strength for always.
Once upon a time, a young princess, mourning for her recently dead father and clansmen, rode into a city with her princely betrothed and pledged their alliance under the open skies, for all to see and hear, and the people of both grassland and cities rejoiced, for there was peace once more.
Once upon a time, a young princess walked inside the strong, tall walls of the imperial palace, with throngs of servants silently observing, her new family assembled around her, and never set foot outside their orbits again.
She does not have a name. She will always be the barbarian princess who took away the youngest, most beloved prince. She climbs to the tallest reaches of the palace walls, watches the stars turn in their steady paths, and does not cry.
This story, she thinks, will have a happy ending.
Her maid is insubordinate.
Her people have been defeated in war, her husband-to-be has ridden off to Hua Mulan's hometown, and her maid is insubordinate. Really, she reflects, it should be the least of her worries.
But it feels particularly unsettling, to look up from books or maps, and feel the weight of Ping'er's scrutiny on the back of her neck. Her maid, however, is always deferential in exactly the correct degree. Her bows are deep, her eyes are always averted, and her obeisances said softly with the slightest up-lilt that makes her title a question, not a fact. Ping'er knows how to subtly steer the other servants into coming just a little late with the meals and hot water, to use sheets still damp from washing, and other impertinences she does not care to comment upon.
The servants defer to Ping'er's judgement, and it does not appear to be in her favour.
It is, she knows, only a small irritation in the sea of setbacks she has already faced. She is constantly checking herself under the weight of the heavy silk robes, each moment of imbalance a reminder that she will never be good enough for Prince Hong (or, as he is known best, General Wentai), the youngest and most loved of the imperial princes. Her father will never again tell her that she is fit to lead the Rouran, and Wude will never sing his joy for the open grasslands that adopted him. Her home is here, and she will make the best of it.
She changes her accent, painstakingly takes note of every scroll in the imperial library, and memorizes the recently redrawn maps of her new kingdom. Ping'er's quizzical brow goes unquestioned in the weeks Hong is gone, and slowly they begin to descend.
Early one morning Ping'er interrupts her reading, leading two maidservants, each of whom carries a bronze brazier full of hot coals. "Your highness is perhaps accustomed to northern winters, but book-rooms typically want for warmth."
When she looks up in surprise, she sees what Ping'er is carrying in her arms. Her maid senses her confusion, because she answers, without being asked.
"If you are to be a princess of Wei, it is best to know the Classic of History as we do."
She has seen their bond. She sees their bond still, in the foam streaking his horse's flanks, in the dust smothering his coat, his slumped shoulders and the tightness around the corners of his eyes. She takes it all in, and does not have to speak a word to Ping'er before the latter is arranging for a bath and meal in their quarters.
She wonders what kind of woman would refuse to live with the man she loves when she chased him halfway across the grasslands armed with nothing but a sword and her own naked courage. Hua Mulan, she knows, does not care about impossible. They had promised peace to each other, and it seems that she is going to keep that promise, against all odds.
She looks at Hong, Mulan's Wentai, and thinks, I will not fail you.
"When I first agreed to marry, I did not expect to run to our quarters from the other end of the fortress and find my wife wielding a sword while all our servants cower behind her." She raises an eyebrow at Hong, who has proven to be the more dramatic partner in their marriage, and turns so he can see Ping'er and Qingling each holding her - their - infant daughters in one arm, and daggers out in the other.
She says, calmly, "Our servants do not cower. As it happens, the guards have already subdued all the would-be assassins. This is merely a precaution." She relaxes her stance and smoothly sheathes the sword while everyone melts away discreetly.
Hong's eyes crinkle, and he says, "I see that my timing has failed me yet again."
"If you are determined to conduct border patrols with wife and child, I think you should be prepared for all contingencies, lord husband." She says, fighting back a smile.
Reminded of the reason for his haste, Hong grimaces, and hefts his broadsword from hand to hand. "Malcontents exist, particularly where your brother's supporters have settled. It was unwise to bring you here."
Ping'er appears at the corner of her vision, holding a pile of silk and linen to replace the slashed bedspreads, and says demurely, "The princesses would not be parted from their lady mother, and my lady would not be parted from you. If my lord prince rides into danger, it is only expected that they learn how best to protect themselves."
"And I should know first-hand just how well women can fight?" Hong's voice is wry, but not as tight as it once was on the subject, even if he does not speak her name.
"As my lord prince wishes." Ping'er makes a swift curtsey and retreats, having made her point.
She makes her way to the bed, and pats the covers invitingly. "You know that our household practically runs on her wisdom, husband. It would be meaningless to argue."
Hong laughs before finally putting his sword away. "So it would seem, my dear."
Hong and his two surviving brothers are fighting at the border, have been for the past year, when Eunuch Yang delivers a folded message to her rooms. Qingling makes an aborted move to take young prince Renwu from her, while twin sisters Renlian and Renxian look on, eyes bright from a morning's exercise with new willow bows. She sets her teacup down on the table, hand trembling, and unfolds the scrap of linen.
Hua Hu passed in the night. Cremation tomorrow, general grieved but continues with usual village affairs. Permission to interfere?
"My lady?" She holds Ping'er forthright gaze for long moments, and nods. Ping'er sighs, and calls for Yishan. She turns in the doorway, framed by the noon sun, and asks. "Am I to pack only peasant clothing this time as well?"
She thinks of watching Hua Mulan hold counsel with the other village elders, of leaving packets of medicine to help her father along, of staying unseen while Mulan mourned all that the war had taken from her.
It is time.
"If Renxian promises not to break half the wares in market again, I will take the girls to see General Hua." She pretends not to see the obvious pout her daughter sports, and smiles quellingly at Qingling when the latter opens her mouth to scold about conduct unbecoming to a princess of the Imperial House of Wei. If she has her way, they would ignore the limitations set down by others, as her younger self often wished she could do.
They travel by carriage, with several servants and two decades of guards, though the trip is only a few days long and deep within Wei territory.
On arrival, the girls amuse themselves in the town square, bright silken dresses and loud cheer incongruous in a place so recently given to mourning. She spots two elderly men playing weiqi and smiles at Qingling when she makes unsubtle attempts to point the princesses in their direction.
She tells Ping'er to stay with the princesses while she goes to the burial hills, but two guards detach themselves and casually follow her through the fields. They do, however, obey her silent order to stay behind when they reach their destination. Mulan is pouring wine on the ground, and she waits for her to finish before approaching the mound that marks Hua Hu's grave.
Mulan looks up, pale as the clothes she wears, and shifts to make room. She sets down the carefully wrapped box on the ground, and two pairs of hands untie the knot that holds the satin covers closed. The box is made of fine teak, with mother of pearl inlays depicting tigers and chrysanthemums, for Mulan's father and mother. The delicacies within come straight from the palace's best cooks.
As she sets the food on the small table of offerings, Mulan speaks, "I had guessed you were our mysterious benefactor, but you do us too much honour, princess."
She does not know what to say - Mulan gave up glory, fame and love, possibly even happiness, to end the war - "It is not a matter of honour. We were friends, long ago, and this is what friends do."
Mulan wipes away tears in a smooth sidesweep of her sleeve, and it breaks her heart to see how practiced the gesture is. "There is no debt to pay, your highness."
She sees echoes of her husband's stubborn honour in the woman in front of her, and settles herself for a future spent persuading people out of their own misery. "I am not paying a debt. You gave me confidence to do what needed to be done, and I have enough faith in my judgement to know that I need this as much as you do. Allow me to share in your grief." She feels, truly, that she can speak on equal terms with this woman, in a way even Ping'er, perspicacious as she is, cannot match. "I mean what I say, General Hua."
Mulan turns to her with a watery smile, and says, "Well, in that case, tell me about the children." She concedes the need for a distraction against raw grief, but steels herself for future discussions and confrontations with Mulan, if need be. Years of silence are an unforgivable transgression for both sides, and it cannot happen again.
She attempts to speak lightheartedly, "They try to do well, though Renxian is energetic enough for all three of them combined." She thinks she must sound like any proud mother when asked about her children, and makes a face.
At that, Mulan looks down at the grave again. "They sound wonderful." She puts a hand on Mulan's shoulder and squeezes gently, rubbing circles with her thumb the way she does Hong's shoulder when his wounds ache. She takes a deep breath, and says, "You may come to regret that particular description."
The shoulder tenses, ever so slightly, before Mulan reaches up and clasps her hand. "Thank you. Maybe..." Mulan grips her fingers, callouses catching against her rings. "Thank you."
Three days later, the twins are asleep in the carriage, tired from a cross-county trip to learn about crop rotations, when she sees Mulan approaching on an old warhorse. She has a sword strapped across her back.
They smile at each other, and ride for home.