Captain Li Shang stood stiffly in the corner of the tent, trying to pretend he did not hear the argument between his father and Chi-Fu.
"They are barbarians, General. With all due respect --" Not that Chi-Fu sounded respectful in the slightest -- "How can we defend China from barbarians with more barbarians?"
The General's response was weary. "They are subjects of the emperor, just as we are, Chi-Fu. It's only right for them to do their part in this war."
A politic answer, but not a complete one. Shang had seen enough of the reports to know. The Huns seemed endless, a river of swords and arrows pouring over the wall to drown China in blood, and the usual army was not enough to face them. Not that the General could ever say as much openly. But in the privacy of his own mind, Shang could think the disgraceful truth: that they needed these barbarians, if they were to have any hope of defeating the Huns.
It wasn't sound that alerted him, but the lack of it. Outside, the camp fell silent in a wave, as if choking fog had suddenly descended upon it. Shang tensed, and laid one hand on the hilt of his sword.
The flap to the tent snapped aside, and a figure stalked in. Framed by the brightness outside, it was a dark silhouette at first; then the flap fell shut, and Shang wondered if the newcomer hadn't brought darkness with her.
A woman, unlike any he'd seen before. Her silk robe was more like a parody of proper civilized clothing, and she wore a sword belted over it, as if she were a warrior. Her black hair hung loose and short, barely brushing her shoulders. As Shang's eyes adjusted, he saw something even more shocking: the robe left one shoulder and arm completely bare. A tattoo spiraled across the exposed skin, scarlet and gold, an intricate, beautifully-wrought dragon.
Chi-Fu made a sound of affront. "What is this? We were told the -- what do you call it -- the war-leader of the Fa would be coming to speak with the General!"
"I am the war-leader of the Fa." Her voice was low and cold, and she looked on Chi-Fu with undisguised disdain for the clerk's delicate, fastidious appearance.
Barbarians. Even the worst Shang had heard about them had not suggested this, that they made their women captains and sent them to war.
The General spoke quietly, with no sign of surprise. Had he known who was coming? Or was he simply willing to accept any help, no matter how outrageous, to defeat the Huns? "Tell me how many men you have brought."
"Three," the woman said. "And one horse."
"Three!" The word burst out of Shang before he could stop himself. "That's useless! Three grains of rice, when we need to feed all of China. Why did you even bother coming, if you couldn't bring more?"
For the first time since she entered, the woman turned her attention fully toward Shang. He tensed under her gaze, hand tightening on his sword. She saw the movement, and smiled thinly. "Am I useless, or a threat? Make up your mind."
She held his gaze, that thin smile still in place, and Shang saw by her steadiness that one thing, at least, was true: this woman was a warrior. But she, or even three more like her, would not make any difference against the Huns.
Maybe he said that out loud. Maybe she read it in his eyes. Or maybe she had always intended to say this, knowing the reception she would get in the General's tent. "General Li. Lend me this man for a few minutes, and I'll show you what even a single warrior of the Fa can do."
Outside, the camp was still nearly silent, the men staring in curiosity, fear, and dislike at the three men -- and one horse -- waiting for their war-leader. They were men, Shang saw in relief; he'd half-wondered if the Fa had sent all women. Their robes were similarly barbaric, though, and all three men displayed tattoos, though none quite so fine as their leader's.
She nodded to them, and they nodded back. Were they her equals, that they did not bow, or did the Fa not practice such courtesy? Shang hardly knew what to think. But he needed to stop speculating on irrelevancies like that, and focus on the upcoming fight.
The woman, seen in broad daylight, was a good handspan shorter than him, but wiry with muscle, and the unconscious grace with which she drew her sword told him she knew how to use it. Odd, to see that kind of martial confidence in a woman. Shang felt awkwardly large as he drew his own blade and faced off against her. "Do you not wear armor?" he said, realizing that she intended to fight in that truncated robe.
"I won't need it," she said, in that same level, cool tone, and attacked.
Shang was too wary to assume anything about her ability. The soldiers, shaken from their staring contest with the Fa barbarians, roared for him to crush the woman right away, but he kept a defensive stance, testing her speed and the strength of her wrists. She was quick, and knew her business, but there was nothing to mark her out from any small man of the Chinese army. How could so few Fa hope to turn the tide?
She twisted away from a strike, dropping and rolling clear of Shang's blade, and as she came to her feet she thrust her empty left hand out toward him.
And a dragon burst into the air.
Shang yelled in surprise. Only reflex sent his blade outward, slicing at the oncoming creature; it dodged faster than any human could have hoped to, and went spiraling up toward the sky. Shang retreated another five steps, slashing to keep it away, then stopped when he realized the dragon was no longer pursuing. It hovered in the air, waiting.
Below, the woman stood in a crouch, likewise waiting. The dragon rose from her skin, the tattoo peeling free and leaping outward as a physical thing, but still anchored to her body. And her eyes, Shang saw with a chill, had frosted over to pure, blind whiteness.
"She can still see," the shortest and stockiest of the Fa said, into the dead silence that had fallen. "She sees with the dragon's eyes, which are better than yours. And she can put a thousand men to flight with a single attack."
Shang wanted to look at the other men, to see what tattoos they had, imagine what those beasts might look like when freed from their ink. But he couldn't look away from the war-leader of the Fa. Crouched like that, sword in one hand, dragon leaping out from the opposite arm, with her eyes gone white and loose hair blowing in the wind, she was a feral, terrifying thing. Hardly a woman at all -- hardly human, the civilized, rational part of Shang's mind said. And yet, he had never seen anything so compelling in his life.
His father was a great general of the Chinese army. It had always been Shang's ambition to follow in those footsteps, to devote himself to military pursuits. And yes, eventually there would be a wife, children, someone to manage and to inherit his estate, but those things were mere duty to his family line. They did nothing to fire his heart.
This woman . . . .
He wasn't fool enough to think he could marry her. He wasn't fool enough to want to. But to fight against the Huns with her, yes. To experience, for the first time, the company of a woman who was like him: a woman who lived for war, for the strength of her own body and the uses of that strength. And the leadership of men, sending them to crush the enemy and render one's own people safe.
Shang sheathed his sword and bowed to the woman, holding it as long as he would have for a fellow officer in the army. His words were presumptuous, with his father standing right there, but he didn't think about that until after he said them. "Your power is great indeed. May I know your name?"
Her answer was underlaid with the thunder of the dragon's own voice. "I am Fa Mulan."
"Fa Mulan," Shang repeated, and bowed again. "I will be honored to fight at your side."