Frustration and anger of an intensity Shang didn't know it was possible to feel.
As the seconds ticked by his anger sliced through his bones like blazing hot metal. His breathing was so heavy, close to choking him.
Right now, Ping was in front of him. The boy had been taking a great interest on the tip of his shoes.
There was a grim pause.
Shang wanted to spat out of the ire out of his heart and out of his mouth, pouring all his frustration of the Prince unreasonable request. But no―he reasoned. Ping might be weak and clumsy with capital "C", but the boy didn't deserve to be a victim of his tirade.
After a long silence, Ping lifted his countenance and looked like he had a big confession to make.
"Captain Li, before you say anything. Please let me speak up."
Ping's voice was firm, inviting no argument. Shang lifted his eyes to meet his gaze as Ping watched him. But Shang didn't have time for another drama, so he just cut it right to the core.
"Save it for later Ping. I have more important and urgent matter to address," he announced, swallowing strings of curses that were surfacing every time he recalled Shao Wei's brash call. "I receive an order to overturn your dismissal."
He paused to observe Ping's reaction. The boy's eyes grew wide. Clearly, he didn't expect this coming.
"However, as I said to you a few days ago, it will be foolish to send an unequipped soldier to war to die a vain death. Therefore… ―," he turned and looked at the boy square in the eyes. For a second he thought Fa Ping was going to pee himself. "You are given two weeks to prepare yourself. If you can retrieve the arrow from the mast," he said, pointing to a direction of the pole outside his tent. "You are joining me to war, but otherwise, you are free to go. Understand?"
He heard Ping draw in a quick breath before he asked, his voice small. "Really?"
"I repeat," Shang said, trying not to sound snarky but he couldn't help it. He reiterated what he said in what he hoped as less judgemental tone.
Ping bit his lips, perhaps having so many questions about why and who had overturned his decision.
"This is your last chance to defend your family's honour," Shang told him in closing. He didn't want to engage in this pointless discussion any longer. "Now, you are dismissed."
Mulan left Shang's tent with more confusion than satisfaction. She had expected to deliver a similar blow by admitting to him the liberating revelation of her identity. She had anticipated a heated argument that left Shang as bitter and disappointed as she was. But she was left blindly dumbfounded by his announcement that she lost her ability to speak.
Nodding absently, she left Shang's tent. That was a few steps she didn't feel. Everything was surreal. What had just happened?
As she walked away, she caught a glimpse of Prince of Wei, flashing another smug smirk and gave her a thumbs up.
A moment of realization enshrouded her.
It was him―He was the man who had overturned her dismissal.
And talking about the Prince of Wei, this wasn't the first time he had saved her from a fickle situation. But the same question remained….
Shao basked in warm satisfaction as he watched the exchange from a distance.
"I receive an order to overturn your dismissal," he heard Shang start to talk, in a gruff, heavy voice, frustration dripping in his tone. Ping seemed wanted to dig more information or even telling him something important but Shang silenced him with his glare. His hands on his waist while Ping watched him with that perplexed expression on her face. They were staring into each other's eyes but still...that silly man didn't even recognise his own wife!
At first, Shao didn't quite understand Shang's visceral reaction to his initial request. But after putting much thought about it, he inferred that all was rooted down to Shang's unconscious jealousy. It almost as if his eyes were blind, but his heart could see through Ping's disguise all along.
He wondered whether Shang would show any territorial or aggressive behaviour if later on, he found favour and closeness with Ping… especially since he knew one of Ping's secret which Shang didn't.
Shao grinned. This will be fun. He didn't expect this kind of thrill would fill him.
It was strange how Fa Ping had captured his attention. At first, it was the boy atrocious bravery in confronting him during his squabble with Yao.
Ping had not missed his surveillance since, and he knew the boy was equally curious about him.
Right then, Shao had suspected that Ping was working for the palace intelligence, sent by his father to spy on him. The fact that the boy was Fa Zhou's son certainly fitted the bill. But after witnessing for himself how Ping caused a brawl, almost drowned the other recruit and unintentionally poisoned him with pig's feed (yes, he was convinced it was a genuine mistake after witnessing regular accidental stunts), Shao decided that Ping was harmless.
But Ping definitely wasn't an ordinary boy by any definition. This Shao very much realised when he unravelled the secret of his identity.
As much as Ping wasn't as strong as any other man, Shao firmly believed he (or shall we say 'she') could outthink them all, just like she did right now―deceiving the entire regiment, her family, her commanding officer…. and her own husband.
Shao unfolded that Ping had never dreamt to be a novice soldier―only a woman who was desperate to save her father.
And then he had a plan―a plan that would give this woman the honour she had coveted as a reward of executing his plan.
The plan to assassinate the Khan.
Shao smiled like an idiot imagining the Huns' surprise if they discovered his undercover assassin was a pixie cut girl with non-existent muscle.
But he wasn't planning to put an innocent girl's life at stake. She would need to be trained, to be equipped with the necessary skill to complete the mission and turning this sweet bean-bun loving girl to a lethal weapon.
"Is it even ethical?"Ting Ting's objection resonated in his head.
"You potentially send a girl to her death and deprive her father of his daughter!" Ting Ting demanded unwaveringly when he told her about a girl named Ping who he met during his fictional meeting in Chang'an and had agreed to join him on his mission.
"As much I hate your philandering habit, I much rather you're taking a girl to your bed than to the nest of the Huns and…―"
"And letting Father marry you to that old murderous thug?" he confronted sharply, which he regretted as soon as he saw evidence of hurt in her eyes. Well, she did have a point. But what else should he do? His initial plan with Altansarnai to quietly ambushed the Huns encampment and murder the Khan had been unfolded. Worst still, as a punishment, Altansarnai was forced to marry Shan-Yu, the Hun's general who far more suited to be her father than her husband. "What do you expect me to do?" Shao nearly shouted, feeling the guilt and desperation creeping all over him.
"Look, I know this is an impossible situation. You know we can't save everyone. But you have to see a bigger picture. We are trying to save countless soldier and our country from peril," Ting Ting said. "My unwanted marriage is a small price to pay."
Shao shook his head. "No. I'll have to try. This girl is unpredictable, unconventional and can be outright crazy at times―which all can work for our benefit," he proposed. "She just needed a little improvement in her fighting…..and….and her acting department. " Yes, because at the moment, Ping would turn pink everytime Shang shed his shirt off. That couldn't possibly be acceptable.
"So?" Ting Ting raised her brows to tell him she was less than convinced or sympathetic for that matter. "How do you plan to train this scrawny and unsuspecting girl into a lethal weapon?"
"I…―" He was about to explain himself when he felt eyes on him―on them. He froze before scanning discreetly above his shoulder and pulled Ting Ting away to the other side of the wall. "Wait here."
"What is it?" Ting Ting whispered in alarm.
"We've been watched."
As planned, the next morning when the rest of the encampment had gone for a long hike, Shao summoned Ping to began her training.
One hour into the warm-up, he watched with concealed admiration on the girl's sheer determination to complete her set of one hand press-up. Even though he could tell from her strained expression and the amount of sweat dripping on her brows of the sheer difficulty of the task, the girl refused to stop and told him that having strong arms would be a soldier best defence. He always thought that women should never join war because they tend to romanticise the situation with their hearts instead of thinking logically with their heads. Ping certainly didn't fall into that category.
"Your Honor, can I ask you something?" she asked him once they completed another set of drills. "Have you challenged Captain Li's decision to dismiss me?"
"Is that important?" he retorted back uncaringly.
"Yes…―Well, no. But for the sake of my curiosity. I wanted to know why," she persisted.
"You know what, Ping. You need to be less distracted and concentrate on your task," he replied her evenly and pointed at the set of bow and arrows as a cue.
"But…" she raised her voice, still primed from a fight, but Shao aborted her intention to dig a truth out of him.
"Remember, you only have two weeks. That was our deal."
She opened up her mouth to reply but close it again.
"Now, shall we start?" he said, eager to change topics. Given no other choice, the girl could only nod.
Shang was an experienced fighter―this Shao knew. And as a strong man himself, it was natural that Shang's training regime emphasised so much in visceral physicality and raw muscle strength. But that was where the mistakes lied. Ping wasn't a man―and she could never be as strong, as robust as a man… no matter how many hours of training Shang would put on her.
So, he determined to train her differently.
"Fire!" The Prince tossed the fruit into the arrow, and Mulan aimed and fired quickly. The arrow whizzed through and hit a tree, completely ignored its real target and she groaned in frustration.
"That was close, try again," he encouraged.
She set herself up again, and he threw another fruit. Her shoulders slumped when she missed again, but she picked another arrow.
"Watch me," he said, smoothly threw three, not just one fruit, in the air and aimed his arrows right on them. He smirked and pretended it wasn't a big deal when three subsequent arrows whizzed and pinned all three fruits right on its target mark on the tree.
"How do you make this look so easy?" she asked with a mix of admiration and disbelief.
He just grinned cockily, and she rolled her eyes.
"May I?" he said, and with the finesse of a tiger, he had lifted his bow up and over her body, pressing the weapon against her back to keep her cocooned in his arms. Then, he'd somehow managed to fire with the same level of accuracy he always exhibited despite having her holding the weapon.
She nodded. She found it easier to listen and absorb Shao Wei's instruction. There was no skipping heartbeat, no flushing cheek and no… distraction.
"Now, you try," he encouraged. "Remember, straight back, square your shoulder, lock your eyes on your target, and let the bow sing! Don't overthink it," he advised, tossing another target.
Thinking was Mulan's superpower, but this time she just let herself feel. Feel the way her muscles tightened as she drew the bowstring back. Feel the vibrations of the string as she released it. Feel the rush of satisfaction as the arrow sunk into the flesh of the fruit and they pinned to the tree.
"Well done," she heard Shao's praise from the side. She was still gawking at her own shot. It wasn't a bull's eye, but it managed to stay within the boundary of the circle. She felt recharged―confidence and courage multiplied―as if her inner warrior just being unleashed within. She had never known that having a platonic teacher did really make this much difference in her progress.
Another hour into the training and she had amazingly improved her aiming consistency. "At this rate, you'll be taking Captain Li's title as the best archer in the regiment!"
Mulan was quite sure anything the Prince said would never happen by the next millennia, but she enjoyed for once, someone had faith in her. It made her felt valued. "Well, thank you," she replied.
"Ok, now let's do a spar," the Prince said, dropping his weapon and inviting her to do the same.
When they stood in front of each other on a fighting stance, she saw her chance to press him the same nagging question.
"Let's make a bet," the Prince proposed. "If you can beat me in this spar, I will tell you why I decide to use my power and reverse your captain's dismissal. But if you lose," he paused and grinned. "You have to take my patrol shift next week."
Fair enough. Mulan nodded.
"You start," he commanded, to which Mulan didn't hesitate. She threw a hard punch at his vital places, but Shao had seen all of them coming and dodged them easily. When she stepped forward to launch another punch, he caught her arm, twisting it, practically breaking her posture. Mulan yelped in pain, feeling her arm bent in an unnatural position and Shao let her go.
She landed on her left arm with a crunch. Thankfully, her wrist wasn't broken even when it was painful. But something in her aching more than her wrist―her pride. Her sweet victory earlier was soon forgotten. All she remembered was an unpleasant memory the night Shang challenged her and won.
With anger, she gripped the earth underneath before pushing herself back up.
"Anger wouldn't make you win the spar, Ping," he told her patiently.
"Then, what should I do? I've trained myself as much as I can!" she said frustratedly, her head drooped to her hands. There was only so much she could do with her body. She had limit.
This was her limit.
"Soldier Ping, do you want to go home?"
It turned up; Ping wasn't a bad student at all. Rebounding from her defeat, she put another two hours into trying to break his defence and she finally managed to hit him square on his jaw, making use of the fact that she was a lot shorter than him and swept her foot to make him fall.
"Darn!" The word exploded from his lips but strangely tasted good on his tongue.
"I'm sorry! I don't…―Are you….are you hurt?"
"Don't worry," Shao said, picking himself from the dirt. "Bring that dinner to my tent and I'll forgive you for ruining this handsome face of mine."
He laughed when Ping rolled her eyes."Now you just have to repeat that a couple of hundred times and you'll be good to go," he smirked. "The punch I mean, not the eye roll."
She pressed the heel of palm to her forehead, "Baby steps."
"Yes," he agreed. "And you're doing really well for only having been thrown into this a few hours ago."
"Thank you," she shrugged, "I've always been a model student… So, it gets me a little bit when I couldn't do something that looks trivial to other. But I promise you, I will keep on trying."
"I believe that," he said with a grin.
"That you can do anything more than other recruits if you set your mind and soul upon it."
Shao saw the momentary surprise in the girl's eyes disappear beneath her focused expression as she wiped her brows. "I will not let you down, Your Highness."
"Please, just Shao Wei. And what I just taught you is a concept about using the enemy's strength against him," Shao explained. "It's basically a feminine philosophy."
"Yes. Think about it. Man, a yang, normally blunt, strong and hard. To apply this concept, you must have yin sensibility―receptive, soft and flexible―like a woman."
He didn't miss the way she was stiffened at the mention of word "woman", but he didn't wish to address the matter today. They have more important things to achieve.
"I know you yelp like a woman and shirked like a woman," he said, trying to repress a knowing smile. He knew at some point today Ping had forgotten to employ her really fake masculine timbre. "But that's not what I meant. In hand to hand combat, you will need to know when to step back….and not charge forth like a man would."
"You are actually not so bad of a teacher!" The half astounded, half relief smile on her face was priceless.
"You sound surprised," Shao pretended to be a little annoyed. "A good teacher merely explains. A great one…―" He presumptuously rubbed his own chest. "...inspires."
She shook her head, laughing. "Yeah, well. I am…. Inspired!"
"If you continue to be this good, we can let out Topless Captain eat his words," said Shao with a solid conviction.
She winced from both hearing the nickname Shao had given Shang...and his wish for Shang to eat his words.
"Shao Wei, I have never plan to prove him wrong. It's enough that I can stay to complete the training."
"I see you have a soft spot for your brother in law, Fa-Ping," he said, slapping Ping's shoulder in a manly way. "But men love to humiliate each other. It's what we do."
He guffawed when Ping seemed to take his words seriously.
"I'm only kidding, Ping. But!" he pointed his hand dramatically. "I'll make him constantly keep an eye on you―for the right reason."
"Did you just wash and fold my washing?" Ling asked, seeing Mulan crouching on the floor with a few buckets filled with filthy water inside.
"I'm glad you noticed," she said.
"And I smell this productivity came with a string attached."
"Uh, where did you get that idea from?"
"Don't tell me you want me to accompany you doing that market decoy again to visit the Healer," Ling told her. "Listen, the training only going to get harsher by the day, and it will not be good for you and the…―"
"Actually about that," Mulan cut him in. "You don't need to worry because I won't be training with you guys anymore, because… the Prince of Wei will be training me. Privately." She deliberately paused to see her friend's reaction to such news.
"Is this... for real?" he said in shock.
"You hear me. He'll be training me."
"I disprove!" Ling reacted sharply between gritted teeth as soon as she told him what Prince of Wei's offer.
It was Mulan's turn to be surprised by Ling's acrid reaction. "Ling, I know you don't like him since...―"
"I have never said that!" Ling tried to repress the furious edge on his tone but the way he worked the dough with a gusto may have given away the clue.
"You did! Do you think I didn't see the look on your face when I mention of him and Ting Ting?" Not long after Ting Ting silently refused his proposal, she had finally decided to tell Ling about what she witnessed in Xi'an. It made perfect sense how Ting Ting responded to him that day now given the context. Ling said nothing, but vicious frown on his forehead did.
"This is not about Ting Ting!" Because it truly wasn't. He just wanted to keep his best friend and her presumably unborn child out of harm's way that he had to scheme a backstabbing game behind her back. This was not the result he wanted.
"Gah, given a chance perhaps you'll chop his balls!"
"No. I won't!" he snapped.
She raised her brows and gave him a meaningful look.
"Ok, yes. Perhaps I will. But….Ting Ting had nothing to do with this, I swear!" he said. The anger he barely contained was almost visible.
Mulan sighed, "You have nothing to worry about. He is so different from Captain Li's brutal traini...―"
Ling felt like his head about to explode. How could he explain his good intention without admitting he was the true mastermind of her dismissal?
"Look," he interjected, finally getting a hold of his emotion. "I know you are very serious about joining the war and agreed to be trained by an expert is a good thing. But, don't you see that the Prince is a dangerous individual. Don't you say you saw him talking to a Hun Princess in the woods?"
"Yes, I know, but…―"
"I had a bad feeling that he is deeply involved with the enemy," he tried to explain his reasoning. "And that in itself is an act of treason." That was partially true.
"I thought it was your idea that I spoke to him, to befriend him!" Mulan's persisted voice interrupted his stupor. She crossed her arms around her chest.
"That because you didn't tell me about that Hun Princess!" Ling defended. "Who knows he had plotted to kill gods know who. People had said about his reputation. He wasn't a clean, straight lace man. He is known to be quite rebellious in the court."
"That makes us two," Mulan muttered, her expression softening. "Look, Ling… The truth is. Captain Li had terminated me," she confessed.
"What? He...―he did? But...―Why?" Ling gasped, trying his best to fake his surprise reaction.
"Well… he said I wasn't ready for battle. And sending me will be a foolish move, because the chance for me to return alive is almost, well….―None. So, he is being a responsible leader, he felt he had to send me home."
"He had a point there. Then… why are you upset? Isn't that a good thing that you can go home without having your father being sent to the battlefield? You better go home before anyone found out your….secret."
Mulan sighed, "Ling… you know my father. If I went home with Shan-Yu's head, yes… perhaps my father would not insist to go, but if I was sent back home because of my incompetence. How could a man like him accepts there is no male in his household representing them in the frontline―especially when the Emperor had specifically requested this?" she said, throwing her hand and running them down her face. "And...I'm just not even a wife material, let alone becoming a mother. Even my parents had established that my cooking skill was close to non-existent." She stopped before continuing with a quiet voice. "I just want to be accepted... to be who I am."
"You mean being in a front line slaying the Huns is who you are?" he said, his voice no longer indignant, and the tension slowly drained from his stiff shoulder. In fact, he sounded sad.
"Ling…―" she sighed. "Look. there is something odd happened. Captain Li reversed his decision to dismiss me in one night. I mean… I am quite certain Prince of Wei had a part in this, but the question is…. why?"
"Hmm…" Ling tapped his finger against his chin thoughtfully. So, that cunning bastard was playing his game, ruining his plan. "Did you ask him why?" he said, trying to sound as neutral as possible.
She shrugged. "His answer was as vague as can-you-please-stop-asking-it's-none-of-your-business," she paused, frowning a little.
"Well, I think we all need to dig the truth out of him," Ling said.
"Because if you won't, then I would."
"Your Highness…?" Mulan asked him carefully when they had a small break between the drills. It had been another hard but good day in her training. And as usual, she had progressed far more than he expected and continually astounded him with her ability. Suspecting he was in a good mood, she was ready to poke this sleeping dragon with a stick. "Why did you offer to train me? I mean...―Why? Why did you want to help me?"
She pretended not to hear him taking a deep, loud breath or see him pinching the bridge on his now. "You are persistent with capital 'P'"
Mulan gave him a noncommittal shrug, "It is wrong if I want to know?"
"Ping, you tell me. Is it wrong for a soldier to help his brother in arms?" he retorted back, this time a lot more pleasant and no longer steely. "I may be smug and cocky. But I am not a heartless man, Ping." He patted a spot next to him as they sipped their drink and sighed in relief when water cooled their throats.
"I have heard that you are here in exchange of your elderly father."
"You… you knew?" Mulan looked at Shao Wei, measuring in the man's expression. The Prince's countenance was betraying nothing as he nodded after a moment. "Chi-Fu told me, and so here we are," he said with a little smile. "I want to give you a chance to save that family honour."
That was not the answer she expected. Especially after the first impression, she got when she first arrived at the encampment, watching Shao Wei's indifferent exchange with Yao.
"Happy now?" he said with a teasing smirk.
"Happy?" she repeated.
"Yes. I figure how to sate that curious mind of yours." He turned to meet her eyes and tapped the side of his nose. "My legendary intellect isn't just empty words. Seeing is believing. Now, let's do a little diversification by trying combat with sword, I heard it's your speciality," he said.
Satisfied with the Prince's answer, Mulan obeyed without much hassling. She walked across the beaten path towards Shao Wei's tent to retrieve his sword.
His private tent was no bigger than Shang's, however, his belonging was about ten times more. His plush bed had nearly eaten up most of the floor space which at the moment covered by robes, belts, hair tie, bottles and what Mulan recognised as men's undergarment.
Five minutes into rummaging through his belonging, it became apparent to her that the task of finding two, distinctly shaped and rather large metal object wasn't as easy as it seemed. Shao Wei clearly had an excessive number of clothing material, shoes, books, and countless number of scrolls among other training weapons like nunchuck, rods, spear, and dagger. And the fact that normally he had to depend on his servants to organise and tidy them up didn't help one bit.
But thankfully, with a little bit of perseverance, she managed to pick a pair of swords under his bed. And a tattered large piece of paper caught her attention. It doesn't look neat or formal like any other scroll that scattered around the room. In contrast, the paper looked like used paper and the strokes looked rushed and clumsy.
It was an unmarked map of a building or more like… a palace. And there was a short note written in Mongol underneath it, signed by someone with initial "A".
Mulan hand trembled. Whatever information she failed to decipher in those careful cursives of Mongol language must have held a vital information that the Prince had kept it.
Fearing that the Prince might grow suspicious if she spent too much time just to locate two swords, she rushed back to her training spot.
"Found my sword?" he asked between his press-up.
"Yes... of course," Mulan retorted quickly, schooling her feature to what he hoped was an innocent expression. Perhaps the Prince will fillet her alive if he knew she was snooping in his tent.
"You seemed to have a lot of things in your tent. Are you sure you need all of them for war?" she said. It was more like a statement than a question.
Shao laughed at her confused and disbelief voice. "Of course, I can take whatever I want where ever I want. I am the Prince!" he supplied, arms on his hips before returning his attention to his sword.
Mulan dismissed his decadent undertone. "Then, why did you try to take Yao's sleeping spot on the first day I arrived?"
"For fun," he sniggered as he gave his blade a rub with a silk cloth.
"For fun?" she parroted. Shao exposed his teeth. Mulan thought if one was being generous it might perhaps be called a smile, but it lacked any of the joy or mirth really required for such an expression.
"Yes? Life here is so mundane, I need some… y'know… spark," he replied, moving on to work on his arrow.
Mulan watched the Prince's hand move diligently to sharpen the weapon. The sound of metal grinding sang in the air.
"You seemed to create more enemies than friends in this encampment."
The Prince lifted his mouth in a smile and dodged Mulan's remark with a swift retribution. "I'm glad you notice that," he replied sarcastically. "However, if you keen to hear another version of the story, is that Yao was the one who picked the fight with me."
That struck her. "What? What do you mean?"
"Don't you notice that his bag and belonging wasn't even on the tent? The bedding spread there was for me. Concerned that the Huns will spot me easily if I stayed in my 'exclusive' tent, Chi-Fu had ordered someone to secure a spot for me in the communal tent. Alas, some dim-witted brute tried to interfere."
Mulan's jaw dropped at that. She had never suspected that what had happened. She immediately felt awful for misjudging the Prince without hearing his account. Perhaps he wasn't a spoilt or a traitor her mind had conjectured him to be.
"Why did he do that?" she asked.
Shao gave her a vague shrug, addressing the imaginary point in the sky. "No idea. But...―," suddenly his expression hardened. "I don't need a friend here."
It was perhaps down to her skill reading the same hard expression of her warrior's father that Mulan was able to see a flash of melancholy in the Prince's eyes.
"I...I'm sorry," she immediately felt bad. "You must miss some familiar faces in the royal court. Friend and all that."
"I wished," he scoffed. "They are probably pleased if I were dead here, except for my father," he shook his head. "And that is just because I am the only heir to his throne."
Apparently, the Prince's relationship with his family and friends in higher place weren't any better than here. "Ugh," Mulan cringed, she immediately realized she might be overstepping an unseen personal boundary. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to poke about and..."
Clearing his throat, the Prince quickly put his friendly mask on. "Don't be. Born with silver spoon always comes in a package. Good and bad. You have to survive both. The right friends in the court are a necessary evil at times," and he turned to her. "You are lucky you have good friends here―real friends that stand by you no matter what. And such incredible father figure too," he said, sounding both sincere and wounded. "It's no wonder you want to keep his honor―you want to make him proud."
And Mulan knew he was right. She still remembered right after her mother passing, her father placed a family picture on his desk. Attached with it was a little note. "Today, be thankful and think how rich you are. Your family is priceless, your time is gold, and your health is wealth."
It was perhaps a note to himself, but it had spoken volumes about his amazing character. While many men became bitter as their mourned their passing loved ones after the plague swept the country, her courageous father decided to be thankful and cherished all the time he had left on earth.
"However, I think I owe you an apology," he suddenly said. Mulan blinked. Her 'what?' was silent, but he could read it across her face.
"I said I need to apologise," the Prince said, biting the side of his cheeks. "I know you didn't know the full story back then, but there is no reason why I did… I should've treated you the way I did when you decided to side with Yao." He let a loud exhale. "You are right, maybe I am making enemies more than friends."
"Hey. I'll be your friend," Mulan said, without much thinking.
The Prince's brows climbed unto his hairline, and Mulan immediately amended. "If...if you wish, of course. And that incident with bean bun, completely unintentional. I swear I have no intention whatsoever to harm you. More like….my lack of culinary expertise, I apologize. I always struggle in the kitchen. Washing dishes may have been my limit. "
He looked surprised for a beat.
"You will regret that," he said, but a warm smile laced his lips.
Shang sighed heavily when he found Fa Zhou's letter to Ping among the stack of daily mail delivered to the encampment that day.
He had been avoiding the boy since his dismissal and the Prince's bid to take him under his wings. It made him feel like a bad person. A villain even.
He walked to the courtyard in the hope he could send someone else to deliver the letter. An emptiness greeted him. The place was deserted. Seemed like the compulsory morning marathon had dragged past dinnertime.
"Darn," he muttered, having no choice but to search and find Ping himself.
It was hard at first to find Ping and the Prince since Shang had no idea where they went and how far into the forest they had gone to train.
But as an experienced soldier, Shang had an excellent skill noticing a faint boot mark on the grass or disturbed branch or scent of sweat as a sign of human presence. The trail he followed led him into a clearing and he sensed their presence growing even stronger. He slowed his pace, creeping through the leaves until he saw a flash of movement, one of them was pinning the other on the ground. He heard a cry.
And it wasn't Ping's cry. That sounded like….a woman.
"You okay?" he heard Shao's rasp.
"I'm… I'm fine," replied the feminine voice, heaving from… whatever exertion she was doing as well.
"I think… I think I heard someone." And Shang froze.
A shudder crashed through him when he realized what the Prince could've been doing. He looked around in panic, loss for option. He certainly wasn't going to come crashing out of the bush during that, but what should he do?
He supposed he should go away and come back in what….? Ten minutes?
Ten minutes is crap, he thought, completely aghast by his own heckling. He heard footsteps approaching. Oh lord, he had to escape this horrid awkwardness. What if the Prince found him eavesdropping him during his…―
But, what if she were an enemy spy, entrapping the Prince to endanger him? Even to kill him.
But no, from her heaving, it sounded like the woman was in an equally vulnerable position. Shang nearly slapped himself by then. Not only he was hearing this, but he was also analyzing it.
He had to confront them, he decided.
"Your Highness," Shang emerged from behind the bush. There was no woman, it was only Ping. And there was no fun sexy time….only a spar. Shang sighed in relief. Nevermind even if Ping sounded like a woman, at least his clothing was all still intact and modesty secured.
"May I borrow Ping for a while."
"Of course," the Prince said, throwing a coyest smile towards a confused young man who was half covered in dirt. "He is all yours."
"Thank you for today, Your Honour," Ping said finally, bowing. Another glance exchanged between the two didn't go unnoticed by Shang's eagle eye.
"Don't mention it Ping. It's my…. Pleasure. We have a… great time together," the Prince replied, seemingly enjoying Shang's change of demeanour from stern to code red. "Don't forget to return him back to me," he said tauntingly.
When the place was deserted with the departure of Shao Wei, Shang instantly felt relaxed and annoyed all at once. He didn't like the way the Prince was looking at Ping, it was wrong in so many levels. It reminded him like the way a man would look to a woman, with full of desire and earnest affection.
And it reminded him of how Ping looked at him, with genuine adoration embedded in his shy smile. Yes, that look belonged to him! Only him!
No, wait! What the hell?
Shao Wei laid on his back on the grass, watching the constellation dancing in the cold night sky. It’s been a couple of days since he taught Ping...and the boy… no, girl actually, continued to astound him in many ways possible.
Including her sincere offer to make him her friend.
For a beat, he didn’t know how to respond. She regarded him with her kind, sympathetic stare, completely oblivious on his device to use this training as a method to utilise her to meet his end. And this kind of unexpected sincerity had thrown him off-balance.
Shao balked on the last thought but decided it was prudent to execute his initial plan. Losing friendship over some difference in principle, political debacle or simply betrayal, were nothing new to him.
But he couldn't afford to lose his sister, his family and his country.
Dusk fell on the vast lands where the encampment was laid. After two days of a gruesome trek to the mountain, everyone was allowed an early night to get the rest their body coveted.
Yet, an hour before midnight, Yao still tossed and turned on his makeshift bed. Even extreme fatigue and tiredness couldn't bend his stubborn mind to give up its fight. He hadn't been sleeping well since the night he found his fiance's necklace inside the Captain's tent.
Maybe you and Mei aren't meant to be. It's a good thing you find this out before you walk her down the aisle, he thought.
No, rebuked another voice in his head. Mei isn't that kind of cheap girl. You know that for a fact. There has to be another explanation.
Like what? Like she wants to leave you? Hell yeah, and you still think there is room for competition...-
"Shut it!" Yao scolded, awaking Chien-Po who slept a few paces away from him.
"Man, are you alright?" he asked, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
"I... I'm fine. Sorry," Yao squeaked.
Damn you and your martyr complex, said the voice again.
No, no, it must be him. It must be him that forced Mei to...-
He exhaled heavily as he squeezed his eyes, fearing another unpleasant possibility.
Yeah, let's skin that stupid Captain alive! Gut him like a fish! Turn him into a rug! Make him feel pain! raised another voice.
"Screw him!" Yao balled his fist, thankfully Chien-Po didn't seem to hear him this time.
How could this happen again to him? He had lost―not just one, but two―precious women in his life, to two almost identical looking men. Ok, maybe not identical, but Shang and the Prince of Wei coincidently had a lot of superficial similarities. They were both tall, strong and handsome. Although their personalities were miles apart, but they were both powerful people who had connections in high places―both were influential figures who could bend anyone at their will.
This was how the world run. The rich and powerful would use their authority to commit a shameful crime and let the poor and helpless to endure the consequences.
Yao reached into his sack and pulled a tattered picture, edges were torn and stained with age. The pure smile of his sister was looking back at him. His heart ached as he looked back to that day…
"Baba, it'll be fine. I am always good with kids," Mochou implored. "I've taken care of Yao since he was in diapers. And boy, everyone knew what kind of difficult kid he was," she nudged him teasingly.
"Hey! Watch it!" Yao protested and Mochou grinned at him.
"You are always cute when you are angry," she chuckled, reaching out to his cheeks and pinches them.
"Ouch," Yao yelped and glared at her.
"See? How can I not love that cute little angry face of yours," she laughed. "If Mama were here, I am sure she'll agree with me."
"Mochou….It's not because I don't trust you," their father said patiently. "I know you've done well to help me raise Yao all these years, but serving in a royal palace is nothing like what you used to. You have no idea what the young Prince of Wei and their family are like."
"Spoilt rotten I'd say," piped Yao, who had heard numerous gossip about the heir of Wei's antics. "Someone told me he was once ordered the entire Harem to celebrate the lunar festival in the middle of winter. That's what I describe as a true royal pain!" His older sister just rolled her eyes and ignored his remark.
"Mochou," their father continued. "You are already eighteen. Why don't you go to the matchmaker, find a good man, marry him, have children together and be happy? It's time for you to think about yourself and your future and...―"
"And abandoning you and Yao?" she cut him, not impolitely, but her words sounded sharp nonetheless.
"That's not what I meant. I mean...―When you leave this house to marry, that doesn't mean that you are forsaking us."
"I know it doesn't. But I won't be able to focus on building my own household until I know that all yours and Yao's needs are taken care of," she explained her rationale. "Prince Wei Zhang has promised such a good pay for the successful candidate. I mean, how hard to please a spoilt brat could be? Think about this, if I worked for her, I will be able to send you money for your medication and Yao's schooling, perhaps even saving a little for our own house," Mochou said with enthusiasm. "I am fed up of renting this tiny place."
"Please at least let me at try. It is only for a couple of years until Yao graduated," she pleaded, to which the old man unable to object. His daughter had a fair point, this job could be their ticket to a better life. "...and I'll give you the kind of life and happiness you deserve, Baba."
The old man smiled and pulled his only daughter into his arms. "You already did."
Months later, Mochou's fervent diligence had brought her to the attention of Prince Shao Wei's mother, the most powerful woman in the Harem. Impressed with Mochou's character and determination to please, Consort Shin-Ye appointed the young woman as the head of the chambermaids, leaving Mochou in charge not only her children, but also her belongings and her secrets.
For months and years, those promise and hope of better life seemed to be alive. Mochou wrote them letters weaved with amazing, new experience. She told them of the expansive riches she had never seen before. And Consort Shin-Ye had showered her with gifts, delicacy and of course….money was flowing generously every month. Until one cold winter day, Yao and his elderly father received a letter bearing a bad news of his sister's fate.
After the sudden death of Consort Shin-Ye, the bereaved Prince Wei Zhang ordered to imprisoned all the chambermaid that had stepped into her court that day. The Consort, who died unnoticed during the night, was suspected to be poisoned. Being the main person in charge of the housekeeping, Mochou was undoubtedly on the firing line and was condemned to be executed for her carelessness in preventing such tragedy from happening.
To make the matter worse, the family wasn't even allowed to pay her the last visit, bidding her farewell, let alone questioning where was the justice in what appeared to be harsh and unfair punishment.
There was no funeral for her afterwards, in fact, they had never seen her body since. His father was distressed, thinking he had failed his daughter by letting her die pursuing their dreams. Heartbroken and inconsolable, he died a year later.
It was hard for Yao not to be bitter or consumed with hatred. If there was any salve to his wound was to finally have a chance to give these people who had shattered his dreams a lesson.
But, what kind of lesson that wouldn't eventually backfire? He mused. It would be risky, but he won't give up the fight. He had done so much hassle to enter the regiment simply because this would enable him to meet one of the royals he abhorred.
Looking through the gap on the communal tent, he watched as the sun began to rise, bathing the horizon with golden hue. And there was Chi-Fu, pattering with Chef Zhang around the courtyard with a note on his hand towards Captain Li's tent.
And this gave him one great, despicable idea.