The designated night that Mulan had planned her escape for finally arrived. When everyone had fallen asleep, she went to visit the family temple, asking her ancestors to bless her as she ventured to do something no woman in China had ever done before. Then, she slipped into her brother's bedroom―who had been recruited to be her accomplice in her seamless deception.
"Fa Ping," she called him with a firm whisper.
"Dajie, is it time?" her brother replied. Mulan nodded. "All clear, everyone is asleep."
It was either a good coincidence or a sign of bad luck, but it just so happened that Fa Zhou was away for a few days to visit their distant relative who had fallen victim to a disease similar to what had taken Fa Li. With one less person to worry about, Mulan had to act now to execute her plan seamlessly.
Fa Ping grabbed the solitary candle by the alcove to light their way. Both of them tread carefully, making their way to the storage room.
"Where is the key?" Mulan prompted. Fa Ping grinned as he produced the item in question from the depths of his pocket.
"Excellent," Mulan commended her brother's crafty work. She placed the key into the lock, and with a modest click, the storage room was opened, revealing their father's battle armor.
"Mmm… there is one piece missing," Mulan mumbled under her breath as she retrieved Fa Zhou's armor and sword.
"Ah, that must be it!" Fa Ping extended his arms and stood on tiptoe to reach his Father's helmet. "There you go." He handed it to Mulan, who gave him a smile of gratitude.
At first, she tried to where her father's robe, similar to the one she saw her husband wearing underneath his war armor. It was a little bit too large for her, but thankfully not by much. Compared to Shang's stature, her father was slender and less broad across the shoulder. The extra room worked in Mulan's favor, allowing her to hide her feminine curvature.
There was a strange feeling as she fastened the armor to fit her figure. Mulan had never been involved in a war, and being a soldier had never crossed her mind before―but being the daughter of a famous war strategist, the atrocities of war had become something very intimate and real.
Mulan had first-hand experience witnessing her Father's heroic struggle, which had earned him a few permanent marks that weaved like a tapestry on his skin. She reminisced with a strange feeling of relief, pride, and fear in her chest. She often raptly listened to her Father's stories. In between his narrations, he would point out some of his blemishes―the countless testimonies of what a courageous warrior he had been. Each scar was a sacrifice: something he had chosen to take for the sake of someone else. And through the years, the number of these chivalrous marks increased until one day his luck ran dry, and a debilitating injury had forced the outstanding war strategist to lay his sword to rest.
From her Father's exposition, Mulan had heard of countless friends and enemies rising and dying, learning how war's brutality stole many fathers, sons, and brothers from their loved ones. Despite the epic victories that Fa Zhou had won, strings of accomplishment that he had carved out of life, he had never felt proud of the enemies that he destroyed. It was obvious that the brutality of war had engraved marks on her father's soul as much as it had on his figure.
And if war's cruelty were not enough―anyone who ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield would consider long and hard before starting a war. How war had made use of the best warriors, like her father, to do the worst to others, was beyond comprehension―but unavoidable.
"How do I look?" Mulan said, turning to face her brother.
Fa Ping paused, scrutinizing his sister's new look. He came closer, helping Mulan to tighten the sash. "There!" A broad smile spread on Fa Ping's lips, as though admiring a rare showcase of an exquisite masterpiece. "Perfect! Just like a proper man," he grinned ecstatically.
The disguise appeared to be very convincing, especially after Mulan tucked her neatly bunned hair into the helmet. She could see the gleaming adoration in her young brother's eyes. She caught a glimpse of her figure donned in proper war armor. She looked nothing like her familiar self. Excellent! She thought to herself with pride and contentment. No one would have guessed.
From now on, this would be her new identity: A man, a son and a soldier.
"Now, hand me the sword," Mulan told him, commandingly. Her brother trotted to the other end of the room to fetch their Father's sword, but his fingers stiffened there and his smile dissolved at the memory of what lay ahead of them, and what an armed conflict may entail.
"Dajie," he called her, voice thick with reluctance."Are you…. Are you sure about this?" he asked, hand trembling as he carried the sword.
Mulan felt her courage dwindling, being buffeted by her brother's melancholic plea. By joining the Army, she was gaining consent to kill… and to be killed. War, really did not conclude who was right, but who was left.
Fleetingly, the glimpse of her father's frail posture and her grandmother's longing look flashed in Mulan's mind. How would they react when they knew she sneaked off to join the Army? Would they be sad? Angry? Disappointed even? She shook her head, resolutely pushing her hesitation aside. This wasn't time for petty emotions, this was time to dare and endure! This was a chance that every man would take to stand for their dignity and proof of the love they had for their country. And there was no love without sacrifice.
"Fa Ping," Mulan sighed."We've talked about this… There are no other options. I can't let Baba go. Consenting to him going is like sending him to his grave!"
"But what about you? What if you are… ―" the young boy couldn't finish his sentence. The thought of losing another person so dear to him crushed his heart in a painful grip.
Mulan wanted to lecture him with the exact same words their father told her yesterday. However, noticing beads of tears balancing on the edges of his eyes, Mulan abandoned her intention. Instead, she reached for her brother and pulled him into a hug.
"I promise I'll be back," Mulan tried to sound firm. Deep down, she knew no one could guarantee that. However, her own affirmation elated her spirit, sending a new wave of courage and determination through her. "Promise me you'll take care of Baba and Grandma in my absence." Her voice dropped along with her eyes, as she loosened up her grip.
"Never let fear decide your fate. I am always proud of you, Fa Ping."
Fa Ping felt his heart break in that instant, but instead, he put his brazen facade on, smiled firmly and nodded to her.
Her brother looked immensely proud, wiping the tears from his innocent eyes, as he watched Mulan mount up on Khan and disappear into the night.
A bright, beautiful morning cast a magic spell on the landscape, turning the foggy, cold night into a warm, promising day. The path ahead was clear and wide, flecked with dazzling sunlight split into patterns by overhanging trees. Khan neighed ecstatically, barely containing his boundless energy to gallop and cut across the terrain―just as well, given the urgency of her mission.
"Oh calm there, Boy! Just give me a second, and I'll be ready," Mulan rubbed Khan's mane affectionately before she returned to attend to her belongings and rolled her sleeping bag neatly. Another neigh was his answer, and the horse obediently waited. Her hand accidentally brushed the scroll of her father's summon and Fa Ping's birth certificate which she had conscientiously forged to make him old enough to qualify to be a soldier. Her mind fleetingly went back to Fa Ping and everyone she had left behind. In accordance with her plan, Mulan had left a note to her father, pretending that her mother-in-law wanted her presence urgently. Now, she just hoped that Fa Ping could make up some clever excuses to delay their father realizing that his war outfit, sword and summon were gone.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a sudden itch, crawling up her leg. Mulan frantically leaped, hands vigorously scratching and repelling the source of the disturbance. It was only the first night that she oddly spent alone―just her and her horse, cutting through the length of the country, against mother nature and earth's natural elements, and she was already missing her warm, comfortable bed.
Here goes nothing! Mulan willed herself to move on. Too late for any consideration or second thoughts now.
Every now and then, Mulan's hand move instinctively to her sword, feeling it's cold hilt and hard metal scabbard―from now on, this would be her company, her companion that would help her to defend herself and her life. She remembered her father telling her he never left the weapon behind; even going so far as to cradle it in his sleep and sit it next to him as he ate. He even jokingly told Mulan that his sword was closer to him than his wife in a war, because no man would fancy taking his wife into the toilet when nature called.
War. Mulan mused. She was actually heading for war.
There would be a lot of bloodsheds, plenty of killing and the risk of fatal injuries.
But even with the grim prospect of dying and the wistful fate of never returning home as a possibility, Somehow, Mulan couldn't ignore a strange exhilaration and the swell of excitement over getting into the encampment. Perhaps, one part of her equated this exercise of being a man as complete freedom from her mundane life, endless household chores and a list of nuptial demands, and the other parts was celebrating the fact that she, as a woman, had a chance to defend her country, just like her Father.
Mulan knew she was never going to be an exemplary wife, but could she became an exemplary soldier?
She reminisced, hearing her husband's commanding, borderline tyrannical, voice as he told her what he expected out of an exemplary wife: never defy his requests, nor meet him eye to eye. And then she remembered the training from her strict mother in law, Li Yue, not to make a sound when she chewed, walk slowly with elegance, speak softly and only do so when she was asked.
For once, Mulan would not need those 'ladylike' habit and could assert herself to be dominating like what was expected of a man.
Absently, she stood in front of her very few belongings, wondering what kind of outfit she should wear that would please her… ―
Mulan mentally slapped herself. It appeared, subconsciously, she had truly transformed into this kind of woman―a woman whose life centered around her husband. Mulan picked up her Father's uniform carefully, running her digits on its rough, hard wearing fabrics. She had to leave the thought of being the devoted wife that she was behind for a while, because at this time and place, there was no Fa-Li Mulan.
There was only Fa Ping.
She mounted her horse, and with one firm instruction, Khan galloped into the woods.
After spending two night sleeping rough on the road, Mulan decided she'd earned enough credit for a night with a ceiling, instead of stars, above her head. She quickly made her pick and went in to ask the receptionist for a room if it was available.
"A room for the night, Sir?" addressed the demure lady with the copious bosom from behind the counter, staring at her invitingly. In a lapse of concentration, Mulan questioned the strange way the lady was leering at her. The young woman must have been around her age, hiding half of her pretty face behind an embroidered silk fan, batting her long eyelashes while her curious eyes sized up Mulan's figure from head to toe, drinking in every detail.
"Ugh, yes… one person… please," Mulan fumbled, thankfully remembering to lower her effeminate voice to sound more masculine. She reminded herself that many women, according to her late mother, had a thing for men in uniform. What was the word again? Fetish? Whatever it was, Mulan was sure she also had been afflicted―chronically, if not worse. Despite Shang's affinity to boss her around, Mulan had to admit―just a fantastical depiction of his toned figure wrapped in his captain's uniform with that crimson cape flapping behind his back―could make her weak at the knees. He was… utterly irresistible!
However, Mulan felt―as Fa Ping, unlike Shang―she was hardly heartthrob material, yet the unknown lady seemed eager to invite her to her chamber rather than offer a room in the hotel. Perhaps she underestimated the power of military armor.
"Unfortunately we only have shared rooms available," said the lady in feigned regret.
"That's ok, I'll take that," Mulan replied. Sharing or not was hardly a concern to her as long as there were no insects, criminals, or drunken men to worry about.
The lady opened her mouth, perhaps to offer another alternative, but Mulan quickly offered a few coins, insinuating that she was too exhausted even to do a little bit of harmless flirting. The lady winked as she slid the key across the counter. Thankfully, that was as far as the fooling went. Mulan wondered how horrified the lady would be if she knew she was a woman.
Scuttling towards her room with her belongings, Mulan politely knocked on the door before going inside.
The distinct smell of sweaty boots and masculine musk invaded her nostrils, and the sight of a messy room welcomed her.
"Ugh!" she gasped lowly. Perhaps this was revenge from that coquettish receptionist for ignoring her advancement, but hell―this was way over the line! What was a man doing in her bedroom?!
The large guy, possibly more than 5 feet tall, had his frame barely squeezed into the space between the top bunk and the ceiling (and Mulan briefly considered her safety in trusting the bed frame could hold such a load for the night. Just think of the mock and ridicule if everyone knew she died in the hotel and not during a battle). The man was topless, but thankfully was laying on his belly with one of his hands dangling down, mouth open, tongue lolling and a loud snore only to be expected to accompany them.
She better comes up with a good explanation, Mulan fumed. She was so focused on arranging her angry rhetoric that she didn't notice her potential roommate stir and turn his head.
"Ni hao," said the husky, sleepy voice. Mulan froze where she stood. The guy in front of her dragged his bulky figure sluggishly into a half-sitting position, managing to hit his head on the ceiling in the process and clumsily rubbed his bleary eyes.
"Ni… ni hao," Mulan responded, not knowing what else to say. After hearing Mulan's voice, the rotund man, suddenly doubting the gender of the person that had appeared completely uninvited, frantically tried to cover himself only to end up falling onto the floor. He let out an undignified yelp followed by a painful groan.
"Sorry… are you―are you okay?" She came closer and offered her hand.
With his alertness intact, the man rubbed his sore bottom, replying with a short, "Thank you," and accepted her hand. "But wait," he said, bewildered. "I don't remember… calling a… ―" he stuttered, mind floating elsewhere―wondering whether he had gotten so drunk to have requested a prostitute undeliberately. He blinked again, studying her features and then her outfit. "Oh wait, you are a soldier. But, how come your voice… ―? I mean, I don't mean to… ―"
Then it hit her, of course, this guy was her roommate! The receptionist didn't make a mistake!
"I can explain," Mulan sighed, placing her bag on the bottom bunk, and removing her helmet, letting her bound hair fall to her shoulders. Her eyes fell on the large battle armor, very similar to hers. Seemed like sharing a bedroom with another man in uniform was the perks that came with her disguise.
Just as she thought her night couldn't get more interesting, the door slammed open, and another man appeared at the door. But instead of a warm welcome, he immediately gasped loudly.
"Mu―...Mulan? What are you doing here?"