There was red amidst the white.
White snow: an unforgiving blanket that shrouded the howling edges of the mountain, blurring the sky and the earth into an empty void.
Red fingers, red nose, red feet: Mulan’s blood stung in the cold as she shivered in the snow. She had been huddled next to a pitiful excuse for a fire for some time now, staring out at the blank whiteness around her and wondering how many Hun soldiers had survived the avalanche. She did not look at her sword.
The other soldiers were long gone, taking their guilty looks and their smothered apologies with them.
Shang had called it mercy, a debt owed and a debt paid. As if she was naïve enough to believe that. She thought of how he had turned away from her quickly, afraid of the fear in her eyes. She thought of how he had flinched when a bout of shivering took her. No, it was cowardice that had stayed his hand; the man was still too much of a boy to watch her die, much less kill her himself. And so he had left her here to die alone and called it kindness.
She wanted to rage, wanted to weep. Clutching at her wound she stood and peered out into the empty whiteness. The Imperial City was out there, somewhere beyond the veil of the snow. Perhaps the soldiers had already reached it. How far behind were the Huns?
A puff of smoke wrapped itself around her wrist as if to pull her back down; she shook it off impatiently. “You should lie down,” the dragon whispered. “You’re overexerting yourself.”
Mulan ignored him, tempting as the thought was. If she squinted the snow looked soft, warm even; she knew that if she let him guide her into a snow bank the violent shivers would ease and she would pass into a dreamless sleep, never to be hurt or abandoned again. She knew he could make it painless. The dragon had never hurt her, wanted only what was best for her. But what was best for Mulan was not at all what was best for China.
She stumbled back to the fire, fighting off a stronger set of shivers. The sword lay in the snow before her, beckoning.
“It couldn’t have killed all of them,” she mumbled, not bothering to look at the dragon. “There will still be too many. They’ll make it if I don’t stop them.”
“Mulan,” the dragon said, and she could swear he sounded almost sad. “If you lie down I can wait for you and carry your spirit home safely. I can do nothing if you choose this path.”
Mulan pretended she didn’t hear him. Suicides made hungry ghosts; of course he wouldn’t be able to bring her back. That was the whole point.
“Mulan, you don’t have to prove anything to them."
He was right, she didn’t. But oh, she’d wanted to. She’d wanted to be worthy. She had burned with an intensity that had scared her; each morning she’d woken in her tent she could almost taste the need in her mouth, the need to be worthy, to be admired, to be told she was as good as any other man-
Mulan took a deep breath and knelt down in the snow beside the sword.
Wind sheared through the pass and she was wracked with violent shivering. The dragon slipped himself around her limbs, as if he wanted to block her from the worst of the cold. He couldn’t, of course; she couldn’t even feel him. But when she closed her eyes she thought she could smell a twist of citrus and smoke on the air, and that was almost enough. Almost.
“Mulan,” he whispered once again. “You owe them nothing.”
“Because they abandoned you to die,” was left unsaid, but Mulan heard it anyway, crisp and sharp amidst the wind. Some part of her agreed. They had made their beds, they could damn well lie in them. But it wasn’t their approval she was fighting for. Not anymore.
“You remember the doll,” she said. It wasn’t a question because the dragon’s answer didn’t matter; the only important thing was that Mulan remembered. And she did, of course she did; the image burned itself into the back of her eyelids like the afterimages of a firework.
“They won’t know. Little girls won’t sing about you on clear summer mornings, men won’t compose poems of your bravery with graceful brushstrokes.”
“I don’t care.” It would have been nice, she mused, to be seen as a hero. Perhaps in some other world she was. She forced her fingers to move, wincing as they creaked in the cold. Gripping the hilt as best she could, she pulled it up from the ice, staring at the way the dull metal wavered under the snow-blind sky.
“Mulan—“ he said, and his voice broke.
It struck Mulan as ridiculous, absurd even. He was an ancient spirit; he’d walked the earth in the days of the Five Emperors, when the world was new. How could his voice break now?
“Mulan,” he repeated, “you will become a monster.”
A particularly violent shiver ripped through her body as she jerked her head around to face him. “Stay with me?” She was terrified by the prospect of facing an eternity of the mountain’s howling emptiness alone, not that she would realize she was alone. Not once she’d gone through with what she intended.
Some of the pain seemed to leech out of the dragon as he curled around her in a semblance of an embrace, as if he knew she needed him to be strong for her in this moment at the end of all things. “Always, child. Even when you forget my name and your eyes see me no more, I will be with you.”
She nodded and then pulled the sword against the shaking skin of her breast so that the point aimed at her heart, straight and true like a sworn oath. A single inhale, a single exhale, and she pulled it towards her with all her might.
“You have saved China,” the dragon said, and for a half-blind moment Mulan could have sworn that it was not the dragon speaking at all but the Emperor, and he was bowing, and everywhere there were people bowing, people bowing to her--
The snow around her flushed red, red, red, and then everything was white.
One by one, the Hun army picked itself out of the ice. There were fewer than there were before, but still enough, and the survivors were galvanized by dreams of vengeance. Lines reformed and companies regrouped while bloodlust burned away the cold more than furs or cloaks ever could. The army, hundreds strong now, clambered to the edge of the pass, the Imperial Palace a twinkling jewel in the valley far below.
The way was blocked by an angry ghost.
There was white amidst the red.
Red blood: graceless calligraphy in the snow, flung from a blade that knew no artistry, only grim purpose. A red dragon hung like the shadow of a forgotten memory in the air overhead, mirroring the destruction below.
White skin: alabaster and cold, it covered her body out of habit, an old dressing gown its owner has no use for any longer. Perhaps soon she would shed it and become just another howling wind twisting through the passes, scattering ice in her wake. For now it lingered, stretching in the faintest of smiles over bloodless cheeks as the last Hun soldier collapsed face down in the red, red snow.