Shao directed them to the closest tea-house in the vicinity. Mulan immediately recognised the establishment; it was the same place where Ling took Ting Ting for their dates.
The owner immediately recognised her as Ling's friend and amicably accommodated them on the corner table away from the peering eyes.
Shang was intensely focusing on the thoughts running in his head, while Shao Wei didn't look particularly interested in being the target of his firing line. While she? She was still entangled in a bitter sense of betrayal. How could Shao not tell her this while she had told him everything? This was not how friendship works!
Escaping from awkward tension, Shao Wei stood up and declared he would get everyone a cup of tea and went off to the counter to order.
SHAO, HE WANTS YOU
I'm sorry I have no opportunity to write properly to you. But I know you'll eventually found this letter.
Tian saw a few men from the palace asking for me around the town. She believed they knew I am still alive... and you hide me here. He is coming for you, Brother. We all know what he wants.
Whatever you do, don't look for me.
-Ting Ting -
Shang observed Shao's countenance as the man plopped himself on the vacant seat in front of him. He'd seen several of Shao's masks before now, how expertly he would hide behind confidence and smugness and charisma, but this might be the one of a rare moment that he took them off, no pretence at all. Although Shang was often labelled as emotionally insensitive, the hint of anxiousness behind Shao's usual cool facade when he looked at the abandoned vegetable shop was undeniable.
"So, you come here to find her?" He could see Shao's enthusiasm dimmed as they returned to the topic.
There were a pause and a long exhale. "I haven't heard anything from her for two months," Shao supplied. "I thought... it will be a good idea to check...-" he shook his head and sighed.
"So, how long have you hid your sister here exactly," Shang enquired, folding back the parchment that he had skimmed for the umpteenth time.
"Half a year," Shao said with a quiet, paralysing sadness.
"You know that sister's death… I mean, disappearance, was the catalyst of this war?" Shang said again, trying not to sound judgemental. "The Huns doesn't take it too kindly when we broke our promise."
Ping had remained oddly silent, and all matter of usual goofiness seemed to disappear in exchange of baleful look. Shang was not the most observant man in the world, but it's clear as day that Ping was not fine.
"Ping, are you..―?"
"I'm fine," he snapped before turning to Shao, calm but dangerous determination on his face. "How could you keep this away from us?"
Shao Wei immediately acknowledged the accusation was directed to him. "What? I am not! I am being economical with the truth," he defended.
"Seriously?" Ping scoffed.
"Anyway, It's none of your business if I hid my sister somewhere."
"Hell yes if you are a poor farmer somewhere in an uncharted part of China!" Ping replied, voice escalating. "But you are the Prince of Wei! Your saying and your action decide the future of this country! By that, I mean every one of us!"
Ping's anger was logical given the context. There were undoubtedly many men: son, father, husband or brother who were forced to march into war. They had become a likely victim of a political dispute....or to simply fulfil a selfish agenda of their leader.
"I am trying to protect her!" Shao replied, equally incensed. "Wouldn't you all will do the same thing if your siblings were forced into marriage you know going to torture them to their grave?"
"That's not your priority! You should've done something to protect your country! Your subjects! That's what good leaders do. And look at what you've done now? You let these faithful men―men who vowed to die to protect you―marching to their own demise, while you perhaps, had remained blissfully drunk and insulated from real life responsibilities!"
"So what if I am not a good leader!" Shao nearly screamed. "You dared to condemn my unwise decision without even considering how hard it is to be me!"
Ping rose up from his seat, "I'm sure there is a better way than faking her death! Ones that don't cause war to start!" he stubbornly insisted. "You should've stayed away and stayed that way!"
By then, Shao looked perfectly offended. "What do you think, Ping? Did your father not tell you the same thing when he received his conscription? Tell you to stay away? I bet he even said that he would be glad to die for China," he replied crisply. "Did you also do nothing about it?" And he scoffed, loudly. "Oh, I forgot. You actually took his place."
Ping looked overthrown by Shao's furious indictment. Because deep down everyone knew, there was no way one could reason love. No one could measure the depth of one's affection and the sacrifices one's willing to do to keep their loved one safe.
"Okay, listen," Shang interrupted between the firing lines by slapping his massive palm on the table. The sound of jumping ceramics caused both parties to halt, staring at him wide-eyed.
"Thank you very much," he said when their attention was on him.
Shang knew there was something between Ping and the Prince, something he didn't know, but he won't let personal issue between them diverting their focus from more important matters at hand.
"Shao, do you have any idea who was looking for you? I mean….who is he?"
Shao let a disgruntled sigh, "Uncle Xiongnu."
"The Son of Heaven? The Emperor himself?" Shang couldn't help sounding sceptical. "Why? I mean… he could just summon you to his palace to have a friendly conversation?"
"He must have suspected that you are the mastermind behind this ruse," Ping spoke up, although a lot more sympathetic and apologetic. "But I am sure Ting Ting is somewhere safe; thus she had left this message to warn you."
It was entirely probable that Ting Ting had seen her pursuant beforehand and ran into hiding somewhere.
"Help me to understand this. Why did you fake your sister's death?" Shang asked. For once he didn't believe that Shao helping his sister escaping unwanted marriage was the only reason. There was another reason, a more important reason.
The Prince looked stricken and lost and almost unbearably sad. "To protect her having the same fate as my mother," he admitted. "It's my mother last wish was for me to take care of Ting Ting, because she is my only sister."
"What does this have anything to do with the Emperor?" Shang inquired, curiosity peaked.
"No one should know," Shao said. "It'll be a great scandal."
"Go on. Try me."
"The real author of my mother's murder wasn't the Hun spies or any highly paid foreign mercenary. Is was him, the Emperor."
"W-what...?" Shang was sure he wasn't the only surprised-party on the table.
"It's no news that my uncle has this obsession of uniting China and other kingdoms around here under his wings. I am sure you're aware of that," Shao said.
Shang nodded. He had been sent to a few minor invasion all across the continent; therefore he certainly knew what Shao meant.
"Truth be told that my father has the same ambition, but with a different method―political marriage."
"Since they were young, uncle Xiongnu had always been the clever, assertive, and bold one between the two. And naturally, as the oldest son, he had more leadership practices in exercising power and authority to prepare him for the throne. Despite their character differences, my father was very loyal to him and looked up to him like he was god. He admires uncle Xiongnu liked no one else."
"But who can blame him. My grandfather was assassinated by a felon from a minor kingdom who disproved of his method of ruling. Back then, my father was barely ten. Uncle Xiongnu was forced to grow up prematurely and stepped up to the role as the first man of the country. His success had both inspired and overshadowed my father ever since."
"My mother was a woman given by the Uygur kingdom for my father to wed. She was beautiful but very opinionated and hard to control. My uncle had never liked her."
"So, when my mother voiced her disapproval over my sister becoming the Huns Khatun - my uncle saw his opportunity to ruin my father's friendship with the Khan."
"The Emperor killed your mother and…―"
"Yes, framed a Hun mercenary instead," Shao continued. "The allegation obviously caused a strain between the Khan and my father's relationship. He tried to salvage it by offering me to wed Altansarnai, to which the Khan refused point blank. Our political allies with the Huns deteriorated that point onwards."
Well, who wants to wed their daughter to a delinquent prince especially when you are already a princess on your own right? Shang thought in his head.
"Does your father know about this?"
"At some point, he knew. But he was far more infested trying not to disappoint his brother that he is willing to overlook his crime."
"He is not… angry to your uncle?"
"No. Often times it was my uncle who always accused my father saying that his alliance with the Huns was an effort to overthrow him from the throne."
Shang nodded thoughtfully. He had heard rumour of Shao Wei's future engagement to the Emperor's eldest daughter; perhaps this was Wei Zhang's way to earn his brother's good side.
"Have you speak to anyone else about this?" Shang inquired, head still spinning with this unpalatable truth.
"Not even my father?" Shang knew above all men. His father was not just a wise man, but also a man of integrity and secrecy. He thought his father might have deduced some of these plots himself, hence sending him to be Shao's wingman.
Shao's expression shuttered, and it's like he's suddenly a shell of the man who'd been sitting there.
"Who will believe me? I spent a lot of years being a selfish asshole, and I hurt a lot of people. And the majority of it ended up in the tabloids. That's a hard image to shake." He cleared his throat, turning his teacup in little circles again.
Shang nodded sympathetically, partially because he was absorbing the story, and the rest because he had nothing useful or distantly comforting to say.
"It's okay. It's my own fault." Shao shook his head minutely, a sad little smile on his lips. "My reputation is well-earned. Deserved. I am an easy man to hate." His voice is low and soft and full of regret.
For a brief moment, Shang felt he understood why Shao had been embroiling himself with women, alcohols and gambling; why he had been avoiding politics and any notion of the crown. If this was how he experienced power: a life full of lies, betrayal and backstabbing, it's no wonder if anyone would run away from it.
"I am just trying to be a better brother. A better man," he sighed. "And I guess… I failed."
This time, the silence between them was sincere and confessional. Somehow Shang could relate to whatever Shao was saying, perhaps because deep down, he was struggling a very similar kind of battle: to be a better man. A better husband.
"...And I'm sorry that I challenge your advice earlier about taking Ping with me."
Shang didn't react to that, or at least he tried. To be honest, he was not proud of the stab of jealousy he felt with that odd closeness Ping had with the Prince.
"Anyway, whether you'll believe me or not, please keep our conversation between us," Shao said in closing.
Shang nodded quietly. He remembered how happy his mother was every time his father brought her a souvenir from Forbidden City. But suddenly, the glittering glamour and extravagant shine of the palace life lost its charm.
"I'm not as perceptive as my father when it comes to judging people's character, but I can tell you are a good man, Shao Wei. And this is not a compliment," Shang told him. "It's the truth."
"Oh." It was clear that wasn't the model answer Shao Wei had expected him to say (which perhaps had been obvious recalling how many time he had dispassionately replying his request).
"And I believe you," and that silenced him further.
For once Shang had felt a strange connection to the man whom background and persona was nothing symmetrical to his. Shao Wei was one of the most complex, sophisticated man he knew―but at this moment in time, Shang almost could say he understood him well enough to read his mind.
"Leave it to me to find the whereabouts of your sister. Now we need someplace you can hide."
Shao hummed his gratefulness, "Thank you."
Their conversation was so intense that they didn't realise Ping wasn't there anymore. Both men looked over various direction, but no sign of their comrade.
"Talking about Ping," Shao shifted the topic, recalling the two weeks deadline from Ping's reassessment was almost due. "I hope you agree with me to give him one more shot. He is a little eccentric, I know, but doesn't mean he isn't capable of greatness."
As much as he favoured Ping, greatness wasn't exactly the word that came to his mind. So, Shang decided not to say anything... but unfortunately his sceptical exhale did.
"Li Shang, you can't expect a bird to fly when you pin its wing," Shao reasoned. "You have to give the boy a chance to let him be who he is. Only then you'll see him soar."
Shang knew the outset that he shouldn't promise anyone anything. As a leader he was bound to make unpopular decisions, his father had forewarned him of this, including defying the request of a prince. But he wasn't in the mood of confronting Shao's usual wheedling. On the other hand, he didn't want Shao Wei to think he had grown complacent just because Ping was his brother-in-law.
"We'll see about that." He decided that was as much as diplomacy he could offer. Shang stood up and gathered their belongings and trying not to overthink the strange friendship Ping forged with the Prince. "Now we have to find Ping and….―"
And speaking of the devil, there was a shriek of panic coming from the back that halted their conversation. Moments later they witnessed Fa Ping, walked timidly with a rather well-dressed man trailing behind him.
"Is this boy with you?" the man said, countenance immediately turned pale when he realised who was standing in front of him. "My Lord Highness…. Prince of Wei...I'm sorry, I didn't...―"
"Any problem?" Shang didn't waste any breath and jumped in to inquire.
"Oh, nothing serious," the man clasped his hand and amicably gave them a bow. "It's just your friend here scared my wife and other female patrons of this establishment when he got into the wrong toilet."
All Shang could do was to let a deep sigh and massage his temple.
Agreement was never a noun that came easy for them, Mulan had discovered. When it came to discussing things with Shang, whether as Ping or Fa-Li Mulan, they bound to argue, debate, which in time normally expounded into something more sinister like verbal lashing to much rarer physical confrontation.
So, when it took them less than five minutes to agree on a suitable place to hide the Heir of Wei, confusion rolled in.
"So, you agree we should just leave Shao Wei with Venerable Yen's family?" Mulan reconfirmed.
"He knew both our fathers well, and he used to be an outstanding member of palace advisory and currently serving as Xi'an city treasury," Shang repeated what Mulan had told him. "I am sure a man on his rank knew how to treat royalty, and more importantly, keeping him safe."
"My father told me the man had proven to be discreet and honourable in his conduct."
"Fair consideration," Shang nodded as a sign that he trusted her judgement. And with that, they packed their things.
Three of them arrived at Venerable Yen's residence in good time. Everything was as Mulan expounded to Shang, vast garden surrounded by bamboo forest, pathway paved by walls of magnolias and a large fortress-like home with countless servants. Well, she managed to mention everything but one thing―Xin, Venerable Yen's sixteen-year-old daughter, who at the moment was said to have a game of Komi with a bunch of other girls.
Even as much their disguise went, and even when they tried masking their mission to be as low key as possible, when there was a charming prince on the tow, there was no escaping of women's attention.
Upon arriving, they were being ushered to one of the living room and waited for Venerable Yen. Shao Wei had used the opportunity to polish his appearance and had requested the use of one of their bedroom so he could change to his formal attire.
Left with the-ever-not-so-conversationalist Captain, Mulan decided to entertain herself by staring at various paintings on the wall. This was just the beginning, from the opened window behind them, Mulan could hear a bunch of girls outside, talking.
"Oh my, it is true… His Lord Prince of Wei is here! I saw him just now walk into the powder room!" she heard them said in a hushed tone.
"Xin, how could you not tell us your father is inviting a royalty for lunch today, we could've donned a better dress!"
"I hope he is much more handsome than the painting…" said another. "Hey, does your powder room have a window. Who knows we might catch a glimpse of him with... lesser attire." And her voice was swallowed by high-pitched feminine giggles of her friends.
"Wait, look at the other guy on the table, the tall one, with the red string on his man-bun. That's my friend… is gorgeousness redefined."
"Oh… oh, you mean the quiet one with the ridiculous jawline?" the other blurted out, then clasped a hand over her mouth. Until lately, Mulan couldn't comprehend women's fixation over the angularity of men's jaw. After she married Shang, she knew.
"Oh gods, have you checked out his arms? That biceps…begging me to feel it."
Shang immediately tensed. Although he'd been introspectively aware of his good looks, he never got used to hearing people objectifying him. He tried not to fidget, but Mulan could see a slight blush crept on his ears..., and it was by far the dorkiest thing she's seen him do, but it somehow makes him seem more human and relatable and, yes, more attractive.
"He seems nice….and handsome, (like a Disney prince or something…!) even when the way he looked at the table is a bit… aggressive."
Shang flashed them a withering look towards the group, which unfortunately, to the eyes of a group of inexperienced damsels, disdain could wrongly misinterpret as passion. His attention was responded with another high pitch glee followed by a muffled discussion before one of the unfortunate girls from the group timidly making a beeline into the room.
"State your business," Shang said like interrogating an enemy spy: precise, short and deadly. The girl, who probably only a few years her junior, was visibly shrunk under his glare. Now Mulan knew why General Li and Li Yue never attempted to matchmake Shang with a normal, ordinary woman with a non-military background.
"I said: State. Your. Business," Shang repeated a pitch louder when the girl didn't immediately answer.
Mulan squinted at him irritably, but the insufferable idiot took no notice whatsoever.
"He meant: What can we do for you?" Mulan rephrased, trying to restrain herself from rolling eyes at him.
"I'm Xin," the girl managed, stealing an abashed glance at Shang who was still shooting a murderous gaze at her.
"Oh!" Mulan promptly stood up and bowed politely. "Ms. Xin. Thank you for allowing us to set foot on your property. We are just waiting for your father. Meanwhile, is there anything you want from us?"
"Oh, it's nothing really, I just wonder if I could…―" she gulped when Shang narrowed his eyes, which perfectly complement the dire look on his face. Instantaneously, her verbal ability went on from stuttering to a complete halt, which was understandable, Shang's intense stare could be both terrifying and arousing in equal measure.
"You're saying…?" Mulan encouraged.
"I'm sorry if I…." Then Xin looked over towards the door and went even more rigid. "Is...is that really...?"
When Mulan followed her gaze, she had a little concerned the girl might pass out. Because, okay, the-handsome-and-most-desired-bachelor-in-China, wrapped in all his princely glamour, was gracefully glided toward you with a friendly grin on his face? That's a little brutal.
"You are looking for him?" she enquired. The girl remained unresponsive.
Shao reached the table and placed a pot of tea and three cups down in front of them. "I told the housekeeper I would take this to you two myself," he told her and Shang, and Xin made a little choking noise as she craned her neck to stare up at the Prince. At least that's mean she was still breathing.
Xin waved awkwardly at him. And there was a moment when Mulan something else flashed in Shao's eyes before he regained composure.
"Hi, I believe we are yet to be introduced," Shao said with that obscenely wonderful charm and all the genetic blessings.
"This is Ms Xin, Venerable Yen's daughter," Mulan interjected, because she's pretty sure Xin was still non-verbal at the moment.
"Oh yes….she's also a great fan of yours," she added, unnecessarily. Admittedly, she found the girl's flustered reaction quite entertaining. She mentally slapped herself for indulging over the girl's duress.
Xin nodded frantically before bowing. "I'm sorry to disturb but I…. I can't…"
"Don't worry, you are not in any sort of trouble," Shao said in an incredibly patient, kind tone and oddly non-sexual. "Anything I can do for you?"
"Oh no no. I'm just glad I finally met you―in the flesh, I've read so much about you in tablo―… I mean...news," the girl admitted after finding her voice.
"The honour is mine too," Shao said. "In fact, we may have a good acquainting time this couple of days."
"Oh, I didn't know My Lord Prince is going to stay…―"
"Yes, I'm sorry for this little… impromptu arrangement. I hope my presence didn't cause so much inconvenience and distress on your part," Shao said smoothly. And before Xin managed to breathe any polite retort, he added, "In fact, I have a gift for you," and he pulled out his silk handkerchief out of his pocket. "It doesn't come with a box, but it's new," Shao said, placing the item on the girl's trembling hand. Although, used would've been a better souvenir.
"Consider it as my expression of gratitude for letting me stay," he said, reaching over and patted her hand in a totally platonic, comforting kind of way.
She made a little squealing sound and a universal movement of fanning herself when she found out the gossamer material had the royal emblem embroidered on one of its corners.
"Thank you," she managed to mouth, bowing ever so deeply. "I will take good care of it."
Before Xin neatly tucked the treasure inside her purse, Mulan managed to see a small gold embroidery on the edge of the material: "Ting Ting"
That late evening, arriving back in the encampment, Mulan was doing her rounds of patrol. She was undoubtedly tired, but she was in a better spirit after apologising to Shao for her mercurial mood and blunt accusation.
She knew she did the right thing not to leave the matter between them for another week, even when Shao just grinned and told her he'd be sad missing all the 'fun' and 'comfort' of the encampment. He even managed to insert a line of uncouth tease to her to 'enjoy having Captain Shirtless for yourself'. The restoration of his sense of mischief meant things had returned back to normal. But it wasn't all joke and humour, Shao Wei―that killer of good tidings―also reminded her that if she didn't practise harder, Captain Handsome would likely to send her home.
"You are one clever girl, Mulan," Shao had told her. "I know you have your own reasoning and reservation about why you are in this encampment. But China could do with one more soldier, especially one with a great mind like yours."
She sighed to herself. How could Shao see things in her that she couldn't see it herself just yet? When she questioned him, the crazy Prince only quipped: you are holding the mirror the wrong way. Before you can see potentials in others, you have to be able to find it within yourself.
Did she possess any potential? Any promise of success or some kind? At first, she thought she did, not until Shang's dismissal decimated every single inch of her confidence she had left in her.
From a distance she saw him sparring with a few soldiers, watching them halt in their movements, sheen of perspiration glistening on their skins.
He stood in his stance, mouthing some inaudible instruction. His impressive back muscles were flexing in a way that made her mouth water, the scar on his shoulder beckoning her to feel it. She swallowed and fisted her hand. Lusting after her husband was the biggest irony any wife anywhere could think of.
Realising who she had been staring, she quickly shifted her eyes together with her mind to the person next to her, Ling, who was humming a cheerful tune―which by the forceful timbre of his voice and tense posture of his shoulder, the song had miserably failed to radiate the happiness it should.
"Hey, what's wrong?" she said softly as they walked, patrolling. Chien-Po is trailing behind them.
Ling shook his head. "Nothin'"
"Ling, what do you mean nothing? Hey. I wasn't born yesterday, kay? Now, spill."
Ling hesitated but decided to share the truth.
"I was… I went to see her," he said, almost unheard. "While you were gone."
"Her?" There was only one feminine subject who could cause Ling that level of edgy restlessness. "You mean…"
"You did?" she gasped.
It was a dangerous move. Anyone who was discovered leaving the encampment without permission was rewarded with punishment which involved public humiliation, or worse, beheading. It was a surprise to her that Ling, the sweet, noodle-loving man would pull such a stunt.
"You know how dangerous that is?"
Ling sighed heavily. "It's my only chance. Tian and her family are moving…―."
"Wait," Mulan grabbed his shoulder, practically halting him. "She told you that?"
"Yes?" And he handed a letter. Inside, there was a map, followed by a short note that Mulan had decided to skip because it sounded too personal for her to know.
"There is a hut on the edge of the woods," Ling beat her to the question. "Tian just said their rental was terminated prematurely," which Mulan was sure just a cover-up to avoid further inquisitive questions.
"Can I share this information with the Captain?" she said, motioning towards the map.
Ling shrugged, not understanding the context of the situation. "Sure, but… why? Why would he be interested in Ting Ting's whereabouts?"
"Because Ting Ting is…" Mulan hesitated. She could feel the spirit of animosity emanated from Ling every time the Prince made it into view. And during their chit-chat session every dinner, she tried to used the generic word 'he' to address him because Ling's face would turn like a lemon for each reminder that a person name Shao Wei did exist.
"Promise me you won't freak out."
Ling's turn to gasp, but immediately bracing himself. "Okay…." he said with baited breath.
"Ting Ting is Shao Wei's sister. Princess Wei Xiu Ting."
Meanwhile, in Mongolia...
"So Asanthi missed the target?"
"But that's impossible! She'd never missed!"
"Seeing is believing," Timur scoffed sarcastically. "I told you not to bring that Chinese woman…!"
"Watch your mouth!" Batu said warningly, he eyed Sukh who had remained despicably silent throughout the exchange. He knew his friend had as much confusion and disbelief of what just happened, especially considering he was the person who had endorsed his wife faultless aiming ability.
"The Chinese would've executed her if it wasn't because someone decided to make a profit and sold her to the Huns instead. Now tell me, who hated the Chinese more than a girl who was betrayed by her own countrymen?" Batu argued.
"You can't turn a cat into a tiger," came Timur quiet grumble.
"Once a traitor always a traitor."
Asanthi sighed as she listened to the male voices arguing incessantly about her failure.
You can't turn a cat into a tiger.
Although many years ago it was the ruling Prince of Wei who had imprisoned and nearly executed her unjustifiably, she never planned to settle any score with anyone. Was it weaknesses to absolve his sin as though it never happened? Was it a shortcoming not to feel intense animosity towards the man that had ripped her family apart? Perhaps Timur was right, she was way too placid and docile to be a warrior, she reflected.
Once a traitor always a traitor.
That remark cut deep to the core of her heart. She had always view Mongolia as her home far away from home, and these Huns fighters were her family. She had always alluded to the notion that she was welcomed here.
Well, I guess not, she thought ruefully in her head.
Admittedly, her life in captivity was a good one, although it wasn't started that way.
One of the Huns, Batu, the Chief of spies, had bought her as a slave from one of the Chinese officials, initially deemed for a gift to his wife.
But Asanthi was proven much too clever to just in charge of cooking, sewing and herding the cattle. With her mistress' permission, she spent her spare time reading, learning to speak Mongol, to ride a horse and to hunt.
Batu was the first to acknowledge the streak of brilliance in her when Asanthi when he took her hunting for deer one night. She had no difficulty whatsoever tracking and aiming the animal despite the fact that it was a moonless night. Keen to prove her ability further, she asked her master's permission to join the annual hunting contest held by Princess Altansarnai. She managed to win it by taking down more than a dozen wild hare in under an hour―a record that even hard to establish by an experienced hunter.
After her astonishing accomplishment, Princess Altansarnai took notice on her, and later on, decided to pay a handsome amount of money to Batu's wife in order to take her under her wing.
Although she had gained favour from one of the most influential royals, Asanthi's life wasn't all bed of roses. Her rise to fame had ignited the feeling of rivalry, and a few Huns inner circle weren't at all pleased when she knew Asanthi was born Chinese.
To cut the story short, she had to endure another physical assault when someone broke into her quarter, threatened to cut her limbs.
After the incident, Princess Altan had been adamant that Asanthi had to learn some form of self-defence, which in time led her to Sukh―a man who agreed to train and groom her to be the Princess' personal guard.
During this period of training, it was no surprise when Asanthi captured the heart of her mentor, who later on offered her hand in marriage, to which she dutifully accepted.
Asanthi had never expected this, but her life gradually became sweeter since.
Contrary to Asanthi initial speculation, the Huns warriors weren't barbaric, bloodthirsty bunch. In fact, quite the opposite, they were a crowd of a civilised, witty and skilful hunter who was very efficient and knowledgeable in what they do. More so, as a woman, she was never treated as a second class citizen. She was given equal opportunity to learn, train and to fight just any Huns male would. It's no surprise if she soon moved up the rank and became one of their best archers.
And Sukh, her husband, despite sharing Shan-Yu's burly, ferocious look, deep down was a gentle and reasonable man.
She recalled the time of Datong war, she made her first kill with a small dagger. Her victim was a young man, perhaps a commander in his battalion, couldn't have been older than twenty-five. He sneaked up from behind her and she had no choice but to defend herself. Although it was done in the heat of a battle, her heart still conflicted with guilt realising she had robbed one precious life. He could've been someone's father, son… or brother.
"Mo Chou," she recalled Sukh called her gently. "Killing someone in the battle doesn't make you a killer. We might not like what we do, but we do what we must," he said after a moment of silence. "Besides, this man didn't die in vain. He died a hero."
She knew Sukh was right, but his assurance hardly reconciled her feeling of remorse.
"Let's erect a little shrine and pray for his soul," he suggested, while stroking her back as she cried inconsolably, her hands still stained with blood. "But first let us find some water. There is no use in punishing yourself with his blood as a reminder."
Somehow, her husband knew what she was thinking. Most of the time Sukh was hard, stern and discipline, but when the chips were down, he pulled the words from his heart. It's his unexpected sincerity that made a true impact on her. Perhaps this was how the universe imparted its infinite wisdom, to show her that these Huns, just like her fellow Chinese compatriots, were just... people. People who were capable of sympathy and humanity.
"My Lord Husband," Asanthi greeted as she saw her husband entered the room, closing the door behind him to muffle the sound of discord argument outside.
"I believe you owe me an explanation," he said, not unkindly.
She immediately obliged. "Although I've told you I never believe avenging anyone would do any good, I have no qualm killing the Prince of Wei," she said, putting the most sincere voice. "It was an assignment that I didn't take lightly."
Sukh nodded contemplatively. "There is not a moment that I doubt your loyalty to the Khan, but I want to hear your account before arriving in any conclusion." Why did you miss the intended target?
"My dear husband," she said imploringly. "It was an error on my part. They are both very much alike in built and stature."
It was only a half-truth. Her mistake wasn't the shot, nor the target, but to agree with a love-stricken woman who had vowed to protect a man who was their mortal enemy. Not that she would tell her husband that of the Princess. It was not her story to tell.
Sukh fell deep in thought. While he knew it was dark and the said Captain was of the similar stature with the Prince of Wei, he hardly believed his wife, who was an abled archer with excellent vision, would make such a juvenile blunder.
"Did something distract you?" It was the only possible explanation.
Asanthi swallowed the knot on her throat. Her husband apparently was much more observant than she credited him for.
"More like someone," she said, this time sharing the truth.
Sukh took a seat next to her, indicating he was listening. "Go on."
"I saw, my little brother―Yao."