Chapter 1: True To Your Heart
In Wu Dao, the Elder Families form about one percent of our population. These Families have been given powers, Magic that we call Gifts. Traditionally, the males are Gifted with something ‘war-like’ while the women have powers that are considered more gentle in nature, something related to the upkeep of the house. There have been a few cases where the reverse has happened, but the children did not survive long.
The Heads of the Families usually fear changes.
Most prominent among the Great Families are the Li. They are the rulers of our country, the Family of Wu Dao’s Emperor. No one knows exactly what the Family Gift is, but it is rumoured that they are able to mimic the Gifts of the other Families.
The next most powerful would be the Ling. Their Gift manifested itself as something related to the body and soul; their Family is our country’s only source of Gifted healers.
Other Families aren’t able to measure up to them, in terms of both size and power. Mama* was the last of her Family, the Que, and her Family name ceased to exist when she died giving birth to me.
Me? My name is Hua Mulan, and I hail from the Hua Family.
I was five when I found out how different I was.
It was expected that since Mama had the Gift to talk to birds, and that Baba’s** Gift was in relation to plants, that I would inherit a similar Gift. Additionally, the Hua Family has an affinity for plant related Gifts.
One would think that genetics would be on my side, but apparently that was too much to hope for.
Baba was out one day, tending our famous garden, leaving my nanny with me in the receiving room. Surrounding me were the wooden toys my father had carved for me, and a glowing fire in the hearth place kept me warm.
“Be a good girl, Mulan,” Ah Yi *** Fa Li told me as she left, heading towards the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
My head jerked up once she was no longer in sight, and like any mischievous five year old, I immediately started looking for more interesting things in the room to play with.
There was my father’s treasured Ming vase with chrysanthemums, and a low set table where we had our meals. The grandfather clock chimed, it was six in the evening. Aside from a cupboard of dried tea leaves and flowers, the sparsely furnished room featured only one more thing: a painting of my deceased mother.
My eyes scanned the room and took in the details, but what my gaze caught on were the softly glowing embers. Entranced, I dropped the miniature wooden toy horse and pushed myself to my feet, toddling towards the fire place.
I sank back down into a sitting position as I blinked at the flickering flames. So pretty, I thought, as I reached towards it. Stretching my hands into the fire, it danced as if in welcome of me.
I scooped a coal and held it to my face. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but this fire felt like an affectionate friend.
I nuzzled my cheek against it and felt something warm and almost solid caress my face. I giggled and leaned into it.
“Mulan!” A cry of shock and fear interrupted the companionable crackle of the flames. Startled, I dropped the burning coal and it rolled back into the hearth.
“Oh Di Yu, let me see!” She exclaimed as she grasped my hands and held it out. Her eyes widened as she didn’t see any burn marks, a dangerous awareness sparking in them.
“Fa Li, what’s wrong?” Baba’s voice called out from behind us.
“Sorry Baba, sorry Ah Yi Fa Li,” I mumbled.
Baba gently took my hand from Ah Yi Fa Li’s grip. “What did you do, Mulan?” Baba asked.
“I played with the coals, Baba.” Five- year old me had no idea of the danger I was in then.
He patted my hand. “Maybe you have a Gift of tending the hearth, little one. Well, your hand does feel a little warm. Fa Li, could you please run a bath for her? I’ll take over the preparation of dinner.”
Ah Yi Fa Li clutched my hand as she pulled me towards the bathroom, with a “Come, Mulan,” her voice uncharacteristically cold.
“You sit here, Mulan, and don’t move,” Ah Yi Fa Li commanded, pulling up a stool for me as she pulled the mechanism that fed water from the spring outside our house to the tub. Once the tub was full, she shut off the water supply and undressed me, lifting me into the tub.
“Now don’t panic, okay?” Ah Yi Fa Li asked.
Confused, but trusting her, I replied, “Hao de,**** Ah Yi.”
Ah Yi Fa Li took hold of my hair, and abruptly shoved me head under the water.
Reneging on my promise, I started struggling and kicking to get free the minute water entered my nose.
“Fang kai wo!*****” I yelled, the words bubbling out of my mouth along with my precious supply of air.
I fought and grappled to get free, but the strength of a five year old was nothing compared to that of a woman in her prime.
My vision was starting to go dark, and my head woozy from the lack of oxygen, when I felt something in me awaken. It opened one molten eye, as if waking from a deep slumber, and took in the situation. Just like that, I was no longer in charge, the entity controlled my every move.
My body slumped. Ah Yi Fa Li, thinking I was dead, released me. Once her hold was gone, my mouth opened, and what little breath I had left whooshed out of me.
What happened next surprised both of us.
As if super-heated, the water in the tub turned into steam. I sat up. Ah Yi Fa Li backed away slowly in horror. The entity in me savoured her fear, but nothing could stop it from doing what it wanted to do.
Slowly, my body climbed out of the tub, approaching her step by step, each one steadier than what I could have managed on my own.
“Don’t come closer, you abomination,” threatened Ah Yi Fa Li. Her arm extended and a cake of soap came flying towards me.
I raised my hand in a similar manner. The soap burst into flames and the ashes fluttered to the ground as the flames died out.
I felt a smile creep across my face, and realising what the entity wanted to do, I begged it to stop.
But it would not, could not, be dissuaded. Ah Yi Fa Li had tried to kill me, and the entity could not forgive that.
A sonorous voice that was my own, and yet not, came out of my throat. “You tried to harm us,” it said. “Now you die.”
A barrage of toiletries bombarded me, but the entity laughed as each one spontaneously combusted when it neared me.
“Give up,” it crooned, “you cannot harm us.”
When Ah Yi Fa Li ran out of things to throw at me, the entity fixed a burning stare on her. “Any last words?”
The bathroom door flew open as Baba charged into my line of view, fast despite the limp caused by a wound from a previous war. The entity that was gathering power to strike Ah Yi Fa Li down slowly released its hold on that Magic, and retreated once more into the depths of my consciousness.
I started crying. “Oh, Baba, I’m a monster.”
“Hush dear child, you’re anything but. WHAT WERE YOU DOING?” He directed the last question to Ah Yi Fa Li.
My sobs came harder. Baba had never raised his voice.
Now that the entity was nowhere in sight, Ah Yi Fa Li regained her confidence. Adopting a brave front, she hissed at Baba, “Did you not see? Her eyes glowed silver! A Feng Huang******, especially a female one, must not be allowed to live!”
“Why not?” Baba demanded. “The Seer just said that they would bring great change. Not all change is bad!”
“If you really believe that, then you are a fool, Hua Zhou.” Ah Yi Fa Li spat.
Baba sighed. “Will you come peacefully, Fa Li? I cannot guarantee your life, but I’ll make sure you get a fair trial for attempting to murder my only daughter and heir.”
“I would rather die than surrender to you!” declared Ah Yi Fa Li as she withdrew a dagger from her sleeve.
“Stop!” exclaimed Baba, lunging for Ah Yi Fa Li. He was too late. The dagger went up, then down, burying itself in Ah Yi Fa Li’s stomach.
Blood. So much blood. Like when I spilled the rose hip tea I helped Baba prepare for the women in our city, it came spilling out of Ah Yi Fa Li. My young mind could not comprehend what Ah Yi Fa Li had done.
“Mulan! Mulan, look at me,” Baba commanded, kneeling in front of me and blocking my view of Ah Yi Fa Li sprawled on the ground.
“Baba, why did she do that?” I asked.
“Politics,” Baba’s voice was strained.
“If that is politics, I never want anything to do with it!” I announced and hugged Baba.
He chuckled, but even to my ears, it sounded false.
That night, I woke up screaming. My mind was finally coming to terms with the fact that Ah Yi Fa Li had tried to murder me, me in turn trying to kill her, and finally Ah Yi Fa Li taking her own life. It haunted me in my dreams and I felt as if nothing could ever be right again.
Baba rushed into my room and gathered me up in his arms.
“Hai zi *******, what’s wrong?”
“Baba, am I a monster?” my insecurity was evident from that question alone.
“Never, Mulan, never.”
“But I tried to kill her, Baba!”
“Hush, dear child. That alone does not make you a monster.”
“I could not control myself,” I admitted. “Does that make me a monster?”
The entity in me sensed my distress and tried to rise. I forcibly pushed it down.
Baba lifted my chin so that I was looking into his eyes. “Beautiful,” Baba said. “Your eyes glow silver when the Phoenix is near the surface. Listen to me, Mulan. Don’t blame yourself for what happened earlier; make your peace with it. Fa Li was from the Fa Family, once she noticed that you had a powerful Gift, she tried to kill you. That isn’t your fault, it would never be.”
“I tried to kill her for that, Baba,” I reminded him.
“That wasn’t entirely you, Mulan. You’re still young, you can’t control the Phoenix fully yet. It sensed that you were in danger and took control, trying to protect you. Phoenixes are very protective: yours will do anything to keep you safe.”
“Baba,” I asked timidly. “Can you teach me to control it?”
I could see that he was taken aback by my question. After considering carefully for a while, he shrugged.
“Yes, I think I would have to. But you have to remember, Mulan, never tell anyone what Gift you have, it will put your life in danger. Remember also to never tell anyone that I’m training you. Other girls do not have this training, and if anyone finds out, it will ruin your future with the other Families.”
I nodded. And that was when Baba taught me something that I would remember for the rest of my life.
“Last thing, my Xi Feng, always be true to your heart,” Baba said. “Do that, and you’ll be the flower that blooms in all adversity.”
***Ah Yi: Aunty
****Hao de: Okay
*****Fang kai wo!: Let go of me!
******Feng Huang: Phoenix
*******Hai zi: Child
********Xi Feng: Beautiful phoenix