Mulan pulled the rice pot off the fire and set it on the table. She quickly grabbed bowls and the pitcher of water and added them. Shang would be home any minute and she wanted everything to be perfect. Today was the first anniversary of their wedding and she had been anticipating it all week. Shang had been summoned to squash a small uprising in the Yang province but was supposed to be home today.
Since their marriage and his promotion to general they had lived a very nice life. Shang had gone to battle many times, and twice Ping had ridden at his side. When not defending the country, Mulan worked around their home with Cri-kee's help. Mushu had unfortunately needed to remain at her parents' house. Mulan and Cri-kee cleaned, tended the yard, raised the chickens, and did the shopping and cooking. It was a familiar routine that she had participated in all her life, and it was a nice change of pace from the occasional battles.
Mulan also spent some time each week training with Ling and Chien Po, who lived nearby. Lao lived a little further away, but she still saw him frequently. However, when not with her friends, or doing the weekly shopping, Mulan tended to spend her time home alone. Most of the women in the village gave her strange looks when she encountered them; they had heard about her time as Ping, and had seen her riding out to battle. She still kept her hair short, and though she dressed the part, she had never managed to act as a proper bride. Mulan found it easier to avoid their looks – which ranged from curious to hostile – by staying at home.
To occupy her free time, she worked on correspondence for the army. It was not typically a woman's job, though that had never really mattered to Mulan. What mattered was that if she did Shang's deskwork, he would have more time for her when he was home. Mulan had always been good at reading and writing, and she picked up the nuances of military communication quickly.
Mulan was just putting the final dish in place when she heard the stable doors close. She hurried to meet Shang in the foyer, collecting his helmet and sword and putting them away while he slipped out of his boots. He offered her a polite kiss on the cheek as she helped unstrap his armor.
"How did it go?" Mulan asked, gently tugging at the ties on his shoulder armor.
"It was fine," he replied, unbuckling his chest plate. "The rebellion was very ill-formed and there was much squabbling within the ranks. It would have probably burned itself out within the year. But they were terrorizing the local villages and stealing, so it’s a good thing that we put an end to it."
Mulan smiled. "It's good that the Emperor has you to do this for those villages."
Shang just nodded in reply and headed for their bedroom, and Mulan decided that he must be tired; he had been riding hard all week. Still, she hoped that the special anniversary dinner would brighten him up a bit.
Once Shang had changed into his normal clothes he met her at the table and she hurried to serve him his tea. "This looks nice," he said, eyeing the dinner.
"Well, it is a special occasion," Mulan replied. From his spot on the mantle, Cri-kee chirped affirmatively.
Shang gave her a blank but thankful nod, and Mulan bit back a sigh. Well it was no wonder that he forgot, she thought charitably. After all, he had been fighting all month, and quite often over the past year; it wasn't his fault that he was tired. It wasn't his fault that the exact date might slip his mind. He would remember soon, and then he and Mulan would celebrate.
When they finished the meal, Mulan quickly began to clear the plates and Shang announced that he was going to bed early. Mulan said that she would be right there, eager to join him. She hurriedly washed and rinsed the dishes and rushed to their room, only to discover him already asleep.
Again, she thought "he's so tired from battle. In a few days, he'll be his old self." Still, a small knot of worry began to form in the back of Mulan's mind as she changed into her night clothes as well and lay down beside him.
‡ . ‡
When she thought back on it, it had been some months since she and Shang had made love, but she couldn't say there was a specific reason for that. Sometimes Shang was away, fighting; sometimes they both were away together as soldiers and couldn't do anything; sometimes they were both tired; sometimes Mulan stayed up late to finish some of her chores or the Army correspondence. There was always a perfectly logical reason why Shang wasn't with her that night, but now that so much time had passed, Mulan was beginning to worry.
Of her friends, Chien Po was the easiest to talk to about these things. He was also the one she had remained the closest to after revealing her identity. So while they browsed through the fish market, she finally built her nerve up enough to ask him. "Chien Po, may I ask you something personal?"
"Of course, Mulan," he replied easily.
"How often are you and your wife… together?"
Chien Po regarded her for a moment, and Mulan desperately hoped that he couldn't see the worry and fear in her eyes. Finally, he said, "Unlike the forbidden night flower of Yingtai, our love blossoms many times a week."
Cheeks flaming at his candor, Mulan nodded. "Good! Good." She ducked her head and intently considered the price of a fish, but inside her head her worry grew. What was wrong between her and Shang? She had no doubts that he loved her, and he had certainly married her, but they hadn't made love in so long. And her mother kept subtly, and her grandmother less subtly, dropping hints about when she was going to become pregnant, as most women did so within their first year.
Of course Shang needed an heir. He was from a long line of generals and military masters, and the Li family name had to be carried on. Perhaps there was something wrong with her that she could not bear him an heir. Maybe he was upset at her failure and that was why he was avoiding her. Mulan resolved to see a wise herbalist later in the day to obtain a remedy in case that was the problem.
Meanwhile, she and Chien Po finished up the rest of their shopping and as they were about to part ways on the path that led out of town, Chien Po turned to her. "When was the last time that you and Shang were together?" he asked seriously.
Mulan opened her mouth to reply, but then shut it again. Honestly, she couldn't remember exactly how long it had been. A deep blush spread across her cheeks again, and she bundled her courage. "It has been many months," she finally admitted in a rush.
Chien Po nodded sagely, and replied, "Many precious things happen only in precise circumstances. The cock crows at dawn, the nocturnal flower blooms at night, the fish jumps at evening. If the cock were to crow at night or the fish to jump in the morning, the world would lose a bit of its magic."
Mulan considered his words, falling so deep into thought that she barely heard her friend's farewells, or noticed him returning to his home and his wife. Mulan continued towards her own home, thinking deeply about what he had said. She thought about it as she prepared Shang's dinner. She listened politely while Shang talked about the new batch of useless recruits, but Chien Po's words still bubbled in the back of her mind. Many precious things happen only in precise circumstances.
As she prepared for bed, gazing sadly at Shang's sleeping form, Mulan pondered their past. What had been right, about the circumstances the last time they had been together? What had gone wrong since then? It wasn't until she was drifting off to sleep that Mulan realized what had been different about that day. That day she had been helping to train the villagers, and she had been dressed as Ping. With an inkling of an idea, Mulan slipped off to a restless sleep.
‡ . ‡
"Well?" she asked Cri-kee, holding out her arms for his inspection. He chirped reassuringly and hopped onto her shoulder, nuzzling her cheek for a moment.
At first it felt strange, to walk around their house as Ping instead of Mulan. She was usually Ping in training camps and battlefields, not while feeding the chickens and cooking rice. After a little while, however, Mulan began to relax. By the afternoon, she was smiling cheerfully as she swept the courtyard.
When Shang returned home that night from a long day inspecting the village guard, he barely looked at Mulan as she helped him out of his armor. It wasn't until midway through his cup of tea that he seemed to realize how Mulan was dressed. As he sputtered into his cup, she hid a smile.
"Why are you wearing that?" he asked finally.
Having thought about it most of the afternoon, and having come up with no better answer, Mulan simply replied, "Because I wanted to."
And she did want to. It wasn't just that she thought this might be what Shang needed – though she did think that. She truly had enjoyed her time as Ping – the pain of learning how to fight notwithstanding. As a girl, Mulan had disliked tripping over the long formal skirts and coating her face with rice powder. She didn't mind the housework, but the perfect feminine image that she had to project outside the house had always felt like an ill-fitting glove. Walking down the street as Ping had always felt right and comfortable. Not because of how people treated him, but because she could act like herself. Yes, she had had trouble, initially, fitting in with the others, but she had come to realize that it was because she was trying too hard. Once she stopped trying to be the perfect man or the perfect woman, and was just Mulan-Ping, she had finally felt perfectly comfortable. Today she had felt perfectly comfortable.
She didn't think that she could explain this to Shang yet – she barely had the words for it in her own mind, just feelings – but she wasn't sure she would have to. She thought that this might be what Shang needed too, though again she didn't have the words to tell him so.
Instead she just continued to serve him dinner, letting him absorb her outfit in his own way. Shang was silent for most of the meal, but she could feel his eyes on her. As she collected the dishes and took them to the sink, she felt a presence behind her. As she rinsed off the bowls warm, strong arms wrapped around her from behind.
Shang pressed against her, nuzzling her neck. Mulan smiled, pleased with his reaction, and pleased that her plan had worked. When Shang picked her up and carried her to their room, Mulan knew that the circumstances were right. And she hoped that the result would be as precious as she hoped.