China's greatest warrior
had faced daunting physical training, seen a village burned to embers and a
battlefield littered with the dead. She had kept her wits in the face of an
army's charge, an avalanche, and a huge Hun panting for her blood. She had
ridden one step ahead of an exploding wagon, leaped out of the way of a
firework blast, and gone over the edge of a cliff. At this moment, however, Fa
Mulan realized that she had not known true terror until she had seen the beast
head straight for the man she admired.
"Arf! Arf! Arf-arf-arf-arf—"
"I can't believe this," Mulan groaned as Little Brother scampered madly away with her contraption on his head. Her mother had ordered her to feed the chickens, probably in an effort to get Mulan out of the kitchen so that she wouldn't burn dinner for their new guest. It was bad enough when the dog went bone-chasing around the ancestral temple, but now Little Brother was ready to swing the other way and make straight for Li Shang. Sure enough, the flock of fat chickens hopped and fluttered after him, making Mulan wish, for once, that her ideas hadn't run away with her. What would Shang think?
"Little Brother! Stop!" Forgetting that she was once again in skirts, Mulan sprinted after her dog in a most unladylike way. Shang appeared to be talking quietly with her mother—what about, Mulan wasn't sure she wanted to know. Her father understood that she was proud of discovering her abilities as a warrior, but there was little recommendation that her mother could give her. Mulan knew she was not a great cook, nor particularly graceful, nor beautiful, and as for being humble and obedient—
"Ai!" Mulan cried, exasperated. "Little Brother, come here!" If I lunge for him just as he rounds the corner of the horse's stalls, I should be able to catch him. No, don't run the other way, not straight down the path, he'll definitely see—
Too late. Mulan pounced on Little Brother and wrapped her arms around his middle, but both Shang and her mother had stopped talking at the animals' commotion. What was worse, the chickens weren't quite bright enough to stop at the same time as the dog, and bustled past her on either side before they realized that their meal-giver lay behind them.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Mulan said frantically as she handed the bone to Little Brother and tried to brush the chickens away from her. They weren't moving. Her mother was looking heavenward, as if willing the Ancestors to intervene, while Li Shang stood stock-still, a peculiar expression on his face.
"He got away from me...usually he stops once he goes around the hill..." She bent her head, hiding a blush as she tried to untie the bone's knot. Little Brother, thinking that her tugging was a sign of trying to take his bone away, wriggled out of her arms and ran over to sit at Shang's feet, gnawing on his prize furiously.
Shang bent down and examined the device. "What is this?" he asked. He didn't sound disapproving. Truth be told, he sounded almost...amused. But that couldn't be. Li Shang was not known for his sense of humor.
"Just something I made up," Mulan said falteringly. "I, uh, use it to distribute the meal to the chickens. Unfortunately, they'll follow him anywhere now, whether he's trailing the bag or not. If you'll help me hold him, I'll get the bone untied..." She was sure her face was scarlet.
"Are you finished, then?" This time, there was a definite note of laughter in his voice. Suddenly, Mulan felt defensive.
"I'll feed the rest in the ordinary way," she said stiffly. What had she been thinking?
"No, please don't think that..." The captain seemed to sense that he'd upset her. "I didn't mean to sound critical; I just wanted to ask how it worked. It does the job well, from what I can see."
She mustered her courage and looked up.
He was smiling at her now. "I see that you were good at strategy long before I trained you."
He took the stick in his hand after Mulan had relieved Little Brother of his burden. He hefted it, balancing it in one hand. She looked at him inquiringly. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "Your dog would make shorter trips if you tied the stick in the middle and attached a weight of some sort to it. That way, when the sack gets light enough, the stick in front will get lower, and he'll get the bone before he runs too far."
"You're right," said Mulan, relieved at how well he was taking this odd event. "Maybe a stone would do it."
He nodded. "Here, I'll help you hunt for one." Suddenly his eyes widened, as if recollecting something, and he turned to Fa Li. "If..."
"Yes, you may go with her," said Mulan's mother. "Just don't go out of sight of the house. I'll let her father know where she is."
Shang bowed his head slightly. "Madam." He came to stand by Mulan's side and they began their walk together.
From the doorway, there came Grandma's voice. "Put on your best dress before dinner! It brings out the color in your cheeks!"
"I'll race you to find the best stone," said Mulan quickly, taking him by the arm and leading him away from the house.
As soon as they touched, he stirred beneath her fingers. Mulan let go abruptly, backing away several paces. This was so difficult! She was used to their close contact as comrades in arms. When she had grasped his arm during the avalanche, she had thought nothing of its impropriety; there had been simply one soldier reaching out to another. Her family had subconsciously reminded her of the space that must remain between them as man and woman, but here, scouting the ground for rocks, it was easy to fall into their old camaraderie.
Mulan sighed in disappointment. The rapport that they'd had might never surface again. Her heart had leapt when Shang had first walked in, handing her the helmet; she still hoped there was a chance he would love her. But as much as she was attracted to him, she valued Shang's friendship highly also. They had come to respect and rely on one another; she would rather marry Chi Fu than see that destroyed because of a change in her appearance.
She—she's gripping my arm. Oh, my. Her thumb is just over the veins in my wrist. How am I going to speak—hey! She let go. Why...why did she...was I wrong in coming here? Does she not...
While Mulan, though embarrassed, at least retained the presence of mind to form complex sentences, Shang was not so lucky. Her taking his arm had felt much too nice, and he'd had to pull away to be able to think straight again.
The captain was suffering from internal conflict. On the one hand, Mulan had periodically risen in his esteem and affections since she had appeared from behind her father. This, unfortunately, was coupled with Shang's increasingly acute awareness of how inappropriate it would be to spout off gushy praise to this woman. He had been so unyielding in his judgment before; now, he feared she would see his change of heart as motivated by her newfound favor with the Emperor.
Of course, she was hard enough to approach on her own merit. She was inventive by nature, and her impulsive run had left him impressed by her sense of balance. The military training had left her with a kind of honest grace that was far more appealing than all of the court ladies mincing along on their bound feet. She was also generously affectionate; she did not yell at Little Brother for his antics, and neither did she look sourly at her grandmother, no matter how humiliating her grandmother's not-so-sly hints might be. Mulan was infinitely far above his attempts at conversation.
How was he to convey all that he thought in a way that pleased her? "Mulan, you are extremely intelligent and your warrior's fierceness is wed to a compassionate heart." Yeah, that would work. He could imagine what she would think: Yes, I really needed you, the man who abandoned me in the mountains, to tell the person who destroyed Shan Yu and hugged the Emperor that she is smart and compassionate.
Maybe a poet would have better luck. Shang, though he was intelligent, was used to expressing himself through body language, weaponry, and nearly-inscrutable facial expressions. He sighed inwardly. This was going to take time.
At least talk to her, he berated himself. You've done enough damage to her confidence in you. Do not make this an awkward silence.
At last, he managed to speak. "What is this marvelous dress that your grandmother wants you to wear?"
"Oh." Mulan looked away from him. "I really shouldn't do as she asks; Mama will understand."
He raised an eyebrow. "I hope you don't think that your answer satisfied my curiosity, Fa Mulan."
"Oh, now you have to tell me," he teased.
She met his gaze squarely. "Fine. It's the dress I went to the Matchmaker's in."
Shang's jaw dropped.
Mulan winced at his astonishment.
Ouch, that was obvious, Shang berated himself. Now she knows I've come here to pursue her. And she doesn't look too happy about the idea. Struggling to regain his composure, he said in a strained voice, "When was this?"
"Just before the news reached us of the Hun attack," Mulan responded quietly. She looked extremely uncomfortable.
"I see." Shang bit the inside of his cheek to keep from slamming a fist into the nearest tree. She had seen the Matchmaker already! He was too late; he had come here for nothing.
No, not for nothing, he amended, looking at Mulan. Even if they never saw each other again, he would be grateful for this small amount of time with her.
"I believe we'll find more stones by the pond," Mulan offered, peering at him closely. Try as he might, he couldn't keep the gloomy expression from his face.
They spent the next few minutes searching for stones without speaking. It had been like this often when she had been on watch with him, or when they put away the equipment after sparring together. He had never considered it fully before. It felt inexplicably right to be in her company, even though now the customs of proper behavior came between them now like a section of the Great Wall.
Shang was jarred from his reverie. Mulan had skipped a stone across the pond. She let another one travel; it skimmed the water's surface three times before sinking. He supposed Yao, Ling, or Chien Po had taught her how to do that.
Mulan got ready to skip yet another, when all of a sudden she threw it to the ground in frustration. "You're still wondering about what I said."
Carefully, Shang stated, "I understand that the affair is none of my business. I only hope that he brings you happiness."
Mulan's reaction was definitely not what he had anticipated.
She turned towards him, wearing a bewildered expression.
Even more carefully, fearing his voice would betray him, Shang stated, "Your fiancé. I hope you are happy with him. Forgive me for not realizing that you are betrothed."
Her lips formed a silent, Oh!
She looked mortified. "Um, Shang, I—Captain Li, sorry, I—I am not." She took a deep breath. "I am not betrothed. I thought you knew that. My grandmother's remarks..." She blushed.
Shang had yet to decide what was harder: repressing his previous disappointment, or controlling the uncharacteristic giddiness that he now felt.
"I did assume that you were unattached, at first, but I fail to see how you could visit the Matchmaker and not come away with a husband. Unless..." He tried too hard not to hope. "Unless he did not meet your standards, and your father declined the offer."
She gave an incredulous laugh. "That's what you think? Not all girls meet with approval from the Matchmaker, Li Shang."
"Well, not all, but of course you would. You would be an enviable wife." He frowned, trying to understand what Mulan was hinting at. It was inconceivable that a man from a village like this would turn down a woman like Mulan, or that a matchmaker would not notice her great beauty, modesty, and poise. Had her father refused an offer of marriage that she was in favor of?
At the moment, she was looking more astonished with every word he was saying. This couldn't be a good sign. She seemed to be searching for some way to make him understand.
At last, she spoke. "Do you remember the first day we met?"
"It was unforgettable." He fondly recalled the bumbling young soldier deciding to pick a fight with the entire camp.
"That's a nice way to put it—it was a disaster! You're smiling now, because I've proven myself to you. But if I remember correctly the moment when I first saw you, looking down at me like I wasn't much, I'd wager that you wouldn't have picked me to be the first to get that arrow from the pole."
He looked at her warmly. "You are always surprising, Fa Mulan. I have forgotten very little about that day."
She was rueful. "Then it should be easy for you to picture that kind of chaos at the Matchmaker's during my examination."
Shang's eyes widened. Now that she put it that way...he had been used to imagining Mulan, or at least Ping, as quick and agile, not dwelling on the many missteps Ping had made before finding "his" stride and making amends with the camp. He had since assumed that Ping's initial awkwardness was only because Ping was a woman trying unsuccessfully to fit in with the guys. But if this clumsiness had been a trait of Mulan's as well...he winced. "Was the Matchmaker all right?"
"Now he understands!" Mulan laughed, and an odd heat flared in Shang's chest at the sound. With a mixture of pain, amusement and resignation, she told the captain of the events that had transpired on that fateful day. When she finished, she was sitting on the railing of the moon bridge, hands folded and looking very small. "Her exact last words were, 'You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!'"
"Obviously, her judgment is infallible," Shang said sarcastically. "Never bring your family honor, huh? You should treat the rest of her insults with all the consideration that her last one merits."
"I am lucky that I have brought enough honor to my family that I will not be shunned in the village," Mulan admitted. Firmly, she added, "I am not sorry that I did not marry at that time, even if it means that I never will. I am female; I was never going to continue my family line. The most I can do is keep the incense lit at the temple while I live. But," she sighed, "I do wish that the option of marriage hadn't closed so...abruptly."
Shang blinked. She really had no idea. She had won a sword, and a medal, and the Emperor himself had bowed before her...and she was still judging her actions by the standards of her childhood town.
"Mulan," he said gently, "Do you think that none of the soldiers you went to war with would have you, if they thought they could deserve you? Even a marriage born only of friendship would be a delight with a true companion like you. That's nothing, though—once your deeds reach the ears of the rest of China, you will have princes vying for you. I guarantee it." If he were another man, he might have let her remain ignorant of her situation, the better to increase his own chances of winning her. But Shang thought too highly of Mulan, and of his own honor, to leave her with a skewed picture of the future she faced.
"What? Are you..." she hesitated. It wasn't easy to accuse one's commanding officer of being facetious.
"I assure you, I am serious. Nor does my...my loyalty to you cloud my judgment. I have been near the court with my father and seen enough marriages among my peers to know what is valuable and what is not."
"I've forgotten how little I know of these things. You've made me feel like a new recruit all over again." She chuckled. "It's probably a good thing that I refused Chi Fu's position!"
"Indeed. Then I would have had to beg on hands and knees to have you continue your weapons training." He looked at her. "Now, at least, I can remain standing."
She inhaled sharply. "You—you want me back?"
"The Emperor requested that I ask you if you are willing to rejoin the army, should any new problems arise. Make no mistake; I would have asked you myself, had he not sent me. The Huns have not all vanished, Mulan, and there are other border troops always stirring up trouble. It is the price we pay for our civilization. China would welcome skills such as yours." He grinned. "Besides, someone has to help me fend off that official."
"I'll hold him, and you punch?" Mulan offered. "Better yet, I'll light a rocket, and you catch him when he tries to hide under a rock!"
They both laughed.
Shang vaulted easily over the bridge and bent down to pick up a stone. "Here you go. This one should do."
In response, Mulan drew out her own rock from her sash. "I beg to differ, Captain." Her eyes twinkled. "But I suppose yours can be the replacement, if mine falls off accidentally."
Forgetting custom again, he seated himself on the railing and gave her a good-natured shove. Mulan, who didn't have a firm grip, was unseated. Fortunately, her swift reflexes allowed her to catch hold of the bridge before she fell into the pond. She hefted herself up onto the railing with little trouble. Shang was impressed; she hadn't even gotten her feet wet.
His admiration changed to delight when she swung a foot across, connecting with his waist and launching him onto the white stone bridge. She spun around, alighting from her perch as Shang regained his footing. He lunged for her and she leapt up onto a white post, kicking his arm away. A moment later, he leapt atop the railing himself.
This was a trick she had learned in the last days of training. Once the gang had mastered leaping across posts, Shang had taught them how to fight on walltops and move along narrow surfaces. He had prepared her well: without his instruction, she would never have been able to hold her balance at that pivotal moment on the roof of the Imperial Palace.
They blocked and threw one punch after another, relying on their legs more for balance than for fighting. Shang had had much more experience at this sort of sparring, but Mulan had tiptoed across this particular bridge more times than she could count. She bet her footing was more solid than Shang realized.
Mulan made a show of retreating, jumping back until she stood astride one of the railing's posts. Shang began to increase the speed of his strikes, thinking that he had her. After a few seconds, Mulan pretended to lose her footing, her legs flying out from under her on either side. Shang bent forward to complete the attack, but Mulan wasn't finished. As her legs went out to the sides, her right hand slammed down and gripped the post, supporting her weight for the split second she needed to land a hit with her other hand.
Unprepared, Shang reeled backwards, but not before he had sent a good kick in Mulan's direction. The momentum made both of them lose their balance: Mulan landed on the bridge, while Shang fell into the water. Unbelievably, he landed on his feet and brushed himself off unconcernedly. His pants were already rolled up to the calf, as he had been searching the pool for rocks earlier. As Mulan got to her feet, she found herself thinking of—
He had splashed the hem of her dress.
"You fiend!" She pretended to be indignant.
"There," he said, satisfied. "It won't dry in time for dinner. Now I must see the Matchmaker gown."
Mulan had never seen this side of Shang before. He was kind, he was fun, and...playful! She would never have expected that of him.
"I was sweaty, anyway," she said primly.
"Sweaty? You don't sweat. I've sparred with you before, and while the likes of Yao would stink up the Imperial City after a few moves, you could probably fight all day and still smell like fresh blossoms."
"Trust me," said Mulan, her cheeks turning pink. "My mother will have a fit. I'm sure you realize that after talking to her earlier...she still wishes I were a lady."
"That's not such a bad thing." He winked. "She skipped over your cooking and sewing skills, which frankly couldn't interest me less, and told me about how sweet a girl you were."
"At this rate, I won't need that dress at all to bring out the color in my face," Mulan mumbled.
He laughed. "Wear your military outfit, then. Your mother will be thrilled."
Mulan rolled her eyes. "Maybe if I can sneak back inside without her seeing me..."
"Have you lost your head? We have been in the kitchen for hours, trying to make a good impression, and you dirty your dress while trying to fix that absurd stick-thing you've made the dog wear? Change at once! Go go go!"
"Yes, Mama." Mulan fled into her room. She found the dress easily; it had been cleaned and put away. Getting into the dress on her own was an adventure all by itself; Mulan had never gotten the hang of wearing very fancy clothes. She took comfort in the fact that her room looked and felt the same. She had heard stories of veterans coming home from war and feeling like strangers in their own homes. Not here, though. As she tied her sash, her eyes turned to the inkwell and ink stick, remembering when she had last used them.
Fulfill your duties calmly and respectfully. Reflect before you act. This shall bring you honor and glory.
Oh, dear. Mulan was quite confident that she had shattered the Final Admonition, both in her old life and as a soldier. Mulan rarely feigned self-assurance when she felt insecure, and when she did, she was never convincing. But once Mulan knew what she wanted, what should be done, she acted with an alacrity and steely temper that surprised most people she met. Until she had run away, this part of her personality had met with nothing but disapproval, with the exceptions of her grandmother and occasionally her father. As irritating as it was, though, Mulan knew that she could not get rid of it, and she was quite sure now that she didn't want to.
This idea might have pained her more if Mulan didn't have the sneaking suspicion that Shang preferred her true personality to the one she was supposed to project. If the Matchmaker could see her, skipping stones and prancing on top of the moon bridge, the Matchmaker would probably explode out of fury. Yet Shang, while he had been uncomfortable when she was apologizing for her mishaps, had regained his speech and even complimented her once she had become bolder.
She finished struggling into her dress and began fiddling with her hair. She couldn't fix it the same way she was used to at home, since her hair was so much shorter, but she didn't think her parents would welcome a soldier's topknot.
"Is the sweet girl who smells of fresh blossoms ready?" said a mischievous voice.
Mulan whirled around. "Grandma!" She did her best to control her expression.
Her grandmother stepped towards her and motioned for Mulan to surrender the comb. "Here, let me do it. You just worry about pinching your cheeks and not tripping over your own feet." She winked at a small dot on the windowsill. "The lucky cricket is quite the informant."
Mulan jolted. "Cri-Kee told you what happened? But...he's a bug."
"And I'm a wise old woman. Didn't know I could speak more than one language, did you?" Grandma cackled. "You know, when I was your age I'd flutter my eyelashes to distraction to get your grandfather to notice me. You do everything you can to be quiet and modest and he still flirts with you."
"Flirts? He repeated my mother's words to me, and then he said I smell sweet in comparison to the rest of the soldiers in the army!" said Mulan tartly. "If you'd had them as sparring partners, you'd know that's not exactly a compliment." She changed her tone abruptly. "Please, Grandma, don't say anything to him. I don't want to scare him off."
"He scares easily?"
"No, he's one of the bravest men I know, but—"
"Then he rode all this way because he didn't want to see you?"
"I did lose my helmet."
"You've left your brains in that helmet if you think he's indifferent to you."
"I know he's not indifferent," said Mulan defiantly. "We've been through a lot together. We've saved each other's lives; we care about each other. I just don't think that I'm a very good prospective wife."
"Ah, young love," sighed Grandma as she finished sweeping Mulan's hair up to one side. "So fierce, and yet so blind."
Mulan put on her shoes and hurried out of the room.
"Ask him if he wants to stay the night!" her grandmother called after her.
"Honorable Fa Zhou," said Shang after a long pause at dinner, "I have both a confession and a request to make."
Mulan's mother made a small gasp. Grandma dropped her chopsticks onto her plate. Fa Zhou narrowed his eyes and regarded the young captain with a serious expression.
Could it be?
Shang gulped. "I...this afternoon, when we were alone by the pond, I was a bit..er, forward...and engaged Mulan in a sparring match. I wanted to measure her progress since the final days of training. She is a brilliant tactician, as I'm sure you know, but her martial skills also show promise." He took a deep breath. "I know that you need her here at home, and that you might not wish to send her to the Academy, especially as she has just returned to you. I was wondering if you would approve of her training with me at my estate...chaperoned, of course," he added hastily. "And only if she wishes."
So it wasn't a marriage proposal.
Fa Li released a breath that she must have been holding for the entirety of the captain's speech.
There was an audible, "Oh, drat!" from Grandma.
Fa Zhou inclined his head. "I thank you for your offer, Captain Li," he replied. "A chance to train under one of China's finest officers is an opportunity indeed. What payment would you require for your services, should she consent?"
"Oh." The captain looked visibly startled. "I—I hadn't thought...Sir, I will not expect payment for this. I have more than enough money for myself, and it would be a pleasure to teach so promising a student. Besides, I owe Mulan more than I can ever repay."
"I am afraid, Captain Li, that that would be inadvisable. If the neighbors inquire, and I tell them that you are tutoring her for free, they will think that you are simply offering this to be close to her, and will believe ill things about Mulan."
The captain scowled. "Then you should tell them that the price for my services is high, and that you are not at liberty to reveal it."
Fa Zhou's eyebrows rose. "You want me to lie to them?"
"No. Your daughter being away from home once a week will be a very heavy price, I think."
Fa Zhou suppressed a smile. "I see. Very well, then. Mulan?"
"Yes!" said Mulan without hesitating. Immediately, she bit her lip. "Uh, I mean, I would be very grateful for the extra training."
Shang's eyes had lit up at the sound of her answer. "I will make arrangements immediately. When can you come?"
Mulan looked at her father. "Two weeks, do you think?"
He considered. "That should give you enough time to adjust. Also..." he smiled wistfully. "I believe my time for wearing that armor has passed. Two weeks will be enough for my wife and mother to make the necessary adjustments."
"Yes, husband...Mulan is capable of sewing, though!" Fa Li added, a bit nervously, to Captain Li. "Not as well as other girls you've seen, perhaps, but she is quite able, when she puts her mind to it."
Shang nodded politely.
"And just because we cooked today doesn't mean that Mulan can't cook, either," Grandma added helpfully. "Why, even the time she flipped the bowl of beans upside down, she made them land in the skillet!"
"Impressive," said Shang solemnly.
Mulan looked miserable.
"I wonder, though..." Shang glanced sideways at Mulan "...what you actually like to do?"
"Oh, Mulan enjoys working as part of the household very much!" said Fa Li. "She is always so helpful..."
Fa Zhou cleared his throat and looked pointedly at his wife, who quieted down.
"I like..." Mulan began. "Well, lots of things interest me, though not all things I should be interested in."
"Mulan!" exclaimed her mother.
"Such as?" The captain looked like he was enjoying himself.
"I like to read," Mulan responded, "although there is little chance here for any amount of studying. I enjoy riding tremendously. I also..." she lowered her voice self-consciously. "I like to play xiangqi."
Her mother looked horrified.
"Do you?" Shang's was equally surprised, but in contrast to her mother, he looked approving.
"You should have seen her on Matchmaking Day!" Grandma chimed in. "Her mother was dragging her along because she was going to be late, and Mulan happened to look over at one of the boards, where one man was losing badly. She made a single move, and it must have helped him, because his opponent made a face that would curdle milk!"
Mulan's mother looked ready to faint.
"Wonderful," Shang breathed. "You and I must have a match sometime."
Mulan gave him a challenging look. "I would beat you."
"I have no doubt of that, Fa Mulan."
"How could you behave like that at dinner?" Mulan's mother looked anxious as she took her daughter aside for a scolding. "My child, if you carry on like this, he might not want to marry you. He might have asked for your hand tonight if you had been more ladylike; instead, he's taking you to military training."
"I would welcome the training more than a proposal, Mama," said Mulan. She was through with being forced to hide her opinions. Her father was giving her more freedom; in fact, he was treating her as he would treat a son. Why couldn't her mother understand that things had changed?
Her mother looked at her in confusion. "How could you say such a thing? Don't you know that he is a good man and will provide for you comfortably?"
"I can provide for myself!" Mulan insisted. "The Emperor gave me a pension, and should I ever resume military service, which seems quite likely, I will receive a regular salary." She hesitated. "He is a good man, and he is very dear to me. But if he made me an offer of marriage now, right now, I think I would ask him to wait. I'm not ready, and he's barely known me as Mulan."
"You're sixteen! Most girls your age are already mothers! If he will not have you, then who will?"
"If no one has me, I can still be happy!" said Mulan. "I'm willing to risk that in exchange for time to adjust to my new life." She closed her eyes. "Please understand this, Mama. I love you. I love Baba. I fought Shan Yu so that our family would be together. Shang is a good friend, and I trust him with my life, but I did not go to war for him. When I was only a burden to you, it might have been best to see me married off. But now, I can take care of everyone! I can hire a servant to do chores, should I wish it. I can provide for you better here than in the north, where Shang lives."
"And give us no children?" demanded her mother. "Is that a fulfillment of filial duty?"
"My children will not bear the family name, no matter whom I marry," Mulan reminded her. "They will belong to my husband's line. I will belong to my husband's line." She stood still, as if the thought had just occurred to her. "How can I stopbeing a Fa? It's who I've always been."
There was a pause.
"Mama," said Mulan, as gently as she could, "I am not trying to be difficult. But if I married Shang now, I think that I would make him very unhappy. I cannot be the kind of wife that he, as an important man, would require. I can't change for him. I have gone away, and in doing so I have discovered who Fa Mulan really is. She is not perfect, but she is someone worthwhile." Her voice grew firm. "I will not give her up, not even to Shang, just as I've gotten to know her."
—Girls your age are already mothers! If he will not have you, then who will?
Shang hadn't meant to eavesdrop on Mulan. All right, so he had been looking for her ever since dinner. Fa Zhou had consented to them touring the temple before the sun went down, and Shang didn't want to miss an instant of time with Mulan.
He had heard her voice, and rushed to meet her, but slowed as he heard a second voice, that of her mother. He listened intently, creeping ever so softly nearer to the entrance of Mulan's room. Shang was expertly trained; he could be very stealthy, despite his large size. He kept his ears open for some break in the conversation. When there was a pause, however, he found that he couldn't bear to step in. She might grow quiet again, and hearing Mulan speak so frankly and openly brought him more joy than he cared to admit.
At last, he compelled himself to take a few steps backward, then walk forward again with loud and obvious footsteps. Sure enough, as he neared the entrance to her chamber, Mulan fell silent. She did greet him with a smile, though, which widened as he suggested the walk towards the temple.
They both breathed easier once they were outside. Shang was still engrossed in his thoughts about the conversation he'd overheard. Up until now, Shang had thought that any objections to their match would come from Mulan not feeling anything for him, or from his unworthiness as a suitor. Now, it was obvious that the life he thought of them having together wasn't anything like what Mulan had pictured. He had thought of Mulan solely as a partner, and because all of China now revered her, he hadn't imagined her as anything else but an equal in such a relationship. Now, he was forced to consider what would happen to Mulan if she were treated like any ordinary woman. It wasn't pretty. He couldn't imagine such a woman bowing to him, serving him, existing to bear him children. It was unthinkable. He shuddered.
"Are you chilly, Captain?" Mulan asked him. "It can be cold here, even in the autumn."
"I'm not," Shang answered. "It's just—" he broke off and stared at her. Mulan's large eyes were looking up at him. It was a friendly gaze, but not a bashful one. She did not blush and look away under his stare; she stood up to him.
He decided then and there that he would be open with her.
"I did overhear part of your conversation with your mother," he ventured.
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Mulan, and made him tell her at what point he had listened in. When he finished, she put a hand to her forehead.
Shang looked at her. "What? Nothing that you said could reflect badly on you. You were honest without being harsh. And you are right." He sighed. "You deserve to be independent."
He looked at her more closely.
"Although...I am more than a little curious what you think I would expect from a wife."
Mulan looked highly uncomfortable. She found refuge in listing all of the accomplishments that would be expected of a woman of her station, as well as the unquestioning obedience required of any wife. "Added to this," she said, "is the expectation that she would bear many children." She sighed.
Shang raised an eyebrow. "Is that...bad?"
"Not if you're fertile," Mulan retorted. "If you're not...if you're too ill, or too skinny, or...well, you know that my mother only had me. It was very hard for her. My mother was lucky that my father didn't take a second wife, or at least a mistress. A wife of one of the Li family would have to produce an heir, or be cast aside for another woman."
He grabbed her shoulders and spun her around. "You think that I would abandon my wife if she couldn't bear children? That I would be unfaithful?" His voice shook.
Mulan broke away from his grip and folded her arms over her chest. "You have family expectations to maintain."
"I would adopt a son before I dishonored my wife." He rubbed his temples. "As for the other duties you mentioned...let me be blunt." He looked intently at her. "You listed various skills—needlework, cleaning, cooking—that would serve a woman well, were she to marry a man from your village. However. A man of means, such as you may now marry, will have no need of such things. Those tasks belong to servants. Your husband will not need a servant." The temple was in sight, and Shang and Mulan began their ascent. "What else? Ah, fertility and unconditional obedience. A husband may put such a wife on display and say, 'See what a wife I have managed to gain.' Such a husband is not displaying a wife, however, but rather a trophy." He smiled at her. "If you really want to be seen as a prize...I think that your being the savior of China might tip the scales in your favor without those other qualities."
She looked embarrassed. "I suppose so."
"Is there anything I'm forgetting?" asked Shang.
"Physical appearance?" Mulan suggested. "The woman who is supposed to be the perfect flower..." She smirked. "What category would that fall into?"
He replied unwaveringly. "Courtesan."
He watched as Mulan blinked a few times and then nodded. If he had mentioned that word to another lady, he could envision only too well what would have happened. She would have screamed, or burst into tears, or perhaps fainted. Mulan didn't even flinch. It had been her idea to dress Imperial soldiers up as concubines. He sighed contentedly. He could talk to this woman, really talk with her, not just tiptoe around her sensibilities. He suspected he could swear in front of her and she would just laugh.
"Well." Mulan's mouth curved into a smile. "And since I am not a courtesan, I am now not certain at all of what I would do with such a husband and infinite time on my hands."
A very indecorous answer arose in Shang's mind, but he resisted the temptation to say it. "That," he said, "will be for the two of you to decide."
"Hmm." She tapped her finger against her chin. "Please tell me if I'm being too intrusive, but what did your father decide when he married?"
"Ah." They had ascended the temple steps and were gazing at the tombstones. "My mother, fortunately, was an excellent bearer of sons, although her first one died when only a few months old."
Mulan looked interested. "How many siblings do you have?"
"I have two brothers living." He bent down to read the words etched on the black stone. "As I was saying, my mother was my father's only wife. Their marriage was arranged by the Matchmaker, but I believe there was some affection there, as well. In any case, while I'm not sure my parents were actually in love, they did have a long-lasting regard for each other. My mother was perfectly content to obey my father, for he was seldom home, and when he was away, my mother would rule our household." He grimaced. "She could be strict sometimes."
"It runs in the family, then," teased Mulan.
"Hey!" said Shang, pretending to be miffed. "I was preparing you for battle. That's different. A little matter of life and death, in case you hadn't noticed."
Mulan merely smiled. "No, I hadn't." Her grin vanished suddenly. "Have you been to your lands yet?" she asked. "Does your mother know...about...?"
Shang closed his eyes in pain. "She does not know that my father has died. I will tell her myself. It should come from me. Though I wish I could delay for a while here." He ran his fingers along the black stone, admiring the way the polished surface reflected the setting sun. "Your family is so lively. Mine is stiff, especially with my youngest brother at school. It's hard to believe that grief could ever come here." He heaved a ragged sigh and suddenly said bitterly, "I wish I did not have to leave here! I do not want to return home—I do not know if I have the strength to return, not yet. He should be...he would be by my side and we—"
Here, in the place where Mulan's ancestors lay sleeping, the loss of his own father suddenly overwhelmed Shang. Although the sorrow had struck him when Chien-Po had carried his father's helmet, Shang had steeled himself against the hard grief that had threatened to shake him. His men needed him. That had not been the right time for mourning.
Neither is this! Shang tried to tell himself. He tried to speak again, but his words came out strangled. Curse it. He was losing control. Piled on top of his grief, he was feeling the backlash of the hate and horror he had experienced during his first campaign. His facade might have held if Mulan had not been standing beside him. He remembered how she had tried to reach out to him in his grief before, how Ping had spoken only two words, but those laden with quiet sympathy.
Now, it was she who touched his shoulder. The familiarity of the contact did him in, and Shang found himself gripping Mulan's arms tightly, head bent down in sorrow.
No! No, don't break now! He couldn't allow his loss to taint this time with her. Besides, his arms were dangerously close to encircling her. "I can't..." he turned away. "I mean, it's not...right..."
"Hey." Mulan placed a hand on his other shoulder. "You owe me a hug, for the Imperial City. Remember? It's perfectly all right," she said in a softer voice.
Mulan had not forgotten that Shang had not embraced her after their final victory. Even the Emperor had hugged her, but Shang had been too distant. Knowing Shang better as she now did, she had no doubt that he would apologize for his cool farewell and oblige her at the moment that she chose, out of gratitude if nothing else.
There was no denying that Mulan had a deep attraction to Shang. She wanted to touch him. The embrace could have given her that. If Mulan had been another sort of woman, she would have saved this request for a time when he would pay attention only to her, instead of her giving him comfort when he was least able to repay it. But she thought too highly of him, and of their unspoken bond of friendship, to deny or even begrudge him this gesture while he was in pain.
The sun flared briefly behind the dark violet clouds, turning the whole temple bright, but neither Shang nor Mulan saw it. Mulan had her arms around Shang and had pulled him closely to her, and Shang was resting his head in the curve of Mulan's neck, his face buried in her hair. Hot tears were spilling from his eyes, despite all he could do to prevent them. He did not sob, nor make any sound. He stood almost perfectly still, a statue of fixed sorrow.
At last, Shang's shoulders shook slightly, and that jerked him back to reality. He couldn't maintain this proximity to Mulan for very long, or he would do something awful like press himself against her and kiss her from the nape of her neck to her forehead.
There was a strange sort of hiss, and what sounded like a small voice whispered, "An' just what do you think you're doin' with Mulan? If you pucker up even once, Pretty Boy, I'll..."
Shang was sure his ears were deceiving him. Then he remembered where he was. Uneasily, he glanced at the stones of the dormant ancestors, feeling like he was being watched.
There was nothing else for it. He would have to pull away soon, and then she'd see his tears. He couldn't bear it. He was furious with himself. Why did he have to collapse now, just when things had been going so well between them? Why couldn't he be stronger?
He felt her begin to let him go, and he reluctantly released her from his grasp. He closed his eyes, cheeks burning as he stepped back.
There was the sound of Mulan taking two steps, and then nothing.
Shang's eyes opened in surprise. He had expected Mulan to be staring at him, wearing an expression of...what? Astonishment? Pity?...but she wasn't looking at him at all. She had turned around completely and was looking at the sunset. And she wasn't two steps away...only one.
Abruptly, he understood. She hadn't seen his face at all. She had turned away before she could look at him.
After a moment, she said, "When I found out that Baba was going to war, I followed him to where he was practicing his old moves. I saw him gasp in pain at a maneuver and drop his sword, and I knew then that he would die if he went to war. It was as if all my blood were draining out of me. I ran outside and cried for hours." She felt for his shoulder and patted it awkwardly. "I made my decision to go to war that night. At any rate, I'm only speaking from my own experience. Everyone grieves differently." She paused again, still not looking. "If you are ready to go back inside, please step beside me. If you would like more time alone with your thoughts, stay there for now."
Shang understood her perfectly. You are probably looking a bit disheveled right now, and I know that to see it would embarrass us both. I don't want you to feel awkward, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, because I've been through what you're feeling now. If you need to compose yourself, I will give you more time.
Shang stepped beside her. He took her hand in his.
"It is time that we be getting back. You will come soon, for the lessons, I hope?"
Mulan smiled. "Barring a complete catastrophe, I'll come in two weeks, as promised."
"Very good, then." Shang winced as he spoke the words his father would have spoken. But his grief was not as strong as before. "I would stay the night, but my family really does need to hear the news."
"Grandma will be most disappointed."
Will you be? he wanted to ask.
"Thank you, Mulan," he said as she led him toward the stable.
It helped immensely that he knew she was waving at him as he sped off into the night.