The night before her wedding day, Mulan found herself looking into the reflection of her mother's mirror as Fa Li gently ran a comb through her silky hair. Her lips chanted some poems of blessing as a part of the wedding rites.
A few months ago Mulan's hair was brittle, rampant with split ends, and a lot shorter. Her skin was dark as peasants and her hands were calloused and rough. These past few weeks she had received an exhaustive beauty treatment, and the result definitely showed. Gazing into the mirror's reflective surface, Mulan hardly recognized the beautiful and delicate lady staring back at her.
"Mama?" Mulan saw a quiet smile grace her mother's face in their shared reflection in response to her query.
"How did you learn to love Baba?"
While love bore clear evidence in her parent's marriage, Mulan had never spared any thought on how that came about. Not until her turn was right around the corner. Her daughter's question stopped Fa Li's hand instinctively and her smile was transformed into a thoughtful frown.
"Are you worried you won't like your husband?" It was Mulan's turn to crease her forehead hearing her mother answered her with a question.
Fa Li reached to tuck a stray strand of Mulan's hair behind her ear as she leaned closer,"Time will teach you, Mulan. As your father and I went through the sea of life together, forging through tears and hurdles, plowing across hardship and challenge... friendship and trust were built, and our love began to grow." She answered sagely."It took days of serving, months of dedication, years of molding, learning to understand his character and the things that please him. Love is not about receiving, it is about giving."
Mulan sat quietly, pondering on her mother's wisdom. It is not about receiving, love is about giving. She repeated the words in her head.
Her hair was piled on her head, neatly secured with numerous pins and a massive headdress. She glanced at the luxurious, crimson Kua laid out on the bed, the words of the Matchmaker resonated in her head.
You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!
Her contemplative musing was interrupted when one dainty finger lingered on her cheek. "A little more face paint," Li Yue gestured to the makeup artist. Mulan stared at her other self, the Fa Mulan that she had known was opinionated, unfettered and full of life. In contrast, the unknown girl in the mirror was dainty, delicate and elegant.
Will he be disappointed when he knows who I am?
Unfortunately, no one could answer that question for her; it was for her to find out.
Their marriage ceremony would be modest and short. With the imminent threat from the Huns looming over China, all the wedding preparations were done in a rush. Despite the strain of time and busyness occupying most of her days, Mulan couldn't completely ignore the unavoidable reality of her unwanted marriage, a marriage that she was obliged to take part in to save her parents honor and fulfill her public duty as a woman.
The day itself came with a note of surreality surrounding it. Fa Zhou held her hand to lead her into the bridal sedan, where the unfamiliar figure of a man waited patiently for her. Mulan deposited herself on the couch opposite her future husband. Soon, their crusader headed to the Li's residence, where Mulan would spend the rest of her marriage life as his wife.
It was Mulan's first time being this close to the man she would soon be married to. She risked a quick, inquisitive glance, just to capture a silhouette of Shang through her crimson veil, sitting with his rod straight posture, his stoic expression betraying nothing. From her limited viewpoint, Mulan could see his dark, muscular frame. Very much fitting the image of the illustrious soldier her father had advertised to her. There was a certain aura of authority radiating from him. Mulan could see why this young man had been ordained as a captain at such a very young age.
After accepting Shang's hand to dismount from her bridal sedan, Mulan set foot in the Li's residence for the very first time.
The Li's residence resided on a quiet road at the outskirts of the city, a favorable distance away to reap the benefits of both the city's close convenience and the privacy of country life. It was spacious, perhaps twice or three times bigger than the Fa house. The splendid structure was supported by red pillars. Its walls were covered in painstakingly painted, extraordinarily detailed carvings alternating with jade marble tiles. The edge of the roof was gilded with silver and gold, gleaming under the perusal of the late summer sun. Servants and guards in full uniform stood readily on either side of the grand, double-door entrance. Fa Li and Mulan's brother, Fa Ping, were at the sedan as soon as it came to a halt to act as their official escorts.
In a large room, Mulan was welcomed by numerous eager faces that had been awaiting their entrance.
All their relatives gathered, waiting for the bride and groom to declare their vow in front of the family altar. Mulan paused then, to meet Shang's gaze ever so briefly through the veil. He gave her a very slight encouraging nod as if sensing her hesitation, though nothing on his face gave away even a hint of emotion. He went on to perform the ritual without bothering to look at her again, and she did the same.
His vows felt empty to her ears, to be answered with equally meaningless promises that fell from her lips.
Mulan maintained her calm and solemn composure throughout the ceremony, even though deep inside she was feeling insecure and uneasy. She might have saved her family's honor and landed a good catch in marrying a handsome captain, but her mind kept trailing off to the list of responsibilities she would now be obliged to do ―from her wifely duty, bearing him sons, to relentless subjugation for the rest of her lifetime. Mulan coaxed herself with the illusion that every woman in China eventually had to marry a complete stranger, and there was no reason why she couldn't do what other girls were capable of doing.
But the sudden reality of her situation touched Mulan's mind when all the married women ushered her into the marital chamber, leaving their male counterparts laughing and drinking downstairs. Even though Li Yue had equipped her with all the necessary bedroom knowledge to please her new husband tonight, the thought of sharing such an intimate moment with a stranger completely paralyzed her. Li Yue helped her to sit daintily on the edge of the bed, arranging her skirts attractively, while her mother left to invite the groom and the men to join them.
In front of the small audience that huddled around them to share the moment of joy, Shang lifted up her bridal veil to catch his first unrestricted view of his bride. Mulan reluctantly looked at her new husband. Beyond his intricate outfit and hidden underneath his fancy headdress, she could see a handsome soldier, a faint smile and his mysterious eyes gazing at her. His warm hands enclosed around her cold, tense fingertips. Suddenly, she felt her apprehension melt away on the gentleness of his touch. Maybe getting married to a stranger wasn't as frightening as she thought it would be.
Shang wrapped one of his arms around her waist, planting a chaste kiss on her forehead, and the crowd burst into a jubilant cheer. Mulan remained quiet, submissively curling her frame into his. Inadvertently, her eyes caught the sight of her parents, smiling in delight and shedding little tears of joy as the man of their choice gladly embraced their daughter as his wife.
Witnessing Mulan obediently submited herself, being the passive recipient of her husband's affection, Fa Li was hopeful that the match would eventually grow into love.
The guests stayed for an hour or so bantering poems and songs to help ease the tension between the newlyweds. It was close to midnight before General Li invited everyone for another round of drinks downstairs.
With all the guests leaving her, Mulan was left alone briefly with her mother and her mother in law. Fa Li told Mulan to sit down and began removing numerous intricate hair ornaments and straightening her hair, while Li Yue fetched her sleeping robe.
"Mama?" Her mother halted her expeditious hand from removing the pins from her daughter's hair.
"Do you think Shang will ever love me?" Suddenly, Fa Li's face turned rueful. Mulan immediately regretted her question. She should have known that in the context of an arranged marriage, love was the last thing that mattered, but in her churning mind she still couldn't give up the idea that one day their marriage would be based on love, trust and friendship instead of satisfying the biological call for procreation.
Briskly, Li Yue took over and helped Mulan to change into her night robe. "That will depend on you," Li Yue answered firmly. Mulan caught the slight annoyance in her voice. Fa Li backed away quietly because it was disrespectful for her to interrupt Li Yue as the groom's mother.
"Questioning your husband too much could be dangerous and inappropriate. I suggest that you just accept what we women are bound to do and serve your husband with devoted diligence." Her mother-in-law chided sharply, even as she gently patted away Mulan's formal makeup.
Fa Li made her exit soon after, and Mulan caught a note of frustration in her mother's eyes. Mulan hoped she would be able to reassure her mother the next morning, before she returned home with her father and her brother, that everything would be alright.
Li Yue rubbed spices on Mulan's skin, took a few step back to inspect, then meticulously tidied her hair into a simple bun. Meticulously, she reapplied a lighter layer of makeup; bringing out Mulan's eyes with a few subtle lines of kohl and reapplying stain to her lips to enrich the color; freshening her up after the pummeling of the day's activities. Finally satisfied that her son's wife looked nothing less than perfect, Li Yue's lips curled into a smile.
Then, she touched Mulan's chin forcing her to meet her intimidating gaze,"Please don't disappoint your husband tonight. Remember what I've taught you." She warned, however, Mulan didn't detect any malice in her mother-in-law's voice. In fact, she caught a glimpse of bitterness, as if she was sympathizing with her predicament. After Mulan nodded in absolute submission, her mother in law left her to wait for her groom.
With the time slowly creeping well beyond midnight, Shang retreated into his chamber to find his wife already waiting for him faithfully. She looked tired but seemed to be more than willing to wait for him.
Mulan immediately felt the urge to occupy herself with something, just to avoid an awkward situation with her husband. She poured her attention into tidying up the already tidy pile that was her wedding dress, jewelry, and hair accessories, but couldn't concentrate entirely, because she felt Shang's unnerving gaze scrutinizing her every move, studying her and accessing what kind of wife she really was.
Shang was not in any rush to conversate with his new wife. In comfortable silence, he observed her inquisitively, taking note of her wonderful curves and the quaint profile of her delicate face as she laboriously employed her hands to folding the Kua she wore earlier on.
"So your name is Mulan," she was startled by the deep, baritone voice behind her. Mulan whirled around, sensing that it was impolite for her not to face her husband while he was speaking to her.
"Yes," she answered briefly, unconsciously staring at Shang's features that now looked a lot more relaxed. His raven-black hair that had been tied back neatly, fell down to graze his broad, powerful shoulders. He was clad in a matching, scarlet, sleeping robe, with a deep vee, exposing a large amount of his toned chest underneath. Mulan began to realize how pleasant looking her husband really was. His attractiveness, together with all of his heroic accolades, would render any woman defenseless. Most would waltz willingly into his arms.
Her husband's expression was still unreadable, but his piercing gaze methodically drifted from her face, to her frame, to the hem of her vermillion robes. Remembering that it was completely unacceptable for her to stare so openly at him, Mulan avoided his eyes and held her breath, hoping her husband would say something that would end the uncomfortable silence.
"I heard a great deal about you from my mother," Shang said, Mulan was sure Li Yue only spoke about the negative things that she did, "I heard you are quite…"He paused to select his words,"...an unusual girl."
"I suppose that is one way of putting it. l love to sword fight and am an experienced horse rider," Mulan lowered her voice, trying not to sound like she was bragging about her skills, however, mentally she was brimming with pride over her accomplishments.
Of course, Shang had heard the accounts of her trouble-making adventures, not to mention the mayhem she created at the Matchmakers. Therefore, hearing Mulan accredit her fighting ability, Shang could not repress a mocking scoff, "Sword fight you say?" His voice laced with a mix of disdain and skepticism, shredding her pride down to pieces. Perhaps her father had raised her wrongly for failing to discern her status as a woman but, in her mind, Mulan blindly objected to Shang's baseless prejudice.
"Yes, my father has been teaching me since I was a child, he said it's a good skill to have regardless of one's gender." Mulan tried to reason her radical point of view.
"That's interesting," His reply sounded very vapid and insincere. "You should start learning to use a kitchen knife, which is much more fitting for a girl." He stated in an overbearing voice.
Mulan's heart dropped to the floor. She had been futilely hoping her husband wouldn't be like every other man who couldn't value a girl with a brain and skills to rival a man's. But apparently, her mother-in-law was right. Ultimately, men were only interested in food and sex. Appreciating a woman's independent opinions would never exist in their agenda.
"Do you realize how beautiful you are?" He complimented, gazing intently at the delicate features of her face. Her distinctive, dark eyes embellished with curling eyelashes, stared at him arrestingly. Her arched brows knotted expressively as her mind drifted in thought, and her unusual gracefulness while running her nervous fingers through her straight ebony hair. The soft glow of the candlelight reflected on her fair skin, bathing her silky cream complexion with its golden touch. Her crimson robe rested invitingly on the edge of her shoulder, revealing her bare skin and more than a hint of cleavage, taking his breath away. The robe's rich color flattered against her pale complexion, and neatly accentuated the subtle contours lying underneath. She was, by far, the most bewitching creature he had ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on.
"Leave the fighting to men, Mulan." Absently, he ran his finger down her blushing, rosy cheek. Mulan jerked abruptly from the unexpected contact.
"But... my father said women are, in many ways, as capable as men." Mulan refuted in a low, strained voice. Shang could sense behind her bold statement, there was silent desperation, imploring him to accept her for who she was. Some part of him was impressed and applauded her for her courage to defy public bigotry, but Shang couldn't tolerate a housewife that acted like a man.
"Hmmm…. Is that so?" He raised his brows with mocking skepticism."No wonder you failed the matchmaker's test." Mulan looked at her husband in dismay. It hurt her, knowing the man she would share her life with didn't have any faith in her abilities.
Shang watched as a string of defenses formed on her lips. He had heard about Mulan's stubborn willfulness and her determination, although part of him appreciated his wife's fabled dexterity and was amused by her idealist mindset, he still wanted her to conform to the value of a typical aspirational marriage ― that a man and a woman were viewed differently in the eyes of society. As the leader of his household, Shang didn't wish to be labeled as a husband who couldn't educate his wife.
Shang's growing dominance provoked Mulan to challenge him. Reinforcing her courage, Mulan grabbed two wooden swords and passed one of them to Shang as she spoke,"I dare you to show me your sword skills. If you lose, you have to admit that a woman can be a master in this art, as much as any man."
Her fluent articulation and impetuous request startled him. Shang nearly burst out laughing in disbelief at Mulan's audacity, but his mind fell into a speculative stillness noticing his wife was entirely serious about her proposition.
Mulan saw Shang's jaw tighten and his fists clench hearing her insulting demand, but he still solemnly retained his composure. She knew Shang was offended by her contemptuous behavior.
"Fine," he hissed viciously, accepting her offer of confrontation. Shang's rationality rebuked him fiercely. It was their wedding night, and the bedroom was certainly no place for a show of martial arts, let alone a husband and wife's battle for superiority. But his manly arrogance told him otherwise―this strife was necessary to teach his rebellious wife a lesson in submission and make her aware of her position in his domestic establishment.
"And if you lose… you will have to obey me as your husband from now on." Shang declared, breaking the contemplative silence. A thousand warning bells clanged madly in Mulan's head, but she couldn't afford to back down, especially when it was she who challenged him first.
The tension in the room was palpable, but Mulan refused to go down without a fight.
Both of them stood in their defensive stance. Shang was the first to ensue the onslaught. The sound of wood clacking together filled the air. Thankfully the party downstairs was equally loud to mask whatever ruckus they created upstairs.
Mulan watched Shang's fluid movements as he thwarted her attack, executing his form with cool sophistication which stirred something unknown inside her, was that unbridled admiration? Shang was equally captivated upon seeing that her gentle, fragile wrist was capable of delivering dangerous cuts and devastating blows. She was a lot more agile and nimble than he thought she would be. As the fight continued, Mulan's bun came undone in the process. Raven black streams cascaded down her back like a waterfall over her fair skin. Shang was briefly mesmerized at her unique splendor, deeply bewitched by her unconscious gracefulness. He had fought with many great fighters, but he had never been challenged by a woman, let alone his own wife. Noticing that Shang had let his guard down, Mulan leaped forward in a lethal ambush, disarming him and stopping right when the tip of her wooden sword threatened Shang's jugular.
"Do you yield, Captain?" she smirked victoriously. Shang was surprised, but he quickly retaliated by grabbing her wrist and snatching her sword from her unsuspecting hand. In one swift, sure movement, he thrust the sword towards her torso for a fatal blow. Mulan was cornered and rendered helpless. With infuriating force, Shang made a final slashing motion meant to utterly defeat her, only to pull the sash of her robe with the tip of his sword, revealing her almost bare figure underneath. A winning smile spread across his face as he pointed his sword towards his half disrobed wife.
Mulan felt her breath leave her and her hands instinctively clamped down on the edges of her robe, preventing it from leaving her shoulders. She was still regulating her shaky breaths from the exertion when her mind reminded her that her husband had won.
"From now on, I won't condone with any more disrespectful behavior from you." Shang berated haughtily, putting away the swords and flashing a warning look at her. "Women are not made to fight. Understand?" Evaluating her husband's curtly given statement, Mulan felt anxiety claw up her throat.
"I… I am sorry," Her quivering lips shook as she apologized. Her vision of him blurred behind a sudden blanket of tears.
The lines of argument about how much she wished to be his equal died prematurely on her lips. She knew she deserved her husband's verbal castigation for her mutinous actions.
Although Mulan admitted her defeat, witnessing her sorrowful countenance impeded Shang from claiming his victory. He felt a sudden bite of remorse assail him. Shang hated to see her beautiful eyes shrouded with sadness.
"I guess now we are ready to enjoy our wedding night," This time his words were uttered with tenderness.
"But…I am not ready." Her shaky voice was catching him off guard.
"You aren't ready?" Shang nearly exclaimed at her, his eyes narrowed intimidatingly, demanding clarification. His mind was formulating a line of accusation, wondering if this was another way his wife was trying to manipulate him.
"What do you mean you are not ready?" His lips were ready to berate her again for her lack of preparation. He would not let her throw another mindless excuse at him or attempt to sell more feminist propaganda.
"I am not ready to please you." Mulan forced the words from her throat, fearing Shang's angry retribution."I may be able to satisfy you with my body, but not with my heart." Her words pierced his soul like an arrow, decimating all his fury, tearing away all his desire to rule over her.
Your heart. Shang repeated to himself. Did he ever wish to have her give all her dedication and her obedience with the wholeness of her heart? Did he ever wish this woman to do everything for him out of love and not duty? And wouldn't it be perfect if he requited the same sentiment equally? That would be nice―he thought. But there was hardly any time to cultivate love. Adhering to rites and rules must come first, because that was their duty to their parents and ancestors.
Shang made up his mind.
"You don't have to do anything. Just follow my lead," He said soothingly."And you will be my perfect bride tonight."