chapter forty one
stumbling over the royal we
"Yes. Yes, this will definitely be my spot," Tigress announced. She stretched and lay down atop thick beam near the ceiling of the carriage, which supported a ridiculously beautiful chandelier that cast rainbows over the interior. She rested her head on her paws and flicked her tail, peering down at everyone below.
Shifu smiled up at her. "You look very much in your element."
"Very 'tiger'," Po said.
Tigress smiled and gave a low growl.
Po's eyebrows raised in a way that indicated that he liked the sound of that growl, and Shifu felt suddenly awkward for having seen that small intimacy. He was glad that they'd found happiness together but he didn't need to be reminded of it in that way. He made a point of pretending they simply stopped existing once Tigress's bedroom door closed.
"They are?" Habika had asked, months ago when he told her about their relationship. "I'd have assumed a kung fu school had rules about that sort of thing."
"Some do, but Oogway never saw much point in delaying the inevitable. If you put a bunch of young warriors together in close quarters for years on end these kinds of relationships naturally develop. I just wasn't expecting it to develop between those two in particular."
"Stranger things have happened and will happen," Habika said.
She was not wrong.
Since the announcement in the carriage things had been hectic. Shoushan's goal was to get Habika back to the Forbidden City as soon as possible, which was a more complicated feat than it sounded, and not one she seemed at all ready for. The second she stepped from the carriage she was swarmed by servants that followed her every move, trying to see to her every need before she had it. One of those needs was for her belongings to be packed, and when they invaded the sangha like a colony of termites she finally lost her temper and banished them from the house. She dove, overwhelmed, into Shifu's protective arms. He made chamomile tea to settle her nerves, but it was not long until polite Shoushan knocked at the door to ask when Her Highness might be ready to depart for the City. Behind him stood the servants in rank and file, waiting to be let back in to finish packing.
"Might I have a last night in my own home?" Habika asked.
"The Empress Highness may have anything she wishes," Shoushan replied, bowing, but his slightly arch tone indicated otherwise.
"Is there a reason we must leave so quickly?" Habika asked.
"The Empress's desires are paramount above all other matters," he said, in a manner that made it clear they really weren't.
"Shoushan, I'm not MeiLan! Please speak freely! Also please come in, you needn't hover in the doorway."
The peacock bowed again. "I thank you, Empress Highness, for your-"
"Stop! Stop with the formality, please!"
"I-" Shoushan said. He blinked, looking a bit lost. "…Okay."
"Thank you," Habika said and gestured to the couch. "Have a seat."
Shoushan swept over to the couch - the way he moved, with his long train of blue and green feathers, could only be described as sweeping - and took a cautious seat. Habika set a cup of tea before him and began to pour.
"No! No no no!" Shoushan protested. "You are the Empress, you cannot pour my tea, it's -
"I thought the Empress's desires are paramount about all other matters."
"They are, but -"
"Than the Empress desires to pour the tea."
Shoushan gave an exasperated sound. "I do thank you, My Lady, but should you do such things in the Forbidden City you will not be taken seriously."
"And you wonder why I'm not eager to leave," she replied grimly.
"Why are you in such a hurry?" Shifu asked. "I'm sure the contingent is tired and wouldn't mind a few day's rest."
"I'm afraid there is no time to waste, Master Shifu. The Forbidden City is shut until the Empress arrives, no one in or out. No communication, not even letters. It would not be prudent for the news of the royal family's demise to spread before another monarch is firmly in place. When the news does break the provinces will fall to chaos as they vie for their new nobility. We do not need that conflict reaching the Forbidden City - if anything the City needs to be where those conflicts end, and cannot be if the throne is empty. Beijing is replete with Mongolian spies - god forbid word gets back to those barbarians and they decide a China with no leader is a China made ready for invasion. All this considered there is still a limit to how long we can keep such devastation secret. We must make haste."
Shifu nodded. "I see. Little one - " He turned to Habika and stopped when he saw her expression. She had drawn her knees up to her chest, eyes wide. "What is it?"
"I'm going to have to actually rule China," she said softly. "What happens when provinces do come to me to resolve disputes? What if the Mongols do invade? I don't know the first thing about … about ruling anything."
"There's advisers for that, little one. And generals."
Shoushan cleared his throat. "Not … not anymore, I'm afraid."
"Shit," Habika whispered.
"Goodness," Shoushan said. "Lady Empress, we will do our best to provide you with whatever counsel you require, but in the meantime we must prepare to leave. The servants can pack your things."
"Is there anything else you'll be needing that we should make ready?"
"Yes," Shifu said. "Me."
Shoushan nodded. "Shall I have your belongings packed, Master?"
"I'd rather you didn't have your people rifling through my things, if it's all the same to you."
"The Five will be accompanying us as well. I doubt whomever tried so hard to eliminate the entire royal family will stop there. The Empress will need protection."
"As you wish. There is a contingent of soldiers at her disposal as well, Master."
Shifu made a sarcastic sound that indicated what he thought of that.
Habika cocked her head at Shoushan. "Don't I remember an Imperial kung fu school?"
Shifu laughed. "Yes. And do you know what Emperor Gan said about them? 'Someone needs to train the acrobats.' Ha! Only truly funny thing that bastard said." He glanced up at Shoushan. "Apologies."
The peacock raised en eyebrow. "You'll get no argument from me on that front, Master."
"If the situation really is as dire as you say, we will leave first thing in the morning," Habika said, "but I want a last night in my home."
Shoushan nodded. "Very well, my lady. We are at your disposal."
"Thank you Shoushan," she replied, and managed a smile. "You may go."
The peacock stood, bowed, and took his leave. As soon as the door shut Habika crawled across the couch to Shifu and curled up in his lap, sliding her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder like a frightened child. He put his arms around her and rocked her gently.
"Oh, little one," he whispered, putting his chin atop her head. Suddenly a sensation of relief passed through him so profound he nearly laughed. This morning he'd resigned himself to leave her forever, to face his death at the hands of the Imperial guard, and now - now this! He shook his head in wonder, held her tighter and kissed the top of her head.
"Shifu..?" she asked.
"What the hell just happened?"
He considered this. "A lot."
"Yes." She took her hands from around his neck to look at the royal seal, which was so large she had to wear it on two fingers. "It's too big for me," she said, and laughed. "It's - it - look!"
"I see," Shifu said.
"This won't do," she said, and laughed again.
"The Empire is clearly doomed."
She nodded. "Yes. It is. Oh gods Shifu, it is, how did this - how am I - Shifu, what happened? How could this - who did it? Is he still out there?" She gasped, her hand fluttering to her chest. "Shifu, what if he knows about Mahdi? What if he's after her right now?"
Shifu considered this. "How many people knew about her?"
"As far as I know, only Gan and Dr. Chang. Gan may have told his advisers, but they're all gone now. I do know her existence was of the utmost secrecy."
"Than it is unlikely the killer knows of her."
"But we have no way to be sure."
"No, we do not. But little one, there is very little to be done about it. In the future it will be very important that you do not spend your energy worrying about that which you cannot change, especially when it will be in your power to change so much."
She swallowed, then looked down at the seal on her hand, and began to laugh.
"What it is?"
"I- just … " she took a breath and tried to calm down, but she was unsuccessful and began laughing harder. "I- I can't -!" she lay back on the couch and covered her hands with her eyes in laughter. She took a deep breath and clutched her stomach, then all at once the laughter collapsed into tears. "How can this be real? I can't rule China, I - " she said. "How in the world - oh gods, MeiLan, I always hoped she would heal once day, I don't - and Li! Oh, Li!" She burst into tears.
Shifu scooped her up and took her upstairs to their bed. Thy did not make love - it would be a long while until they did again - but he simply held her and let her sob and laugh and whimper, knowing that whatever else changed he would remain at her side, a rock for her in all things, for as long as he remained in this world.
Is it wrong to thank the murderer of so many for a gift he surely never intended? Shifu wondered as he stroked Habika's face. I don't think I care. Thank you, you bloodthirsy madman, but may fate see that your deeds one day catch up with you.
She finally exhausted herself and fell asleep. He covered her and gave her a kiss, then went downstairs and helped himself to a glass of grape wine. Just as he raised the cup to his lips there was a knock at the door. When he opened it Po and the Five stood before him, eyes wide as plates.
"Master, what the hell is going on?" Mantis asked.
Shifu glanced up at the loft and put his finger to his lips, then joined them outside, shutting the door behind him. To his surprise the servants and Shoushan still stood there in rank and file, awaiting the Empress's orders.
"Are you kidding me?" Shifu asked Shoushan. "Take a break!"
Shoushan appeared to jerk awake. "We must be ever ready for - "
"The Empress is asleep and I advise you -all of you- do likewise!"
Shoushan tilted his head at Shifu, eyeing him critically.
"What?' Shifu asked.
"Do you have leave to speak for the Empress?"
"I should think so!"
"Shoushan, as the Empress's consort and master of the Jade Palace I insist you and your staff go get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow. I promise should she have need of you I will fetch you myself."
"Who will provide for her in the morning?"
"Provide for her-?"
"Who will bring her meal and dress her?"
"She's thirty six!" Shifu said, aghast. "Look, just- just go! Go to sleep!" He looked around Shoushan at the staff. "Go to sleep!" he ordered. "My students and I must speak privately, so go! All of you! Shoo!"
"As you wish," Shoushan said. He clapped his hands and the servants scattered save two soldiers in full armor, bearing crossbows.
"You too!" Shifu said.
"With all due respect I am afraid I must take exception to that, Master," Shoushan said with a polite bow. "The Empress must be defended at all times."
Crane turned. "Mr. Peacock sir, you're looking at seven kung fu masters, she won't get much better defended than that."
"I -" Shoushan looked up at Crane. He looked Crane up and down then paused, as though he'd lost his train of thought.
"You what?" Crane asked.
"I … didn't realize you were one of the masters," he said, titling his head almost coquettishly.
Crane seemed puzzled. "Oh. Well I know I don't look like much, but - "
"Oh no! No no no, you look like - a, ah, very … tall, capable master," Shoushan said, clearing his throat, "as - um -as I'm sure you all are, however I must insist the guards remain. One thousand apologies, but I'm afraid I cannot relent on this, Master Crane, graceful and stunning though you may be."
Shifu, Po, and the five all exchanged a look. Shoushan's eyed widened and he looked like he wanted to die.
"Ex -excuse me, I am … fatigued," he choked.
"Then you had best get some sleep," Shifu said. "The guards may remain."
"Ah! Thank you Master Shifu, and … assorted Masters," Shoushan said, bowing. "I will see you in the morning. Pleasant night." With that he turned and hurriedly left.
"Wow. That peacock's all yours, Crane," Mantis said as soon as Shoushan was out of earshot.
"He's - what?" Crane asked.
Viper gave an exasperated groan.
"Enough!" Shifu said. "We have some serious business to discuss - and keep your voices down."
They took shifts guarding the carriage on the month-long trip to the Forbidden City. They'd developed a system where one or two of them walked alongside it at all times, senses sharp, even among the phalanx of crossbow bearing guards. After a while the Five and the guards got to know one another by name due to Po's natural gregariousness. When they stopped for breaks Po and Monkey and Tigress would engage in some target practice with the soldiers. Even Mantis gave it a go, and hit the bullseye - painted on a pocked wooden tray hung from a branch - twelve times in a row.
"Not bad!" Shifu said, his legs wobbly from the constant motion of the carriage. "Perhaps I was wrong in steering you away from weapons combat."
"No, you were right, Master. I may have good aim but it's not exactly practical for me to carry a crossbow around," Mantis said. The crossbow had been placed on a boulder so Mantis could practice with it. "No crossbows, swords, whips, or daggers for me. Nope. I depend on this and this only," he said, pointing to himself
"I bet you're deadly with a sewing needle," Po said.
"I am! I will give you such a poke!"
"You could take an eye out with a sewing needle," Shifu considered.
"I can take an eye out with these," Mantis said, holding up his claws.
"Did I teach you that?" Shifu asked.
"Ages ago," Mantis said.
"Hm! Have you ever used it?"
"Nope! Hope I never have to." He shuddered. "Icky warm eyeballs, no thank you. All of you warm blooded creatures with your warm goopy parts. Ugh."
"Generally the warmer and goopier the part, the more vulnerable it is," Shifu instructed.
"And that, children, is why we wear clothes," Po said, shutting one eye as he aimed at the wooden target.
The carriage door opened. A servant quickly placed some wooden steps before the door and Habika stepped down, yawning.
"What does the Empress Highness desire?" the servant asked, his head nearly touching the ground.
"I'm - We're - fine, thank you, just some fresh air," she said, stumbling over the royal 'We'.
Shifu smiled. "Good morning little one. Did you sleep well?" he asked, knowing full well she hadn't slept well this or any other night since she'd been pronounced Empress. She tossed and turned and whimpered and sweat. He often woke to see her looking out the narrow window of the carriage bedloft, which was where the staircase that had so amazed him led. It was a space built to sleep Huli Jing foxes, which made it more than big enough for the both of them. Nevertheless the first few nights Shifu insisted on sleeping downstairs.
"Please stay with me," Habika begged him.
"With my students just a curtain away?" he asked, gesturing to the doorway. All that separated them from lower section of the carriage was green silk curtain and the staircase. "It's not appropriate."
"Your students know we've shared a bed for two years now, I don't understand why you can't sleep up here."
"Little one, I just…" he couldn't put into words why exactly it made him uncomfortable, as she wasn't wrong, but something about his students being so near, perhaps making assumptions about what might be going on in the loft, made his stomach churn with offended propriety. He tried to sleep in a little nest of pillows downstairs but by the end of the night he always ended up in the loft one way or another, either by her puppy-eyed urging or his inability to sleep without her ear in his face. He finally gave up on being proper when he accidentally woke Crane at 3am while heading up the stairs, and in response to Shifu's guilt-ridden look Crane assured him that "Seriously Master, no one cares where you sleep."
"Just pick a floor and stick with it, Father," Tigress said sleepily from her perch on the support beam.
"See?" Habika said, halfway down the stairs to meet him.
"All right, all right," Shifu muttered, and grabbed his little duffel bag.
After that he lived and slept in the loft with his fiancee but lovemaking was off the list, and not only because of the total lack of a sound barrier. She seemed to have totally lost interest in sex, or even food. She spent the majority of her time holed up in the loft, mind wrought with doom-ridden imaginings about what awaited her at the Forbidden City and the murderous psychopath who was surely after her daughter at that very moment. Shifu tried his best to distract her but her ability to worry herself into a useless heap was almost more than he could cope with. Meditation worked sometimes, when she had the patience to settle into it, as did energy work, but after a while Shifu began to feel that his presence was doing more harm that good. His pressure to stop her worrying was not helping to actually stop her worrying, and without being free to distract her with physical affection - which had worked in the past - he was at something of a loss.
It was during one of Habika's finely wrought sessions of near panic that Shoushan called to the stairs, for the umpteenth time, "Empress Highness, if I may, please do let me know when it would be a good time to decide on the fabrics for your ceremonial gowns."
Shoushan had been after her about this for a few days, and Shifu kept brushing him off on her behalf, waiting until she was calmer, until he'd fixed her, but on this particular day he had no more ideas.
"I'm sending him up," he said to Habika.
"All right," Habika said.
"And I'm going out to get some air," he said, trying not to let his frustration show.
She gave him an apologetic look. "I'm sorry."
He sighed, cupped her face in his hand, and pecked her on the lips. "Its all right, little one. I just need to stretch my legs."
"Then go stretch them, my warrior. I'll be fine."
The peacock stood at the base of the stairs with a stack of shining fabrics slung over his wing, his head tilted up expectantly.
"She's all yours," Shifu said to him.
"Thank you, Master," Shoushan said and bowed.
"Viper!" he heard Habika call out the narrow loft window. "We're doing the fabrics now, want to join in?"
"Do I!?" Viper said from outside the carriage. He heard Habika yelp and a loud thud of impact, and to his surprise Viper slithered partway down the stairs, around Shoushan. She'd somehow leaped and flipped herself through the loft window.
"Tigress take over my shift, we're having girl time!" she demanded
Tigress looked down from the support beam, where she was relaxing with a book. "What if I told you that I'm also a girl?"
"Oh please do join us, Master Tigress," Shoushan said. "I should like to see you in something other than that drab vest."
"Drab?" Tigress asked, wide eyed.
"Not drab, just … look at you, my dear, you could wear anything and look a vision, but might I tempt you into options other than red and black?" Shoushan held the fabrics out to Tigress, an alluring rainbow of color.
"Come be a girl with us!" Viper said excitedly.
"Will I fit up there?" Tigress asked.
"You'll manage!" Habika called.
Tigress shrugged. "All right then. Fabrics it is. Monkey, take my shift, will you? Apparently it's girl time."
"Shoushan isn't a girl," Monkey protested.
Shoushan turned and faced Monkey with a regal flourish. "My dear Master Monkey, I am no girl. I am a woman."
"Truer words never said, darling!" Habika called.
And that was the beginning of the mysterious phenomenon of daily 'girl time' with Shoushan in the carriage loft. Every afternoon, and sometimes into the evenings, the four of them met in the lofted bedroom. Purportedly they discussed fabrics and headpieces, but more often than not these meetings involved one or more bottles of baijiu, boxed candies, whispers, and hysterical laughter. Shifu, Po, Mantis, Crane, and Monkey often sat in the lower part of the carriage utterly mystified at the goings-on above.
"How does he do it?' Crane asked.
"Do what?" Shifu asked, looking up from his book.
"Shoushan is a master of talking to women," Crane said. "Listen to them laughing."
"So he is," Shifu said, and it gladdened him. The daily get-togethers had gone a long way towards distracting Habika from her worries and had allowed Shifu some rest, and even some crossbow practice of his own.
"I mean if you put me in a tiny room with three women all the laughing you'd hear would be at my expense," Crane said.
"Put you in a room with four men and all the laughing is still at your expense," Mantis pointed out.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mantis," Crane sighed.
One evening Crane finally managed to ask Shoushan about his supernatural facility with women. Over time the peacock spent more and more time in the carriage with the eight of them, talking and telling stories, playing music. He was clearly there as a companion to Habika - as he had been to her sister before before her -so he was rarely in the carriage alone with the men, but on this day Tigress was in the loft trying on a new vest Shoushan had sewn for her. Despite his very obvious proclivities - proclivities which had yet failed to dawn on Crane - Tigress insisted the Shoushan leave the loft while she changed. The peacock rolled his eyes as he descended the staircase into the main cabin.
"Hey Shoushan," Crane said.
"Why hello Master Crane," Shoushan replied, smiling as he bowed. "How are you this evening?"
"I'm well! You?"
"Getting better every minute."
"Want to sit and have a drink with us?" Crane asked, gesturing to himself, Shifu, and Mantis.
"More than anything," Shoushan said, and turned to the wall of baijiu. "Which shall we try?"
"Oh, don't bother yourself, I'll get it. Please sit," Crane said, gesturing to the seat next to him.
"Oh!" Shoushan said, looking delighted. "Don't mind if I do. And I suggest the thirty year reserve. Top left, taupe bottle."
"Taupe…?" Crane asked.
"The one that looks like it's made of clay," Shoushan said, beaming.
Crane retrieved the bottle and poured cups for the four of them. After they toasted, he turned to Shoushan and said, "Listen - I'm pouring you a drink with a bit of an ulterior motive. There's something I've been meaning to ask you."
Shoushan's eyes went wide. "Is there, Master Crane?"
Mantis snickered. Shoushan shot him a dirty look.
Crane leaned conspiratorially into Shoushan, his voice low, and asked, "I was wondering how it is that you're so good with women?"
Shoushan smiled enigmatically and sipped his baijiu. "In what sense?"
"I mean you can sit up there with Tigress and Viper and Habika and just talk and keep them laughing for hours. How do you do it? I'm an utter failure with women, you gotta help me."
"Oh, bless your dear heart," Shoushan said, chuckling, placing his hand to his chest. "Master Crane, I am good at talking to women because talking to women is my profession."
Crane blinked. "What?"
"My purpose is to tend to the Empress's every need, and what Empresses need more often than not is entertainment."
"Oh!" Crane said, considering this. "Wait, do you mean … every need?" he whispered. "Like … every every need?"
"Good god no," Shoushan said, shuddering. "Perish the very thought."
Mantis snickered again.
"Can I help you, Master Mantis?" Shoushan asked pointedly.
"No no, help him," Mantis replied, gesturing to Crane. "He's the one who needs help."
"So he is," Shoushan said. "Master Crane, when one is talking to ladies, it helps when one wants nothing from them. When one has no expectations, as I don't, one can simply regard the lady as a person, and not as an end goal."
"Truth," Mantis said.
"And you don't have expectations of them because they're your job?" Crane said.
Mantis put his head in his claws.
"Shoushan! Come look!" Viper called from the loft.
"Sure," Shoushan said, rising fom his seat. "That's why. Thank you for the drink, Master Crane, Masters." He bowed and headed up the stairs. When he reached the top he exclaimed "Oh! It's even better than I envisioned! Ah but nothing could look bad on my marvelous Tigress!"
Crane shook his head. "No expectations…? How can a guy spend that much time with women without … expectations? What am I missing?"
"What aren't you missing?' Mantis said.
Nights were a different story. It was cold, so cold not even the relatively close quarters of the carriage did not kept it out. As the month went by the taking of shifts grew more and more erratic until the entirety of the royal party - the Five, Po, Shifu, Habika, and Shoushan -spent their evenings together on the bottom floor of the carriage, talking and eating and passing a bottle of baijiu in the candlelight. It was at these times that Tigress and Po would suddenly decide they would take the empty watch, in a manner that was so conspicuous that Shifu nearly rolled his eyes. To his surprise no one else seemed to catch on, even when Po and Tigress vanished from their snowy surroundings for forty five minutes at a time. Their romance was, Shifu supposed, as big an impossibility to their teammates as it had been to him. And with no real threat of danger on the entire trip - not even a hint - no one minded when they gave up their 'shift' after a couple hours, looking flushed and refreshed.
Night brought on a different mood, different conversations, subjects borne of cold and melancholy. Habika and Shoushan would talk at length about her deceased sister. Neither was sure what specific thing Gan had done to snuff out her soul, only that it was so effective that she resisted all efforts to kindle it up again, and that it happened very quickly.
"It was almost as if she were affected by a drug," Shoushan said, "but I've no idea what sort of potion it could have been. Ah, I wish I had known her the way you knew her, before she came to the Forbidden City. I saw glimpses of that person, but only glimpses. The Emperor took me from my sisters and lashed me to MeiLan's side only after he'd begun dismantling her."
"What do you mean, took you from your sisters?" Habika asked, sipping baijiu.
Shoushan sighed. "My sisters and I first came to court as singers. We loved to sing, we were classically trained. I fully intended to enter the Beijing opera. It was my fondest dream. The Emperor heard that our father had these children with miraculous voices and bade us sing for him. We did, of course. To be asked was a great honor. We did not anticipate that Gan would love my sisters' voices so much he would demand to keep them at court. Me, however, he forbade to sing again again, and made me MeiLan's head of staff as a way of ensuring this - that I never joined the opera, that my voice was never heard."
Shoushan swallowed. "Jealousy," he almost whispered. "His voice would never equal mine. He demanded I teach him, and I tried, but he physically could not sound as I do - you will notice I have an extraordinarily long throat even for a peacock, and what we avian singers call a high and sonorous beak - notice the arch near my nostrils? These are inborn traits, inherited gifts. He could never sound as I do, so I had to be silenced. He gave me to MeiLan because she fawned over me, over my beauty, like one would a doll. She did always treat me favorably so long as I kept her and her ladies in pretty clothes and funny stories."
"I remember," Habika said. "I had no idea you sang."
"No one at court did."
"Well then! My first official duty as -" she stumbled, "as - Empress - shall be to lift Gan's ban on your voice," Habika said. "In my Palace you are as free to sing as you are to breathe, Shoushan. Yes? Let's toast to this." She held her cup to Shoushan's, and Shifu smiled. He was glad to see Habika embrace her new role, even if only in small ways such as this. She tended to shy from it far too much for Shifu's comfort.
"I thank you, Empress Highness," Shoushan said, his voice barely audible, touching his glass to hers. In the dim candlelight Shifu almost thought he saw the peacock blink back tears. Crane tilted his head and gave Shoushan a brief, companionable one -winged hug, which sent the stunned peacock into a fit of nervous laughter.
"Aw, Crane, you're so sweet," Viper said.
"Isn't he just?" Shoushan replied. "He'll make some girl very lucky one day."
"Ha! Aha!" Crane said. "Tell that to Viper, will you? She's says I'm, and I quote, 'the last one who should talk about love'!"
Viper went at once wide-eyed and small, constructing her body into a tight coil. "You remember that?" she asked softly.
For a moment Shifu was thrown - what in the world were they referring to? -but then he remembered their meeting in the Dragon Grotto, when Viper had snapped at Crane after objecting to Shifu's plan - a plan about which he'd sworn the five to absolute secrecy once Habika was named Empress. "If anything so much as a singular word gets back to her about what we almost did, I will be collecting heads, is that clear?" he hissed at them outside the sangha the night before they departed for the Forbidden City.
"Crane…I'm sorry. I was really upset when I said that," Viper whispered.
"It was way harsh," Crane chided. "I mean I know I'm a loser in the dating department, but ouch."
"No you're not!" Viper protested.
"Come on, yes I am. Have you seen my harem anywhere?"
"You need a whole harem to be good at dating?" Tigress asked from the rafters.
"News to me. I'm happy with my one girl," Po said.
"And what one girl is this?" Mantis said.
Po paused, glancing up at Tigress. "I meant my, uh … theoretical one girl."
"Otherwise known as your one hand," Mantis scoffed.
"Brutal," Monkey said approvingly.
"At least I have hands!" Po said. "You don't have a girlfriend or hands, so you just have to be a tiny green jerk to people because you can't even touch your own junk."
"Savage," Monkey said.
"I touch my own junk plenty, thank you!" Mantis protested.
"Oh you even admit it!" Po said angrily. "You talk a big game but where's your harem, Mantis?"
"I - " Mantis started.
"Yeah, nowhere, that's what I thought," Po said. "Jerk."
"Hit a nerve, did I? When is you and your hand's anniversary? I'll buy you two a chaise lounge!"
"Stop this nonsense," Shifu said softly, warningly, and the cabin fell silent. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Habika swoon, just a bit. She got like that when he asserted his authority over them - they were powerful warriors to her, but persnickety children to him, and something about that melted her.
"Um. Anyway," Viper said. "I'm sorry for what I said, Crane. I was angry, and not even at you. I don't actually feel that way about you at all. I think - I've always thought - maybe the girls in the Valley of Peace just aren't woman enough to appreciate you."
Crane's smiled "Wow. Really?"
Viper nodded shyly.
"Thanks! All is forgiven, buddy."
Viper flinched and looked at the floor.
"Buddy?" Shoushan gasped. "Did you call Master Viper buddy?"
Crane blinked. "Yeah…? She's my buddy. Teammate. You know."
Shoushan's eyes went wide. "A woman of that caliber is no man's buddy."
"Oh!" Viper said, blushing and covering her mouth.
"Well she's my buddy," Crane said.
"And you wonder why she's upset with you?"
"Shousan -" Viper said urgently.
"Buddies get into arguments all the time, it's okay," Crane said.
Shoushan looked aghast.
"When was this argument?" Habika asked.
Suddenly all eyes were on Shifu.
"Viper and Crane had a spat during training a few weeks back," Shifu said smoothly.
"Love comes up during training?" Habika puzzled.
"Everything comes up. Training can bring out the worst in you!" Viper said quickly. "Once I called Tigress a mannish striped bitch!"
Tigress almost spat out her baijiu. "I remember that!" she said, laughing. "Why are you so mean, Viper?"
"I have to be mean, I'm the only girl!"
Tigress laughed harder.
"This is what I deal with," Shifu said, chuckling.
"Yes, I grew up with three sisters," Shoushan said. "You have my deepest sympathies, Master Shifu. A toast."
"I'll drink to that," Po said, and they did.
"Empress, the City is in view!" Shoushan called merrily the next day. Habika and Shifu looked out the slim bedloft window, and so it was. They'd just rounded the top of a mountain and were now headed down the opposite side. The walls and towers of the Forbidden City clearly visible across a long snow-covered valley. Her eyes went wide with terror and she sank into the corner. A sour, tingling anger rose up in him.
"Habika," Shifu found himself saying, suddenly and sternly, as though she was a student, "it is time for you to stop this."
"You are Empress now and it's time you began acting like one, not like some shrinking cowardly girl."
"I can no longer nurse you along. You are Empress. Act like it!"
"But Gan - "
"Gan is dead!" he cried. "And so is every other person inside the City walls who ever harmed you! You've nothing to be afraid of! I've had enough, little one!"
Downstairs he heard Shoushan hurriedly escort Tigress, Po, and Mantis out of the carriage and shut the door firmly behind them.
"I'M not afraid of being harmed!" she cried back. "I"m afraid of being the one who harms!"
"What do you mean?"
She shook her head and looked at her hands. "The Forbidden City turns everyone within to monsters. I'm afraid of what I may turn into."
"Nonsense! The Forbidden City is yours now, you make the rules within it, and no one will turn to a monster or anything else unless you say so! I've been watching you eat yourself alive this entire month. No more! Habika, you have not been given more than you can handle, the universe does not work that way!"
"Easy for you to say how the universe works! The entirety of China wasn't just thrust in your lap! No one killed your entire family! There's no madman who might be after your daughter at this very moment!"
"And I suppose you think worrying endlessly about it will keep her safe? It won't, and it's beyond tiresome, little one. You are standing in your own way. You must move forward."
She crossed her arms. "Well I'm sorry to bore you, Venerable One."
"I'll accept your apology once you've shown me you're ready to act in a manner befitting a woman of your station!"
"I'll thank you not to tell me how to act!"
"I have to! No one else will! You're about to have more hangers-on and sycophants than you'll know what to do with, it's best someone tells you the truth about your behavior!"
She threw her hands up. "And you wonder why I'm frightened of being poisoned?"
"I -what….? Now you're worried about poison? You'll have food tasters, Habika."
"I don't mean poisoned by food, I mean poisoned mentally - in my heart -poisoned by power."
"I won't let that happen."
"Oh? How do you propose to keep it from happening? I'm not your student, Shifu! I'm not under your control. You think you can keep my heart from turning black?"
"I know I can keep your heart from turning black."
"Ah! There! See? You always assume you have some sort of all-encompassing power over me! Well guess what, you don't," she said, poking him hard in the sternum.
"Don't do that," he said warningly.
"I'll do as I like," she growled, poking him again.
He caught her wrist in his hand. "I told you to stop."
"I'll do as I like!" she cried, "Be it poke you in the chest or worry about my daughter."
"Mahdi does not need a coward for a mother, she needs an Empress," Shifu leaned, whispering, pulling her towards him by the wrist. "If you keep worrying yourself into a pathetic heap you'll never be of any use of her, and she's better off wherever Gan hid her."
Her eyes widened in outrage. She made to slap him with her other hand, which he also caught.
"Let me go!" she said, trying to wrench her wrists free. He held them fast. "Let me go!" she insisted, twisting her arms behind her back until their bodies almost met. He gripped her wrists harder and she winced. "Shifu! I order you to let me go!"
"What was that?"
"I ORDER YOU to let me go!"
"Who orders me?" he said, his face inches from hers.
"The Empress! The Empress orders you!"
"Good!" he growled, and pressed his mouth to hers. They made love again, for the first time in weeks, and with a passionate fury. Shifu was certain they were overheard, which was ... what it was. He could learn to look his students in the eye again.
"My warrior," Habika whispered, her face buried in his neck.
"We're all here for you, little one. You're not alone. You can do this."
She did not look convinced. But she closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his. "If you're with me I can do anything."
"We're all with you, Empress. All of China is with you. And you will rule it well."