|snarky_panda (snarky_panda) wrote in mulanficspace,|
@ 2007-06-06 23:44:00
|Entry tags:||5trueloves, a tale of the woman, au|
A Tale of the Woman, Part Five, Chapter Twelve
Title: Flower and Fruit
Author: snarky panda
Theme: #19, Fate; Destiny
Pairing/Characters: Fa Mulan/Emperor
Disclaimer: Anything from the Disney movie belongs to Disney. Anything from Raise the Red Lantern belongs to Su Tong.
Summary: 5th part of a crossover fic (sort of) inspired by Raise the Red Lantern and alternate storyline based on another outcome that could have occurred because Mulan failed the matchmaker’s test. (Link to beginning of story)
Shan-Yu was smart. Everything that she’d heard about him from her father pointed to that fact. And he was tenacious. He’d survived an avalanche and a blizzard, and it was widely known at this point that he was single-minded about his revenge against their Emperor. It was imperative that she warn Shang, though it meant putting her own life in danger. Even with a small group, Shan-Yu was a threat to the Emperor’s life. They would have to be ready for a more covert and sneaky attack by the enemy.
A huge victory parade was already in progress when she arrived in Chang’an after just a few days. The procession moved toward the palace from Ming-te Gate along the main thoroughfare, which was lined on either side with thick crowds of citizens who’d come out to cheer for the brave soldiers and merchants hawking souvenirs and food to the celebrants.
Coming from a small village with less than a quarter of the population of this city, Mulan was somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of the place and the sheer numbers that made up the colorful throng. She halted Khan and scanned the mass of people and animals, trying to get her bearings and find a recognizable face in the procession. Only the bright, multi-colored kites that loomed above the parade stood out.
Dressed in her armor and helmet once more, she was unrecognizable as a woman, and a man that stood nearby addressed her.
“You’re late, young man,” he joked with her, laughing heartily. “Your troop is already marching in the parade.”
She eyed him curiously and he pointed toward the back of the procession, realizing that she was lost.
“Behind the entertainers.”
Nodding thanks to him, she remained where she was and eyeballed the crowd of marchers, led by one man who shouted at the crowd to make way and several men on either side of him flying the colorful kites. Acrobats spun and tumbled down the street behind them, followed by the drummers and musicians. A brightly colored paper dragon float, a must for every parade, followed, the dragon likeness swaying and bobbing from the movements of the dancers inside of it.
The troop came next and as she glimpsed Chi Fu at the head she lowered her helmet in an effort to shield her face. Why was he, of all people, riding at the front of their troop? It should have been the captain, leading his men. Instead Shang rode behind the councilman, followed by the rest of the troop, including two men carrying banners. The Imperial flags.
She waited until Chi Fu had gained some distance before riding out and joining the troop. Shang’s position behind the councilman made bringing the news directly to him out of the question. If Chi Fu saw her, she was as good as dead. Besides, she didn’t want to have to explain to Shang how she knew about Shan-Yu and his men; that she’d left the inn.
“Ping,” Yao exclaimed as she rode up alongside of him. He looked glad to see her. “You made it.”
Yao was the man that had started the fight with her the very first day of camp. She hadn’t become especially chummy with anyone in the troop; that would have been dangerous. But she had become friendly with a handful of men, including Yao. Despite his antagonistic and belligerent nature and his gruff façade, he was really alright and he’d proven to be a brave and able soldier in battle. In the aftermath, when she had time to remember the details of the battle in the mountains, she recollected that he was the one that had come running out toward her, behind the captain. He’d seen Shan-Yu barreling toward her and had been on his way to help.
“We have a problem,” she told him. “Shan-Yu and some of his men are alive. They’re here in the city.”
“What? That’s not possible. They were buried…”
“I don’t know how they survived but they did. From the description the villagers gave me of one of them, it had to be Shan-Yu.”
“I found a village not far from the inn we stayed in,” she lied. “Six men survived, including Shan-Yu. We have to get the word passed up to the captain.”
“What could six men do?” Chiang, another soldier who’d been listening in, piped up. “The Imperial guard will stop them before they even get near the outer gate. Besides, so few of them, maybe they just went home.”
“They would have been heading north then. No, they were on their way here. Probably with a plan to find another, more covert way to get into the palace. Someone has to get word to the captain. The Emperor is in danger.”
“Why don’t you go?”
“Because I’m not supposed to be here. The captain ordered me to stay put and recuperate. He’ll kill me if he sees me.”
“Okay, Ping, I’ll go,” Chiang replied with a light chuckle. “We wouldn’t want you to get in trouble. Though I don’t know why the captain should be angry at you for coming here. You deserve to be here after what you did for the troop.”
He steered his horse out of line and spurred it into a quick trot toward the front.
She continued riding beside Yao, at the back of the troop where she wouldn’t be easily seen.
“Keep your eyes open,” she told him, her own eyes darting around, searching for any sight that looked suspicious. “They’re here somewhere and they’re going to take advantage of the crowd and the chaos of the festival to obtain their objective.”
That was something else she’d learned from her father. She remembered him laughing as he passed along another one of his sayings.
“In chaos there is profit.”
She dismounted and left Khan outside of Ch’eng-tien Gate, then went inside. No one looked twice at the odd, fully armored soldier that stayed hidden among the performers, looking on.
Something was wrong. The troop had dismounted after passing through the gate and into the palace courtyard. They processed toward a platform halfway between the square and the palace entrance, where the Emperor waited. The soldiers remained lined up in front of the platform, though. Only Chi Fu and the captain ascended the stairs to the platform where the Emperor stood.
The acrobats and other performers that she now waited with had split off into two formations and turned off in either direction, maintaining their distance from the platform and allowing the soldiers to continue forward. But the dancers in the dragon float continued moving straight, following the captain and Chi Fu as they drew near to the Emperor.
Mulan had never been to the Imperial City, nor had she ever seen an Imperial parade; but something seemed off about it. Why was that float continuing toward the Emperor when the rest of the performers had veered off to the sides, keeping to the outer perimeter of the square?
She pushed her way through the crowd of performers and broke into a run toward the platform. The dragon had almost reached the top stair leading to it.
“Shang!” she shouted. “In the dragon!”
He whirled around in confusion, as did the rest of the troop. Their position revealed now, the men inside threw off the float and sprang toward the Emperor, swords drawn. Chi Fu squealed in fright and hurried after the Emperor, who was being hastily shuffled away to a safe distance by his guards, who’d never left his side.
Shang was taken by surprise, but he drew his own sword quickly and began to fend them off. Yao and several other of her comrades had their swords out already and she drew her own, rushing into the fray to aid them.
Shan-Yu and his men fought fiercely, but they were outnumbered and, having lost their element of surprise, were quickly dispatched.
The battle was over before she even had a chance to process it, and she stood bewildered, not even thinking to look for an opportunity to escape. There was none. Shang had moved in front of her to shield her. And as the chaos died down and the smoke cleared, Chi Fu came storming back down to the platform ceremoniously.
“Where is she?” he demanded, eyes combing the group of soldiers.
Shang stared at him blankly, appearing to be feigning confusion. Chi Fu wasn’t put off for a moment.
“You know very well who I’m talking about, Captain Li. There’s no point in trying to protect her. I’ve already told the Emperor all about that little tramp and he knows she’s here. Besides, she’s not worth it. You’d realize that if you hadn’t had your…”
Mulan started, shaken up by the councilman’s nearly-spoken innuendo and shocked at the force with which Shang snatched the Imperial councilman’s collar, almost wringing his scrawny neck. Chi Fu looked terrified.
“Listen, you pompous…”
The Emperor brought an abrupt end to the argument in a quiet but firm voice and Shang released Chi Fu’s collar. Mulan began to tremble as she beheld him up close for the first time in her life. He was a tall, thin bearded man of mature age, probably in his fifties, Mulan guessed, bedecked in a yellow robe and a tall hat.
Shang stepped forward and bowed.
“Your Majesty…” he began, but the Emperor cut him off with a raised hand and he stepped back, dipping his head in another bow.
The Emperor’s eyes fell on her and she felt her knees begin to quake. Everything had caught up to her and it was time to face the consequences of her actions. But she had no regrets; she had done what was right, whatever fate was decided for her.
Taking a deep breath she bravely stepped forward now and bowed before him, ready to accept her inevitable punishment.
This was the last thing she’d expected. She’d been certain that she’d be executed or thrown in jail. And she had been worried about Shang’s fate, too. After all, it had been his duty to execute her when she was revealed.
Instead, Emperor Yang found it amusing that a woman had passed herself off as a man in his army and commended Shang for his wisdom and foresight in sparing her life. He’d heard about the battle in the mountains, both from Chi Fu and Shang, and was greatly impressed with her bravery and ingenuity. And he admired the courage she’d shown, coming forward to warn everyone, at great risk to herself, in order to save his life and ensure the safety of China. What’s more, he was taken with her youth and what he called her ‘natural look’.
Mulan suspected that it was her youth and ‘natural look’ that made him spare her life, more than anything else, especially when he invited her to stay and live with him in the palace as one of his wives. Given that, this wouldn’t be unlike prison. She would just be a prisoner in a home that was larger than the Li compound. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t refuse the Emperor and live.
She looked up as Li Shang joined her where she sat in the garden, sitting at a respectful distance from her. His voice was stiff as he spoke.
“I came to say goodbye.”
“You’re leaving tonight?”
He nodded. “I have to put all of my father’s affairs in order. And…by now, my mother has heard the news of my father.” Mulan thought she could hear a subtle break in his voice. “I have to get home to her, and to the rest of the family. I’m responsible for everyone now. My mother, my father’s other two wives and my little brother, Ping.”
At a loss for words, she merely gripped the edge of the bench tensely and stared straight ahead, fighting the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. She didn’t want to cry now, in her last moments with him, but she felt dangerously close to tears. This goodbye was forever and she wasn’t ready for it, though she still hardly knew this man in reality. They wouldn’t see each other again, and there was so much left undiscovered between them and so many things to say.
She couldn’t even understand why she was so emotional about it. After all, she was the one who had left the inn, leaving nothing but a note to let him know that she was gone; she’d left him behind first.
“The Emperor doesn’t know,” he spoke up again.
She turned and stared at him quizzically.
“About you and my father, I mean. I don’t know if it would matter, but I’m sure he doesn’t know. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
They both looked away from each other and an uncomfortable silence stretched between them for a time. Mulan was more concerned with Chi Fu telling the Emperor about her and Shang; after the hint he’d begun to drop, she was sure he knew and it shook her up. But she said nothing. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and there was nothing Shang could do about it. Talking to him about it would only burden him. He already knew; he’d heard Chi Fu’s words, too.
“Mulan, why didn’t you stay at the inn?” he asked finally, turning to her again. “You were safe there. And you could have remained safe, and undiscovered.”
“Only for a little while.”
“I was only safe for a little while. If I hadn’t warned you, none of us would have been safe in the end.”
His sad sigh was barely audible.
“It was meant to be this way,” she added after a few minutes, wanting to convince herself as much as him.
“I’m sorry, Mulan. I should have sent you home.”
She looked at him in surprise. “You did send me home.”
“Yes, but then I let you stay.”
“I earned the right to stay. Anyway, even if I had gone, who’s to say I would have ended up anywhere better? My family was gone and I couldn’t go back to the Li compound. Besides, I’m glad that I was able to do something for my country. Maybe, in a small way, I’ve honored my father.”
Even if I did just end up a concubine in the end.
She’d come to accept that as a woman it was one of a few dismal options that were open to her. Women were merely slaves; she’d known that for a long time and it was foolish to ever think that she could be more than that. Even if she had stepped up in status somewhat, now a concubine to the Emperor instead of just an Imperial general, she was still a concubine.
“In more than just a small way, Mulan. You’ve brought the greatest honor to China. And to your father. And…I’m honored to have known you, even if it was only for a short time.”
His words surprised her. The compliment and the tone in which he spoke warmed her inside and she smiled easily. “Thank you. I’m really glad that it was you who ended up being my captain.”
Shang sighed wistfully. “I wish I could have done more for you. At least you’ll be living a comfortable life here now.”
“And you, too. Hopefully peace will last for a long time and you can hang up your armor. At least for a little while,” she added, alluding to something he’d said when they talked after the first time they lay together.
“Hopefully,” he agreed, managing a slight smile.
She began to speak again but hesitated; he noticed.
“What is it, Mulan?”
“Would you do something for me, Shang?”
“Of course. Name it.”
“Honglian…I mean, Fourth Wife. When you get home, would you write to me and let me know how she is? I met Doctor Liang in town the day I left the Li compound. He was called away to take care of her. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve been very worried about her.”
“I’ll try,” he answered softly, staring at her with an odd expression. “If the Emperor sees a letter from me to you he might become suspicious.”
“Maybe you can send me some token from the troop along with the letter?”
He nodded. “Maybe. I’ll do my best to find some way to contact you.”
He stood up then and she rose to her feet to bid him a final goodbye. They shook hands, the gesture seeming so distant and impersonal after the intense physical contact they’d shared just a week ago.
“Well, I wish you a safe journey home, Shang.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, Mulan.”
She took a seat on the bench again as he walked off. The sight of his retreating back filled her with sadness and she turned away quickly, staring down at her hands in her lap as the first teardrop fell.
When she looked up again through moist eyes he was gone.
She would never get used to this man.
Aged, thin and nearly as bony as Chi Fu, she was nauseated by the sight when she laid eyes on his naked body for the first time. Like General Li he insisted on keeping the lanterns lit so he could see her form as he descended on her.
And so, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine that it was Shang on top of her. Anything that would get her through the ordeal each time.
“You’re my good luck charm, Fa Mulan.”
She was surprised that he even spoke to her afterward.
Rumor had it that Emperor Yang had always lived a life of excess and was an incorrigible womanizer, she learned in a short time. When his more frugal father was alive and in power he’d kept his concubines hidden, though he still kept them; one servant numbered his mistresses in the hundreds.
All she could think was that it was no wonder he looked so worn out and used up.
After that first night of consummation he said very little to her, though he called for her frequently. And whenever they lay together he always told her afterward that she was his good luck charm. If that kept her in his favor, she was fine with it. Despite how unhappy she was, a part of her still clung tenaciously to life; and to the hope that maybe hers would change. She didn't want to die.
After living in the palace for just four months her belly had already begun to swell. One of the court physicians, a kind man who had a daughter of his own, confirmed that she was approximately four months along.
The Emperor was delighted with how fruitful his new concubine had turned out and he doted on her for those months, especially when it was suggested that, based on signs, chances were good that she carried a son in her womb. Thus far his only surviving children were daughters.
About five months later she did bear the Emperor a male heir; or so everyone thought. Only Mulan recognized the features of Xu-long’s true father in her infant son; the shape of the face, the expressions which appeared across his visage at intervals as he writhed and stretched in his crib. A mixture of delight and dismay filled her as she beheld the passing scowl, a yawn, a lopsided almost-smile that would constantly remind her of Li Shang.
Only a week had passed between the last time she’d been with Shang and the first time she’d been with Emperor Yang, so it was certainly possible. And even without that, she knew deep in her heart whose baby it was.
Fortunately Chi Fu, the one person who would have made the connection as far as timing, had been sent on a diplomatic mission shortly after the day of the victory parade; and judging from the Emperor’s behavior toward her, his council had never mentioned anything to him about her relationship with the captain. Perhaps he’d realized that it would be unbecoming to gossip in such a manner. Or perhaps the worst was still to come.
She hadn’t been able to escape her fate as a concubine, a woman of low status. But she loved her son with all of her being and he made anything she had to endure worth it. And if all went well and no one figured out the truth of the baby’s paternal origin, she would raise a Crown Prince who, maybe someday, would be an Emperor.
Author’s Note: I know I’m ending this on a sad note, with many things left unsaid and unresolved. Given the tone of the story overall, I felt that it was appropriate, as this is the experience of Mulan in this fic. I do have a possible idea for a sequel as well; if I get the inspiration to write it, I’ll definitely post it here. Many thanks to all who’ve been reading and commenting, with special thanks to periskyye, who became a beta in the process of my writing this.