A/N: Sorry for the major delay on this one. I'm sad to say that the next chapter will probably take even longer, as I'm taking a hiatus from DoL due to a mixture of burnout and the general lack of comments/interactions going on. Which sucks, considering what point the plot is at, but...Well, these things can't be helped.
In the meantime, I'll be starting to post a Kuroshitsuji fanfic that'll be focusing on an OC and the Phantomhive servants. It's been a refreshing change of pace to work on. Hopefully, it'll be enough of a refresher that I come back to DoL, but...we'll see.
A month passed and late summer faded into early autumn. With another month's passing, autumn had fully taken over the village, which was beginning to grow. Two wooden buildings, which Tófi had called 'longhouses' had been built; one was for the masons and the other was for drying and curing the meat Enkhtuya and her huntresses brought in. Three smaller stone buildings had also been erected: A forge, a place for the masons and potters, and a place for the carpenters. Many more kilns had also been built, enabling brick production to increase by fivefold at the very least. In addition to those, about a dozen houses were in the early stages of being built.
Off in the fields, the beginnings of paddocks were starting to be built up. They started small, enclosing around three hundred yards in fencing to keep the goats in. Fencing for the horses was already going up, but slowly. Whatever wood wasn't going towards house building was being used for the paddocks.
"All in all, it looks like we're going to be well off during the winter," Zoraida told Zhu and Mundzuc as the three of them walked through the village. Being another new moon, Zhu had her walking stick in hand and their pace was slow for her sake. "We've plenty of meats curing and smoking, everyone currently has a roof over their head, and we've even had a few births."
Zhu nodded in understanding, her eyes shut as she listened to her. "I am not going to get my hopes up too much," she admitted. "There are still plenty of things that can go wrong."
"Still being a realist, I see," she chuckled. "Regardless of your point of view, we're doing better than we expected to be. Even Yildiz and Plamen haven't had much to complain about."
"Now that I am more than a little pleased about." She smiled, turning her head in Zoraida's direction. "Though, I suppose that means they aren't doing their jobs properly—after all, I did leave them in charge of complaining."
"You should have exiled them," said Mundzuc. "They've spread rumors about you, you know."
Rolling her eyes, Zhu carefully adjusted Liling, who was wrapped up and sleeping against her chest. "Of course they have spread rumors about me," she sighed. "They like to say that I whore myself off to Yao, Ling, Chien-Po, and Shang. They say that I'm under some Chinese spell and have become their pawn. They say that I am not the real Shan Zhu—that I am just some lookalike."
Zoraida cocked her brow. "…It would be a great achievement on the part of your friends to have found someone who looked exactly like you," she said, voice dry.
"I can understand why they've started rumors about you becoming their pawn, though," Mundzuc stated. "You have listened to them more than you've listened to your own people."
She shot a glare in his direction. "I have listened to my people plenty often," she argued. "Why else would I walk among them nearly every day, listening to their thoughts and concerns?" She knew Mundzuc was only trying to get a rise out of her, but she remained calm. "Yildiz and Plamen try to spin things around to make it seem as if I have entirely given up the ways of our people when I most certainly have not."
Zoraida let out a sigh. "I would recommend removing their tongues, but I think that would only play into their scheme of trying to make you look as bad as possible."
"If they do anything serious," Mundzuc said, "then we will remove their tongues. Rumors can easily be disproven, but if they were to try and actually harm or even kill Zhu—which I have no doubts Plamen will try to do—a proper punishment will be given."
"I would rather exile them or have them humiliated in front of the whole village instead of having one of their body parts removed," Zhu murmured. "I would like to avoid such punishments unless the crime is truly heinous. If an attempt was made on my life, then yes, remove a body part or sentence them to death. But if it is something minor…?" She shook her head. "I will not be a tyrant."
"What if being a tyrant is the only way to keep the people docile?" Mundzuc questioned.
"Then it's a good thing everyone seems docile enough with the way things are currently going," Zoraida replied. "Shan Yu wasn't always a tyrant, after all. From what I hear, he was once a kind man."
Zhu nodded. "He was…It was only when Hayabusa convinced him to give him more control that he became a monster." She brushed her braid, as well as some strands of beads from her headdress, over her shoulder. "I hear us approaching the woodworking building."
Indeed, the sounds of axes and sharpened blades cutting into and scraping against wood—both fresh and dried—was beginning to fill their ears. For the sleeping Liling's sake, however, Zoraida guided them away. She instead led them over to a group of warriors readying their horses for what looked like a lengthy ride. Among them was Shang, who was giving out orders to the men.
"Today, we'll ride to the northern shores of the lake," he was telling them, "and then we'll ride a few miles to the east before making our way south. We'll then arc our way back around to the village."
"Sounds like they are getting ready for another patrol," Zhu murmured. "How many riders this time?"
"Ten," Mundzuc answered. "Seven men, three women. One of them is Enkhtuya."
She nodded in understanding. "She is probably wanting to see what the hunting is like in other parts of the area. Are they armed?"
At that, Zoraida chuckled. "Of course they are. They're also dressed warmly for the weather, lightly armored, and seem to have packed some food and water for when Captain Shang decides its time for a break."
"I'm surprised it's Shang taking them on patrol," Mundzuc murmured. "Dengizich has been the one to lead the patrols while Shang stays here and works on defense."
"Undoubtedly, Shang would like to get to know the surrounding lands as well." Zhu adjusted Liling again, frowning slightly as her daughter grunted. "Shh, shh…sleep my little one," she soothed, gently running her fingers along Liling's head. "Sleep, my little one. You had a rough night last night."
Mundzuc watched as his daughter yawned and stretched her little arms. Despite her shifting about, though, she remained asleep—a good thing, as she had been up most of the night thanks to cutting her first tooth. He then looked back at the group of patrollers watching as they mounted their horses. Zoraida murmured something, though he couldn't hear what she had said.
Whatever it was had made Zhu chuckle, however.
"Shall we go check in on the seamstresses?" Zoraida suggested. "We haven't checked on them in a while."
Zhu nodded in agreement. "Perhaps this time, there will not be some sort of scuffle taking place," she murmured, referencing the first time they had visited the group. Umay and Özge, just as Mundzuc had said, hated each other and one had accused the other of stealing her bone needles. As such, a physical fight brought out between the two that ended only when Zhu had to literally pull them apart and hold them at arm's length from one another.
"Let's hurry a bit, "Mundzuc said, glancing at the sky. "I think it's going to start raining soon and I don't want Zhu and Liling out in it." He set his hand on Zhu's arm, starting to guide her back through the village, towards the yurt where the seamstresses would gather.
"Zhu!" she heard Mei chirp as they stepped inside. "I wasn't expecting to see you in here!"
She smiled. "We are checking in on the various craftspeople today," she explained, hearing her sister hurry over to them. "Careful, Lili is asleep."
"Aww, such a precious little lamb," Mei cooed. Zhu couldn't see her, but knew her sister just placed a gentle kiss on the top of Liling's head. "What would you like to know about today?"
"How are the leather trousers for the loggers coming?" Mundzuc questioned.
"Just fine," another woman, Umay, called from across the yurt. "We've almost got them all done. Just two more pairs to go."
The only man in the group nodded, though Zhu couldn't see it. As he spoke, however, she recognized him to be Bahadir. "Then we'll be getting started on the aprons for the woodworkers."
Zhu nodded in understanding. "Good, good…I am glad to hear that things are going well. Are there any sorts of supplies you need?"
A sarcastic laugh came from the other side of the yurt: Özge. "What don't we need, other than leather?" she grumbled. "We need thread, we need cloth, we need dyes, we need spinning wheels—Earth Mother help us, we even need proper looms if we want to be able to make our own cloth. I'll give us two months before this village is out of thread and cloth. Then we'll be destroying our clothes in order to patch things up!"
Zhu felt her cheeks grow warm in embarrassment. "You greatly overexaggerate, Özge," she scolded. "We have plenty of looms and spinning wheels—just not in here. Our weavers are doing the best they can with what they have; if you would like to complain to someone about the lack of cloth, I suggest complaining to them. But I assure you, you will not get anywhere with it.
"And, for your information, I have been working on arranging for a trading caravan to head south in a few weeks. But these things take time, especially if you want everyone leaving to return alive and well." This wasn't the first time a group of craftspeople had complained to her about a lack of supplies. 'I can't really blame them,' she thought, 'since we normally encounter other groups of nomads while travelling. But with us becoming a stationary people, those supplies run out sooner than later…'
"Well, I think you should get that caravan arranged a little faster," Özge scolded. "I know for a fact that we're not the only ones who'll be running out of stuff soon: The smiths are going to need ores, the soon-to-be shepherds need their flocks and herds sooner rather than later, the—"
"Enough," Zhu suddenly said, her voice firm. "I know what our people need, Özge. But arranging a caravan takes time and careful planning. I will not send a hastily-arranged out into the wilds, especially when our village is still being developed."
Zoraida cleared her throat. "This caravan will be doing more than just getting supplies," she remined Özge. "It will also be forging alliances with larger settlements so that we can establish a constant source of trade."
Mundzuc shifted uncomfortably beside Zhu; she knew he wanted to speak up, but as he was surrounded by women he didn't know well, he remained quiet. He watched as Özge looked back down at her work, grumbling to herself about how they would all die within five years due to poor leadership.
"Come, Zhu," he said, setting his hand on her arm again. "Let's go check on Su and the soon-to-be farmers…"
"Actually, I need to speak with Mei for a moment," she said, pulling her arm from him. "You two can wait outside."
"You do?" Mei asked, blinking in surprise. "Is it something important?" Though Zhu couldn't see it, she could tell by how Mei spoke the next words that her sister's eyes had lit up. "Do you need me and Yao to watch Lili for a while?"
A soft laugh left her mouth. "I am afraid not—but next time I do, I will go to you first, I promise. I need to ask about having a dress made." She could hear Mundzuc and Zoraida walking out of the yurt as she continued to stand there. "Not for me, however."
"Then for who?" Her voice then got quieter and took on a teasing tone. "Ooh, do you want one made for Mulan?" she giggled. "I've got some lovely dark red fabric stashed away I could—"
"Not for Mulan, no," she murmured, cheeks turning red. "I would like one—or, if possible, a few—made for Ling."
"Yes, Ling." He had recently told her why he enjoyed wearing his one dress so much and why he had been growing his hair out. "His current dress is getting fairly threadbare. I would like him to have another one he can wear. Maybe one not as formal?"
Mei tilted her head; she knew Ling liked wearing his dress occasionally, but she hadn't thought he liked wearing it so much he would want another one. "…Are you sure about that, Zhu? I mean, he's a bamboo pole, so it wouldn't take much fabric…but Ling is a man. Should he really be wandering about in dresses?"
"He enjoys wearing them," she stated, "and I see no problem with that. After all, us women walk about in trousers, do we not?" She gave Mei a reassuring smile. "I am sure about this, Mei. And I am also sure that I would like them to be pretty dresses. No trying to pass off masculine robes off as a dress."
She chuckled, nodding in understanding. "Alright, alright…and I take it he isn't to know about them?"
"Would you like me to wait until you've your sight to get started?"
Zhu shook her head. "No, no. I will leave the fabric and color choices up to you. Oh, but if possible, I would like one of them to use that deep gold silk you have—the one with the red embroidery?"
"I've got a bit of that left, but I don't think I can make a whole dress out of it."
"That is fine. I just…" Her cheeks darkened once more, and she spoke in a quieter voice. "I just think it would look quite lovely on him."
A knowing smile came to Mei's lips. "Alright. I'll be sure to incorporate it somehow. Since he's so thin, it shouldn't take me very long to whip out a few dresses for him."
She nodded in understanding. "Alright. When you have them finished, you will let me know, right?"
"Of course! And, before you even think about asking, no—I will not let you pay me."
Zhu frowned. "Mei, please. We're living in a village now and you will need some money event—"
"Eventually, yes," she interjected, "but not from you. You're my big sister and you've already given us so much." Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed Zhu's forehead. "Now stop being a worrywart and go back to your duties. I will bring the dresses to you when they're finished so you can give them to Ling." Before Zhu could object, she spun her sister around and started to gently push her towards the door.
Rolling her eyes, Zhu chuckled. "You are strange, Mei. But a good sort of strange."
"As are you, Zhu."
"Who's uncle's favorite little giggler? Aha! It's you!"
Liling burst into a fit of giggles as Ling tickled her sides and she gaily kicked her feet. She tried to grab his hands, but he pulled them away and made a silly face at her, earning more giggles.
Mulan and Zhu smiled as they watched and listened to the two. "It has been ages since I last heard Ling make someone laugh this hard," the latter said.
"He managed to make the other masons crack up pretty good a few days ago," Mulan grinned, "but certainly not this hard!"
Ling glanced over at the two women, who were sitting near the fire while he sat on Zhu and Mundzuc's bed with the child. "I don't know what your mommy and Auntie Mumu talking about—I make everyone laugh this hard all the time!" he said, speaking in a silly voice as he tickled the bottoms of Liling's feet. She squealed in delight and kicked as his hands. "Oh, no!" he gasped, feigning horror.
Zhu frowned, startled by the sudden change in tone. "What? What's wrong?" She started to stand up until Ling spoke again.
He scooped up Liling up and held her over his head. "It's belly blowing time!"
Hearing the sound of Ling blowing raspberries on Liling's stomach, Zhu sat back down and swore under her breath. "You had me worried, you fiend!" She couldn't help but chuckle as she heard her daughter continuing to giggle and squeal.
Mulan's brow was raised as she quietly laughed. "Auntie Mumu? When was this nickname decided?" she asked.
"Just now," Ling chirped, setting Liling on her feet in front of him. He made sure to hold her up, knowing she couldn't support herself yet. "If you don't like it, you're more than welcome to change it. But I think it sounds cute."
She rolled her eyes, but chuckled. "It does have a nice ring to it, but don't you think she may confuse me for a cow if she calls me Auntie Mumu?" She shifted in her seat before leaning over, picking up her mug of tea from the floor.
Zhu let out a soft laugh. "I doubt it—especially since we don't have any cows yet." She took a drink of her own tea before sighing quietly and tilting her head back.
Mulan gave her a pitying smile, though she knew Zhu was unable to see it. "So…you said you were contemplating sending the caravan out sooner than originally planned…?"
"I am afraid so." She closed her eyes and stretched her legs out; it was a rather undignified way to sit but, for now, it was comfortable. "After hearing the various needs, wants, and complaints from everyone over the last month, I have come to the conclusion that we are using supplies a bit faster than anticipated."
She nodded slowly, frowning. "That's not very good," she murmured. "Who has done the most complaining? The woodworkers? The herders?"
"Neither. The tailors and the weavers, actually."
"The tailors and weavers?!" Ling repeated, his brow rising. "That doesn't sound right."
"They are the only ones who, currently, have a finite supply of materials they can work with," Zhu explained. "Even our smiths can melt down the metal we have and smelt it into something new. But the weavers?" She shook her head. "We do not have sheep, we do not have cotton, and we do not have silk worms. Yes, we have plenty of leathers and furs, but they need material to make thread out of—aside from intestines, that is. But those do not last well."
"And I'd rather not have clothes held together by guts, thank you very much," Ling said, sticking his tongue out.
Mulan chuckled, her brow rising. "And yet you're fine with wearing skin?"
"That's different," he pouted.
"And you are fine with eating intestines?" Zhu questioned, smirking.
He stuck his tongue out again. "I try to not think about that, thank you very much," he pouted. "Now I won't be able to eat any sausages for a few days…"
"More for us then," Mulan grinned. "But, back to the subject at hand: Do you know who you're going to have lead the caravan when it comes time?"
At that, Zhu sighed. "That is the one part I'm stuck on," she admitted. "I know everyone else I would like to send—should they agree to it, of course—except for the leader."
"Do you have anyone in mind?" Ling asked. "Because I nominate your husband."
She snorted. "I wish I could send Mundzuc, but I cannot." Taking a drink of her tea, she sighed. "No, I am afraid he must remain here and help me rule. But the other people I am considering are Roua, Shang, Zoraida, and Ting-Ting."
"Ting-Ting?" Mulan repeated. "But isn't she the head of the loggers…?"
"She is, but she was also the former crown princess of China," Ling reminded her.
"She is also next in line for my crown," Zhu added. "At least, until Lili is of age."
Ling and Mulan exchanged looks. "I forgot about that part," Mulan admitted. "Wait, is she really the next in line, after Liling?"
Zhu nodded. "She is my full-blooded sister, remember?" A small, somewhat bittersweet smile came to her lips. "After us, there is no one else who has a right to metaphorical throne."
"Until Ting-Ting has children of her own, of course," said Mulan.
"Yeah," Ling grinned. "And from what we discussed while we were together, she wants a lot of kids. So, you're not going to run out of heirs anytime soon once she finds herself a husband."
At that, Mulan let out a heavy sigh. "At least she'll have a husband who wants kids," she mumbled, thinking aloud.
Frowning, Zhu turned her head to 'look' at her. "Have you not spoken with Shang about this or…?"
"No, not yet. Every time I try to bring it up, he changes the subject."
"Wait, what's going on?" Scooping up Liling, he went over to join them by the fire. "Does Shang not want kids? Or does he not want to get married?" He glanced down at the child as she started to chew on her fist, content to just sit on his lap for now.
Mulan bit her lower lip, her cheeks turning red. "He doesn't want children," she answered. "Any children."
Ling stared at her, a mixture of confusion and horror on his face. His mouth moved, but no words came out.
"I think you broke Ling," Zhu murmured.
"I think so, too."
He suddenly shook his head. "I'm not the broken one—Shang is!" he stated. "How can he not want children? Let alone children with you?" Then, realizing what he said could reveal his crush on her, he quickly added, "Hasn't he seen the way you are with Liling? You'd be an amazing mother!"
"That is what I said," Zhu agreed, "but evidently, he is scared of pregnancy."
"But…He isn't the one who'll be pregnant."
"No, but he would have to be around me." Mulan took a drink of her tea, frowning when she noticed that it had cooled down a great deal. "He's more scared of the chance of losing me due to pregnancy. He's been around so many strong women who were almost killed by their pregnancies, he doesn't want that to happen to me." Despite it being cold, she took another, longer drink of her tea. "He also is terrified of newborns."
Ling let out a sigh. "Well, that certainly explains why he seems to avoid Zhu whenever she's got Liling." He shook his head. "But still! He doesn't even want to try adopting kids?" He glanced down at Liling as she grunted while chewing on her hand.
She shook her head, doing her best to keep tears from welling up in her eyes. "Not unless they were older—around four or five. And I'm perfectly fine with adopting children! But it doesn't stop me from wanting a child of my own." A heavy sigh left her mouth before both her brows rose. Both Ling and Zhu had reached over, setting their hands on her shoulders.
For some reason, she no longer felt the need to cry.
"You need to talk with him, Mulan," Zhu told her, her voice gentle but firm.
Ling nodded in agreement. "It may seem scary now, but trust me: Once you talk with him and the two of you get things off your chest, you'll both feel better."
"I know…I know. I'm just—I'm just afraid of what may happen if we can't work this out."
"Whatever does happen, you've got plenty of friends and family here for you," Ling assured her. "And some of us may even have a bit of plum wine should need it."
At that, Mulan let out a soft laugh. "Zhu is more of the wine drinker than I am. But…thank you. I appreciate the offer." She gave him a small smile. "If you do end up sending Shang on the mission, I'll be sure to talk with him before he leaves. I'm sure they'll be gone some months, so it would give him plenty of time to think things over."
"For you both to think things over," Zhu corrected. "I know you have talked with him before, but it sounds like the two of you need to talk again—and for longer this time."
Mulan nodded. "Yes…we kind of stormed away from each other during the last one we tried having about this." She drained the last of her tea before standing up to go wash the cup.
Ling frowned; he didn't want to tell Mulan how storming away from discussions was never a good sign. As such, he looked down at Liling, who was still grunting and whose face was beginning to turn red. It was then he caught a whiff of something stinky.
"Oh, Liling, you're stinky…" he murmured. "Is it time to change your butt?"
The baby grunted in reply, though she was grinning.
"I'll take that as a yes," he chuckled, shaking his head. "Your mama must've started you on solid foods, because you have been having the stinkiest poops lately."
"She has been getting some mashed fruits lately, yes," Zhu smiled. "And yes, they have certainly made her quite the stinky little thing. I almost regret giving her the fruit sometimes."
"Just wait until you get her started on meats," Ling snickered. "Then, you will know how truly putrid the smell baby poop can be."
Mulan looked over at them. "I can change her if need be," she offered. "Since I'm standing anyway."
Zhu frowned slightly. "Do you know where her changing things are?"
"Well, I know where the table it. I'm sure finding the clean diapers and getting a washcloth ready for cleaning can't be too hard," she chuckled. "Don't worry, Zhu. I'll figure it out." Walking over to Ling, she scooped up Liling only to scrunch up her face. "…Oh. Ling was not lying. Little Lili, you've made yourself a big smell!"
Liling giggled, continuing to chew on her hand. She had no idea what the adults were saying, but their silly faces amused her to no end.