Chapter 1: The Lovers of Shang
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Mulan looked up from her steaming cup of tea, into the curious brown eyes of Wang Fen, the young wife of one of Shang’s childhood friends the latest in a stream of local nobility that had visited since she had been forced to take leave almost a month ago to recover from a fractured collarbone sustained in training.
Shang had been livid, but since it truly had been an accident, Ping had managed to talk him out of gutting the fresh recruit who had inflicted the injury. Besides, as much as the injury was unpleasant, it did mean that Mulan had a chance to spend time with her mother-in-law, Li Chun, a formidable woman who had decided that saving Shang’s life and having the recommendation of the Emperor was more than enough to counteract the fact that Mulan’s feminine graces were few and far between.
“Besides,” Chun had sighed, “Shang is as stubborn as his father was, and if he’s set his eyes on you, then he would probably insist on leaving me without grandchildren rather than letting me find him another wife.”
(Unspoken was the fact that the first time Mulan had felt Shang’s eyes on her, watching with a different interest than he showed when looking at his other comrades, he had been looking at Ping. It might have bothered her, if Shang had not later proven that he loved Mulan just as well. But such things were not proper to share with one’s mother-in-law, and if Mulan suspected that Chun was mostly just relieved that Shang had shown interest in any woman, well, then she didn’t feel the need to enlighten her as to just how complicated the whole thing was. Shang loved Mulan and Ping, and Mulan and Ping loved Shang. That was the only important part.)
“Doesn’t what bother me?” Mulan responded to Fen, confused.
“That your husband is gone so often, spending time with his soldiers?” Fen replied, lightly fanning herself.
Mulan’s brow creased. “You do know who I am, right?”
“Of course!” Fen smiled, brightly and falsely. “You’re Fa Mulan, the woman who married Li Shang and then saved the Emperor!”
“My marriage came second,” Mulan corrected, wondering what version of the tale that Fen had heard. Apparently a woman saving the Emperor made a good enough story that almost everyone she came across had heard at least two versions of the tale, though the only thing that they seemed to agree on was that she had come to be present at the right place, at the right time. If it wasn’t so convenient to be underestimated, it might have bothered her that some people dismissed the idea that she had really fought in the Emperor’s army as a man out of hand.
“Of course, of course, how silly of me. But even though you married him, and are living in his childhood home with his mother, don’t you worry that you don’t really have him?” Fen asked her in a deceptively light tone. “Especially when he’s spending all that time with his men,” she emphasised.
Mulan had a sudden suspicion that she knew where this was going. Wang Bo, she recalled, had known Shang since he was a boy. Mulan wondered just what exactly of his childhood memories Bo had shared with his wife for her to be looking at Mulan like that.
(She would definitely be relating this conversation to Shang later, if only to see how red she could make him blush.)
Mulan considered playing coy, and pretending that she didn’t know what Fen was insinuating, but in the end decided on a more straightforward response.
She shrugged. “My husband loves me,” Mulan stated flatly. “And only me.”
Fen shook her head condescendingly, clicking her tongue. “You’re so naïve Mulan. Men will say whatever they want to get whatever they want, which is why ladies like us need to look out for one another.” She bit her lip, pretending to consider her next words, before continuing, “I’m not sure I should even tell you what I know, because I should hate to break that blissful ignorance of yours.”
Mulan put her teacup down, and folded her arms, unimpressed. “Go on then,” she said, forcing herself to keep her tone even. “Tell me whatever it is that you think I don’t know.” So that I can tell you to get the hell out of my house, to never darken my door again, you gossiping witch, Mulan finished silently in her head.
Fen leaned forward conspiratorially, and murmured. “I have heard tell that your husband Li Shang, that he has taken a lover!”
That sounded supremely unlikely to Mulan, considering that even if she didn’t trust Shang (and she did), she usually spent the vast majority of each day with him. Shang was many things, (brave, loyal, kind, admiring of a quality intellect,) but capable of the level of discretion that would be required to hide a lover from her was not one of them.
“Really,” Mulan replied flatly.
“Oh yes.” Fen nodded gleefully. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” (Mulan only barely refrained from scoffing at this obvious lie,) “but I just really thought you needed to know.”
“Is that so,” Mulan unfolded her arms, picked up her now lukewarm tea, and drained it. “And who exactly is this lover?”
“Why, that’s the most scandalous part,” Fen said, shaking her head sadly. “I hear that it’s one of the men under his command!”
Mulan couldn’t help herself. She snorted.
“It’s true!” Fen insisted, misunderstanding the source of Mulan’s scathing amusement. “I heard it direct from… well, it doesn’t matter who my sources are, but believe me, they’re dependable!”
“Uh huh,” Mulan replied. “And what is the name of this man that my husband is supposedly fucking behind my back?” (If Mulan’s mother had been around to hear such language from her daughter, she probably would have whacked her one with her fan, but there were times that Mulan felt that the vulgarity she had picked up in the army was just satisfying to use, and this was one of them.)
Then Fen told her, and Mulan practically fell over laughing, and couldn’t stop, even when Fen left her house muttering loudly about how Mulan was some kind of madwoman.
A week later, Shang came home on leave, and was quick to pull Mulan into his arms, careful of her injury.
“I missed you,” he murmured into her hair. “Please recover quickly, I need my best tactician back.”
“Oh, is that all you miss about me?” Mulan teased, snuggling against his chest.
Shang huffed out a laugh. “No. Of course not.”
Mulan leaned back so that he could see her smile, and then stood on tip-toe to kiss him.
Later that evening, they sat together on the balcony, shoulder to shoulder, listening to the crickets.
“So,” Mulan said, breaking the silence, “one of our neighbours felt the need to pass on what she felt was a concerning rumour. As a friend, of course.”
“Of course,” Shang echoed, his expression immediately wary. “Who was it, what did she say, and what did you do to her?”
Mulan snickered. “I didn’t do anything, although no doubt she’s spreading the tale of Mad Mulan to every ear that pauses long enough to listen.” She looked Shang in the eye. “Her name is Wang Fen. Apparently she married your good childhood friend Wang Bo.”
Shang groaned, digging the heel of his hand into his forehead, before turning to eye Mulan with no small level of trepidation. “Whatever she told you is ancient history. It was just a bit of childish fooling around.”
Well wasn’t that interesting. Nothing that Mulan hadn’t guessed, but it did explain a few things.
Mulan shrugged. “Actually, the rumour is about more recent events. Apparently I should be worried.”
Shang frowned. “Worried about what?”
Mulan waited until he was sipping his tea, and then told him, “Worried about you taking a lover named Ping.”
Shang spat his tea out in a spray.
Mulan lost it.
Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Shang stared at his madly cackling wife, and then ruefully grinned.
“So what did you tell her?” he wondered.
“Honestly?” Mulan wiped her eyes. “I was laughing too hard to respond. Apparently Bo saw you ‘looking at Ping with love in your eyes’ and said as much to his wife.”
Shang rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his dark eyes glinting with humour. “Well, I hate to say it, but the rumour is entirely true. I do love Ping.”
Mulan grinned. “And I have it on good authority that Ping loves Shang.”
“Good,” Shang replied, “because between him and my wife, Mulan, I have all the lovers I could ever want.”
“I’ll tell her you said so,” replied Ping, eyes sparkling, before using his good arm to yank his General down for a kiss, knocking the teacups off the balcony.
Shang groaned, leaning his forehead against Ping’s. “My mother is going to kill us.”
Ping smirked. “That set was a gift from the Wang Family.”
Shang snorted. “Well in that case…” he contemplated the matching teapot. “If we’re already in trouble…”
(Li Chun was irritated with the both of them, but said that their transgression could be forgiven if a new, nicer one was purchased from a potter in the capital. Neither Shang nor Mulan missed how the first time it was used, it was at a gathering that included the Wang Family, who all got to hear about “the wonderful taste that Shang has in both ceramics and partners”. When Fen’s eyes bugged out, Mulan had to hide her face behind her fan, pretending embarrassment at the praise to cover her laughter.)
Chapter 2: Conversation 2: Mother in Law
Ping comes in from training to find an unexpected guest.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It has been a good six years since Mulan came home with Shan Yu’s sword and the Emperor’s crest, and three and a half since she and Li Shang were married. Her parents and grandmother had urged her to marry Shang immediately, but she had hesitated, in part because she worried about what her mother-in-law would think of her, an unladylike soldier with scars and little delicacy and in part because if she left, there would be no one to take care of her family.
She never doubted Shang’s feelings for her, but self-worth is always something that she has struggled with. She knew that her family, her comrades and Shang were proud of her, and tales of her exploits had been spread from one end of China to the other. The good ones tell of how the Emperor had honoured her, how she had overcome great odds, and prevented an assassination and an invasion through ingenuity and strength.
The bad ones describe her as a glory-hogging camp follower witch. She tries to not let them get to her- she and the important people knew the truth of the story, and her friends never let such talk stand.
(The only time she could recall Chien Po getting genuinely angry had been when the two of them had happened to be walking past a campfire of drunken soldiers and had happened to overhear a particularly nasty version of the rumours. He had told her not to listen to such fools, and then he, Ling and Yao had ‘mysteriously’ developed bruised knuckles the next time they went out. She had told them off, but Yao had just grinned at her and told her that she was welcome.)
But even so, even if there was someone who could ensure that her parents and grandmother would be taken care of in her absence, what could a country girl more comfortable fighting with swords than serving tea possibly have to recommend her to a noble lady like the widow of a General as a daughter-in-law? It was far from unheard of for dissatisfied mother-in-laws to dissolve marriages, and Mulan could hardly imagine the woman who would be pleased that her son would be binding himself to a woman who spent a significant amount of her time being a man named Ping, no matter than he served as Shang’s second in command, where he was best placed to protect his back.
The two and a half years that she hesitated might have taken longer had it not been for the fact that Shang’s mother had decided to take things into her own hands.
“So you’re the one who has been stringing my son along.”
Ping, who had spent a long, hard day training a fresh batch of recruits, entered his room in the barracks to find a grand-looking matriarch kneeling stiffly erect beside a steaming cup of tea on the low table that Mulan typically used to write letters to her family, and Ping used to write reports for Shang.
“Excuse me?” Ping stared in surprise at the woman. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my room?”
“Sit down, child.” The woman took a slow sip of tea. “We have things to discuss.”
Deciding it would be best for now to humour the woman, Ping slowly knelt on the other side of the table.
The woman poured tea, for herself, and for Ping, serving it with a grace that Mulan watched with no little envy.
“I’m not sure what I expected when I realised that my son had finally found someone he wanted to marry, but I certainly wasn’t expecting you,” the woman said mildly, as she placed the teapot gently, soundlessly on the table.
Ah. “You-you’re Shang’s mother?” Ping squeaked.
“They do say that you’re very intelligent. Nice to see that that part of the rumours is correct. I am Li Chun. Please refrain from calling me Mistress Li, because that remains the name of my mother-in-law, long may the old bat continue to live.”
Ping blinked again. “Uhhhh…” he coughed a little, and then started again. “Not that I’m not pleased to meet you, but…”
“It’s been more than two years since my son came home with stars in his eyes talking about the woman who saved China. It took me a little longer to get out of him the story of how you saved his life. Foolish boy.” Chun shook her head clicking her tongue. “Typical male, thinking that his honour is more important than his life. But I hear you know all about that, don’t you. Joined to save your father from going out and getting himself killed, wasn’t it?”
Mulan nodded mutely.
Mulan’s eyes widened. That was not the reaction she had expected.
“When my Yong died, I was devastated,” Chun continued. “My parents of course made the choice to marry me into the Li family more than I did, but I never regretted it, even with Liling as a mother-in-law, until…”
Until the general, Shang’s father, and Chun’s husband, died fighting the Hun, Ping silently completed the statement in his head.
Chun inhaled deeply. “If my parents had chosen a family of merchants rather than warriors, perhaps I would not be a widow.” She shook her head. “And now my son has followed in his father’s footsteps, and become a leader of men, in no small part due you your actions,” she said, pinning Ping with a sharp glance.
Ping gulped. “I’m, I’m s-sorry?” he stammered.
Chun chuckled, but she sounded sad rather than amused. “No, don’t be sorry child. I’m grateful. Both because you saved my son’s life, and because even though you are hardly the picture of a daughter-in-law that I imagined, you are so better than what I had hoped for.” Chun smiled, and Mulan could see light crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. “You make my son try to be good enough to deserve you. That’s a precious thing, and if your family would consent to put him out of his misery by letting him marry you, I feel as though I would not have to worry about his happiness.”
Mulan could barely believe her ears. Shang’s mother wanted Mulan as a daughter-in-law?
Chun recognised her expression, and sighed. “There is something I will tell you now, and it will damage the image you may be building of me being unusually… liberal. Shang is not my eldest son.”
Mulan blinked. That was not the direction she had expected the conversation to go.
“Shang never mentioned that he had an elder brother?” she half-stated, half-asked.
Chun closed her eyes. “That is because Dequan is my son from my first marriage, and Shang calls him cousin. I have been bereft twice, you see- my first husband was Yong’s elder brother Hung, who fell from his horse soon after we married.”
Ah. Mulan nodded in comprehension, murmuring her condolences. It was not all that unusual for widows to be married to the brothers of their husbands, although…
Chun smiled a little bitterly. “We did not realise at the time that I was pregnant, and Dequan was born six months after we married. It was only shortly before this that Yong was promoted, and well, with the rise in our fortunes…” Chun shook her head. “Even though Dequan was born… as he is, the shame of casting me off would have been too great. We learned to love each other, but it took some time.” Chun’s smile grew a little warmer. “Shang’s birth certainly helped.”
Mulan wondered what Chun meant when she spoke about Dequan.
Chun nodded knowingly at Mulan’s expression, her eyes sharp. “Dequan could never be a soldier,” she explained. “He was born blind.”
Well, that explained a lot.
“So, let me see if I understand you,” Mulan said slowly. “You would be willing to accept me as a daughter-in-law, as between myself and my father, the Fa name is high enough in standing that few would question Shang joining my family. That would leave Dequan with a larger inheritance, Shang would be secure because of our rewards for serving the Emperor.”
Chun took a small sip of her tea. “The fact that my son has made no secret that he loves you is no small part of my consideration either.” She looked Ping dead in the eyes, “And you have already proven that you are more than capable of watching his back.”
Ping raised his own teacup, and took a slow draught.
“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “if we were married, I would be able to keep a closer eye on him. After all, the proverb says that if you save a man’s life, you have responsibility for him…”
Chun huffed a little, but her eyes were creased in a smile at Ping over her cup. “As if you need that excuse. Before I came in here, I watched as the two of you trained, and watched you watch each other. I know what I saw in your eyes. My only confusion is why you have yet to ask my son to introduce me to your parents.”
Chun’s smile widened. She did not need to hear the words out loud. She knew that this woman (this strange, but brave woman) would stop delaying and marry her son.
“Good. Well now that that’s settled, would you like to hear some stories about my foolish boy when he was a child?”
He had feared for no reason. He and his mother-in-law were going to get on splendidly.
Ancient Chinese marriage customs are complicated, but here’s some facts I found out as I came to understand them when researching for this story. If I got any of it wrong, I blame my sources, but feel free to let me know!
Pretty much all marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple, rather than by the couple themselves.
Traditionally, the daughter-in-law moved in with her husband’s family, and was expected to start revering her parents-in-law, and to honour them over her own parents, but sometimes this was reversed, with the man taking the name and parents of his wife as his own (especially in cases of poor men marrying up).
Reasons that were allowable for divorce were mostly about break-down of the family unit- as in, husband, wife and in-laws together. So if a daughter-in-law really didn’t get on with her mother-in-law then that could be grounds for a divorce, which could be petitioned for by the parents-in-law.
If a woman became a widow, and the family was poor, they might have her marry her brother-in-law, instead of supporting her and another wife on the family income.
The husband wasn’t allowed to divorce his wife if she married him when he was poor, but then he became rich.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but those are the basics that are pertinent for this story. Look it up! :)
Chapter 3: Conversation 3: Mulan has a secret
Three and a half years after the conversation with her mother-in-law, and Mulan is travelling. For now, peace has settled upon China, a peace that the stories say she created.
Well, she certainly played her part.
She looks to her left, and sees her husband, Shang, who is feeding twigs into the fire as water boils over it in a pot. They have stopped for the night, and the two of them are making camp. Mulan pulls out a small enamel-painted box from one of her saddle bags, and smiles as she opens it to see that she still has a few last scoops of the tea that Chun so thoughtfully sent to her the last time she and Shang stopped by on leave.
“Ping?” Shang says.
Mulan looks over her shoulder at him. He always calls her “Ping” when she’s in the armour. Mulan doesn’t bother to correct him, because although Shang understands, others overhearing might not.
(In any case, it evens out- Shang always calls him “Mulan” whenever Ping’s wearing a dress.)
“You’ve been smiling to yourself a lot today,” Shang remarks.
Mulan grins, and uses one of the oldest and most effective deflections in her arsenal. “Oh, I was just remembering my first meeting with your mother.”
“Of course you were. I get word that she has visited unexpectedly, run home from training, only to find the two of you giggling about my childish mishaps over tea.”
“Naturally,” Mulan laughs.
(She never tells him that when he had come, half-flinging himself through the door, wild-eyed, drenched in sweat and desperate to protect her, even from hurt his own mother, even if it was “just” hurt feelings, she had fallen for him all over again. She doesn’t have to. He knew.)
Shang looks at her, watching her face carefully.
“Is that all? It’s just that you’ve seemed…” Shang pauses. “I’m not sure what it is, but, you’re keeping something from me, aren’t you.”
Mulan pulls out her travel tea pot, and takes the time to make them both tea, with the boiled water from the fire, and the leaves from her box from her mother-in-law.
Shang waits patiently. He knows that she will answer him, once she has gathered her thoughts.
After the tea has steeped for a few minutes, Mulan pours it into two cups, her hands far steadier as she sits next to the campfire in the dirt than they ever were in finer surrounds when she was dressed in expensive silks. (The irony does not escape her.)
She breathes in the steam from her tea, drawing warmth from the cup to ward off the evening’s chill.
“I have something to tell you,” she admits to Shang.
Shang takes a tiny sip from his tea, taking care not to burn his tongue.
He looks her in the eyes, waiting for her to say what it is.
Mulan gazes back, and slowly inhales, bracing herself.
(She hopes he will be happy to hear this. She wants him to be happy to hear this. She needs him to be happy to hear this.)
Shang spits out his tea.
His eyes are huge, asking an obvious question- Really? Is this really true?
Mulan nods mutely.
Drops his tea cup.
And drags Mulan into a hug, laughing delightedly.
He lets go of Mulan only long enough to look at her face.
He carefully wipes away the relieved tear streaking down her cheek, still holding her tightly with his other arm. He kisses her damp cheek, then moves on to kiss the smile on her lips.
Mulan relaxes in his arms, even as she pulls her husband closer.
Her child, their child will be wanted, and loved.
Even though this will take her away.
From the next battle.
From her comrades.
From her husband’s side.
She regrets nothing.
If the peace does not last, the Emperor will just have to understand.
Chapter 4: Conversation 4: Uncle Ping
The sons of Li Shang's brother were taught to fight by their Uncle Ping. Their sense of humour confuses their Captain.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Captain Huang Ho was not sure what he had expected when he realised that the drafted soldiers representing the Li Family had been assigned to his division.
He had of course wondered if they were any relation to either of the Generals Li that he had studied about when he had been learning military history. Both had featured prominently, as General Li Yong had triumphed at the Battle of Chrysanthemum Valley against all odds, and General Li Shang had, after his father had fallen, triumphed against the Hun at the Tung Shao Pass.
(He also recalled vaguely that General Li Shang had apparently had something to do with the woman of legend Fa Mulan, who had somehow won the Emperor’s favour, but as a man only interested in serious history with real heroes, as opposed to propaganda figures, he had never really been all that interested in tracking down the details of that particular episode.)
So when he had learned that there were two young men from the Li family who had joined his division in answer to the latest call by the Emperor, Captain Huang had wondered if it was possible that they were possibly related to the Generals Li. Perhaps, he thought a little giddily, they were even Li Shang’s sons!
After all, they were roughly the correct age- twins who had reportedly recently celebrated their 19th birthdays. Captain Huang was fairly sure that meant that they were in the right generation.
It wasn’t that Li was exactly an uncommon name, but…
But Captain Huang was doomed to be disappointed. Soon after Li Kun and Li Kong joined his men, he overheard one of the other men asking them exactly what he himself wanted to know- who was their father?
The slightly taller twin, Kong, answered that their father was Li Dequan, as his slightly thinner brother Kun stuffed his face with rice.
“Oh, the blind flute player who was good enough to perform at the Emperor’s Court?” one of the others asked.
“Yes,” Kong said, the pride in his father’s accomplishment clear in his voice. “He worked hard to accomplish his skill, and since playing for the Emperor, his dedication to his craft has paid off…”
Captain Huang stopped listening then, trying to hide how his shoulders drooped. His hopes had been thwarted.
Having come to terms with his disappointment, Captain Huang was, rather justifiably he thought, rather startled at how well the two brothers did in training.
Indeed, they were some of his very best soldiers. They were tough, disciplined, unfailingly polite, and proved to be if not the best, then at least very competent at every task he asked of them in training.
Something that was becoming increasingly clear was that these were not the raw recruits that he had been expecting.
Captain Huang was not the only one to notice that the twins seemed to be finding the training almost suspiciously easy.
“Oi Kun, what gives?” a somewhat squat soldier with sideburns demanded after the deceptively willowy-looking Kun managed to dump him on his back for the third time in hand-to-hand.
Kun cocked his head faux-innocently. “What, Ru?” he asked as he gave the man a hand up out of the dirt.
Ru growled. “You know what I mean. How’s a runt like you manage to put me on my arse time after time?”
Kun grinned. “Oh, just a couple of moves that my Uncle Ping showed me. Uncle Ping always says that the trick to winning a fight when you’re not built like a blacksmith is half about leverage.”
Ru snorted. “Well the man must be onto something, because you’re built like a girl,” he grumbled.
Captain Huang readied himself to break up a possible fight in response to the insult, but to his surprise, instead of taking offence, Kun burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Kong, who had been practicing nearby called out, he too having dropped his opponent again. “Share the joke.”
Kun continued to snicker. “I apparently fight like a girl,” he told his brother.
Kong looked from Ru, to Kun, and back again, and raised his eyebrows, but Captain Huang could detect a slight twitch of amusement on the man’s lips.
Not noticing this, Ru saw that he had the attention of the larger of the Li twins and paled. “Oh hold on, I never said that!” Ru protested. “I said that you were built like a girl, and you keep winning, so you must have learned your Uncle Ping’s fighting techniques really good!”
Kun and Kong stared at Ru, looked at each other, and dissolved into helpless guffaws.
“We- we’ll pass on your compliments to Uncle Ping!” gasped Kong, practically falling over laughing.
Kun on the other hand was rolling in the dirt holding his stomach. “Oh my sides!”
“…Insane the both of you,” declared Ru, before stalking away, bewildered.
No matter how many times people asked the twins to share the joke, neither of them explained.
Still, Captain Huang supposed that if nothing else, the incident gave a partial explanation for why it was that the sons of a flute player (albeit one whose skills were good enough for the Emperor) were doing so well in training.
He had never heard of a Li Ping though.
He remarked as much to his Lieutenant, a surly but dependable man named Yao who was old enough to have fought in the last conflict.
Yao’s expression at this remark was… uncharacteristic.
Indeed, for a moment, Captain Huang was concerned that his Lieutenant was suffering from some manner of stroke.
“So wait, did you just say that those Li boys say that they have an Uncle Ping?” Lieutenant Yao finally managed to say once his mouth started forming actual words.
Captain Huang nodded. “Apparently he taught them hand-to-hand, and probably other things going by how well they are doing.”
Lieutenant Yao swore long and colourfully, but his face was doing something Captain Huang had never seen before.
Lieutenant Yao was… beaming.
“Hold that thought, Captain.” He turned on his heel and left his superior officer gaping after him.
Curiosity thoroughly piqued, Captain Huang followed after his oddly chipper subordinate, who was striding towards the campfire where the Li brothers sat back to back drinking tea.
“Oi, Li One and Li Two! Did I just hear correctly? You two are the nephews of a guy named Ping?” Yao asked them as Captain Huang hung back a little, well within earshot, but not quite close enough for the firelight to clearly outline his features.
Kun shrugged, but his eyes were crinkling at the corners as he hid his expression behind his teacup.
“Yes, we have an uncle named Ping,” Kong confirmed, looking half over his brother’s shoulder. “What of it?”
“Did your Uncle,” Yao emphasized a little oddly, “ever tell you about his old war buddy Yao?”
“King of the Rock?” Kun blurted out, before slapping his hand over his mouth.
At that odd statement, Yao’s face reddened.
(If Captain Huang didn’t know any better, he would have thought that Yao was embarrassed, but that notion was ridiculous. He had known Yao for a good five years, and as far as he knew, the man was unshockable.)
Kong cuffed his brother over the back of the head. “My brother meant no disrespect, sir,” he said, bowing his head slightly. But then he ruined the effect by looking up through his bangs and grinning. “But suffice to say, yes, Uncle Ping might have told us a story or two in between teaching us how to fight.”
Yao snorted. “What, did Shang lose a bet?”
Kun shook his head. “Nah, it was just after uh…” he looked around and then obviously changed what he was about to say. “Uncle Ping was looking to get back into shape after Aunt Mulan gave birth to Cousin Ying, and Cousin Min was just old enough to start then, and we were visiting, and Uncle Ping said that Uncle Shang was better with rank beginners, so Uncle Shang was teaching Min and Ping was teaching us. Uncle Shang taught us archery though,” he babbled.
Yao chuckled and sat down next to them. “Fair enough. Your Uncle was definitely always the better archer.” His eyes glinted suddenly. “Probably because Ping always had arms like a girl.”
The brothers both snickered into their tea at that, and Captain Huang was starting to think that he might be missing something.
“You say that,” Kong replied, “but you should see Min shoot. She puts the both of us to shame.”
Captain Huang blinked. Wait, their cousin Min was a girl?
Yao, rather than displaying the shock that Captain Huang was feeling at the notion of a girl practicing archery, merely continued to chuckle. “I should have expected that.”
Kun’s grin widened suddenly. “Actually, you’ll appreciate this story …” and proceeded to regale Yao with the details of the conversation Captain Huang had witnessed during hand-to-hand training with the hapless Ru that had left both brothers practically rolling on the ground laughing.
By the end of the story, Yao was crying with laughter.
Captain Huang still didn’t get the joke.
A/N: Probably clear from context, but both Min and Ying are names that can be used for either girls or boys. Incidentally, apparently they both mean “Intelligent”.
Chapter 5: Conversation 5: Daughter-in-law
First impressions of the Fa-Li family at a matchmaker meeting.
I've been sitting on this drabble for a while, wondering if it was going to go anywhere, but this is where it stuck. So I'm just going ahead and posting it.
Kneeling at the table beside her father, Wing Xiu tried hard not to fidget with her fan, or bite too hard at her lips and muss her make-up, or otherwise Embarrass Her Ancestors. Her aunt had lectured her at length about what behaviours were acceptable, giving her lists and lists of what she was not to do, until Xiu realised that apparently “acceptable” meant “doing one’s best impression of a stone statue, albeit one that can carry out a tea ceremony”. Which in Xiu’s opinion was quite a miraculous thing for a stone statue to be able to carry out, but she had learned by then that Honourable Aunt Ting did not approve of such “ridiculous flights of fancy” and so knew better than to share the thought.
“It is such a shame that your mother died before she could properly teach you,” Aunt Ting had told Xiu with a sniff. “Your late mother was a woman of grace and impeccable manners,” she added, her expression and tone clearly conveying that in this area, Xiu had little resemblance to her mother.
Xiu had only nodded at the implied reprimand. Xiu had been eight when her mother died in childbirth, and so she could remember for herself. She also remembered that her mother had always been her staunch defender, with an absolutely vicious temper when provoked, but kept quiet her own suspicions as to what Xiu’s mother would have said in response to Aunt Ting’s disdainful comments.
Xiu kept quiet because she had seen the utterly lost look her father had, when he explained to her that he felt that he had failed his daughter by not remarrying to ensure she had “proper feminine influences” (a phrase Xiu had quickly learned to attribute to Aunt Ting’s interference). It was not even that Aunt Ting did not mean well – the woman truly thought she was helping with her pointed criticisms and her harsh “truths” – it was just that before Aunt Ting had gotten involved, Xiu had been happy just living with her father and her two brothers Mu (elder) and Peng (younger), doing her part to keep the household running, and sharing her kitchen with no-one.
But then Mu had married Jia, (a lovely lady who Xiu got on quite well with despite the fact that Jia had effectively taken over Xiu’s previous role in the house – it was impossible not to like a woman who could make her brother smile like that, and since she had joined their household Xiu had suddenly had someone to swap recipes and talk embroidery patterns with which had been wonderful,) and Father had suddenly remembered (had been reminded by Aunt Ting) that Xiu was of a marriageable age too, and that it was really about time that he did something about this (invited his Sister-in-Law over to cram as much as she could about Acceptable Behaviour into his “appallingly unrefined” daughter).
Fortunately, Aunt Ting had come down with terrible stomach cramps, (Xiu had a suspicion that she owed Jia a really nice gift for the coming New Year’s for slipping something into Aunt Ting’s food,) and so had not been able to attend this session with the Matchmaker and the Fa-Li’s.
Which Xiu was so very grateful for, as even without her Aunt’s judgemental gaze upon her, she was so nervous that she was barely refraining from shaking.
Even Father’s smile was not enough to settle her nerves, as she could sense that he was as unsure about this as she was.
As though she had spoken, Father suddenly responded to Xiu’s fears aloud, causing her to startle slightly.
“This is only the first meeting,” Father said, his voice hoarsened by the increased smoking he had taken up since Aunt Ting had effectively moved in for the past few weeks. “And if they don’t like you, then they’re stupid, and not good enough for my daughter anyway,” he concluded bluntly.
Xiu forced herself to smile in response, trying to convey that she believed him. She tried to force herself to relax, but in between the reputation that the Fa-Li’s had for having the Emperor’s esteem, and Aunt Ting’s utter assurance that Xiu’s graces were deeply wanting, even this reassurance was not quite enough to make her feel better.
(She had absolutely no idea why the Matchmaker had suggested her of all the eligible ladies in this region to possibly be Fa Ying’s bride, and could only conclude that the pickings had been slim – Aunt Ting had strongly implied as much, and even Jia had seemed surprised to hear the name of Xiu’s potential fiancé.)
The other guests were not quite late when Xiu finally heard the crunching gravel sounds of other people walking up the path to their house.
“About time,” Father muttered under his breath to her, in an obvious attempt to try and lighten Xiu’s mood.
(If this meeting ended successfully, Xiu was going to miss her father so much.)
To Xiu’s surprise, the number of people coming in the door were more than she had expected. The first to enter was the Matchmaker, a normally stern woman who was looking slightly… frazzled. Xiu could not quite put her finger on what it was about the Matchmaker’s countenance, but somehow she seemed off-kilter.
The next to stride in was General Fa-Li Shang. Xiu had seen him at a distance before, but she was immediately struck by how despite the fact that the man looked to be older than her father (who was close to celebrating his 48th birthday), his spine was straight, and he moved with the practised grace of a master martial artist. His countenance was formidable, but Xiu noticed faint laugh-lines around his sharp eyes, that made her feel a slight stirring of hope.
The General was closely followed by a young man that Xiu recognised as Ying.
Her Maybe-Future Husband.
It was actually a little unusual, Xiu knew, that Ying was even present at this meeting, but she had not been upset when the Matchmaker had delicately explained that the Fa-Li’s insisted on this. Rather the opposite actually. She had known of Ying for quite some time, and again, seen him at a distance, but it had been years since she had an opportunity to get his measure. Jia was however apparently a childhood friend of Ying’s elder sister Min, and she insisted that Ying was kind.
Xiu hoped her sister-in-law was right.
Xiu studied Ying closely. Here was a man who she might be joined to for the rest of her life. Here was a man that if they married would have a great deal of power over her future happiness, just as she would have a great deal of power over his.
His expression as he stepped through the doorway was carefully, politely blank, but Xiu could see the way that his fists were slightly clenched, the knuckles whitened. She hoped that it was only nerves, and not some worse negative emotion. His eyes widened when he saw her, and he opened his mouth as though to say something, but then visibly changed his mind and remained silent.
Xiu wondered what it was that he wanted to say, but was distracted by the two ladies who followed him in.
She was a little startled at the brilliant grin offered to her by the younger of the two from behind everyone’s backs. The grin was quickly replaced by a carefully-constructed and proper sombre expression, but Xiu knew what she had seen. Fa Min might be dressed in expensive silks, with her hands tucked demurely into her sleeves, but the spark in her eyes showed what a lie the demure presentation was. Xiu had a feeling that Aunt Ting would greatly disapprove of her (if only because she was both unmarried and looked to be at least five years elder than Xiu), and she thought that she might have an inkling why Jia giggled without explaining whenever her old friend came up in conversation.
But far more startling was her prospective Mother-in-Law.
Xiu had heard a lot of rumours about Fa-Li Mulan over the years. The first thing that she noticed was that just like her husband, son, and now that she mentioned it, her daughter, Fa-Li Mulan moved like a martial artist. Xiu had spent long enough in the company of her father, brothers and their friends to know a warrior when she saw one, and although Fa-Li Mulan might have worn the costume of a respectable elder woman, with greying hair and careful make-up, Xiu would eat her fan if her prospective Mother-in-Law dressed like this normally – the discomfort in the fancy clothes was subtle, but Xiu did not miss how her stride was ever-so-slightly too long for the narrow skirt, which on closer examination had a split to allow for freer movement than formal women’s clothes normally had.
Huh. Jia had sworn blind that the stories of Fa Mulan being the one to stop the Hun in their tracks and save the Emperor were completely true. Aunt Ting had scoffed and told Jia to stop filling Xiu’s head with ridiculous stories. Xiu had not disbelieved her sister-in-law, but she had not been sure whether or not Jia had been exaggerating a little.
But as Mulan used one hand to push a thin tendril of hair that had escaped the elaborate comb in her hair, Xiu could see how her knuckles were thick and roughened, with the nails painted, but trimmed short. The calluses that lay on her palms that Xiu would bet her mother’s fan had come from a sword, not pushing a broom around. These hands were weapons. As if in confirmation of this thought, the movement of Mulan pushing back her hair drew attention to a long thin scar that ran from hair-line to neck that looked suspiciously like it had been made with a sharp blade.
And then their eyes met, and Xiu blushed slightly under her white powder when she realised that Mulan was not only giving her a similar assessment, but she had noticed Xiu noticing her scar.
Mulan though, rather than annoyed, appeared to be… waiting for something? Xiu did not miss the piercing intelligence in her prospective Mother-in-Law’s eyes, and wondered what it was Mulan was looking for.
Rather than stay locked in a stare, Xiu bowed her head respectfully to the woman. Both because she had been taught that it was important to show respect to veterans who had made sacrifices for China (she saw no reason why a female veteran should be shown any less deference), and because should Mulan become her Mother-in-Law, she could truly make Xiu’s life a living hell. Xiu was nervous of this possibility of course, but she thought she had seen similar laugh-lines around Mulan’s eyes to those that Shang had. It gave her hope that she would not have hoped for had the marriage offer come from others, (like perhaps the Wu Family who lived down the way, whose matriarch was a notorious harridan).
When she looked back up at Mulan, to her surprise, in her eyes there was a glint of… Xiu was unsure. Surprise? Approval? A combination of those emotions and others?
Somehow, Xiu felt as though she had passed some sort of test.
She turned away, and saw that every other member of the Fa-Li family were avidly watching the interaction between herself and her prospective Mother-in-Law.
Her Father, who was the one who had taught Xiu how to be observant, did not miss the byplay.
He offered Xiu a quirk of his lips, and she knew that she had done well.
The rush of annoyance she felt at him not warning her about the probable test to see if she would be able to be a harmonious addition to the Fa-Li house chased away her remaining nerves.
It went without saying that there was always going to be a test of some sort, due to the nature of arranged marriages, but still, it would have been nice to know in advance that the rumours about Fa-Li Mulan being a warrior were at least somewhat true. And going by the warrior grace and the bruised knuckles that Min accidentally revealed upon reaching for a small cake that Xiu had made, her prospective Mother-in-Law had passed on her ways to her daughter.
And, now that she thought of it, most likely her son, Ying as well.
As the Matchmaker babbled some niceties and Father and the Fa-Li parents exchanged polite small talk for greetings, Xiu went back to examining Ying, and saw that he was doing the same to her. His hands had relaxed out of fists, and although most of his countenance was held formally blank, she could feel his curiosity as he stared at her.
Feeling a little daring, Xiu raised an eyebrow at him questioningly.
To her surprise, his ears reddened.
Chapter 6: Conversation 6: Old Lady
A day in the life of Mulan's 5yo granddaughter Jingfei.
Nai Nai = Paternal Grandmother
Ye Ye = Paternal Grandfather
Mama = mother
Baba = Father
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was an overcast morning, but Jingfei was practically jumping with excitement. Nai Nai had managed to convince Jingfei’s mother that it would be perfectly fine for Jingfei to go to the market with her.
“She can carry my shopping for me, and keep me out of trouble,” Nai Nai had said, ruffling Jingfei’s hair to show that she was mostly teasing.
Jingfei crossed her arms. She was getting strong! She knew she was. She did her training every morning with Nai Nai and her littler cousins, and now she could lift a whole bag of rice by herself! (She couldn’t carry it very far yet, but she was determined to get stronger- Auntie Min had promised her archery lessons next time she visited if Jingfei was good and worked hard at her training.) She could absolutely help Nai Nai carry her shopping!
“Are you sure?” Mama asked, pouring her mother-in-law tea. “I know your joints have been aching quite a bit lately. Ying is supposed to come home today, he could always go?”
Nai Nai shook an oddly bent finger (“this is why you should never punch an attacker in the face, Jingfei child, go for the throat or just below where they wear their belt, it’s easier on the hand and easier to reach!”) at her daughter-in-law. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you running out of ginger. You need to be able to stomach more than rice if that baby is going to grow up strong, and I remember from last time that ginger was the only thing helping real food go down.” She picked up her tea one-handed and took a quick swig of it, nodding approvingly at the taste.
Mama made a face. “I can’t get anything past you, can I?” she complained, but she was smiling, so Jingfei knew she wasn’t really upset. “I waiting to tell everyone after Ying got home.”
Nai Nai scoffed. “It’ll teach that son of mine to plan his business dealings a little better so he won’t miss out on important things happening at home. If Shang were…” Nai Nai paused suddenly taking a breath. Jingfei reached for her Nai Nai’s hand, and got a distracted smile in return that didn’t hide the pain in her grandmother’s eyes. Nai Nai got sad when she talked about Ye Ye, who had been sick for a long time and then died last winter. Jingfei missed Ye Ye too. He’d told the best stories.
Mama sighed. “I think that’s most of the problem. You know he misses him too.” Absently, she brushed her hand over her stomach. “Hopefully a son will convince him to spend more time at home.”
Nai Nai growled, slamming down her teacup with a harsh clack. “Regardless of whether that’s a son or daughter you’re growing, he’s got an elder child and a wife, and that should be more than enough.” She shook her head. “I don’t care what poison that old bat you call an aunt has been dripping into your ear, you’re an excellent wife for my son, who has already borne an excellent child. I would say the same if you gave him a daughter for every year of the zodiac and not a single son.”
Jingfei giggled at the description of Great Aunt Ting, and Nai Nai grinned crookedly. “Yes, I’m talking about you, you little terror. Come on now, let’s get out from under your mother’s feet so she can relax a little.”
Mama sighed. “If you want me to be able to relax, please don’t fill her full of sweet bean cakes again.”
Nai Nai snickered. “Never you mind, I’ll do that later in the week then make Ying watch her. Maybe it’ll give him a bit more perspective about what he’s been leaving you to cope with.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “As if you haven’t been doing most of the work watching her. And teaching Min’s twins. And writing all those letters to the aspiring officers that your nephews are training. Speaking of, I’ve never asked, do you sign them Ping or Mulan?”
Nai Nai snorted. “Depends how Kun or Kong address me in the introduction letters. I’m more interested in making sure those boys don’t go out and get their squads killed than rehashing old arguments with boys struggling to grow facial hair about whether filial piety or being good wife material is more important.” She took a final sip of her tea, then placed the cup back on the table. “We should be back before sundown. Should give you plenty of time to warn my son that I’m going to bend his ear back when I next see him,” she said knowingly.
Mama flapped her hands at them in a shooing motion, and so Jingfei took her Nai Nai’s hand and started to pull her towards the door.
“Yes, yes, we’re going and it’s very exciting just let me grab my cane!” Nai Nai scolded half-heartedly as she snatched the worn bag Mama had packed for them full of things to trade. Jingfei put her shoes on, and bounced impatiently in one spot as Nai Nai pulled her walking cane from behind the door, and soon followed.
“Travel safe!” Mama called from behind them.
Nai Nai raised one hand in farewell, and then the two of them were off.
Hours later, and Jingfei was starting to feel pretty tired, but was determined to keep carrying the apricots they had traded a ceramic jar for. She had said she was sure she could carry it, and Nai Nai had let her. The market had been everything her elder cousin Wen had said, and more!
“Did you see the pet monkey Nai Nai? Did you?” she asked for admittedly the fourth or fifth time.
Nai Nai though was always patient. “Yes, you know I saw it. Saw it steal fruit from one of the vendors, too. Cheeky thing.”
“Do you think I could have one? If I asked Baba, maybe he could bring me back one from the Capital next time he goes,” Jingfei said.
Nai Nai laughed. “I think your mother would actually kill him. Maybe try for a dog instead. It’s been a while since there was a dog around the house. I could show you how to train one, if you’re willing to take responsibility.”
Jingfei nearly dropped the apricots in excitement.
She opened her mouth to ask her grandmother what she thought a good name for a dog might be, when suddenly, Nai Nai went still.
Jingfei looked up the road to the bridge, and saw that it was being blocked by a pair of men who were openly carrying rusted swords. She looked back at Nai Nai and followed her abrupt gesture to stand behind her.
“Good evening boys,” Nai Nai said, in a light voice. “Would you care to let me and my granddaughter through?” she asked politely. “My son is coming home tonight and I need to make his favourites.”
From behind her, Jingfei gave her Nai Nai an odd look. Nai Nai hardly ever cooked anything more complicated than rice porridge, and certainly nothing that she would think of as her Baba’s ‘favourites’. (Nai Nai liked to say that was what daughters-in-law were for, which always made Mama roll her eyes but smile. Mama liked cooking, and always said she had her kitchen just how she liked it.)
The two men snickered. The taller one hawked and spat to one side. The shorter one smiled. Jingfei felt shivers travel down her spine.
“Oh of course,” he said in an oily voice. “Just leave your bags and I’ll let you go. No one needs to get hurt.”
Nai Nai hefted her bag from her shoulder and put it on the ground.
“But Nai Nai!” Jingfei protested, tugging on Nai Nai’s sleeve. “Mama really needs the ginger root.”
Nai Nai nodded grimly. “We’ll just have to beg some from our neighbours. Your mother would be more worried about us getting home in one piece.”
The taller man was quick to rummage through the pack, and grumbled when the only things he could find in it were tea, silk for spinning, the ginger root, and the toys that Nai Nai had purchased for Jingfei and her cousins.
“There’s nothing of worth here, they’re not even carrying any silver,” he grumbled. He snatched the package of apricots that Jingfei had carefully placed on the ground and scowled when all he saw was the fruits, tossing them carelessly to one side.
“Of course not,” Nai Nai said calmly. “After all, I’m just an old woman taking her granddaughter to the market as a special treat. We’re hardly rich merchants. Now, since you boys have taken everything, would you be so kind as to let us on our way? My daughter-in-law will be getting worried, and she’ll no doubt send my son after us.” She gripped her walking cane loosely, and Jingfei stayed behind her.
“Hah! If your son was here we’d cut his belly open,” said the taller one, leering at Jingfei. “Though maybe I spoke too soon saying you’re not carrying anything of value… that granddaughter of yours is pretty enough to fetch a reasonable price. Come here little girl, and I promise I won’t leave your grandmother dying in the ditch.”
“Jingfei,” said Nai Nai in a voice that Jingfei normally only heard during training. “Run for help. Go.”
Jingfei’s feet were moving before her brain caught up with what she was doing. She heard the men yell vile curses, and heard her Nai Nai curse back, followed by a loud thwacking noise. She didn’t look back though. She knew better. Nai Nai said that if someone might be chasing you, you never looked back unless you had a plan for fighting back.
Three turns down the road, and Jingfei almost ran headlong into a group of men with an ox-cart.
“Jingfei?” Came an incredulous voice.
Jingfei skidded to a stop, and looked up at the stocky man with the straw hat driving the cart, realised he was familiar and nearly started crying with relief.
“Jingfei!” Her father jumped off the cart, and quickly scooped her up into his arms. “What happened? What are you doing out on the road alone?”
“Baba! Nai Nai is in trouble!” she managed to gasp out. “Bad men are at the bridge.” Her lip wobbled. “She said I had to go get help!”
“How many?” Baba asked her.
“Two,” Jingfei replied.
Baba nodded sharply. “Yan, Peizhi, with me. Niu, Ling, stay with the cart and keep my daughter safe.” He swung Jingfei into the cart, and kissed her head. “I’ll be back soon. Be good.”
Jingfei nodded miserably as Baba and two of his friends ran back up the road towards the bridge.
She watched after them, and startled when a cup of cold tea was pressed into her hands.
A teenaged boy smiled at her. “Here. You must be thirsty after that run.”
Jingfei nodded mutely, staring down the road where the dust from her father’s running was starting to settle. She took an absent sip, and grimaced at the flavour. It tasted overbrewed.
“You’re very brave,” said the boy. “My little brothers would be crying by now.”
Jingfei bit her lip. “Nai Nai says it’s alright to cry, but it’s best to wait until after.” She clenched her free hand. “And it’s not after until everyone’s safe.”
The boy nodded, but winced a little. “I hope your father gets there in time then.”
Jingfei scowled and handed him back his cup. “Nai Nai is going to be fine. She just needed me to get out of the way so she could con-concentrate,” she said, stumbling on the difficult word.
“I’m sure you’re right,” the boy said, in that tone that older people sometimes used when they thought Jingfei was wrong because she was little.
Jingfei scowled harder, and would have retorted, but the other man, as old as Nai Nai, and thin as a dried up grass-stalk, started chuckling.
“Oh I’m sure old Mulan’s fine. No two-bit thugs are going to get by her,” he said in a raspy voice.
Jingfei nodded firmly.
The boy looked unconvinced, but it was only a few minutes later that one of the men who had run with Baba came running back. He was grinning.
“Old lady had them laid out on the ground before we even got there!” He shook his head admiringly. “Lost a sleeve to one of the swords, but otherwise not a scratch on her!”
Ling snorted. "Age must be catching up with her then. Time was she wouldn't have even got road dust on her from a couple of dungbeetles like that."
The other man laughed. "Last I saw she was ordering Ying to pick up all her scattered purchases, because her 'old knees' couldn't take all the bending." He snickered. "Hardly stopped her from knocking those thieves right out cold!"
Jingfei shot a triumphant look at the gaping boy.
“See?” she said. “Nai Nai is strong.”
Yep, it's been a year since I last added to this, but I got some inspiration and decided to bring it to a close. Hope you all enjoyed the last installment. This is honestly one of my favourite things I've ever written.
UPDATE: I made some very small edits. Most of you probably won't notice them, but those of you who have, apologies it took me this long to get around to fixing the issues.