A/N: Thank you all for reading and enjoying the first part of Zhu's tale! I really enjoyed reading your comments and I'm sorry I'm unable to reply to the guest comments! The second part of Zhu's trilogy, Daughter of Rebirth, will start being posted on March 25th!
They reached the Imperial city the next night. As they drew nearer to the gate, they were greeted by joyous music, fireworks, and an absolutely massive crowd. There was even a group of performers; some were hidden under an enormous mask and cape as they did a lion dance while others did amazing acrobatics. Above the city were hundreds of colorful kites and the occasional firework explosion.
While the greeting cheered up a good portion of the soldiers, many still remained somber. Among the latter was Shang, who seemed more heartbroken than anything.
"Cheer up, Captain," Chi-Fu told him. He was sitting upright and wore a large smile, occasionally waving at the people as if he had been the one to save them. "Show them a smile! They're here for you, after all. Because of you, all of China has been saved."
Saying nothing, Shang gave his horse a slight kick. The stallion blew through his nose trotted away from Chi-Fu.
The sudden movement earned a yelp from Zhu as she was yanked forward, the sound being muffled against her gag. Chi-Fu had insisted that she be pulled behind Shang's horse; she was their prisoner, after all, and it would improve the city's morale to see a Hun left helpless and humiliated.
Shang had only agreed to it so Chi-Fu would stop talking for a while.
Chi-Fu glanced down at her, finding that she was now walking alongside his gelding. "I wonder if the crowd will be this large at your execution?" he pondered aloud. "I would imagine. After all, you are the daughter of Shan Da. The people will want to see the last of the Shan line eradicated."
Unable to say anything, Zhu narrowed her eyes and glared up at him.
"I wonder if it'll be strangulation?" He tapped his chin thoughtfully before smirking. "No, no…I'm certain the Emperor will have you beheaded. We wouldn't want you to get reincarnated, after all." As he spoke, he twirled part of his mustache around his finger.
She pulled her upper lip back in a snarl. Though it was partly obscured by the gag, it still managed to make the advisor nervously steer his horse away from her. 'What does beheading have to do with reincarnation…? What is reincarnation even? Chien-Po's mentioned it once or twice, but never in detail.'
Letting out a heavy sigh, she glanced over her shoulder. A few soldiers stood between her and the trio of her once-friends. Ling had a downcast gaze as he carried the Imperial banner, Yao trudging along behind him. Chien-Po took up the rear of the trio, his eyes slowly looking over the crowd.
Zhu forced herself to look away from them and instead take in the city around her as a distraction to herself.
The Imperial City was impossibly large. She had been to cities before, but they had been cities far away in the west and were vastly different from the structures around her now. There were enormous wooden columns holding up curving clay roofs and strings of colorful lanterns strung between the buildings. Houses with white walls and multiple stories stood on either side of the wide street and there were curved gates leading to different sections of the city. At the far end of the city, she could see a massive staircase leading into what she could only guess to be the Emperor's palace, though they were still too far yet to make out any details.
'So this is the city Shan Yu wanted to so badly conquer,' she told herself.
Sighing, she glanced up at the kite-filled sky. She had never seen a kite before and, had she been there under different circumstances, she would have thought them beautiful. They were all brightly colored with most being plain. Some kites, though, had the faces of dragons or cherry blossoms painted on them. Some of them even had tails made of multicolored ribbons trailing behind them.
Something managed to catch her attention, though. Narrowing her eyes, she did her best to see past everything into the darkness; it was a difficult task with so many kites and fireworks filling the sky. After a few minutes of searching, she gasped.
Barely visible against the night sky, she could see a falcon circling the city.
At first, she thought she was just seeing things—that it was just a bird or a bat startled by the celebration. But normal creatures of the sky would actively avoid the area. This one, though, was on the hunt.
'That has to be Hayabusa. But he's alive?! How?!' she thought, her eyes widening in horror. 'I thought he perished in the avalanche? If he's alive…oh spirits…' She could feel the color draining from her face. 'Shan Yu is here.'
Pulling her eyes from the sky, she tried calling out to Shang, though her voice was muffled. At first, he ignored her, but as her tone became more desperate, he glanced over his shoulder at her.
"It's too late to beg for mercy, Zhu," he told her.
She shook her head before motioning towards the sky with her head. He didn't understand her charades, though, and turned back around.
Mentally cursing, Zhu attempted to cut the gag by grinding it between her teeth. It was to no avail and only managed to earn a laugh from Chi-Fu. She ignored him, however, and, twisting her wrists, judged the strength of the ropes.
'I can still break through these,' she thought. 'Should I, though? I know they won't believe me even if I did tell them. …And why should they? They don't know of Shan Yu and Hayabusa's pact. They don't know that, so long as Hayabusa lives, Shan Yu will, too. And at this point, I don't think they'd be willing to hear me out.'
She let out a defeated sigh, beginning to scan the crowd for any faces she recognized. The least she could do, she told herself, was to prepare for some sort of fight.
They were three-quarters of the way through the city when they heard approaching hoofbeats. Zhu turned, her eyes widening as she saw Mulan riding through the crowd.
"Shang!" she called.
He looked up, shock on his face. "Mulan?!"
"Shang! The Huns are alive!" she told him, breathless. "They're here, in the city!"
Zhu made a noise, nodding quickly. But she went unnoticed by the two.
He frowned, looking away from her; there was pain and hurt in his eyes. "You don't belong here, Mulan. Go home."
She scowled, bringing Khan alongside Shang's stallion. "I saw them in the mountains! You have to believe me!"
He was forced to halt his horse when Khan blocked his path. "Why should I?"
"Why else would I come back?" She stared him in the eye. "You said you'd trust Ping. Why is Mulan any different?"
He said no reply. Instead, he looked away from her and steered his horse around Khan.
Zhu looked up at Mulan as she was dragged by, hoping that she could tell that she, at least, believed her. Some relief came to her when Mulan gave her a small, acknowledging nod.
'Good. Someone else knows,' Zhu thought, her heart racing. 'But is she going to get anyone else to believe her? Spirits, Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po better believe her…'
Soon, they reached the base of an enormous staircase. Here, Shang dismounted. From under his saddlebag, he drew out a sword; Zhu frowned. Its serpentine blade and its hollow pommel were all-too familiar to her.
'How did he get Shan Yu's sword? I saw it get buried with him.' Her brows furrowed in confusion.
As Shang started to untie the lead from around her neck, the lion dancers came to a stop beside them. Zhu glanced over at them, though she couldn't see much past the large costume; she didn't think it looked very much like a lion. More like a lion-dragon hybrid.
She frowned once again as she stole a look at the dancers' feet: The foremost dancers wore heavy riding boots. She thought they would be wearing something lighter.
'I guess dancing would take a toll on everyday shoes,' she thought. Regardless, the sight didn't sit well with her.
With his free hand, Shang grabbed her arm and started marching her up the stairs. She glanced over at him, but he refused to look at her. His gaze was fixed on something ahead of them: An elderly man clad in yellow, red, and black.
He looked kinder than she imagined—and smaller. Whenever Shan Yu had told her stories of the Emperor, she had pictured him as a man at least as large as her uncle. Instead, though, he was a good half foot shorter than her and was of a lean build. He was speaking to the crowd, but his voice was hard for her to hear; the lion dancers were following them up the stairs and their jingling bells drowned out most other sounds.
But why were they even following them? Shouldn't they have stayed at the bottom of the stairs?
Zhu gave a wary glance over her shoulder, looking once again at the dancers' feet when Shang brought them to a halt. He had stopped them a landing below the Emperor, respectfully giving him time to finish his speech and giving her time to take in more details about the 'dancers'. Her eyes narrowed when she saw that one pair of legs were shorter and more bowed than the rest.
A curse was muffled against the gag. Looking at Shang, she was thankful he finally looked at her and watched as she nodded towards the lion dancers. His eyes darted behind them and he gave the slightest hint of a nod.
"Play along," he whispered, stepping behind her. Reaching up, he untied the gag from around her head, letting the cloth fall to the ground. "And don't make me regret this."
"I swear upon Umut's spirit, I'm on your side," she whispered back, feeling him starting to loosen the ropes around her wrists. "Don't worry about those. I can get those myself."
His brow rose, but he believed her. With the Emperor reaching the end of his speech, he started to pull her along as they ascended the stairs. His timing was perfect; the last word had just left the Emperor's mouth when they stopped a few steps below him.
"Your Majesty," Shang said, letting go of Zhu in favor of holding Shan Yu's sword. "I present to you the sword of Shan Yu."
The crowd gasped in unison, the sound being more like a storm gale than a small breath.
"Your father would be very proud of you," said the Emperor, a sad, yet hopeful, smile on his lips. "And who is this woman?" he asked, looking at Zhu with a great amount curiosity.
"She is Shan Zhu, the daughter of Shan Da and the last of the Shan line." Taking Zhu's shoulder, he forced her to kneel before the Emperor with her head bowed. She managed to raise her head just enough to see the look of utter disbelief on the Emperor's face.
"Shan Da's daughter?" he whispered, horror filling his eyes.
Before Shang could reply, there was a cry from above them. Zhu look up in time to see Hayabusa fly between Shang and the Emperor, snatching the sword in his talons. He banked right and, as he flew over the roof, dropped the sword. A hand reached out, catching it.
Narrowing her eyes, Zhu watched as Shan Yu stood, no longer hidden by the shadows. Cries of panic and horror came from the crowd.
There was a rustle from the lion dancers.
Bolting to her feet, she wrenched her hands free of the ropes that bound her, easily snapping them. Turning around, she watched as Bleda, Edeco, Mundzuc, Roua, and Ruga burst out of the lion's head, their swords drawn. As they charged forward, she braced herself and was able to grab hold of Edeco before he could run past. She gripped his shoulders—a wrestling hold—and started pushing him backwards.
But Edeco had been the one who taught her how to wrestle and knew how to counter her. Their fight was only a few seconds long. Zhu attempted to drive him back down the stairs, but he ducked. He punched her in the gut, stopping her when she made to get him in a headlock. Shoving an arm between her legs, he lifted her up like a sack of grain.
"Kill the falcon!" Zhu shouted, struggling against Edeco's hold. "Shan Yu's life is tied to it!"
"You really have betrayed us," she heard Edeco said, hurt in his voice.
As they passed through two, massive quickly-closing doors, she scowled. "The Chinese aren't what Shan Yu says they are," she told him. "They're kind."
"They're thieves!" Edeco snapped, shrugging his shoulder. She slid off him and started falling towards the floor, but he caught her, having snatched a handful of her shirt and the bandages below. "They're thieves, Shan Zhu! They chased our ancestors' off their lands and stole them from us! They forced our people to become wandering nomads! They treat us like criminals, even if we've never committed a crime!"
"That was centuries ago!" she argued, gripping his wrist. Her wounds from the previous day were beginning to throb as the bandages dug into them and it was getting a bit difficult to breathe. "They're nothing like their ancestors—just like we're nothing like our ancestors!" If she could just get her feet on the floor…
"Bah! Listen to your words, Shan Zhu! They've poisoned you against us with their lies. What else did they tell you? That they would give us back our ancestral homeland and shower us with gold?"
Gritting her teeth in pain, she dug her nails into his wrist; she could feel her shirt beginning to rip due to her weight. "The only one who spoke lies was me and I regret every one of them!" Using his arm as a fulcrum, she shoved herself downwards, tearing a large hole in her shirt.
Spinning around, she jabbed her elbow into his gut. He doubled over, the wind knocked out of him. She then grabbed his still-outstretched arm and threw him over her shoulder. Where he landed, she didn't care.
Zhu started running, trying to catch up with Roua and Ruga. Her lungs still burned, but she fought through the pain like she had done so many times back in Moo-Shung. This was nothing compared to marching double-time uphill while carrying fifty pounds of weight, she told herself.
Rounding a corner, she saw that she was nearly caught up to the twins. Before she could reach them, however, something slammed into her. She flew sideways, grunting as she hit her head on the stone floor. Lights danced before her eyes, obscuring most of the world.
She felt someone pin her down with their knee. "You're lucky Shan Yu wants you alive." Mundzuc.
"Really? That's funny," she spat, "because I want him dead." She hissed as he grabbed a fist full of her hair and lifted her up. Another grunt left her mouth as the palm of his free hand slammed into the side of her face.
Once more, she saw nothing but dancing lights.
Mundzuc shifted, glancing over at Roua and Ruga as the twins reached the bottom of the stairs. "You'd be lucky if he kills you himself," he hissed. "After what you've done, he may leave you to me."
"Can't wait, old man." She felt him tense and winced as his nails dug into her arm and leg. Her brow rose; what was that thudding she was starting to hear?
"You know not to call me that," he growled.
"What? Don't like me taunting you?" she continued, clenching her eyes shut in pain. Her whole body felt like it was on fire and she could feel blood beginning to ooze out from her nose. "Oh, right…Don't want to get you excited during Shan Yu's big moment." Cracking open an eye, she bared her teeth at him. "Not that anything can be done about it, anyway. I lost the tea when you and Bleda killed Umut."
Snarling, he shoved her against a column, his face inches from hers. "If one more word comes out of your mouth—"
Both Mundzuc and Zhu looked up, seeing Roua coming towards them. Though he did his best to wear an intimidating scowl, there was obvious hurt in his eyes as he looked at Zhu. She felt her stomach suddenly drop and she looked away, using the back of her hand to try to wipe the blood from her face. She only succeeded in smearing it, though.
"Shan Yu wants to see her before he finishes off the Emperor," Roua told Mundzuc.
Mundzuc huffed and, letting go of her, turned away. "So be it. Gives me time to think of all the ways I can torture her."
As he walked away, Roua glared at him. Then, with a shake of his head, he gently grabbed Zhu by the shoulder and started guiding her towards the staircase. She wished he would have been rougher with her.
"Of all the people who would betray us, I never thought it'd be you, Zhu," he told her, voice quiet. "Mundzuc? Yes. But you…?" He shook his head again. "Never."
She swallowed hard. "I—I'm not sorry," she told him, her voice somewhat shaky. "Shan Yu told me so many lies. Now that I know the truth, I—I can't do this anymore." As they passed by Ruga and the Emperor, she could feel Ruga's disappointed gaze on her. She clenched her eyes shut until they were outside.
"He told you what he had to in order to keep you focused on your training," he said, his voice remaining quiet and calm. "You are—were—his heir and he needed you to become a great warrior to ensure the Shan line lives on. And now you are a great warrior…you're just fighting for the wrong side."
"He told me the Chinese people were monsters!" she argued, feeling a tear run down her cheek. "He told me they were horrible, abusive, war-mongering monsters. They're not—they're kind and they're funny! They don't even want to fight; they're only fighting to keep their loved ones safe!"
"Neither do our people, but we must fight. It's the only way we can survive. If we don't fight, you know as well as I that our people would get wiped out."
Zhu hated how calm and gentle he was being. She wished he had been Bleda or Edeco or even Mundzuc. Anyone but himself or Ruga. The twins had always been her favorite of the elite; though they could be just as harsh as the others, they were also the ones who had taken care of her when she was sick or injured. There were even times when she had thought of them more as her uncles than Shan Yu.
Seeing how much she had hurt them almost made her regret betraying her uncle.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she grew tense once more. Shan Yu was standing in front of a railing, his back facing them.
"You'll know when to bring the Emperor," he said, just barely turning his head.
Nodding, Roua gave Zhu a last, sorrowful look before going back down the stairs.
Shan Yu kept his back to her, but she could see that his knuckles were white as he gripped the banister. "I raised you to be better than this, Shan Zhu."
"I was raised to be a cold-hearted killer," she replied, glancing around. The only weapon in sight was her uncle's sword and she found herself cursing the fact she had told Shang about the knives she had hidden in her socks. 'But I didn't know Shan Yu was alive then,' she reminded herself.
"I raised you to be my heir." He turned, his face emotionless as he stared at her. "Not a traitor."
She glared back at him, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly. "You didn't raise me. You're not even my uncle. Uncle Yu died the day Hayabusa convinced him to conquer China. That's the day you handed me over to the elite and watched from afar as they trained me to become a cold-hearted killer. No. You don't deserve credit for making me the warrior I am today."
His lips pulled back in a snarl. "How dare you—"
"You promised to keep me safe!" she suddenly shouted, taking a challenging step forward. "You said you would keep me out of harm's way! But you lied! Just like you lied about the Chinese! There were times I nearly died because of you! And you didn't even care because I had become nothing more than another member of your elite!"
Shan Yu said nothing as he walked towards her. Zhu held his gaze, not moving from her spot even when he reached out for her. She was expecting him to hit her or to grab her throat; but he took her by surprise by resting his ungloved hand on her cheek.
"You have no idea how much you look like your father right now," he told her, his voice eerily gentle. "But you most definitely sound like your mother. She did her best to convince Da and me that we would be better off with the Chinese as allies, not enemies. Da fell for her words. He believed that the Chinese could be truly good people. But do you know what happened next, Shan Zhu?"
She continued to glare up at him, standing rigid. "Fa Zhou attacked," she quietly replied.
"He attacked," he repeated, his voice losing its softness. "He attacked and killed your father. His men killed tens of our people that night. And they nearly killed you when they 'rescued' the wicked Chinese woman that was your mother!"
Zhu make a choking sound as Shan Yu suddenly gripped her throat, lifting her into the air.
"I raised you to be a proper Hun!" he snarled, spittle flying from his mouth. "A Hun, Shan Zhu! But now I see what you truly are: A traitorous wretch just like your mother!" With a growl, he threw her, watching as she slammed into a column across the balcony. As she slid down, he could see that the impact had left deep cracks in the paint and wood.
Zhu grunted, her eyes shut in pain. She started to push herself to her knees, finding it a bit hard to swallow. "The only traitor here is you," she hissed. "By starting this needless war, you've betrayed our people. Thousands lost their lives yesterday because of you and your lust for power."
She rose to her feet, a snarl on her face. "You were the chief of the largest clan of Huns since Attila the Great! And now you're chief to what? A couple dozen women and children we left, safe, in the grazing fields and five men." A sarcastic laugh left her mouth as Shan Yu ran towards her, but she jumped to the side. "The only thing keeping the elite from turning on you is that thrice-damned demon, Hayabusa!"
Shan Yu tried to grab at her, but she ducked under his arm. Throwing herself forward, she tackled him to the ground. While he was stunned, she was able to get a few punches in, but it didn't last long.
She drew back her hand, intent on hitting his face, but he was faster. A strangled yelp left her mouth as the heel of his hand slammed into the bottom of her jaw. The force knocked her off him and onto the floor; she was oddly surprised none of her teeth had broken from the impact.
Before she could get her wits about her, Shan Yu was atop her, both his hand around her throat. "You may be of my blood, Shan Zhu," he sneered, watching her face beginning to turn red, "but you have proven that you are no Hun."
"Good!" she wheezed. Attempting to loosen his grip, she punched him in the crook of his elbow.
It worked. His arm gave out and, as he was thrown off balance, she shoved herself rearwards. Bringing her legs up into her chest, she thrust them forward into him, knocking him backwards. Then, standing, she stormed over to him and grabbed his tunic. She yanked him towards her, making to slam her head against his.
But he wouldn't fall for that twice.
As her head came rushing towards his, he leaned to the side. Her momentum sent her tumbling forward. Reaching behind her, he grabbed the back of her shirt and lifted her over his head. He then stood, ignoring her struggles to break loose.
"You don't deserve to die by my blade," he snarled, storming towards the stairs. "No. That would be too quick. For your treachery, you deserve the kind of death only Mundzuc could deliver." He lowered her slightly, looking her in the eye and chuckling when he saw what looked to be fear. "What's this I see? Does the thought of dying frighten you?"
But it wasn't fear in her eyes; it was sadness. "I am one of your elite, sir," she told him, voice quiet, but unafraid. She stared, unblinking, into his black-and-yellow eyes. "To be an elite is to be the most fearless and the most powerful. I am nothing less."
His brows furrowed and, for a split second, Zhu thought she could see guilt in his eyes. Shaking his head, he suddenly let out a roar and threw her down the staircase. With his fists clenched at his sides, he watched as she rolled and bounced down the stairs until she disappeared into the room below.
Zhu came to a halt some feet from the doorway. As she laid there, trying to judge whether or not she was still alive, she could hear a shuffling of feet. Someone grabbed her underarms and started to drag her, but she made no effort to resist. She couldn't.
'Ignore the pain and fight on,' she ordered herself. 'If you can still breathe, you can still fight. Ignore the pain.'
Halfway opening her eyes, she found that it was Edeco dragging her. Before she could question where he was taking her, he stopped and propped her against the wall in a sitting position. And then, he just walked away.
'Probably thinks I'm too hurt to keep fighting. Gives me time to recover a bit,' she thought, watching him cross the hall and resume his position guarding the double doors. 'I need some sort of plan and a weapon. I can only take Bleda and Mundzuc on in hand-to-hand; the others are better than me.'
She quietly hissed in pain as she shifted her position somewhat. Her brows furrowing, she did her best to force the thought of pain to the back of her mind. The throbbing in her side and head made it more than a little difficult, though. 'Bleda has only his bow, but just a couple of arrows. A punch to the gut and one to the leg should take him out easily enough. I'd take his bow, but it'd be useless in such close quarters.'
With a grunt, she spat a mixture of blood and spit onto the ground next to her. She was happy to find that none of her teeth had been knocked out. And her lack of coughing reassured her that her lungs—probably—hadn't been injured.
'The others have their swords. Roua and Ruga will be hesitant to attack me—and I'll be just as hesitant to attack them. I'll need to focus on Mundzuc first and then get his sword. Maybe use him as a human shield. …On second thought, no. I could throw him at the twins instead. That'd distract them long enough for me to handle Edeco. But will that give the others enough time to make it here?'
As if on cue, she started to hear whispering. Making it look like she was squirming in pain, she rolled her head to one side to better hear what was being said.
"Does this dress make me look fat?" That was most definitely Yao's voice and the slap that followed had to have come from Ling. It sounded too light for Chien-Po and too heavy for Mulan.
'What in the Earth Mother's name are they doing?' she thought, frowning when she began hearing giggling.
She looked up in time to see Mulan, Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po come around the corner. "What the hell…?" she mumbled.
All of them were dressed as concubines—including makeup.
'They…actually look like women,' she thought, her mouth slightly agape as she watched them walk up to the elite. 'Pretty women!'
Evidently, Roua also thought the group was attractive; his cheeks had grown deep red and he wore a goofy smile as he flirtatiously waved at them. Zhu almost found it adorable, but Ruga was clearly annoyed. Rolling his eyes, he jabbed his brother in the ribs with his elbow.
So distracted by the group of 'concubines', the elite didn't even glance in Zhu's direction as she slowly got to her feet. She wobbled somewhat, but was able to keep her footing. Swallowing hard, she started to carefully make her way towards the elite. Before she could get halfway there, however, everything went silent.
Freezing in place, Zhu watched as Roua bent down to pick up a partially-eaten apple; where it had come from, she didn't want to know. With a wide, innocent smile, he offered it back to Ling, who didn't take it. In unison, he, Yao, and Chien-Po reached inside their dresses and pulled out various pieces of fruit that they had used as false breasts.
Zhu stared at Yao in utter confusion. Somehow, he had managed to make a banana look like a convincing breast.
And then all hell broke loose.
Chien-Po slammed a pair of watermelons over the twins' heads. Then, grabbing their shoulders, he smashed them into each other, shattering the watermelons. They fell to the ground, knocked unconscious by the blows.
As Mundzuc rushed forward with his sword drawn, Ling shoved the uneaten apple into his mouth. He then kneed him in the gut, making him double over.
Zhu couldn't see what Ling did next thanks to Yao, who had grabbed Edeco's arm and easily flipped him over his head. A grunt left Edeco's mouth as he crashed into the stone floor, head-first. He crumpled into a heap; Zhu wondered if such a blow had possibly killed him.
But she could see Mulan easily knocking the bow from Bleda's hands and pinning him to the floor. Snatching the fallen bow, she used it as a sort of garrote to further deter him from moving.
"Shang, go!" Mulan cried.
From around the corner, Shang came running. Zhu sprinted to the doors, shoving them open for him.
"The Emperor should still be alive," she quickly informed him, watching as Shang hopped over Edeco. "He hasn't been up there more than five minutes."
Shang gave her a quick nod of thanks before sprinting up the stairs.
A quiet hiss of pain left Zhu's mouth and she leaned against the doorframe, her hands pressing against her hip. Feeling dampness, she looked down only to find that her wound from the previous day had reopened and was quickly staining her shirt with blood.
Something shifted in the corner of her vision and she looked up, seeing Mulan coming towards her; Bleda was now unconscious, a red-handprint forming on his cheek.
"You okay?" Mulan asked, worry on her face.
Zhu nodded, surprised that she was still concerned about her after everything. "I hope I bought you guys enough time." She glanced over at the others, swallowing hard when she saw them looking at her with uncertainty. "You four need to get up there," she quietly ordered. "Shang is no match for Shan Yu."
Mulan glanced between Zhu and the balcony above. Biting her lower lip, she nodded and looked over her shoulder. "C'mon, guys!"
Zhu couldn't bring herself to look at them as they ran by. Instead, with her hand still pressed to her hip, she went over to the elegant curtains draped over the windows and started undoing their sashes. She then went back to the group of unconscious elite.
'I may not be able to kill them, but I can at least get them tied up for the guards,' she thought as she rolled Ruga over onto his stomach.
She had just pulled his hands behind his back and was starting to tie him up when, from seemingly nowhere, she was struck upside the head. Though the blow wasn't terribly hard, she tumbled to the floor and cursed as she landed on her injury. Before she could get up, the person grabbed the collar of her shirt and slammed her against the wall.
Mundzuc glared at her, his teeth barred. "How does it feel, knowing all your friends are about to die?" he sneered.
From the corner of her eye, she could see that he gripped a small knife in his free hand. "Stop talking and just do it," she snapped. "Kill me."
Confusion started to intermingle with the anger on his face. "That's…it?" he asked, leaning away ever so slightly. "No smartass comebacks? No taunting? You're just giving up?" He looked almost disturbed.
"Why shouldn't I?" she demanded. "I'm Shan Yu's one and only heir. When he is dead and things have calmed down, I'm going to be executed in front of the whole of China. Death is my fate. What difference does it make if it's dealt by an executioner or you?" Grabbing his wrist, she pulled his hand up to her throat and pressed the blade to her flesh. "You've wanted to slit my throat for years—I know you have. Well, this is your chance. Take it."
Mundzuc didn't move. Instead, he glanced between her face and the knife. Then, taking her by surprise, he pulled himself away from her. "You don't know a damn thing, Shan Zhu," he hissed, slowly backing away. He looked down at the unstirring bodies of the other elite; all were still breathing, letting him know they were alive.
Then, looking back up at Zhu, he narrowed his eyes and turned from her, running away.
Her brows slowly rose in utter bewilderment and she raised her hand to her throat. Mundzuc had truly left her skin unmarred. After years of smacking her and threatening her life, he had refused to kill her.
She didn't have time to think it over very long. A familiar screech came from outside the palace, making her snarl in anger.
"Hayabusa," she hissed, sprinting to a window. Narrowing her eyes, she scanned the sky for the falcon. He was flying lower now, keeping his predatory circling to just the palace. Her brow rose as she glanced over at Bleda. "Time to get some revenge."
Taking the bow and quiver from Bleda, she ran down the hall, fastening the quiver around her waist. 'I need to find some way onto the roof and I need to stick to the shadows. But it's not looking like there are any staircases leading further up…'
A small sigh left her mouth; she knew what she had to do. Punching through the latticework that shielded a window, she started tearing it apart. As she climbed onto the windowsill, she winced; her hip didn't like that at all.
'You're still breathing,' she told herself. 'Keep fighting.'
Carefully standing up, she held onto the wall and leaned over. About six feet above her was the roof overhang. Between it and her, however, was not only a precarious climb, but the edge of the roof was a good three feet from the wall.
"So be it," she murmured, slinging the bow over her shoulder.
Zhu started to climb. It was difficult; the edges of wooden supports and decorations that jutted out from the wall were only an inch or two wide at most. Having to pull herself up by her fingertips was not only exhausting, but painful as well. More than once, one of her feet slipped off an edge and she felt a rush of panic. But her years of training as a Hun kept her calm and she was able to regain her footing.
Finally, she was able to grab hold of a stone statue of a guardian lion. Hauling herself up, she perched on the beam and squinted, trying to think of how to get to roof's edge.
'There is nothing between here and there for me to hold onto,' she thought, hearing faint sounds of commotion inside the palace. Tilting her head back, she found that, if she were to stand, she'd be forced to stoop thanks to the roof's height. She smirked, her brow rising.
She sprang upwards. Shards of wood and pieces of clay tile went flying as she burst through the roof. Landing in a crouched position, she rubbed the top of her head; the roof had been made of harder wood than she was expecting. Zhu knew well enough that, if she didn't have Hun blood in her veins, the jump would have killed her.
Standing, she hurried to the very top of the roof. She unshouldered the bow and drew an arrow from the quiver. As she nocked it, her eyes scanned the sky for Hayabusa.
'I know you're up here,' she thought, reaching the top. 'But wh-'
She cried out as talons lashed out at her, knocking her down. Tiles shattered and fractured under her weight. Hearing a sound like rain, she swore and rolled over; the precious few arrows she had had been flung out of the quiver and were rolling away.
"No, no, no!"
Zhu tried to scramble after them, but they had rolled too far ahead of her. As the last one fell from the roof, she desperately tried to grab at it. She missed it by just a hairsbreadth.
"Spirits, damn you," she growled, brows furrowing. "At least I still have one…"
Reaching the top of the roof again, she was shocked to find Mulan climbing atop it from the other side. "Mulan!? What are you doing up here?"
"I have a plan," she said, voice breathless. Her face was red and sweaty from exertion. "It's—it's risky." She glanced past Zhu at one of the palace towers. Zhu looked as well only to feel her stomach drop.
The tower was where the fireworks were being fired from.
"It's the only way, Zhu," Mulan said, her voice pleading. "I know he's your uncle, but—"
"It won't work if I don't kill that damned bird," Zhu interjected. She looked back at Mulan. "Do whatever it takes, Mulan. I mean it."
Their gazes met and, with a small nod, Mulan took off up the center beam. Zhu crouched down where she was, once more searching for Hayabusa. She finally spotted him over the southern tower. Slowly, she nocked the arrow once more and raised the bow.
But before she could draw back the string, the roof exploded a few feet from Mulan. Shan Yu landed in a crouch, breathing heavily as he glared at the woman. As he stood, a victorious smirk slowly spread across his face when he found that the only 'weapon' Mulan had was a fan.
"Looks like you're out of ideas," he taunted.
Zhu's eyes darted upwards. His wings folded, Hayabusa was diving towards Shan Yu who held his full attention.
"Spirits, guide this arrow," she whispered, drawing back the bowstring. "Help me end my uncle's tyranny."
Shan Yu lunged at Mulan, stabbing his sword at her. She dodged the attack, using her fan to catch his sword. Closing it, she twisted it around and forced the blade from Shan Yu's hand. She jumped back, giving the sword a twirl so that the handle fell into her grip and the fan flew off the blade.
"Not yet," she said, smirking.
From nowhere, something suddenly fell between the two of them. Both looked down, confused. There, splayed out none-too elegantly on the beam between them, was Hayabusa. Skewering him was an arrow.
Before he could react, Mulan kicked Shan Yu backwards. As he fell, she used the sword to pin his tunic to the wooden beam. He glanced back at her, confusion and anger on his face. Grabbing his sword, he easily pulled it from the beam. When he narrowed his eyes, glaring at her, Mulan frowned somewhat in confusion.
Not two minutes ago, his eyes were black and gold. But now, they looked normal.
There wasn't time to ponder his eyes. She started to back away from him, her heart racing. Mushu should have had the rocket ready by then—where was he? Did he run into trouble? And where was Zhu? Had she run away, not wanting to see her uncle die?
Shan Yu stalked towards her, a snarl intermingled with his confusion. Something made him stop and he clenched his eyes shut; he raised a hand to his head as if he were in pain. Shaking his head, he raised his sword, staring directly at Mulan. It almost seemed like he was fighting himself.
She bit her lower lip and glanced away, fully expecting to die.
Daring to peek, Mulan watched as Shan Yu spun around. Zhu was half running, half limping towards them, her face filled with pain. The confusion that had been on Shan Yu's face left, replaced by realization and horror.
"Little one?" Shan Yu gasped. "My little one, what's going—" He grunted and stumbled back a few feet as Zhu threw herself at him. Dropping his sword, he caught her, and held her close to him. "My little one…you were right. I betrayed our people. I led them to ruin. I hurt you." Falling to his knees, he clenched his eyes shut and hugged onto her tighter. "I'm sorry, my little one. I've been such a horrible uncle to you. I'm so sorry…"
"No, Uncle Yu," Zhu choked out, knuckles white as she gripped the back of his tunic. She could feel his body shaking as he cried. "Hayabusa led them to ruin. Hayabusa hurt me. Not you. You were a wonderful uncle."
"I should have never made that deal."
"It's over now, Uncle Yu. Hayabusa's dead. You don't have to worry about him anymore."
"I'm so sorry, little one. I'm sorry for everything."
Something moved beyond them. Leaning to the side, Mulan could see Mushu standing on the opposite end of the roof, a rocket strapped to his back.
"Zhu, you need to—" she started.
"No," Zhu sobbed. "No. I deserve this, Mulan. I deserve this for all the pain I put you and the others through."
Mulan stared at her in horror, though she could feel tears beginning to sting her eyes. "Zhu, you don't deserve this!" she pleaded. From the corner of her eye, she could see Mushu lighting a stick. "Please, Zhu! There's not much—"
"I either die here or I die on the execution block." She swallowed hard and looked at Mulan. "Please. As—as my best friend, Mulan, please. Let me die in a way of my choosing."
"I'll miss you," Mulan said, her voice shaking.
Zhu managed to smile. "I'll miss you, too. Now go—get off the roof."
Her order couldn't have been better timed. Mulan dove out of the way as the rocket came hurtling towards them. An intense, burning pain filled Zhu's back as she and Shan Yu were sent flying. Seconds before impact, she opened her eyes for one last look at the world.
And then all went white.
To be continued in Daughter of Rebirth…