That evening, as usual, Shao sat in his usual spot, eating his lonely meal. Normally, he would welcome solitude―a much-preferred option rather than sitting with the bunch of noisy idiots across the clearing. But today, his appetite was cruelly murdered minutes ago when he found a secret message left for him inside his tent.
He stared morosely into the fire; the letter was still embedded his mind.
Shao, we need to talk. The situation got out of hand. They knew our plan. Meet me, the northern border of Wei, by the river before sundown. Fate be damned, if someone apprehends us and kills us both, this shall be our honorable death ― ALS
The letter was written in a careful cursive, in Mongolian Cyrillic. Shao groaned into his palm, shaking his head. How could he make the right choice when there wasn't one?
Darn it! How could they know our plan? Has Father been spying on me? He thought. He grabbed the bottle next to him in haste, tipping the content ardently down his throat and enjoying the sudden burning sensation that momentarily overrode his anxiety.
His inner tirade was interrupted by a soft, almost effeminate voice.
"Hi," said the soft query from his back. Shao knew there was only one man… well, woman, with that falsely masculine undertone embedded in her voice.
"Drinking alone ?" Ping merely stated what was obvious.
Putting his bottle aside, Shao glanced up briefly, before rolling his eyes and returning to his drink, enjoying the way it burned on its way down.
"May I join?" she asked again.
He sniggered softly, which indicated he wasn't in a mood to have a friendly conversation―If Ping ever thought he was friendly.
May the gods have mercy on this girl's future husband. Not only is she socially impaired, but also stubbornly persistent too.
Shao Wei didn't reply. He just flicked his eyes dangerously towards the lanky man…. Well, girl.
Ping shot him a reluctant smile that he supposed was meant to be a sympathetic greeting, but at the moment, it inappropriately stirred unwanted bitterness. Shao couldn't even discern why he replied to her friendliness with an arrogant scoff.
"What do you want?" Shao averted his face to hide his surprise at his own vehement recrimination.
"Er…" Ping was visibly buffeted by the accusation but seemed to tolerate his insolent treatment, only pulling in a sharp breath and exhaling it slowly. "Nothing. I see you eating or drinking alone every night, I thought I may… ―"
With an arched brow, Shao merely responded with a rather curt, "I don't want your pity."
"It's not pity!" she exclaimed but quickly realized the sharpness of her voice. "Have you always been… a jerk like this?"
Shao couldn't resist laughing at the words she used. "Jerk?" he repeated. "Do you know that you could lose your head calling me that ."
"Then what is it?" he demanded, inching closer until he could feel Ping's warm breath spilling onto his skin. "What do you want?"
"Does everyone who approaches you must have 'wants' ?" she reprobated, equally sharp.
"Yes, sort of." Shao sniggered, shaking his head in amusement from the combination of her astute remark and the unmistakable disdain gleaming in her eyes. He supposed he deserved such a look. "Now," he said in a serious voice. "...state your business before I lose my patience and order Chi-Fu to have you hang from that tree."
Ping' risen eyebrows now drew down into a frustrated scowl. "Look, listen…" she said, trying to sound patient even when the heat inside her head was visibly rising. "I see you train every morning. I am sure you are a great fighter, much more experienced than any of us."
Shao scoffed at her impertinence. "Sweet talk doesn't normally work with me."
"So I figure," she deadpanned. "Look, if you think I am one of those sycophants men who wanted to gain your favor, then your are dead wrong, Mister!"
"...and your point is?" Shao snapped.
"Have you heard the proverbs, strength in unity?" she prompted, moving to sit across from him.
Shao knew where Ping would drive her argument. One of his mentors in Chang'an, an accomplished general, had told him how a battalion bound by the ties of comradeship and trust fought much harder than one bound by professionalism―in which each soldier merely fought for themselves and not for the common victory.
Without so much a glance, he answered in uncaring and almost bored tone, "So what? I am not part of the team ."
True to Mulan's prediction, the aloof Prince expressed no intention to get involved with the battalion. She smiled triumphantly, the Prince had bitten the bait. Here comes the bomb.
"Then why did you come here? We are here to train to fight together, to function as a single entity against the common enemy, to be part of a team ?!"
Shao seethed at that, rising to his feet. "I have a mission, and it's none of your business. You are just one incompetent village idiot who is unable to fend for yourself," he rebuked. " You are a liability to your team." Gosh, Shao, you don't have to be that mean to the girl, do you?
"What?" Her scandalized expression elicited a chuckle out of him."Okay… okay...Listen," Shao paced back and forth, pretending to be friendly by throwing a friendly smile. "Everyone here… has their own secret," he proclaimed, smirking pointedly at her direction. "Let just say I have an excellent intuition that enables me to spy into everyone's life," he bragged. "Including yours ."
Mulan's heart hit her ribcage hard at that. It was a bizarre turn for the conversation―Did the Prince know her secret?
Shao flicked a quick glance over the speechless Ping and caught something―a muscle twinge, a change of demeanor that had not gone completely unnoticed. He grinned mentally. I got you, Ping.
"If I were you, I'd leave now," he said candidly. "Before I reveal what I exactly have learned about you…. Fa Ping. "
The next morning, a few warriors from Chang'an arrived in the encampment.
Mulan tried to hide behind her aphetic mask when she saw a familiar black stallion prance its way into the courtyard, causing a cloud of dust to rise in their midst.
With one swift, sure movement, the man dismounted, thudding footfalls advertising his presence. Without further command, the rest of the recruits assembled in a neat line-up.
Mulan stole a glance when she was sure the man wasn't looking, filling the gaps in her memory with his chiseled face, stoic facade and stern expression that had begun to dissolve into distant memory.
"Greetings soldiers. I am Captain Li Shang. I am here to train you to be the best warriors in China." His words were laced with conviction, and his charismatic face was filled with concentration as he swept his gaze across his latest recruits. Shang may be one of the youngest captains in the Imperial army; having raised speedily through the ranks; an experienced soldier, and a great warrior, but apart from that, he had no background in transforming a brawling mob into an efficient fighting force.
Mulan prayed that Shang wouldn't recognize her. She was banking on the fact that her feminine face was devoid of makeup and her skin darkened from the prolonged exposure to the sun.
Shang paced in front of them, assessing his latest trainees that, at the moment, looked far from satisfying. His sight fell on a particular lanky young soldier, Shang cleared his own throat when he realized he had been staring at the young lad a moment too long.
"You will assemble swiftly and silently every morning. Anyone who acts otherwise...will answer to me."
Mulan's heart was trying to punch through her ribcage when their eyes collided. She couldn't deny that the attraction had always been there. At first, it was all superficial; his muscular body, handsome features and his prowess in fighting… not to mention his broad shoulders and perfectly executed man bun. But that was nothing more than the adolescent crush of a young, naive and inexperienced girl. She was just eighteen when they married. Obviously, the physical connection that they shared, despite not being based on love, had fueled her feelings into taking root, manifesting and growing into something deeper, something beyond physical attraction and lustful adoration. Something meaningful and lasting. Even when Mulan never openly admitted it with her own lips, her feeling towards him had morphed into something that had intricately become part of her very being…. had she grown to deeply care for him? She didn't want to believe that.
"You are dismissed!"
Mulan quickly tore her gaze away, fixing her sight on the dusty ground. Why would she even think about him? She reprimanded, completely annoyed with herself. She had promised to think of herself as a man, a son and a soldier! But thinking about Shang was something she could not escape, it was as natural as breathing to her. However, it was foolish to brood about something so comparatively meaningless as love and attraction when they were facing the threat of massacre and death.
"That young man," Shang heard Chi Fu's raspy voice as he shot a disapproving glare towards one of their youngest recruits. "He has caused unbelievable havoc since day one. I swear I have never seen anything like it. He might drive me into an early grave," he retorted sourly. "At first, I thought the Huns had sent the kid as a way to sabotage our army from the inside."
"I see," Shang responded phlegmatically, even when the enthusiastic voice in his head was hoping that the clueless looking young man would kill Chi Fu sooner rather than later. "He is still Fa Zhou's successor, I am sure the boy inherited some of his father's strength of mind, tenacity and ingenious thinking."
"Or perhaps simply deception and stubbornness," mocked Chi-Fu.
"I am sure I can deal with him."
"I want to see you try," Chi-Fu scoffed with undisguised skepticism and mockery. "I am sure that soon enough you will be asking your ancestors just what you have done in your previous life to deserve leading this regiment."
Even before Shang emerged from the tent, he registered a tap on the screen. "Captain Li Shang! Honorable Chi-Fu!" The man outside said in a quick, anxiety-ridden whisper.
"Yes?" Shang responded, feeling a terrible foreboding about this.
"It's the Prince of Wei… " the man heaved, wiping his sweaty brow with the back of his hand.
"Someone tried to poison him!"
After consulting with the physician, Shang concluded it was a confined case of food poisoning. After some quick detective work, all evidence led him to one culprit―chef's assistant, Fa Ping.
"He mistook the pig's food for bean bun paste," clarified Chef Zhang, looking somewhat amused rather than devastated. "Not only that, he nearly burnt down our makeshift kitchen in the process."
The Chef's entertained smirk somehow erased Shang's initial suspicion that the boy might be an arsonist or an assassin. Somewhere beneath that entertained/disparaging smile currently plastered across Chef Zhang's features suggested that Fa Ping regularly performed such accidental stunts.
The boy tried not to flinch under Shang's grilling glare.
So this must be the infamous Fa Zhou's son and his brother-in-law. Shang realized feeling his curiosity suddenly stir. The boy was nothing like he had been expecting, not that Shang had a great impression of him from the handful of times they had met. But skinny, with no Adam's apple and a teenager―over whom Chi-Fu was now fussing-was certainly not it. The boy had a petite frame, non-existent muscles, narrow shoulders and feminine eyebrows whose ends had a definite singed look to them. He didn't look much like Fa Zhou. He looked like... well, a bit like a catastrophically clumsy lunatic.
The next morning the training ensued. As circulating rumor had suggested, Shang's training regime proved to be brutal and exhausting, though effective in the grand scheme of things; showing an efficient leader hid behind the harsh exterior.
"Keep your hands on your sword and your heart to your country!" Shang proclaimed. Then he approached a tall wooden mast, dragging two metal weights with him.
"This represents discipline, and this represents strength," he appended as he selected a recruit and attached a metal weight to each hand. Yao, the unfortunate volunteer, could hardly stand with them and the ruthless captain was expecting him to climb with them.
"By the end of this training, each of you has to be able to retrieve the arrow," came Shang’s commanding voice, goading the soldiers into the challenge. "Consider it to be my seal of approval and a sign of graduation into the Imperial army."
Mulan had always had a short-attention-span problem. Her father had addressed this a few times when he caught her yawning while he droned on about certain battle techniques. But right now, her focus-ineptitude problem seemed to miraculously cease the moment Shang abandoned his shirt.
Mulan stole several glances when her husband wasn't looking. Shang was bare-chested, pacing about the courtyard glaring with a predatory stare that had her weak at the knees, for an entirely different reason.
She watched as Yao began to climb. The task was proving to be harder than it looked. With no firm grip available, Yao futilely fought the gravitational force that pulled him down. In his desperation, the guy even attempted to bite the mast to gain footing.
That evening, Shang sat despondently on the far end of the encampment, seeking to clear his mind after another fruitless day of training. He saw the post where he had planted his arrow mutely mocking him. He sighed heavily. From where he sat, Shang saw Chien-Po and a few guys his size trading punches and kicks. They were like oversized boys playing with dangerous weapons rather than efficient warriors with real fighting skills. Chi-Fu's objection over his father's promotion echoed in his head. "He is too young to be a Captain."
No, no… he admonished himself. The Emperor’s Advisor's sharp tongue was the last thing he needed, but it was like an inescapable force. What if Chi-Fu was right? What if he was too young and inexperienced to lead a regiment? What if he was right about his hopeless trainees―that no matter how hard he trained them, they would remain a bunch of goons with mediocre fighting instinct?
Shang was here for other purposes too, but his first line of duty was to transform these men into a lethal war weapon.
"Before the battle of the fist come the battle of the mind." The wise voice of his father resonated in his memory, and Shang immediately felt comforted.
I have to have more faith in my men, and... in myself.
"Your soup is here, Your Honor."
"Just put it on the table. Who made it this time?" Shao asked.
"Myself, Your Grace," the man supplied. "I've already pre-tasted it to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises."
You bet. Shao bristled, pushing his body up from the bed that currently felt like a dead weight. Dismissing Chef Zhang, he propped himself against the wall.
Before falling despicably ill, the last few weeks of training were a mundane business for him, mainly because he had known, even mastered, whatever Li Shang was teaching the rest of the recruits. Now he was weak, bedridden, physically incapacitated to perform any strenuous physical activity, he had no choice but to fill his time with nothing but reading and thinking.
All because of that idiot Fa Ping , Shao thought ruefully. That harmless, delicate looking, soldier in disguise. The revelation that there was a girl infiltrating the camp kept plaguing him and filling his mind with atrocious scenarios of why she was here.
At first, he suspected that Fa Ping must have attempted a vendetta on him because of the bath time travesty a fortnight ago. She must have deciphered that he knew her secret, hence voluntarily decided to eliminate him to keep his mouth shut. But after seeing her clumsy attempt to catch a fish where she ended up catching Yao's toe instead, her tactical cheat in planting the tomato on the arrow before actually firing it, her catastrophic canon aiming ability that had turned Chi-Fu's tent to dust―her blunder of mistaking pig feed for bean bun paste wasn't that far fetched.
Perhaps she is just plain stupid. Shao ran a palm down over his face. He wished he had never discovered the information about Fa Ping being a woman, but it was something that he couldn't un-see.
If that girl in disguise isn't Fa Ping, then… who is she? Shao wondered, cogs and wheel turning over in his mind.
From his peripheral vision, he saw her. He took a mental note when the girl gawked openly the moment Captain Li abandoned his robe. She was turning bright red and looking positively abashed when the Captain touched her hand to correct her stance. It was no news that Captain Li was a handsome man. It was kind of natural for any girl to be irrepressibly flustered around him. Perhaps, if Shao was a woman, he would find Shang equally irresistible, especially knowing that he was married . Which spelled out experienced-in-bed . He nearly burst out laughing at his own ridiculous thoughts.
Suddenly, a revelation dawned upon him. His eyes darted towards a bunch of recruits who were still grunting and groaning under Shang's ruthless training regime. From his vantage point, Ping was there, drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. Despite her struggle to follow Shang's order, there was an undeniable longing look in her eyes, as though… she knew him.
Yes, she knew him.
As soon as their business was done, the throng of Imperial Army soldiers left the camp. Mulan watched them as they were hoisted on to their war horses, with sashes and crests decorating their military uniforms, marching gallantly while holding their banner and ensigns. Mulan wondered if they would be that imposing by the end of their training. But, at the moment, she wasn't worried about training…
"You summoned me, Captain?" Beyond his calm, collected voice, Shang could see the recruit's tense shoulders and chagrined expression lurking underneath. Was he even breathing?
Mulan cringed mentally, preparing for impact. What she had learned in the past week of her husband’s inhumane training was that he would not thrift mercy for punishment. While she had no idea why Shang may have invited her presence, she was certain her demise was near.
"At ease," he commanded.
Shang saw his brother-in-law’s poised stature relax slightly, and a relieved sigh expelled lightly from his lips.
"Yes, Fa Ping. I wish to discuss something privately with you," Shang said tonelessly, visage grave and serious.
Ping looked apprehensive again until Shang reassured him. "Don't worry. You are not in any kind of trouble." The lines around his eyes eased when he saw how much the boy reminded him of his wife but then returned when he began to speak.
"I heard you are Fa Zhou's son. You must have remembered me. I am Li Shang, your brother in law." He paused, giving some time to assess his memory of the boy that he had met briefly on his wedding day and during Fa Li's illness.
Apprehensive that Shang would blow her cover, Mulan began to showcase all the display of masculinity that she had rehearsed with Ling and Chien-Po.
"Oh, of course, I remember you, Captain." Ping jutted his chest out, flashing what was supposed to be a cavalier smile before expectorating to his side. Shang's eyes widened, he didn't know whether he should laugh, cry or rebuke the young man for vulgarly spitting inside his makeshift office, burlesquing what he supposed was a display of masculinity. Boy, Chi-Fu was right. This boy is… odd.
Mulan immediately realized that the Captain was less than convinced with her false bravado of manliness. Clearing her throat, she feigned a low, husky voice. "And you were saying?" Tentatively, she shifted her weight from one foot to another, finding his very close, penetrating gaze very unnerving. "Captain?"
"Ah yes," Shang immediately sobered. "I had received a report from Chi-Fu about your… difficulty in blending with the residents here, especially the Prince of Wei," Li Shang disclosed sternly.
Mulan knew which incident Chi-Fu had reported her for, not to mention she had accidentally caused that spoilt-royal-brat to miss his training because of severe food poisoning.
"I will accept any punishment, Captain. But I refuse to apologize for the altercation with the Prince of Wei on my first day. I had not done any wrong for advocating what is right."
This time, there was no masculine exaggeration nor feigned haughtiness, only a genuine conviction and confidence in his bearing as he drove those words home. Shang allowed himself to nod in acquiescence. He was aware of Chi-Fu's visceral inclination to entertain the influential people even when it meant embracing unfairness, corruption, and nepotism. So far there was hardly anyone inferior who dared to defy his command. Ping was the first, and Shang applauded him for that.
"Ok, points taken," Shang nodded. "However, aren't you a little too young to join the army? I remember your sister told me you are about eight years younger than her. That makes you… eleven?"
"She must have mentioned it wrong, Captain. I am fourteen this year. I am aware that the summon was for my father. However, he is disabled and still grieving over the untimely departure of my mother. I am sure you are aware of this, Captain."
Shang squinted his eyes and rubbed his chin as he appraised Mulan's figure from head to toe. Mulan's mind swam with panic as hundreds of voices practically screamed at her in her head. "I have a few childhood friends here who can confirm my age," she asserted further.
"There is no need to," Shang waved his hand.
Perhaps the saying “blood is thicker than water” was true, Ping was like Mulan's bespoke twin. He didn't just share an astonishing degree of likeness to his wife, but the boy’s defiance and unyielding personality matched her to a T as well.
"However, inside this tent, I am your brother-in-law, so if you encounter any difficulties, please do not hesitate to come to me."
Mulan wanted a moment longer listening to his rich baritone voice that seemed to echo in her head. Alas, their meeting was cut off by a polite cough from outside the tent. Chi Fu, a man with a well-established reputation as the most intrusive interloper as well as the destroyer of a critically romantic moment, Mulan berated mentally.
"I'm afraid I have other matters to attend to," Shang said, closing the meeting.
"Of course, Captain."
Mulan stood up and prepared to leave, only to stop at the sensation of sudden warmth as a hand pressed into her lower back. She quickly turned and was face to face with an earnest expression and dark brown eyes that she almost never saw of him. That was almost more startling. Shang offered a soft smile.
"I won't give up on you, Ping. So, don't give up on me."
His words stung her heart, although Mulan knew Shang didn't mean the words quite the way she thought of them, it didn't make the reality harder to accept. Mulan shrugged him off, feeling overwhelmed by their proximity. She knew, if she stared at those kind eyes one second too long, she would've burst into sobs.
The dose of fresh air outside the tent seemed to clear Mulan’s clouded mind. Once she had a firm hold on her emotions, she quickly replied.
"Captain, I appreciate your concern. I will try my best and do you proud."
"If you want extra training, I will be by the lake after sundown."
Mulan, once again, was left dumbfounded. It wasn't as though the training every day was not tiring and strenuous enough for both of them, but she'd be lying if the thought of having extra time alone with Shang wasn't appealing. But this was why she wanted to distance herself from the captain during the course of her training! It didn't take long for her to find herself completely at his mercy, yet again. Mulan had hoped that her physical transformation to a man in disguise would mean she would finally be free of the mental baggage that consumed her. She could deal with this at home, back where she played the role of subservient wife. Yet, here she was, feeling as though she were falling all over again. She needed to stop this nonsense, it was so unfitting in the nuance of war and death.
"Thank you Captain, but I think at the moment I can do nicely on my own," Mulan replied, bowing her head down and forcing the words out her mouth. Mulan dared not show her face as it would probably betray whatever confusing emotion that was currently tugging at her heart.
Shang rewarded her with the kindest smile she ever saw from him, and she was a new bride once again, feeling him embracing her with his strong, protective arms.
Darn it.Mulan cursed herself as she dusted her hands off on her trousers as he gave her leave to join her friends.
If Mulan thought she could deceive her own father, a famous war strategist, long enough to eventually allow her to complete her training, then she was wrong.
Two weeks after her ploy to leave her home without suspicion, Fa Zhou was preparing to fulfill his duty and represent his household on the frontline. He tidied the Emperor’s conscription and went about retrieving his armor from the storage cabinet―it was then he discovered that the key was missing.
After spending many hours digging through the mess in the desk drawers and other places he knew he might have put it, his young son, Ping came forward and timidly admitted he had the key. Fa Zhou nearly had a cardiac arrest when he discovered his armor and sword were both gone. At first Fa Ping went on to say someone claiming to be an old colleague of his, had borrowed them forcefully while he was out. It took Fa Zhou another two weeks of research trying to locate the bogus vigilante before he realized that it was a decoy, a distraction that caused him to waste more of his time.
Then, his next finding confirmed his suspicion. After inspecting his summon letter, despite the impeccable strokes and the same emblem imprinted on the letterhead, he noticed the wax sealant bore a slightly crooked insignia. Other than that, he applauded the forged work that could even have riddled him into believing it was the original summons out of the Emperor's office.
And he knew just who, in his household, was capable of creating such a masterpiece. Sometimes, he wondered whether his decision to let Mulan pursue higher education and martial arts had actually been a wise decision after all.
After putting his eleven-year-old boy on the line of interrogation, Ping admitted, his sister had crafted the plan so that he didn't have to go to war. Fa Zhou swore he should've been more well-acclimated to his daughter's conspiracies, especially one that involved her rather gullible, naive little brother. Perhaps age and prolonged absence from war had turned his brain soft.
But now, Mulan had been with the regiment for more than a month…
He asked the walls around him. "Oh ancestors, what have I done wrong to raise her."
He had been indulgent in his own way to Mulan, and his mother had encouraged that. He had paved the way for her to become the woman she was today; a woman who actively sought independence, questioned her place in Society, challenged for fairness and would not hesitate to verbalize her opinions. Mulan's life would've been very different had she been born a man. But right now, as a woman, she had repeatedly created a scene and unwanted controversy.
But isn't that what people say? That the world is always filled with mysteries―conundrums of life, that eventually would teach them a lesson in due time? Failure and opposition are what makes us stronger. He remembered imparting those exact words to Mulan when she fell on her first horse ride. But, how could he honestly expect his daughter, an inexperienced young woman, to pull off the deception she had undertaken for the duration of a war? What if her real identity was discovered? What if her body was left on a battlefield, what would people say? A woman impersonating a soldier was a grave offense, and death would never erase that stigma.
"Stop borrowing trouble from the future, foolish old man," he rebuked himself and set to practicing his rusty martial art form to distract his mind. He grabbed his old bo staff.
Outside the window, the land looked deceptively tranquil under the light of the silver moon above. A thin mist had rolled up from the valley but had begun to dissipate as the night deepened. He remembered how he spent another moonlit night after an exhausting day―in the arms of his beloved, and his sight lingered on the sentimental memorabilia sitting in the alcove of his room. The picture of his wife smiled serenely back from the parchment, post amid a burst of soft lilac and pink background and dressed in a vivid yellow qipao, her favorite color. And a fond conversation surfaced to his memory.
It was a lovely autumn day and their little family together with Grandma Fa had just returned home from the temple. Mulan turned five that day, and their family had given their homage at the nearby temple. Grandma Fa was still at the family shrine, praying to their ancestor for her granddaughter's prosperous life and future full of blessings ahead.
Fa Li sat under the plum tree, watching her daughter exuberantly play about the courtyard. Mulan pranced into her favorite training spot, kicking her shoes from her soles, straight away before picking up the wooden sword and making all sorts of dramatic battle cries against some invisible enemy.
" I can't believe she is five and she... ― "
" ...can hold her sword better than her chopsticks?" Fa Zhou supplied, depositing himself beside her.
" That has me worried," she exasperated. "What kind of man would want to marry her?"
Her unmistakably worried expression made the entire scene funnier than it already was.
" Fa Li…." He shook his head, biting his lips to curb the rising laughter. "Mulan is just five. Don't you think it's a little early to think about the right suitor?"
That got her smiling."You are right," she said, snaking her arm around his and leaning on his broad shoulder. "Funny though, I have a feeling she will marry well."
That sparked his urged to tease."Even better than you?"
He heard her forging a fake noise of annoyance. "I don't know what you are talking about."
In between their dialogue, another small voice was heard.
" Now! Say you forfeit or I chop off your head!" Mulan declared in a pretentious, booming tone. She stood, wielding her sword menacingly at one of the apple trees. Fa Zhou recognized his old robe among the branches, and a faint trace of chalk on the bark made it looked like a wounded man.
" Oh please spare me, General Fa Mulan!" Mulan announced again with a squeaky, fearful voice.
" Good! Now you better eat your green vegetables so you can grow to be as strong as me! HIYA!"
In that moment he couldn't control himself and burst out laughing. Fa Li slapped his shoulder lightly to remind him that his boisterous laugh had invited Mulan's attention. After the awkward episode of Mulan asking, "What's so funny, Baba?" and him trying to give her a vague answer without lying or hurting his daughter's warrior pride, Mulan returned to weave another fictitious tale of glory against the army of fruit trees.
" She is just like you, Zhou. Same stubborn look in her eyes, same fiery spirit," his wife said fondly. He feigned an eye-rolling deadpan at the mention of the word 'stubborn.'
" And I say this as a compliment," she amended, nudging him a little with her elbow, completely amused to watch a smile threaten to break his stern mask.
" I think your definition of compliment needs a little revisit," he countered, still donning a mirthless face despite the rising desire to laugh.
A feminine giggle escaped her lips. "No, I mean it. You are the best man I ever married. Not that I ever married anyone else."
" Not even that handsome bachelor that your mother said had delicious abs? What was his name again, Hong-Wei? Hong-Hei?"
" No…" She laughed harder before returning her attention to their daughter, who was still deeply embroiled in her own fantasy. "I managed to convince my parents I don't need a husband with nice abs."
"I need to thank you for that," he said, smiling warmly. They both sat like that in silence, breathing together, feeling each other's hands while watching their daughter in the distance. Yes, Mulan was the personification of their love, proof that their ancestors were well-pleased with their union, if only she was a boy…
" Thank you for refusing to take another wife who would give you a son," Fa Li suddenly said, breaking the silence.
He laced his fingers with hers, letting the warmth filter through his heart.
" Thank you for giving me a daughter, Fa Li-Juan. Somehow, I know… I can feel right here," he said, putting their entwined hands atop of his heart. "That she will make us prouder than any sons could."
His wife smiled warmly at that.
" However, I do worry about… about our family, our future…," he added after a pause.
Fa Li disentangled her hands from his, looking apprehensive. "What do you mean?"
" I am constantly involved in battles. Facing death and uncertainty is my daily meal. What if, one day I… ― "
A touch of her soft lips on his halted his words.
" Don't let fear stop you from living, Zhou. I know how much you love what you do," she explicated. "And you are very good at it. Not to mention that this country and its people have benefited from your skill and bravery."
He looked at her, and at that point he knew, he was an extremely lucky man. Her dedication had transcended their loveless beginning. Her devotion and patience had covered so many flaws and bridged so much brokenness. Her love surged beyond his expectation. She had created for him a place he could call home ― a sanctuary, a place where his soul found solace.
" Do you know why I fell in love with you?" he smirked at her. He could see his wife turning pink to the tips of her ears and swiftly averted her sight back to their daughter who was just winning another imaginary battle.
" You always know the right string to pull, the right words to say at the right time. And that's how you've made a passageway through my iron heart."
His heart mellowed at once. Fa Li-Juan. Her smile was like a warm wave lapping and wrapping around his tired soul. Her voice had soothed his aches and pains from war. But she was no longer here, her memory was.
"Fa Li, help me to keep our daughter safe."
After a moment of retrospection, Fa Zhou stood up in front of the altar. Anger would do little to repair whatever blunder his son had unknowingly embroiled himself in.
"Ping…," he breathed. The young boy emerged from behind the door, wringing his hands and biting his lips nervously.
"Why don't you find a messenger to send my message to Master Shen, the ironsmith. Please tell him to procure new armor and a sword for me as quickly as he can. I'll pick it up on my way to Chang'an in about two weeks time."
With a reticent nod, the young boy departed with a regretful glance in his direction. But he stopped at the threshold of the door.
"Baba…" he said, sucking in a breath before meeting his father's eyes. "I hope you understand. It's not like Mulan is a rebellious delinquent. She had her reasons. And believe me, she was scared to death to do this."
Some long dormant empathy stirred deep within in him. Fa Zhou smiled, wrapping his arms around his son slowly. "I know, Son."
Two weeks went by quickly, and Fa Zhou's departure was at hand. By the moon gate of their property, he bid farewell to his son and mother. Surprisingly, their exchange was a lot easier than he thought it would be. There were hardly any tears, perhaps because everyone was more concerned about Mulan's situation than thinking of the war itself.
"I'll go to her encampment and pass a message to Shang," he said. "I promise you that I will do everything to keep her safe," he appended as he mounted his white steed.
A year ago, Fa Zhou might have been downright angry at Mulan's reckless resolution. But his wife's death, having touched the fabric of the veil…he had finally come to the understanding that there was so much more out there than just duty and survival. The death of a loved one could make even the most renowned hero humble and willing to accept the thoughtful sacrifice of others.
His train of thought was interrupted by a call.
"Venerable Fa Zhou, your servant at your service," claimed the messenger.
Fa Zhou smiled, pulling a few coins out and handing them to the man. "Thank you. I need you to send a message discreetly to Li Shang, the Captain of the regiment in Shandong. Please tell him to meet me in three days time outside his encampment, right after sundown. The meeting must be held in absolute privacy."
"Yes, Your Venerable."