Phoenix In The Mist

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Chapter 2: Honour To Us All

“Mulan, wake up!”

Nai Nai ’s* voice roused me from my slumber.

“Get up, get up! It’s a big, big, big day!” Nai Nai yanked the covers off me.

Nai Nai!” I complained.

“Quick, get your chores done, and bring your father’s medicinal tea to him. Don’t let him drink the ji-ou** before then!”

“Yes, Nai Nai. Whatever you say, Nai Nai.”

Nai Nai’s hands shot to her hips. “Now look here, Mulan. Don’t you give me that snark. I’ve been looking after you ever since that horrible Fa Li made a mess of things.”

There was an awkward pause. There was no way a mention of Ah Yi*** Fa Li would have been comfortable. Eleven years ago, my nanny Ah Yi Fa Li had tried to kill me for a Gift she had deemed dangerous. I had only survived because my Phoenix stepped in to protect me. But that’s another story for another day.

“Besides, if you keep that attitude up, you’ll never pass the Matchmaker’s test,” Nai Nai continued stiltedly.

I groaned. The Matchmaker’s test was held once a month, as a way to find the girls turning of age in that month a suitable husband. To pass that test with flying colours was to bring honour to the sixteen year old girl’s family.

“Now, get dressed and finish your chores! Try to do it as fast as possible; we have much to prepare for.”

~

Baba**** was praying at our Family Shrine when I found him.

“Morning, Baba,” I said, carefully navigating past the small statue of our Family Guardian, a dragon, with my tray.

“Ah, Mulan. I was just praying to the Ancestors.”

“What about, Baba?”

“That they’ll grant you success in the Matchmaker’s test, of course.”

I grimaced. “Baba, there isn’t any guarantee that if I marry, my spouse won’t discover the true extent of my Gift,” I pointed out.

“Then do well, so that we can get to choose your husband. Remember all your training.”

“Isn’t it safer not to marry?” I questioned. “Or to at least put it off, until we know that the guy is worth trusting?”

Baba’s expression became thunderous. “Now, Mulan. You look here. There is only one way a girl can bring her Family great honour, and that is by marrying. You will not besmirch our Family honour just because of your wants! I have given you much, and I’ll continue to do so, as long as our Family honour remains intact!”

I sighed. Whenever it came to Family honour, Baba was adamant about doing everything to uplift the Family name. As the last scion of the Hua Family, I understood, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

“Yes, Baba,” I murmured.

At my acquiescence, Baba’s expression lightened. That was one thing I loved about Baba, that he was slow to anger, except in cases concerning Family honour, and he was quick to cool once the other party realised their mistake.

“Is that ji-ou*****, Mulan? Could I have it? This leg pains me more each day,” he said, rubbing his right thigh.

Baba,” I chided. “That’s what your medicine is for.” I set the cup of herbal tea in his hands. “Drink this, then I’ll give you the ji-ou.”

Baba set the cup on the floor. “I’ll drink it later, after I’ve had that ji-ou.” He reached for the flask in my hands.

I made to shift the tray further from Baba, deliberately moving slower than what I could have. Baba’s hand shot out and grabbed the flask, drawing it to himself.

“Ah-hah!” he said, clutching it in his palms and savouring the warmth. My change in speed did not go unnoticed by Baba though. He glanced at me suspiciously as he uncorked the flask and downed the contents.

I smiled as Baba spluttered. Earlier, instead of just preparing one dose of herbal tea, I had prepared two. Taking out an old flask that was empty of ji-ou, I poured one dose of medicine into it, the other going into the usual cup.

“Finish the tea, Baba,” I murmured, kissing him on the cheek before running off. “Nai Nai wants me back for my makeover.”

“Devious girl!” Baba yelled after me, laughing. “Using your Baba’s perceptions against him. That’s first class tactics, I tell you, first class!”

My grin got wider. Baba’s compliments meant the world to me.

~

Nai Nai?” I peeked into my room.

“Mulan! You’re late. Hurry, come in. Wang gu niang****** and Wu gu niang are already here,” Nai Nai motioned to two beauticians, one old, and one young.

Nai Nai ushered me in front of the two ladies.

The older one walked around me in a circle, studying me. I shifted, feeling uncomfortable.

Coming to a stop in front of me, she pinched my cheeks and complained, “Really? This girl looks like she rolled around in the pig sty! She could have at least cleaned herself up.”

My nose flared with indignation as I clenched my teeth. Who was she to determine my beauty?

The younger woman placed her hand on the elder’s shoulder. “Relax, Wang Zhen, I’ve seen worse. With our experience, I’m sure that we can definitely make her beautiful!”

Nai Nai huffed. “As long as she looks like a bride, I don’t care!” She patted my cheek. “Have fun at your makeover, dear! I’m sure you’ll bring honour to us all. Later!”

Her dress swirled as she slid open the door and left the room.

With a “hurry, we have a lot to get done!” and a light shove, the two ladies shepherded me into the bathroom. Bossing me out of my clothes, they ordered me into a scented bath that was already prepared. I hissed out a breath and shivered when I felt how cold it was.

“Stop squirming,” scolded Wang gu niang. She took up a position at my head, while Wu gu niang lifted my hand out of the tub. I sank below the sudsy water as much as I could; I wasn’t very comfortable with exposing myself in front of strangers.

“Such chipped nails!” Wu gu niang screeched, her file in hand as she turned my hand so that my Wang gu niang could see them. “My dear,” she clucked. “What have you been doing? Fighting?” She said it with such distaste, like it was something a woman should never do, that I nearly snorted in derision. How could these women be so shallow?

Wang gu niang contributed to my already negative view of them. One of her hands stopped massaging the soap into my scalp, and poked my arm muscles with a pointed finger. “Look at that shape! Too muscular, most men don’t want such a figure. You have to take better care of yourself!”

By the time the bath was over, I had nearly lost my patience and control of my Phoenix, who wanted to singe off those silly women’s eyebrows. The two women made such disparaging remarks about my body shape, hair condition, skin complexion and eye colour, that I was gritting my teeth and fighting the urge to punch them. The anger boiled in my veins, and despite me trying, it trickled out of me, heating the water until it was actually bearable.

Hauling me out of the tub, they rubbed scented oil into me and clothed me in a ridiculously colourful, voluminous dress. The train was so long that I stumbled when I first took a step. Winding a sash along my waist, they tightened it until I was short of breath.

When I complained, all the two ladies said was, “Hush! The Matchmaker wants women who look perfect.”

I really couldn’t stand their verbal barbs anymore.

They had finished piling my hair on my head, and were applying the finishing touches of makeup to my face when the door slid open.

“How’s it going, Mulan?” Nai Nai asked, leaning against the frame of the sliding door, a small pile of items in her arms.

“Fine,” I breathed out, feeling the opposite of that. Taking in my frustration, Nai Nai ordered the beauticians out. Carrying their makeup tools, they filed out of the bathroom.

“You look beautiful, Mulan. Now, before you go, here are some things.”

Nai Nai passed me an apple. “For breakfast,” Nai Nai explained, as I bit into the juicy yet crunchy fruit, careful not to smear my lip gloss.

A jade flower pendant went over my head. “A family heirloom,” Nai Nai said fondly, tucking the beaded pendant under the collar of my dress. “Your Ye Ye ******* had it made for me as a wedding gift. May it bring you good luck.”

Tears welled in my eyes. Nai Nai was giving me one of her most precious pieces of jewelry, and I could see how much she loved me from that gesture alone.

“Now for the finishing touch,” Nai Nai spun her finger in a circle. “Turn around.”

Obediently, I did. Nai Nai loosened the waist sash and I sighed. “Better, dear?” Nai Nai chuckled.

“A thousand times better! How did you know?”

Nai Nai grinned. “You looked like you were suffocating. Societal trends these days, utterly ridiculous and troublesome.”

I laughed.

“Now go! The girls are already assembling in the square.”

I hurried out, careful not to trip and ruin my outfit. It wouldn’t do to be late when I knew I was going to be the first to take the test.

“Dear Ancestors, I beg you, hear me,” I sent up a last-minute prayer. “Please help me to do well and bring honour to my Family. Don’t let me make a fool of myself.”

I joined the small line of girls waiting to be summoned by the Matchmaker. Glancing around, I noticed Baba leaning against his cane, one hand on his horse, Khan. He smiled and nodded his head, and I took comfort in the fact that no matter the results from today, he would still love me.

The Matchmaker’s door flew open with a loud crash as the Matchmaker strode out. I released a pent up breath.

It was time.


*Nai Nai: Paternal Grandmother

**Ah Yi: Aunty

**Baba

***ji-ou: spice wine

****gu niang: girl/lady

***** Ye Ye: Paternal Grandfather

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