This is how the world works: Li Shang grows up in his father's footsteps, becomes an acclaimed army general, and brings honor to his father and his ancestors while serving his country faithfully. If he marries -- so far he has been uninterested in the prospect, finding freedom in being a single soldier -- he will have sons to carry on the family line. Either he will die with honor in battle or retire in old age.
This is how the world is supposed to work, at any rate.
This is how the world actually works: instead of leading soldiers into battle, he is given command over a disorganized bunch of conscripted civilians who don't know the business end of a sword. Instead of fighting to defend China, he is stuck training these misfits into something resembling soldiers.
And -- worst of all -- instead of being devoted to a wife or his job as a soldier, he is becoming attracted to one of his men.
Conscripts do not make the best soldiers; while all recruits are like raw clay to be molded into shape, conscripts are the cheapest clay that is the hardest to work with. It will not be easy. Shang knows this; his father knows, and trusts him; Chi Fu knows, and thinks he will fail.
Shang will not fail. He will not let his father down.
After the first day of proper training -- they have so far to go, and so little time -- he reviews the day in his head and makes notes on the recruits, marking their strengths and weaknesses. This one has a temper like a short-fuse explosive; that one is gentle and will need hardening. This one acts before thinking; that one thinks too much. This one...
He is at Fa Ping and he stops, frowning. The boy is to all appearances half-witted; a lunatic, Chi Fu had called him, and not without reason. But it feels off somehow, not quite real. Shang can see glimpses of something else when Ping isn't aware he's being watched -- but then the boy sees Shang and goes back to tripping over his own feet, both metaphorically and literally.
Shang thinks he understands.
There are only a few paths open to the son of a legendary soldier. Embrace the challenge -- as Shang has done, and in his case, luck and dedication and hard work have allowed him to fill the vast shadow cast by his father's reputation rather than being swallowed by it -- or reject it utterly.
If Fa Zhou had a son that wasn't as interested in the art of war, it could be easy for the boy to have learned to play the imbecile rather than the warrior, purely as protection.
It frustrates Shang, and the following weeks do not help. China needs warriors, and many of the recruits are improving, but as far as Shang can tell, Ping is spending more effort on maintaining his role as a buffoon than he is on training.
Perhaps, Shang thinks, he needs the right motivation.
And so one night Shang takes him outside the camp and tells him, in a voice barbed with scorn and disgust, to go home. Ping droops at the words, visibly disappointed. But Shang just walks away. If Ping is who he pretends to be, then he truly has no place in war -- but if Ping is who Shang thinks he could be...
The next morning, Shang wakes to an arrow landing at his feet. Ping is perched on top of the pole, and his weary satisfied smile makes something flutter inside Shang. He tells himself it is pride but he suspects it is the seed of something deeper.
"Well done," he says, and then pitches his voice to carry through the camp, to the other recruits gawking nearby. "This is how you win. Strength and discipline do not weigh you down -- they are tools to achieve greatness. Do you understand?"
A ragged cheer went up.
"Then it is time for your next lesson," Shang says, but he allows himself a small smile up at Ping.
That moment is a marked shift in Ping's. The imbecile mask Ping was using as protection comes out less and less; he is more quick-witted than he seems, and picks up training quickly now that he is undivided. Plus, the other recruits respect him now, rather than picking on him: being the first to reach the arrow gave him honor he had been lacking in their eyes.
Shang continues to take notes on all of them, and pretends to ignore Chi Fu ostentatiously taking notes on him.
A few days later is when the dreams start. They all start with Shang training Ping -- usually in hand to hand combat that morphs into wrestling. Ping is a lithe and limber opponent, and Shang dreams of pinning him down and then...
Sometimes, Ping disappears in a puff of smoke, and Shang is on the ground alone, aching with the impact.
Sometimes, Ping is wearing a mask, and Shang removes the mask to find another Ping beneath it, or a different soldier -- or once, disturbingly, Chi Fu, laughing toothlessly him as he scuttles back in horror.
Sometimes, he kisses Ping, and Ping groans into his mouth and arches up, seeking more touch.
Those are the hardest to deal with, somehow. Shang is used to dreaming about men as well as women, but never someone under his command. It unnerves him when he wakes, and yet he can't stop thinking about the dreams.
One of the rules of battle, his father has taught him, is to not get too attached to any one of his men. Individual lives do not matter in war; he will inevitably lose men, and that loss must not mean he loses the battle as well. A commander must respect and trust his men as appropriate, but never be involved.
That doesn't stop the dreams.
There is only one time more that Ping's old self reappears.
Shang knows that the recruits are ready -- they are not perfect soldiers, but with the immediate threat of the Huns, China does not have time for perfection. The rest of their training can come on the battlefield. But Chi Fu shoots him down with smug derision, managing to insult both Shang and his father in one fell swoop, not so much implying Shang's inadequacy as stating it outright.
Shang stalks out of the tent burning with resentment. As consul to the emperor, Chi Fu is virtually untouchable, but Shang yearns to challenge him to single combat anyway -- let him find out just how thoroughly Shang had earned his position.
He doesn't see Ping until the conscript says loudly, "Hey, I'll hold him, and you punch." A forced chuckle follows. It has the sound of the boorish lunatic that Ping had once pretended to be -- most likely he is as embarrassed to overhear Chi Fu's comments as Shang is to have endured them -- and Shang ignores him.
But as he stalks away, a different voice -- still Ping's, but softer and gentler and more true -- calls after him: "For what it's worth, I think you're a great Captain."
The words of a recruit shouldn't matter. The praise of a recruit should matter less. Shang knew his training techniques verged on brutal -- they had to be; swords had to be hammered into shape, not coaxed, and being nice to recruits in training would only get them killed in battle. Recruits weren't supposed to like him, just obey him.
But at least one person thinks he's good at what he does. And while he is still flushed enough that the cool night air feels good, it is a different sort of warmth: not the sharp heat of anger, but the gentler burn of pleasure.
He pauses before entering his tent, wondering at himself. How is it that Ping's compliment feels as rewarding as one from his father?
That night is when they receive General Li's message, and it is the beginning of everything changing.
As they march to the Tung Shao pass to join the main army, Shang can hear their chatter. Some of it is complaints, but he is hardly surprised when the recruits -- soldiers, now -- begin talking about girls. It seems to mostly be fantasy: not anyone waiting for them at home, but their ideal woman, perfect and beautiful and submissive and worshipful.
No one asks Shang; he's their commanding officer, not a friend. And unlike Chi Fu, he volunteers nothing, but rides along in disapproving silence.
It isn't their chatter itself that bothers him. This far from the front, noise doesn't matter, and they will hear the noise of battle before the battle hears them. If it keeps them occupied, they'll complain less. No, it isn't the talking so much as the content. A girl worth fighting for? Had they asked him, he would have told them they fight because they are soldiers. Swords do not dream of comfort, and while they are in the Imperial Army, that is what they are: swords wielded by the Emperor to protect his people.
Shang, despite the nicknames given by occasional smart-mouthed fellow soldier in the past, is neither a eunuch nor a heartless creature made of jade and stone. He has great admiration for the female form. (Or -- he forces himself to not think of Ping, or the dreams of their sparring matches turning sensuous and quite improper -- he is aware that some soldiers turn to one another for comfort, but it is not his general inclination.)
But his standards are different. If he marries, he has long since decided, he will be practical about it. His wife will be someone he can trust, someone with intelligence and honor. Looks matter less: beauty can be feigned, but the spirit cannot be hidden.
But he says nothing, and does not let his face reflect his thoughts.
He does almost crack a smile one when an awkward pause in the conversation behind him is followed by Ping stammering out an equally awkward answer. Clearly Ping has not thought about the subject much. Perhaps Ping isn't interested in women -- though Shang doesn't speculate on his soldiers' inclinations, and when his mind drifts treacherously toward the dreams again, to Ping stretched warm and inviting against him, he forces himself to sit straighter in his saddle and think of battle tactics instead.
It almost works.
And then they crest a hill, and the soldiers' laughter and chatter cuts off as abruptly as if sliced by a sword. Shang puts a hand up for caution, but it is hardly necessary. Everyone is on alert now; still-burning fires glare sullenly from the scorched remains of the village as they approach in stunned silence.
No one needs to mention the Huns. They may be gone now, but no one else would wreak such destruction, and the echo of their presence lingers like a malevolent spirit.
"Search for survivors," Shang snaps, his voice too loud. It's doubtful they will find any, but they have to do something -- anything -- in the face of this.
(I am dreaming, he thinks dazedly as he rides through the ruins. I have to be dreaming. But the smell of burning wood-- and beneath that, thick and disturbingly sweet, burnt flesh -- is too real, the silence too loud. This is no dream.)
One of the still-standing frames collapses, kicking up a cloud of ash. Jiao, as battle-trained as Shang but skittish, shies in terror, and Shang's sense of unreality increases. "I don't understand," he says quietly. Ping is nearby, and he wouldn't normally admit uncertainty in front of someone under his command, but Ping feels safe, and Shang is too bewildered to care. "My father should have been here."
But the village is destroyed, and even with the snow to muffle sounds, there is no sound of the Imperial Army being nearby.
"Captain," Chi Fu calls, and it doesn't sound like he has found survivors.
Beyond the village is a vast wreckage that Shang can make no sense of at first, but then it resolves with horrible clarity, the mangled corpses of horses and men and equipment all strewn about like discarded toys. The banners of the Imperial Army have been trampled into the mud.
The only movement is one of Shang's own soldiers returning, a familiar helmet in his hands and regret on his face. "The general," he says haltingly as he hands the helmet over.
Cold iron hits Shang's hands, and with a roaring in his ears, the world disappears. Just him and his father's helmet and a vast emptiness around him.
This isn't possible.
It can't be.
Shang moves without thought, almost without awareness. His sword is in his hand, and after staring at it for a moment without comprehension, he plunges it point-first into the snow and, kneeling, balances the helmet on top. His father --
(My father is dead, he thinks. My father is dead, and I will never see him again. I am alone. How could this happen? Oh, Father...)
-- deserves better, but for now this will have to do. He bows to the helmet, and waits for an answer.
He wants to stay here forever, kneeling at the makeshift shrine until the world makes sense again. It may never make sense; he may become a statue of ice, frozen here forever. It doesn't matter.
But footsteps crunch in the snow behind him, and Ping says, "I'm sorry."
Returning to reality feels like stepping into ice. With effort he rises to his feet, feeling himself settle into the emotionless mask of a career soldier. He cannot be human, not yet. He can't allow it. One of the rules of battle is this: there is no room for grief until the fight is over. And another rule is this: a commander does not belong to himself.
He has known rules like these since before he could lift a sword.
Shang puts a hand on Ping's shoulder in silent acknowledgment, and for a moment he wishes he could do more; the cold desert around them is echoed by the void within him, and he would gladly take refuge in the other man's arms. If this were a dream, he would do so, and Ping's embrace might shield him from the unbearable reality at least for a time . But this is not a dream and they have a job to do, and there is no time.
(I am counting on you, Captain, he can almost hear his father say. Go.)
"Hold the last cannon."
The valley is still, like the world is holding its breath. The slopes are marked with cannon blasts and a scattering of dead Huns, but Shang's instincts say this was too easy. His father could have defeated such a small force.
Unless this is all that remains of the Hun army? Perhaps his father had mostly succeeded --
But then in the distance, the smoke clears. One man appears -- Shan-Yu, Shang thinks -- then two more, and then uncountable hundreds behind him, roaring like thunder.
Only Shang's training keeps him from succumbing to the hysterical laugh that bubbles up inside him.
This is the worst day of his life; it is fitting that it will also be the last day.
"Prepare to fight," he says, with more confidence than he feels. "If we die, we die with honor."
His men, afraid but obedient, unsheathe their swords. Shang has no sword to wield. It doesn't matter. They will die -- there is no if -- and no one will mark their passing.
The problem with conscripts is that they do not have a lifetime of training to tell them not to do absolutely stupid things.
No true soldier would defy his commanding officer by grabbing the last cannon and running towards the enemy. Ping doesn't even hesitate when Shang calls him back -- he just runs, and then plants the cannon and aims it.
No true soldier would miss, either, but the cannon goes wide of Shan-Yu, soaring up into the sky.
And then the cannon hits, and the mountain falls, and Shang understands.
The rest is chaos. The avalanche thunders relentlessly down, over the Huns, over Ping, over Shang. It is faster than even the horses. Shang's world goes white and confused, and he is drowning in snow.
When he comes back to awareness, it takes him a moment to realize that he is alive; that Ping, crouching next to him, is alive; that somehow, impossibly, they have won.
"Ping..." Shang's training says he should rebuke the man for his disobedience; soldiers are swords of the Emperor, and swords must obey the hand that wields them. Shang's heart says he wants to kiss the other man, hold him tight, never let him go. He settles for a little bit of both: "You are the craziest man I've ever met, and for that I owe you my life. From now on, you have my trust."
It is the closest he can get to admitting what he feels.
He helps Ping to his feet, but Ping groans and falls back to his knees. One hand goes to his side, and it comes away red with fresh blood.
Shang calls for help but doesn't budge from Ping's side until the physician arrives. The wound is not immediately fatal, but Ping's eyes have fluttered closed and his breathing is fast and shallow. Shang takes his wrist in one hand, ostensibly to keep track of the pulse.
(Don't die, he thinks fiercely. I can't lose you too.)
It is improper for a commanding officer to admit feelings for a subordinate -- before this, Shang would have argues that it was inappropriate to even allow himself such feelings -- but Shang vows silently that when they have completed their mission, when Ping is ready to leave the army as most conscripts do when the crisis is over, he will say ... something, ancestors help him.
He's not good with this sort of thing. Battle strategy, yes; but what he feels has nothing to do with war and everything to do with needing Ping at his side.
He has no idea, either, what Ping feels for him, if anything. He knows that some soldiers will take refuge in their sword-brothers; he knows, too, that some men are "rabbits", physically attracted to their own sex. Ping has shown no inclination towards either.
Then again, neither has Shang.
Once the physician arrives, Shang paces restlessly outside the tent. He wouldn't have left Ping except for the physician's insistence, but he refuses to go farther, as if by staying close he can lend his strength to the injured soldier.
He can't lose Ping. He needs him too much. And he suspects he will need him more when everything is over and he can properly grieve for his father. But that will wait.
(Perhaps when Ping is awake, I will...)
He doesn't finish the thought.
He feels slightly ashamed at the raw need coursing through him, but the possibility of Ping dying has awoken his awareness of how he feels.
And regardless of what Ping's response us, Shang knows he will regret it forever if he stays silent. No: he must say something, even if he risks everything by it. Somehow it will work out -- as long as Ping survives.
Ping, technically speaking, doesn't survive.
The physician has stopped the bleeding and patched up the wound. Shan-Yu's sword had cut deep, but not enough to be fatal. There will be a scar, but scars are a record of battles won.
But Ping's chest is bandaged as well, covering not a wound but the breasts of a woman.
(I trusted you, Shang thinks, staring at him -- her. I liked you and I trusted you.)
Ping is cringing under his gaze, starting to explain, when Chi Fu sweeps in. "So it's true," he gasps. For half a moment Shang thinks Chi Fu has realized how he feels for Ping, but of course the Emperor's consul only has eyes on Ping.
Shang leaves the medical tent, feeling the swirling emptiness from earlier descend again. His father is dead, and Ping...
Ping has betrayed them.
Ping has betrayed him.
It shouldn't feel personal. Shouldn't, but it does. She has violated the law, but also violated Shang's trust -- and his heart -- with her deception. Cold rage flares up inside him. He had been so close to opening himself up to a complete and utter lie. There are things Shang can forgive, but this...
Shang can feel his face settling into the expressionless mask of a soldier. He is the Emperor's sword. He should never have allowed himself to develop feelings.
He can hear Chi Fu behind him announcing the truth, and Ping -- Mulan, she corrects defiantly -- explains, "I did it to save my father."
Shang hesitates at that, feeling a stab of grief and sympathy. It is not a woman's place to fight in the army -- but Shang would have gladly sacrificed almost anything for his own father. It makes sense, and more things fall into place. Fa Zhou had no sons after all: Ping himself had been yet another mask.
Masks upon masks upon masks. What else was beneath?
"It was the only way," Ping says wretchedly. "Please believe me."
Shang turns, regarding her. The words sound true -- but she has lied about so much already. What would one more lie be? Perhaps she is only appealing to Shang with words she thinks will gain his sympathy.
Perhaps she is telling the truth.
In the end it doesn't matter. Chi Fu huffs and approaches Shang. "Captain," he says, a world of commands in his voice.
Shang knows what he must do. The law is clear. Without hesitation he draws Ping's sword from its sheath. It is a good sword, clean and sharp. Her death will be fast.
Ping -- Mulan -- stays huddled in the snow. Her hair, loosened from its bun, falls to either side of her face and makes it look rounder, softer, more feminine. It is Ping, but it is not Ping. She meets Shang's gaze miserably, and then her head bows, resigned to the inevitable.
But beneath his soldier-self, his heart aches. I can't lose you too. Even if she is a liar and traitor, she has Ping's face. He cannot bring himself to kill her.
Shang's grip tightens on the sword, and then he tosses it into the snow between them. "A life for a life," he says coldly, "my debt is repaid." It is an excuse as much as anything, but he is in command, outranking even Chi Fu, and his word is as good as law.
Mulan will live, but Ping is forever gone.
The Imperial City is almost riotous with celebration, the streets lined with cheering civilians who only know the good news and not the bad. Shang, riding Jiao, leads his remaining men at the heart of the victory parade, but his heart is back in the snow, grieving for his father and for Ping. They have won, but the cost is too high. He feels only cold inside, not pain, but he knows the latter will come when he allows himself to thaw.
But for now he is still a Captain of the Imperial Army, and he will act it.
He almost lets the mask slip when Mulan appears out of the crowd, and his heart gives a traitorous leap, but he doesn't let that show. "You don't belong here, Mulan. Go home."
"But the Huns are here."
They can't be. No one could have survived the avalanche. No, the Huns were as dead as the Imperial Army.
"You said you trusted Ping," she finally says in frustration. "Why is Mulan any different?"
Shang doesn't say anything. He doesn't need to. Ping was a lie -- a mask.
Fa Ping is gone.
Fa Mulan doesn't matter.
As long as he holds on to those truths, he will be all right.
Shang realizes later that masks don't always hide the truth; sometimes, they can be truth.
Mulan has all of Ping's unorthodox resourcefulness. When a straight assault on the barred palace doors fails, she comes up with an alternative strategy. Gets Shang to the Shan-Yu before he can kill the emperor, and gets the emperor to safety in the care of the other soldiers.
Shang is outmatched -- Shan-Yu is significantly larger than he is, stronger than anyone Shang has fought, and surprisingly fast for his bulk. He knows he will die. But that gives him a freedom to fight with abandon, without trying to survive the assault.
Knowing he will die doesn't make it hurt less when Shan-Yu headbutts him into momentary unconsciousness.
But he is not alone. Mulan is there -- (that was not the plan, Shang thinks in confusion; what is she doing?) -- and she distracts Shan-Yu. The Hun stares blankly at her until she pulls her hair back, and Shan-Yu growls with anger as he recognizes her.
Shang, battered and still half dazed, realizes he recognizes her too. She is Ping and Mulan both; they are her yin and her yang, and neither one is a lie.
He blinks sluggishly and she is gone, Shan-Yu pounding furiously at the door; blinks again, and the Hun is gone as well. Shang shakes his head to clear it, and the palace lights swim in his vision.
(I should help, Shang thinks; but he has no sword, and has no chance of beating Shan-Yu physically.)
(Trust your men, his father's voice says in his mind.)
(Trust Ping, his heart says.)
So instead he goes in search of the Emperor, but he is only halfway own the palace steps when Mulan lands on top of him, explosions in her wake. Their eyes meet, and with an almost physical shock Shang knows what his heart has known for a while.
(I love you. As Ping, as Mulan, it doesn't matter: you are the other half of my soul and I love you.)
He is still gaping, stunned, as the moment passes.
This is how the world is supposed to work: Li Shang devotes his life and his heart to being a soldier of the Imperial Army. If he marries, it will be for practical reasons, because his first love is the sword.
This is how the world actually works: Li Shang falls in love with a man that doesn't exist, chases after the most perfect woman he has ever known, and when the time comes to sweep majestically in and declare his love, he instead ends up stammering ineptly like a love-struck youth.
This is also how the world works: Mulan's smile lights up her face, and she asks him to stay, and nothing is the same but Shang doesn't even care.