It isn’t until cast iron bangs together in a ringing echo that Fa Zhou realizes that his mother had slipped away from the table. Fa Li has already risen, their discussion over water levels tabled mid-sentence at Khan’s questioning whinny.
He calculates backwards, and sighs. If he’d timed this right, Mother should intercept Mulan while she’s still in the front courtyard. Not for the first time, he curses his bum leg as he hobbles as fast as he can down the halls. Fa Li, thank the heavens, is fleet of foot and silent as deer; she is already out of sight.
“Sorry,” Mother is saying from around the corner. “Clumsy old me was rushing over and tripped.”
“All... right?” Mulan sounds very confused. Fa Zhou rolls his eyes. Mother’s ‘just an infirm old lady’ act would have been more convincing if she hasn’t tripped once in the kitchen, or indeed anywhere else, within the last decade or so. “Are you... all right?”
“Might have hurt the soup cauldron more!” Mother says brightly. “I’ll check in a moment.”
Fa Li sighs.
He turns the corner to catch the last of the piercing look Mother gives Mulan, then she smiles, pleased. “Oh, good. Still here with us.”
“Yes, Grandma. I’m still here. I’m all here.” Khan lowers his head and chuffs into Mulan’s hair. She pats his neck absently. “Here, Cri-Kee, keep Grandma company, help her, uh, not knock any more pots over.”
“You’re all here, and then some,” Mother murmurs. Cri-Kee sings a quiet trill on her shoulder.
“Well, um, I’ll be off now. I need to send the reply back to Shang today or it won’t arrive in Chang’an in time.” She hefts the basket higher on her arm, then mounts Khan with an effortless twist of her body. Even through her dresses he can see her military carriage, the grace in her limbs that looks innocuous to civilians and lethal to him. “Turnips and yams, three catties each, right? Did you need anything else?”
“Yeah, tell your Captain I like men with broad shoulders! See if he sweet-talks the Emperor into sitting you with the cute ones.”
“Good bye, Grandma,” Mulan says firmly, though she’s smiling as she give them a parting wave.
“Mother,” says Fa Li softly, as the sharp clip of Khan’s hooves fade. “I’m glad you’re not hurt.”
Mother sniffs. “Well, both the pots and I are all right. And so is Mulan! So far she’s not gotten lost in her own world over anything I’ve tried. The battlefields must have been kind to her.”
“That’s not a very nice way to investigate,” Fa Zhou chides, leaning against the door frame. His leg throbs in cursed rhythm with his heartbeat.
“I’d rather find out at home than out in the markets,” she says sharply. He can only share a look with his wife and tilt his head in acquiescence; Mother had a point. That’s how Potter Liu had found out about his son; he’d eventually become unresponsive to farm life, or too responsive when the New Year’s celebrations ring through the village. As had Ma Tonghei, only he screamed and wept, and was inconsolable for hours at a time. His family had to teach his little brother basic carving skills quickly to maintain some sort of income beyond the last of a soldier’s stipend. “Wouldn’t you rather know earlier? So we can make a safe space for her as quickly as we can if she needed one?”
“Well,” Fa Zhou says after a moment, “what would you have done if she did get lost in the war in her head?”
“Sit with her until she finds her way back out, of course. I did it with you, child, I’m sure I haven’t forgotten all my hard-earned knowledge.”
“Mother, it’s not that we disagree,” Fa Li soothes, “it’s just that we’re worried too. If she did get lost in her head—”
“—then she would have gotten lost sooner or later.” Mother sighs, and abruptly looks every year her age. “How else would we know, daughter?”
“We will know when it happens, Mother.”
“And I’m afraid your attempts at replicating battlefield sounds aren’t very good,” Fa Zhou says, smiling. “Standard issue shields aren’t made of cast iron, and cannons don’t sound like that when they’re struck. Kitchen sounds don’t sound much like a warzone.”
“Hmph. Well, she didn’t freak out over fireworks last week, so there’s that, at least. Making a quiet room is very hard, you know.”
“Yes,” he says, thinking of Ma Tonghei and the susurrations of leaves that now accompany his daily life, void of conversation and connection. “I know.” Some bring the war back within themselves, and don’t know how to stop fighting, don’t know where to leave. He hopes his daughter will never have to learn this kind of misery, but Mulan, in many ways, had been born with a blade between her teeth and iron fans in her hands. People are not often kind to flowers when they think that flowers are beautiful solely for their enjoyment.
Fa Li touches the back of his hand, a petal’s weight in her grace. He turns his and allows himself a moment to grip her fingers in return.
Mother sighs again. “All right, all right,” she grumbles, “I’ll stop abusing kitchen utensils in the name of good preparation.” Then she slumps again. “It’s not the first time we’ve had to put our trust in her and in fate. May the ancestors watch over her.”
“May the ancestors watch over us all.”
They stand quietly for a long moment, listening to the soft sounds of hard-earned peace. The Fa Li shakes herself and draws them back inside. “So? Shall we go back to our daily routine? No more testing and insights until our warrior comes back?”
Mother perks up. “No, wait, one more! The horse seemed fine too! No spooking yet. Well, more than usual at least. Khan’s probably the most level-headed member of this household...”
“Enough testing, Mother,” he says, though he smiles, helpless. Mother has always been irrepressible. “Come finish your tea. The water levels won’t wait the way Mulan and Khan will.”
“Yes, well, I haven’t tested this lucky cricket yet,” Mother says, eyeing the quaking insect on her shoulder who now seems like it very much regrets staying behind. “So I’ll just test how lucky you still are. And then you can help us with getting the water levels back up!”
Cri-Kee promptly faints. Mother’s hand flashes out and catches the poor thing as it falls off her shoulder, just as she walks the exact steps needed to avoid tripping over stone steps to the kitchen and the overturned cauldron beyond it. “Yep, still lucky!”
Fa Li smiles. “At least that hasn’t changed either.”
Chi Fu peeks around the curtain. “Is that woman gone?” he hisses at the nearest attendant.
“Fa Mulan has been dismissed from the Emperor’s presence,” the attendant whispers back. The attendant beside her rolls his eyes, the disrespectful creature! He scowls at him on the way back to his position at the Emperor’s side, two steps behind and to the right as befitting of a consul.
“Really,” the Emperor is muttering, “is all that boy knows military lingo? What has my old General been teaching him...”
“He could still do with more tactical training,” Chi Fu sniffs. General Li had admittedly been no easy taskmaster, not for his men or his son. But there is no rest on the pursuit for excellence. The current of new knowledge flows against all, and the mind is set up to rot in this ripe setting.
“Yes, yes, but a war can tire anyone out. Methinks those participants can use at least a little rest.”
“As Your Majesty wills,” he says, doubtful. Knowledge does not wait for even a war; in fact, war is a potent generator of new knowledge itself. Too bad so many men die in wars or come back feeble, because otherwise he wouldn’t be opposed to having more of them if it means that it’ll make the Middle Kingdom an even greater fount of power.
“Yes. Go on, then.”
It takes Chi Fu a shameful beat to realize that the Emperor has dismissed him for— what? “Your Majesty?”
“Chi Fu,” the Emperor says, mild, “you were part of the war too, if you remember. Did you not just agree with me that all participants should rest? Put down your duties tonight and dine. Or enjoy yourself with entertainment if you are full. You can start advising me again tomorrow morning.”
“Sire,” is all he can say as he bows. He’s had his fill of the food, and he mislikes the men under this General anyway, so he begs his leave in excuse of an early morning and walks out of the grand reception hall. The spring night wraps itself around him, and he breathes as the raucous noise of the ongoing dinner party fades.
“Chi Fu! Wait! Wait, please.”
Chi Fu tells himself that he’s responding to the “please” more than anything when he turns around. “Yes, General Li,” he says with exacting politeness as Li Shang jogs to meet him halfway across the corridor. Manners sharp enough to parry with, so to speak. “What may this humble servant offer in your service?”
“I came to thank you. I’ve been swamped and you haven’t left the Emperor’s side, so I didn’t have a chance until now, sorry about that.” Li Shang straightens, and then gives him a bow with the exact amount of respect to be accorded to a man his station. “Thank you for your service in the war.”
Chi Fu finds himself wordless for the first time since the war; Li Shang hasn’t taken so much care to observe his status in all the time they’d worked together. Cumulatively. “Yes, uh. Stand up,” he says hastily when the moment stretches way too long. Li Shang’s direct stare makes him want to shift on his feet. “Thanks accepted. Congratulations on your promotion. Was that all?”
“No. I also came to speak of Fa Mulan—”
“What about her?”
“—and her offered position in the Emperor’s courts—”
“What about it?” There goes his hope of writing it away as a nightmare induced by bad preserved vegetables. Forget feeling unsatisfied that Li Shang had apologized without an audience to witness this; he should have had a hall of ministers present to shake this— boy down.
“Women can’t act as consuls,” he snaps. Over twenty years of moral upbringing, decent education, good connections, and court experience, and an upstart, a female upstart at that, would unseat him? If she doesn’t advise the country to ruin, it will be only because of the sanctified wisdom of the Emperor as he governs with the Mandate of Heaven.
“You’re right,” Li Shang says, as he opens his mouth, and— wait, what? “They don’t get to study like you did. Or like I could, if I wanted to. They don’t have the chance to gain the experience or expertise or connections to contribute to state matters—”
“Don’t interrupt me, I wasn’t done. It’s not their place. Even if they had the mettle or ability, which they don’t, they can’t do it.”
“Do you mean, it’s not their place, or it’s because they didn’t get the opportunity to—”
“It’s not their role to play! End of discussion!”
“You never did let me actually start,” Li Shang points out, looking bemused of all things. “I just wanted to give you some advice about women who serve China—”
“Advice? What advice could I possibly need? They’ll do best to serve their country by serving men!”
“If I wasn’t given the opportunity to proceed to Tung Shao Pass, I would never have been able to lead the troops into victory for China. And this kingdom would have fallen.” His eyes are very steady, like his late father’s gaze. Li Shang has never shown it, but now Chi Fu wonders if he misses his father as much as the Emperor does. “It could have been another captain who’d received the letter to mobilize. But it was me. So circumstance led me here.”
He takes a step forward, and Chi Fu finds himself absurdly considering taking more than just one step back. The Li clan can be... intense.
“Our fates— our dates of death are already written in the scroll of lifespans by the Sage of Longevity. But it is everything before that leads us to that date, in that place, to that death, that will matter when we stand in front of the Celestial Judges. So if we are judged, we must be able to change circumstance. And I think the circumstance for many women is such that they don’t have a chance to realize their potential other than their expected role of serving men. Do you see?”
“That the correct order to society to maintain the Mandate of Heaven is to observe the social hierarchy as we know it?” Chi Fu growls. “You shame your teachers. Confucius laid out ethical conduct in government as a macro form of a virtuous family, and you propose to upend all order—”
“—And I’m not disagreeing that order is necessary for good governance! But don’t you see that we’ve just upended social order as we knew it? A woman served in the army, fought in the war, and ended up saving China! If this is not service as part of the Mandate of Heaven, then what is it?!”
“You can argue with the great Teacher himself about the Mandate of Heaven!”
“And I will. But Lao Tzu is not here. Just you and I.” Li Shang takes another step forward. Chi Fu gives in to the urge and takes another few steps back. Where had this mercilessness been hiding, when he was in Tung Shao Pass with a traitorous woman at his feet and a bared neck at his sword? “Okay. So you would rather China fall than have a woman save it?”
“Another man would have saved China,” he snaps, “if that woman had not stepped in and wrecked the palace—”
“Victory does not wait for a man to seize it. And if you ask the Emperor himself, I would think that he’d consider a broken set of great doors and singed robes a small price to pay for his life and his rule.” Li Shang shakes his head. “If you hope to preserve order as you know it now, you’d best come up with better excuses to shut out capable women than ‘this space is only for men’. Because you should know as well as I do that space can be easily made.”
He snorts, bitter. “By kicking—” me “—us out?”
The man rolls his eyes. “Only after you refused to let His Majesty add a new position altogether. That’s on you alone.”
“You put a lot on the line for that woman—”
“Her name is Fa Mulan. And she can fight her own battles,” Li Shang says without batting an eye, “but she shouldn’t have to fight alone. I’m sure she would have a lot to say if you could look her in the face and say all of this to her. But you won’t. You won’t even give her a chance. And I get it,” he adds quietly, “I hadn’t looked to the women for strength either. But now I know better.”
“You will bring about the downfall of China if you disrupt moral social order like this!”
“I’m not getting anywhere, am I,” the man says under his breath. Chi Fu bristles. He’s the one not getting anywhere here! “Look, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to convince you of anything right now. And we have time for that. But my advice—”
“You won’t convince me—”
“My advice,” Li Shang continues, implacable, just like his late father, “was just that if you can’t find it in yourself to support Fa Mulan, you should at least stand aside when she – or any worthy woman – ascends by dint of her merits. Just like how you wouldn’t stand in the way of a man.”
He sneers. “Or?”
“Or I’ll move you. And if I don’t, you really won’t like the person after me who will move you.”
Chi Fu isn’t deaf, he can hear the actual warning under it. Or else.
“That is all,” Li Shang adds. Oh, how utterly galling that this impertinent boy now outranks him. He had been a decent chess player, but now that Chi Fu has the immediate benefit of hindsight, he can see every tricky step this new general had taken through this entire setup, from choosing an empty hall for this humiliating conversation to paying his dues first to the way he subliminally invoked every political power sympathetic to his cause. He’s grown up— and in showing his hand so early, he’s still so young.
“You still have so much political learning to do,” he mutters, and is surprised by the quirk in Li Shang’s mouth.
“I’m aware. I know you were my father’s political adviser as much as you are the Emperor’s. So you probably have a lot of opinions on how I approached this. But do not mistake my inexperience for indirection. If I am to work together with you as my father did, you should know as well I do where I stand.”
“Your late father—”
“—would be proud of me for living up to his legacy and my sworn duty of fighting for the Emperor and the whole of China, I am sure.”
They stare at each other.
“I did hear you,” Li Shang says, more quietly, “and I share the same concerns about the stability of China’s civilization. I would that you come with me to tour the country later next week and see for yourself the changes and benefits that supporting women could bring to the community. I have a few ideas that need some time to take effect, so we can start there. Maybe that can help our understanding of the Mandate of Heaven better, and make a better China.”
“We shall see,” Chi Fu mutters. His own political base has weakened from those long weeks away in the battlefield, and he can already see it crumble even further as this young General tries his level best to change the Mandate of Heaven as it now manifests.
“The offer is open when you are ready to take it.” Li Shang inclines his head. Chi Fu can’t help but note the exact angle of it, respect accorded with precision from a General to a consul. “But first, I have work to do. Enjoy your evening.”
“And you, General.” Gods above, does he himself have work to do as well, if he is to survive this change in the capital. He waits until he’s both walked out of Li Shang’s earshot on the other side of the bridge before he says aloud, “I do wonder if you would be proud of him after all, General—”
The spring breeze gusts, suddenly; the torches lining in the hallway flare in a great roaring burst of light. Chi Fu squeaks before he can help it, and scuttles down the corridor without daring further comment.
“I’m never travelling without you again,” Ling moans, sprawling back onto his bedroll with remarkably dramatic lassitude. “Why am I absolutely not surprised that you know exactly every temple that serves the best food.”
“Shut up,” Yao mutters, hunching over his pack, “I’m going to forget and Ma’s not going to like it. The marinated pork had star anise, Sichuan pepper, ginger, cloves, uh, what was that—”
“Cinnamon,” Chien Po supplies, “and probably some licorice too.” Yao grunts his thanks and scribbles.
“Write neat, or your mother won’t be able to read it like last time,” Ling says over his shoulder. “Speaking of which. Chien Po, when are we visiting your monastery?”
Chien Po shrugs. “I don’t have one anymore. So you won’t.”
Yao’s head jerks up. Ling gapes at him. “What do you mean, you don’t have one anymore?”
“My old order requires pacifism and vegetarianism. I haven’t followed either tenet for a while.”
Ling growls low in his throat. “You were defending the seat of civilization so they can practice their nice pacifist ideals—”
Yao looks about ready to start another war. “So you’re totally bringing us to your old temple next, aren’t you? We’d like to, uh, meet with your old friends.” He smiles. It’s actually vaguely menacing for once. Chien Po is so proud.
“Guys, no,” he protests, then laughs. Of course they’d react like this. “No, no, I’m sorry, you misunderstand me. I can’t go back to the order anymore. But my old masters know of a few orders that do not require pacifism or vegetarianism, and I’m going to be presenting myself for their consideration of admission.”
“Huh,” Ling says, one eyebrow raised. He looks only slightly mollified.
“Is that what all those other scrolls are about in your purse,” Yao grumps.
“Yes,” Chien Po smiles. “But I do have to travel pretty far southeast for one of them. I was hoping we could say hello to Mulan on the way over, see if she’s doing okay.”
A pause, as they visibly calculate the journey. “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” Yao says slowly, “it’s only a, what, three day detour? Four?”
“Five if we want to enjoy the cuisine there,” Ling corrects. “Not bad at all. But can your meeting with that abbot wait for so long?”
“I’m happy to wait if the abbot has other business. You don’t have to come along, you know. It really is quite far, and we’d have to cross the mountains on the south bank of the Yellow River, so—”
“Wow, that sounds like a nice road trip, doesn’t it, Yao,” Ling says loudly.
“We won’t forgive ya if you leave us behind,” Yao agrees with that same pleasant menace with which he’d smiled.
His boys. “—So shh, you’ll wake up the other travellers, and you know how energy we’ll need to make such a long trip.”
They all know he’s lying; they never have to summon much energy to go see Mulan. But it’s not until they’re standing at her father’s home and being redirected to another residence with faded red doors two streets down that they get a proper reminder why. Yes, his heart knows it is always worth it to go see Mulan, but she has a way of greeting them that wipes even the memory of weariness from his feet. “Guys! You came!”
Then she ducks back inside and shuts the doors. Chien Po exchanges glances with Yao, then Ling, then the closed doors. The closed doors offer no comments, which is unfortunately not helpful at all.
Then she whirls back out, leaning back against the peeling paint. She looks, in fact, rather like that time she grabbed Yao’s last cannon and took aim at the swell of Huns barrelling down the mountainside to kill them. “Yao. How much cooking did your mother teach you,” she demands. Demands! She’s grown.
“Uh,” Yao says, just as thrown. “I know how to chop vegetables, peel roots, and skin a chicken—”
“Perfect, you’re on kitchen duty with my mother. Chien Po?”
“Only congee,” he says apologetically.
“Great! You can help in the kitchen too. Ling.” She pauses, then sizes him up in a manner so reminiscent of Captain Li Shang – no, that’s General now – that Ling, and Yao and him for that matter, all straighten up into parade attention. “How much of the first set of forms do you remember?”
“Do you remember any of them?”
“Yes, sir— I mean, yeah, I do, but what do you need—”
“You’re with me and Ning Yuklan. I just had three kids join today and I don’t have that many eyes, so you can review the first three forms with my oldest ones.”
“Kids?” Yao and Ling say at the same time.
Mulan smiles like a tiger stalking a fawn crouched in the grass. “You’ll love them,” she says ominously.
Well, she’s not wrong. One hour later finds Chien Po taking a careful seat next to Mulan at the little table tucked into a corner of the hall and offering her a bowl, extra full and topped carefully with chicken by one of her older students. Mulan accepts the congee with a mumbled thanks, occupied with watching over her students as they devour their food. She’s not slumped over, but he can tell she really, really wants to.
“Such lively children.”
“They’re better now that they’ve worked some of their morning playfulness out of their system.” Mulan yelps quietly as she burns her tongue on the steam. “Ling says you’re going to ask to be admitted to a new order south of the river? I wish you great success, Chien Po. Work hard.”
“I will work hard. Just like you, Mulan. You have a lot of students.”
“Yeah,” Mulan sighs, “I do. Running a martial arts school takes a lot more energy than I assumed.”
Chien Po glances at the six children sitting to the side, separate from the other little circles, and yet not quite together themselves. It’s a more familiar sight that he expects. “There are a lot of orphans here, aren’t there?”
Mulan turns to give him a long look, then nods. “More now than before, after the war. And a lot of kids from families who lost everything when their father or brother or eldest son didn’t come back.” She leans forward, brooding into her clasped hands. “I know children are usually sent to join martial arts schools for another adult in their life, or to be taken in entirely by the teacher, but I can’t— I’m not— I won’t be a father, Chien Po. I’m not even a mother. Or any sort of suitable parental figure for anyone. I’m just— me.”
Chien Po takes his time to finish the congee – a little watery by his standards, and the millet hasn’t had time to flower open properly, but needs must, especially when there are hungry mouths to feed – and weighs his vocabulary for suitable words. “In the temples we visited, we saw much the same. Children without fathers, wives without husbands, parents without sons, elders without men to take care of them.”
Mulan nods again into her congee, glum. The dead men were their fellow compatriots, after all; it could very well be that they’d witnessed some of their passings personally.
“And having seen what those temples are doing... Mulan, I think you’re doing a wonderful job.”
“Do you?” Her shy pleasure is a remarkable thing of itself. “You don’t think I’m running things to the ground? Well, I mean, I would have anyway if Shanting isn’t here to keep the numbers straight, and if Yuklan isn’t such a patient teacher, but... it’s not like I know anything about guiding children through life the way those monks and nuns do.”
Chien Po laughs. “Mulan, what do you think monasteries are composed of? They are single men and women who have eschewed outside attachments, and so many of them enter their orders young. What do they know of children in civilian life?” He lays a gentle hand on Mulan’s slumped shoulder. “If anything, you’re doing a better job than they are.”
She gives him a brief, faint smile. “What, messing up?”
“Being there for them here in this village.” Ling streaks by, chased by two giggling little girls and a boy, none of whom can be older than six. Across the room, Yao is inching, ever so slowly, towards the first of the not-quite-together children who are quietly, warily, wolfing down their share of congee. “It’s true that you can’t replace their parents. But it’s not like the monks and nuns in the temples or the other masters in their schools can either. It’s just— something new. Something just as important.”
Mulan hums. “Connections?”
“Well,” he says, watching an adolescent girl and a young woman follow Teacher Ning around the room like ducklings, and the twins clustered around Mao Shanting as she runs through another round of abacus calculations with them, “that’s just another name for home, isn’t it?”
“Master!” They turn to watch three young girls standing in front of them, eyes wide and guileless.
“Master! Hanying says—”
“My sister said it, not me!”
“Hanyan says Master can kick a plate to the top of a bamboo and it will balance there—”
“I said a bowl! Not a plate!”
He leans close, as the girls try to figure out who said what, and whispers, “And Master is just another name for an important person in their life, isn’t it?”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Mulan laughs. She lets him steal her empty bowl from her, and thumps him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Chien Po. All right. What, did you want to see me do that with a plates and a bowl?”
“I do,” Yao says from across the room, and one of the orphaned kids beside him cheers. “I wanna see what you can do.”
“Well,” Mulan says, one hand on her hip, “I’ll just have to show you then, won’t I?”
“Lead the way, Mulan,” Mao Shanting calls.
Mulan’s smile is brilliant, and Chien Po knows then, heart swelling helplessly with pride, that she will be just fine.