Aurora awoke. Mulan could sense the signs, the change in her breathing, the slight tensing of the muscles in her back. Their bodies lay pressed together under the blanket in the great hall, and though, for the first time in a long time, they had no fear of ogres or other wandering beasts, sleep was still hard to come by.
“Mulan…” Aurora’s voice was soft, testing.
“I am awake, princess.”
Sleep was always fleeting for Aurora, but Mulan was accustomed to standing guard for half the night, then when another soldier had taken over, dropping off instantly and soundly for the few hours she had. But there was no need of a guard tonight, just the heat of Aurora’s body pressed against her own, soft, sweet, alluring. Aurora was like poison to her honor.
“Oh,” Aurora’s voice was still soft, but anxious, and she burrowed a little into Mulan’s chest. “I had a strange dream. But not a dream of fire.”
“Do you wish to speak of it?”
Aurora paused, then forced a laugh. “It was absurd. At least you will tell me how absurd it was, right? The dream, well, it was about you.”
Mulan went still. Dreams were tricky things, unpredictable. She forgot hers upon waking, but on occasion a half-memory of heat and skin, or blood and fear lingered. And some dreams, she knew, were deeply true. Aurora rolled over and looked into her eyes in the moonlight, her hand coming up to push a small strand of hair, loose for the night, out of her face.
“At the beginning, I saw you as a child, barely thirteen,” the twitch of a smile on her lips was almost fond, but it faded quickly, growing anxious and serious. “War was coming. You went to the sacred fire and you wished you were a man.”
Mulan felt the knot in her stomach tighten. She had not spoken of her childish desperation, of her foolish, unanswered wishes, to Aurora. And yet she had dreamed of it. “I did do that, when I was thirteen. I had no… fairy godmother, or whatever you call it. The wish went unanswered.”
Aurora’s eyes widened slightly, the pale irises grey in the dim light. “How funny, that it should have happened.”
“But in the dream,” she hesitated, “your wish was granted. I told you it was an absurd dream.”
And that… should not have been unexpected. “You dreamt of me as a man.”
“A woman transformed into a man.” Her eyes went distant for a moment, recalling the visions she had seen. “You fought a war, took an arrow… here.” She reached out, touching Mulan’s shoulder, the rough scar below her collarbone. She felt it and her fingers tensed. This dream had more truth in it than lies, it seemed. “You were named a hero, you met Philip, you rescued me. We lost Philip.”
“So, our lives as they are, but… a man.” Did she want this? Would it have been preferable? It was slightly upsetting.
“A very handsome man. You are a beautiful woman, and as a man you were no less beautiful. Though there was a bit of a pointy beard starting.”
Mulan scoffed. “I doubt I would grow much facial hair even as a man. Your people are far hairier than mine.”
Aurora laughed. “True enough. I’m always astonished by how smooth your skin is.”
“It was a silly dream.”
Aurora paused. “It… was not over then. I had nightmares – nightmares within nightmares, and you comforted me. But… to relax me, so I could sleep, you…” She hesitated, and Mulan looked at her curiously. Even in the dim moonlight coming through the windows, she could see her cheeks darken in a blush.
“What did I do to relax you, princess?” Mulan drawled. She had been a man, of course this was a sexual dream. And the princess wanted to share it. She was an odd one, Mulan decided.
“You, um, used your mouth, to… to make love to me.”
Mulan stiffened. That was not something she needed to be a man to do. Was that a veiled request? “Did I?”
Aurora was now fiercely dark with shame. “Often. And I, um, returned the favor. Eventually. It seemed… unfair otherwise.”
“But we did nothing else. That would have been dishonorable. Of course I had to save my virginity for Philip.” The last words poured out in a single defensive breath. Aurora’s eyes were fixed on her own hands, pressed together, a fingersbreadth away from Mulan’s chest.
That was a very fine line to walk. A dangerous line. Protecting and caring for a princess could indeed involve helping her to sleep, giving her peace and relaxation to improve her health. But violating her innocence was in direct contradiction to those orders. Breaking her body would be unforgivable.
“And then… we brought him back.”
How? Mulan wanted to ask. There had been so much truth in this dream, perhaps, just perhaps there could be an answer in it too. But it was far too likely that it had segued into a fantasy the moment it had turned erotic. Still, any lead was hope. Any hope made her able to believe that this endless temptation would eventually end.
“We were married, and we… consummated it.”
Mulan did her best to keep her body from revealing the flinch those words inspired. She had given that day as much thought as she could bear, reminding herself of its inevitability, of the joy of it, when true lovers were finally united. The unpleasantness of the idea hadn’t lasted though, turning into prurience, imagining what her charge might look like, flushed and heated and needy. She did her best to not think on it anymore.
“I… told him about what we’d done. He was generous with forgiveness.”
As he would be, Mulan knew. Confused and hurt, but forgiving. It did not make the thought of revealing such crimes more palatable. Needing such forgiveness would be more shame than she could bear. And yet, as Aurora lifted her head, fixing her gaze on Mulan, seeing the heightened color in her cheeks, the intensity of her eyes, it made her wonder.
“He said that as King he had to ride out on the business of his country, and that he still believed that you were the best bodyguard for me. And once he had gotten me with child that we could… do what we pleased, while he was gone. Once it was certain, he departed. I was pregnant, but you still—”
“I am sure you would be just as beautiful pregnant, if not more so.” Mulan immediately wished the words had never come out of her mouth, for Aurora was looking at her like she had grown a second head.
“That’s… nearly what you said in the dream. You said I was just as beautiful, even more so, and… we made love like man and wife.”
“Did it please you?”
Aurora hissed in a breath. “It did. The… the child was a girl, and Philip had hoped for a boy, but there was work, and he left again for a few months, and you and I, had… indiscretions. And well, I fell pregnant again.”
Mulan swallowed. “I feel that this would not be appreciated by your husband.”
“He did not realize, at first, that the child was not his. It was a boy, and he was overjoyed, until, well, he noticed.”
“It must have been distinctive looking.”
“He was beautiful,” Aurora protested, with shocking vehemence. Mulan looked at her, and her color heightened. “Philip punished us, sending you out on an impossible journey, and keeping me away from all men save himself. He… hurt me.”
“He would never.”
“I know. But in the dream he was furious about our betrayal. Lying with you was one thing, it made me human, but bearing a bastard was unforgivable. I bore him another girl, and he hit me, and you beat him.”
“I… beat him.”
“You would not let him disrespect me. Even though… perhaps I deserved it.”
“If I swore to protect you in that world as well, I would protect you from anything. Including him.”
Aurora’s eyes met hers, wide and grateful, and then went dark. “Would you protect me from my own mistakes?”
Aurora ducked her glance. “That’s where it gets fuzzy. I recall him giving us horses and directions, a few servants, nursemaids for the children. We were to set up a second household in a different castle. I suppose it was all he could do, with our joined lands. And, well, we had two more children. You looked after… all of them.”
“Five?” Mulan shook her head. “Five children. How…”
Aurora smiled. “See, an absurd dream.”
Mulan could smell the arousal on her skin, not just left over from the dream. It made the right decision so much harder to make. “Not… that absurd, princess. I am certain, if I were a man and your lover, I would have a hard time not making you pregnant.”
Aurora’s eyes went wide.
And this… this was the wrong decision. The dream was oddly compelling, oddly true, as if it had been one road that was possible to wander down. But was it a road she would have chosen? “But,” she said softly, “do you think we were happy? Having left honor and friendship shattered behind us?”
Aurora’s body stilled in her arms. “It felt that way, in the dream. But…”
What was this dream? A half-hearted seduction technique? A warning of the consequences of minor actions? Was it merely a revelation of deeply held guilt, bringing secret desires to the surface, so they could be excised with shame and punishment?
Mulan looked into Aurora’s eyes, shame and hurt and longing was all she could see, but perhaps that was merely her own thoughts clouding her sight.
Mulan shifted slightly, moving over her, cupping her cheek and leaning close, so that when she spoke, her lips brushed Aurora’s skin. She felt Aurora’s pulse begin to race, her eyes darken, her hips jerk slightly. “What you feel, what you desire, even what you dream, they are not shameful, embarrassing perhaps, unexpected, but they are not worthy of shame.”
She felt Aurora touch her back, lightly, caressing the muscles of her shoulders. “No?” her princess asked. “Even if they are things that I should not feel, should not want?”
“It is not what you desire but what you do that determines your honor.” Mulan felt herself smiling. It was almost a relief to know that she was not alone in this. That this unplanned, unwanted lust was a burden they shared. The affection between them disguised it, made it seem benign, offered them dreams of happiness. But those dreams were pretty illusions over a base reality. “The body wants, but the heart may remain pure.”
“What if I’d rather fulfill the body’s wants?” Aurora’s voice was breathy, her clasp on Mulan’s shoulders keeping her close. “If there is love there—”
And then the dream made sense. Not so half-hearted a seduction after all. Manipulative. “And no chance of a bastard, no broken maidenhead, no outward sign? Would you then not need to feel shame? Would you never speak a word of it to him?”
Aurora jerked back, shoving her off. They separated. Aurora glared. “What if we never get him back? What if we fail?”
“Then we die with our honor.” The words hurt to say. They stung with the purity of a knife slicing away a cancer.
Aurora’s eyes hurt to see, the ferocity in them dimmed, her lips going slack. “I see,” she said softly. She rolled over, turning her back to Mulan, lying as stiff as a bound scroll.
“Princess,” Mulan sighed.
“Perhaps there was shame,” Aurora said, seemingly to no one. “But it was human shame, for a human failing. And there was happiness. It seemed to me that there can be more happiness in a life with shame than in a life of inhuman perfection.”