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A Sense of Freedom

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Mulan was concerned.

She read the contents of the scroll again, tracing the Imperial seal with her fingertips. It was a peaceful time, so she couldn’t imagine why the Emperor himself was summoning her back to the city. A diplomatic treaty surely didn’t need the presence of a retired soldier.

Footsteps sounded on the wooden steps, and she looked up as Shang’s silhouette filled the doorway.

“Back already?” she said with a smile.

“There’s not much more training I can give,” he said, shedding his dust-coated boots before stepping into the room. He propped his sword against the door. He was training up some of the local young men to be prepared in case of any attack, but it was hardly necessary any more. He glanced at the scroll, frowning. “News?”

“A summons,” she replied, handing the scroll up to him.

He scanned the parchment, then lowered it to look at her. “Diplomatic meeting? You?”

“Hey!” she protested with a laugh.

“The last time you were being diplomatic at anyone, you blew them and the palace up with fireworks,” he said, sitting down beside her at the low table.

“Don’t tell me he didn’t have it coming,” Mulan retorted, tugging the scroll back to read through it again. “Anyway, these visitors are coming in peace and with permission. They’re not just climbing over the wall.”

“So you’re definitely going?”

She looked up from the letter. “It’s the Emperor, Shang,” she said. “Even if I wanted to refuse, which I don’t, I couldn’t say no.” She rolled the letter up. “And anyway, this time they’re asking me to go as me.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Ping would be the worst person to send into a diplomatic meeting.”

She caught him by the front of his shirt, her eyes dancing. “I’ll have you know Ping is a brave and loyal soldier.”

“Who likes to cook out of doors and fix things,” he replied, lips twitching.

She stared at him. “You… remembered that?” she said.

“Remembered the soldier who had just wrecked my camp and couldn’t even remember his own name?” he said innocently. “I can’t imagine why you think I would remember a little thing like that.”

She socked him in the chest. “Sometimes, I wonder why I bother with you,” she said, shaking her head.

“Because every other guy you know is scared of you?” he suggested, then raised his hands to ward her off, as she launched herself at him, laughing and pummelling his chest. “Anyone ever tell you that you fight like a girl?”

Several twists and throws later, she was sitting astride his back smugly, his arm twisted up between his shoulders. “You see, Shang,” she said, ruffling his unbound hair, “I’m being diplomatic at you.”

He snorted in amusement as she slid off onto the floor and he sat up. “At least I don’t have to worry about you,” he said.

“No,” she agreed, “but you do have to pack your own things.”

“I… wait, what?”

She leaned over his legs to the table and pulled another scroll towards him. “Unless I’m mistaken, you got one too, and I know that I am not packing for you. Not after the last time. You fuss more than my mother.”

He broke the seal, reading the contents quickly. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You get to be a diplomat, and I’m there to be a guard?”

She snatched his scroll and read it. “An Imperial guard,” she corrected, grinning. “I guess you weren’t diplomatic enough for them. You need a dress and fireworks to be a real diplomat around here.”

He snorted again, rolling up the scroll. “It looks like we’re both going, then.”

 

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The journey to the Imperial city took several days, but the way was peaceful. To avoid drawing unnecessary attention, Mulan dressed in her plainest gowns when they stopped at inns along the way. Most people didn’t notice the young man on horse back was actually the quiet young woman, who watched all and said little.

It was a relief that their arrival at the city was met with no fanfare. She suspected the Emperor remembered the look on her face when she was the subject of everyone’s attention, and had made allowances for it.

Only once Khan was stabled and she had washed the worst of the dust from the road from her skin was she ready to see the Emperor. Shang had already been called away by the leader of the Emperor’s guard, which no doubt meant he would come back to their rooms late, and with a fresh string of coin and the smell of rice wine hanging on him. Sometimes, men could all be the same.

Alone, she made her way out into the palace, noticing the repairs that were still underway with only a little guilt. The halls were milling with councillors and noblemen. Hardly any of them glanced her way, and she stood quietly in the shadows of the columned hall, awaiting the Emperor’s attention.

“Fa Mulan.”

That got everyone’s attention.

She and Shang had spoken once or twice regarding her name. The greater part of her clung to her name, the name of her beloved father and his line. But the fame she had gained, forever tied to the name Fa Mulan, sometimes made her wish that she had just been Ping for a little longer.

Shang had settled the matter for her. One evening, as they lay side by side in bed, he simply said, “Even if you become Li Mulan, it was Fa Mulan that I married, and it’s Fa Mulan who I talk to and eat with and sleep beside. Li Mulan is just a wife. Fa Mulan is you.”

Under the eyes of hundreds, Fa Mulan approached the Imperial throne.

The Emperor’s aged face creased in a warm smile and he clasped his hands before his chest and nodded. “Fa Mulan,” he said. “I am pleased that you are able to accept my invitation. It was most unexpected, after all.”

“Not at all, your Majesty,” she replied, smiling in return. “It is an honour for me to serve you and China once more. I only hope my assistance is enough.”

He rose from his throne, his robes spreading around him like the petals of a flower. He motioned her closer with one hand. One of his aides stepped to the edge of the dais. “The Emperor’s audience is ended.”

With muted grumbling, the remaining councillors were herded from the throne room, leaving Mulan and the Emperor alone, aside from his small retinue.

“Come,” the Emperor said. “We shall take tea, and I shall put to you the matter that we face.”

Relieved by the lack of urgency in his voice, Mulan followed. A table was laid, simple but beautiful, and she knelt. The Emperor arranged his sleeves in his lap and looked at her with dark, bird-like eyes.

“You will have questions, I expect.”

Mulan smoothed her skirts thoughtfully. “Yes, your Majesty,” she agreed. “Your letter spoke of diplomatic treaties and I have no knowledge of these things. I am… uncertain why I have been chosen for this task.”

He laughed, picking up his teacup. “I have chosen you, Fa Mulan,” he said, “because I believe this is a task you will be suited to.” His moustache twitched, suggesting a smile was hidden beneath it. “You have experience of dealing with foreign barbarians.”

She leaned forward with a small smile. “Your Majesty, I think it would be diplomatic not to call them barbarians, at least to their face.”

He chuckled at that. “You see, you are suited to the task.” He clasped his hands together in front of him once more. “I am curious,” he admitted. “They are travelling a great distance, with little said of their purpose.”

“Not an invasion, though?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I do not believe so,” he said. “They are from the court of a peaceful nation to the west. Our traders sometimes visit their city on the silk road. Their goods are valued highly among those of our people who care for such trinkets.”

“Trade, then?”

“We may hope it will be so,” he agreed. “Like a garden, as it is better to cultivate flowers than weeds, so it is with allies and enemies.”

She bowed her head. “Thank you, your Majesty, for believing me capable of this duty.”

He arranged his cup on the table. “Fa Mulan, you have yet to disappoint.”

 

_________________________________

 

At first, Mulan was excited about her task, but that quickly waned on the sight of the envoys from the court of Agrabah.

The entrance was impressive, sweeping over the towering walls of the palace on a flying carpet. The gathered crowd chorused in wonder as the carpet alighted only a hand’s span above the flagstones. The pair seated upon it rose, pushing back the warming hoods of travelling cloaks, unveiling the dark and fascinating features of the West.

One was a man, young and alert, but the other made Mulan groan inwardly. She was a young woman, her eyes lowered demurely. The elegant jewels on her hair, and at her ears and throat, gave away her high station. Her black hair was thick and coiled with pearls and sapphires, which glittered in the midday sun.

The Emperor stood at the top of the staircase as they approached, Mulan standing discreetly to one side of him. Shang was leading the Imperial guard, and she wondered if it was him she heard snickering.

Some duty. Dealing with a girl from a distant land.

To her surprise, though, it was the girl who stepped forward and bowed deeply to the Emperor. “Your Gracious Majesty,” she said, rising, “I am Princess Jasmine, firstborn of the Sultan of Agrabah, and this is my husband, Aladdin. I thank you for your welcome.”

If the Emperor was surprised, he didn’t show it. “Princess Jasmine,” he acknowledged, returning her bow with a shallow one of his own, his hands folded within his sleeves. “I trust your father is well.”

The Princess smiled, so effortless, and inclined her head. “He is, your Majesty, as I hope you are also.”

More niceties were exchanged, while Mulan took in everything she could about the two visitors. They were barely younger than Shang and herself. The young man occasionally shifted his weight on his feet, as if eager to be on the move, but the Princess was all manners and propriety.

The gathering moved into the palace, away from so many eyes, and Mulan took her position at the Emperor’s left hand. Only a small number of the Imperial guards were stationed around the room as the doors closed.

“You have journeyed far, Princess,” the Emperor broke the silence, “and with much secrecy. Your lands have been distant friends to us for many years. I hope that winds of change that have carried you hear do not also carry ill news.”

The Princess inclined her head. “Not at all, your Majesty,” she replied. “Your convoys are to be welcomed in our city.” She smiled. “That is one of the matters that we would speak of, while we are your guests.”

The discussion turned to trade and routes, then on to materials and goods. While Mulan was sure it would fascinate a keen councillor, she found herself watching their guests rather than listening. The Princess was doing all the talking, but her husband was not sitting idly by. His eyes were taking in the room, the ornate decoration, even the painted screens. Mulan wondered suspiciously if he was considering what made the chamber vulnerable, and in that case, how much of a threat he posed.

“Is that not so, Fa Mulan?”

She started, turning her attention back to the Emperor. “Your Majesty?”

The Emperor’s lips twitched, making his beard quiver. “Our guests have matters to tend to some distance north-west. I have assured them that you will prove a worthy guide and guardian as they travel.”

Mulan blinked at him owlishly. “Oh. Yes.” She felt her cheeks redden and quickly corrected herself, “Yes, your Majesty.”

The Emperor rose, then, and they all rose with him. “My servants will see you to your chambers,” he said to his guests. “We will feast tonight, and your journey shall begin tomorrow. I believe four will travel more discreetly than a legion.”

The Princess bowed again, deeply. “Your Majesty is very kind,” she said. She offered Mulan a polite smile. “I hope that this won’t be too much trouble for you, Fa Mulan.”

“Not at all,” Mulan murmured neutrally. It was, after all, an Imperial command.

The Emperor withdrew, and assuming her new and unasked for role, Mulan accompanied their guests to the chambers set out for them, along with a small retinue of servants. She managed to retain a calm, neutral smile until the doors closed.

Whirling away from them, she stalked back through the palace to the rooms she shared with Shang. By the time he returned, the worst of her temper had faded, but she was sitting at the table looking at her abandoned armour.

“So…” he said quietly.

“So,” she agreed.

“Royal babysitter?”

She nodded, looking up at him. “Looks that way. Have to take them north. Convoy of four, the Emperor…” She paused, looking at him. “Are you grinning because my diplomatic duty is babysitting? Or because you’re number four and we get to go on a trip?”

“We’re going north-west,” he said, sitting down beside her, “into bandit country. Have you any idea how long it is since I’ve had someone pick a fight with me?”

She nudged him fondly. “You are such a guy.”

He threw his arm around her. “So were you,” he said.

“Did you hear what they want to go there for?” she asked.

Shang shook his head. “I was watching her husband,” he replied. “Did you see…”

“Checking every entrance and exit,” Mulan confirmed. “Looking for vulnerabilities?”

“Or a fast exit,” Shang said. “Kind of glad I’m coming along, if he’s travelling with you.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” she reminded him.

“Not for you,” he replied with a laugh. “We’re taking the Emperor’s horses. I just want to make sure that we bring them all back, and none of them end up missing.”

“I really don’t think the husband of the Sultan’s daughter would be a criminal,” she said, shaking her head with a smile. Somehow, the duty was sounding less trying with the thought of Shang at her side. “I’m sure he was just admiring the architecture.”

“Yes,” Shang said solemnly. “And Chien Po would only ask for one course at dinner.”

She nudged him again, laughing.

 

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Their departure the next day was done before the sun rose.

Both the Princess and her husband were still waking as Mulan and Shang led them through the lesser-known passages of the palace. The feast the previous night had not lasted as late as some, but it was clear their guests were still tired from their journey.

“We could delay for a day,” Shang offered, as he led them down to the stables.

The Princess’s husband, Aladdin, shook his head. “We have to do this,” he said. “The sooner we’re on the way, the better.”

Mulan and Shang exchanged looks. “If you’re sure,” she said, looking at the Princess, who was smothering a yawn behind one slender hand.

“He’s right,” the Princess replied. Like Mulan, she was dressed in non-descript clothing, with riding pantaloons and boots. She pulled her cloak more snugly around her to ward off the morning chill. “We’ve come here for a reason. We can’t delay for our own comfort.”

“Very well,” Shang said, disappearing into the building. He returned moments later, leading four horses. The carpet was considered too conspicuous and was remaining in the Imperial city.

The Princess eyed the horses with trepidation. “Which one is the easiest to handle?”

“You don’t ride?” Mulan asked, groaning inwardly.

“Not often or far,” the Princess replied defensively. “I can stay on a horse.”

“And an elephant, a carpet, a camel, a tiger…” her husband added with a grin that made the Princess’s expression soften. “But you should give her the most docile one. I’d need to be more awake to chase them across half the world if they bolted.”

Just to be on the safe side, as soon as the Princess was settled on her horse, Mulan bound the reins to those of Khan with a length of cord. It would be bad diplomacy if she lost one of their esteemed guests on some crazy trip into the backside of the Empire.

They were safely beyond the city gates before the sun even reached halfway up the sky, and Shang led them in a trot away from the centre of civilisation.

With one hand on her own reins, Mulan kept a loose grip of the cord binding her to the Princess. The Arabian girl was clinging onto both the reins and the pommel of the saddle. She looked like she wanted nothing more than to stop, but she said nothing, clung tighter, and Mulan noticed she even tried to mimic the way the rest of them were riding.

The scatter of houses and small villages gave way to fields, and in the distance, forests and mountains. Away from the city, Mulan drew a great breath, feeling herself again. With the wind in her hair and the sound of Khan’s hooves pounding against the road, she felt free and at ease.

Ahead of them, Shang and Aladdin seemed to have fallen into the competitive habits that made Mulan roll her eyes and wonder at the foolishness of men as a species. If there was an obstacle in the road, they would jump it, if there was a low branch, they would deliberately ride under it at speed. She shook her head fondly, then glanced at the Princess, who was looking bone-white at the knuckles.

“Hey, guys!” she called, reining in Khan and the Princess’s mare. “I think we’re overdue a break. Some of us didn’t have a chance to get much breakfast.”

As both men wheeled around and trotted back, Mulan slid down from Khan, and approached Jasmine.

“Need a hand?” she offered.

Without hesitation, the Princess accepted her offered hands and slid gracelessly down from the saddle. Her legs buckled and Mulan caught her, wrapping her arms around the Princess’s waist. “Thank you,” Jasmine said in a quiet voice. “Really.”

Mulan gave her a quick smile. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It gets easier. The first few hours are… well… a pain in the backside.”

To her surprise, Jasmine laughed. “Oh, I spotted that, believe me.” She looked around, then pointed at a point on the verge at the side of the road. “I think that grass might be soft enough to sit on.”

Mulan helped her over, as Aladdin swung down from his own horse.

“Jasmine!” He knelt by her side, and caught her hand. “Are you okay?”

“Just a little saddle-sore,” the Princess replied with a brief smile. “Looks like you had some competition back there.”

Aladdin glanced over at Shang, who was tethering the horses. “Nah,” he said, lifting her hand to kiss her knuckles. “I was holding back.”

“Don’t let Shang hear you say that,” Mulan warned, pulling a knapsack of food from her saddlebags. “He doesn’t need the encouragement.”

“Are you talking about me?” Shang inquired, strolling to join them.

Mulan shook her head. “We’re talking about Khan,” she replied. “If I gave him a looser rein, I wouldn’t see him for dust.” She offered him a small parcel of rice. “Where are you thinking of for stopping points?”

Reaching into his belt, Shang withdrew a rumpled map and sat down cross-legged on the grass. She hid a smile as he started speaking his best ‘Captain’ voice. “We’ve been travelling along this route,” he said, tracing it with a fingertip. “There are villages ahead, which we should reach well before sundown, and I don’t think it’s likely that any will refuse to acknowledge the seal of the Emperor in exchange for refuge.”

“We can pay for shelter,” Jasmine said, accepting a small basket of food from Mulan. “We have plenty of money.”

Mulan shook her head. “This is how things are done,” she said. “You’re travelling under the Emperor’s seal, and that means certain protocol must be followed.”

Aladdin and Jasmine exchanged glances, and she nodded. “If that’s how things are done, that’s how we’ll do them,” she agreed. She shifted carefully on the grass. “Will these places have some kind of hot bath?”

Mulan bit her lip to hide a grin. “We’ll see what we can find,” she promised.

 

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By the time evening fell, they had reached a small town. There was little to speak of about it, but it did have one saving grace: there was a bathhouse with natural hot springs.

They found accommodation in a small inn, which had only two rooms. Shang ruefully acknowledged that while the chance to have some privacy with his wife would be a good thing, propriety dictated the ladies share one room, while he and Aladdin shared the other.

"I don't mind," Jasmine confided, as Mulan led her to the room, carrying a small lamp in her hand. "I think he'll worry if he sees my bruises. He hates it when I get hurt."

Mulan smiled quietly. "It's a good trait in a husband," she said. She shed her riding cloak. "We'll have some food, after we go down to the bathhouse. Shang said he'll go and ask them to clear it to make sure we get some privacy."

"That sounds wonderful," Jasmine said fervently, sitting down on the low bed. She groaned as she straightened her legs.

"The springs should help," Mulan said, sitting down cross-legged on the mat-lined floor. "They'll get rid of the worst of the stiffness. Give it a few days and you'll be riding as well as the Mongolian hordes."

Jasmine made a face. "I think I prefer travel by carpet," she said. "There's less bumping around."

Mulan laughed. "You'll have to give me a ride when we get back," she said. "Just for comparison."

The princess sprawled back on the bed, stretching her arms over her head. "It's amazing," she said. "There's something so liberating about flying."

Mulan hid a smile. "I know that feeling," she said, getting back to her feet. "I'll go check if Shang has cleared the place. Don't go anywhere."

Within one turn of the sands, she was hustling the Princess down towards the bathhouse through the twilit streets, their husbands strolling along behind them, talking. Aladdin had waved away any suggestions of using the baths, and Mulan wondered privately if Shang was just taking advantage of other male company to excuse himself as well. They both cheerfully insisted that a bottle of rice wine and enjoying the evening sitting on the bench outside the bathhouse would be good enough for them.

Shang had clearly done his job well, because only one old man awaited them inside the bathhouse, and a glance at the Emperor’s seal and he headed for the door as well.

Out of habit, Mulan checked the perimeter of the steaming baths, noting that while the pools were natural ones, the foundations of the walls around them were hand-hewn stone, giving way to sturdy wooden walls, with only narrow horizontal slats for ventilation. Good. No entrance or exit but the main door.

“This is a bath?” Jasmine said. She sounded dazed.

Mulan nodded, peeling off her outer tunic, already growing damp with the heat. “Naturally heated mountain water,” she replied. “I’ve heard tales of pools like this healing the sick, but I don’t know if those are true.”

“It looks like something you’d find in the middle of a forest.”

Mulan paused, pulling off her boots. “If you’d prefer to get a bowl back in the room…”

“No, no,” Jasmine said hastily, then smiled. “It was just a bit of a surprise.” She started to disrobe, only pausing to pin her long, black hair into a knot on top of her head.

Despite her best intentions not to, Mulan found herself slanting sidelong looks at her companion. It came as a surprise that beneath her clothes, Jasmine’s skin was the same golden-brown colour all over. For some reason, Mulan has assumed that it was darkened by the sun, but it appeared not. She was shapely as well, even more so than the girls Mulan had known in her youth, with broader hips and plump breasts.

She found she wasn’t the only one guilty of peeking, though, when Jasmine spoke.

“That’s… a knife-wound, isn’t it?”

Mulan blinked. “Huh?”

Jasmine nodded to her bare torso, and the narrow, puckered scar that curved across her ribs and under her breasts.

“Sword,” Mulan corrected, touching it. She flashed a grin. “You wouldn’t believe how many times they had to stitch me up.” She wriggled out of her trousers, and stepped down into the pool. “It looks a lot better than it did.”

Jasmine was silent for a moment, before she followed Mulan down the rough-hewn steps into the water. “You’ve fought a lot?”

Mulan shook her head. “Only one particular war,” she replied, sighing as she sank neck deep in the pool. There were nooks and ledges along the edge to perch on, and she found one without rough edges. “If I had to fight again, I would, but now, I’m enjoying the peace.”

Jasmine waded through the steaming water, which was turning her skin ruddy. “I did wonder,” she admitted, “why you were assigned as my guardian.”

Mulan laughed quietly. “No one was more surprised than me, Princess,” she said, scooping up handfuls of water and letting them stream between her fingers. “I didn’t exactly let them know who I was when I joined the army, but I did a good job, so they don’t mind that I was found out.”

“Found out?”

Mulan’s lips twitched. “You must be the only person in China who doesn’t know the story,” she said. “I stole my father’s conscription papers and joined the army in his place. Luckily, I helped save the Emperor and defeat the Huns, so they ignore the fact I broke the law.”

Jasmine found one of the rocky benches to perch on, and sat, watching her. “I feel a little unadventurous,” she admitted. “The most I did was run away from home, and I only lasted a day before I was found and had to go back to the palace.”

Mulan was genuinely surprised at that. “You ran away?”

The girl nodded. “There was a law,” she replied, “of marrying by a set age. I wasn’t too happy about it.”

“No,” Mulan agreed, remembering her own disastrous visit to the matchmaker. “Having your life planned for you isn’t for everyone. But going against the traditions never quite goes as you planned, does it?”

Jasmine’s lips turned up. “Not at all,” she said with a glint on her eyes. “After all, I ended up finding a husband while I was on the run.”

Mulan laughed. “And I found mine while he thought I was an idiot boy-soldier. He even came to trust me again, after he found out. So did the others.” She leaned back, stretching her arms along the rocky sides of the pool. “There isn’t much we can change, but what we can, we must.”

Jasmine nodded, closing her eyes as she lay back against the side of the pool.

The crickets were singing by the time they emerged from the baths. Their faces were pink and the coolness of the evening air made them both draw a breath as they stepped out into the night.

“Feeling better?” Shang inquired, from the bench.

“Much,” Mulan replied. “We should get back. Dinner will be waiting.”

Whether it was deliberate or not, Aladdin and Jasmine ended up walking a few paces ahead of Mulan and Shang. Aladdin took Jasmine’s hand almost at once, murmuring too quietly to be heard as they walked.

“So,” Shang said quietly, “what do you think?”

Mulan glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “I like her,” she replied, keeping her voice just as low. “She’s tougher than she looks, but not as tough as she thinks. We’ll need to keep an eye on her. I think she wouldn’t speak out if she was in pain, just because of the rest of us.”

Shang nodded. “I’m not sure about him,” he said with a nod to Aladdin. “I get the feeling he’s a good guy, but there’s something he’s hiding. He definitely doesn’t want to talk about how he ended up married to a Princess when he’s nowhere near her station.”

“She found him,” Mulan said with a small smile. “Sometimes, men aren’t very good at admitting they didn’t see what was right in front of them.”

“Hey!”

She looked up at him with a mischievous grin. “What?”

He shook his head, laughing quietly.

 

_______________________

 

The journey continued, further and higher into the mountains. While it didn’t get easier, Mulan was relieved to see that Jasmine was growing more comfortable in the saddle. Now, the only problem they were really having came from the weather. Both Jasmine and Aladdin were having trouble adjusting to the cooler air of the mountain, compared to the heat of their own lands. They were also ascending into more perilous areas, where bandits were known to lurk in the mountain passes.

They stopped one night in a small village, the last point before they set into the gorges that were their destination. Mulan had sent Shang on an errand while she and their companions ate. Aladdin and Jasmine were seated as close to the fire as was possible when he returned, and Mulan met him at the door.

“I think this should help,” she murmured, nodding to the bundles in Shang’s arms. She picked through them, taking several items. “I don’t think it would look good if we sent the envoys from Agrabah back with chills.”

Shang nodded. “The locals use it in winter, so it’ll be good enough for them to use now,” he said. “We’ll see you down here in the morning.”

She nodded, then called to Jasmine, leading the Princess up the narrow wooden stairs to the room which had been allocated to them. There was a small metal brazier in the corner of the room, which Jasmine gravitated towards.

“I’ve got you some new clothes,” Mulan said, setting them on the low bed they would be sharing that night. There were two, but for warmth, Mulan had taken pity on Jasmine and let the younger woman snuggle against her to ward off the cold.

Jasmine approached, rubbing her hands together. “What is it?”

Mulan unfolded the layers of fabric. “The people around here use them in winter,” she said, holding up a quilted tunic, “and it’ll also help you look more like a local from a distance, so you won’t be an easy target for any bandits.”

“Did I look like a target before?” Jasmine asked, with the glint in her eye that Mulan was beginning to recognise as teasing.

“The jewels all over didn’t help,” she replied as seriously as she could. “Actually, that reminds me, we have a scarf for your hair to keep it bound out of the way when we ride, and a veil.”

Jasmine looked uncertain. “Veils kind of stand out, don’t they?”

“Not up here,” Mulan assured her. “They were them to keep the dust from their nose and eyes when the winds are up, and against the rain. It’ll mask your complexion and your features, so no one will know that you’re not even from China.”

Jasmine picked up one of the coats. “Thank you,” she said. “We’re putting you to so much trouble.”

Mulan smiled. “You gave us something to keep us busy,” she said, “but I have to admit I am getting curious. All you’ve told us is that we’re going to the Xiaowen canyon. I don’t know this part of the country well, but I know enough to know there’s not much there.”

Jasmine looked at her, then down at the coat in her arms. She toyed with one of the buttons. “You know we’re looking for something,” she said slowly, as if carefully considering every word. “It’s an artefact that was taken from a very good friend of ours many years ago. We owe this friend a great deal, and if we can find this for him…”

Mulan nodded. “He must be a very important friend,” she said quietly, “for you to make this journey yourselves, instead of sending someone.”

The Princess smiled quietly. “Only we know what we’re looking for. It’s very personal, and very precious, and he didn’t want to risk anyone knowing about it. It took him a long time to tell us that it even existed, or where it was and that it was so important to him.”

“But he couldn’t come himself.”

Jasmine pulled the thick coat on, wrapping herself up snugly in it before replying. “He’s had bad experiences in China,” she said quietly. “He was afraid he would meet the same response if he came back.”

“Good reason,” Mulan murmured. She unwound a length of fabric, then looked at Jasmine, tilting her head. “Come and sit by the fire,” she said. “Let’s see if we need a longer scarf to get all of your hair tied up.”

Jasmine smiled crookedly. “I’ll take a wild guess,” she said, “and say yes.”

Mulan nodded gravely. “I will take that challenge,” she said and set to work on trying to subdue the Princess’s long hair.

 

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Days in the mountains were trying on anyone’s nerves, especially with sleep disrupted by the rustle of loose rocks falling and the constant threat of bandits. Mulan was tired, and she could tell Shang was too. He didn’t say anything, but it was the way he didn’t say anything that gave him away. She knew they were both thinking the same thing: the journey one way was treacherous enough, but returning, carrying who knows what was even worse.

Like her, he had tried to prise more information out of Aladdin, but the young man was much more cautious than the Princess. He would only tell them the turn they would need to take at the fifth gorge that opened into the Xiaowen canyon, and from there, find the Dragonmouth cavern.

The occasional shepherd huts or trade posts grew fewer and further between. The supplies they had replenished as they journeyed were running lower and lower, until they had to hunt the wild rabbits that darted between the sparse trees that clung to the rocky canyon walls.

The weather was turning as well, with strong winds that made every step a labour. They brought their own pair of tents with them and they became unfortunately necessary the higher they went. When one of them was swept away even as they were pitching it, they had to squeeze into the remaining one. By the end of the third day of the winds, all of them were wearing the thick veils to shield their faces, and spending more time sheltering in damp caves until the worst had passed.

Standing watch at the opening of the cavern, Mulan searched the rocky valley for Shang, who was on the hunt for food once more. Behind her, Aladdin and Jasmine were working at building the sparse fire. The dampness of the wood and the air didn’t help, bitter black smoke licking along the roof of the cave.

She could hear them talking quietly to one another, the acoustics of the cave letting her hear almost every word. It sounded like a debate about their journey and the wisdom of going on, under the circumstances. Neither seemed happy about the idea of giving up, but both agreed that when even the elements were against you, it was worth reconsidering.

Mulan smiled briefly. At least they weren’t selfish enough to demand that they continue on their way. She shifted on her feet, stamping to warm herself, and peered out into the wind-blasted gloom again. She spotted his silhouette, twenty paces away, looking this way and that for the cavern. She stepped out, waving her arm to catch his eye. It proved to be a mistake.

While it was indeed Shang, he wasn’t the only one to see her. Exhausted, hungry and outnumbered, it was little surprise to Mulan that they only managed to take down a dozen of the bandits before they fell to sheer numbers. Fortunately, the thieves were smart enough to recognise valuable hostages when they saw them.

Mulan swore in outrage when one of the bandits deliberately knocked Shang senseless. She would have attacked, if her own arms hadn’t been pinioned behind her. They even had shackles, and she struggled against them as they closed on her wrists.

Aladdin and Jasmine were struggling just as furiously as any valuables they had were stripped from them. One of the thieves had scratches on his face from Jasmine’s nails, and he was laughing as he shackled her beside Mulan.

“Take them to the caves.” The chief of the bandits was a large man who seemed to made up entirely of hair. His eyes were barely visible between his eyebrows and moustache. “Put the women in the small cell.” He cast a glance over them. “They may provide entertainment, if they’re not valuable enough to save.”

Jasmine gave a small cry and, to Mulan’s astonishment, she fell in a faint to the ground.

“Jasmine!” Aladdin yelled, struggling against his captors, only to be struck again.

The chief just laughed, as Jasmine was unceremoniously hoisted off the ground and thrown over another bandit’s shoulder. Her loosened shawl unravelled in a creamy trail on the ground, as she was carried away. Mulan was pushed after her, and she threw a wild look back at Shang. He was stirring, at least, which was better than nothing.

They were forced along the ravine, towards a dark opening in the rock. Mulan frowned, staring at it. If you tilted your head and squinted a little, it almost looked like a dragon’s mouth, with spiked rocks lining the entrance like teeth. The man behind her shoved her again and she almost stumbled, hissing.

Inside the cave, there were torches burning, the air acrid with smoke and dust. Smaller caverns and passages led off the main chamber, and as she was pushed passed them, she was sure she spotted the metallic gleam of gold. The bandits, it seemed, were thriving, which was no surprise given that some more hasty traders did try the mountain routes.

A door was opened ahead of them, and she was thrust into a small, dark room. Jasmine was tipped onto the floor, her eyes still closed, and the door was shut. The torch on the wall outside cast flickering shadows through the narrow grid in the door.

Mulan knelt quickly down at Jasmine’s side, nudging her as my as she could with her bound arms. “Jasmine?”

The Princess made a muffled sound, her face half-hidden in the braided mass of her hair.

“It’s okay,” Mulan lied softly, urgently. “We’re going to be okay. We’ll get out of here and Shang and Aladdin will…” She paused, frowning, as Jasmine lifted her head, something long, thin and sharp gripped triumphantly between her teeth. “What are you doing?”

With effort, Jasmine sat up, and Mulan saw she had a hairpin in her teeth. She shook her braid over her right shoulder, then tilted her chin over her left and dropped the pin down behind her. “How are you with locks?” she asked, looking back at Mulan. “Aladdin’s been trying to teach me, but I’m still learning.”

Mulan suspected she might be staring. “Huh? Uh. No. I’m not. Good with locks, I mean.”

Jasmine’s attention was elsewhere and she was frowning in concentration, her profile caught in the flickering light of the torch. Mulan could hear the sound of the hairpin scratching and scraping at the heavy lock of the shackles. “It can’t be that hard,” the Princess of Agrabah said, “if a monkey can do it.”

“No,” Mulan agreed, dazed, “not hard at all.” She stared at Jasmine. “Uh. Do you break out of shackles often?”

Jasmine stopped what she was doing for a moment and smiled. “When you marry someone like Aladdin, there’s no end to the different things you have to learn to get out of trouble.”

“Why?” Mulan asked, bewildered.

Jasmine exclaimed in delight as there was a click from the shackles, and she brought her hands around in front of her, one wrist freed. “Because,” she replied, as she set to work on the other cuff, “before he was my husband, he wasn’t exactly on the right side of the law.”

Mulan blinked at her. “I. You. What?”

Jasmine didn’t seem to hear her. She was working on the lock of the second cuff. “Ha! It’s easier when you can see the lock to begin with,” she said, then crawled around behind Mulan. “Hold still. Let me know if I miss the lock.”

“How will I OW!”

“That’s how,” Jasmine replied. “Ah! Got it.”

The shackles tugged and pulled against Mulan’s arms, but she didn’t protest. If the Princess could break them out of their shackles, they would have to come up with a way to get out of the cell. If Aladdin was as proficient as Jasmine suggested, they wouldn’t have any trouble breaking out too, but Mulan had a feeling that they would be under tighter guard. After all, a couple of women were hardly a threat, and would barely be worth a guard.

She closed her eyes, remembering the way through the cave. She could only remember one door that had a lock on it, aside from their own, which had to be where Shang and Aladdin were being kept.

“Mulan,” Jasmine murmured.

“Mm?”

“Did you notice the cave? When they brought us in?”

Mulan tilted her head to look back at her. “You could see it?”

“I thought I was imagining it,” Jasmine admitted. “Being upside down didn’t help. Do you think this is the place?”

Mulan hesitated. “If it is…”

“Mulan, we came this far,” the Princess whispered. “We have to at least look.”

Mulan’s shoulders sagged. “It’s a big cave,” she said quietly. “Do you even know where to start? Things may have changed since your friend knew it.”

“I know exactly,” Jasmine said with certainty. There was a click and one of the shackles loosened. She crawled round in front of Mulan and took her other wrist, starting to work on the second lock. “Aladdin says Shang is about as tough as him. He never says that about anyone. They’ll be fine, and if we don’t find anything, we plan, rescue them and escape.”

“And if we do find something?”

Jasmine’s smile was like a crescent moon in the darkness. “We’ll be out of here even faster,” she replied.

Mulan knew it was better not to ask. As soon as the second shackle was undone, she rose and crept to the door. From what she had been able to see, it was a simple mechanism with a sliding bolt. It was meant as a mere precaution, and any child with some imagination and a piece of string could have got out.

She unwound her belt, and then the thin leather cord which she wore beneath it. It was easy enough to make a loop and pressing her eye to the grid, she fed the cord down. It was stiffer than twine, and without too much difficulty, she managed to catch the bolt.

Somewhere closer to the entrance, there was a scream.

“Was that Shang?”

Mulan smiled by torchlight. “No,” she said. “That definitely wasn’t Shang.”

“Good,” Jasmine whispered, then drew a breath as the bolt scraped open. Mulan froze, the cord rigid against her fingers, but from the sounds of it, the boys were being too distracting for anyone to notice a door was opening.

Mulan pushed the door open cautiously and peered out into the passage. “Looks like we’re in the clear,” she murmured. “Which way?”

Jasmine murmured a rhyme under her breath, counting off on her fingers. “Third passage down on the left,” she whispered. She pulled her hood up, and Mulan was startled to see blood staining her hands. “If we stay close to the walls, and in the shadows, we should get there without being spotted.”

Mulan only hesitated to pull a small dagger from her boot, then she took Jasmine’s hand and together, they started creeping down the passage way. The Princess was trailing her fingertips along the dark walls, and as the torches faded behind them, she started searched the ground with her feet as well.

When they reached the passage, Jasmine pulled her hand free and knelt. From the sound of it, she was crawling around on the floor.

“Is it just lying on the floor?” Mulan hissed.

“No,” Jasmine replied. She sounded pleased. “Stand back.”

Mulan complied, shifting on her feet again. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness and she could almost make out the shape of Jasmine kneeling on the floor. The Princess made a sharp gesture towards the floor, as if throwing something, and said words in some strange, unfamiliar language.

Suddenly, there was light, so bright that Mulan had to throw up an arm to shield her eyes.

“This is it!” Jasmine exclaimed in breathless delight. “He was right! It’s here!”

Lowering her arm, Mulan risked a glance. There was a new passage opened before them, the walls of which glowed. Jasmine was still kneeling, her bloodied hands wrapped around a metal ring, which was imbedded in a massive boulder. If appearances were to be believed, the Princess had just pulled the boulder away from the opening.

“What just happened?” she demanded.

“What we came for,” Jasmine said, scrambling to her feet and pulling Mulan into the opening. There were stairs, which looked ancient, and patterns on the walls that coiled and spiralled like clouds. “Quick!”

Fear and fatigue pushed aside by curiosity, Mulan hurried after her into a massive, glittering cave. Stalagmites and stalagtites crept from floor and ceiling, but around them, above them, between them, was more gold and jewels that Mulan had ever seen in her life.

“Oh!”

“Never mind that,” Jasmine said urgently. “It has to be here somewhere.” She was running from pile to pile. “This could take forever.”

“What are we looking for?” Mulan asked.

Jasmine hesitated, then replied, “A ring imbedded with a stone that looks like the eye of a mountain tiger.”

Together they searched, deeper and deeper into the treasure trove. There were strange objects, things which seemed to serve no purpose but to gleam and sparkle. Gems studded the spikes of stone that rose from the floor, as if pasted there. There was even a chariot, gleaming golden. In Mulan’s mind, it was probably completely useless, unless it was only gold leaf.

“There!”

Mulan turned to see Jasmine scrambling up a narrow staircase. There was a statue there, or the ruins of one at least. The face was gone apart from the remains of the beard sticking up from the chest, and half the torso worn away, but on the remaining upraised hand, there was a ring.

Jasmine lifted it down reverently, cupping her hands around it, as she ran back down the staircase. “This is it,” she whispered, opening her hands to show Mulan.

“Really?” Mulan eyed the ring doubtfully. It hardly seemed like anything compared to the other treasure in the cave: a small, dented ring of some metal that wasn’t even gold. The stone was pretty enough, but it was hardly a spectacular treasure.

“This is no ordinary ring,” Jasmine said happily. She slipped it onto her finger and rubbed the metal with the fingers of her other hand.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then, a cloud of red smoke billowed out from the tiger’s eye, roiling and swirling and filling the air around them.

“Jasmine!”

“Don’t worry!” Jasmine laughed. “Hello? Hello, are you there?”

The smoke cleared, and they were no longer alone. Mulan put up her dagger, startled, at the sight of another woman standing barely feet from them. The stranger was young-looking, and would have seemed like any other woman if not for the shimmering, reddish glow around her. She was wearing a floating, shimmering robe, that seemed to change colour and pattern the longer you looked at it, and jet black hair was twisted up into braided knots on each side of her head, spiked through with hair pins.

“Do I have to do the spiel?” she asked Jasmine plaintively. “I feel like a market trader, when I have to do the spiel.”

Jasmine shook her head, smiling, as if glowing women just appeared out of rings every day of the week. “I know who you are,” she said, “and what. I was sent to find you.”

“What’s going on?” Mulan asked plaintively. “Who is she? Where did she come from?”

The girl laughed. “I’m a genie,” she replied, then nodded at Jasmine, “her genie.”

Mulan opened her mouth to protest that there was no such things, then she remembered that she had been tutored by a half-sized dragon, who was sent by her long-dead ancestors. She shut her mouth again. Sometimes, there’s no arguing with what’s right in front of you.

“Do you have a wish?” the genie asked. “I haven’t done one for ages.”

“I do,” Jasmine agreed. “It’s a big one.”

“Oh! I like those best,” the genie said, clapping her hands. “I like to show off all my magic in one big boom of colour and sparkles.” She pressed her palms together in front of her and bowed solemnly. “What is your wish?”

“I wish,” Jasmine said, ignoring Mulan’s incredulous look, “that I, Mulan, and our husbands Shang and Aladdin, and the four horses we came on were safely in the main courtyard of the Imperial city, where we came from, with as much of the treasure from this cave as you can bring with us.”

“Oh, that is a big one!” The genie hopped excitedly from one foot to the other. “Now?”

“Now,” Jasmine said with a nod and a smile.

Mulan shook her head and took a step towards Jasmine.

Something clattered underfoot.

She looked down. The ground beneath her was covered in gold and treasure where there had only been rock before. She raised her head to exclaim and blinked, looking around. A dozen paces away, Shang was mid-swing of his sword, and looking as perplexed as she felt, while Aladdin was rolling across the flagstones. He sat up, looking around.

“What happened?” he asked, getting carefully to his feet.

“We did it!” Jasmine exclaimed, darting towards him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, hugging her.

“We’re in the Imperial palace,” Shang said blankly as Mulan hurried to his side. “How hard did they hit me on the head?”

“We’ll explain,” Aladdin said. “We need to get to our chambers. We’ll explain there.”

“But we’re in the palace,” Shang repeated, bewildered, “with no bandits, a massive pile of treasure and a glowing girl.” He looked around and added indignantly, “And the guards haven’t even noticed!”

Somewhere on the walls, an alarm was raised.

“Feel better?” Mulan asked consolingly.

The genie vanished, and Jasmine put a finger to her lips. Mulan nodded, letting Shang lean against her. Whatever it was the genie had done, it didn’t agree with him on top of a head wound, and he was swaying.

“Who goes!”

“Fa Mulan,” she called out loudly, “with Li Shang. We leave the city for a few short weeks and your guards become so lax?” A sheepish guard was hurrying down the staircase towards them, and almost tripped over a chest of coins. “We arrive, with a bountiful gift for the Emperor, and no one even deigns to notice?”

“F-Fa Mulan, we are sorry!” The young soldier blushed furiously. “We did not have word from the outer city or the inner city that you were coming.”

She raised her chin imperiously. “You will pay for your inattention by placing a guard unit around this courtyard,” she said. “This treasure must not be touched until the Emperor views it in the morning. We are taking our guests to their chambers. We are not to be disturbed until dawn, do you understand?”

The soldier nodded frantically, standing to attention.

Mulan nodded to Jasmine, and they headed into the guests quarters as quickly as they could, with Shang leaning heavily on Mulan’s shoulder, murmuring that he didn’t understand what was going on, and he was very sure that if he did, he wouldn’t like it.

By the time they reached the room, Aladdin was supporting Shang’s other side. Jasmine ran ahead of them, opening the doors. Mulan and Aladdin laid him down on the bed, and Mulan quickly stripped off his wet clothing, wrapping him in blankets. He gazed at her as she smoothed his hair back from his bruised brow.

“We’re really in the palace?” he murmured.

“We are,” she said softly. “Our guests have some explaining to do.”

Aladdin and Jasmine exchanged sheepish looks, then Aladdin called, “We’re back. You can come out. They’re safe.”

A cat slinked out from behind a large vase. There was nothing exceptional about it, except that it was blue and had a curly beard.

“A cat?” Shang said doubtfully.

“Not quite,” Aladdin said, as the cat swelled up into a mostly human shape. It was still blue, glowing eerily, and larger than the biggest man Mulan had ever seen. “This is our friend. He’s a genie, and he saved us more times than you can count.”

“And I’m retired,” the genie said, twiddling his thumbs nervously. “You’re back. Did you…?”

Jasmine smiled and rubbed the ring again. The genie girl appeared in a puff of red smoke, which she brushed away as if it were dust on her robe.

The male genie said something in a strange, quiet voice. The girl genie whirled around, squealed and threw herself at him. “Big brother!”

“Mulan?” Shang said plaintively.

“Yes, I know,” she murmured, “but it’s okay. Turns out genies are real, just like my dragon guardian was real.” She patted his brow gently. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your head injury talking.”

The girl genie was still chattering excitedly. “And then they sealed the cave, and you have no idea how boring it is being stuck in a ring in a cave with no one to talk to, but I watched the cave growing, and that was really neat and I picked a name and it’s Jiaying, because it means lucky and I think I’m pretty lucky, don’t you? And then this human came along and…”

“Man, I missed you,” the male genie said, hoisting her off her feet and hugging her. “I don’t know anyone who can talk more than me, except you.”

Jiaying laughed as he set her down, then frowned. “Your cuffs!”

He beamed. “I forgot to tell you! I’m free!”

Jiaying’s eyes went round. “That is amazing!” she squealed.

“This isn’t much of an explanation,” Mulan observed.

The genie clamped his hand over his squealing sister’s mouth. “We’ll be over there,” he said, nodding to an alcove. Jiaying nodded enthusiastically behind his hand.

“So, about this explanation,” Mulan said.

Aladdin and Jasmine exchanged looks, and Aladdin began to tell them his story: a street kid who fell for a runaway Princess; a treacherous Vizier who used him to plunder a cave of magical treasure; the genie who saved him and became his dearest friend; the betrayal by the Vizier and the liberation of the city and the genie that followed.

“He went travelling after he was freed,” Aladdin concluded, “and searched for the place that his sister, the genie of the ring, was hidden. Trouble is that because of the kind of power a genie wields, they’re cursed to be unable to physically find another genie. If they could, they might end up with a master who would wish for all the magic rings and lamps in the world. This way, anyone who find a genie, only gets that genie.”

“He traced the stories and remembered the inside of the cave,” Jasmine added, “because that’s the place he was enslaved to his lamp.” She looked over at the two genies. Jiaying was curling her finger into the larger genie’s beard, babbling happily at him. “After everything he had done for us, this was the least we could do for him.”

“Oh!” Jiaying exclaimed, wriggling free of her brother’s arms. “You still have two wishes! Do you want them now?”

Jasmine looked over at the blue genie, who looked like his smile was trying to crack his face wide open, then at her smiling husband, who took her hand and squeezed it. “I think I have everything I need,” she said happily.

Mulan looked at Shang with a smile. She knew that feeling.

“Oh,” Jiaying said, looking disappointed. “But you have three wishes. Don’t you want them?”

“I only need one more,” Jasmine said. She looked over at Mulan. “Unless there’s anything you need?”

“No,” Mulan said.

“Yes,” Shang murmured sleepily.

“Shang!”

He peered up at her, his eyes unfocussed. “I’d like some invulnerable armour for us,” he said. “Something that keeps my head safe.”

She laughed, leaning down to hug him. “You could just duck,” she said fondly. She turned to Jiaying. “If you could get us some unbreakable armour, that would be perfect.”

Jiaying hopped in an excited circle, clasped her hands in front of her, and there was a shimmer of magic. Two beautiful sets of new armour gleamed on their stands at the foot of the bed.

Shang’s face lit up. “Okay,” he said, subsiding back against the bed, “I’m done.”

Jasmine looked at Aladdin, and squeezed his hand. He nodded, so she turned back to Jiaying. “I have one more wish, don’t I?”

The genie nodded eagerly. “Is it a good one?”

“It’s the best one,” Jasmine replied. “I wish you to be free.”

Jiaying froze on the spot, her hands not quite touching in front of her chest. “Huh?”

The blue genie burst out laughing. “Told you she’d do that,” he said smugly. “Like brother like sister, am I right?”

“But wait? What?” Jiaying said, spinning to face him and back. “What kind of wish is that? They don’t get anything out of it!”

“It’s a wish for you, little sister,” he said, coming up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders. “Now, are you gonna say thank you to the nice Princess and go all liberated on us, or am I gonna have to give you a noogie?”

Jiaying squeaked and put her arms over her head. “No noogie!” she exclaimed, then hastily clasped her hands in front of her chest. “You’re sure that you want to wish for that?”

Jasmine smiled, sliding the ring off her finger and holding it out. “I’m sure.”

Jiaying squealed and started to spin. The ring glowed in Jasmine’s palm, then rose into the air, spinning as quickly as the genie was herself. Coils of colourful smoke wound and unwound around her, exploding in bursts of bright colours. The golden rings that circled her wrists dropped away with a clatter and she squealed again as she alighted on the floor.

“Feet!” she exclaimed, hauling her robes up and wiggling small, red toes. “I’ve never had feet before!”

“That’s only the start of it,” her brother said, beaming proudly. “You guys don’t mind if we…?”

“Go have a look around,” Jasmine said, smiling. “We’ll be here.”

Immediately, a red and blue bird darted for the window and out into the pre-dawn sky.

Mulan tucked the blanket up over Shang. “Worth it?” she asked Aladdin and Jasmine.

“Totally,” Aladdin said, smiling.

 

________________________

 

Three weeks had passed since Jiaying had been freed.

The Imperial treasury was still cataloguing the new acquisitions, and a new building was already planned to house it. To Mulan and Shang’s astonishment, they had been allocated a small portion for their services to the Princess of Agrabah. It was less than a chest of treasure, but even that was more than enough to house them and rank them among the wealthiest people in the city.

Jasmine and Aladdin remained long enough to see a true Chinese celebration with all the colour and wonder that it entailed. It was nowhere near as spectacular as the New Year festivities, but the fireworks and dragon dances delighted them.

As long as they remained, Mulan remained too, both guardian and companion to the Princess, showing her the gardens and taking her around the city, while Aladdin and Shang took great pleasure in trying out the new, indestructible armour in a variety of creative ways.

“It’ll be strange when you go home,” Mulan admitted. They were walking through a bazaar, collecting last items for the camel train that would be journeying to Agrabah. “I’m getting used to having another girl around that I can actually talk to.”

Jasmine smiled. “I know the feeling,” she said. “We have to stay in contact.”

“The couriers on the Silk road sometimes carry messages,” Mulan suggested. “We could try that, even if it does mean waiting a while.”

Jasmine slipped her arm through Mulan’s. “You should come and visit Agrabah,” she said. “You’ve shown me your city and country. It would only be fair to let you see mine.” Her eyes danced. “I’m sure Aladdin could show you all kinds of interesting places.”

“I bet he could,” Mulan agreed with a snort of amusement. “We’ll think about it. It’s a long way to come when you don’t have a carpet.”

“And even if you did, I don’t think Shang would be too happy,” Jasmine said with a small smile.

The promised flight on the magic carpet had happened the week before. They had both been surprised when the brave Captain Li Shang flung himself flat on the carpet as soon as it reached the height of the palace wall. He clung on until they landed, then jumped off, swearing he would never again raise himself above the level of a man with no solid surface between him and the ground.

“We’ll find a way,” Mulan promised. “After all, we’re two of the wealthiest people in China now, thanks to you.”

Jasmine waved away her words. “It was only fair after we dragged you into the mountains and got you attacked by bandits,” she said, “and it’s not even like it was a hundredth of what was in the caves.”

“Still…”

Jasmine tugged on Mulan’s arm with her own. “If you want, we can have the camel train take that back to Agrabah if it’s so much trouble for you.”

“Hey!”

Jasmine laughed. “So you’ll keep it?”

Mulan smiled. “I guess,” she agreed, as they turned back in the direction of the palace.

The carpet was already awaiting them, stocked with provisions for the journey. There were two wicker baskets, bound with twine. A tiny red hand stuck through the gap between basket and lid, waving enthusiastically.

Mulan crouched down and touched the Jiaying’s little palm. “Safe travels,” she whispered, making a show of checking the bindings on the basket. “Enjoy your freedom.” The hand pulled back inside and Mulan heard Jiaying giggle. She straightened up and turned to Jasmine. “You take care, Princess.”

“You too, Fa Mulan,” Jasmine replied, throwing her arms around Mulan and hugging her warmly.

“Do we have to do that?” Shang asked doubtfully. He was standing a few paces away with Aladdin, who had his hands thrust in his pockets of his ornate robes.

“Nah,” Aladdin replied. “We’re guys.” He slapped Shang firmly on the shoulder. “See you around.”

Shang looked relieved. “Yeah. See you.”

Mulan and Jasmine exchanged a meaningful look that said one thing: Men.

It was the work of a few minutes for Aladdin and Jasmine to arrange themselves on the carpet, and it rose smoothly, bringing them up to eye-level with Shang and Mulan.

“Don’t you forget us,” Jasmine warned.

“Oh, trust me,” Shang snorted, touching the faint scar on his forehead from the blow in the caves, weeks earlier, “you guys left a mark.”

Jasmine ducked her head, laughing, and nestled closer to Aladdin. “We’ll see you.”

Mulan raised a hand, half-saluting, as the carpet rose onwards and upwards, and in the distance, she heard Jiaying cry out, “Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”