A/N: Hey guys! I hope I didn't keep you all waiting too long for this and I hope you enjoy it just as much as Daughter of Death! If you do enjoy it, please leave a review; they really help keep us writers motivated :)
Humming to herself, Mulan waded her way through her family's small flock of chickens. The hens were following her every step, but they never lifted their heads to look at her. Instead, they hurriedly pecked at the ground, gobbling up the feed Mulan was sprinkling for them. She couldn't help but be somewhat amused by them, even though this was a daily occurrence.
"You silly things need to eat slower," she told them, dumping the last bits of crumbs and dust onto the ground. "Otherwise, you're going to eat so much, you'll explode. And then how are we supposed to get our eggs?"
But they paid her no attention and continued to gorge themselves.
It had been nearly two and a half years since she had saved China. And, to her great relief, they had been relatively quiet years. Though she had been asked by the Emperor himself to be his advisor, she had gracefully declined; she wanted nothing more than to return to her family and go back to her pre-soldier life.
For the most part, she had done just that.
There had been times, however, when she found herself riding out with some of the village guards to deal with poachers or small groups of vagabonds. Her creative, out-of-the-box ideas were no longer found to be an annoyance, but rather, a great asset. Though she had been trained as a soldier, one of the guards had said, she was still fresh enough to see things from a commoner's perspective while he and the others were too old to see things outside of a military perspective.
But becoming the Heroine of China had its downfalls: Potential suitors who traveled from all over China in hopes of bargaining for her hand in marriage. Almost all of them were a decade or more older than her. Grandmother Fa had lamented over the fact that a good portion of them were also quite unpleasant looking. More than once, she had made such a complaint within earshot of the suitor.
She had been more than thankful when father declined every offer for her hand. As he told her, he would continue to do so until someone of her choosing came to ask.
That certainly was not the man currently attempting to bribe his way into her father's favor.
Poking her head around the corner of the wall, Mulan cocked a brow. The man, a son of some viscount to the south, was flailing his hands about as he went on and on about how marrying him would boost the family honor. He also promised to ensure Mulan a long, luxurious life where she'd never have to work a day in her life again. But her father's face was expressionless as he watched the man—who had to be at least ten years older than Mulan—try to inelegantly beg his way into a marriage.
"I am sorry," she heard her father say, "but my daughter's hand will not be given so lightly. The man who someday marries my daughter must first prove himself worthy enough. If, someday, you save the whole of China, I may contemplate such an arrangement."
She had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing; that was the same answer Zhou had given to every single man seeking her hand. Their reactions had almost always been amusing and this man was no exception. He stamped on the ground and started to demand her hand like an angry child. The whole while, her father remained calm and stone-faced.
"Are you quite done?" Zhou was finally able to ask when the man paused to breathe. "I do believe it is time for your afternoon nap."
Mulan didn't hear what the man said next; she had to sprint away from her spot so he wouldn't hear her laughing. A few minutes later, her father came into the yard, a small smile on his lips when he saw how amused his daughter was.
"I take it you saw that…charming display?" he questioned, his brow rising.
"Just the tail end of it," she answered. "He took the denial in a very mature fashion…if he had been a three-year old." Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she turned and looked back at the chickens. "How many does that make so far this month?"
"Four." He started to walk alongside his daughter as they made their way back towards the house. "But can you blame them?" he chuckled. "As the Heroine of China, you are a very desirable woman."
Mulan gave him a long look, her brow rising. "One who isn't interested in marrying a stranger," she told him, voice bland. "Let alone a strange who is old enough to be my father."
He nodded, still smiling. "And that is why I have declined all offers for your hand," he said with a bit of a chuckle. "So far, that is. Perhaps, one day, there will be a man suitable enough who asks."
Opening her mouth to reply, Mulan found herself cutoff before she could even speak. "If you're talking about that general boy, then you'll be waiting a long time!" Grandmother Fa came out of the barn, brushing some dust from her dress. "With him being as shy as he is handsome and Mulan as shy as she is pretty, we'll all be long dead before they finally work up the courage to marry!"
"Grandma!" Mulan gasped, her eyes widening and her cheeks darkening. "I'm sure Shang has plenty of women far more befitting a man of his status to consider marrying!"
Both Zhou and Grandmother Fa looked at her, their brows raised. "What kind of woman is more 'befitting' a man of his status than the very woman who not only saved the whole of China, but exploded the last of the Shan line?!" Grandmother Fa questioned, her hands on her hips as she gave her granddaughter a scolding look.
Biting her lower lip, Mulan glanced away; her cheeks were still bright red. "Um…"
Zhou set a hand on her shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. "Your grandmother is right," he told her, voice gentle. "What you did for China has brought great honor to our family. It has also catapulted our family status from commoner to nobility. You should have no worries about not being of a high enough status to marry Shang when he does ask for your hand."
Mulan could feel her cheeks burning as she shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, looks like I forgot to feed Khan! I better go do that before he starts throwing a fit." Before either her father or grandmother could reply, she dashed off into the barn, closing the doors behind her.
Grandmother Fa looked up at her son, her brow still raised. "See that? May as well drag them to the alter and force them to marry at sword point, they're so shy!"
A heavy sigh left Mulan's mouth as she leaned against one of the beams separating Khan's stall from another, empty one. She watched as Khan looked up, his ears perking to attention as he saw her. He softly nickered at her, reaching his head over the stall gate to sniff her.
"Sorry, boy, I don't have any treats," she told him. Reaching over, she set her hand on his nose. "I kind of…rushed in here."
Khan exhaled rather loudly through his nose before pulling away. He flicked his head back a couple of times before pawing at the ground near an empty bucket.
"I know, I know," she smiled. "I'll get you some food."
Khan watched her as she picked up the bucket and carried it across the barn. Though she had worn a smile at seeing him, he saw annoyance in her movements and sorrow on her face. He sighed and shifted from one side of his stall to the other, making room for her and not just so she could feed him. By what he was witnessing, he could tell there would be a strong chance that she would, at some point, hug him.
Bringing the bucket of feed into the stall, she carefully dumped its contents into Khan's trough; she didn't want to spill any of it as his stall had just been cleaned. She hung the empty bucket up on a nail outside the stall and sighed, watching as Khan started eating.
Instead of hugging the stallion like he had expected her to, she instead grabbed a brush. Though he had moved over once more to eat, there was still plenty of room left for Mulan to slip in beside him and start grooming him.
"I know they've got high hopes that Shang will chose me for his bride," she finally spoke, her voice quiet, "but he's a general. Yes, our family is of a higher status now, but so what? Not only does he have more important things to worry about, but I'm sure he's met plenty of high-class women over the last two years." She closed her eyes, feeling her chest grow tight at the thought. "Which is perfectly fine. He deserves someone who will better preserve his family's honor."
Craning his neck around, Khan blew through his nose at her, one ear raised while the other lay out to the side.
She pouted at him. "What? He does!"
Flicking his tail up, he purposefully swatted her in the face as he went back to eating.
Mulan rolled her eyes, going back to brushing. "I doubt he has any interest in me anymore," she continued. "It's been nearly a year and a half since we last saw each other and the last letter he sent me came almost six months ago…Even that seemed more…rushed? No. More detached than his other letters."
Closing her eyes, she paused in her brushing and pursed her lips. "No, Mulan," she scolded herself. "He's a busy man and it's up to him to not only recruit, but train, an entirely new army for the Emperor. He's probably just too exhausted to take the time to write a long, personal letter and, really, I don't blame him. Especially if his new recruits were anything like us…"
As he chewed his food, Khan glanced back at her once again. He was pleased by her change in attitude regarding Shang, but there was still some sorrow in her eyes. This time, though, he knew it wasn't because of Shang—this was a sorrow he had seen in her many times since returning from the Imperial City.
At times, he had felt the same sort of sadness, though it wasn't because of a human.
"How do you think Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po are doing?" Mulan asked, trying to distract herself from her own thoughts. "We saw them almost a year ago, but it was only for a few hours. They seemed to be doing well enough then. I wonder if they've found actual jobs or if they're still trying to live off their fame?" She quietly laughed, shaking her head. "I would hope they've gotten jobs by now—especially if they hope to find those dream wives of theirs.
"Chien-Po would make a wonderful cook," she continued, "or some sort of teacher. Maybe even a healer? He's most definitely got the temperment for it." She flipped part of Khan's mane so that it rested on the other side of his neck.
"Yao would almost certainly choose some sort of physical labor for his job. Hauling things, chopping wood…maybe he's taken up wrestling? He'd be amazing at that!" She then quietly snickered and rolled her eyes. "It would also give him a chance to show off just how strong he is. I bet that'll impress some women."
Khan couldn't help but snort at that.
Shaking her head, Mulan let out an amused sigh as she brushed Khan's neck. "And Ling. Ling's—well, he's, um—he's a—" She frowned; what was Ling good at? She did her best to recall anything he had bested people at. "Aha! He's great at making people laugh! But I don't think that would get him a decent job unless he managed to impress someone of noble blood. And he's got good endurance! Maybe he'll end up as some sort of courier?"
"And then there's Zhu. Zhu would definitely be—"
Mulan suddenly fell silent. Lowering the brush, she closed her eyes rested her forehead against Khan's side. He turned to look at her again, worry in his eyes, only to find her cheeks already soaked by tears.
"Dead," she mumbled. "Zhu would definitely still be dead…"
Early the next morning found the Fa family just sitting down to breakfast. Mulan was filling everyone's cups with fresh-brewed tea when they heard the sounds of a horse and rider out in their courtyard.
"Who'd be here this early in the morning?" Grandmother Fa questioned, her brow rising as she picked up her tea. "Whoever they are, they mustn't be too bright. I'd be sleeping in if I were them."
"I will go see," Zhou sighed, grabbing his cane. He slightly winced as he pushed himself to his feet. "Mulan, just in case, will you prepare another seat?"
She nodded. "Of course, father," she said, leaning across the table to fill her mother's tea. "Do you think it's anyone important?"
Her mother shrugged, watching as her husband disappeared into the hallway. "Perhaps it's another potential suitor?" she lightly teased. Next to her, Grandmother Fa snickered into her cup.
Mulan gave her a look. "Ancestors help me if it is…" she murmured, setting the teapot down. Getting to her feet, she went into the kitchen and started gathering the extra utensils and dishes. She could just barely hear her father talking to whoever it was who had arrived; what they were talking about, however, she couldn't tell.
'I don't recognize the voice,' she thought, leaning a bit closer to the wall. It was of little help; the voices remained muted. 'Definitely a man, though. Too deep to be a woman or a teen. Ugh, ancestors please don't let it be another nobleman's son…'
She had left the kitchen and was in the process of laying out the extra table setting when Grandmother Fa and Li half-choked on their tea. Turning around, Mulan found her father standing in the doorway, a smile on his lips. Beside him stood Shang, who also smiled—his, though, was a tired smile.
"Shang!" she chirped, her eyes widening in surprise. "What're you doing here?" It took her almost every ounce of her willpower to keep herself from running over to Shang and hugging him. "And so early in the day!"
"Let him have a bite to eat first, Mulan," Zhou told her, his brow rising ever so slightly. He then looked at Shang. "You will join us for breakfast, won't you, General?"
Shang's cheeks turned a bit pink, but a look of relief washed over his face. "If it means I'll get to have Fa Li's delicious food again instead of military rations, then I do believe I shall."
Li shifted her place setting down while Mulan moved Zhou's a bit, making room for Shang in the center of the table. As he sat down, Grandmother Fa grabbed the teapot and filled his cup for him.
"Was it a hard journey?" Zhou asked, slowly spinning the turntable of food to see what there was. "You see quite tired." He stopped it on a plate of dumplings.
Glancing up from his tea, Shang quickly set the cup back down. "Oh, no, sir." Mulan couldn't help but smile in amusement as she heard her father called 'sir'. "It was an easy one, though I did run into some trouble with some bandits late last night."
"Bandits!?" Mulan looked up from picking out a scallion pancake, eyes wide. "How many? How far from here? Did you get any injuries?"
He gave her a reassuring look. "Ten miles or so. But you needn't worry. There were only three of them and they've already been thrown in jail."
At that, Grandmother Fa waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "Only three?" she joked. "You'd need thirty bandits to make it even a slight challenge for him." She gave Shang a playful wink, grinning as his cheeks turned pink.
"Mother…please…" Zhou murmured, his eyes closing for a moment.
"How I ever raised such a boring son, I'll never know," she huffed, snatching up a fried dough stick and popping the whole thing into her mouth.
Li cleared her throat. "How have you been, General? It has been a while since your last letter."
Having just bitten into a piece of scallion pancake, Shang found himself hurriedly chewing it so he wouldn't be thought of as rude. "Busy," he answered after swallowing. "Reforming China's army is proving more difficult than I imagined. Thankfully, however, there were a few captains who were spared from Shan Yu's wrath. Like me, they had been sent to train new recruits. So, at the very least, I didn't have to worry about finding too many new officers."
"Are the new recruits learning well?" Mulan asked, her head tilted ever so slightly.
"Well enough, now that we're not in a war," he chuckled. "As far as I know, though, no one's figured out how to retrieve the arrow yet."
At that, Mulan giggled. "Really? How long have they been training?!"
"Nearly a year!"
"Ancestors help me—a year and no one's figured it out yet?"
Zhou glanced at his mother and his wife; they looked just as lost as him. Reaching out with the back of his chopsticks, he grabbed a dumpling. "Care to elaborate on this 'arrow' training, Mulan?"
Her cheeks flushed somewhat. "Oh, yes! Sorry, father. When Shang first started training us, he shot an arrow into the top of pole." She paused to sip some of her tea. "It was completely smooth with no handholds or anything. Using two weights on ropes, we had to climb up the pole and retrieve the arrow."
"Sounds difficult," Zhou commented, giving a small nod.
"When facing it the first time, it is difficult," Shang agreed. "It's meant to force a person into thinking strategically—something all good soldiers should know how to do."
Grandmother Fa cocked a brow. "And how did Mulan do it? Chop the pole down and get the arrow?" Her comment earned a good laugh from everyone.
Mulan rolled her eyes, but smiled. "No, grandmama: I twisted the weights together to form a single rope. I then wrapped that around the pole and used it to climb to the top."
"Wouldn't it have been simpler to just shoot the arrow down with another arrow?" Li questioned.
"I…didn't even consider that an option, to be honest," Mulan admitted. "But we had to use the weights in the process of getting the arrow."
Shang chuckled. "You tie the weights to your arms, making it more difficult to hold the bow," he explained. "That was the way I got the arrow down."
As he chewed his food, Zhou smiled. "And I suppose," he said, mouth now empty, "if one were to also attach the weights to one's arms, they could chop pole down."
"So long as the weights were used in some fashion, any method of retrieving the arrow counts," Shang agreed.
"That is a good way to teach an important lesson," Zhou told him. "One that hadn't been around when I was a colonel. Who was it that came up with it? Your father?"
Shaking his head, Shang took a drink of his tea. "No, sir. It was Commander Renshu." Setting his cup down, he reached over and brought a zongzi onto his plate.
Zhou's brow raised. "Renshu? As in Renshu Niu?" he questioned, sounding only somewhat surprised. Shang nodded. "Hard to believe Niu made it all the way to commander. I would have thought him dead by now…"
"Now, dear, you know it's not polite to slight people during a meal, even if they're not present," Li reminded him, her voice a bit on the firmer side of gentle."
Mulan looked between her parents, her brows furrowing in confusion. "Who is Commander Renshu?" she asked.
Grandmother Fa moved to take a few steamed buns. "He was your father's lieutenant colonel back in the day. A bit of a coward and an as—"
"Grandma!" Li scolded.
"What? He was," Grandmother Fa replied, shrugging.
"Regardless, the man had a knack for strategy," Zhou told Mulan. "He wasn't always the most pleasant of men to be around, but in the end, he always got the job done and was a dependable lieutenant colonel."
Shang heartily nodded in agreement. "He can be a…a bit of a pain, to be frank, but he really does know his stuff. He's even personally taught the recruits at the Imperial City a good portion of their lessons."
At that, Zhou seemed impressed. "Has he now? Hm. It would seem leadership has done better for him than I initially thought."
The meal continued on with Shang politely answering questions about his life and how the army was doing. In return, he asked the Fa family questions about how they had been. Most of Grandmother Fa's answers came in the forms of flirtations, which he laughed off. Her humor was a lovely reprieve from the seriousness he was usually around.
When breakfast was over, he offered to help Mulan with her chores, giving him both time to tell her the purpose of his visit as well as some alone time with her. As such, he was left holding a bowl and following behind Mulan as she sprinkled leftover vegetable bits, seeds, and rice on the ground for the chickens. Not that he minded; it was a nice change of pace from leading men in their morning stretches.
"These chickens act like they haven't eaten in weeks," he chuckled, watching as the birds flocked around their feet.
"They're always like this," Mulan smiled. "You would think with an entire yard and part of garden to hunt in, they'd be less…well, hungry."
"Perhaps they're so hungry because they're always laying eggs?" He watched his feet, taking care to not step on any of the chickens.
"That could be," she agreed. Glancing over her shoulder, she felt her cheeks turn a bit pink; Shang was still as handsome as ever even with his newly grown beard. But seeing him do something so domestic as helping to feed chickens instead of his usual military training made him seem all the more handsome. She forced herself to look away after grabbing another handful of feed. "So, um…You never did tell me why you're here."
He blinked, a bit taken aback. "Oh, yes…that." Holding the bowl with one hand, he rubbed the back of his neck. He had almost entirely forgotten about the purpose of his being there. "The Emperor has a task for you."
Mulan came to an abrupt stop and Shang almost ran into her. Turning around, she looked up at him with wide eyes. "A task? For me?"
Nodding, he gave her a small smile. "For you and a certain trio of troublemakers we both know. I can't tell you the exact nature of the task," he admitted, "but I am to escort you four to the Imperial City where you will receive more information."
At that, Mulan cocked her brow. "So…you know what our task is, but you can't tell us?"
He nodded once again. "I have been sworn to secrecy." He then playfully grinned. "And, no, bribing me with your mother's bean curd buns isn't going to get it out of me."
She jokingly pouted. "Whatever it is, then, must truly be serious if I can't bribe it out of you with those." Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she let out a small sigh and smiled. "I suppose you'd like to leave today, then?"
"Not necessarily. We can leave tomorrow or the day after if you'd like." Shang felt his cheeks grow a touch warm; the way the morning light was resting on Mulan's face made her look quite lovely. "The Emperor doesn't expect me back for another two and a half weeks."
She was visibly impressed. "You must've made good time in getting here, then." Taking the bowl from him, she flung the last of its contents across the yard.
"I may have taken a few shortcuts," he replied, smiling. "Admittedly, it was because I knew I'd finally get to eat some good food again."
"Doesn't the Imperial City have good enough food?" she laughed, making for the barn. "I thought it had the best of everything there?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "Maybe the first few months you're there. But once you've lived there and have eaten most of its foods, you start longing for homecooked meals shared with friends and family instead of strangers. It's reached the point where I've started trying to teach myself to cook more than just eggs, rice, and soup."
Mulan feigned a gasp, covering her mouth. "No!" she teasingly gaped. "General Li Shang? Learning to cook?"
"I know! It's so horrible!" he laughed. "I'm much better at leading troops than cooking. Maybe your mother can give me some tips?"
She kept her mouth covered as she continued to giggle. "I'm sure she'd love to teach you," she assured him. "Ancestors only know how much she enjoys teaching people how to cook."
"Really?" He looked impressed. "I didn't know that. Has she taught many people?"
Mulan nodded. "Many of the women my age know how to cook because of her." A mischievous twinkle came to her eye as she turned to grab a pitchfork. "You're not the only one who's in love with her food."
Going over to her, he took the pitchfork from her. "That I can believe," he said, beginning to scoop soiled hay from the empty stalls. "Has she taught you how to cook, too?"
"She's tried," she admitted, moving to instead grab a broom. "I'm not the best cook in the family, but at least my food is edible."
"I'm sure you'll get better with time."
"Let's hope. Otherwise, my future family is going to have extremely low expectations for what they consider 'good' food."