The night wore on, long and silent. But not for Shang. His mind was actively replaying the Ling's narration. But was it even possible? Ping was so young… innocent...and he was hardly came across as a person who….—
"Captain Li!" Shang was barely asleep when Chi-Fu was back rapping his tent entrance and harassing him with his throaty yell.
"Captain Li! Captain Li! Wake up!" Chi-Fu blustered, upbeat. "Let me introduce you," he barged in without caring that Shang was shirtless.
Shang jumped out of his bed, rubbing his eyes, dizzy and confused. Then a stench of alcohol and coffee hit him. No doubt Chi-Fu had been binge drinking while brewing his plan all night.
"This is Miss Meihui," Chi-Fu said, signalling the person to remove the hood from her head while Shang, still dazed, frantically tried to put on his robe back on.
"Wha-what?" Shang's brow jumped to his hairline, aghast. He was nearly speechless—Chi-Fu took a woman to the camp full of males? And into his tent? "I… —I don't get this," he choked. "I have never called for..—It must've been a mistake!"
"Captain Li, I know you are married. She is not… —Not for that," Chi-Fu laughed, the rice wine made him delirious. "She is your accomplice."
"Accomplice?" Shang blinked, suspecting Chi-Fu alcohol-addled brain was barely functioning.
"Yes. Accomplice. Remember, our plan?"
Shang's sleep-deprived head finally caught up with him. "Your plan," Shang corrected, remembering Chi-Fu had returned to his tent again after Ling had left and babbled until past midnight about his scheme. The old advisor had been crafting a plan that Shang would disguise himself and went undercover as a traveller from the south who was seeking job opportunity in Xi'an.
"I'm afraid I don't require anyone, Chi-Fu. I am not an invalid. I am perfectly capable of holding myself in a busy marketplace," Shang said flatly. "And by the way, I would like to remind you that this encampment is out of bounds for women…—" he glanced at the girl and back to Chi-Fu, glaring. "...By death penalty—order of the Emperor."
Chi-Fu snickered, low and throaty. "Captain Li, let me remind you. Yes, the Son of Heaven was the one who signed the rule, but I—underline that word—was the one who made them. And...look at you!" He ran his skinny finger, pointing up and down Shang's figure. "You think you are not noticeable and blend in well with majority of other people?" he scoffed. "Now...you tell me, in this encampment alone, apart of the Prince of Wei, who is as tall, strong and… and…—"
"Handsome...able-bodied...," Meihui butted in. When both men looked at her questioningly, she just shrugged her shoulder. "...I am just pointing what's obvious."
"Thank you Miss Meihui," Chi-Fu scowled at her before turning back to Shang. "What I mean is, you don't look like another average, normal people."
"As if you were," Shang muttered sarcastically. Thankfully Chi-Fu was too engrossed with own thoughts to be able to hear him. "And how can Miss Meihui here can help me to get less… less tall, muscular and handsome?" Shang said, crossing his arms.
Chi-Fu blew an impatient breath through his nostril, mumbling something intelligible to himself before gaining his prideful posture. "So, Miss Meihui will pose as your sister, girlfriend or whatever, so that at least people will be less suspicious."
"Less suspicious," Shang parroted, rolling his eyes.
"Think about this. Why does a man like you wandering around, alone in the market full of women doing their weekly shopping? Most other men your age are wielding their swords in the battlefield," Chi-Fu demanded. "And I bet you won't even know what to buy!"
Shang fell silent. He quietly admitted Chi-Fu did have a point. He eyed both Chi-Fu and Meihui respectively. "Then why don't you go to spy on the Prince instead of me? It will be a far better arrangement since I don't have to abandon the training."
"I…—" Horrified look fell on Chi-Fu's face. Just as I guessed, Shang smirked inwardly. He was just a manipulative coward who wanted the credit without getting his own hands dirty. "I can't… I have to be here if the Emperor suddenly summon me."
Summon your ass maybe—Shang thought sardonically, but he held his silence, not wanting to disparage the councillor and made him looked ridiculous in front of an outsider. "...And does Miss Meihui has no objection taking part in this espionage?" Shang asked.
"No. I've discussed a method of payment that will be sufficient for her," Chi-Fu replied with a mischievous wink that made Shang's stomach churn. Meihui blushed furiously. "She only needs a small favour from you, Captain."
This made Shang felt uncomfortable. "Favor from... me?"
"Don't worry, her wish isn't difficult to fulfil, I assure you," Chi-Fu grinned, displaying an array of crooked teeth. When Shang stepped backwards and looked a little unsure, Chi-Fu pressed on. "You want to solve the puzzle of our mysterious Prince, don't you, Captain Li? Granting her wish is a small price to pay for a bigger good. Yes?"
Shang drew a sigh. "Why are you torturing me like this?"
Chi-Fu laughed. "Because I can."
Mulan yawned as she made it back to the reporting post. She was on the final round of her patrol that morning. The dusk broke in the sky, and the fog still covered the ground like a blanket. Ling was trailing a distance behind her. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of Qing, fixed on the willow tree by the banks of the river, a good distance away from the encampment.
Is Shang about to go somewhere this early? She thought. Her curiosity carried her to Shang's tent, which was pitch a reasonable distance away from Shao's. But by all means, both tents were at the far corner of the ground, away from the noise and cacophony of the communal tent and training field.
Chi-Fu appeared and already calling out with his throaty voice outside Shang's tent door. It was clear Prince of Wei was gone, or otherwise, he would have scolded the old councillor for disturbing his peaceful slumber.
And then something unexpected happened. And a woman, in her twenties, come out of his tent. She looked like she just woken up from her slumber, hair still everywhere and her sleeping robe was poorly secured.
"Miss Meihui, how's your sleep?"
"Not very long, but surprisingly very good," she said politely and flushed when she realised Chi-Fu had already donned in his formal wear. "I am a little late, am I… ? Captain Li..—?"
Her statement caused Mulan's body to react. Captain Li…—? Did she…—? She felt panicked, short of breath like the ground around her swallowing her whole.
"Oh, you mean Captain Li? He is an early riser. He has waited on the training field for you," Chi-Fu said, giving her a meaningful smirk that felt like a stab to Mulan's heart. "Take your time to primp up yourself. Your man can't see you when you are like this… can he? We'll see you when you are ready."
What is she doing there…—? And most importantly, has Shang…?
No, said another voice in her head. Do you really want to know?
And for the first time in her life, Mulan felt something hot, ugly, scorching in her chest, rising up her throat, burning her eyes. Surely, she can't be jealous of the woman, can she? Mulan was unwillingly sleeping with Shang given the chance. Why was she having such a visceral mental response now? Why? She demanded, clutching her hand on her chest. Why do I feel this way?
The answer bubbled at the edge of her conscious mind until the utter panic drew it back down.
Mulan ran into the nearby coppice, kneeling by the edge of the brook. She took a generous scoop of water with her palm and splashed her face. The coldness of water seemed to appease the piercing pain in her heart, but only to have it stung harder the next seconds.
Has Shang...cheated? The twisting feeling came back again until she thought she was about to die.
This has to stop! She commanded. Stop! Stop! You foolish girl!
"Ping!" Ling's voice echoed in the distance.
Mulan took a few deep breaths and gradually stood. She looked at her reflection at the surface of the water, steeling her face until no sign of distress was visible. She breathed and tried to find her centre. Calm...calm...calm, she chanted to herself.
"Yes?" she said without meeting Ling's eyes.
"Are you coming to the sparring practice?" Ling said from beside her.
"Of course, I'll...I'll catch you up later."
Thankfully Ling went past without further questioning. Once she felt she had reined her emotion, she went to join the others at the training field, where all the men gathered around the circle, watching the spar. Shang was already there, leading the warm-up. And then he announced that he needed a few volunteer and Mulan suddenly saw her chance.
Shang had forced himself to lead the warming up and join the recruits to run a full circle across the circumference of the encampment although his sleep-deprived body was begging him for rest. And sharing a tent with Chi-Fu didn't help him one bit. That man snored like a wheat grinder. It's no wonder that he had stayed single!
After the warming up, he commanded everyone to stand in formation while he stepped forward, abandoning his robes. "Let's begin our training by demonstrating an example of unexpected ambush. Imagine if you were walking alone, and suddenly a few Huns guerillas attacked you from unknown directions. You have no weapon, except one that you happen to hold on your hand. And what would you do? I will need five recruits for this exercise."
Five volunteers stepped forward. Shang was surprised to see Ping jumped in front of the queue with no hesitation. Considering the boy had just finished his shift of long night patrol, he could only imagine the similar kind of exhaustion and sleepiness that were eating him. But Shang wasn't about to prevent him from joining the drill.
The stage was set. Chef Zhang picked up his flute, while Shang sat cross-legged on the ground, closing his eyes and listened, waiting for the attack. The flute was a favour to them. It dulled Shang's well-trained hearing. Without it, they won't stand a chance.
One man came from behind him, Shang swiped his leg and elbowed his gut as the poor guy fell on the ground. Two men climbed the trees and jumped on him at once, Shang caught each of their legs and angled them to each other's face. Another man came from his front, but flip over last minute, trying to pile drive him. Shang simply moved away.
Suddenly, Ping was upon him like a wall of fire.
He charged at him with ferocity. Like he meant it. Shang was shocked, but recovered quickly, blocking all his punch and kicks.
"Good Ping, good," he said, hoping to placate him, but it seemed only making the boy angrier. He swiped at Shang, attempted to hit his vital organs, growling. Shang blocked, and Ping swiped at him with his other hand, the force of rage behind his strike.
Ping! Stop! What happened to you? Shang looked at him with befuddlement and grunted when one of Ping's punch hit his gut, but Ping didn't slow down one bit, as though he was purposely ignoring him.
Ok, you asked for it.
Shang waited patiently for a chance to strike. And finally, when Ping was about to deliver a powerful punch, Shang managed to catch his fist with one hand and grab his collar with another. He picked the boy up, throw him to the ground face first. And before Ping had a chance to recover, he twisted the other arm behind his back and planted his heel on the name of Ping's neck, pinning him immobilised at the ground.
The crowd cheered, and after a moment Shang released the boy.
"Great energy, Ping, excellent!" he said. Ping rose to his feet and saluted him without meeting his eyes.
"You'd all take the example from Ping's relentlessness," Shang said to the direction of the crowds.
"Yes Captain," the rest chorused.
"Now we are going to learn hand to hand combat with both of our hand tied."
Mulan could hear Shang's voice as the training went on. She crawled to the back of the crowd as soon as Shang dismissed her, hand nursing the spot where she landed right on the hard ground. She knew challenging Shang on a spar was a risky move and could have a serious, detrimental effect should she was really pregnant, but at that moment at the time, her brain was like clouded with haze of anger and jealousies that she couldn't think straight.
Oh, stop being such a child, she chastised herself. What if nothing happened between them last night? And what if this was Chi-Fu's order? You know what he's like.
"Now, I will need another volunteer. How about you Yao? Please come forward." Shang's voice rang behind the cheer of the crowds. "Jing, please take the rope in the weapon tent."
Mulan was wiping her cheek with a wet cloth when she happened to capture the sight of Meihui, concealing herself behind the trees as she watched the spar from a distance to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the recruits. She was wearing a dark-coloured cloak, but Mulan could still see her face. Her delicate hand flutter over her heart, her eyes sparkling, her face flushed, looking at the men in combat with enough admiration and desire that could melt an iceberg.
The twisted pain on her chest was back, but Mulan found she couldn't look away. She watched as Meihui gasped in her small worried-tinged voice when Shang got punched, or cheer with absolute adoration as he concluded the match.
Mulan was so engrossed in observing Meihui that she didn't realise the sparring session was over and Shang came over. Meihui saluted and paid him with a gratuitous smile that reached far into her eyes. Shang returned her smile.
Mulan was taken aback. Shang had almost never smiled. It was almost like a rare commodity. That unpleasant twisting feeling began a new.
"That was an amazing performance," the woman told Shang a little breathlessly.
"You saw your man?" Shang asked, his voice loud and smooth and cut perfectly through the silence.
Mulan gritted her teeth. Your man? she nearly shouted. Did he just call himself 'your man'?
Meihui nodded, blush spreading to her ear. "Yes, of course, I could hardly take my eyes off him!"
"I bet you do," he said, throwing her another smile.
The two were talking, and Chi-Fu came interrupting. "Are you two ready?" The old man rubbed his hand together expectantly. Meihui nodded and glanced briefly to Shang who picked up his stuff from the ground. Chi-Fu grinned, his tobacco-stained teeth looking ugly. "So, let's the show begin."
Chi-Fu, Shang and Meihui talked and headed to the back of the encampment where Qing was. Mulan couldn't hear what they said without getting noticed, but she got the idea by watching their wordless gesture.
She peeked between the gap on the nearby shrub, careful not to make any sound that would trigger Shang's cat-like hearing. Chi-Fu handed him two sacks, one of which Mulan recognised as Shang—she had packed it right before he left their home. Shang helped to secure their belonging before mounting himself on Qing.
"Uh, how do I…—" Meihui looked at the towering beast. Her hands clutched tightly on her chest, looking fragile and terrified. It was clear to Mulan that the girl had no idea how to ride a horse, she was even afraid of one!
Shang ran his fingers on Qing's mane affectionately. "Don't worry. She won't bite."
Meihui seemed to relax at his reassurance. Shang signalled her to come close and patted Qing on her side. Meihui took a few careful steps, cautiously touched Qing's pelt and she laughed in amazement once her finger made contact with her fur. "She is… so soft!"
"I groom her every day," Shang said simply.
"You two better go now to catch up with Prince of Wei," Chi-Fu announced.
Suddenly the look of something akin to uncertainty cascaded over Shang's face. "Venerable Chi-Fu, are you sure you can…—?"
"Captain Li," the old man said with a dose of irritation. "I've been working with men way longer than you. Trust me. I'll keep them busy and out of trouble while you're gone."
Shang considered his answer. He was still completely unconvinced, but he also knew he had no other choice. "Fine," Shang resigned and turned his attention to the woman. "Miss Meihui do you need…—?"
"Some help? Yes. Yes of course."
"Placed your foot on this stirrup here, and I'll help you up," Shang told her. And then he stretched his hand. Meihui did as she was told, and Shang pulled her up with his strength and mounted her in front of him.
"Better?" he asked, sensing Meihui was still a little petrified.
"I…—" she stuttered. "Don't worry. I will be. It's just I need to get used to being this...high."
Suddenly a buzzing bee startled Qing and caused the stallion to jerk forward. Surprised, Meihui lost her balance, and it was down to Shang's excellent reflex that saved her falling out of her grace.
"Oh!" Meihui yelped.
Yeah, pulling the dainty-little-lady's card thing. Very clever. Mulan thought ruefully.
"Don't worry he got you," Chi-Fu chuckled amusedly and turned to Shang and said in faux-seriousness. "Captain Li, will you make sure you returned Miss Meihui to her parent's house in one piece?"
Meihui laughed as she thanked Shang and Shang seemed to pleasantly enjoy her company, pulling her closer to him, securing her in between his arms.
Mulan suddenly felt as though she been thrown into the ground again, twice as hard. Something about Meihui sitting between Shang's arms, about his gesture of protectiveness, about the delicate way he smiled at her….that made Mulan breathless and shaky with anxiety. She stepped away from the shrub, her breath ragged. Panic, sadness, rage, all came to her at once.
She raced through the limit of the encampment unto the woods and to the clearing where she usually spent her time alone.
Mulan arrived on her usual "contemplating" spot and sighed in relief when she found no one there. She stayed there, sitting by the tree for hours, skipping her lunch… and perhaps her dinner. She had no idea where and why Shang was going. She only got a hint that he would be gone for more than a day, as the size of his bag suggested, spending his time alone with Meihui.
Yes, Meihui seemed to be a sweet, peace-loving girl with a small voice and gentle smile. She probably dabbed rose oil behind her ears and perfumed the sheets, and danced with fans, wore beautiful lingerie, and went limp at his touch… and Shang probably loved it!
The hysteria rose in her again. The pain and agony were like a thorn in her flesh. She was surprised by the intensity of it.
Mulan turned her attention to the pebble underneath her feet. She took one large one and threw it to the water with all her might. The stone bounced and leapt before sinking into the water with a satisfying thud. The action seemed to release part of the sadness that strangled her heart.
Isn't that great? Finally, you have a reason to truly hate him! said the unspoken voice in her head.
You feel this way because you love him! Admit it! Replied another. You love every inch of him! Gods, the memories still tinged—the memories of his hard, muscular body pressed against hers. Although it had been weeks since they shared a bed, those nights seemed to have imprinted themselves like a tattoo in her mind. But once the physicality of sex and the intimacy of his touch were no longer readily accessible to her, it became clear to her that it was Shang's heart she desired.
Oh, you foolish girl! You are wasting your time! He will never appreciate you. A girl like you will never be his perfect bride!
Mulan massaged her temple, attempting to drive the contradicting argument away. She resented Shang for wanting her to be like other women—subservient and obedient. It didn't make any sense. Shang spent his life crafting warrior! He should love a brave, strong-willed woman—not a pampered, dainty ornament that had no understanding in the world of men.
"Hi Girl! I've been looking everywhere for you," greeted Mushu who suddenly transpired out of nowhere. "Ugh, what's with that sour face?"
"Liar," he said. Jumping to the ground in front of her so he could see her face clearly. "Tell me. What's eating you?"
When it was clear Mulan wasn't going to tell him, Mushu pulled out a crystal ball out of nowhere and mumbled something foreign.
"You can…—You are a fortune teller now?" Mulan marvelled, finding herself sidetracked from whatever agonising stab she had been experiencing.
"Oh, you just knew?" Mushu said cockily. "I came from a long line of a creature with a gift of sight!"
Mulan crossed her arms and eyed him sceptically. "Is that come together with a gift of talking nonsense?"
"Fine...fine, it's mostly bullshit and cold reading," Mushu admitted. "But the odd thing I was quite often right! Now, tell me, isn't it Captain Handsome that caused you this profound torment?"
Mulan didn't answer, but the heavy sigh and her slumping posture did.
"Oh... so I am right. Again," Mushu said, clicking his tongue. "Care to share?"
After minutes of persuasive cajoling, Mulan finally cracked and told the little deity everything.
"Well, don't arrive at any conclusion just yet. The woman might be… might be…—"
"Sleeping with him?" Mulan deadpanned.
"No. I mean…—Look, Chi-Fu was there too. What if that woman related to him and not Shang?"
"Do you really think that even possible?" Mulan scowled."Mushu, she is third of his age!"
"Hey, are you sayin' old man aren't attractive? I am thousands of years old and I…—"
"She came out of Shang's tent!" Mulan cut him impatiently, more suspicion and jealousy piling up, poisoning her mind. By now all she wanted was finding evidence that Shang was indeed the cheater her mind had extrapolated him to be. "What else can that be?"
"But...but Shang didn't come out from his tent with her, right? Wait—what's that bruise?"
Mulan quickly obscured the assaulted spot with her hand. "It's…. It's nothing." But it was too late, Mushu was all over her.
"Oh, dear ancestor! Who did that?" Mushu exclaimed as he checked. When she just pursed her lips, he gasped. "Did… did Shang did this?"
"It was…—" Mulan buried her face in her palms. "It was my fault. I was having a serious go at him at the spar. And he…—," she sighed. "He was just defending himself."
"What? You'd challenged him at the spar? Oh, dear Guan Kim, you can get yourself seriously hurt! And what if the baby….—" Mushu slapped his claws to his head. "Your ancestor would never forgive me!" He went with his worry-induced babble.
"But it does feel good when I managed to punch his gut just now," Mulan mumbled to herself.
"Please remind me, don't ever make a woman jealous," Mushu mumbled while giving her bruise a closer look. "Man, this will leave a mark for weeks!"
"I'm fine Mushu, it's just a scrape," she said, anger and hatred were gone in exchange for deep sorrow. "I just..—I don't understand," Mulan sighed, sounding defeated. "Why he actually like to be around… around….a feminine nonsense."
"A feminine nonsense?" Mushu's frowned. "Mulan, that girl is just being… a girl!"
That rubbed Mulan's frayed nerves. "He was smiling at that girl, Mushu. Smiling!"
"Is that wrong…. To smile?" Mushu looked even more puzzled.
"You are aware that Shang thrifts his smile to the important occasion?" Mulan bit back.
"But the girl smiled and thanked him! What do you think he supposed to do? Give her an ugly frown? It's called being polite!"
It was a fair point, but Mulan—twined in the feeling of Shang's betrayal—wasn't about to back down just yet. "He can just say 'your welcome' and walk off!"
"Are you for real?" Mushu threw his arms in the air. But the feeling of pity came upon him to see Mulan, curled under the ancient tree, hugging her knees with her arms, looking small, hurt and broken.
"Girl, I think you are overthinking things," he rubbed her shoulder in a soothing motion. "I know I may be outrageously dense and outright insensitive," Mushu said, trying to enlighten the mood. "...But having female acquaintances don't automatically conclude a man is having an affair."
Okay, that may be right. Logical and undeniable. But on the other hand, Mulan could not completely rule out the possibility of such thing from happening.
"I don't get it," Mulan said resignedly. "He is a soldier. He spent his life training and crafting men to be like him, eloquent in swordfights, excellent at horse riding, precise in aiming. He loves engaged in physical combat and any sort of confrontation. So why he…—why he resented me for having the same passion as him?"
Mushu rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You see… when Shang married you, he wants you as his wife, not a sparring friend. He had plenty of those here… in the training ground or battlefield. Shang wants you to fulfil other needs….—other needs these men couldn't give him. He doesn't want you to challenge him. He didn't need someone who could throw kick, punch and spar with him. He had done that here all week."
Mulan crossed her arms, "Ah. Got it. He wants a girl who will sate his sex demand and clean the house all day."
"That's not true, because if it is, most men will only marry two type of women—a whore and a housemaid. Dare I say your mother is neither of those, and your father loved her for it," Mushu elaborated.
"Your point is?"
"You see… most men—not all men—but most, want to be needed."
"Needed?" Mulan snorted with a heavy amount of sarcasm. "The last time I told Shang I need him to take the place of my father in the war, he scolded me."
"That's because you don't need him. You want him to take the place of your father," Mushu pointed out. "Think about this, have you see your mother asked your father to help her pick the laundry? Babysitting you and Ping? Or carrying heavy groceries? ...She asked and made a point that she needed him. It may be just petty housework—no big deal, but even little things make your father feels like he is a superhero! He makes her happy! Every man feels damn proud to make a woman happy. So at the end of the day, she is smiling and glad to see him and wants to feed him and take him to bed."
"What about a woman who is capable and can make herself happy?" Mulan balked.
"That's great. I mean some guys are really into that. Believe me, when your ancestor summoned me, I am rather amazed at your self-reliance and independence. But for a traditional guy like Shang, he might think…—if she can do what I do, then what does she need me for?"
"But I am not my mother!" Mulan said bitterly "You'd think that Shang would at least respect me for who I am and not wishing me to be a helpless damsel in distress that would plead him for help in every situation."
"Nah. Girl, you don't get it. Shang didn't despise you for who you are—it's just… he needs time to understand that you are not like any other girl. He needs assurance that although you are a capable woman, you still need him in your life," Mushu said softly. "You see….many men, especially old-fashioned one like Shang, want to be respected. They want to feel they are the one in control, the one who made decisions. Challenging him a spar or a sword fight isn't the way to win an argument with him."
"So, a woman who knows how to challenge a man in a sword fight would never be a perfect bride, is that it?"
"Wo wo wait… —since when is this conversation turning into a discussion about sword fight? It's about having room in your heart for another person, about having some need that the other person can fulfil. You see, you are clever, brave and beautiful, Mulan—I am sure many men, even Shang and his parents can't deny that. That's why they picked you! But before Shang married you, how many men have asked you out or see you more than just a friend material?"
"I…—" Mulan began. Her eyes widened, and she found herself unable to answer.
Mulan gnawed at Mushu's words. Most of the time the foreign deity was speaking with joke and sarcasm, but no, not today. Her mind turned over...and over...and over again, slowly unravelling the puzzle.
Men didn't want strong, capable woman? Is that it?
Then why her father raised her to be the complete opposite of what most men would want? Her mind sat uncomfortably in her mind, hot and angular and nonsensical. She went numb.
Man wants to be needed.
Perhaps Shang's intent had been to confuse her to such an extent she suffered an existential crisis? But….why?
Maybe so that he can have a good excuse for having an extramarital affair.
Mulan would lie if she said she didn't hate Meihui. She knew that there was hardly any evidence to accuse Meihui had seduced Shang or tempted him to commit something immoral. But her mind couldn't help to fill the blank even though it couldn't see any proof otherwise!
The worst of it was because Mulan could see why Shang could have fallen in love with this woman. The way Meihui spoke coyly to him, praised him, blushed in his presence...perhaps made Shang felt like a god! Meihui was beautiful, soft-spoken, dainty and fragile like a rose. She needed a man, a big and strong man to protect her, to help her with her heavy grocery, to help her climbed on her horse and prevented her from falling.
While she? She was likened to a wild orchid—grown freely in the forest, cared nothing of the world. She was strong, resilient and self-sufficient. She would fight for her survival and her existence and owed nothing to no one. But evidently, many men had valued the fragile rose that would wither and die without constant care and protection far more than the tough, sturdy wild orchid.
She looked forlornly to the sky and shouted. "Oh, why do I care?" she asked herself. It's not like we are married out of love, although she knew, somewhere deep in the small, hidden corner of her heart part of her did—the part that wished one day Shang would return her sentiment entirely. Yet, the love she felt was accompanied by an equal hatred, revulsion, all mixed together in a basket of useless, energy-sapping emotion that she could do little about.
You deserve this, foolish girl. He is not the first one to lie. You are. She thought ruefully as Ling's words about her coming clean flashed on her mind. Yes, she was the first one who carried a double life and lying to Shang, to her father, to his family...she was lying to them all. If there was a rift forming between her and Shang, Mulan should blame herself for it. Perhaps none of this mayhem would've happened if she stayed obedient at home and maybe became blissfully unaware of her husband's duplicity.
Mulan looked into a distance, towards the direction of where Shang was heading. The sun painted a golden hue in the late autumn sky. For a moment she considered taking Khan and raced to catch up with him, to apologise and told him everything.
…but she didn't.
It's too late for that, she thought. If she had lost him. She had lost him long ago.
"I know I've said this, but let me said it again. Thank you for allowing me to watch my Yao sparring," Meihui said as she and Shang rode Qing to Xi'an. They made a stopover by the roadside to eat their lunch before continuing the journey.
"I'm glad I could help," Shang said, biting into his lunch.
Meihui smiled but suddenly looked a little troubled. "You won't tell him a word, won't you, Captain Li? If my parents knew…—If Yao knew what I did…—"
"Not a word," Shang raised his free hand as a sign of solemn promise.
"Thank you. I just…—," Meihui sighed in relief. "I know I just met him once… but I," she shook her head, chuckled to herself. "I can't explain it…—I just missed him, you know, being in training and war and all that. I haven't seen him for eight weeks and oh! I don't know how long more my heart could take it if not because of your generosity." She sighed again to the imaginary point on the road, giving it a dopey look.
"It's a win-win trade," Shang said simply, a little taken aback with the intensity of this woman's love to a man she barely knew.
"So, if I may ask...how do you know Venerable Chi-Fu?" Shang asked carefully. He was pretty certain the story of Chi-Fu salvaging a nearly homeless family was a heavily edited version.
"Oh, you see… my mother was a daughter of the Royal Treasurer, a noblewoman if you liked. She was betrothed to someone of equal status and of a similar background, but my mother decided to marry my father, her childhood friend who was just a shoemaker."
"And then….her family disowned her and all her siblings cut ties with her. As a daughter of a rich man, my mother had never learned any real skill for survival. She was designed to marry a man who will make providence for her and her family...lavishly," she said, dejected. "Our family fell into deep poverty, and in this great time of need—my mother considered a desperate measure as far as begging outside the gate of the royal court. This was when she met Chi-Fu, who recognised her familiar face."
"So, Chi-Fu lent her some money?" Shang deducted. He couldn't hide his disbelief.
"Given," Meihui corrected. "Maybe it was out of pity, may be out of passion, I don't know—nonetheless, we are living comfortably now—thanks to him."
Shang fell quiet. He had never seen the selfless, charitable side of the old, naggy councillor that had caused him nothing but trouble.
"How about you?" Meihui returned. "Chi-Fu said that you are married."
"Is she from around here?"
"No. But our fathers were close acquaintances."
"Oh, what an excellent match! Both of you must inherit a good breed," Meihui complimented candidly. "Who's her name?"
"Fa Mulan, the eldest daughter of Fa Zhou."
"Fa Zhou? You mean the great war-strategist Fa Zhou?" Meihui said, impressed. "I know him..—I mean, who didn't know the Tiger of China?"
Shang nodded. He had to admit when his mother first came home and enthusiastically shared the news—it was all sounded perfect—too perfect even. It's almost like a match made in heaven.
"She must be remarkable!" Meihui gushed. "Just like her father."
You have no idea, Shang scoffed had never spoken those words out loud but the million emotion that played across his face did.
"Sorry, did I say something wrong?" Meihui clearly puzzled by Shang's reaction. "I mean, coming from the similar background, she is one of a few qualified women to understand your daily challenge as a leader, right?"
"True…" Shang considered. "Although her stubbornness can often be a trouble sometimes," he blurted out.
"You mean you rather have a girl that only speak whatever things you want to hear? Even... a lie?" Meihui said, her small, soft voice suddenly sounded harrassed and agitated.
"No, no... that's not what I meant," Shang said, slightly surprised with her sharp reaction. "I don't want her to sugarcoat the truth or telling me a lie. All I want is her obedience. Submission. Is that too much to ask?"
This time Meihui nodded and let a dainty chuckle in response to Shang's exasperated plea."Oh… a 'yes-sir' girl will bore you to death, Captain Li. What so interesting about a woman with no opinion? You'll die or boredom."
Shang rolled his eyes. "Try me. I think I'll rather die of boredom."
"Pardon me if this sounded patronising. I know stubbornness can be off-putting. But stubborn also means persistent, tenacious, and never wanting to give up. Stubbornness can be very trying but it is also an amazing attribute." Meihui explained.
"Amazing?" Shang deadpanned.
"Yes. Tell me if I am wrong," Meihui said sagely. "But a stubborn woman like your wife is usually fierce with her feelings and when it comes to things and people she loves, she's all in."
Shang fell silent. His mind recollected every instance how Mulan diligently rehearsed all the womanly etiquette prior to their wedding. He could tell that graceful elegance didn't come naturally to her. Nonetheless, her determination and hard work finally won her perfectionist mother-in-law's stamp of approval. That in itself wasn't an easy feat. And how Mulan vehemently argued him to take the place of her disabled father. She was undoubtedly fierce with her feeling and willing to do anything for the people she loved!
"Perhaps…—Perhaps you are right," Shang relented. From the first day he saw Mulan inside their bridal sedan, he quietly admitted that Mulan possessed some indescribable attributes that he found appealing. He just couldn't figure out what it was. Was it her affinity to challenge him? To speak her mind in earnest?
"I was just… —it's just complicated," he resigned. "I just can't understand her at all."
"It takes time," Meihui placated. "But having a stubborn woman means that she's stubborn about you. And if she loves you—she will love you, no matter what. Just like I was with Yao." She reached her neck and gasped in surprise.
"Oh! I think I've lost my engagement necklace! It must've dropped inside your tent when I was sleeping last night."
Shang rose from his seat, patting his trousers and took Qing's reins. "Don't worry, we'll get it back."
The next day Mulan kept herself busy to prevent her mind wandering off to where Shang was. Unfortunately, it was a futile effort considering there were not many things to do while clueless Chi-Fu left in charge.
The old councillor obviously knew nothing about training. Therefore, in order to keep the soldier occupied, he allowed them to go to the Autumn Fires Festival, set nearby on the foot of Wudan Hill, with the promise everyone returned back to the encampment before midnight—a condition that accepted by the recruits with delight.
"What do people do in Autumn Fires Festival?" Mulan asked aloud when she sat together with other soldiers during meal time. A few recruits exchanged meaningful glances and chuckled quietly until one of them took a pity on her and replied. "It's a festival to basically enjoy the last bit of warmth before winter took over. "
"You should come," said Wu, one of the men with a beard, over his shoulder. "It'll be fun!"
"Big party all tonight until morning!" Chen added.
"That's sound tiring," Mulan said, considering a good night sleep as a rare commodity these days. Why these men found sleepless night enticing was beyond her.
The two men looked at her and chuckled.
"There will be drinks, laughing leaf, magic mushroom, music…—"
"—...and women," Wu pointed out. "Come with us, Ping. It'll be fun!"
"Fun?" Mulan wondered aloud.
"Fun for us, men!" added Chen, smirking pointedly.
"Yes," Wu laughed heartily when she gawked and blushed realized the hidden meaning behind his words. "Oh, Ping. You are so innocent!"
Mulan wondered why she had never of such festivities.
"Consider this is the last indulgence we'll have before the war," Chen said, slapping her shoulder in a friendly way. "I'll show you around, don't you worry."
Mulan considered her option. Under normal circumstances, she won't join this kind of gathering. She could imagine Ling's testy response or Chien-Po's aghast gasp if they knew where she was heading or what kind of company she ran into. But Mulan was still bitten by Shang's betrayal that she made a concession to allow herself to do anything that took her minds off him.
"Okay, I'll come with you."
An hour later, Mulan and a few other recruits set out in a good cheer towards Wudan Hill. About a mile into the clearing, they could hear pounding drums and smell of smoke from a distance away. They were soon joined by more crowds of people from all sort of life: merchants, farmers, prostitutes, bandits, performers…and even a few Huns. One man, in particular, gave her a queer look. Mulan decided to keep her distance.
"Where all these people come from?" she asked gingerly.
"Many places….—Ah, you don't want to know," replied one of the men who happened to stand closest to her. Despite his ragged look—tousled hair that looked like hadn't been washed for months and his spiralling tattoo on the calf of his leg and notorious looking scar on his right cheek—the man was extremely cordial. "Just enjoy the party and do whatever you like, because whatever happens in Wudan, stays in Wudan."
The gathering was nothing short of awe-inspiring. By the centre of the clearing was an enormous bonfire spitting smoke and embers towards the moon. People in various state of inebriation and undress danced around the fire.
Mulan observed. Most of the girls she saw were either prostitutes or performer or something in between. She didn't see anyone normal—like a girl that came with her family or her husband—and it all soon became apparent to her: these people were poor, homeless or criminal, or anyone who didn't want their identity known. From the crowds gathered here, one would easily get an impression that China was a huge underclass in which Mulan had little awareness. However, they seemed happy—laughing, drinking, and dancing. The mood was infectiously cheery.
It was then the stark reality stung her and she began to feel out of place, stunted. The rest of the world was just out there, dancing before her eyes, beating with life, and what had she been doing so far? Cooking in the kitchen until her back broke, living with snappy mother-in-law whose only objective was to grind years of womanly conduct into her skull, and for what? In pursuit of what…?
Was it her husband's acceptance? His affection?... His love?
Whatever it was. It's something she could never have.
How much of the world had she missed out living as this kind of woman? Enslaved by emotion and bonded by the empty hope of love?
The thought put a resolve in her pace. Tonight would be different.
Tonight she would taste life.
The last ray of blazing sun dipped into the depth of horizon. Up in the sky, the star threw a party. The night was chilly but the spirit was high. Mulan saw as her compatriots sat around the table, putting their gamble and sipping their laughing leaf. Then was a few men approaching her, perhaps not in an entirely right state of mind for mistaking her as a woman, but Mulan didn't care.
They looked like soldiers from other regiments, charming, tall, dark and handsome in whom she had every reason to be interested—but it did nothing to her. In fact the more charming, attractive and muscular, the less she liked them.
One of them gallantly offered to get her a drink, which she refused by politely said she had an upset stomach. Albeit looking a little on the tipsy side, the man took her refusal well and soon was found swooning over a bunch of voluptuous dancers who invited him joining to the beat.
She was soon forgotten.
They were all the same, she scoffed quietly. All men are the same, like Shang.
"Hey," a voice behind her grunted. "Sweet boy."
Mulan glanced back over her shoulder. Her heart nearly stopped when she realized it was the Huns man she saw a couple of days ago in Xi'an market. She recalled sending the man on a wild goose chase after accidentally dropped a big clay pottery on the man's toe. Worse, she could see a few of his compatriots lingered around the bonfire, gambling and smoking.
"Y-yes?" she said, putting her tone a pitch louder to obscure her trembling voice.
The man laughed, looked at her up and down and shaking his head. "Now, I totally didn't see this comin'."
"Don't see what?" Mulan braved herself to ask. Despite his burly built like a stereotypical Huns, the guy spoke with surprisingly eloquent Chinese.
The Hun man ignored her question, went to grab his beer pint and drank deeply. "You breakin' bad or something?" he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I mean… most men are here for the girls, gambling and drugs—I know that. But you?" he burst out laughing. "You can be one of those girls."
Mulan's hackles rose. "What I'll do here is none of your business," she bristled.
A surprise and a flick of admiration flashed on the man's eyes. He almost admired this little Chinese boy for having the nerve to answer him like he did.
"I know you," he told Mulan. "You are the Chinese soldier in the market!"
"I…—I didn't…—" Mulan had inched away, preparing her swift exit.
"Look," the Hun man said again. "If you need spy work, come to me first, okay? Good money—I promise," he said with a smirk. "You can spend on betting, drinking… or girls."
It was Mulan's turn to be surprised. "You… you are not going to call your clan...to…—I don't know…—kick my ass or something?" she said dumbly.
"Ain't no benefit in kickin' your ass, Sweetheart," he scoffed. Mulan could only gape at him and the man laughed. "Don't believe me don't you? Here," he said, tossing a coin to one of the guys with a cartload of bottles. "The drink is on me."
"But…—" Mulan sputtered.
"Name's Hayabusa. Talk to me first, 'kay."
Her brain seemed to stop functioning, so she only managed to say a weak, "Y-Yes Sir."
He laughed again. "Ain't call me Sir. I'm not your boss," and he stood and left.
Mulan watched the man walked away, overcome with the weirdest feeling of acceptance she ever experienced.
"Your drink!" The bartender, a man with an earring pierced on his nose, handed over a rustic looking wooden bowl as he took the coin Hayabusa tossed earlier. Something putrid and green danced inside, but Mulan hardly noticed. Her head swam, racing with train of thoughts. Did she just met one of the Huns soldiers and he offered her to …—that was just absurd! Did that man think she will dishonour her country for petty financial rewards?
Nodding in grateful silence, she accepted the drink and sit obediently on the dirt as though she was under a spell, that was a few steps that she didn't feel.
"You'll love it," said the bartender, showcasing his smile and a few missing teeth.
She sipped her drink. It tasted strange—no, in fact, it tasted horrible, repulsive! But there was something in it that drew her to take another sip and another…
From a distance, she saw a few of her compatriots, joining the undulating crowds by the fire. Tongues of energy emanated from their skin. Somehow she could see how the music connected them all. The thumping rhythm suddenly sounded like a soothing lullaby in her ears.
She slowly looked up and saw the star twinkled in the sky, they rays extended and retracted as though breathing. She reached her hands towards the sky, tracing the constellation, and felt her digits touch something warm and fuzzy like she grasped into the depth of an entire universe in her hands. Just like when Shang hugged and cuddled her to sleep.
A bubble of darkness rose within her and suddenly she couldn't breathe. She fell to her knee, gasping as though her chest had been pierced with an arrow.
"Agh… no!" she cried.
"Hey," a man said. Mulan recognised him, but no name came into her mind. But it hardly bothered her. The man looked friendly anyway and his hand was equally soft and warm.
"Is this poison?" she asked him. "Wait..! Do that usually move? I mean… can...can it moves?"
"The snakes... on your skin," Mulan pointed out at the tattoos that spiralled out of the man torso all the way up to his neck and part of his face.
He laughed. "Cos not Sweetheart. But everything's movin' when you drink that! Don't believe me, check your toes!"
Mulan looked down. She gasped in surprise when she saw the ground beneath her feet was transformed into a thick mass of cloud. Soft and fluffy—swirling around in a folding prism of musical light. She was just about to enjoy the amazingness when she felt her balance was lost and she was about to tumble…—
"Easy there, Sweet Boy," the man said.
"Oh, thank…—thank you, Sir," Mulan said. And despite a few ugly thoughts of Shang still nagging somewhere in the back of her head, she felt curiously lighthearted.
"Hayabusa… 'member me?" the man smiled. "You seemed to enjoy yourself. Mind if I join?"
"Oh no..no...Please do," Mulan laughed, didn't understand why she sounded more delirious than she intended to be.
"Try this. Even better!" Hayabusa said, offering a cigarette to which Mulan had no idea what to do until he demonstrated to her. She mimicked his motion, putting the pipe into her mouth, inhaling the smoke deep into her lungs.
"Ack…" she spat out. The scent left a trail of acrid taste in her tongue, her eyes began to water and she felt an overwhelming desire to retch. "This…—what is this? Bleugh! It's horrible! Ugh!"
Just as she was about to assume Hayabusa was playing a joke on her, a wave of pleasure hit her, passing over her senses like a thin membrane of pure joy, and she was swept off, forever into the night and into the stars. Her feet become nothing but a wisp of smoke, a blessed release from the confine of her emotion and dilemma, a release from being her! She laughed with joy. Hayabusa joined her and together they danced.
She felt wondrously enchanted, like an insubstantial spirit watching the gathering, loving every song she heard and every person she saw.
"Ah… I have never seen things this beautiful," she gushed.
He laughed, spinning her for a twirl. "I bet nothing sort of like this in your encampment."
"No. It's nothing like this."
Hayabusa chuckled. "Aye, you are one bad boy. Come here to party all night."
The guilt crept to her chest, clawing its way up to her throat. Although Mulan felt her act was—in some way—justifiable, other parts of her condemned her deliberate intention of breaking the rule out of selfish needs to soothe her aching heart.
"Just for tonight," Mulan told him, taking another puff and sighing in relief when the smoke once again dulled all the bitter reality around her. "I just need sometime to…—Oh, nevermind," she waved her hand, wilfully deflecting the shadow of Shang and Meihui and whatever they might to tonight to pollute her mind.
"Perhaps he is leaving me…—" she whispered, accepting her fate.
"Who is?" Hayabusa raised his brows. Mulan slapped her stray mouth, it was not the details that meant to be spoken out loud.
"Its…—I mean everyone is leaving…—as in away. Yes, they are all…—gone."
Hayabusa tilted his head but seemed to be buying her lie. "That's what I am guessin'. When the cat's away the mice will play," he smirked, knowingly, Mulan smiled back, playing along.
"So tell me, who are these cats, huh?"
"Venerable Chi-Fu…..Prince of Wei…. our Captain…, " she gritted her teeth when the image of Shang returned, spreading like disease contaminating her senses. This time she snatched the cigarette out of Hayabusa's hand with eagerness. She took a deep breath until a wave of pleasure billowed.
"Prince of Wei you said?"
"Yes," Mulan replied, the image of Shao Wei in his red cape and looking perfectly out of place in the regiment full of underprivileged recruits made her broke into another train of delirious laughter.
"One night of fun won't do any harm," Hayabusa commented, returning her smile and offering her another dose of his cigarette.
"Exactly," Mulan approved, taking another puff. "Oh….!" she marvelled as the world around her burst into colourful fireworks. She looked up into the sky, strewn with stars along a rich milky path—the path that led into a dimension she had never seen, deeper and more enduring than she ever recognized.
"This is… amazing," she drawled, felly an overwhelming feeling of comfort, happiness and trust.
"I know right?" Hayabusa nodded in agreement. "Talking of which. Where is your encampment?"
Attila was sitting on the far side of the hill when he captured the glimpse of his mentor, Hayabusa, by the lake, dancing mindlessly with a young Chinese soldier in his hands.
The scene looked absurd to him, but he was certain Hayabusa wasn't drunk or intoxicated. His mentor was far more careful to let his guard lose in a place invested with a throng of bandits, pickpockets and criminals around.
Attila prowled closer and hid behind the shrub. He clicked his tongue softly, making his presence known only to Hayabusa. A few minutes later, his mentor joined him, ducking behind the coppice with a big smile on his face.
"My instinct is right," he told Attila. "Thank goodness you didn't kill that dirty Chinese urchin," he said while scribbling something on the parchment from under his sash. "Here. Inform General Shan Yu to assemble the army," he instructed, handing the message to Attila.
"Tell him—In a fortnight, Northern Wei will be ours. "