Captain Li had told her to pack her bags, she was unsuitable for war. Her performance in training proved it. Never mind being found out as a woman, she would die in the first battle. But leaving camp due to orders, that was perfect. She didn't have to fight. Her secret had no more opportunities to be found. Her father didn't have to take her place. She had fulfilled her goal of saving him.
Mushu was rather bittersweet about her decision. He had attempted to convince her to keep trying and go for glory, but they both knew it was an impossible dream. The tiny dragon had eventually admitted to being the cause of an ancestor’s decapitation and said going home was probably for the better. That's what he had been tasked to do anyway, to retrieve her.
It all made sense. She and her father got to keep their lives. And well, it's not as if Mulan had had any honor going into camp. Or expected to gain it. She was still disgraced, but her position wasn't any worse than it was before.
Though now, cresting the first hill that provided a view of home, Mulan started to regret her choice. There was nothing here for her on the farm. The matchmaker did not plan to find her a husband. At the camp, while she hadn't been free to be herself, she had still felt as if restraints had lifted from her body. It had been meaningful, being part of something larger than herself. She understood why her father had set aside his cane to walk to receive his orders. It was an honor to serve the Emperor, but more than that, it made one feel useful and thus important. Here at the farm, with how poorly she did her chores, she didn't even feel important to the chickens.
“What's the long sigh for, baby?” Mushu asked from among the saddlebags.
“Ah. And you came back like a boomerang when you left like an arrow.”
“Something like that.” Mulan reigned in Khan, staring down at the straw roofs. “It's not like I planned anything more concrete than 'go in Father's place'. I didn't think about training or later on fighting, but....”
“It was something different?”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
Mushu gave a sigh of his own. “I know what you mean. Out there, I was helping you and having an adventure. Now, it's back to ringing the gong.”
Cri-Kee made a noise from his perch on Khan's head.
“Yeah yeah, there are worse things than being a gong ringer.”
“And there are worse things than farm work," Mulan said . "Let's go home, Mushu.”
Mulan urged Khan forward into a slow, plodding walk. No need to go fast, she was painfully aware of the image her men's clothes made. She turned the war horse down a field path. They would approach her home from the back. It would be longer, but Mulan didn't mind.
She had purposely taken her time, avoiding patches with workers and doing her best to time her arrival at the house for after sunset. She reached the complex a little early, the beginning of sunset, and the golden light shone on the house. An ache bloomed in her chest. She had missed home, as imperfect as it was.
Holding off on announcing her presence until Khan was taken care of, Mulan turned the horse towards the small stable. Mushu climbed up her side to sit on her shoulder and stared at the shrine they were quickly approaching.
“Well, guess this is good bye, Mulan.”
She turned her head to place a kiss on the side of the dragon's face. “You've been the best guardian a girl could ask for. You got me home safe.”
Mushu mumbled something, and if he weren’t already red, Mulan would have expected to see him blush.
“Come say hi from time to time, okay? May not always answer, but I'll hear you.”
Khan stopped even with the shrine, allowing Mushu to jump to the ground. Mulan watched him slip into the empty temple, only to realized it wasn't empty. Her father had been bowing in prayer, but Khan's hoof beats alerted him to a visitor. He rose to his knees to look over his shoulder.
“Mulan?“ he breathed.
Shorter hair, fewer pounds, and a new change of clothes wouldn't prevent him from recognizing her. Then again, Khan was a dead giveaway.
She cringed away from her name, but quickly slid off the horse and prostrated herself on the ground.
“I'm sorry, Father, for leaving and worrying the family.”
There was the sound of wood on stone. The sound of a body hitting dirt. Fa Zhou fell to his knees beside her to pull her up into a hug. “You were foolish for leaving like that. You could have been killed! And you've worried your mother.”
“I'm sorry, Father,” she whispered into his neck.
He squeezed her tightly before pulling back. “I'm sure you had a rough journey, and I am so happy to see you home, Mulan. The ancestors have heard my prayers for your safe return. Come, let us make an offering of thanks.” Despite his old injury, Fa Zhou pulled his daughter to her feet and led her into the temple to light incense.
When they were done with their prayers, they walked in silence on either side of Khan to the stable. Together, they rubbed the horse down after unsaddling him.
Zhou fingered her supplies. “This tent is old, from my days as a lowly soldier in the army, did it leak?”
“No Father, your patchwork is very good. All of your old equipment worked. Again, I am sorry I took it.”
“It does not matter, not now that you are home safe. Come, you mother should have dinner ready.”
Fa Li did have dinner ready but dropped the bowl of rice to rush to take her daughter in her arms. The clay shattered when it hit the ground, spilling rice, but no one cared.
“I'm home,” Mulan said, tears running down her eyes while she held her mother close. It may not be the best place in the world, but it would always be home. A place where she was accepted and loved. She couldn't have been happier to be back.
It took about a week for her to realize just how much the 'solution' was really an excuse. Mulan found herself waking up early to perform the drills Captain Li had them do every morning. Running with water on her shoulders, balancing on the bridge posts, strength exercises, fishing. She couldn't very well practice aiming canons, and her father was in no shape to spar, but on mornings when he wasn't stiff he would go through fighting patterns with her.
She progressed quickly, going for longer and longer runs with more weight. She could catch fish from the koi pond balancing on one leg while standing in the water and while leaning over the side of the pool to hide her legs from the fish. Her father had made a dummy for her to hit and Khan was regularly put through his paces.
Mulan didn't want to admit it, but she missed being at the Wu Zhong camp. She liked the routine, the self-improvement. She hadn't liked being the worst one and the embarrassment that came with it. Captain Li's suggestion had prevented further injury to her pride, something she hadn't realized possible after her incident with the matchmaker. Apparently, she still had some image of self-worth and honor, small as it may be. It didn't compare with the likes of Yao and Ling, but here she could engage in activities that kept those feelings from dying.
It made it both more and less bearable to be home. To know she took the easy way out.
Her training, or playing as Fa Li liked to call it, got on her mother's nerves. Mulan had learned discipline at the camp; she did her chores properly and timely, did her best to be a traditional daughter during the day. However, during the night hours, as well as dawn and dusk, Mulan donned men's clothing and practiced like a solider. In an effort to put a stop to it, Li had gone to visit the matchmaker.
Mulan was in her room practicing calligraphy when her mother returned. Nervously, Mulan walked to the main room to greet her.
Fa Li was pale and her hands trembled.
Mulan rushed to clasp her mother's hands in hers. “Here, sit, I'll make some tea.”
“Do that, and call your father and grandmother.”
Her grandmother was in the kitchen and took over the task of brewing tea. “Get your father, Mulan, he's in the shrine. This sounds important.”
Mulan didn't run to the shrine, daylight was for being a lady, but her steps were larger than decorum suggested. She also interrupted her father's prayer instead of waiting for him to acknowledge her as was proper. “Mother has returned. I feel she has terrible news.”
Zhou reached for his cane and with it rose to his feet. “We best listen to it then.”
He bowed to the gravestones. Mulan did as well before they made their way together to the house.
They walked into Fa Myung passing Li a cup of tea.
“Well, we already guessed the matchmaker wasn't going to pair Mulan up with a nice boy, but hearing it from the matchmaker herself just pounded the nail in,” Myung said.
Li shook her head and took a sip of tea. “No, the matchmaker actually had a suggestion for Mulan and was talking to the family.”
Mulan froze in bringing her tea to her lips. The matchmaker had found a match? If everything went well, she could marry and have sons? Reclaim an honorable life for a woman? It was almost too good to be true.
“But that's not what I have to tell you. The Huns have attacked the Imperial City. They destroyed most of the Imperial Army coming in and arrived with little challenge. All that the Emperor has for protection is the palace guards. “
“The palace guards are some of the finest troops in China. They will keep the Emperor safe,” Zhou said.
“Good thing the captain told you to go home, huh Mulan?” Myung nudged her. “You could have been with the group that died in the pass”.
Everyone around the table froze. Death had always been an outcome for Mulan, that they knew, but to have an actual example of it in front of them was terrifying in a new way. Fa Li put her hand in the middle of the table and Mulan slid her own into it. Her father’s covered both their hands.
“As unsettling as such news is, this far west we should have little trouble. Changes in government affect farmers the least of all people. They need us to tend to the crops, and we have no direct ties to the Emperor. We are jumping to conclusions. The Huns have not won. Now Li, tell us about Mulan's future husband.”
Mulan felt uncomfortable in her white makeup, but not as out of place as she had in mid spring. Now, summer fully here, Mulan felt thankful to be alive and for the chance to bring honor to her family through marriage. Ho Chang wasn't an ideal husband, Mulan was ashamed at how often she thought of Captain Li Shang's body, but he was the best she could get. Really, she should have been married off to a third son of a nearby village based on her matchmaking day, but her father's status as an honored general in the Imperial Army still had some weight. Ho Chang was a first son, whose family grew rice instead of the grains Mulan was used to working with, and he lived in town. She would be able to visit her family regularly.
Taking dainty footsteps, Mulan lifted up the hem of her gown to walk up the steps of the shrine to pray one last time. She had done it earlier this morning after working out and before preparing herself, but today was really, really important.
“Please ancestors, help me impress my future husband. Let Ho Chang see me as the perfect wife,” she spoke as she lit incense, then stood with her head bowed. Tradition and respect said she should at least kneel, but since she had swept the stone floor hours ago windblown dust had resettled on it and she didn't want to dirty her gown.
A cricket’s chirp had her looking up.
Cri-Kee peeked over the edge of the incense holder, Mushu's sleeping state home. Mulan brushed a pair of fingers down the brass dragon's spine and Cri-Kee hopped on them when she was finished.
“You cannot come Cri-Kee. Half of my trouble at the matchmaker's was thanks to you.”
The little creature stared up at her, eyes wide and quivering. Mulan gave in. “Oh, all right. Grandma would be pleased; she still swears you are a lucky cricket. But no jumping into the tea!”
With a happy chirp, the cricket jumped from her hand to her shoulder to finally drop into her sash belt.
“Mulan!” Fa Li yelled.
Mulan gave a bow to the grave markers before making her way to the stables.
This day wasn't just about her meeting Ho Chang; this was about the Fas meeting the Hos. So they could all travel together, her father had hooked up Khan to the wagon. Zhou sat on the driver's bench, proud and straight. Behind him, the normally open wagon now held a pink canvas cover. It would allow Li, Myung, and Mulan to ride in the back without worrying about the sun or dust. It would also keep Mulan hidden from view. Dressed as a bride, traditionally no one could see her but her family. Or future family. She had to be kept out of sight until they reached the matchmaker's.
Mulan spent the time sitting still while her family fretted about her and made tiny adjustments to how her hair sat or her folds lay. Cri-Kee made a noise that had Li jump, but Myung simply looked down at Mulan's waist, saw the cricket's lump in the fabric, and smiled. “You'll do great, Mulan.”
There was the sound of gates opening. They had arrived.
“Now remember,” her mother started up for the third time. “Do not speak unless asked to. Keep your eyes down. And for China's sake don't spill the tea.”
“Yes, mother,” she answered demurely.
Fa Li sighed and kissed Mulan's hair. “I'm just nervous, but I'm sure you have more nerves than me. Be brave.”
Brave. She had never fit that word to her day life, the time when she was Mulan-the-proper-farm-girl and not the failed-warrior-Mulan who took over when the sun disappeared. She wasn't scared about this meeting; her life wasn't on the line. She wasn't going to have to worry about Yao or another trainee sneaking up behind her. This was normal, scripted.
Yet, here she was facing an unknown future and unknown people who would determine it. Up until this moment, it hadn't felt nearly as scary as trying to figure out how to walk into the Wu Zhong camp.
Be brave. That meant this was a situation her mother found scary. Now, and maybe years ago when on a similar day when she had met Fa Zhou.
For Mulan, that wasn't the case. This was a predictable scenario. A traditional ceremony and everyone had his or her own role to play. Bravery was for when you walked into unknown situations and this wasn't that. She would be fine.
The curtain pealed back and her father smiled at Mulan. She returned it and accepted his hand to help her off the wagon. Once they had all gotten off, a stable hand started unhitching Khan. Mulan gave the horse a small pat on her way inside the building.
Her family took a right, towards the main room, but the matchmaker led Mulan to the kitchen. The matchmaker stared down at her, arms crossed, but Mulan stared at the matchmaker's shoes placidly. A proper lady, soon to be wed.
With nothing to criticize, the matchmaker snuffed and turned on her heel to enter the main room. Mulan was left alone in the kitchen.
She turned to the collection of herbs on the wall. Her task was to make tea and bring it out to the families while they got to know one another. A test of her hosting skills.
Looking at all the dried plants, unlabeled, that she was supposed to use to create her own tea blend, Mulan felt her palms sweat and her heart beat faster. She didn't know half of those plants!
Because now Mulan was afraid. Of a different sort than when being discovered as a woman among men would mean her death. This was an ordinary sort of afraid. Not for the continuation of her life, but for the type of life she would have. Would Ho Chang let her practice fishing and hand-to-hand? Would he be kind to her? Did that really matter? To her, yes, but it was already decided she would belong to him at war's end. What could she do to ensure a pleasant as possible marriage?
At the moment, it was making the perfect tea.
“Cri-Kee, help me out! Where's the jasmine?”
With a chirp, the cricket hopped out of his hiding place to the bundle of herbs. He jumped around for a little bit, then stopped on top of an herb on the lowest shelf. Mulan grabbed it and started pulling off dried leaves.
Jasmine, jasmine. What else did her mother use? She didn't know! “I need something else, just pick one!” She told the cricket.
She listened to the chirps and whistles of the bug behind her as she started the fire. How hot should the water be? How long should the leaves sit?
Mulan had gone over this ceremony many times with her mother and grandmother, but all womanly knowledge had flown out her ears. All she could think about when staring at the fire was dodging flaming arrows. This was not the time!
Turning, she saw Cri-Kee standing on another bundle. Not leaves, roots. She didn't know what they were but trusted her friend's luck. She grabbed one and started skinning it.
She finished mashing the root just as the water began to boil and so put it in. Mulan and Cri-Kee started at the pot while it bubbled, and when the cricket made a sound she figured that was good enough. She removed the pot from the fire, added the jasmine leaves, and started setting up the tray with a tea set.
The matchmaker had a variety of sets on display. Mulan knew it was a test. She knew what she should do - choose a well-made set with little embellishments to represent the Fa family. They weren't rich, but lived comfortably. The blue one would be perfect. But her eyes kept drifting to an expensive set – china, not baked clay, painted a brilliant red with gold dragons on the cups. Her heart ached as she thought of Mushu; she could use some of the dragon's humor right now.
She'd use that set, in honor of him. It was thanks to him she hadn't been caught at camp and killed; was here today.
Cups on the tray, four for her family, three for the Ho's, and one for matchmaker, Mulan figured the tea had steeped enough. She poured the tea in the teapot, Cri-Kee holding the strainer as she did so. That done, she took a deep breath to steady herself.
The fear she felt now was a different type than she had felt before, but it was still fear, and one unique to women. Mulan didn't consider herself a coward. She would walk through that door, down the hallway, and into the main room proudly and respectfully.
A voice in her head, that sounded a little like Mushu if he were a girl, said Cowards run though, and isn't that what you did four weeks ago?
There were different types of fear; maybe there were different types of cowards too. The thought stung, she didn't want to be seen as cowardly and not for the first time did she wonder what could have happened if she had refused to leave when Captain Li handed over Khan's reins. Maybe the Hun army wouldn't be at the Emperor's gates.
Who was she kidding? She wasn't meant for war.
But she was also getting the feeling she wasn't meant for this either.
Mulan sighed. Her stress in the kitchen had no doubt loosened her hair and frumpled her dress. Too bad there wasn't a mirror.
“How do I look, Cri-Kee?”
He chirped happily. Mulan took that as a 'great'.
Mulan stood as straight as she could, smoothed down her dress and pulled her sash a bit away from her body to encourage the cricket to hop in. “Now remember,” she whispered as she picked up the tray to begin her slow, many stepped walk to the main room, “stay out of the tea.”
She met her first boundary at the door. How was she to open it with her hands full? She'd close doors around the farm with her hips and feet, maybe she could open this one the same way?
Slowly, Mulan ran her foot along the bottom of the door, searching for the edge. When she found it, she pushed her foot in the direction she wanted the door to go. Unfortunately, instead of staying on the outside of the door's wooden edge, her foot slid over the wood and ripped through the rice paper.
The muted conversations on the other side of the door stopped.
There were steps as someone got up and Mulan soon found herself looking down at her mother. She was frowning, displeased with her, but after looking Mulan up and down before nodding Mulan figured she had passed the presentable test.
Everyone stared at her while she walked to the table. Mulan tried to put what just happened behind her, to concentrate on the next step of pouring tea, but it was hard. Her hands shook, and the tray hit the table with more noise than was proper. The matchmaker across the table glared at her. Mulan might have been looking down at the cups, but she could feel the gaze through her hair making her face flush beneath her white makeup.
The young man seated across from her grandmother was too young to be Ho Chang, and Mulan felt silly for remembering only now that as a first son he would most likely be with Captain Li. They hadn't trained together, they had been in different small groups, which was good now that she thought about it, but she had halfway thought Ho Chang would be sitting next to her today. The camp was close enough to allow a day's leave.
But with the Imperial City under attack...Li Shang had probably marched towards it. The troops had to be safe; if there was the possibility Ho Chang was dead this wedding would be called off.
Or she would marry the new eldest, the second son, the boy to her left. Eleven, twelve at the oldest. How could she relate to him?
But with such a young husband, she could probably convince him to allow her to continue her personal training. A small wish for Ho Chang's death sprouted in her chest and she quickly smothered it. It was an evil wish.
Carefully, Mulan poured tea and distributed the cups. First to Ho Shan, then to her own father, followed by Ho Chang's younger brother, the matchmaker, her grandmother, her future mother-in-law, her mother, and lastly herself. Order indicated respect, she hoped she got it right. She had forgotten in what position the matchmaker should be, before or after the eldest woman. But her grandmother would forgive a slight snub, so Mulan had served the matchmaker first.
Mulan waited with baited breath as her future family took a sip of tea. They all stared in puzzlement at their cups before politely continuing to drink. Mulan couldn't tell if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Quickly, but demurely, she took a sip herself.
Oh. The root had been ginger. Ginger and jasmine. Not a conventional combination, but at least it hadn’t over steeped.
“This is Mulan, my humble daughter,” Fa Zhou said after finishing his cup. “As you can see, she is very beautiful.”
Ho Shan looked in her direction and Mulan kept her eyes on the two dragons on the tea pot. For comfort, she put her hand over the spot where Cri-Kee hid and the bug jumped up into her palm for his version of a nudge.
“Yes, and while clumsy, she does seem to know how to behave,” Ho Shan answered.
Ancestors be praised, she wasn't completely failing this!
Conversation between the two men continued, talk of wealth and dowries and a possible time for the wedding. The matchmaker sat quietly listening, as did the matrons of both families, but it was obvious Fa Li was sizing up Ho Xi in her own way. Would this new woman take Mulan under her wing and treat her as her own daughter? Like Mulan, her mother had no say in whether this wedding would talk place or not. It would take place. But it was nice to have at least some idea of how life in the future would be. Judging by her mother's smile, Mulan didn't think it would be that bad.
She had been trying to picture Ho Chang's face since her mother told her he would be her husband, but she'd never been successful. Mulan would imagine it in parts: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, back, chest. When she had put them together in her mind, she saw Captain Li Shang. It did not do anyone any good to think of him. So she thought of parts. They might have been Captain Li's hands or ears, but the rest of the face and body could have been anyone's.
Mulan glanced at Chang's brother, hoping to gain a clue on what her husband would look like and push the Captain’s image from her mind. The boy had thin lips, small ears, beady eyes. His face was still round, giving away his young age, but Ho Shan had a stiff, pointy chin and so Mulan guessed his eldest son would have the same feature. Not attractive, but not unattractive either.
Really, the more Mulan thought about it, the more she realized she could have been stuck with someone a lot worse. One of the gods smiled on her, for some reason. This was a good family, and she hadn't blown the meeting.
But of course, something had to mess it all up.
There was a thumping of hooves and shouting. Everyone turned to the windows, but the men quickly left to join the throng outside. The matchmaker followed, staying on the porch. The adult women joined her, leaving Mulan and the young Ho together. Mulan instantly went to the window. Men were talking, but nothing clear reached her ears.
“You're really pretty.”
Mulan turned around.
“Nice to meet you, Ho Jhou. I'm Fa Mulan.”
“Oh. Um...what's your brother like?”
Jhou shrugged. “He helps a lot around the farm, he's really strong. He doesn't like me though. I'm not very strong, so he makes fun of me.”
Mulan felt her heart thud. The family was good, the groom not.
A commotion from outside drew her attention to the window. Jhou came to join her.
Apparently, the horseman had come from the Imperial City, riding hard to inform each village he came across. The city had fallen, the Emperor was dead, and Shan Yu, leader of the Huns sat the throne.
Unable to sleep that night, Mulan she slipped out of bed and pulled on a shawl. She lit the candle and crept out the door to the shrine. Once there, she lit an incense stick but instead of placing it under Mushu's metal belly she placed it on the half wall that surrounded the tablets. Mulan lifted Mushu from the nail he hung from and brought him into her lap, stroking his bronze back as she talked.
“I know if I had stayed at the camp I most likely would have been found and killed, or killed in battle. But I can't help but wonder if I had stayed, what would have happened.”
Mushu didn't say anything, he was cold bronze and Mulan had no idea how to wake him up.
“After meeting the Ho family today, I feel so lost. I could do so much more than bear sons, but I don't know what exactly. If that makes sense. I left home to save my father, but also to do something meaningful to me. I failed at being a solider, I can't fight very well, but I still wish... I still want to do something for me. Something that I want to do, that will still honor my family. I just don't know what that is.”
She sighed. Her friend may not be able to answer, but she knew he heard her and for now, it was enough. Mulan wouldn't dare bring her thoughts to her parents, they'd remind her of her place. Mulan was engaged to a decent man with a good family. She shouldn't ruin it, and these thoughts would certainly lead to action that would.
While not fully awake, Mulan didn't feel like going back to bed. She stood to return Mushu to his place but thought better of it. She had a greater need for her friend than the ancestors did for their gong ringer, even if he couldn't answer her. After she changed and filled two buckets with weight, Mulan placed Mushu on top of the rocks in the right handed one. She wouldn't actually be able to talk to him, running took too much effort, but just having him with her made her feel better. She could pretend they were working together for honor and China.
The following week was tense. With Shan Yu on the throne, no one knew what to expect. Her father expected little trouble for them. They were days from the capital and far enough from the Northern border they had escaped most effects of the short war. Life would continue in its peaceful manner. Hopefully.
But when Mulan rode into town on market day, other people weren't of the same opinion. There still had to be fighting going on somewhere, otherwise the conscripted men would have returned by now. No, this transition wasn't peaceful, and there was the question the Huns’ goals. Would Shan Yu rule it as a colony, would they simply steal China’s resources, or was Shan Yu running away from something in the steppes and looking for a place to call his own? Maybe he wanted to link the Middle Kingdom with the Mongolian region? There were too many unknowns, and the unknown made people scared.
The manly scared, the fear for your life scared. Mulan felt a lot more comfortable with that fear than thoughts of her wedding, whose date had been left to be decided later. War wasn’t a time for weddings.
Mulan pulled Khan to a stop behind a grain house. The Yee family had been a constant buyer of Fa wheat, and she had brought part of their early harvest. Midsummer had past, the flowers were dying. Within a month, serious harvesting would begin.
She knocked on the door and Yee Huen answered it with a smile. “Fa Mulan!” he greeted, voice at a normal level but carrying far due to its deepness. “I heard about your engagement. Congratulations.”
“Thank you. I've brought you young wheat, as asked.”
“I see that.” He walked to the back of the wagon and started unloading sacks. Mulan rushed to help and was grateful when he didn't protest the idea of a woman lifting heavy things. He had known her for years, and out of sight behind the shop allowed her to be her eager-to-help self.
Huen paused on his way to get a second bag, staring under the wagon seat. “Is that an incense holder?”
Mulan tried to hide her embarrassed blush but failed. “I've grown quite fond of the little dragon. He's a temple spirit and with times being what they are I like having him near me.”
Huen nodded, and they went back to work in silence.
Mulan felt a little foolish, carrying around the inert Mushu and alive Cri-Kee in the upside down gong, but she felt they were her only allies right now. They knew everything that had happened, understood what she went through at the camp, and a little of the effects of being back at home. Mushu had understood, calling her a boomerang. The little dragon had felt just as bittersweet about their return, and knowing she wasn't alone in that made her feel better.
Because it really should be a crime, not wanting to be home with family. She didn't know where she would rather be, there was no place for her. But the farm had been growing smaller and smaller this week and Mulan was feeling more and more cooped up. Her runs lasted longer, she came up with every excuse to be out of the house. She found herself hoping the wedding would hurry up and come so she could leave.
She had woken up this morning with the strange thought of simply hopping on Khan and riding. Riding and riding with no destination but knowing something meaningful would have happened eventually. Instead, she had hooked the stallion to the wagon and came into town.
All four of them together, Khan, Cri-Kee, Mushu and herself, on the road this morning had made her feel stronger. She rode as if dressed in her amour and not a traveling dress, a feeling she tried to hold on too as much as possible. Because the other reason for carrying Mushu around was she felt trouble looming on the horizon and she wanted her guardian on her shoulder when the storm broke.
They had made it through struggles in the past, and she felt confident that she would need her not-human friends by her side to make it through future ones.
Wagon empty, Huen came out with a sack of coins as payment. As he placed it in Mulan's hands, she could tell it was heavier than normal.
“Are you giving me an advance?”
“No. Most of the fields in the north and those around the Imperial City were ruined. The harvest here is in demand and will gather higher prices this year. Next year too, if the Huns stay put. Those fields will take a few seasons to recover.”
“I pray that's the case.”
They bowed in farewell and Mulan got back up on the wagon.
“Home, Khan,” she said and the horse obediently started backing up into the street before turning around.
Mulan moved Mushu from her feet to between her thighs as they exited the town center. She could feel it, likes eyes on the space between her shoulder blades. Trouble was coming. Mulan kept looking over her shoulder, half way expecting to see Huns on their mountain ponies on the horizon line.
“Anyone else feel trouble brewing?”
Khan snorted at the same time as Cri-Kee gave an almost painfully loud chirp in her ear. Mushu sat silently as ever, but the metal between her thighs had grown warm like a rake left too long in the sun. They all agreed.
Khan trotted home, and despite her ambivalent feelings towards it, Mulan was glad to have strong walls between her and the outside world.
It was another two weeks before the signs of trouble were seen. Dread had been building in Mulan's chest every day, and it seemed she wasn't the only one to sense it. Cri-Kee had abandoned the shrine as his home, always with her during the day and sleeping on her pillow at night. Khan was more riled up than he had been as a colt, and her family members kept looking at the horizon as if expecting a rider any moment.
Mulan claimed Mushu as her own, much to her father's annoyance. The dragon incense stand belonged in the temple, not on Mulan's window shelf. He had looked at her habit of bringing the dragon on runs and market trips with exasperated acceptance, but enough was enough. An incense burner did no one any good. If she was that worried about the future, they could move one of the guardian statues from its pedestal into the house.
But no, Mulan insisted on keeping Mushu with her. If incense holders were of no consequence, there was no reason why she couldn't have this one. They could use a spare tea cup filled with sand as a replacement. It was an item of no importance, except to Mulan to whom its presence offered a strange comfort. Zhou, like many times before, gave in to his daughter's wishes.
This morning, a desire to surround herself with partners had her waking up Khan for a morning ride instead of going for a weighted run. As they left the compound through the back, she could just make out the beginning of dawn, the sky a soft orange on the horizon.
Except, she wasn't facing east.
She was looking south, towards the majority of the fields, and beyond that the next town. She wasn't looking at the sunset; she was looking at Fudan burning.
She wasn't looking at the sunset; she was looking at Fudan burning.
“Hah!” She kicked Khan into a gallop. He didn't pay attention to the paths between fields, the horse took the straightest route to the road and then stretched out further. Cri-Kee protested the speed, clinging to Mulan's topknot. She spared a hand on the reigns to move the cricket to inside her training shirt. He jumped around trying to find a comfortable spot before settling.
Like most of her rides with Khan, Mulan had packed saddlebags behind the saddle to simulate the weight the horse would bear on a march. Mushu, in his untalkative state was wedged between two of them, just his head and back spines sticking out. She turned to look at him, half expecting to see metal turn into flesh, but nothing happened. Apparently the danger wasn't great enough for her to need a guardian. Slightly hopeful, that.
The closer they got to Fudan, the better Mulan could see the flames. Smoke poured from the village. By wagon speed, Fudan was a good half a day away. Even with Khan at a gallop, she doubted she would get there in time to do much. The flames had to have been high to be seen from home. It couldn't have been just one or two buildings on fire, it had to be the entire village.
Still in a rush to get there, but not willing to push Khan to his limits, she pulled back his gallop to a quick canter. They made good time, shaving two and a half hours off the trip, but even so it was too late. Khan galloped the last furlong into the village, but it wasn't a village any more. Just collapsed roofs and charred support beams.
Her arrival went mostly unnoticed. People were busy putting out leftover fires, drawing water from various wells, and transferring the buckets to the most needed areas. At this point, most of the flames were under control and Mulan had no desire to insert herself in their firefighting system. It already worked well.
Instead, she joined a trio of men searching through the wreckage of a building look for survivors. They greeted her with a quick glance and a nod, thankful for the extra help. In silence, they turned over fallen walls and charred furniture.
Cri-Kee let out a string of chirps. Mulan looked over to see him jumping on a piece of collapsed roof halfway between her and the next searcher. Mulan walked over and saw a few fingers sticking out from underneath it.
“I found someone!” she cried and all three men joined her in an effort to lift the roof.
Mulan stood under a portion of the roof, bracing it with her back to give whoever was under it time to get out or for another to pull them away. A hiss turned her attention to one of the men she worked with. The sun shinned fully, but everyone was so covered with soot she had had a hard time telling ages. But now, looking at him, some of the gray in his hair wasn't ashes.
He stared at the person Mulan had revealed, eyes wide with surprise and sorrow. Mulan finally looked under the roof. A small girl lay there, maybe seven, weeping burns on her body. Eyes wide open and unblinking. Dead.
“Mei!” the man whispered, but it lashed at Mulan like a scream.
He pulled his daughter out and started crying over her body, not caring about public displays of emotion.
Mulan and the others let him be, moving on to a different area to search.
A neigh from Khan caught her attention. One of the villagers was pulling on his bridle. Mulan stomped over to them and in an effort to appear authoritative spoke in the deep voice she had developed for Ping.
“What are you doing to my horse?”
The man pulling on the reins turned around and Mulan found herself face to face with Ling.
She froze. She had dressed like a man heading out on her ride, but unlike her time at camp she hadn't bound her breasts. Mulan hadn't expected to be gone from home so long, she was usually back before the sun fully rose and relied on the lack of light to hide her figure. Here, there was no such protection, but so far no one had questioned her as to why she did a man's work. Maybe dressing as a man was enough, with everyone stressed and thankful for an extra pair of hands.
Here stood a true test, if someone who knew her face would bypass... other things.
“Ping! I thought this horse looked familiar. How you doing?” Ling slapped Mulan on the back, knocking her almost off balance.
“Okay, until I saw the town on fire.”
“Yeah, well...” Ling shrugged. “We've been following the Huns since we came across them in the Imperial City. They've been going through the countryside pillaging. Captain Li has been following them, but we've never been able to fully catch up.”
“Sounds like we have a lot to talk about.”
“You bet. Captain Li told us you left, but never mentioned why.”
“Eh he he, about that.”
They talked as they worked. The Huns had taken all the horses they could, but a few that had run from the fire slowly returned. Immediately, they were tacked up to drag debris out of the way. Ling and Mulan worked together loading a wagon with broken support beams and clay tiles to clear the roads, Khan strutting as he did his share of the work.
Due to lack of communication, the recruits had stayed at Wu Zhong camp. It was only when they heard the news of the Imperial City under attack did they move. They had traveled through the Tung Shao Pass, but near its entrance came across a burned village. None of the civilians had survived, nor any of the Imperial troops stationed there led by General Li. By the time they had reached the Imperial City, the Emperor was already dead. His body, as well as those of his two youngest daughters, were hung from the gates to the palace compound. Shan Yu had taken the eldest as his wife, though there hadn't been a ceremony.
Captain Li had tried to retake the city, but their group was too small and not the most well-trained. They lost half their number and bid a hasty, unorganized retreat into the woods. It had taken days for them to regroup and find each other, hiding from warriors Shan Yu had sent after them.
Shan Yu then sent small cavalries into the country side. While their official orders had been to find and destroy any groups pulling together a counter attack – Imperial Army troops unaccounted for, loyal citizens, and the like – they were also going around the country destroying towns and plundering. Food, horses, gold, the Huns took it all.
Their regiment had followed a group of Huns back along their original path, and had settled into the Wu Zhong camp the previous evening. Ling, as well as a few other soldiers, had been sent out as scouts. Ling and his partner, Chang Chen-yi, had come into Fudan just as the Huns had finished lighting it on fire.
Marching and fighting with little rest, as well as seeing lots of villages in similar situations as Fudan, had taken its toll on Ling. He was thinner than he had been, face pale with lack of sleep. When they broke for lunch, she left him leaning against Khan's side as she went to retrieve food for the pair of them. He was half-way asleep when she returned.
“Sorry it's not much,” she said, sitting down next to him.
“I didn't expect much.” He took the bowl from her. Some of the village women had put together a soup, throwing in a bit of what the men had found left behind by the Huns. The rice floating in the broth was burnt, the taste making Mulan unable to finish.
“You gonna eat that, Ping?”
She shook her head and handed the bowl to Ling. With how often Captain Li had kept his troops on the move she doubted they ate well. They had to be on rations and living off the land by now, with no Emperor to send them supply wagons and the villages they came across having little to spare.
“I should be getting back home,” Mulan said as Ling set her bowl in his. “Khan's too tired to go anywhere fast, so it'll take me the rest of the day.”
“Why don't you come back to Wu Zhong with me?” Ling asked.
Mulan cringed. “Captain Li sent me away for a reason, Ling. I couldn't finish training, and considering what you've been through going home probably saved my life. Li Shang didn't want me there before, and I doubt he'd want a screw up like me there again.”
“I don't know, Ping. We've lost a lot of men; we could use you. You did alright around here today.”
She shook her head. “My family doesn't even know I came. They're probably worried about me. I can't join the army without letting them know.” The irony of the statement didn't escape her, but at least when she had done it in the spring she had left hints as to what she had done.
“Well then, at least spend the night at camp. It's closer and since you know the area you can help the Captain plan.”
“Ling, most of the recruits were from this area.”
“You got me there. We're all from this region, and because of that this has gotten to all of us. We ran into our village, that is, where me, Yao, and Chien-Po came from, two days ago. It's in worse shape than Fudan.”
“I'm sorry. But Ling, if the Huns continue on the same path the next village will be mine. If they attack at night, like they did here, I want to be home to protect it.”
Ling nodded, understanding. “Then I'll come with you. I can't do much here, and for once I'd like to actually fight the Huns instead of cleaning up their mess. Let's find Chen-yi. He can report to the Captain tonight.”
Mulan protested, she did not need anyone from the army following her home. But Ling insisted and she couldn't come up with a good reason for him to not to. Together they found Chen-yi and informed him of their plans. They mounted Khan and set off north.
It was just before dusk when Mulan and Ling walked into the compound. Her father waited on the main porch and she could see the relief in his eyes when she appeared. Fa Zhou opened his mouth to greet her, but then noticed their guest dressed in Imperial armor.
“Chen Ling, this is my father, Fa Zhou. Father, this is Chen Ling. We were in the same unit before Captain Li uh...”
Ling bowed. “It is an honor to meet you, Fa Zhou. You are well known in the Army. And I think if Ping had stayed, he could have risen to equal you in rank.”
Zhou frowned. “I love my...son, but he and I are both aware of the fact he is not on par with most men.”
Ling cast a glance Mulan's way, who tried to ignore it.
“We bring news from Fudan,” Ling continued. “Ping and I were assisting with the damage today.”
“I see.” He didn't look startled at the news, Mulan guessed that knowledge of Fudan's predicament had reached town and her father had assumed she had made her way there. “Do come in for dinner, I feel we have much to talk about it.”
Fa Zhou walked back into the house and Ling turned to look at Mulan. “Jeez, talk about a tough father. He's almost the exact opposite of you, Ping.”
“You try coming home to tell your father you weren't good enough to pass training. I have dishonored my family with my weakness.” She bowed her head and started leading Khan to his stall. Ling trailed after her.
“Yeah, that is tough. But you could fix it, come to camp with me tomorrow.”
“Ping, we need you.”
“I said no, Ling. I doubt my contributions to the army would be any better than they would have been a few months ago. Besides, I'm needed here more. I'm an only child, my family needs me to look after the farm. Harvest is soon.”
Ling puffed, but stayed quite.
Li and Myung stayed quite while the 'men' talked during dinner, and Ling again suggested Ping join him and the rest of what was left of the regiment at Wu Zhong. Zhou held a similar opinion to his 'son'. Ping was not to leave the farm.
Faced with two “no” s from very determined people, Ling gave in. Talk still continued to revolve around the war, with the women at the table growing nervous as it was suggested the Huns could attack any day.
“They don't seem to wait for a need for supplies,” Ling said as Fa Li handed him a cup of tea. “They've attacked two nearby villages in a night, clearing them out. Based on the inventory of Fudan, ideally they wouldn't need to restock for a month, but their current pattern suggests they'll attack here much earlier. Probably this week.”
Fa Zhou frowned. “We need to tell the other villagers so we can be on guard. Post a guard at night around the edge of town.”
Mulan nodded. “I'll tell people tomorrow. I was planning on going into town.”
Her father nodded.
“I'll come too,” Ling added.
“No,” Zhou said. “Your task is to return to Captain Li. You have already stepped outside of your orders, do not push them further. Disobeying the chain of command is a crime. Besides, he may have a job for you elsewhere.”
Ling nodded and they all finished dinner in silence.
Mulan walked Ling to the door the next morning to see him off.
“It was good to see you again, Ping.”
“You too, Ling. Give my regards to everyone.”
“Hope to see you again, when we don't have Huns in the area.”
Ling chuckled, and there was something bitter about it. “Same here. Who knows, maybe I'll resettle here and then we could see each other every day.”
Oh, please no. “That would be nice.”
Mulan watched him walk down the road for a few moments, then walked back into the compound. Her family stood on the front porch, waiting for her.
“Ping?” Her grandmother asked.
Mulan shrugged. “I didn't actually pick out a name beforehand and panicked when the Captain asked me for my name.”
“Still, could have chosen one of our ancestors.” Myung snorted. “Army boys aren't very attractive now, are they. I remember staring at the soldiers when I was younger, but I wouldn't have looked twice at him.”
“Mama!” Fa Li said, shocked.
Mulan smiled as she slid around them to get to her room. “I don't know, Grandmother. Ling's not a pretty boy, but that doesn't mean there aren't any in the regiment.”
“Mulan, you're engaged!”
She sighed, continuing towards her room instead of answering her mother. It was only as she was getting dressed did Mulan think it might have been a good idea to inquire after her betrothed. But the truth was, she was too excited and happy about seeing her fellow recruit. They hadn't been close friends, but they had been friendly to each other by the time she left.
In the moments when she hadn't been worrying about her appearance or the smell of charred bodies yesterday, she had felt almost relaxed around Ling and helping the villagers of Fudan. The work wasn't pleasant, but she knew she was doing something useful and appreciated. It was honorable labor. So was farming, but it didn't call to her like working next to a fellow solider did. She had been so tempted to drag Ling out this morning for a work out, but had refrained. Seeing him might have her itching for a sword in her hand and a good spar, but revealing how far she had progressed since being dismissed – and she had progressed a lot – wasn't a good idea if she wanted to stay out of Wu Zhong.
Which she did. Sorta. Maybe.
It would be fun and fulfilling to join the army again, but she knew how selfish that thought was. She would never properly fit in, and as a woman Mulan's life was progressing here. She was engaged! And the lack of her labor on the farm would be more noticeable now. Then, the seeds had been planted and there had been little to do but wait for them to grow. Now, with harvest around the corner, she was needed at home.
No matter how much her heart screamed it wanted to be somewhere else.
Dressed as a woman, Mulan walked outside. Her father was throwing the saddle blanket on Khan's back, the stallion standing still as the fabric was slid into its proper place. Zhou's work around the farm might have been decreased, but he still did his best to do his part. Mulan grabbed the saddle while her father set about slipping Khan's bridle on.
“I do hope, Mulan, that we won't have any more soldiers at our gate.”
“Don't worry, Father. Ling said they were at the Wu Zhong camp, but gave no reason why they would leave it. Soldiers might come to town to help with the patrols, but I'm sure they can spend the night elsewhere.”
“I do not mind giving them a futon to sleep on, but if they were to discover -”
“That my name is Mulan and not Ping, the result would bring dishonor on the family. I know, Father.” She kissed his check before mounting Khan. “I don't want that to happen any more than you do.”
Indulging his daughter's childish need, he placed Mushu behind the saddle and tied him in place with a bit of rope. “If you do not have enough money, you can hold off on the fabric. I do not need a new shirt as much as your mother thinks I do.”
“I'm sure I'll have enough.”
They walked to the doors and Fa Zhou pulled one in to let her out. “Stay safe, my daughter.”
“You too, Father.”
Fa Zhou's worry about money was unneeded, Mulan returned to the farm with her bags full of everything and a little extra. A replacement incense holder for the shrine, not as nice as Mushu, but another dragon. Zhou’s worry about soldiers however, was well founded.
When Mulan stepped into the main room, arms full of goods, she saw Captain Li Shang sitting across the table from her father sharing a pot of tea. She nearly dropped her purchases and stammered “captain” but succeeded in holding her warrior side in check. Controlling the day Mulan proved harder. She blushed red and quickly scampered into the kitchen.
“One of those pretty boys you were talking about this morning?” Myung asked, stirring rice. When she turned to see the blush on Mulan's face, she amended her comment. “Or maybe the prettiest boy?”
Mulan blushed harder, just as Li came in with more wood for the fire. Her mother took one look at her face and understood. She smiled a knowing smile, but it soon dropped from her face. “You are to be poised and perfect tonight, you shouldn't give him a hint that you are anything but a lady. A betrothed lady.”
“Yes, Mama.” She said, blush receding. It would not do for Captain Li Shang to link her actions or mannerisms with Fa Ping. Mulan started putting away her purchases: oil, tea leaves, rice, candles. “Why is he here?”
Li spoke up. “It was that Chen Ling you brought home. He returned to camp and mentioned you lived in the area and the captain remembered that “Ping's” father was a great general in Army when he was young. He came to ask your father for advice.”
“Smart boy, respecting his elders,” Myung tapped the spoon against the rice pot. “Too bad the matchmaker already set up a match, we could have tried to get you with the captain, Mulan.”
Unbidden images of the life she could have with Captain Li filled Mulan’s head. This was a really bad time to be thinking about this, she had to serve him dinner soon!
“I'm...I'm gonna go wash up.”
Mulan kept quite during dinner, only speaking when asked a question and sitting with a proper straight back. Captain Li and her father filled the meal with conversation, sharing war stories. Mulan hadn't spent much time with the army, but enough to tell parts were edited for the sake of the three women around the table. She'd have to ask her father for the full story later.
Ping came into the conversation during tea.
“I have to admit,” Li Shang said, “I had been expecting to see your son Ping at dinner tonight.” He seemed to miss the collective breath the family took.
Zhou took a stately sip of tea. “He went into town with Mulan today to find workers for the harvest. We have more land then we can plant and harvest and so I hire men twice a year to help out. Ping said he would spend the night in town. If we knew you were coming, I would have insisted he come home tonight.”
“It is not an important matter, and I did drop by unannounced. I just wished to tell him not to take his...dismissal personally. Some men are not suited for war and can bring more honor to their family at home.”
“That is true. I have always known Ping's talents did not lie with the sword and fighting. I thank you for sending him back to us, I feel it saved his life.”
Li Shang didn't respond, but it was obvious he agreed.
Mulan didn't know if she should be insulted or not. Okay, so she failed as a solider and was doing much better as a daughter, but she had improved in her training tasks. And as awkward as her time at the camp had been, there were mornings when she woke up thinking she was still there and that her kicking the blankets off was really Mushu yanking them away. She strangely missed it at times. And who wouldn't take a dismissal based on skills personal?
She tried to hide her feelings by talking a large sip of tea, but ended up burning her tongue. Mulan jerked the cup away. Fa Li frowned at her. Thankfully, the males hadn't noticed.
“Excuse me, Captain Li,” Fa Myung spoke up, and Mulan looked at her grandmother in horror because she just knew what Myung asked was going to be embarrassing.
Li Shang turned to look at her.
“Our flower, Mulan,” Myung swept an arm in Mulan's direction and Li Shang's eyes flicked to her before returning to Myung, “is betrothed to one of the men who went to the Wu Zhong camp to serve under you. Chen Ling mentioned that many of those who served under you have joined the ancestors. Could you tell me if her husband to be was one of them?”
“What was his name?”
The captain's face fell. Mulan looked down at her hands, not sure what to feel. His younger brother's thoughts on Chang had made Mulan edgy about the marriage, but it had just been Chang that put her on edge. The rest of the family seemed nice enough. The arrangement now would be that Mulan would marry Jhou, a boy of eleven.
Maybe it wasn't that she didn't know what to feel, but that she didn't feel anything. Most of her feelings were wrapped up around the idea of being married, not to whom. So, nothing had changed. She would do her duty as a respectable daughter and marry Jhou. Aside from his age, he didn't seem that bad, and Mulan could see herself executing some control over him.
Okay, perhaps she did feel a little bit glad at Ho Chang's death, as wrong as that thought felt. While her future had never been bright before her, it did just seem as if it had traded the color of ashes for that of a heavy cloud. In the future, maybe that color would lighten to a white cloud and dissolve to become the sun. Such things were possible. Her parents were happy, and they had had a similar arranged marriage.
“I'm sorry,” Captain Li said, turning his full attention to Mulan. “We you fond of him?”
“We never met. The match was made after he left.”
“He was a good man. He fought well.”
Silence settled over the table. Zhou placed down his cup of tea. “Come, Captain, and I'll show you to the guest quarters.”
Both men stood and Mulan went about gathering the dinner plates and tea cups. Fa Myung stood with a back cracking stretch and made her way to her room, leaving Mulan and her mother to clean up after dinner.
“This means I will now marry Ho Jhou,” she said once they were in the kitchen.
“Yes, if we don't find a better match. Jhou will not be of marrying age for a few more years yet. In the meantime, we might find someone able to marry you sooner.”
It stunned her how much that idea affected her. In the few moments between learning of Ho Cheng's death and now, she had crafted a future in her mind revolving around her marriage to Jhou. It wasn't terrible. In fact, she had grown a bit fond of it. To have such an image shattered, to have to go through the woman's terror of meeting a future family again...
She forced herself to take a deep lungful of air. This was her life, the life of a woman in China whose honor depended on the ability to bare and raise sons. Honor...
“Mama, it was so hard and lucky to have the matchmaker pair me with the Ho family. If an alternative comes up, they wouldn't be of equal status would they?”
Not that the Ho's were of equal status with the Fa. Zhou's time as a general made the Fas one of the high ranking families in town.
Fa Li stopped rinsing cups. “No. The Hos are the best we can do. And it's quite possible they might want to call it off themselves. By the time their son is of age, your best child bearing years would be almost gone.”
She knew that, but hadn't wanted to think it.
“I'm sorry I'm such a failure, Mama.”
“Oh, Mulan!” Her mother swept her up into a hug. “You may... be a little unconventional, but I don't think you are a failure. China is just not ready for the likes of you. I am sorry I have failed you as a mother, I hadn't properly prepared you for what you needed to do.”
Mulan wiped at her tears with a hand over her mother's back. “Nonsense. You did your best, I just refused to listen to you. And I regret it.”
“But you were being you, and seeing you with that type of freedom filled me with joy. I couldn't take that away from you.”
Being you...being herself, doing something that made her happy. Mulan's mind flashed to her morning trainings, her rides with Khan and Cri-Kee and the unmoving Mushu. The freedom to follow that, to be that Mulan, was quickly slipping away.
She cried harder into her mother's shoulder, the wet stain expanding down Fa Li's back.
Mulan hadn't gone through her exercises when Ling had stayed the night. But her talk with her mother the night before made Mulan realize how much doing them was important to her and how soon she wouldn't be able to. So despite Li Shang sharing her roof, she got ready to train. The full get up: clothes, warrior's bun, and bound breasts.
It turned out to be a good idea. The captain, also used to waking early, walked out of the house as Mulan finished her warm up stretches.
“Ping? When did you arrive? Your parents were under the impression you spent the night in town.”
Mulan froze, hands on the ground, butt in the air and she counted off the stretch in her mind. Think, think!
“Um...late last night! I have a fondness for my own bed.” It had been ages since she used her mock deep voice. She couldn't see Li Shang's face, couldn’t judge if her disguise held. Mulan decided it did when he started to stretch beside her.
“I'm impressed that you still train. After I dismissed you...”
“Which you were right to do. You made training a habit, and with what happened to Fudan a few days ago I'm glad I've kept it.”
The captain nodded.
Mulan did her stretching routine again, killing time as her former commanding officer went through his. When he finished, he gave her a playful grin. “What do you think, should we spar?”
Captain Li had done nothing but kick her around at Wu Zhong, winning every practice bout they had. Actually, she had lost every single one she had been in. Mulan hadn't planned on working on hand-to-hand this morning, it was to be a weighted run and then balance practice on the bridge, but the idea caught hold. She had no one to spar with.
“Sure,” she answered, settling into the start position. Front foot pointed at her opponent, back foot perpendicular, turning her body to the side. Her fists came up, her left half an arm in front of her shoulder and her other halfway down her right rib cage. Li Shang fell into a similar position.
Mulan didn't know if she should throw the first punch or not, but before she could decide Shang threw one and she brushed it aside with her right forearm. She followed through with a punch from her other hand, catching the bone of his hip as he moved out of the way.
He used his momentum to complete a 180 pivot and kick her with the flat of his foot. She went down, but rolled back up into the start position.
Shang gave her an appreciative look. “You've improved.”
“Thank you. I'm been following the training schedule you lead us through at camp. It's really thanks to your planning instead of myself that I've gotten better.”
He brushed off the polite speech, his look telling her Shang thought the opposite. It was her own personal improvement that amazed him, not the training. Mulan had to admit, back at camp, she usually went down at the first strike and rarely popped back up.
They sparred for a few rounds, Mulan losing all but one, but she lasted longer than she had during any she was involved in at Wu Zhong. Her reflexes were better, enabling her to see and counter attacks, as was her stamina and balance. She had always thought smart, knowing it was to her advantage to have the sun in the eyes of her opponent had her changing the field many times so the captain had to squint into the dawn. Of course, he always reversed it.
She narrowed her eyes against the sun, trying to figure out where the next attack would come from. Mulan could tell the difference between a kick and a punch, but was having a hard time determining the target area. It was hard to read the face of a silhouette, no eye glances to give her clue, and the bright sun made it hard to notice subtle shifts in weight.
She tried though, until something about the sunrise caught her eye. Every day it was different, a wonder to behold in glimpses between concentrating on her body, but she felt she knew the light well enough to pick out patterns. A gentle lightening, from black velvet to navy blue until it melted into pink, then orange, then yellow as the sun appeared. Once the star was halfway risen, a clear blue would bleed into the sky.
Right now, Mulan knew she should be looking at pink, not orange. And that wasn't a nice looking cloud on the horizon.
Due to her distraction, Li Shang delivered a hard blow to her cheek. She went down, reeling from the unexpected hit.
“Ping, you can't become distracted during a fight.”
“I was trying to understand my surroundings. Something isn't right.”
She walked up the hill to where the shrine sat and looked east. Now that the house wasn't in the way of her view, she could tell exactly what it was. Fire. The fields were on fire.
“Captain!” she called out and he raced up the hill to stand next to her.
The fires were young, small enough to put out at the moment, but Mulan knew that wouldn't happen. The Huns had lit the fields just beyond where her father's wheat began, but as she watched the fire jumped and crackled. They had picked a good spot to start a fire, right in the center of the east fields. Soon they would all be ablaze, the lack of rain making the crops easy fodder for the flames. Even as they stood there watching, the wheat she had helped plant caught fire.
But fire wasn't the only thing they had to worry about. Mulan could see riders on short stocky ponies on the flames edge. While it would be hard to survive a year without the crop, it was doable. A Hun attack would be much more devastating.
“I'll never get to my troops in time,” Li said. “Is there a city watch or meeting place for the men in case of an attack?”
“The main road, where it intersects with the one leading to market!” Mulan yelled over her shoulder. She sprinted towards the house. She had to warn her family, had to prepare to fight. Captain Li might want to wait till he had men, farm boys as they might be, but that would take time. Before he would be ready the farm would be set upon. It was one of the dangers of living on the outskirts, never mind the walls around the front of the compound.
“Huns!” Mulan yelled, running through the house and only stopping before the wardrobe housing the armor.
As she tied the plated skirt around her waist Zhou limped in. “Mu-” he stopped as Li Shang ran past the doorway, heading towards his own room and the battle gear inside. “Ping. What is going on?”
“Huns. They lit the fields on fire. They're on mounts and will be here soon.”
Mulan struggled with the shoulder armor, but her father came up to help her. Then her mother was on the other side helping with the other shoulder. Li’s fingers were trembling.
“You need to get out of here,” Mulan said, bucking her sword. “I'll do what I can to hold them off.”
“You can't fight them, Mulan,” Li whispered under her breath. “You don't have a chance.”
“Don't underestimate our daughter.” Zhou held out the helmet.
Mulan shook her head, it blocked her vision too much and the smoke would be bad enough.
She wanted to say something to her parents, about how much she loved them, to not look back, to pray for her, to leave and leave now! But there wasn't any time. She gave them both a quick kiss on the cheek before sprinting to the stable.
Her grandmother had thought ahead and prepared Khan. No saddle, but he had his bridle on. The captain was in the stable as well, fully armored and fastening the cinch on his stallion. He dressed quickly, especially for doing it without help. He must be used to quickly responding to threats.
Mulan bent down to kiss Myung. “Leave now.”
Myung gave her granddaughter a quick hug. “Be safe.”
She couldn’t promise that.
Mulan swung up on Khan, the stallion's prancing calming just enough to allow her to. She was ready to go, but Myung still held the bit. “Grandmother, I need to go!”
“Take this with you.” She picked up something metal from a nearby pile of hay.
Mushu. Cri-kee sleeping on the gong.
The feeling of serious trouble coming her way, of needing everyone who had helped her before, vanished. Instead, Mulan felt numb. She didn't feel nervous, or on edge. She didn't even feel scared. But she knew, as soon as she left the stable yard, the feelings would flood her. This was just the eye of the storm of trouble she had been feeling and in seconds it would pass.
Mulan said thank you with her eyes, there was no time for words, and kicked Khan into a gallop towards the fields. Captain Li shouted after her, something about being stupid and coming back, but she ignored him. He wasn't her captain, not technically, so she didn't have to obey his commands. She followed a deeper, more instinctual order that only belonged to women. Men honored honor, the idea of respect. But women. To women, family was everything. Their lives revolved around it, from doing right by your parents to doing right by your husband. Family was everything, you had to protect it.
As she rode towards the flames, Mushu's back in her hands as they gripped the reins, the dragon began to get hot.
Mulan tried not to think about how stupid she was behaving. One soldier against a dozen Huns? And not even a fully trained soldier. She didn't even have on a full set of armor, having skipped the chest plate for the sake of time. Plus, all her horseman skills with a sword she made up as she rode through the fields.
Okay, Mushu helped. The dragon had recognized the danger she was heading into, woke, and now sat between Khan's ears giving her directions.
“Now remember, strike down. You're taller than them. And aim for weak points in the armor. The neck would be easiest to reach, I think. And don't forget Bessy here is a weapon too. He has some nasty kicks I've had the misfortune to be on the receiving end on.”
Khan didn't even acknowledge the dragon's murder of his name. Mulan could tell that Khan, like herself and Cri-Kee, were happy to have Mushu back. She felt it in the loosening of the stallion's withers just as the incense holder turned from metal to flesh. Cri-Kee chirped happily from Mulan’s topknot. Mulan spared Mushu a smile, but stayed tense on Khan’s back.
The Huns had spotted her almost as soon as she had entered the fields and came charging toward her.
Ten paces now.
“Thank you for coming, Mushu. With you here, I can get through this.”
“No problem, baby girl.”
The other steeds were breathing hard, and the smoke was close enough Mulan's eye's stung.
The heat of the burning wheat washed over her.
She raised her sword.