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Mulan felt the eyes of the Council members follow her as she took her seat at the Emperor’s table. She automatically lowered her eyes and folded her hands in her lap, but then she remembered that the Emperor himself had travelled to her home to request her presence—hers—in the capital. Her spine straightened, extending to the base of her skull, and she locked her eyes in turn with each Council member’s hostile gaze.

The Emperor cleared his throat. “Gentlem—ahem. Advisors. We have a new member to our Council. Fa Mulan has graciously agreed to offer her fine mind toward matters of the Empire. I do hope you will make her feel welcome.”

Perhaps Mulan imagined it, but she heard a faintest note of warning in the Emperor’s tone. The matter-of-fact manner of his speech, however, must have masked it, judging by the mutinous expressions on the other men’s faces.

She drew in a breath. “Thank you, sir. I hope to bring honor to your Council.”

The Emperor inclined his head toward her before continuing. “Our growing ranks come just at a moment of crisis. Shan Yu’s army laid waste to our lands and villages, destroying homes and crops. There are many mouths to feed, and not enough resources to do so. We need to find a solution. I shall not allow my people to starve, nor a heathen to continue his campaign against China even in death.” He glanced out the window at the setting sun, and Mulan watched as his muscles slowly eased their tension, as if he purposely let the anger release from each limb. “It is late. Think on this crisis tonight. We shall reconvene tomorrow to discuss our options and hear General Li Shang’s report from the outer villages.”

He nodded his dismissal, and Mulan rose with the Council members, bowing as one to the Emperor, and moved toward the exit. The men shuffled around, unsure, when Mulan kept her chin raised and inserted herself among them as they left the room. She kept smiling politely, even when Chi Fu harrumphed and passed without looking at her

She sighed inwardly; this would be a challenge, she thought to herself as she wound her way through the palace halls to the rooms assigned her that afternoon. But then again, she’d never backed away from a challenge before. She remembered her guardian dragon fondly, but as she closed the door to her rooms behind her, she steeled herself to do this on her own, and her mind started racing with possibilities for saving China.

***

After the morning meal the next day, Mulan headed for the Council chamber, eager to prove herself once and for all just as intelligent as any of the men there.

Judging by the instant quiet Chi Fu and the other three men in the room assumed as she walked in, she could guess what—or who—had been the previous topic of conversation. Nevertheless, she smiled at them and took her seat.

The other members trickled in, none of them speaking more than a word or two to each other, and none paying any attention at all to Mulan. She resisted the urge to fidget.

Finally the Emperor walked in, followed closely by Shang. As she and the Council members bowed, her heart leaped at the sight of her old Captain; finally, another ally.

“General Shang, if you will.” The Emperor motioned for Shang to give his report.

Shang nodded curtly, making eye contact with each Council member. The lines around his eyes eased when he saw Mulan but then returned when he began to speak. “The villages closest to the wall are destroyed. Shan Yu burned houses and whatever crops he and his men couldn’t take. Women and children were forced to flee to their neighboring villages, assuming they escaped Shan Yu’s ruthlessness. The men were either already in China’s army or slaughtered.”

Mulan gripped the edge of the table. Her head swam with grief as hundreds of voices practically screamed at her for help, and the image of a tiny doll with black hair blowing in the quiet wind filled her mind.

“I estimate several thousand people have been displaced,” Shang continued. “The crops that would have fed such a number are gone, and with it being the middle of winter, there’s no hope for replanting, which would take time and warm weather, or for much transportation of food the rest of the Empire doesn’t have enough of. It would also be dangerous to travel the icy paths with an abundance of heavy carts.”

“Thank you, General,” the Emperor said, his face grim. “As you can see, Councilors, we have a situation. What are your thoughts on how best to feed and shelter these women and children?”

“House them with their husbands’ brothers or uncles,” one man, who’d been introduced as Ban Lun, suggested. “Take what we can to them and let them figure out their rations.”

Another man, Yin Si, shook his head. “That leaves too many women and children in the hands of men who cannot care for them, especially if a man had multiple brothers. I say the women remarry if still of childbearing age; that will lessen the blow to already married men.”

Many of the men nodded agreement, and Mulan twisted her hands together. “Women aren’t a piece of jewelry or furniture to be bartered off like they have no feelings,” she said. “Why can’t they rebuild their own homes and raise their families, together even?”

Silence. Then Chi Fu chuckled. “A women-run household? Don’t be absurd.”

“I’m not. It’s entirely feasible, and if multiple families live in the same home, that would require less building materials and ensure they support each other now that their husbands are gone.”

Meng Tian looked down the table at her condescendingly. “Why don’t you leave the plans to the men, hmm, Mulan? A woman’s ideas are obviously not fit for the matters of the Empire.”

“Call her Ping if it’ll make it easier for you,” Shang interrupted lightly.

Mulan banged her hand on the table. “No. My name is Mulan.” She tried to ignore Shang’s expression of hurt at her anger and soldiered on. “Ping does not exist; his ideas were mine. To respect his actions, as you all did”—she turned a pointed look toward Chi Fu—“is to respect mine. The Emperor has made Ping unnecessary by inviting me—Mulan—to his Council, as he did to each of you. Please treat me as you do each other.”

The Council members exchanged uneasy glances.

Chi Fu snorted. “You will not last a day,” he said smugly.

Mulan glared at him. “You said the same thing before training all those months ago, but that prediction didn’t come true, now did it? Let’s leave prophecy to the gods and let time show how long I will or will not last.”

A few of the Council members chuckled, breaking the tension, although a flustered Chi Fu continued to glare daggers at Mulan.

“The women can help.” The Council members tittered again, but Mulan raised a placating hand. “They know their families and these villages better than anyone else. Why not let them rebuild their homes and determine exactly what provisions they need?”

“They’ll just lie and ask for more in order to fatten their own bellies,” Tian scoffed.

Mulan stared at him disbelievingly. “How can you say that? Do you treat your own wife with such distrust?”

“My wife knows her place.”

She flew from her seat. “Do not punish the women of this Empire because one of your Council members is the wrong gender for your backward mind!”

The man smirked and looked at the Emperor. “Forgive me, Your Highness, but some of your Council members have become…irrational.”

The Emperor turned his head to her and said in a gentle but firm voice, “Mulan, I invited you here because I believed you could hold yourself with the same control and quick thinking as when you saved this Empire.”

Mulan’s eyes widened. Shame flooded her veins, and she sat back down quickly, avoiding the undoubtedly triumphant expressions of her fellow Council members. “My apologies, Your Highness.”

“Her idea is a good one, however,” the Emperor continued. “We trust the men of the villages, so I see no reason not to do the same with their wives. General Shang, order your riders to each village and gather supply lists and food ration requirements from the women there.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mulan heard Shang rise from his seat. Just as he would have left, however, the Emperor added, “Mulan, you are to go with him.”

Mulan looked up sharply, just in time to see Shang’s equally surprised expression. “Sir?” she prompted.

“The women will trust you much more implicitly than the soldiers. I want nothing left out because they fear reprimand now that they have no husbands to protect them.”

“Yes, sir.” Mulan smiled, bowed, and left the room with Shang, joy blooming in her heart that she could do something the other Council members couldn’t.

She walked next to Shang, his expression at her angry words still pressing at her mind. “Shang, I’m—”

“Woman.” Chi Fu caught up to them. “I’m to give you this tablet for recording the…requirements.” His voice dripped with disdain as he handed Mulan a beautiful ink and quill set, taking care not to accidently brush against her fingers. “A gift from the Emperor.”

“Oh,” Mulan breathed. “Thank you.” Chi Fu harrumphed and whisked away, no doubt before he could sully himself with more conversation with her.

She turned back to her General and opened her mouth, but he spoke first.

“It’s still early. We leave in two hours. Have your things packed and ready by then.” He nodded to her and then took off to his rooms, leaving her behind and bewildered by his cold demeanor.

***

Two hours later, Mulan set off with Shang and his soldiers. As soon as she had finished packing Khan, three figures enveloped her in a spine-crushing hug.

“Ling! Chien Po! Yao!” She hugged each of them in turn, delighted to see her old friends again. “How are you?”

“Good!”

“Hungry!”

“Ready for battle!”

Mulan laughed. “I’ve missed you guys.”

“And how are you getting on with the…um…Council?” Ling asked in a mock whisper.

Mulan rolled her eyes, tightening a strap around Khan’s flank. Too tightly, apparently, because Khan turned and whinnied at her. “They’re not very happy with me being…me,” she replied, loosening the strap and soothing Khan’s muscles.

“Eh, they’ll see,” Yao said. “You’ll be all right.”

“Let’s hope so.” Mulan brightened. “And how are your wives?”

“They’re not like you, Mulan,” Chien Po joked.

Mulan snorted. “Thank goodness, right?”

They chuckled with her.

***

They spent the day’s ride laughing and joking around. The further they marched from the palace, the more tension eased from Mulan’s shoulders. This was the life she knew and loved. This was where she was respected and accepted.

Shang kept looking back at Mulan and the guys, but he never included himself in their group, even during meals. They all went into their tents that night, Mulan trying to figure out how to make things right with her General again.

Just about to doze off, an idea hit her. Exiting her tent, she tiptoed to Cook’s supplies, plucked the longest white feather she could find from one of the chickens, and sneaked into Shang’s tent. Being careful not to alert the cautious General to her presence, she left the feather on his pillow and quickly returned to her own tent, still amazed at her stealth skills.

The next day, she was dismantling her tent after the morning meal when Shang stepped next to her.

“My grandmother always told me,” he began quietly, “that a swan—or white feathers, really—have always symbolized parting.”

Mulan gasped. “No.” Shang looked at her sharply, and she blushed. “I mean…We have a story in our village. It’s…a young man bought a swan for his friend, but it escaped, leaving behind only a feather. The young man took the feather to the friend who’d wanted the swan as a sign of his intent, and as an apology. He did what he could, and…he tried to do what was asked of him.”

“And what did the friend do with only a feather?” Shang asked.

He forgave him and kept the feather as a sign of friendship, she thought hopefully. “I don’t know,” Mulan replied. “I was hoping you would tell me that.” She held her breath.

“Well, the whole point is moot, really,” Shang said, and Mulan cocked her head, confused. He held up the feather she’d left for him. “I’ve found a chicken feather, not a swan’s.”

Mulan blinked, and it was only then that she could see the beginnings of a smile at the corners of his lips. She relaxed and chuckled. “Yes, well, it’s difficult to find swans in China.”

“Yes,” Shang agreed, grinning openly now. “But there are friends.” He cupped her hand and placed the feather in it, closing her fingers over it. He thumped her back before heading away, leaving Mulan to breathe deeply in relief.

***

They encountered the first village on their route that afternoon. Shang had been assigned the closest swathe of villages to the capital, no doubt to keep both the Emperor’s most trusted General and one of his Council members within reach of the palace.

At first, the women shied away from the soldiers, no doubt not even noticing a woman among them, as Mulan has opted for men’s clothing as properly befitted a horseback ride. But the villagers began to mutter amongst themselves when Mulan, breasts unbound and now longer hair flying free, dismounted.

Shang gathered everyone’s attention. “We are here to help those who lost home and crop in the Huns’ attack. We’ll be asking you for estimates of how much food you’ll need to survive the winter, and what supplies you’ll need to rebuild your homes.”

The men, brothers and uncles of the deceased husbands, automatically stepped forward. “Most of the men are dead. There is no reason to rebuild homes just for the women.”

“Yes there is.” Mulan stepped forward. “These women are perfectly capable of running their own households. They do it for you all the time.” She smiled, trying to lighten the mood, but it seemed to have no effect.

“And who are you?” one of the men asked disdainfully.

“My name is Fa Mulan,” she replied. “We’ve come to help you.”

More muttering. A few of the women stepped forward curiously, but the man spoke again. “A woman dressed like a soldier? Why would we want help from you? You should be at home like a proper woman, cleaning and cooking, honoring your husband with children. Let the men of the Emperor’s Council help us.”

“You spurn much-needed help just because I am a woman?” Mulan asked.

“You disgrace your family.”

“I hold the Emperor’s seal, the sword of Shan Yu, and had any of it been left, the head of the Empire’s greatest threat. While the so-called wise men of the Emperor’s Council sat and attempted to negotiate according to custom, I disarmed Shan Yu with a fan and blew him into the next world where he could harm no more. I disgrace no one.”

“Is it true, then?” a feminine voice piped up. A young woman with a child on her hip stepped forward tentatively. “A woman defeated the Huns?”

Mulan smiled warmly at her, but Shang answered her first. “Yes, it is,” he said proudly. “I personally owe my life to her more times than I can count.”

Mulan flushed, but before she could reply, more women stepped forward. “We can live on our own?” one asked doubtfully.

“Absolutely.” Mulan nodded. “On your own, if you wish, or with other women and their children to support each other. We’ll help you with that.”

“So we don’t have to remarry?” one middle-aged woman close to Mulan whispered.

“No. Not if you don’t want to.”

The woman sighed in relief. “I loved my husband,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “I do not wish to dishonor his memory in another man’s bed.”

“Then you will not.” Mulan took the woman’s hands to reassure her. “Tell me what you need.”

Hope shining in their faces, the women gathered around Mulan, exchanging tentative ideas before warming to them and chattering excitedly. Shang came over and reminded them to ask for only the most basic of necessities, given the limited resources in the Empire, and Mulan backed up mentally from allowing the excitement of helping these women to carry her away.

Mulan recruited Ling, Chien Po, and Yao to help take notes from the swarm of women. They finished quickly, leaving the village with promises to send them the stated supplies and the women’s smiles etched into their minds.

***

In the next village, they encountered the same resistance from the men and the same hope from the women. More of Shang’s men helped this time, seeming awkward at first and slowly becoming more enthusiastic with each passing village as the women’s happiness rolled over them.

Mulan beamed at the bustle of soldiers and women making plans and calculating figures for their futures. The occasional romance even bloomed between the young widows and a few of the soldiers. Mulan chuckled inwardly at the thought of the matchmakers gaining quite a bit of business this winter.

Shang sidled up to her at the last village. “I have to admit, this is working out even better than I’d hoped.”

Mulan raised an eyebrow. “You had doubts?”

Looking sheepish, Shang replied, “Well, tradition is…hard to break.”

“True. But sometimes it’s for the best.” They stood silently, watching the displaced villagers, including even some of the male relatives, making their final notes.

“Stay with us.” The urgency in Shang’s voice startled Mulan.

“What?”

“Stay with us,” he repeated, beseeching. “Look at all the good you’re doing. In one week, you’ve united villages and eased the worries of hundreds of women. You belong in my…with the soldiers.” His eyes implored her.

Mulan frowned. She wanted to take his offer. In the past week, she’d never felt more at home in her own skin, wearing soldier’s clothing and not having to hide that she was a woman. Her fellow soldiers treated her the same as each other, and the temptation to stick with them forever beat at her.

She shook her head. “I can’t. Not all the time, anyway.” Shang’s expression fell. “Shang, I’ve done what I could here. The soldiers already accept me. If I stay here, I can’t show anyone else what women can do. As much as I lo—as much as I’m comfortable here, I have to go back. To show those Council members that I’m not scared of them. Maybe one day they’ll see what you already have, but I can’t ensure that by hiding with you.”

Shang nodded slowly. “I understand.” He studied her for a long moment. “You’re an amazing woman, Fa Mulan.”

She smiled. “I’m just me.”

“That you are.”

***

When they returned to the palace, the Emperor set up a Council meeting for the next day so that Shang and Mulan could give their report. Mulan ate dinner in the barracks with Shang, going over the notes from their mission, and then she returned to her quarters to wash the dirt from the road, bidding Ling, Chien Po, and Yao good night.

She arrived at the Council meeting the next day again dressed in her formal robes. Hostile stares greeted her, but she felt too accomplished to let them bother her this time.

Shang explained the success of their task, detailing the figures of requested materials that managed to fall far short of the amount the soldiers had initially expected. Mulan added that the solution pleased and relieved both the widows and many of the male relatives. She watched carefully as some of the Council members leaned back, thoughtful expressions replacing the open hostility.

“Excellent,” the Emperor said when Shang had finished. “Chi Fu, take General Shang and Councilor Mulan’s notes and see that these materials are sent with trained terrain guides as soon as possible. I want these women in their new homes quickly, but I want to make sure the carts arrive safely through the winter obstacles.”

“Yes, sir.” Chi Fu scribbled on his tablet.

“Mulan, Shang, oversee the distribution of supplies. I expect them to go out to your villages within three days, and a report from the escorts a week after that. If all goes well, give the figures from the villages you personally didn’t visit to Chi Fu for the same procedure. Barring other emergencies, this Council will reconvene in a month’s time.”

The Council members bowed and filed out. The Emperor called Mulan back.

“Your Highness?”

“I trust the mission went according to your expectations?”

Mulan frowned. “Yes, sir, of course. Did Shang and I not make that clear in the report?”

“Oh, you did.” The Emperor folded his hands into his sleeves. “But perhaps you might have left something out.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Mulan stuttered. “Like what?”

“Nothing, nothing.” The Emperor swept toward the door. Just before he left, he turned back and added, “Just remember: A crane in a river misses the warmth of the sand.”

“Sir?”

But the Emperor just smiled and glided out of the room. Mulan wondered if she’d ever meet a man who wouldn’t leave her standing bewildered.

***

Just as Mulan predicted, the escorts from the nearest villages came back with only positive reports of women gratefully accepting the building supplies and small but sufficient food rations. Mulan divided her time between the palace and the barracks, arranging escorts and supplies and guides with Shang for all the outlying villages in need. Yao whistled playfully at her the first time he saw her in her formal robes, to which Mulan rolled her eyes, shot back a reply about him just being jealous of her clothes, and continued signing the order presented to her.

Ling and Chien Po teased Yao good-naturedly for several days after that, and he turned red every time. Mulan couldn’t help but laugh until she saw Shang watching the four of them with an indescribable expression. It certainly wasn’t happy, Mulan thought as Shang turned away quickly, but other than that, she couldn’t place it. Somehow, though, she felt responsible.

Another three weeks passed, and the time came for the next Council meeting. With all the bustle of just this one problem, Mulan couldn’t imagine the problems that came with running an entire country. As she sat down, exhausted, she felt grateful that no other crisis had occurred during the past month.

“The villages all have their supplies,” Shang began at the Emperor’s nod. “One cart of housing supplies lost control on some ice, but we’re sending another shipment that should arrive in about four days. We’ll hear back from that escort in two weeks.”

“Excellent. Very well handled, General. I can rest easy now knowing that my people will not starve,” the Emperor said.

The Council members nodded. Even Chi Fu looked pleased.

The Emperor continued. “We have a happier task ahead of us, Advisors. The Spring Festival celebration. Chi Fu, begin sending for the chefs and entertainers from last year. Except for that chef from Huyou if that is agreeable to you, Councilors. I’m afraid after his food, I spent a rather…unhappy night.” He grimaced.

Several of the Council members nodded vigorously, and Mulan almost laughed at their horrified expressions.

“Does anyone have ideas for something new this year? Something to distinguish this festival from the others?” the Emperor asked.

The mood around the table turned contemplative.

“Ice sculpture dragon instead of costume one?” Tian suggested.

Chi Fu shuddered. “And make me deal with both a chef and and artist in one? I think not.”

Mulan and several of the men sniggered. “What about encouraging each region’s traditions?” Si said. “The people who come to the capital can display their finest outfits.”

Lun nodded. “And they can bring their own foods as well. We can even host a competition for the best dishes and award prizes to the winning chef.”

Mulan shook her head. “I think we should encourage union between the regions, not competition. What about pre-deciding on a featured village at random and having the best cooks make their dishes for the festival? That way it won’t be about each cook being the best.”

Chi Fu automatically opened his mouth, a frown marring his features, but Lun spoke first. “I like that idea.” Mulan’s eyes widened, and her shock almost caused her to miss his next words. “We can feature a village’s dishes for a year, until the next festival, and then choose a new one.”

Another member, Chu Gao, nodded grudgingly. “And by featuring a specific region, we can encourage travel and trade.”

“And thus union between the Empire,” Lun finished.

The Emperor beamed. “A brilliant idea, Councilors. We will show the world that China will not be divided. Chi Fu, since the festival approaches quickly, decide on a region closer to the capital and yet with a distinct flavor. Send for volunteers who will cook here. Fifteen to twenty men to share their recipes should suffice.”

Mulan cleared her throat. “Just men, Your Highness? Might a woman also be interested in sharing her food with her country?”

“My wife makes the best roast duck I’ve ever had,” Lun said with a wistful smile. “I would be honored if she were chosen during this region’s featured year.” Mulan’s heart soared.

“Then it’s settled,” the Emperor said. “Anyone who wishes may volunteer. Make that clear in your invitations, Chi Fu.”

The Chief Advisor grumbled but made his notes.

“Unless there are other matters anyone wishes to discuss, you are dismissed.”

The Council members bowed and began to leave. “A moment, General Shang,” Chi Fu said. Mulan saw him walk over to Shang and hand him a sealed scroll. Shang opened it, and his brow creased.

“What’s wrong?” Mulan asked, sidling up to him.

“The General’s affairs are none of your business, woman,” Chi Fu bit out.

“Chi Fu, a moment of your time for festival arrangements,” the Emperor called from his seat at the table. Chi Fu scrambled away.

“It’s a summons,” Shang replied, sounding defeated.

“For what?”

“The matchmaker.” Mulan blinked. “Ever since my father was killed, my mother has been eager for me to marry and…continue the family name.”

“Oh.” Mulan tried to imagine Shang with a pretty painted wife waiting for him in a beautiful home and failed. “I…um…oh, well, yeah.” She lowered her voice the way she had when she first became Ping. “Good luck with that, man,” she said, awkwardly punching him in the shoulder.

“Yeah, thanks.” He glanced at his arm. “You still need to work on that, you know. I barely felt it.”

Mulan cleared her throat and straightened her robes unnecessarily. “Well, I like you. I mean…I just didn’t want to hurt you. I mean…I’ll just go now.” She pointed toward the door while backing away, then fled, her cheeks burning.

When she returned to her rooms, she sat on her bed and tried to wrap her mind around a married Shang. The idea made sense to her now; of course he would marry eventually.

Yet somehow, she had always imagined that things would always stay the same.

***

That night, the Emperor summoned Mulan to his private meeting room. Burning with curiosity, Mulan stepped past the guards only to find Shang present as well.

“Good. You are both here,” the Emperor said brightly. “I have a mission for you two.”

“What mission?” Shang asked.

“I wish my nephew, my wife’s son, to come to the capital. It is time for his yearly visit, I believe. You are to escort him and protect him.”

“Why us?” Mulan asked, sharing a glance with Shang.

“There are no others I trust more with the lives of my family,” the Emperor said simply.

“Forgive me, Your Highness,” Shang began, “but in a few days I have an appointment with—”

“I am aware of this appointment,” the Emperor interrupted smoothly. “I shall be sure to send your regrets, General. You leave in the morning.”

Mulan and Shang bowed and left. “Well, that’s…something,” Mulan said, trying to gauge Shang’s reaction.

“Yeah,” he replied slowly. The lines around his eyes eased. “I can’t say I’m disappointed to put off marriage a little longer.”

Mulan exhaled. “Good thing it worked out this way, huh?”

He smiled at her. “Yes. Better get prepared. We leave at dawn.”

Mulan groaned. “He said morning, not dawn,” she mock-protested.

“You know how I run my missions,” he said, eyebrows raised, corners of his lips turned upward.

“Yes, General,” Mulan said, saluting, before she turned on her heel and marched down the hall, Shang’s laughter echoing behind her.

***

It took Mulan and Shang three days to reach the town where the Emperor’s nephew, Liu Xin, lived. Given the winter weather and general lack of travel along the roads, bandits did not come out to bother them, especially given their heavily-armed appearances.

When they reached Xin’s home, Shang handed the teenaged boy a scroll with the Emperor’s seal vouching for their identities. They passed the midday meal together before packing Xin’s possessions into a cart and heading back. Xin proved a chatty, arrogant child, and Mulan and Shang spent much of that night and the next day sharing disbelieving glances.

“Hopefully the Emperor can tone his nephew’s attitude,” Shang commented over dinner.

Mulan spooned another mouthful of the simple, “peasant” rice that Xin had turned his nose against before retreating to the cart after a single snowflake landed on his forehead. “Can you imagine if he already has?” she asked. Shang gave an exaggerated shudder, and Mulan chuckled.

Putting their empty bowls and chopsticks away, Shang said, “I’ll take first watch. Get some sleep.”

Mulan stretched and yawned. “‘Night.”

“Good night.”

***

Mulan woke some time later to a gentle nudge in her ribs. She kept her eyes closed and her breathing even; she and Shang had long ago decided that waking each other with a shoulder shake meant an all clear.

Ribs meant trouble.

She shifted her foot minutely, letting Shang know she was awake and listening. “Bandits on the road from the northeast,” he whispered. “Three, maybe four. About twenty yards behind the wagon.”

“Plan?” Mulan took stock of her surroundings—tree line to the east, hill to the west, open trail to the north and south, sword at her fingertips.

“They’re almost out of line of sight behind the wagon. We’ll split and take them by surprise. You go right,” Shang ordered.

“When?”

“Now.”

Mulan sprang up, unsheathed her sword with barely a whisper of sound, and made her way around the right side of the wagon, grateful that the fire she had slept near had died down enough not to reveal her shadow.

She could hear the intruders now, although they hid their footfalls well. They headed straight for the back of the wagon; either they had happened upon the little group, or they knew exactly who currently lay inside, Mulan thought grimly.

She crept to the back wheel, sword raised, waiting for the order.

“Now!” Shang’s yell split the still air, and Mulan leaped from her hiding place, striking down just as her opponent swung his sword. Metal crashed against metal, and Mulan parried the other man’s solid blows.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Shang engaged in a mirror dance of hers. She didn’t have a visual of the third man, though.

The flap covering the cart’s entrance fluttered, and dread filled Mulan. She quickly blocked another sword thrust and used the hilt of her sword to bash the bandit in the head. He went down and didn’t move.

She ran to the cart and flung the fabric open. The third bandit loomed over a blubbering Xin. Moonlight glinted off of something in the man’s hand.

Mulan grasped the assassin’s shirt and tugged, pulling him out onto the snow. She steadied the tip of her sword at his throat. “Who are you? Why are you trying to kill him?” she demanded.

The middle-aged man knocked away her sword and came at her with a dagger and a roar. Mulan thrust her sword through his belly. He gurgled once, eyes wide, then went limp.

Nauseous, she removed her sword from his body. Shang hurried to her side. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, gesturing to the man Shang had fought, who lay face down in the snow. “Is he…?”

“Dead,” Shang said grimly.

Mulan took a deep breath. “They wanted to kill Xin.”

Shang peered into the wagon. “Are you all right?”

The Emperor’s nephew curled up tighter and sobbed. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

“You’re safe, Xin,” Shang said gently as Mulan cleaned off her sword in the snow. “Those men are d…gone.”

Sheathing her sword and letting Shang deal with the inconsolable Emperor’s nephew, Mulan dragged the bodies of the dead men into the woods. She searched them for papers, possessions, anything to identify them, but found nothing. When she returned to the wagon, Shang had managed to calm Xin down and had already trussed up the man Mulan had knocked unconscious.

“Do you recognize him?” Mulan asked Xin.

“Of course not!” Xin protested. “What a foolish question. Why would I know someone like him?”

“Hey,” Shang said sharply, “don’t be rude. She saved your life, you know.”

“You’re a woman?” Liu Xin shrieked.

Mulan rolled her eyes. “You didn’t realize when I introduced myself as Fa Mulan?”

“I didn’t pay attention to your names! You’re just General and Soldier to me!”

Shang shook his head and lifted the bandit into the wagon. “Maybe next time you’ll learn to be a little more respectful to the people sworn to protect you.”

Xin frowned but didn’t speak further.

“It’s still many hours till dawn,” Mulan said. “A few more hours rest, and then we’ll head out again. I’ll take watch.”

Shang nodded from inside the cart, securing the prisoner to one of the posts.

“I can’t sleep in there!” Xin cried. “He tried to kill me!”

“He’s not going anywhere.” Shang stepped back outside. “If you like, though, you can sleep outside with us. In the snow.”

Xin sputtered, then grabbed his blankets, stomped to the area Mulan and Shang had cleared of snow earlier, and lay down, muttering to himself.

“Good luck sleeping,” Mulan told Shang with a snort.

“We could always gag him,” Shang suggested thoughtfully.

An outraged squeal erupted from the bundle of blankets, and then silence fell. Mulan and Shang shared a pointed look before Shang lay down and Mulan took watch next to him.

It was then that her adrenaline from the night’s events crashed over her, and she shivered from something other than cold for a long time.

***

They arrived in the capital the next night. The assassin had refused to speak when he finally woke and even refused the food Shang had offered him. Between the mystery of the extra passenger and Xin’s complaints about walking—“I refuse to stay in that cart with him!”—Mulan and Shang were at their wit’s end by the time they reached the palace.

They released Xin into his uncle’s hands, giving the report of the attack. The Emperor’s eyes narrowed, and he ordered the prisoner taken for questioning.

“Thank you for protecting my nephew,” the Emperor said gravely. “I’m afraid I have my enemies even inside these walls who would strike at me through those for whom I care.” Xin looked humbled at his uncle’s words and also offered heartfelt thanks to Mulan and Shang.

The two soldiers bowed and retreated to their quarters, barely exchanging parting words before Mulan entered her rooms and collapsed into bed.

***

Mulan slept through the morning but made her way to the midday meal bathed and refreshed.

As she had not visited the barracks in a while, she decided to take her meal there. She was just at the palace doors when a commotion in the hallway caught her attention.

She turned to find Shang arguing with a stately-looking woman. “Mother, how many times do I have to tell you to stop trying to find me a wife? I. Am. Not. Interested. Right. Now.” His hand tightened around a couple of scrolls in his hand.

“Dear, you have to marry. Before you know, it will be too late,” his mother entreated.

Shang ran a hand over his head and caught sight of Mulan. She started, embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping, but Shang walked toward her.

“Here. This came for you.” He handed her one of the crushed scrolls.

“Shang, darling, how do you know you won’t be happy?” his mother continued as Mulan broke the seal. “Your father and I—”

“Yes, I know.” Shang sighed. “You worked out just fine. But maybe I just want something diff—”

Mulan gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Shang asked, his eyes narrowing in concern.

“It’s…it’s a summons. For a matchmaker,” Mulan said, shocked. She looked up at Shang. “Who would want to marry me?”

“Oh.” Shang looked like the breath had been punched out of him. “When…when is the meeting?”

“Today. Just before dinner.” Mulan spoke as if in a daze. Her mind ran through all the types of people she knew; who would want a woman who broke every rule in the book for their son’s wife?

“Mother,” Shang said slowly, “isn’t that when you said my meeting is?”

Shang’s mother looked back and forth between them. “Yes, dear, it is.”

“In the Emperor’s chambers?”

“Yes. He specifically requested the matchmaker meet there.”

Mulan glanced back down at her letter for the location. Her eyes widened, and a flush spread from the top of her head to the tips of her toes when she looked back at Shang’s equally wide-eyed expression.

“Oh!” she said. “Well, this is…I mean…um…well we can…um…”

“No, of course…” Shang said, looking away. “We don’t…there can…um, maybe…”

“I’ll tell the matchmaker you’re not interested,” Mulan finally managed to get out.

“What?” Shang sputtered. “I mean…let’s not be hasty…”

“But darling, you just said—”

“Mother! Please,” Shang interrupted. “What I mean is, maybe this isn’t so bad.” He hurriedly caught Mulan’s eyes. “I mean, of course, if you’re—”

“Yes,” Mulan said firmly. “I…yes. This is good.” She nodded.

“Ah. Well then. Good.” Shang ran a hand over his head again. “I’ll, um, see you later then.”

“Yeah. See you later.” Shang and his mother continued down the hall, talking quietly to each other, and Mulan wandered back to her rooms, lunch forgotten. Her? Marry Shang?

Well, she finally concluded a few hours of tumbling emotions later, everything would change, but really, everything could stay the same.

A crane doesn’t have to choose between the river and the sand, she thought with a smile.

***

The meeting with the matchmaker was short. Mulan was delighted to find her father and mother present, and she hugged them tightly. Both families agreed to the marriage proposal with the Emperor looking on, eyes twinkling.

The matchmaker analyzed the star charts and determined the day before the Spring Festival auspicious for the wedding. Mulan’s mind turned with wedding plans, guest lists, outfits—

“Whoa there.” Shang interrupted her thoughts as everyone filed out of the room. “Do I get a say in any of those ideas obviously running around in your head?”

“Well,” Mulan teased, “you are the General. I suppose you ought to know what your soldiers are planning.”

Shang chuckled. “Don’t forget that you have to help run the Empire, too. The Emperor has called for another Council meeting tomorrow.”

Mulan nodded, and they parted ways for the night, Mulan sharing the evening meal with her parents and grandmother, who had also come to the capital.

Although she entered the meeting room the next day with a light step and a wide smile, several glares still accosted her. She let them slide off her, though, and when the Emperor asked for suggestions for dealing with a potential treasonous group in the northwest, Mulan threw her ideas in with the rest.

Chi Fu, Meng Tian, Yin Si, and many others would never accept her. She could hope for toleration, at best.

She shook her head, her lips thinning in determination. She could handle that.

She was a woman, after all.