...and you will be my perfect bride tonight.
His words of reassurance echoed in her head. Unfortunately, instead of a calming balm to her soul, his words inflicted horrifying fear. Her heart thundered in her ears. Mulan was hoping a mighty power of divine intervention would emerge from the night like a specter to deliver her from her fate.
Shang reached for her waist, fettering it within his strong arms. Mulan's body tensed as she felt his calloused hand brushing her shoulder, displacing the fabric of her robe to give him an unobstructed view. His warm lips touched on a sensitive spot around her collarbone, then behind her ears; sending shivers racing down her spine. Mulan wrestled with her desire to fidget or break free. She accepted her misfortune, like a calf being led to the slaughter. Feeling her chest tighten and choke her with fear, she closed her eyes, reminding herself of the lessons her mother-in-law taught her, but her mind struggled to find its focus.
Shang carried her to their bed and deposited her gently upon its cold, silky sheets. After a long moment, where he simply stared down at her with enough intensity to make her squirm, he left her to get undressed. Mulan, reciting what was expected of her next, began obediently removing the last piece of fabric that clung to her body even though her hands were shaking with terror and reluctance.
Behind the translucent concealment of the bed's valance, she could see her husband removing layers of his clothes, exposing dense muscular arms and thighs, rippling in perfect harmony with every unconscious movement. Under the perusal of the weak candlelight, his copper skin glowed with a captivating sheen. A couple of scattered battle scars enhanced his masculinity. His glossy hair glinted like silk threads, framing his sharp, bold features. His raven-black eyebrows accentuated his eyes and gave him a stern, serious look. Mulan found herself admiring the majestic display of his toned figure, but swiftly turned her head away in embarrassment when her husband's fingers hooked into the waistband of his pants to remove them.
Shang approached his wife to find her frigid frame facing the other way, her fingers tightly gripping the edge of the sheet that covered her own nakedness. Part of him was disappointed that Mulan didn't show any interest in pleasing him but the other part was feeling intensely guilty about forcing an innocent virgin to share an intimate passion with a man she hardly knew. While Shang understood loveless sex was common among arranged marriage's couples, as a man, he couldn't fathom the dread of sleeping with a stranger and the horror of being violated by a man, not until he witnessed how scared Mulan was.
"Mulan?" he pitched his voice to sound as gentle as possible.
"Yes?" she whispered back, but she didn't turn her head. Mulan shivered, fighting the deeply ingrained inclination to curl up and hide herself from Shang's scrutinizing gaze. His fingers reached out to her cheek, and his rough knuckles brushed it gently, inviting her to look at him. Mulan forced herself to look into his dark, fathomless eyes that were looking at her so softly.
Shang continued to study her countenance, taking note of her gently curved cheekbones, and her soft, thin lips. His stern expression eased when he saw her eyes. They were filled with dreams of chaste romance, that kind of exhilarating, true love that she often read from the sappy novels and soap operas her grandmother indulged in. Instead, she was now faced with the dreadful reality of being enslaved by a man's sordid fantasy.
It hurt him that he had to break his wife's delusion of the loving marriage she had been craving. But what else could he do? He knew he was incapable of offering her the pure, unblemished love she coveted, because he hardly knew her. How could he give his sincere love to a stranger?
Well, he could have waited until she surrendered herself willingly. But Shang vigorously shook that idea from his head; they had to consummate their marriage immediately, whether they liked it or not was hardly relevant when it came to adherence of the rites and abiding the command of cherished traditions.
Shang crawled closer and lay down next to his wife, feeling the bed curve underneath their weight. He paused right then, engulfed in a drowning wave of admiration witnessing his wife's naked splendor. Her flawless, fair skin contrasted nicely with her long, midnight hair. Her tight figure sculpted with gentle curves around her waist and adorned with a pair of exquisite breasts. She may not be the perfect exhibit of ladylike elegance and femininity, but Shang had to admit his wife was astoundingly attractive and exceedingly beautiful. Not to mention her dexterity and sword skill were exhilarating and unique.
But was this love?
No. Obviously not. Maybe attraction. Maybe lust. But definitely not love.
She felt his breath brushing her skin, spilling over her shoulder. His hand was comfortably warm in contrast to hers, but didn't help to alleviate her trepidation. Her heart thudded loudly in her ears as she felt his roving fingers travel on her midriff up to her chest, hungrily exploring his new privilege.
His parted lips brushed against hers gently, before firmly pressing in sensual surrender. The kiss was gentle, fervent and passionate, but it was lacking the element of sincerity and affection. It was the kind of kiss she never anticipated feeling―devoid of emotion, barren of love. It was a kiss that introduced an innocent maiden into the world of carnal passion and forbidden lust, a world that relished a woman as an object of pleasure. While her mind cultivated with panic and her heart shouted in despair, Mulan closed her eyes, denying all awareness of what would soon take place.
Shang placed his weight carefully on her, trapping her between his sculpted chest and the soft bed, imprisoning her hands within his. He sighed in disappointment when he found Mulan shutting her eyes tightly like a frightened child.
"Don't be afraid," Shang coaxed her in a soothing voice. He invited her to release her frigid grip that clawed into the bed.
Emerging from her own dreamlike daze, Mulan opened her eyes to meet his profound gaze.
Shang could see tears rimming the edge of her eyes, eliciting a wordless lamentation for her broken dreams under the curse of duty, bound by honor. But Mulan refused to let her tears to fall. She nodded shakily as a sign of her compliance while her pleading sight begged him for mercy, to do the act swiftly.
She knew she was a fool, for allowing her dreams to become the greatest expectation, a nonsensical hope that her first night with her husband would be filled with love, induced with passion and bathed in happiness.
"I promise I'll be gentle," he whispered again.
Mulan clutched his figure tightly, while her nervous fingers bit through the dense muscle on his back. Her body tingled with every contact of his skin and shuddered with petrifying anticipation as she felt his body press closer to her. Mulan tried to silence her conscience that was currently screaming to forbid this stranger to touch her. She looked again into his dark, hypnotizing eyes, swallowing the knot of terror and fear and seeking futile refuge from the climatic event that was about to alter her status forever.
Normally Mulan would welcome morning with a joyous tune. Despite her boring chores in the Fa house, Mulan always managed to find some sort of entertainment that would turn a mundane routine into an absolute adventure. Like feeding the chickens, for example―thanks to her grandmother's creativity gene―Mulan had invented a fast and efficient way to spread the seed by tying a holey sack full of corn together with a rod and a dangling bone on her dog's collar.
But today was different, for once, morning came with a definite feeling of dread attached to it. The bright brilliance of sunlight filtered through the slight gap of her bedroom window, and the birds serenaded sweetly, welcoming another beautiful day, but Mulan found none of this blissfulness calming. In fact, she felt that the wonderful sound of nature so completely diverged from her mood, that it only made her feel worse.
Sluggishly opening her eyes, Mulan was greeted by the alien sight of their marital bedroom. Shang must have awoken hours ago―his robe was neatly folded to the side, and his subtle masculine scent no longer filled the room. Going by how bright it was, it must have been well beyond breakfast time.
First day as a wife, and I'm already late. But, Mulan consoled herself with the thought that she did well to survive the havoc and chaotic schedule these last couple of days had brought. Having a little lay in wouldn't do much harm, in fact, it was well deserved.
Slowly, she pulled herself into a stretch and ran her fingers across the smooth surface of the bedsheet. It was then that she saw the crimson stain spread across its silky threads, reminding her that Shang had taken her maidenhood and bestowed upon her a new status, that of a wife.
The word sent a static ache of anxiety over everything, making her world feel unfocused and unreal.
Staring wide-eyed at the red canopy of their bed, Mulan let her mind evoke the vivid recollection of the passion induced moment that led to the stain on the fabric. She remembered those strong arms curling around her, trying to calm her spirit from the inevitable doom. She recalled how she had trembled and squirmed beneath him, and how her breath came in short, fearful gasps―but Shang hadn't seemed to notice her misgivings.
It was natural that she wanted to forget everything that happened that night but, to her chagrin, his searing kisses and the burning sensation of his body lingered with her long after he had gone. It was no doubt in her mind that her husband merely played his cards right to win her willingness to satisfy his call. Every affectionate gesture they shared that night had been a lie, after all.
And the marriage bed is supposed to be where a couple joins their souls and enjoys the blinding spell of passion no words can describe, she thought ruefully.
But why did his smile seem to resonate so strongly with her? Despite her mutinous act earlier, Shang did everything so gently with her. How could he forgive her after those frenzied moments? Did he draw from personal experience? Or was he just that good at lovemaking?
A loud knock on the door broke Mulan's mindless drivel. Without a word, her mother in law entered with a pot of tea and a fresh robe. Mulan hastily sat up, being sure to keep her blanket covering her bare torso, trying to compose herself and regain her sense of dignity.
A few steps into the chamber the woman stopped, as though something stalled her from coming any farther in. Mulan could feel her scrutinizing gaze roam across her figure. She hastily pulled the blanket higher around her chest to cover absolutely everything.
For a fleeting moment, their eyes met. There was an unexpected radiance of sympathy and remorse that Mulan had never seen from her before. But Li Yue was not going to admit to feeling it. Her features remained indifferent and unemotional while her hands efficiently cleared away the soiled bed sheet. Unceremoniously, she helped Mulan to cover herself with a fresh robe.
"This is to ensure conception," Li Yue announced while nonchalantly pouring the tea and offering Mulan the cup."Expect to serve your husband again tonight," she commanded in the way one might instruct a soldier. Mulan just bit her lip and nodded mutely, accepting her obligation to fulfill her nuptial commitment.
Thankfully, the evil mother-in-law disappeared from the scene in exchange for her gentle, caring mother.
Fa Li didn't fail to notice how disheveled her daughter was―her make-up from the night before was smeared all over her pillow, her bun was nonexistent, the pins having been pulled out by her husband's eager hands, and her hair was all over the place as though a tornado had happened last night, not to mention the dry tears encrusted on her cheeks―Mulan must have been crying in her sleep.
"Mulan," Fa Li voice implored warily,"Are you okay?"
Was he rough to you? Did he...hurt you? She wanted to say, but the words just choked and pricked her throat.
As though Mulan could hear her thoughts, she knew the meaning behind Fa Li's woeful expression.
"No Mama, don't worry," Mulan looked down into her tea, blinking her eyes furiously to keep tears at bay. "Shang was very gentle with me."
When she found her courage, Mulan met her mother's gaze and forced a weak smile, hoping Fa Li couldn't detect the emotional battle lurking underneath. "You need not be concerned." Mulan finished reassuringly, for she couldn't bear to see her mother heartbroken or worrying incessantly over their loveless exchange.
"Oh, thank goodness. I am relieved," Fa Li replied, almost sounding like she was trying to convince herself.
"Now, shall I help you bathe? I have prepared some warm water. You need a little rejuvenating after such a long day yesterday." Mulan obediently trailed behind her mother to the designated bathroom.
After combing and neatly tying her daughter's hair into a bun, Fa Li put away her robe, but as soon as the garment left her skin, Mulan heard Fa Li's faint gasp.
A few small red marks marked Mulan's pale skin; around her neck, arms and her collarbone―silent proof of the blinding passion and lustful desire that had consumed her husband last night.
"They're just love bites," she heard her mother say, trying to sound unconcerned and casual. Suddenly Mulan felt dirty with the traces of their lovemaking session imprinted all over her body. But her mother's bone-white face caused Mulan to keep whatever unhappy thoughts she had, confined inside her head. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to fret about her well-being in the Li's house.
After Mulan bathed, ate her breakfast and went to the Li family's temple to pay her respects, it was time for her to bid her farewell to her family.
Fa Zhou encased his daughter in his strong, warm hug, Fa Ping gave his sister a parting kiss, while Fa Li and Grandma Fa tried to hold back their tears. Soon, they were on their way home, and Mulan's new life as Shang's wife officially began.
A few days later, things started to fall into a pattern. Every day, Mulan started her new routine; waking up in the morning to help Li Yue to prepare breakfast for their husbands. From the kitchen, they could hear the distant battle cries from the men who were running through their drills.
Living in the Li's household required a few adjustments for Mulan. The interaction among family members tended to be confined by formal protocol in contrast to the casual and relaxed attitude of the Fa house. There were no written rules, but occupants of the Li house all seemed to be in a consensus to not talk about personal things unnecessarily.
Despite the formality, Li Shang and General Li were close to each other. They hardly spoke about anything deep, but the glint of affection and love between them were visible from the subtle gestures they exchanged. In comparison, the two of them appeared to have respect for Li Yue, but nothing more.
Exactly two weeks after her wedding, General Li and Li Shang had to attend an important strategical meeting in Chang'an, leaving the house under the commanding hand of Li Yue. Mulan prayed to her ancestors that everything remained calm and uneventful during her husband's absence.
Trying to be the exemplary wife and earning that passage rite that would bring honor to her family, Mulan rose early the next day to do a little spring cleaning inside the room that General Li and Shang shared as their office. There was a lot of confidential, sensitive items that General Li couldn't entrust to a stranger to clean the room.
The room was spacious but lacking personification. It seemed like neither Shang nor his father were sentimental people who were into ornamentation, memorabilia or anything along that line. Amidst the barren, minimalist room, something caught Mulan's undivided attention. On General Li's writing bureau were three framed pictures. One was of General Li, perhaps in his late thirties, one of Shang, as a toddler, perched on a seat in his unsmiling posture.
He looks cold and grave even as a child. Mulan noted.
And the last one was a poised, beautiful young woman.
Mulan's inquisitive eyes methodically studied her new found discovery. She certainly could draw some correlation between the General Li's younger self and Shang at the present time, even the child version of Shang appeared distantly like him. But Mulan was positive the woman in the picture wasn't Li Yue although some semblance was visible.
"Ah… you found something interesting I see," proclaimed a hoarse voice behind her, "Don't worry… I won't tell anyone." Mulan could hear the smile in her voice. She turned around to find an old woman, grinning smugly.
She said her name was Mei Lan, one of the longest serving maids in the house and the only one allowed into the General's office. The way the elderly lady smiled, teased and carried herself reminded Mulan a lot of her quirky Grandma Fa.
"As you may have gathered, that was Miss Xia, Madam Yue's sister." Mei Lan revealed, lowering her voice into a secretive whisper. "...and she was Shang's mother." Mulan gasped with unmistakable astonishment at her disclosure.
"What happened to her?" Mulan asked gingerly, voice low and filled with curiosity.
"Oh, she died long ago. Not that General Li has ever forgotten about her." The old woman nonchalantly pulled out a stash of pictures from a desk drawer. It was a picture of the same woman, in various poses, mostly portraying her doing a dance routine. Mulan could imagine how General Li was charmed by the woman's wild beauty, enthralled by her captivating smile and smitten by her flawless elegance.
"She is… very attractive," Mulan remarked with her eyes still fixated on the stash in front of her with unfeigned awe.
"Oh yes...yes. Both sisters were undoubtedly elegant, for sure. But, personality wise, Xia was very different from Yue despite them being siblings. Yue was serious, ambitious and hardworking while Xia was vivacious, full of life and carefree. It is a shame that even so long after her death, General Li can't seem to move on from his loss." Mei Lan remarked.
The additional information reiterated in Mulan's mind, turning the cogs and wheels of her critical thinking. Mei Lan's words fit well with the odd interactions between the Li family that she had witnessed. Perhaps that's why Shang was never as affectionate as one would expect from an only child to his mother.
Suddenly Mulan could sympathize with Li Yue, having to marry a man that had bestowed his heart to someone else. She could only imagine young Yue had to endure prolonged years of repressed jealousy, betrayal, and trauma. It gave her ruthless, sniveling attitude a little plausible context. Not to mention the look of genuine sympathy as she saw Mulan the night after her wedding. If a person understood how it felt to lay in bed with a stranger or to live a life with a man who was incapable of requiting her love, Li Yue would be the person.
The revelation served as a turning point for Mulan. She began to accept her mother-in-law's harsh disparages against her domestic ineptitude, generally being dismissive at her slanderous remarks.
At some point, Mulan realized the imaginary bar of expectation was astronomically high. It would take her more than a lifetime to be the perfect wife Li Yue hoped her to be, but part of her could now understand that Li Yue wasn't the not-so-nice person she initially conjectured. Quite contrary, perhaps her mother-in-law just wanted her to have a better life, being the wife well loved by her husband.
Two weeks later, an outbreak of typhoid swept through the region. A quarantine order was placed, and citizens were advised to stay at home as much as they could to prevent the disease from spreading. The Li household was no exception. Mulan had to be content spending her days confined behind the walls of her home, reading scrolls and doing embroidery to minimize social contact.
Finally, after a month of absence, both General Li and Li Shang returned home; but the prospect of meeting her husband didn't trigger any excitement in Mulan's chest, especially when she recalled his cold, stern attitude.
That night, Mulan found herself sitting around the table with the Li family in uncomfortable silence. To keep her mind busy, she focused her sight on the generous spread of food on the table as if she were having a staring contest with each dish.
"The Huns are coming, we received the report that they have breached our northern border," General Li declared solemnly, breaking the grave silence.
"There is a letter from the Emperor, requesting every man older than fourteen from each family to join the war. There is no exception," he added, casually sipping his tea.
Every man over fourteen? Would that mean…. Father needs to go?
Mulan kept her peace even when she was frantically shouting inside. Everyone, including the servants, gasped collectively―but Li Yue hastily dismissed them. Mulan stole a brief glance at the opposite side of the table to witness Shang suddenly becoming very interested in his tea, his expression was unreadable. The room was eerily quiet, the absence of sound was so prominent it was as though no one was breathing.
"Uhm, forgive me, General Li," Mulan addressed her father-in-law reverently, even though she wasn't sure what she was apologizing for, "My father would not need to go too, would he? He can hardly walk, let alone fight the Huns," she tried to hide the disapproving tone in her voice.
General Li brought his fist to his mouth and coughed into it before flicking his sight briefly to his son and then to his wife. Mulan suddenly regretted candidly asking such a question in front of everyone. She should have bridled her tongue and waited until she was alone with her husband to address this kind of delicate matter. Mulan felt social anxiety creep into her posture under the grilling glare of her parent's in law.
"Mulan, we don't question this kind of thing… especially at the dinner table. War is the business of men," Li Yue sputtered, for once Mulan saw her losing her composure for a fleeting moment, but the woman quickly managed to collect herself and contain her emotion.
"But ―" Mulan was about to argue, adding a palpable tension to the already perilous atmosphere brewing in the air. She had failed again to rein her lips.
Disregarding the barefaced suffering that was written all over Mulan's face, Shang interjected and glared at her, "That's enough Mulan!" he stood up, smacking his fist with such force that its movement rippled through the table clattering the dishes. His shoulders stiffened and eyes filled with prideful rage,"It's an honor for men to be able to defend their country, advocating our traditions and beliefs! I am sure your father will be proud to take his place," he paused to make sure his wife fully understood his words, "...and it's time for you to learn yours!"
Shang's sharp admonishment startled her. She could even hear his knuckles crack ominously to channel his explosive tirade. Mulan barely knew how to react. She felt insufferable pain pierce her chest, like a knife twisting there. Under the table, she gripped the fabric of her ruqun with both hands, twisting it between her fists to channel her frustration.
Remember a good wife is a submissive wife. Patience and obedience are their virtue. She chanted to herself.
The rest of dinner was done in grim silence and, soon after, everyone left the table nonchalantly.
In the confinement of their bedroom, Mulan tried to contain her nerves from the despicable argument during their dinner. She suppressed the desire to question her husband's authority, to challenge her father-in-law's supremacy, and to learn her place and role as a woman and wife in the Li's household. But it was no use, the more she attempted to subdue the voice within her, the louder it got.
Now it was just the two of them, Shang seemed to be slightly more relieved despite Mulan's thorny defensiveness still lingering in his mind.
"Mulan…." he turned to her revealing a phlegmatic look, but Mulan felt his eyes drill a hole into her soul.
"It was very inappropriate to meddle with manly business." Shang went on to lecture her, but this time his voice had mollified into a conversational tone. He fought with himself, managing to conceal the anger simmering in his chest.
"But, Shang… this had something to do with my Father," she insisted, unable to control the trembling edge in her voice."Isn't it right for a daughter to be concerned?" she tried to convince him, justifying her stand.
"Concern can't help you win a war, Mulan. Sacrifice does." Shang still held his peace, but there was biting irony behind his expressionless facade.
"Shang, please, why can't you go to take my father's place. You are his son too…. Aren't you?" It wasn't a question that required an answer, she had given voice to it more to stir guilt within him than anything else, but Shang had anticipated this.
"Mulan, you promised me that you would not defy me as your husband. This behavior will never bring your family the honor they deserve!" he snarled, eyebrows were drawn together, lips pulling back, and his fists clenching in his attempt to not completely lose his temper. Reminding Mulan of her promise to her parents was her husband's best tactical maneuver, it instantly stripped her of her rebellious state of mind and robbed her of her opinionated voice.
"But ―" the word sounded so small and frail. Tears stung her eyes, but Mulan wouldn't let them fall, not in front of this man who had no room for sympathy for her suffering.
"No more "but's" Mulan. You can go ahead and ask your Father. I am fairly certain―a chivalrous man like him will think it is an honor to be able to protect his country, even if it could cost him his life," annoyance radiated from his voice, but Mulan wasn't going to let her father's fate slip through her fingers just like that.
"Shang, it is not that I don't love my country, but sending my father to war would certainly kill him! He can barely walk, let alone run and fight. It would be suicide!" Mulan retaliated, tossing her head of raven black hair with as much false bravado as she could manage in the hope of making up for the quivering that still lingered in her voice. "...and I love him too much to let him voluntarily walk to his death." Sadness and pain marred her words, but her husband was too angry to notice.
"Enough!" the heat of fury built in his eyes as the word flew from his lips. It was the only word he said, but by the withering, hate-filled look he gave her, Mulan knew she had crossed the boundary.
The gravity of the situation and her husband's unwillingness to listen to her plea, crushed her hopeful soul. She felt her husband held a twisted expectation of her being a good wife and a filial daughter. Was taking care of her household, being a subservient wife and being able to fulfill his physical needs become the only measure of her character? Was being infinitely compliant, dutiful and foolish be the only way to bring honor to her family? She was just a girl who had desperately attempted to fit into the mold―but it appeared that she never would be able to, no matter how hard she tried.
Mulan stared emptily out the window of their bedroom, holding back her frustrations by watching the birds freely going about their daily business. How simple her life would be to be as free as those birds, where there was no question of social accountability, marital obligation, and filial duty.
Shang found himself unable to control the sheer volume of ugly words that had built up inside him. But he knew a large part of it was because he couldn't understand his wife. In fact, he never did try to understand her―he was too busy forcefully exerting his authority, exercising his leadership and imposing his principles over her.
Suddenly, Shang regretted chiding his wife in such manner.
His sight found Mulan staring morosely out the window. When their gazes collided, she swiftly cut her eyes to the side, and that's when he realized that beneath the desperation and frustration she was heartbroken.
"Mulan…." he started, feigning empathy, the touch of his hands around her waist interrupted her idle gaze. Although Mulan enjoyed Shang's display of affection, she hardly believed her husband did it out of love.
"Can we just not talk about this?" Shang tried to get the topic off their argument. "I just came home from a tiring week, and all I want is to have a civil time with my wife." He planted a warm kiss on her forehead, "Please?"
Mulan replied to his plea with a joyless smile. She was desperate to push Shang away from her emotionally, because no matter how much he tried to make her believe he felt something for her; it wouldn't change how she felt about him. Mulan was fully aware of the consequences, but unable to stop herself. And it appeared to her….Shang knew this.
"You are certainly made for a purpose mightier than defeating those Huns," Shang declared invitingly. His eyes went around the places they hadn't been invited, and his hands slowly prowled upwards, roaming over the fabric of her clothes. His hot breath brushed her skin, leaving her completely spellbound.
"Besides, soldiers aren't sprouting from the ground just yet. Someone needs to make them…"