"You said you want to talk?" Shao said as a way of greeting as Shang paid him a visit right after he arrived that evening from what everyone thought was a journey from Chang'an. And being the clever crook that he was―Shao Wei obviously had carefully taken a different route to avoid anyone's suspicion.
"Do you have time?"
"Of course," he said, pointing at the empty seat in front of him. Shang bowed politely before taking his place.
"Shao, I'm not a man who likes to probe on someone else's business, but I've been left wondering for weeks. Why did you come here to train with a low-class regiment while you are offered a place in the Imperial Army?" Shang worded his sentence carefully.
Shao unceremoniously plopped himself on the settee as he considered his answer. "Oh, humility is a mark of a true hero," he grinned, clearly crafting his answer to tease Shang.
Shang observed him. Regardless of the fact that they were living under austere condition. The Prince was still dressed in a suit that Shang knew cost more than what he made in a year. His robe impeccably pressed, tailored to fit his tight figure to perfection. Series of opulent looking gold embroidery running through the trimming of his trousers. A whiff of expensive cedar wood mark his presence, and his face was glowing with success and prosperity ― a perfect representation of Chinese royal's beneficiary.
Yeah, humility personified. Shang thought sardonically.
"Why did you ask?"
"Just curious," Shang said, subtlety hiding his true intention of digging the truth out of him. "How's your meeting in Chang'an?"
"It was fine," Shao Wei replied coolly. "Just usual political discussion that will bore anyone to their death."
"Oh well, it's just…― I was in Xi'an to buy weekly supply, and I thought I saw you," Shang said, putting a pause and observed the Prince's reaction. Shang decided that maybe, even when Chi-Fu's plan of catching the Prince red-handed was a total failure, he still could bait the Prince into confessing.
"Aren't you meeting… someone there? A woman?"
"You saw me? With a woman?" Shao guffawed. "I am surprised the article is singular. Should've been 'women' if you knew me well."
Shang refused to deviate from the subject. "So you really were there then, in Xi'an," he affirmed. "Which is… a complete detour from Chang'an, am I right?" he pressed on.
"Oh, that," Shao laughed, still completely unfazed and collected. "I was staying the night there to pay regards on my late aunt. Her dust was rested in Hoching temple outside Xi'an."
Shang was certain the Prince was lying through his teeth, but he patiently listened to the cover story Shao weaved because he knew he had no proof to say otherwise.
"So, this woman you are meeting…?" Shang began. "Is she…―"
"She is just a friend," Shao said quickly. And before Shang fired another question, Shao craftily shot him back. "Shang, tell me. Have you ever been in love?"
Shang blinked, completely didn't expect such topics to be brought up.
"In all due respect, I believe emotional attachment makes one weak Your Honor," Shang said, keeping the subject impersonal.
"So, no one you can say holds a special place in your heart?"
"No," Shang said firmly.
"Not even your wife?"
Shang was dumbfounded. Why would the Prince suddenly mention his wife?
"My personal feeling is not out for public scrutiny," Shang retorted plainly. "But let me tell you that having a woman in your life doesn't equate love. I am sure you are much aware of this fact."
Shao Wei barked out a laugh that was far louder than appropriate. "You made marriage sound like torture."
Shang cleared his throat. "I might be a husband, but I am a soldier first and foremost. The only dedication and loyalty I swore are to the country and the Emperor," Shang said with conviction, but a strange, alarming twist strangled his chest.
Shao let out a mirthless chuckle. "I see."
Weeks ago, Shang would feel annoyed at the man's impertinence and audacity in making a sarcastic remark about his personal life, but his irritation quickly wiped out when he remembered Chi-Fu's story of the Prince's unfortunate life. Shao Wei had lost his mother in his teen together with his nursing maid….and then lost his only sibling nearly a year ago. Perhaps this was Shao's mechanism to cope with his loss, he thought. Now Shang could only feel pity, a pity he would never dare to vocalise.
But Shao's subsequent inquiry quickly dashed whatever Shang had on his head. "Is that why you are fond of Ping?"
There was a hinted innuendo with the way Shao said the word. Shang practically growled in his frustration. "I can't believe what you are suggesting there, Your Majesty."
"Well, a nobleman like yourself could take more than one mistresses," the young prince added. "Too bad Ping isn't a woman."
Shang's frown deepened, he had no idea where the prince planned to take this conversation into.
"Are you suggesting that I fancy a romantic relationship with Ping?"
"Maybe?" The Prince said cunningly with rhetoric. "I can see you have a soft spot for the boy."
"What?" Shang's hackles rose, but he quickly reminded himself of the appropriate social decorum. He was dealing with a prince after all.
"Shang, relax…" Shao patted his shoulder good-naturedly. "Every man is allowed to have a wild dream. A fantastical imagination. It what makes us….men!"
Truthfully, Shang didn't know why he still entertained the Prince's ridiculous interrogation into his private life. If he was indeed attracted to Ping, why would he discuss the finite points of what it was like to harbour a physical attraction to another man with a stranger? Shang shook his head from irrational daze. He can't even properly love a woman he already married to, let alone considering pursuing someone else.
"But don't worry, I am the man of integrity," Shao Wei chuckled, clearly amused with Shang's displeased expression. "Your secret is safe with me. I won't breathe a word," he promised.
"As long as you did what I tell you to do."
"Captain Li?" Chien-Po said, breaking Shang's daze. He was sparring with Ling, and the lanky man was sandwiched between him and the ground, grunting helplessly but refusing to surrender.
"Oh! Um. Yes, very good Chien-Po," Shang said whatever came first to his mind.
"Er, but Captain… I tripped!"
"Oh!" Shang could feel his face burning in embarrassment. He shuffled his feet in apparent nervousness. What had he been thinking? He exhaled and swiftly rebound his expressionless don't-mess-with-me' facade.
"Yes. Well. Try again. Let see," he said to Chien-Po. "While the rest," he shouted to the crowd, "Please run fifty laps until lunchtime."
A confused murmur erupted, but no one dared to voice their thought. Shang just huffed and left them.
Shang really couldn't understand why he couldn't focus on his training that day. He spent the majority of his life doing the exact same routine every morning. But right now... he couldn't find his concentration.
Was it because of the bitter exchange between him and his brother-in-law, Ping? Had he played favourites? Had he developed a soft spot for the young man liked the Prince conjectured?
No. That couldn't be.
If there were any feeling towards Ping, it would be something akin to sympathy… and perhaps a hint of pity.
Despite Ping's incapability, it was selfless of him to come as a replacement for his elderly father. But it was also foolish of him to think that he wouldn't die to honour his family and China when he couldn't even strike a target, aimed a cannon or caught a fish.
Then, you don't need to feel bad dismissing him. You've done the Fa favour.
But the look of brokenness in Ping's eyes. The shock that slowly transformed into resentment.
It was the same look as Mulan when he refused to go in place of her father. There were tears of disappointment leaking from her eyes. The wound she struggled to conceal. The bitterness and secret she tried to hide from him.
It was the same look as his mother, Li Yue, looked at him since he was…―
Shang shook his head to curb the useless, energy-sapping emotion at bay. His mother had nothing to do with this.
He knew he shouldn't feel this way. Towards his mother. Towards Mulan… or Ping.
He had never been attached to anyone in this context. Not even his father, the sole figure that he thought sincerely with his heart to be the closest person to him. Shang was groomed to be a rational man, who was taught that emotion would make ones weak and susceptible to intimidation. Emotional attachment to someone would blunt his sharp decision-making ability and cloud logical judgement.
He did what he supposed to do as a good, responsible leader―protecting his soldier from vain, meaningless death. A good leader didn't use his feeling, but rather―his head. And rationality, he had saved the Fa the only heir to their names. Yet, he felt awful like he had violated some sort of moral order for causing such agony.
He sighed through his nose as Ping entered the deserted courtyard, rubbing the soreness out of his shoulders and cracking his neck. Shang made a face. Okay, it seemed quite bad-ass for him to do it, but for a boy as young and skinny as Ping to crack knuckles, his neck and other bones in his petite frame, he was starting to see why that turned off a lot of people. He made a mental note to rein that bad habit of his.
The black ring around Ping's eyes and the bloodshot redness around his pupil spoke volumes about how the young boy may have spent his night. Shang was guessing he didn't sleep well last night―well, perhaps didn't sleep at all!
Maybe you should speak to him, set the record straight once he calms down.
Shang revealed himself on the back of the clearing. Ping didn't take notice of him.
He must be ignoring me, Shang thought ruefully, especially after not so pleasant dismissal that certainly bruised that little soldier's pride.
Shang shook his head and gave up on his own training, instead opting to watch Ping as he began his morning routine. He began with gentle and fluid, tai chi moves―one of the exercises that he excelled. Shang should've been jealous that Ping was a lot more graceful that he would ever be, but he was so enraptured by the twisting of his hand, the gentle sloping of his back and the fluid of his arms and legs to really felt anything besides...
Wait, what was he thinking?
His eyes widened with that dangerous epiphany.
Was he... attracted to Ping? Was the Prince right about him? Was he fond of Ping in a non-platonic sense?
Shang bit back a laugh. Attracted? The thought was delusionally absurd! Ping was a man, and Shang, despite the majority of his days spent with a throng of testosterone driven bunch, was quite certain he was straight inside out. There was plenty of occasions he met a rather effeminate man like Ping and he was positive he had never felt any lustful urge as a man would to a woman. But somehow, he had seen Ping as though... as though, he was... a woman!
Is that even possible?
One particular incident where he invited Ping to his tent to retrieve a letter from Fa Zhou surfaced in his mind. As it began to seep into his memories once more, objectively he was able to see that perhaps his affection towards Ping that day could have been construed as less than platonic.
I did not just think of that. He watched the young warrior for another moment before gagging at his own thought. You are sick! You are a married man... a seasoned warrior! You are the one supposed to set a good example for him!
But there was nothing wrong with a look... the relationship between men are prevalent in a context of battlefront where they deprived of women. Yes, men, even the mightiest warriors, were still creature with needs... carnal needs... right?
Hell with the carnal needs! Just...just snap out of it!
Now that Shang was off on that sobering thought, he realised if his thought were spoken out loud there was more than the social controversy. First was obviously his father's reaction to any perceived advances on his part that would make him regret to even think of it. And then Fa Zhou would kill him. His father-in-law, perhaps, would tolerate if he took a second wife, but bringing a man in his household? More so his youngest son? He would murder him, and feed his corpse to the birds.
Shang shook his head and returned to his silent training.
Before his current assignment, Shang was aware of spreading rumour surrounding the death of Consort Yang, Shao Wei's mother. Many years ago, she was found poisoned together with a few of her handmaid. There was obviously a great furore in the harem after her untimely death. She was one of the most prominent and powerful figures in the Wei Palace and the most favoured by the current ruler of Wei―Prince Wei Zhang, Shao Wei's father― because she was the first and only concubine to give him a male heir to the throne of Wei. Plotting such a murder would guarantee public humiliation and capital punishment to whoever convicted.
The head of Palace's security managed to capture a Chinese mercenary who committed suicide immediately after being apprehended. But everyone knew, this man was only a device on the hand of more powerful man―the real mastermind of the crime.
Henceforth, there was a lot of speculation: most rancorous rumour was suggesting Consort Yang's infidelity, while some suspected she was blackmailing one of the royal nobility and had to pay a hefty price. In any case, to preserve his family's good name and the Palace's reputation, Prince Wei Zhang immediately closed the case and threatened all the member of his staff that they would face brutal torture if any dared to spread the scandalous gossip outside the Palace wall.
But the story that had since forgotten with time after the years lapsed, was now brought back to attention after Princess Wei Xiu Ting, Shao Wei's sister, died after a strange illness in recent months―another enigmatic death within the harem to which no one dared to inquire.
However, those with connections and who rubbed shoulder closely with people beyond the Palace wall suggested that this was no coincidence. The princess was supposed to be given to Kaidu, the Khan of the Huns, to wife on her twentieth birthday. Whether she had committed deliberate suicide, kidnapped or run away, no one knew. But as the result, Wei Zhang's failure to fulfil the political allegiance incited the tension between the Chinese and the Huns.
Chi-Fu testified that he was one of the groups of person who heard the first-hand account of the tale. Shao Wei told him that he believed his father was involved in the tragic death of his mother because she was obstinately objecting to her daughter's betrothal to the leader of the Huns. Chi-Fu obviously had never shared this story with anyone outside the royal circle, fearing horrific consequences.
But then he met Shang, a young captain with nonexistent political agenda, an unsophisticated man who had no inclination to the gossip-spreading routine. Thus, he relayed the story to Shang.
"You don't believe me, Captain Li?" Chi-Fu scoffed when Shang regarded him with an incredulous look after he ended the story.
For a person who had lost two closest family member, seemed like Shao Wei had an uncanny ability to move on from things, things that would normally leave people scarred for life. However, Shao motives to join the low ranked battalion with inexperienced recruits had stayed unknown.
"It's not that. I mean, while I can believe the to death cases may be related, but saying that Prince Wei Zhang himself was involved in the death of his own consort...," Shang shook his head. "Chi-Fu, that's a serious allegation. You need to watch out your tongue."
"You are terribly snarky Captain Li. That is his son's speculation, not mine," Chi-Fu pointed out. "I am merely a vessel of his thoughts."
Just before Shang managed to get any words out, an imperious bark got louder outside their fabric barrier.
"I don't care that I haven't any appointment with the Captain. I am the Prince."
"Wait! Your Honor!" One of the recruits obviously tried to explain that Shang was currently occupied, but too late…. the Prince barged in, flashing his dashing posture that would make any maiden swooning on his feet.
"Captain Li," he addressed.
"You are dismissed!" With a single wave of his hand, the soldier who was initially barring his access fled―a solid proof of the man that exuded power.
"At your service," Shang bowed reverently. "Your Highness, what brings you here?" Shang was trying to be polite.
"Is that true that you've dismissed Fa Ping from his post?"
"Yes. It was because…―"
"Silence," Shao Wei snapped and lifted his hand. Even Chi-Fu was left frozen on his feet. "I know the reason. You don't have to waste your breath explaining that to me." There was a hint of annoyance surrounding his voice that Shang had no idea why. It irked him somehow that the young nobility behaved patronisingly as though he was responsible for all his recruits.
"However, I demand you to reverse your decision and…―"
Shang flicked his gaze that previously had been trained on the ground, looking at the Prince in disbelief. "What? But why would I…―"
"Silence!" Shao barked, and Shang could only grit his teeth in silence anger. "It is my power as a Prince to overturn your decision, Captain Li," Shao Wei strongly put an emphasise on Shang's position contrasting it with his.
"Yes, but I won't dismiss any of my recruits if they can prove themselves worthy to bear their armour!" Shang finally managed to spit the words out. Shang knew they were hardly friends despite Shao Wei's invitation to call him intimately by his first name, but he had never seen the Prince so worked up like this before.
"He will be worthy of his armour, just give him two weeks," Shao announced.
"But, we don't…―"
"Do as I said," Shao cut him in, tipping his head towards Chi-Fu who frantically recorded their exchange on his notes and nodded his silent approval.
Shang could only grit his teeth. The Prince was the type of guy that turned everyone he met into yes-men who were desperate to please or to form alliances. Shang didn't want to make himself into the number, but he immediately found himself cornered.
It's been a couple of hours Mulan sulked on the corner of the tent, refusing anything to eat nor drink. Not to mention, she had spent the entire night outside the tent, pondering in grief. She ignored the train of question Mushu was firing about why Khan was outside and her belonging that already packed haphazardly into her sack.
Yes, Shang had dismissed her. This was her chance to return home without expounding her impersonation, yet strangely, she didn't feel happy or excited or anything remotely positive.
Instead, she felt like a total failure.
And Shang, the only person she thought would understand, had lost faith in her. However, deep inside―especially after failing him twice in the same day during the hike, she knew she was just buying time.
Some men are not designed for battle. Shang's words rattled around in her head. She knew Shang was just being plain and honest about her ability. It was her failure that earned her such treatment. But it got her thinking whether he would give her the benefit of the doubt if he knew the boy he wished to keep was the wife he had left behind?
But it didn't make the pain felt less painful. Why were his words of dismissal became the thing that finally broke her down? Why did she let his sparse and empty words defined her? She had been beaten, mocked and insulted in various occasions, but she had steeled through them all.
"How long am I supposed to watch you wallowing?" Mushu pleaded.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said, shoving more stuff into her bag with a gusto.
"Okay," Mushu said carefully. "But if you leave...your bed will be empty. Ling and Chien-Po will notice, then Chef Zhang will look for his little kitchen boy. And that gossipy Chi-Fu and they will..―"
"Yes, I know, but can we not talk about it now?"
"Sure, but where are you going?"
Mulan gave him a look."Is this your not talking about it?"
"Ok fine. Fine. Sorry," Mushu lifted his claws trying to placate her. "But can you at least tell me what's going here?"
Mulan pulled a long sigh before saying this weakly, "Shang dismissed me."
But the dragon's surprise swiftly turned to confusion. "Then, what's that long face is for? I thought you want to see your family. You told the Captain you missed them! You should be glad that both you and your father are spared to face the war," he stated his logic. The bewilderment in the Guardian's voice was evident.
"Yes, I do miss them, but…―" she trailed off, and Mushu scratched his head.
"When men said women are impossible to understand, they ain't joking."
"It's not like that," Mulan breathed. "My father will go if he realised I've been disqualified and terminated from my training… and he-," she swallowed, imagining how angry and disappointed her father would be if she returned. "He won't forgive me. I am a disgrace to the family. If I came home, I will only tarnish his reputation and defame his good name."
"Think of the brighter side, you've grown stronger since. Soon your abs could rival Shang's, and you don't have to stare at his… you can stare at your own. Besides, you may… or may not...have something else to think about," and then drops his gaze briefly to Mulan's midsection and lifted an eyebrow in unspoken question.
Oh yeah, that! Dang it! Her eyes automatically coasted on the open sack of barley, sitting on the corner of her bedroll. As two months went by, there was still no sign of germination, which was great. She might have one less problem to think about, but now… she was dismissed, the result didn't really matter anymore.
"You see, perhaps your dismissal wasn't all a bad thing! You can stop this lie once and for all and return to your normal―womanly life."
Mulan rolled her eyes, "Are you done?"
Mushu ran his claws down his face. "Look, Girl. Sorry for the harsh words. The truth is, we're both frauds. Your ancestors had never sent me. They don't even like me. But you risked your life to help people you love. I risked your life to help myself. At least you had good intentions."
But intentions would not save her father from battle, won't help her to win a war and won't proof anything to Shang.
She ignored Mushu's exclaim of "Hey, where are you going?" when she marched out of the tent to do her morning Tai Chi and figured out it would help her to relax her mind.
Mulan supposed to head home that afternoon, but the dawn of General Li's visit had caused her departure to be postponed. Apparently, Chef Zhang needed an extra hand in the kitchen, and she was given an extra day to hang around the encampment to help up with the washing.
When the work was done, she prowled quietly, leaving the crowds, avoiding to engage in any sort of conversation with people. The last thing she wanted was for any of them to know that she was terminated prematurely from her post. While her mouth could keep the secret under wraps, she was worried that her expression couldn't. Besides, she wasn't ready to face Shang and looked at his disappointed face again. No, not yet.
So, instead, she borrowed Ling's ruan and sat on the hill that was overlooking the encampment.
From a distance, she could see the rest of the team was embroiled in pleasant shenanigans after Chi-Fu decided to have an elaborate banquet to welcome General Li. Mulan had never been fond of drinking, but for once she was thankful there was some strong drink provided tonight. She sighed in relief as the alcohol burnt her throat.
And her eyes caught a glimpse of the Prince of Wei in his lavish robe and the episode of what happened last night transpired.
She ran to her usual spot by the river and sat, with her knees pulled up to her chest, tears soon joined and quietly fell down her cheeks. She hadn't cried since she left home, ever. Not a single tear fell when she was mocked, beaten, exhausted and bullied.
Of course, it was stupid to think Shang was different than any other men ― a man that someday would accept and respect her as his equal. Mulan knew the impossibility of it, but her desire of his body had blinded her to his fault. Yes, the physical pleasure of their union had seduced her heart entirely and made her still falling in love with him despite her knowledge.
The pain was agonising that the thought of battlefront felt to be a lovely respite from the world of dishonour and betrayal.
Mulan saw the glimpse of… Prince of Wei?
How the hell he found her there?
Oh well, not relevant. But of all time to have a breakdown, why it had to be now? Of all the times to allow those walls around her heart to crumble into dust, why did he have to come to witness it?
She heard his footsteps approaching and then depositing himself next to her. Mulan shifted when he got too close to her liking.
"I wish to have some privacy if you don't mind," she said sharply.
If he was bothered, he hid it well. The man held up his hands in a conciliatory way, trying to be the calm adult in this exchange. "Relax, soldier...I just want to make sure you are not doing anything stupid."
A warm cup of tea made it into her view. Mulan would've been touched by the Prince's sympathetic gesture until he revealed the reason of his pity. She accepted the cup quietly without looking at him.
"Sorry, don't mean to eavesdrop, but his tent right across mine. I'm sorry for what had happened," he said.
Mulan pretended not to hear him even when his words evoked the terrible nightmare that had strangled her for many days to come.
"Captain Li has dismissed you, didn't he?" the Prince repeated, responding to her silence.
Screw you all, males! Rebuked the internal voice in her head. She sniffed, turning her face away and standing.
"What do you want?" At the moment she just wanted him to leave, but the Prince did the exact opposite.
"Ping..." he said more firmly, putting a friendly pat on her shoulder. "I can help you."
She didn't say anything, but the Prince had seen the question on her face: What did you say?
"I. Can. Help. You," he repeated. "If you managed to pick that arrow from the mast, you have a good argument to stay."
Confusion painted on her face, which was natural given the context of the situation, why would he offer to help her anyway?
"You are not the only one with someone you hold dear." He gave her a polite nod, the heat in his eyes belying the politeness. "Consider my offer, Fa Ping. This may be your last chance to hold your family's honour."
He stood up and prepare to leave, briefly watching her waged war within herself.
'Someone you hold dear', Mulan's mind replayed the scene she witnessed between the Prince and Ting Ting.
He may be a snobbish royal, but at least he was willing to risk everything for someone he loved, Mulan thought. Even when he will betray his country…―
"It's an honour for a man to defend their country." Shang's word lashed out in her mind as if rebuking her short-sightedness."Your father knew his place! And it's time for you to learn yours!"
I guess you are right about me, Shang, she thought gravely. I am just a useless woman after all.
Mulan wiped the tears that she didn't know was there. It seemed like her days would always end in guilt, tears, and an empty bottle of whatever she got his hands on first.
She decided not to dwell on her disappointment and picked up the ruan. She strummed the bow and coaxed the instrument to play just a few decibels louder so that the sounds of it shrill soared over the sound of the happy chattering in the distance. It was almost loud enough to drown out her thoughts about Shang's dismissal.
"Mind if I join?" Shao Wei said from behind her as she was taking her first sip right after finishing a song.
"Oh, I thought I you'll be busy enjoying the banquet?" Mulan said, not meeting his eyes to hide her surprise. What was he doing here?
"Yes and no. I've eaten all I can and so I thought I'd come over here. I hope you won't take this the wrong way but you liked sort of alone over here. Where is Ling, Chien-Po?"
"Oh, they are helping the rest to cook an extra meal. Apparently we consumed more than we intended to. I think ration and austere measure is thrown out of the window for today."
"I take it the Chef hasn't really trust you to enter his kitchen again, has he?" The Prince sounded serious, but a faint smirk was evident on his face.
"Yeah, sort of forbidden area for me now. Too bad, because I began to enjoy cooking and making people sick in the process," she said. "He figured that washing the dishes perhaps a safer alternative for everyone."
The Prince bit his laugh at that. For once, Mulan saw how sincerely jovial he looked. Without his permanent sinister scowl and his sharp, sarcastic tongue, actually, Shao Wei was quite a pleasant man to be with. Had his meeting with Ting Ting had anything to do with this?
Mulan looked up at him, words on the tip of her tongue, questions she wanted to ask him. She wanted to ask him who was Ting Ting and what his relationship with the Huns Princess? Why had he come to join the regiment and…. plenty other question that made her head spinning. But she wasn't supposed to have overheard what she had overheard and saw what she had seen. So instead she settled with an awkward grin.
"I'd say you need to make Chi-Fu really sick, or perhaps you can set his tent a fire one more time. I began to grow weary to his constant meddling," he added, his smirk grew exponentially in size.
"I'd bet Captain Li will agree with you in a heartbeat," she replied, trying to sound neutral as she mentioned Shang's name.
"Speaking of which," Shao steered the conversation, his demeanour turned serious. "Is that true Captain Li is your brother-in-law?"
"Yes. That's...that's right," Mulan said, a little anxious with the direction of the conversation.
"How much do you know him?"
Mulan gulped quietly. "Not much, he wedded my sister not long ago. Apart from that, I hardly know anything about him apart from how ruthless he is."
"Captain Li Shang," the Prince said with a chuckle. "Who guessed one could be both handsome and capricious?"
Mulan bit her lips and answered his banter with a forced smile. Her mind flew to the conversation they had earlier that day.
"Your Honor, what do you mean when you said earlier that you could help me?... And most importantly....why?"
"Fa Ping!" As if ordained by divine intervention, Chi-Fu appeared from behind the trees, waving his hand impatiently to attract their attention, only to succumb in a deep blush when he realised he was caught yelling in the presence of the Prince of Wei.
"Your…. Your Honor, my apology, I didn't…"
Shao Wei interrupted him by raising his hand and firmly cut in. "State your business Chi-Fu."
Chi-Fu looked at him sheepishly, clearing his throat as he bowed."Right… of course, Your Honor," the counsellor obeyed reverently, before turning his sour face to Mulan. "The Captain wants you. Now!"
Shang drew a heavy sigh as he finished counting three hundred press-ups. He took his towel and propped himself against the tree. The rest of the encampment was enjoying a short break, a dinner, to welcome General Li's visit. He should be out there, having fun and engaged in meaningful conversation with his father, but he found out it was impossible to take his mind off his recent exchange with the Prince of Wei.
"It is my power as a Prince to overturn your decision, Captain Li."
Why the hell the Prince wanted Ping to stay? It was no news that Shao Wei was a man of many secrets, but Fa Ping was far too young and naive to be involved in all sort of dirty politics. Or…is he embroiled in something more intimate? Like… trading sex with… Shang pinched the bridge of his nose, driving his incredibly presumptive thoughts away.
Whatever it was knew he could do nothing but to obey.
So, begrudgingly, he asked Chi-Fu, who dragged the young soldier who was in the middle of his dinner or drinking or whatever it was, looking somewhat confused and anxious as though he had run into serious trouble to be dragged out of his meal.
From his tent entrance, he saw Shao Wei lingered outside his tent, shedding his robe and preparing to run his own drill.
The Prince grinned towards his direction as their eyes met and nodded in pleasant agreement.
Mulan trained her eyes towards the ground as she approached Shang's tent to conceal any puzzlement, anxiety and bitterness from showing. Hundreds of scenario of why Shang suddenly summoned her ran through her mind. None of which positive―perhaps just another mock on her mediocre fighting ability. Yes, Shang's words were still burning on her ears. He might be right that she would never make a good soldier, but…
She wanted Shang at least to know―to know this part of her secret. She wasn't a wife with sterile obedience to her husband. She wasn't just a useless woman―even when he thought she was. She was a fighter―a fighter who lived within her principles and who could make her voice be heard…. even when her end was humiliation and defeat.
And even when Shang would be utterly distraught by the revelation, and she potentially running the risk of him divorcing her―she needed him to know who she was inside.
"Sir?" she said, marshalling all her courage to speak up.
"Fa Ping." Shang sounded testy but was shirtless, as usual. "So, do you know why I call you?"
"No, Sir," she answered. She was genuinely confused by all this, but a large part of her awareness was taken up with the mental fight not to stare at Shang's chest.
While just a stone throw away, the Prince wiped his bare muscular torso that was currently dripping with sweat, smirking smugly towards her direction.
Damn these shirtless men. How was a girl supposed to concentrate when they walk around like that?
She shook her head, trying to shove the unwanted distraction at bay.
She closed her eyes and breathed. "Captain Li, before you say anything. Please let me speak up."
Meanwhile, in Forbidden City...
"Your Majesty the Son of Heaven," addressed the doorkeeper, "Your Highness Prince of Wei is here."
The Emperor dipped his head signalling the guards and everyone else in the room to leave.
Wei Zhang strengthened his spine and schooled one of his jovial countenances that he usually wore to public gathering before opening his arms in a friendly embrace. "Eldest Brother Xiongnu, it's been a while. Hope I find you well. I am sorry that I…-"
"You're late," his brother accused, clearly sounding unimpressed.
Wei Zhang had no defence, considering the invitation was from the Emperor himself, and he'd meant to be here a good hour ago. He glanced back, but all his councillor had abandoned him to his fate. Wei Zhang lifted a hand to stay his brother's diatribe and said, "My transport had―"
"Safe it, we have a matter of greatest importance to address," Xiongnu interrupted, walking closer and stopping just inside his personal space. They hadn't spoken face to face since the failure of Wei Zhang's ill-advised liaison with the Huns. But since the stability of their relationship was one of the main ingredients in China's political cohesion, they had remained civil and responded to each other in writing to retain the facade. It was until last week, Wei Zhang received an invitation to meet his estranged brother, no doubt for a matter of greatest importance.
"We have reason to suspect someone within the family is involved in political espionage." The Emperor suddenly turned towards him. "Your family."
If Wei Zhang knew his brother well he wouldn't be at all surprised by his recrimination, especially many years ago, their relationship was tainted with similar disagreement. But still, he took a moment to process.
"My brother, in all due respect, you can't just point finger at my family without any concrete proof," Wei Zhang responded, trying to be polite even when his brother's words shredded him.
"Once there is a wise man said: people give up their lives for many reasons. For friendship, for love, for an ideal. And people kill for the same reasons," the Emperor chuckled mirthlessly. "What other proof should I give you? I knew from the start that your dangerous liaison with the Huns was because you want this throne. My throne. Your daughter was just a puppet―a decoy, even your brainless wife could see that. If it is not because those little hiccups that turned your peaceful treaty into a war, I suspected one of those Huns might have killed me!"
Wei Zhang's expression turned from anger to condescension. "Be far from me what you've said! I may want your throne, Brother. But to conspire with the Huns to eliminate you? Never!"
The Emperor just stared at him, tilting his head and lacing his fingers as he sat behind his mahogany bureau.
Wei Zhang sighed, "You know me since we were kids, Brother. I may not be the most compassionate nor noble leader, but laying a finger to plot against my own flesh and blood?" He shook his head. "That's not me. I just hope establishing Chinese ties with the Huns will earn me your approval to give your daughter to marry my son. Nothing else."
The Emperor fell deep in thoughts. "Fine," he said, but his expression was closed off. It was a fair reasoning. He had no male heir, and by marrying his eldest daughter to his own nephew, they would keep the line of succession within their family. "But how can you explain this? How conveniently Princess Wei Ting had died a week before her…―"
"It was an unexpected crisis. I told you that," Wei Zhang interrupted, his tone sharp. "You want to say all this war between the countries was down to my doing?" he scoffed. "My daughter's death is a tragedy to my family!"
The Emperor rose from his seat. "Master Peng of the Imperial Intelligence who is heading the investigation has obtained some interesting evidence," he explained, "...and while we don't know exactly who was the mastermind or how he did this, but we know Princess Wei Ting is still alive."
"She is….what?" Wei Zhang needed a second take on that.
"She is still alive," the Emperor confirmed. "Our spy saw her. Thanks to the crafty work of someone who clearly has an interest of keeping her out of the political betrothal," he cleared his throat. "And when I heard your dear son refused to take his place as a part of the elite regime, who could not wonder why? You honestly think this is a mere coincidence?"
Swallowing his flare of irritation Wei Zhang gave his brother a short nod. "Okay, what's the plan? Shall I call Shao Wei and ask him…―"
"No," the Emperor declared. "I've sent the imperial army to neutralise the situation and brought in both Prince and Princess at any cost."
Wei Zhang halted mid-step, turning on his heel to face him. He should try to school the expression on his face, but that seemed like too much effort for the moment. He probably looked murderous. Or like-an-angry-bull in his son's parlance. He glared at his brother. "Excuse me?"
"This is a very delicate matter, Wei Zhang, and I, as the Emperor would…―"
"He is my son," he countered. Loudly. "You've sent soldier to….to arrest him? Are you suggesting, without firm evidence, that he is the one..."
"You're wrong," the Emperor answered, raising his hand in a placating manner. Considering the circumstances, Wei Zhang was sure he's misreading the calm look on his brother's face. He couldn't possibly be happy about this, and then continued, "I am not suggesting anything. But if my eldest daughter were to be married to him, Shao Wei wouldn't just be my nephew, he would be the future emperor, and thus it is my best interest to make sure he is clear from all allegation."
And Wei Zhang must be imagining the note of satisfaction in his tone. "This union was your idea."
Wei Zhang opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. If he was surprised at the idea of political espionage, he was absolutely stunned at the Emperor's assertion that his son could be a part of it. All these kinds of twisted plots were normally his forte. Shao Wei may be a clever, witty young man, but his brain was stuffed with relentless party, women and gambling to care too much with position and power. The suggestion was so absurd and wrong that he didn't even know where to start. "Brother..."
"I've contacted Master Peng," the Emperor said. "His team would report to us in about two weeks time."
With that, Xiongnu gave him the cold smiles and turned towards the double door, heading out of his office with more than his usual grandeur.