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Daughter of Life

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Three weeks into the journey

 

Mulan let out a quiet sigh and poked the fire with a stick. Around her, she could hear the sounds of her friends and family sleeping. As much as she wanted to sleep, she knew she couldn’t—she was on watch duty, after all. Lately, however, sleeping had been hard even with how exhausted she felt. She knew it was because they were in a new place every night.

‘And it isn’t going to stop anytime soon,’ she thought, yawning. ‘Maybe I should ask Chien-Po to make me some sleep tea? I remember it worked rather well on Shang…’

One of the logs in the fire shifted, sending a burst of tiny sparks flying into the air. The log it had been supporting also moved, rolling out of the pile and trying to escape the stone ring surrounding the fire. Mulan used the stick to stop the log and shove it back into the pile.

‘In another week or two, it’ll be time for harvest back home,’ she told herself. Leaning back, she rested her weight on her palms. ‘The crops that Yao and Ling had planted looked like they were going to be fairly bountiful. It’s a shame they’ll probably rot…unless someone goes to check on the houses before then.’

Zhu had wanted the utmost secrecy about their trip, so no one in Tianshui had been told that they were leaving. She had even been tempted to ensure no one knew where they were going by burning down both houses but decided against it in the end. The houses could become homes for other families.

‘I wonder what the townsfolk are going to think. Probably that we just vanished into thin air. Or maybe they’ll think something supernatural happened to us? They can be rather superstitious at times, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what they end up thinking.’

Out of nowhere, she started to hear whispering. She frowned; no one besides her was awake. She listened harder only to hear that the voices—or was it just a single voice? It was hard to tell—was coming from near the wagon. Standing up, she stretched and started to casually walk around the campsite. If she wasn’t just hearing things and there was someone there, she didn’t want them to know she knew about them.

After walking around the entire camp and checking both the wagon and the carriage for any possible intruders, she was relieved to have found nothing. But she knew she had heard something whispering.

There was a thud from inside the wagon and she jumped, startled. Her heart racing, she hurried over to it and threw back the canvas curtain that protected their belongings. With hardly any moonlight and the fire being some yards away, it was hard to see inside the wagon, but she could just barely make out a serpentine shape standing atop one of the barrels.

“Mushu?” she whispered, eyes wide.

“Oh, now she notices me!” There was a tiny flash of light and smoke billowed from his nostrils as he angrily huffed. “Didn’t bother noticing me the last three weeks when I’ve been cooped up in that stuffy old chest. But now that I’ve gone and clawed my way out of there, she—” He was suddenly silenced as Mulan snatched him up and hugged him.

“I didn’t know you had come out of your statue state!” she told him, doing her best to keep her voice quiet. “I’m sorry you were locked away; that was my father’s doing. He didn’t want to risk you and the other statues getting damaged.” She blinked, feeling a tiny bit of weight bounce onto her shoulder. Turning her head, she found Cri-Kee perched there and she smiled, gently petting him with her finger.

He blew a raspberry, though he returned the hug as best as possible—it was hard to do, considering it was only two feet tall. “Oh sure, sure. Just throw dear ol’ dad under the bus why don’t you?” he teased.

“…What’s a bus?” she asked, brow rising.

“Somethin’ you won’t have to worry your pretty little head about.” He scampered out of her grasp and around her neck. “So, the ancestors have been keeping me updated on things, but just in case they missed anything, why don’t you give me a quick rundown on the situation? And are there any leftovers from dinner because girl, you know I ain’t eaten in nearly five years and this dragon is starving.”

“I’m sorry, there isn’t. But I can get you a small snack from the supplies.”

“No, no. Don’t worry about it. If I can go a few centuries without eating, I can wait until breakfast,” he chuckled. Mulan was surprised by the sincerity in his voice. “So, about that rundown?”

Closing the wagon’s curtain, she let out a small sigh. “So much has happened, I don’t even really know where to begin.”

He made a small noise of concern. “Then how about I tell ya what I know and you can fill in the rest?”

She smiled. “That sounds good.”

“Right. So, I know that the Emperor had you and those three stooges watching over his wife and daughters while they were in hiding from some foreign royalty,” he began. “Things were going all hunky-dory for about four months, but then Shang and Chi-Poohead came out of nowhere and told you that the Emperor was killed. So, you all packed up and started bookin’ it across the world to keep the former princesses safe from harm.”

Sitting down near the fire, she watched him scuttle down her arm only to practically sit in the pile of burning logs. “The foreign royalty would be the elder Mongolian princes.”

He nodded in understanding. “Sounds about right. With Shan Yu out of the way, they were bound to be the next big threat. Them or the Manchurians. Or was it Maghreb?” He scratched his chin in thought. “No, definitely the Manchurians. But speaking of Shan Yu, the ancestors mentioned something about him. Was it him? Or was it something having to do with him…?”

“It was probably the fact that Zhu is back from the dead.”

“…You mean big, buff Hun lady with the freak—” he quickly smiled innocently as he watched a pout starting to form on Mulan’s face, “—ing gorgeous eyebrows? Didn’t we blow her to smithereens?”

“It’s a long story, but no. She did die but had help coming back. Also, it turns out she’s the firstborn of the Empress…and queen of the Huns.” She sighed, pulling a knee to her chest.

At that, Mushu’s jaw dropped.

Mulan stared past Mushu into the embers of the fire. “Right now, she’s riding to gather up the last of her people. She’s going to bring them to the same spot where we’re going.”

“Just one question: Aren’t the Huns our enemies?” He crossed his arms and tapped his foot against one of the logs. “What’s she doin’, bringing them to live with us?”

“There are less than three hundred Huns left,” she explained, “and they’re mostly made up of women, children, and the elderly. I don’t think they’ll pose much of a threat—especially if Zhu tells them we’re friendly.”

He didn’t seem fully convinced—and she didn’t blame him. She still wasn’t certain she was convinced that it was a good idea. “And what about if they don’t believe her, hmm? We’ll have less than three hundred angry Huns tryin’ to kill us all.”

“Zhu wouldn’t let that happen.”

“Then I’m going to trust you on this one, girlie. You know that Zhu better than I do.” When an ember landed on his shoulder, he brushed it off. “Now that I’m all caught up with the important stuff and what I’m goin’ to be helping you guard your family from, let’s get to the juicy stuff.” He scuttled out of the fire and nudged her knee with his elbow. “Anything goin’ on between you and that general yet?” As he spoke, he wiggled his eyebrows.

Mulan’s cheeks turned as red as his scales. “Mushu!” she whispered in a scolding tone.

He grinned cheekily. “Judging by those red cheeks of yours, something is goin’ on between the two of you.”

Pulling her knees to her chest, looking away with a great deal of embarrassment. “We’ve been courting for the last two weeks.”

Mushu’s brow rose and his grin turned into a confused frown. “…Two weeks? That’s it? Two weeks?! Girl, it’s been five years!” He crawled up her leg and plopped himself on her knee before resting his fists on his sides. “What in the name of Mongolian barbeque took you so long!?”

“He was a general, Mushu,” she told him, not impressed by his shock. “He had to stay in the Imperial City and rebuild China’s army. Visiting Tianshui was a little low on his priorities.”

“But he did visit at times, yeah?” He cocked his brow. “’Cause, girl, if he didn’t, then he ain’t worth waiting for.”

She chuckled, his reaction managing to amuse her somewhat. “And just what makes you so knowledgeable in the area of romance?”

He pouted. “What, do you think just because I’m a family guardian doesn’t mean I haven’t had a relationship or two?” He crossed his arms. “I’ll have you know, I’ve had a number of relationships over the dynasties! Why, I even nearly got married during the final years of the Han Dynasty!” A sour look sudden came to his face. “Of course, that’s when Ping went and stole my girlfriend…”

 

~*~*~

 

Six weeks into the journey

 

“Are you sure that this is the right place?”

“I’m positive this is the right place. It matches up with both the map and the drawing she had me do.”

“Yes, but a few days ago, we were at an area that looked almost identical to this place! How can we be so sure it wasn’t where we were supposed to start heading due west?”

Ling sighed. “Ting-Ting, we went over this before at that other area: The riverbend wasn’t nearly sharp enough and the hills were too small.”

She put her hands on her hips, frowning. “Rivers change over time, Ling; what Zhu may have remembered could be different from what the land looks like now.”

“Rivers change, yes, but hills don’t. These ones match the size Zhu described.”

Ting-Ting sighed, putting a hand on her forehead in frustration. “Since we can’t seem to come to an agreement over this, why don’t we just ask my mother? She may remember this place.”

“That’s a good idea,” he agreed. He started to follow her towards the carriage, quietly sighing under his breath. “Is she feeling well enough, though?” He didn’t like arguing with Ting-Ting, but that last few days seemed to have been filled with nothing but disagreements.

What didn’t help was the mixture of traveling and the changing season had made nearly everyone come down with a cold, but Zhi had had it the worst. She was almost always leading the group, regardless of the weather. It was only when she was nearly hacking up a lung that she finally relented and started riding in the carriage with the Fa family.

Ting-Ting brushed some stray hairs from her face. “She should be. Chien-Po made her some spiced tea this morning and it seemed to chase away most of her congestion.”

Approaching the carriage, Ting-Ting lightly knocked before opening the door and poking her head in. “Mother? Are you well enough to step outside a moment?”

“Of course, dear. What is it you need?” As Zhi stepped out of the carriage, both Ting-Ting and Ling helped her down the steps.

“Ling and I can’t agree about whether or not we’ve reach the spot where we’re supposed to start heading due west,” Ting-Ting explained. As Ling showed Zhi the drawing, she pointed at the river. “A few days ago, we were at an area nearly identical to this one, but the river’s bend wasn’t as severe.”

Making a thoughtful sound, Zhi started to walk some yards away. Ting-Ting and Ling exchanged worried looks before hurrying after her; she was still rather weak and they didn’t want her to hurt herself.

She finally came to a stop when she had reached a spot where she could see the hills and the riverbend at the same time. “This is the right place,” she told them. “This is definitely the right place. Ling, would you be a dear and get Lan for me?”

He glanced at Ting-Ting, who, despite the uncertainty on her face, nodded. He hurried off to fetch the mare.

“Mother? Why do you need Lan?” Ting-Ting asked, shrugging off her shawl and wrapping it around her mother. She couldn’t help but notice how Zhi’s eyes were fixed on one of the hills.

“I want to go to the top of the western hill,” she replied, voice quiet. “I need to see if something is still there.”

“I don’t think that is a very smart idea, mother. You’re still recovering—you don’t need to wear yourself out with the ride.”

Zhi looked at her, an unhappy smile on her lips. “Then come with me,” she said, voice quiet, “because you know I am going whether it is a smart idea or not.”

Still wearing a frown, Ting-Ting nodded. “Alright then…” she mumbled. She glanced over her shoulder as she heard the jingling of a harness. Ling had returned with Lan; he still looked confused.

“Thank you, Ling.” Taking the lead from him, Zhi patted the side of the mare’s neck before mounting her. As Ting-Ting climbed on, she looked down at Ling. “We shan’t be gone long.” Before he had the chance to reply, she flicked the reins and Lan started off at a trot.

 

When they were halfway between the camp and the hill, Zhi glanced over her shoulder. “I see that you and Ling have started to argue more than joke around these days.”

Her cheeks burned. “…You’ve noticed?”

“It’s hard not to, I’m afraid.”

She bit her tongue, her gaze falling to the ground. “I think it’s the stress,” she said. “Even though we’re so far away from China at this point, it still feels like danger is nipping at our heels. And, since he’s the navigator, Ling’s been under an extraordinary amount of pressure—if he even leads us half a mile astray, we could end up lost forever.”

“But you do not entirely trust his navigational skills,” she stated, not asked. “As you revealed earlier.”

“I do!” she countered. “It’s just—there are so many places that look the same as the landmarks Zhu had him draw out. Rivers change course; hills erode; forests get cut down. How do we know which is right and which is wrong?”

Though she couldn’t see it, Zhi raised a brow. “That sounds more like a great deal of doubt than confidence to me.”

Ting-Ting sighed; she hadn’t wanted to admit the truth to anyone—herself, especially. “…Then…I guess I don’t entirely trust his navigation.” Her stomach felt like it dropped away, being replaced instead by a clump of guilt. “But can you blame me, mother? I don’t want us to get lost and die because we went too far north or didn’t go westwards enough!” By now, the mare was trotting up the gradual slope of the hill.

“My child, part of being in a relationship is having trust in one another, no matter how bleak the times may be.” She looked over her shoulder again. “While your concern is understandable, has Ling led us astray so far?”

Ting-Ting half-heartedly mumbled, “No.”

“Then you must have faith in him. He certainly has a great deal of faith in you.”

She felt her cheeks begin to burn again. With Shang still on the mend, Zhu had instructed Ting-Ting to take charge of the caravan. Though she had been taught her whole life how to be a good leader, actually being a leader was vastly different.

It had been difficult to give out orders to her friends, especially when they disagreed with her—thankfully, that had only happened once. As they had been travelling west, a nomadic tribe was approaching from the east. The others had wanted to head south to avoid interacting with the tribe, but she had them continue on their set path. Ling had been the only one on her side at the time, telling the others that they needed to have a little more faith in her.

The tribe, it turned out, ended up being friendly and they were able to exchange some jewelry and embroidered cloth for warm, rabbit fur jackets.

“Even if he wasn’t your beau,” Zhi continued, drawing her out of her thoughts, “don’t you think it would be better to encourage one another than to dishearten each other?”

“It would be,” she sighed, admitting defeat. “I just…Like I said, I think it is the stress of our situation.”

Zhi nodded in understanding. “Stress has a nasty way of bringing out the worst in us. But you two love one another, and love conquers all.”

Ting-Ting bit her tongue again, looking away. “About that, mother…”

“Hold on, dear. We’ve reached the top.”

Bringing Lan to a halt, the two women dismounted. Ting-Ting got off first, helping her mother down and steadying her when she nearly lost her balance. At first glance, Ting-Ting could see nothing of interest atop the hill. Then, Zhi quietly gasped and started to head towards the western edge of the hilltop. Upon closer inspection, Ting-Ting could now see a small mound in the earth with a crudely carved stone at one end.

A grave.

Zhi eased herself down to her knees, resting her hand atop the grave. It had to have been there quite some time; a thick layer of grass and dying wildflowers covered the mound. As she grew near, Ting-Ting heard Zhi sob. Eyes widening, she hurried to her side.

“Mother, what’s wrong?” she asked, kneeling beside her.

Zhi swallowed hard, using her sleeve to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “This is your father’s grave,” she whispered. “Your real father’s grave.”

Ting-Ting quietly swore. She wasn’t sure if she should be horrified or if she should be intrigued. Unlike Zhu, she had never known Shan Da—the only things she knew about him were his name and his reputation.

“How—how are you so sure this is Shan Da’s grave?” she asked, biting her tongue.

“Because I will never forget this place.” Twisting around, she looked at their caravan nearly a mile away. “This is the summering field where Fa Zhou and his men came to…to rescue me.” Turning back to the grave, she reached over, taking her daughter’s hand and closing her eyes.

There was concern written all over Ting-Ting’s face. “…Mother?”

“Promise me you will never tell Mei and Su what I’m about to tell you,” Zhi ordered, her voice soft. “I…I need to tell you, but I’m afraid if they knew, it would break their hearts.” She gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

She frowned; she didn’t like the sound of that. “I—I promise.”

Zhi took a deep breath. She held it for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. “I never loved Taizong.”

Gasping, Ting-Ting used her free hand to cover her mouth. “But—but, mother—” She stared at her in complete and utter shock, her skin having grown pale. It had to have been a lie; Zhi adored the Emperor! There was no way she didn’t love him! “You loved him with all your heart! You’ve even said so on multiple occasions!”

“It was all an act,” Zhi admitted. Her voice was heavy with guilt and sorrow. “All of it. I never wanted to marry him, even before I was taken by Shan Da. But how could I, the younger child of a disgraced nobleman, refuse a proposal from the Emperor of China…?” Shaking her head, she released Ting-Ting’s hand and folded her hands in her lap. “Do not get me wrong, child: Taizong was a good man and he did love me. And he was a wonderful father to you girls; most women couldn’t have asked for a better husband. When he died, my tears and anguish for him were genuine.

“But when we married, he was nearly twenty years older my senior and had already sired many children from his concubines. There were times when I felt like little more than a dolled-up accessory for him to flaunt to the royal court. I had little say in how my life was run.” She paused, using her sleeve to wipe her eyes. “Chi-Fu, as both Taizong’s advisor and my elder brother, practically ran my life. What I ate, how I ate, how I dressed, how I acted…None of it was under my control. That is, until I was taken by Shan Da.”

“Because you were finally allowed some freedom?” Ting-Ting quietly asked.

Zhi nodded. Tilting her head back, she stared up at the darkening sky. The stars were just visible, glinting against the lavender sky. “At first, I was terrified—completely understandable, given that the Huns were the biggest threat to China. But Shan Da wasn’t the barbarian I had been led to believe he was. No. He was intelligent and he was patient and he was kind.” She chuckled, letting her eyes fall shut once more. “And, by the gods, he was handsome. Far more handsome than Taizong.”

Ting-Ting couldn’t help but giggle. “Were you smitten the moment you laid eyes on him?” She was still shocked by her mother’s admission, but after hearing Zhi speak, she could understand why she had never loved the Emperor.

“Oh, heavens no!” She laughed, looking at her daughter. “He was handsome, yes, but it was a—oh, how do I explain it? It wasn’t quite a roguish handsome, but it wasn’t a charming handsome, either. Disarming—yes, disarming is the perfect way to describe it.”

Her head tilting slightly, Ting-Ting changed her position so that she was sitting cross-legged. “I’m afraid I don’t quite know what a disarmingly handsome person looks like.”

“Think of your sister. She is the perfect example, since she favors Da’s appearance…almost supernaturally so, to be honest.” She, too, sat cross-legged. “When he didn’t smile, Da looked as if he could take on the whole of China’s army by himself and win. But when he smiled…” A wistful sigh left her mouth. “My heart melted. Every time.

“He never yelled at me or hit me. Not once. Even when I screamed at him out of frustration, he merely held me in his arms and let me continue screaming at him until I wore myself out.” She quietly laughed. “I was so mad at him in the beginning—why was this man, the greatest threat to China since Attila the Hun, being so kind and gentle with me? Why couldn’t he just treat me like a prisoner? Yu, Edeco, and Bleda hated me. Roua and Ruga were indifferent until Zhu was born. But Da? He…he respected me.”

“I can see how that would frustrate you,” Ting-Ting told her, “especially since you weren’t used to it. Even as Empress, I’m sure there were plenty of people who didn’t treat you with the same sort of respect and gentility that they do now.” She brushed some stray hairs out of her face. “Then, you’re ripped away from your home and the people you know only to be taken to the heart of your enemy’s empire. Him respecting you was almost like adding insult to injury.”

Exactly,” she laughed. “I had no idea that women could be treated as equals to men—it’s just not part of our culture. But, when I lived among the Huns, I was taught so many things. How to hunt, how to fight, how to cook, how to ride…how to be a mother. I’m still surprised Taizong didn’t divorce me because of how much I had changed in those five years. I left an obedient, silent wife only to be returned to him as a stubborn, outspoken Empress.”

“He certainly didn’t seem to mind that, though,” Ting-Ting reminded her. “Fa—Taizong always seemed completely smitten with you.”

She nodded slowly, the laughter fading from her face. “He did. He really did. And there are times when I wish I could have loved him back. But when Da was killed, he took my heart with him to the afterlife.” She shook her head, sighing heavily only to start coughing.

Ting-Ting frowned. “We should get you back to camp,” she said, her voice just a bit on the stern side. “You’ve been out in the cold too long.”

Zhi let out a small, hoarse laugh. “I’m fine,” she assured her. “But you’re right. We should head back before they start to get worried.” With help from her daughter, she stood up and pulled the shawl closer to her body.

Mounting Lan again, the two women started off back the way they had come. Neither spoke for some time. Eventually, though, Ting-Ting broke the silence.

“Mother? How did you know you really loved Shan Da?” she asked.

“Hm. Now that is a tough question.” She mulled the question over for a few minutes, doing her best to recall the feelings she had felt when around Shan Da. “I guess the simplest answer would be that I just felt…I just felt whole when I was with him. Whenever he was away from me—even still, as a matter of fact—I felt like part of me was missing.” She then glanced over her shoulder. “Why do you ask, child?”

Ting-Ting was thankful that her cheeks were already pink from the cold. “I was just curious is all,” she said, hoping she lied as well as her older sister, “since everyone feels differently when they’re in love.”

She didn’t see it, but a knowing look came to Zhi’s face. “I see. So, then, what does being in love with Ling feel like?”

Unconsciously raising her hand to her mouth, she started to nibble on her knuckle. “Lately, it’s been a—a mixture of things, to be honest.” A heavy sigh left her mouth. “Being with him used to just feel happy and warm and comforting. But now, there seems to be less laughter and more frustration. But—but it just has to be the stress of what’s been happening…?” Her voice betrayed her worry.

And Zhi’s silence only worked to increase that feeling.

“Mother?” she questioned. “Does—does that sound like a logical explanation to you?”

“It does,” she admitted. Ting-Ting was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when her mother continued to speak. “But, child, you must also remember that not all relationships are fated to end in life-long love and marriage.” She had almost never heard her mother give advice that wasn’t optimistic in nature.

The fact that this was one of those times made her start to feel queasy.

“Ling is your first love,” Zhi continued, “and I know the two of you care a great deal for one another. But, as much as you care for one another now, it is extremely rare when first loves blossom into a love that lasts a lifetime. I do not want to make you unnecessarily anxious—I just want you to be cautious. Do you understand, Ting-Ting? I don’t want to hurt you, but I also don’t want you to hurt yourself from having too high of hopes.”

“I do, mother,” she sighed, pressing her knuckle against the leg of her pants. She had nibbled just a bit too hard and had drawn blood. “I…just hope that is one of those rare times.” Despite her words, something in the back of her mind told her it wasn’t.

But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try to make sure it was.

 

~*~*~

 

Twelve weeks into the journey

 

The morning air was crisp and cool…and a bit smelly.

Shang stared out towards the rising sun, his breath leaving his mouth in small puffs of steam. Shaking his head, he turned back to his work of gathering up the dung the animals had dropped during the night in order to dry them by the fire. It was a disgusting chore, but with the last trees they had seen being nearly five hundred miles to the east, the dung was their main fuel source.

Normally, it wasn’t him who did this job—under Zhi and Ting-Ting’s orders, it had been Chi-Fu’s job—but he had noticed their supply was beginning to dwindle when he woke up. It wasn’t a very hard job, though he was quickly learning that an iron stomach could be required thanks to the smell.

“If you had asked me five years ago what I thought I would be doing now,” he mumbled, carrying a shovelful of dung to the fire, “I would have said something like a well-respected general of China’s army or happily married with a child on the way.” He carefully laid the dung out beside the coals before going to gather more. “Not…baking animal poop while on the run from the Mongolian princes.”

“It’s a crappy job for sure, but someone has to do it.”

He jumped, dropping the shovel. Turning around, he found Mulan a few yards away, giggling.

“I’m sorry,” she told him, crouching down and retrieving his fallen shovel. “Did I scare the crap out of you?”

Rolling his eyes, he took the shovel as she handed it to him. “Only figuratively,” he said, voice heavy with sarcasm. Despite his tone, there was an amused smile on his lips. “I think you’ve been around Ling for too long—that was as bad as one of his puns.”

She laughed, her brow rising. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she joked. As Shang started to walk towards the animals again, she followed alongside him. She was glad that he was finally healed enough to walk around and do chores; she had missed talking with him when he was cooped up in the carriage. “So…why are you up so early? I thought Ting-Ting had the dawn watch?”

“She did, but I didn’t sleep very well last night,” he explained, “so I took over for her so she could get some sleep.”

“Good. She could use the rest.” Tucking her hair behind her ear, she glanced up at Shang. “Why didn’t you sleep well? Nerves?”

He shrugged, flipping the shovel over and using it to scrape piles of dung into a small pile. “To be honest? I’m not sure. I know it’s not because we’re traveling—the gods know I’ve traveled enough to be used to sleeping on the ground by now.”

Watching him, Mulan frowned. “Then maybe you’re worried about our situation,” she suggested. “With how uncertain things are for us right now, I know I’m worried.”

“Probably,” he sighed. “But I think I’m also worried about what we’re going to do when we reach our destination. By the time we get there, it’s going to be winter. How are we going to make shelters? What are we going to have in the way of food?”

“Zhu and Zhi said there should be a handful of houses that we could use for shelter,” Mulan reminded him. “As for food…well, Su and Chien-Po made sure to pack us enough to last us a nearly a year—or, at least, it seems that way. Especially since we keep rationing it like we do.”

Stabbing the end of the shovel into the ground, Shang rested his hands over the top of it. “I just hope those houses are still there. Huns aren’t known for their house making skills, after all.” His tone betrayed a bit of his pessimism.

Mulan’s voice, on the other hand, let Shang know she was full of optimism. “I’m sure that, if the need arises, we’ll be able to make any repairs needed. Plus, we have Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po! They’ve built houses before, so they can help with any repairs or building that needs to be done. And I’m pretty good with roofing, so…” She shrugged, smiling. “Things will be rough, no doubt, but we’ll make it through this just fine.”

His brow rising, Shang quietly laughed. “It is far too early for you to be this chipper,” he teased.

She chuckled. “I guess Su’s been rubbing off on me, too, then.”

“It would certainly seem so.” With another sigh, he pulled the shovel from the ground only to shove it under the pile of dung. “I wish I could be as chipper as the two of you.”

“I cannot picture you as ‘chipper’,” she told him. “Happy, at ease, or laughing, yes. But ‘chipper’?” She shook her head. “That sounds like it would be a disturbing sight.”

He frowned, beginning to take the dung back to the fire. “Disturbing? Why would it be disturbing?”

“Because when I think of chipper people, I think of people who are kind of—kind of bouncy, I guess you can say,” she explained, her cheeks turning red. She hadn’t meant it as an insult. “You know, like Ling, Grandma, and Su who always seem like they’re bursting with energy and a positive mood?”

“Go on.” He laid the dung out.

“Well, you’re not a ‘bouncy’ person,” she continued. “You’re more of a calm and collected person—like Chien-Po and my parents. Even when you’re really, really happy, you still look calm.”

Shang’s brow rose as he chuckled. “Interesting, but it does sound correct. I can now see why me being ‘chipper’ would be more than a little startling.”

Mulan smiled innocently. “It’d be like seeing Yao squealing over a cute puppy.”

“Now that would be a disturbing sight.” He wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead before once more stabbing the shovel into the ground; there was enough dung drying for now. “Everyone knows the only thing he gets even the slightest bit excited over is Mei.”

“Can you blame him? She’s gorgeous and adorable.” Crouching down, she used a partially burnt stick to gather the coals together. She then reached into a bucket, pulling out an already-dried dung patty and adding it to the fire. “A potentially deadly combination, if you ask me.”

His brow rising, Shang quietly laughed. “Adorable, yes,” he agreed, “but since I’m all but her brother, I’m not the best one to judge her attractiveness. You, on the other hand…” His cheeks suddenly turned bright red as he realized what he just said.

Mulan also blushed, but she smiled, her brow rising. “I see your flirting skills have improved,” she gently teased, making his face turn even redder.

“I—I have decent flirting skills!” he argued, pouting. “Just—just not when I’m trying to flirt with you.”

Standing on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. “Then it’s a good thing you don’t need to flirt with me to win me over, now isn’t it?”

A defeated smile came to his lips. “It is,” he chuckled. His smile turned into a smirk and he suddenly grabbed Mulan by the waist, easily lifting her into the air and holding her above him. She yelped in surprise but started to giggle when he began covering her face in quick, light kisses. “So long as I can make you smile, that’s fine with me.”

 

~*~*~

 

Thirteen weeks into the journey

 

The western horizon was nothing more than a great expanse of water.

Standing on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, her feet just out of reach of the tide, she felt impossibly tiny. When she was younger, Mei had been told stories of how large the ocean was. How it went on for ever and ever; how no one knew what kind of land laid out there beyond the horizon.

Though she knew this was no ocean, she couldn’t help but wonder if, perhaps, it came even the slightest bit close to the size of the ocean.

“Mei?”

She blinked, forcing herself to look away from the rolling waves and the foamy spray against the nearby rocks. Turning around, she found Yao walking towards her. There was a look of concern on his face and he carried her cloak in the crook of his arm.

“Yes?” she answered, walking towards him. She met him a few yards from the water, leaning over to kiss his forehead.

“You’ve been standin’ there for nearly twenty minutes,” he told her, wrapping her cloak around her shoulders. Though it wasn’t terribly cold, night was fast approaching—then it would be cold. “Is somethin’ wrong?” He pinned the cloak into place and began to fuss with how it lay over her shoulders.

She shook her head, slipping her arms around him and hugging him. “Nothing’s wrong,” she promised as he returned the hug. She sighed, enjoying the warmth and safety of his embrace. “It’s just…it’s so beautiful. I’ve always been told stories of oceans and seas, but I could never really picture them clearly in my mind. I never thought they could have such movement to them.”

Chuckling, Yao kissed her cheek. “Ya thought they were still like ponds, huh?” he gently teased.

“Sort of,” she admitted. “I knew they had movement—just not this much.” She changed her position, now hugging him from the side so she could look out over the Caspian again. “I’ve seen lakes and they have small waves, so…I thought oceans and seas would be more or less the same.”

“That’s understandable.” Raising a hand, he rested it on her forearm. “But since it’s so much bigger than a lake or a pond, its waves are goin’ t’ be bigger an’ its tides are goin’ to be more severe. That’s why we made camp so far away from the water—we didn’t need it t’ come floodin’ over us in the middle of the night.”

She giggled. “If that happened, at least then we would finally get a proper bath.”

He shivered at the thought. “Love, I don’t know ‘bout ya, but I like my baths t’ be warm.”

“Anything’s warm if you’re around.” She quietly laughed and nuzzled his cheek.

His brow rising, Yao chuckled. “An’ here I thought I was the one who was supposed t’ be doin’ the flirtin’.” He closed his eye and sighed in content.

They stood, unspeaking, as they let the sound of the crashing waves fill their ears. Mei could have stood there forever with Yao at her side, but her back eventually began to protest being bent over for so long. She kissed his cheek before standing upright.

“How much longer do you think we have until we reach our destination?” she asked, taking his hand as he started to walk along the shore.

Yao rubbed the back of his neck. “At least another three months,” he admitted. “We’ve got t’ follow the sea all the way t’ the north an’ then t’ its western shore—that’ll take at least two weeks. Then we’ve got t’ cross an open stretch o’ land until we reach the Black Sea before followin’ its northern shore all the way t’ the west. That’ll be a good two months right there, since winter will be settin’ in.

“Once we reach the western edge o’ the Black Sea, we then go west until we reach the foothills o’ some mountains. Then we follow the mountains north for a week or two until we find the spot Zhu told us about.” He gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “If we’re lucky, it’ll be untouched by non-Huns like she remembers.”

She frowned. “And…if we’re not lucky?”

“Then we may have some unexpected neighbors.” He kicked a piece of driftwood out of their path, watching as it rolled away. “From what she said, though, the area’s pretty hidden. I think we’ll be fine.”

“I hope.” Sighing, she lifted her skirt a bit so it wouldn’t get caught on the pieces of driftwood they walked past. “…Yao?”

“Hmm?” He glanced up at her, finding her cheeks red; whether it was due to the chilly salt air or from shyness, he wasn’t sure. But he was sure that the blush looked quite pretty on her.

Mei lightly rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb—a nervous habit of hers, he had come to learn. “When we get settled and start building houses and the like…will you be living with Ling and Chien-Po? Or will you be living on your own…?”

Now Yao’s cheeks turned red. “Actually…” he murmured, voice betraying his bashfulness, “I was—I was hopin’ t’ build a nice, cozy house for two…maybe add onto it in a few years if a three an’ four come along…” He peeked up at her, finding her eyes wide. “O-only if ya wanted, I mean! I’d be perfectly fine livin’ with Ling an’ Chien-Po if that’s not somethin’ ya wanted!”

“Yao, I’d like nothing more than to share a cozy house with you,” she quietly giggled. “And a potential three or four in a few years. Maybe even a five.”

His eye widened, a grin slowly spreading across his face. “R-Really?”

“Yes, silly! Why wouldn’t I want that?”

“Well…” He shrugged, looking away as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, I’m—I’m not exactly a prince charmin’…”

Stopping him, she bent over and kissed him. “Yao, you are my prince charming,” she murmured against his lips. “I love you so much and spending the rest of my life with you is exactly what I want.”

 

~*~*~

 

Sixteen weeks into the journey

 

The days had grown short.

With autumn coming to an end, each day was shorter than the last. At first, it wasn’t too noticeable; a few minutes here, a few minutes there. But, eventually, the hours of lost daylight became more obvious when the caravan found themselves not making good time.

“At this rate, it will take us twice as long to reach our destination,” Ting-Ting sighed, tiredly rubbing her face. Beside her sat an untouched bowl of stew. “In the last week, we’ve traveled only about eighty miles. The week before that, we got nearly two hundred miles behind us.”

“We could start riding a few hours into the night,” Ling suggested. He plucked a bit of meat from his bowl and inspected it before popping it into his mouth.

Her brow rose. “Wouldn’t that be too dangerous? What if we got ambushed?”

“We’d get ambushed whether we were travelin’ or campin’ for the night,” Yao told her. “They’d just find us quicker.” He was busy finding all the vegetable bits in his stew and shoving them off to one side.

“An ambush is highly unlikely,” Fa Zhou informed. “The land is too flat and shapeless for an ambush to be of any success. There is nowhere for bandits or enemy tribes to hide.” His brow rose and he plucked up Little Brother, who was trying to steal some of Li’s hardtack when she wasn’t looking. He set the dog down on the other side of his lap, between him and Shang.

“But what about the animals? Wouldn’t that exhaust them?” Mei asked, not noticing when Yao started to shove some of his vegetables into her bowl. “We’re already kind of pushing them with thirty or forty miles a day…”

Seeing Ting-Ting’s untouched bowl, Ling frowned; this wasn’t the first time in recent days that she hadn’t touched a meal. “The animals are fine,” he assured Mei. “They’re called beasts of burden for a reason, after all.” He then gently nudged Ting-Ting. “Hey, you need to eat,” he told her, voice quiet so only she heard him. “You need to keep your strength up.”

“I am not very hungry right now,” she murmured, her eyes closed. “I agree with you, though: We should start traveling a few hours after the sun sets. The moon and stars will help keep us on track.”

“When we can see ‘em, at least,” Yao said before shoving a spoonful of stew into his mouth.

“The weather in this part of the world is fairly clear during late autumn,” Zhi spoke up. “The moon and stars will be easy enough to read. It’s when we get closer to the sea that things will change.” Little Brother came over and sat in front of her, reared back on his hindlegs as he tried begging for food. She smiled, unable to resist the cuteness and gave him a chunk of chicken.

Zhou nodded slowly in understanding. “By then, however, we will have a coastline to follow That will be direction enough for some time.” Watching as Little Brother went to work his charm on Mei and Su—who always caved in and gave him far more scraps than what was needed—he shook his head. “Little Brother, you will be bigger than all of us by the time we reach our destination.”

Su giggled, her cheeks turning red as she gave him a bit of carrot. “Aw, no he won’t—he spends his entire day running all over the place!”

Ting-Ting cleared her throat. “It sounds like it is decided, then,” she declared. “Starting tomorrow, we will start traveling a few hours into the night. We’ll start with three and, after a few days, see if we need to go four or five before making camp for the night.” Then, standing up, she straightened out her skirts. “I think I’ll head to bed early. I’m fairly tired.”

As everyone bid her goodnight, she started to walk away. She went to the wagon, intent on retrieving her bedroll, but she was stopped part way through her searching.

“Ting-Ting, is everything alright?” She jumped, not having heard Ling approach.

“I am fine,” she told him, a tired smile on her lips. It quickly faded when she saw that he held her bowl of stew. “Ling, I told you: I am not hungry.”

“You didn’t eat breakfast today,” he frowned. “And you’ve been either eating only a few bites of dinner or skipping it entirely the last few weeks. Something isn’t fine, Ting-Ting.” He placed the bowl on the floor of the wagon before setting his hands on her arms. “What is it?” he asked, voice gentle. “You know you can tell me.”

Closing her eyes, she sighed and stepped closer to him. She rested her head in the crook of his neck, feeling him wrap his arms around her. “Stress,” she finally answered. “I am just so stressed all of the time…and I know I shouldn’t be. But I am.”

“What are you stressed about?”

“Everything. Our food supply, our water supply, our health, the weather, whether we’re going in the right direction or not, how far we’re going in a day, whether or not Zhu’s doing alright wherever she is…” She swallowed hard, feeling a couple of tears beginning to trickle down her cheek.

He rubbed her back and turned his head slightly, kissing her temple. “That’s a lot of worrying you’re doing.”

She nodded against him. “All my life, I was raised to be a queen—or even the future Empress of China. I was taught how to act like a leader, how to look like a leader, how to be a leader. But now that I am actually in that position…?” Sighing, she wrapped her arms around Ling. “I feel so lost and confused. Everyone’s lives depend on whether or not I can make the right decision. But how can I make the right decision if I can’t anticipate the result of that decision?”

“If the future could be read so easily, then we’d all be astrologers,” he said with a small chuckle. “Listen: We’re all safe and healthy with plenty of food and water to last us, aren’t we?”

Ting-Ting glanced up at him, nodding only slightly.

“And we’re on the right path to this place, aren’t we?”

“As far as we know…”

“Looks like you’re doing a wonderful job to me, then.” He leaned back, giving her a reassuring smile. “It’s fine for you to be worried about us—in fact, the mark of a good leader is caring about the people they’re leading. But when they start feeling sick because of how much they care, that isn’t good.”

A sigh left her mouth. “I cannot help it, Ling. These people are my family and my friends—and my lover. If I make one mistake, we could end up dead in the middle of nowhere.”

He kissed her forehead. “Then maybe you should let someone else make the decisions for a while?” he suggested. “Your mother isn’t ill anymore—or, if not her, then how about Fa Zhou or Shang?”

“Zhu left the caravan under my watch when she had to head off on her own,” she protested. “I know it’s alright to seek help once in a while, but lately, I feel like I have sought it out too much.”

His brow rose. “It’s not like you’re ruling a country, Ting-Ting,” he reminded her. “We’re just thirteen people—it’s perfectly fine if you ask us for help. Anyway, isn’t that what friends are for?” He smiled again, rubbing the tops of her arms.

“Asking for help is fine, yes,” she grumbled, stepping away from him, “but even you have to admit I’ve been seeking it like a lost child. And I shouldn’t be!” She angrily stomped her foot and crossed her arms over her chest. “I was raised better than this. I should be able to make these decisions on my own, but—but for some reason, I just can’t!”

“You were raised to lead a prosperous, peaceful country,” he retorted, frowning, “not a small group of people running away to form a new country—or city or village or whatever. It’s alright for you to not know what to do.”

“But I should know what to do!” she snapped. “That’s how I was—”

“You’re not Zhu!” he interjected, his voice betraying his frustration. “She was raised to always expect the worst of the worst to happen. That’s why she always has a plan ready.” He shook his head, sighing as he used both hands to rub his face before looking at her.

“But you? You were raised to be hopeful about the future—that’s why you’re so scared now. Because this isn’t the future you had planned for. And it’s fine, Ting-Ting! It’s completely fine! None of us but your sister could have ever anticipated something like this happening. It’s alright that you feel lost and confused, because we all feel lost and confused!”

She stared at him in shock, tears still rolling down her cheeks. “I…”

You’re doing a wonderful job of leading us,” he continued, voice now taking on a scolding tone. “We’re all safe, we’re all relatively healthy, we’re going in the right direction—all because of you! You’re being the leader you were born to be, Ting-Ting.” He grabbed her shoulders, his grip gentle.

“But, Ting-Ting: You need to take care of yourself, too. Because while you’re here, worrying about all of us, we’re all worried about you.” Lifting one of his hands, he tenderly cupped her cheek, his thumb caressing her skin. “Please, Ting-Ting. Just half a bowl of stew. You don’t have to eat more than that. Just half a bowl and you can go to bed.”

She looked away from him, frowning; she hated how right he was. She was doing a good job of leading them and it was alright if she asked for help. But her stubbornness had teamed up with her worry the last few weeks, convincing her that she had been doing a horrible job. When she started to overcompensate by taking on more nightly watches and doing more of the navigating on her own, it meant forsaking her own wellbeing.

She wondered if this is how Zhu constantly felt.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I will try to eat some stew. I cannot promise half a bowl, though.”

“That’s all I ask.” He tried to kiss her forehead, but she pulled away from him and begrudgingly went to retrieve her bowl from the wagon. Frowning, he rubbed his arm and watched as she started to eat. “I’m sorry for upsetting you.”

“You didn’t upset me,” she sighed, stirring the stew around so that the cool bits could be warmed slightly by the still-hot bits in the middle. “I am upset with myself for how stupid I’ve been.”

“You haven’t—”

Don’t argue with me on this,” she told him, voice a bit harsh. “Please. I’m tired of arguing. I just—I just need some time to cool down. I will be better by morning.”

He was silent for a moment before nodding; for some reason, he doubted her words. “Alright,” he murmured. “…If you need a shoulder, though, you know where to find me.”

“I know, Ling. Thank you,” her voice was softer now. She watched as he turned to head back to the campfire. “I love you.” She wasn’t sure if it was her frustration or her exhaustion messing with her, but for some reason, she didn’t entirely believe herself as she spoke those words.

Glancing over his shoulder, he half-heartedly smiled. “I love you, too.” He would never admit it, but he was also beginning to doubt her words.

 

~*~*~

 

Twenty weeks into the journey

 

“S-So c-c-cold…” Su cupped her hands together and blew into them, but her breath did little to chase away the biting cold.

Chien-Po came over, holding a cup of steaming liquid. “Here, this should help,” he told her. He held onto the cup until he was sure Su had a firm grip around it. “Do you need another cloak? You can use mine if you do.”

She looked up at him, frowning. “You need your cloak,” she countered. “I’ll be fine once I get this tea in me.”

“Are you sure? I am running around enough that I am almost too warm with my cloak.” Adding another piece of driftwood to the fire, he glanced over at her. “You, on the other hand, cannot walk at all with that sprained ankle of yours.”

As she took a tiny sip of the tea, her brows furrowed; she knew he was lying. How could he be ‘almost too warm’ when there was half a foot of snow on the ground? “The tea is already helping,” she assured him. “Keep your cloak—please. I don’t want you to freeze to death just because you were fretting over me.”

He frowned but nodded in understanding. “If you insist,” he sighed. “But, like your concern for me, I do not want you to freeze because you cannot get up and walk around like us.” He headed off to go start preparing dinner.

Su glanced down at her ankle. Hidden by layers of clothing and her boots was her swollen and bruised ankle. She had sprained it a couple of days previous when searching along the beach for edible kelp, clams, and crabs. Luckily, Ting-Ting had been with her and was able to carry her back to camp after she slipped on a patch of black ice.

Taking another drink of tea, she sighed and pulled her cloak closer around her body. Looking around the camp, Su watched as everyone else busied themselves with their usual nightly chores. Mulan, Zhou, and Shang were tending to the animals, making sure they had enough food and fresh water. Ting-Ting, Zhi, Li, and Grandma were out foraging for any edible vegetation or shellfish. Ling and Yao were digging latrines for the night. Mei was in the wagon, searching for more of her sewing supplies to fix a tear in someone’s hat. Chien-Po was making dinner—a chore she usually helped with, but was unable to the last few days. As for Chi-Fu, she had no idea where he was.

‘He’s probably huddled up in the carriage,’ she thought, sipping more of the tea. She hadn’t lied when she said it was helping to warm her; her insides felt pleasantly defrosted the more she drank. Her gaze came to rest on the fire, eyes unblinking as she watched the flames. ‘He thinks it’s warmer in there than it is out here by the fire of all things. For being such a smart man, that uncle of mine sure can be dumb at times…’

Realizing she hadn’t blinked in some time, she closed her eyes. They stung for a few seconds, but the pain was mild and didn’t bother her much. When she opened her eyes again, she was surprised to see Mei coming towards her, a basket and the torn hat in hand.

“I thought you could use some company,” she smiled, sitting down on the blanket beside Su. “You must be bored out of your mind, being unable to run around and help with the cooking.”

She laughed. “It’s like you read my mind,” she joked. “But, your company is appreciated.”

“Good! I was hoping you weren’t sick of me by now.” Setting her basket between them, she lifted the lid and sorted through it. “To be honest, with all of us together like this, I am surprised there haven’t been any fights…”

“There’ve been a few arguments,” she reminded her. “Mostly between Ting-Ting and Ling or Uncle Chi-Fu and everyone else.”

Mei laughed. “Yes, but I mean actual fights—as in yelling and screaming. Those kind of fights.”

Su tilted her head, brow rising. “Why would there be that sort of fighting going on?”

Shrugging, she pulled out a needle and some thread. “Well…The three of us used to get into fights like that when we were younger. We drove each other mad because we always had to be around each other or with our attendants. We never had any time to ourselves. But when we started getting different interests, the fights happened less since we saw less of each other.”

“That is true.” She sighed and looked down into her teacup. “Even at the farm, there was enough distance between us that we didn’t drive each other totally bonkers.” A small chuckle left her mouth. “A bit bonkers, yes, but not enough to scream at each other.”

Mei nodded in agreement, threading the needle. “But now that we’re constantly within three yards of one another with no way to have any actual privacy…It’s surprising we haven’t ripped each other’s heads off.”

Taking a drink of tea, Su leaned over to watch Mei as she started to sew. “Well, we’re more mature now. Back then, we were just kids and we were pretty spoiled. Now, though? We’re adults and…still a bit spoiled, yes, but now we actually appreciate our sisterhood and our privileges.”

“That is true,” she agreed with a small smile. “Though, I will admit I do miss some of the luxuries we had back in China—namely, a roof over our heads and a constant supply of fresh food.”

“We’ll have those again soon enough.” She was always surprised by how fast Mei’s fingers moved when she was sewing. How she managed to not prick her fingers with each stitch, she would never know. “It’ll take some time to get a garden or field ready, but given that we’re only a hundred miles or so from our new home, we could get started on them fairly quickly.”

After we build proper homes.”

“Of course,” she chuckled. “We wouldn’t want our food to have a better home than us, now would we?”

Mei chuckled, glancing over at her. “Will you be living with Chien-Po?”

Su felt her cheeks grow warm. “I—I, ah…haven’t really thought about it,” she admitted. “In fact, it never even crossed my mind. I just assumed the three of us would be living with mother again.”

“I…I’m not,” Mei told her, her own cheeks turning pink. “I have already spoken with Yao about this and…I will be living with him.” A tender smile came to her lips as she looked back to her sewing. “And, maybe in a few years, we’ll have a child or two living with us as well.”

Su’s eyes widened and a broad grin spread across her face. “So, you’re going to marry him?” she chirped.

“In a way, yes,” she chuckled. “Though, I’m not sure if a proper marriage can be performed all the way out here. With no temples around…”

She blew a raspberry and dismissively waved her hand. “Who needs a ‘proper’ wedding, anyway? We’re going to be forming a new settlement. Make up your own wedding ceremony! Have it be fun and joyous instead of the boring, serious weddings that were held back home.”

“Says the one who doesn’t want to get married!” Mei laughed. “But…you do have a point. With this new home, we’ll be able to pick and choose which traditions to keep and which to do away with.”

“And we’ll be able to come up with new ones.” She giggled. “You could make a holiday where everyone has to treat seamstresses like goddesses because of all the hard work they do to keep us clothed.”

Tying a knot with the thread, Mei looked at her sister, a brow raised. “Now that I like the sound of,” she teased.

“Like the sound of what?” The two looked up, finding Ting-Ting coming towards them. She sat down in front of them, her back to the fire.

“A holiday where seamstresses are treated like goddesses,” Mei answered with a chuckle. “How was foraging?”

“It went well, actually. Chien-Po is going to be making some seafood soup for us tonight.” She shifted slightly, sitting cross-legged instead of on her knees. “Why would you need to make a holiday, by the way?”

Su grinned. “We’re essentially settling a new city, right? I told Mei we don’t have to keep all of our old traditions—we can keep the ones we like and then come up with new ones!”

A thoughtful look came to Ting-Ting’s face as she pondered over the idea. “You know…we could,” she murmured. “But we will have to pass them by Zhu, since she will be queen, after all.”

Mei dismissively waved her hand. “I am positive Zhu will let us come up with a few new holidays. I’m sure there are some Hunnic holidays she’d like to bring back. Don’t you think?”

“Possibly,” Ting-Ting smiled, “though, something tells me that holidays will not be very high on her priority list. Housing and feeding everyone is going to be the biggest challenge for her.”

Su nodded in agreement. “That’s true. Though, speaking of housing…Will you be living with Ling once we get all settled in?”

Ting-Ting glanced away, unconsciously raising her hand to nibble on her knuckle. “I…am not sure. I am sure you’ve noticed us butting heads every now and then.” She watched as frowns came to her sisters’ lips.

“We have,” Mei admitted. “I’m not sure about Su, but I do not even know what the two of you are getting into arguments about.”

“I don’t know either,” Su sighed. “You two seemed so happy together when we left Tianshui…”

Ting-Ting nibbled harder on her knuckle. “They’re mostly navigational things,” she sighed. “When we should stay close to the ocean, when we should head a bit inland, if we should linger a day or two in a certain area...how many miles we should travel in a day with the cold.

“But, sometimes we get into arguments over stupid things like him playing with my hair or me not paying attention when he’s talking because I am either zoning out or daydreaming.” She forced herself to stop gnawing on her finger, having to sit on her hand to do it. “I know it’s the stress that’s putting us on edge, but…”

Su frowned. “I thought you liked it when people played with your hair?”

She shook her head. “I absolutely hate it. But, when we were princesses, I had no choice but to let our attendants, well…attend to my hair.”

“I did not know that,” Mei gasped, eyes wide. “Does Ling know?”

“I have told him a few times, yes, but it’s one of those things a person does unconsciously. He could be doing it and not even realize it until I push his hand away.” As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on a spot on the ground between her sisters and her voice was a bit distant sounding. “Just like I can be zoning out and not realize it until he points it out after I’ve missed an entire conversation.”

Su waved her hand in front of Ting-Ting’s face. “Sort of like you’re doing now?”

She blinked, startled out of her staring. “Y-yes, though my mind is usually elsewhere when I do it.” Her cheeks darkening, she smiled apologetically at her sisters. “So, I guess my answer is no, I won’t be living with Ling—at least, not until all the stress is gone.”

“That makes sense,” Mei assured her. “It will give the two of you time to calm down and get your emotions back in order.” Setting her sewing things aside, she changed her sitting position. “Su doesn’t know if she’ll be living with mother or with Chien-Po yet, so there is a chance you and her will both be living with mother.”

“And you?”

Her cheeks turned a bit pink, but she smiled. “I will be living with Yao.”

“They’re basically going to be married,” Su giggled. “Which is actually how we got to talking about holidays and traditions. She said there wouldn’t be any temples around to get married at, so I told her she could come up with her own wedding ceremony.”

“That is true,” Ting-Ting chuckled, her brow rising. “If you do come up with your own ceremony, you will be the first of us to be married.”

At that, Mei let out a heavy sigh. “No, I won’t.” Ting-Ting and Su looked at her, confused. “Remember what Zhu told us…? She was going to marry the younger Mongol prince in order to get an army.”

Su slouched, pouting. “That’s right,” she mumbled. “I hate political marriages. Just the thought of them alone makes me want to angrily chop up some root vegetables.”

“We should be thankful that we no longer have to worry about it,” Ting-Ting sighed. “Father died because he wanted to keep us away from political marriages to the Mongolians and Zhu gave up her happiness to continue keeping us from such a fate…” She closed her eyes. “Everyone around us gave up so much in order to help keep us safe…”

Mei quietly sighed. “It isn’t fair, is it? We lost everything and now, our friends have lost everything as well because they decided to come with us. Mulan and her family could be in their nice, warm home eating a meal made with fresh vegetables and not having to worry about they’ll keep their fire fueled—and Shang could be with them. Uncle could have left us to return to civilian life and maybe finally get himself a wife. The lieutenants could have gone anywhere and lived their lives out as war heroes…They could have been so much happier.”

“But we wouldn’t have been happy.” The sisters jumped, having not heard or seen Chien-Po approach. “You three are our friends,” he continued, setting a pot over the fire, “and that is why we’re here with you. We love you and want to help keep you away from those princes.” He poured a bit of liquid into the pot, waiting a few seconds before dumping in a bowl of diced vegetables. “Yes, we had to give up some things, but they’re only material possessions. We can build new houses and plant new crops. We can’t, however, replace you three and your mother.”

A small smile came to Su’s lips as she watched him stir the vegetables. “You always know what to say, don’t you?” she quietly chuckled.

He glanced over his shoulder, returning the smile. “Not always,” he told her. “Just most of the time.” He looked back into the pot, moving it a little bit away from the flames to lower the temperature.

Su and Ting-Ting chuckled at his response.

Regardless,” Mei countered, “it seems like you’ve always got comforting words at the ready whenever one of us is feeling sad or upset. And you’re always so calm. It’s—It’s nice, having you around when we’re not feeling too good. The others are sweethearts, yes, but sometimes, they’re not the best with words.”

Chien-Po’s face turned a bit red, though it was hard to tell if it was from the compliments or from being beside the fire. “I am glad to hear I have a use other than cooking,” he chuckled.

“Of course you have uses other than cooking!” Su giggled. “You’re great at gardening, at cheering people up, at medicine, at reaching things on the top shelf…but you’re the best at giving hugs!”

He smiled as he stirred the pot once more. “Actually, I believe you are the best at giving hugs,” he told her. Reaching down, he grabbed a large bowl that was filled with fresh crabs. They had been cut in half down the middle so that, as he dumped them into the pot, they hissed and steamed.

Mei and Ting-Ting excused themselves. Mei had to return her sewing kit to the wagon and Ting-Ting wanted to wash up a bit before the meal—or that’s what they told Su. The two of them knew that, with Chien-Po and Su exchanging tender smiles, it would be best to leave them alone until dinner was finished.

Scooting herself over a bit so that she sat closer to both Chien-Po and the fire, Su leaned forward to watch him as he diced some herbs. “Seafood soup, huh?”

“Mhm. The others found a lot of crabs and clams this evening. Zhi even found a few fish in a tide pool.”

“Ooh. It’s been awhile since we’ve had actual fish. Are you going to use parsley or tarragon?”

“Tarragon,” he replied. “I think it’s flavor will go better with the clams and the crab.”

She nodded in understanding. “That makes sense. What’re you going to use for the broth?”

“Wine, fresh water, and a bit of seawater for the saltiness.”

“Sounds delicious already!”

He chuckled and leaned over, tossing a spoonful of peppercorns into the pot. “I hope it turns out as such and that there will be enough for everyone.”

“I’m sure there will be. How many crabs did you throw in there? Six? Seven?”

“Five,” he laughed. “Almost enough for all of us. But, there are a good number of clams—a surprising amount, actually. I won’t be using them all tonight; I have half of them in a bucket of saltwater to keep them alive.”

Su rested her head against his arm. “If they don’t freeze, that is.”

“Well, if they do, then they will last for a bit longer than expected.”

She let out a soft laugh, closing her eyes. “Frozen clams sound delicious,” she joked. “Have them along with a bowl of frozen congee…it’d be a meal fit for a king.”

Laughing, Chien-Po rolled his eyes. “Or a prisoner.”

Cracking open an eye when she heard violent hissing arise from the pot, she found herself looking at a cloud of wine-scented steam. She let her eye fall shut again as Chien-Po stirred the pot yet again. Waiting until the hissing died down, she remained silent.

When it finally ceased, she asked, “Have you heard about Mei and Yao?”

“It depends. What about them are you referring to?”

“How they’re going to live together.”

“Hm. Yes, Yao did mention that a while ago, but he didn’t go into detail about it. I assumed he was thinking about asking her to live with him.”

She chuckled. “From what Mei told me, they are going to live together…as husband and wife.”

He blinked, looking down at her in surprise. “Is that so? That’s…quite surprising.”

Opening her eyes again, she tilted her head back to look up at him. “Is it?” she asked, a small frown on her face.

“Not a ‘bad’ sort of surprising,” he assured her. “Rather—well, they’ve only known each other for less than a year.”

“That is true,” she agreed, letting her gaze fall to the fire. “To be fair, though, it’s all too obvious that they’ve fallen hard for one another.”

“And neither are willing to stand back up.” He poured half a bucket’s worth of water into the pot before adding in a small cupful of seawater. “But I am happy for them. Yao has…never really had much success with romance in the past. He fell for a few people, but when they found out, they rejected him rather harshly. What made it worse was that he was rejected primarily for his appearance.”

She sat upright again. “He won’t have to worry about that with Mei. She thinks he’s the most handsome man in the entire world.” Bringing her good leg up, she tucked her knee under her chin.

“And he finds her the most beautiful woman in the whole world,” he chuckled. “I guess that further proves they were made for one another.” He continued to stir the soup, waiting for it to come to a boil so he could add the clams. “Just like how you were made for cooking.”

A small smile came to her lips, but a feeling of guilt filled her insides. “Chien-Po?”

“Hm?” He glanced at her, brows lifted in curiosity.

“Do you ever…” She pulled her cloak around her a bit more, trying to partially hide herself within it. “Do you ever get upset that I don’t love you as anything more than a friend?”

He fell silent, worrying her somewhat. But then, as the pot finally began to boil, a smile came to his lips. “Admittedly, I did get upset at first. I thought it wasn’t entirely fair that Ling and Yao had found romantic partners while the woman I fell for didn’t feel the same. And it didn’t help that she was the perfect woman, in my mind.”

Dumping the clams into the soup, he gave it a last stir before covering the pot with a lid. “But I came to realize—rather quickly, I might add—that it didn’t really matter whether you loved me or not,” he continued. “I enjoy being around you, whether we’re cooking or gardening or just chatting. Yes, I love you as more than a friend, but our friendship is vastly more important to me than the idea of us being lovers. As such, no; I don’t get upset anymore because I know, in the end, I’ll still get to have your company as we do the things we enjoy.”

Su suddenly hugged him, taking him by surprise. Smiling, he wrapped his arm around her and gently brought her a bit closer to him.

 

~*~*~

 

Twenty-Five weeks into the journey

 

It was just as Zhu had described.

After crossing the world and enduring all sorts of horrible weather, the caravan had finally reached their destination. Nestled in the forested foothills of a vast mountain range and shielded from the bitter winter winds was the valley that they would call home. To the east, west, and south, the valley was encircled by the hills, but on its northern edge, it was guarded by a large lake and the two rivers feeding into it.

To make things even better, the houses Zhu had told them about were in decent shape. There were seven in total, each a single room and large enough to house three people comfortable. One of them, though, looked big enough to house a couple dozen people; a sort of meeting house, Mulan thought. Of course, after not having been used for nearly a decade, they needed some repairs. Thanks to the lieutenants, Ting-Ting, and Mulan, however, those repairs were being tended to rather quickly.

Mulan grunted, pulling a rope up to the roof of one of the houses. At the other end of the rope was a set of four wide boards. Normally, it was best to let the wood dry out before turning it into lumber, but that would take years and they needed it now. ‘Hopefully, with this stuff being mostly-frozen, it won’t mold over or start to rot,’ she thought. ‘It only needs to last until the snows are gone—then we can start looking for earthen building materials…’

Once she got the boards onto the roof with her, she let out a sigh of relief and looked out over the area. Ting-Ting was on the ground a few yards away, making quick work of chiseling away any and all unwanted bits of wood from a set of shutters. Yao and Chien-Po were constructing a makeshift canopy between two of the houses as a place to store firewood. Her mother, grandmother, and Zhi were bringing over buckets of fresh water from the nearest river. Shang was in the largest of the houses, making it suitable for the animals to shelter in. What Mei, Su, Chi-Fu, and her father were doing, she didn’t know.

“You alright over there, Mulan?”

She blinked, looking across the roof to find Ling wearing a concerned expression. “I’m fine,” she answered, beginning to until the boards. “It’s just still a bit hard to believe that we’re here, you know?”

He chuckled, his brow rising. “Even though we’ve been here for nearly a week?” Lurching forward, he caught one of the boards as it tried to slide free of the rope. “I know how you feel, actually. We traveled for—what, five? Six?—months and thought we’d never reach this place. At least, that’s what it was starting to feel like.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who was beginning to wonder,” she chuckled. Taking one end of the escape-artist board, she started to move it into place. Ling did the same with the opposite end. “I knew we would find it—I just started to doubt that it would be in the amount of time Zhu told us it would take.”

“To be fair,” he pulled a couple of nails out of a basket next to him, “we did have to linger in some areas when the weather was too bad or when we got too sick.” He held the basket out to Mulan, letting her take some nails from it. “But, if we hadn’t stopped, I don’t think all of us would have made it.”

She frowned and nodded. “Yeah…” Placing a nail, she held it in place as she gave it one, hard whack with her hammer. “But we all made it, safe and healthy.” A second whack hammered the nail as deep as it could go into the wood. “And that’s what matters the most.”

“Well, most of us made it safe and healthy. Zhu isn’t here yet,” he reminded her, also hammering a nail into the wood. “Hopefully she’ll be here soon, though. I’ve missed her.”

“Me, too.” She sighed and glanced over her shoulder at the others. “I miss talking with her. Yes, I’m good friends with Ting-Ting, Mei, and Su by now, but…There are things I can talk about with Zhu that I can’t talk about with them.”

Ling looked at her, a teasing grin on his lips. “Ooh, what kind of stuff?” he joked. “Oh, wait! I know: You talk about which one of us you find the most attractive!”

She laughed, rolling her eyes. “Nice guess, but no.” Shaking her head, she lined up a second nail and smacked it into place. “Just—just things, you know? Reminiscing about Moo-Shung, helping Zhu figure out what new emotion she felt that day, sometimes about romance…and, yes, we do sometimes talk about you goofballs, but not about which one of you is the most attractive.”

He feigned a pout. “Damn.” He then shrugged and used his hammer to wave dismissively. “And here I thought I’d be the winner of that conversation…oh well, a guy can dream.”

Mulan rolled her eyes, still laughing. “If it’s any consolation, out of the three of you, you’re definitely the most handsome.” She placed yet another nail and started to whack it, not having even realized what she said.

Ling blinked, his cheeks turning just a bit pink. He had only been joking, but judging by her tone of voice, Mulan hadn’t been. “Well, ah…th-that’s good to know,” he chuckled nervously, hoping she didn’t notice the sudden influx of nerves. With his set of nails done, he made to grab the second board. “So, uh…Zhu was still trying to learn what she was feeling when we had to leave, huh?”

“At times, yes.” Finishing her set of nails, she grabbed the second board and helped Ling put it in place. “She knew many of the negative emotions—anger, jealousy, guilt, sadness—but a lot of the good ones…” She sighed. “The way she put it, it was like trying to remember a deceased loved one’s face when they had been dead for decades: It was there in her mind, but it had been so long since she last felt the emotion, it was hard to recall just what it was like.”

“That…is a really interesting way of putting it,” he murmured. Grabbing more nails, he offered the basket to her. “But it does make what she went through more understandable.”

Mulan nodded, taking more of the nails. “I think she’s remembered them all by now; though, there had been a few times when she wasn’t sure.” Accidentally knocking her knee against the board, she readjusted her end. “I just hope she gets here soon. As nice as it is here, I—Never mind.”

Ling frowned. “What is it?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s just something silly is all.”

His brow rose and he tilted his head. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Sighing in defeat, Mulan lined up the nail. “I feel safer with Zhu around,” she admitted. “Not just here, either. Even before we found out about the Emperor, having her around just…” She bit her lower lip and looked away from him. “I don’t really know how to explain it other than I just felt safe.”

“That isn’t silly at all.”

“It isn’t?” She looked at him, a bit confused.

He shook his head and readied more nails. “No. Or, if it is, then I must be silly too, since I feel safer with her around.” Shrugging, he started to hammer the nails in. “I don’t really know why I feel safer with her around, but…I do.” He let out a quiet sigh.

“She’s a protector,” Mulan said. “She protects her loved ones…even if it means she has to make a sacrifice in order to do it.”

“Which is a load of crap.” He shook his head, swearing under his breath as he drove the nails home. “She’s gone through enough hell. Can’t the gods just grant her some peace and happiness for once?”

Grabbing the third board, Mulan also shook her head. “I don’t know if they even pay attention to her, to be honest. She’s not one of their worshippers. I…don’t even know if she has a religion.”

“She does. Her gods are the Earth Mother and the Sky Father,” he explained. “I don’t know much about it besides the Earth Mother being the protector of women, creator of medicine, and is also the goddess of death.” He leaned forward to place some nails.

There was a loud crack and Ling startled to topple inwards with a yelp. Cursing, Mulan lunged forward, just barely able to grab his coat. Though he was a bit heavier than she was expecting, she was able to keep him from falling any further.

“Are you alright?” she grunted.

“F-fine!” he assured her. “Just a bit startled is all.”

“I would be too if a roof collapsed under me!” A strained laugh left her mouth. “How far from the ground are you?”

“Not far. You can let go; I’m prepared for the drop this time.”

Taking his word for it, she let go of him. She watched as he fell a couple of feet before landing with an ‘oof!’. He nearly lost his balance, having partially landed on one of the pieces of broken beam.

“How does the damage look from down there?” Mulan asked.

Ling looked up at her, shading his eyes from the light. “It’s extremely hard to tell,” he said, voice betraying that he was about to tease her. “There seems to be a pretty woman in the way.”

Rolling her eyes, Mulan threw a nail down at him and leaned away from the hole, her cheeks burning. She heard Ling say ‘Ow!’ before cracking up into a fit of laughter. He had made such jokes with her and the former princesses before, but for some reason, felt different to her this time. Almost like it was meant to be more of a flirtation than a joke…

She shook her head. ‘It was just Ling goofing around,’ she told herself. ‘Anyway, why would he flirt with me when he knows I’m with Shang?’

“Mulan?”

Blinking, she leaned over again only to find Ling wearing a concerned expression. “Hm?”

“I didn’t upset you, did I?” he asked.

“No,” she chuckled, brow rising. “Why would you have upset me?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know…it’s just you normally laugh or giggle when I make one of my dumb jokes. You seemed kind of miffed this time.”

“I’m fine, I promise,” she assured him. “Just…after catching you like that, I realized how sore I am from all this roof work we’ve been doing.” It was only a partial lie; she had been feeling quite sore from all the hard work.

“Then get your butt down here and relax a little bit. We’ll need to make a new beam before we can finish hammering the boards down and that’ll take a day or two, since we’ll need to cut down a tree.”

Her brow rose and she smiled teasingly. “Alright. Unlike a certain jokester, however, I think I’ll use the ladder.

“Says the woman who once broke a ladder when descending it.”

“Would you rather catch me because I took the quick way down?”

He glibly waved at her. “You’re a big girl; you can make your own decisions,” he joked.

“Alright, then get ready to catch me!”

Ling’s eyes widened. “What!?” he gulped. He then cursed and flung his arms out, catching Mulan as she hopped down. As she burst into giggles, he pouted. “I didn’t think you were being serious!”

“You caught me, didn’t you?” she teased back. Her cheeks, he saw, were a bit pink. “And this time, you didn’t end up as a cushion.”

“Which is a good thing, considering the floor is littered with broken wood now. I probably would have broken my back or something.”

She looked down at the floor around them, seeing broken bits of rotted timber laying around them. “True…and if it hadn’t broken your back, it would have been incredibly uncomfortable at the very least.”

“Yeah…and neither of those sound very appealing to me right now,” he chuckled.

“Ling?” she asked, brow rising slightly.

“Yeah?”

“You can put me down now.”

His cheeks darkened. “Oh. Right.” When he set her down, he was careful to place her away from the debris so she wouldn’t nearly fall like he had. “So, ah…I guess I’ll go let Ting-Ting know we’re going to need another beam and then head out to find a suitable tree.”

She nodded in understanding. “Sounds good. Just be careful, alright? Don’t need you trying to chop off your leg like Yao.”

Laughing, he waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry. I’m actually a pretty good aim when it comes to handling axes.”

“If you say so,” she chuckled, her brow rising. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you use one, to be honest.”

“That’s because Yao and Chien-Po don’t like letting me chop wood. They think I’ll end up hurting myself somehow.” He then shook his head and started to walk off. “An ax head flies off one time and people will never let you live it down…Sheesh.”

Chapter Text

Three weeks into the journey

 

She had forgotten how lonely it could be, riding through the Sea of Grass alone.

Without a caravan to hold them back, however, she and Umut made good time crossing the vast expanse of grasslands. But being without the caravan meant that Zhu had no one to talk to and Umut had no other horses to socialize with. Though they could talk with one another, topics of conversation quickly became scarce. Except one—one that neither wanted to discuss, despite knowing they needed to.

When they were only a few hours from the place where the Huns would summer, Zhu decided to stop for the night. It was nearly midnight; both were tired and hungry. As Zhu gnawed on a piece of hardtack and some dried meat, Umut knew it was time to talk.

Laying down beside Zhu, she started to eat some grass. ‘Zhu, we must talk.’

Closing her eyes, Zhu sighed. “We’ve been silent on the topic thus far. We can let it remain such.”

‘No, we can’t. Child, are you really going allow yourself be married off to that foul man?’

“It’s the only way to protect my loved ones.”

‘There has to be another way—a way that doesn’t involve letting Mundzuc claim yet another victory at your expense.’

“Unless you know of a way I can somehow get an army without anything in return, there is no other way.” She broke the piece of hardtack in half before pouring a bit of water from her flask over it. “I have already come to terms with my decision. Why can’t anyone else?”

‘Because you do not love him, child! You deserve to be happy and to marry someone you love—’

“Yes, well, the people I am in love with are happily in love with other people,” she grumbled. “Even if they weren’t, they would never fall for me…” She took a bite of the soggy hardtack, chewing it slowly and refusing to look at Umut.

‘And who is to say you won’t fall for someone else? Who is to say someone among your people wouldn’t fall for you?’

She sighed. “If that happens, then I will take them on as a lover.”

Umut snorted. ‘And what if Mundzuc were to find out?’

“He can do nothing about it. As queen, I outrank him; he will only be King Consort.”

‘But still a king. He will still have power.’

“Not as much as you would think. I am Shan Yu’s kin; therefore, I hold more power over the Huns. Mundzuc, however, has no ties to the Huns aside from our soon-to-be marriage.”

‘I see…but, regardless, he will know and he will try to do something about it.’

“I will not let him.”

Umut let out a sound that resembled a sigh, flicking her head back to get her mane out of her eyes. ‘Child, you are as difficult as ever. Maybe even more so right now.’

Zhu nodded, tossing the last of her hardtack over her shoulder and shoving the jerky back into her saddlebag; they were making her jaw ache. “You know how I am when I am about to do something I don’t want to do.” She scooted down, pulling the hood over her cloak over her head and eyes.

‘Child…when I gave you this second chance at life, you promised me you would try to live out the rest of your days in happiness.’ She watched Zhu roll over, her back now facing the mare.

“I will be happy so long as my sisters are safe.” Bringing the saddlebag over, she tucked it under her head like a pillow. “Goodnight, Umut.”

‘Child…’ Defeated, Umut leaned her head down, resting it on Zhu’s hip.

 

~*~

 

The camp looked even smaller than she had imagined. Zhu was used to seeing yurts dotting the landscape for as far as the eye could see; finding such a small cluster of them huddled together was almost unnatural.

“There really are very few of them left,” she murmured, eyes narrowed as she counted the yurts. In total, there were only seventy-five, though it seemed like there was at least twice that many people. As for the animals, there was nearly quadruple that number. “They are not doing too bad, judging by all the animals…”

Umut started to trot down the hill. ‘But we do not know how many of them are sick or dying. The ill would be kept inside the yurts, would they not? To keep the rest of the camp from becoming infected?’

“It depends,” she murmured. “Sometimes, it is better to let the sick breathe fresh air than to keep them inside for the duration of their illness. Also, the sun has only just risen. Not everyone is awake just yet.”

‘That is true.’

Approaching the camp, Zhu kept her eyes fixed on the center-most and largest of the yurts. It had to be larger than the rest thanks to it having belonged to Shan Yu. Thanks to her dreams, Zhu knew that Mundzuc had taken up residence with its walls.

She brought Umut to a halt just outside the camp. The mare gave her a puzzled expression, but it was ignored as Zhu took her lead. Then, taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling it through her nose, Zhu started to walk towards the center of the camp.

As they passed through, they could feel the stares of awe and disbelief of the Huns around them. Some even began to follow them out of sheer curiosity. From the corner of her eye, Zhu could see a young boy—no more than fifteen—darting away. She wondered if it was out of fright.

The two came to a halt outside of the center yurt. Seconds later, the door was shoved open and Mundzuc stepped out. Seeing Zhu, though, he took a step back, his eyes widening in shock.

“Shan Zhu?” he gaped, blinking in disbelief.

Her brow rose. “Do not act surprised,” she replied, voice dry. “You knew I was coming, old man.”

He narrowed his eyes at her, a frown coming to his face. “Yes, but I wasn’t expecting you for another week.”

“I could leave and return in a week if you would like.” Before Mundzuc could scold her for her sarcasm, something large moved into her peripheral vision.

“…Shan Zhu…?” Turning her head, Zhu’s eyes widened and she gasped.

Roua was standing just feet away. His eyes were wide and his skin pale as he stared at her, his jaw hanging partially open. To her surprise, he was wearing a shirt—a garment she hadn’t seen him wear often outside of winter. But along the shirt’s neckline, she could see the ends of various scars just barely peeking out.

Why he wasn’t trying to kill her, she didn’t know. After what she had done to him and the other Elite, she wouldn’t have blamed him for trying; it’s what she would have done.

Maybe.

“Is it really you?” Roua gawked.

She slowly nodded. “It is.”

As Roua stepped towards her, she started to grow tense. Now he was going to try to kill her, she thought. He reached over and she expected him to grab her by the throat; she expected him to throttle her in front of everyone.

But he did no such thing.

Instead, Roua hesitantly set his hands on her shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze, checking to see if she was real. Finding that she was, he moved his hands up to feel her face. He felt her cheeks, her hair—even her ears—and found all to be very much real and very much alive.

“I didn’t believe Mundzuc when he told me you were alive,” he admitted.

A melancholic smile came to her lips. “I wouldn’t have, either.”

He grew quiet again, carefully scrutinizing her face for any changes. “Your eyes are black,” he stated after some minutes, his voice quiet. “You’ve made a pact.” By now, tears were beginning to pour down his face.

She had never seen him cry.

“Not with a demon,” she quietly assured him. “With a djinn. She returned me to life.”

He slowly nodded, though she could tell he was having a hard time processing her words. “So…you did die?”

“Yes.”

“Is Shan Yu—?”

She shook her head. “No. He—” She sighed. “It is a long story.” A small curse left her mouth as Roua suddenly lifted her up, hugging her tightly. Wriggling her arms free, she clung onto him; at this point, she was crying just as hard as him. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“Don’t be. You were right. Shan Yu had told us so many lies…” Shaking his head, he set her back on the ground. “We should have known. What else could make you of all people betray him? We should have listened to you.”

“I still hurt you,” she told him, voice quiet. “I hurt you and Ruga both. After all you two did for me…” Her whole body shook with the force of her sobs.

Cupping her face, Roua kissed the top of her head. “We hurt you just as much,” he told her, hugging her once again. “But…you’re back. That’s what matters now. You’re back and you’re safe and you’re alive.”

And she’s a queen now.”

Both looked over at Mundzuc, who stood some feet away. His arms were crossed over his chest as he waited for their reunion to end.

“I have been a queen,” Zhu retorted. “Just one who was also held as a political prisoner.”

He nodded. “Which is why we need to tell you about all that has happened over the last five years.” He then smirked and, reaching over, wrapped his arm around Zhu’s waist and pulled her against his side. “Afterwards, you can tell Roua of your plans to marrying me and permanently settling the tribe.” He kissed her temple, ignoring the disgusted look that came to her face.

Roua’s eyes widened and he stared at Zhu in shock. “You—you’re going to marry Mundzuc?”

She looked away from him, face filled with shame. “Yes.”

“But…you—”

“She claims it will only be a political marriage,” Mundzuc interjected. With his free hand, he reached over and gently forced Zhu to look at him. “But I know otherwise.” He quickly moved his hand away as she tried to bite him.

“You read too much into nonexistent details,” she growled, shoving him away. “No matter how hard you will wish otherwise, this is going to be a purely political marriage.”

He reached over and lightly ran his fingers between her shoulder blades. A shiver shot down her spine and he chuckled, his brow rising. “Keep telling yourself that, my beloved.”

 

~*~*~

 

Fourteen weeks into the journey

 

“Only two more days until we reach Baibalik.”

Zhu lifted her head, turning it in the direction of the voice. “And you are positive your father will give you part of his army?” She hated how she couldn’t see where Mundzuc was or what he was doing—it left her constantly on edge.

Mundzuc knelt down beside her, startling her when he spoke. “Yes. He explicitly told my brothers and me that whoever of us marries first gets a third of his army.” Taking one of her hands, he set it against the cup of tea he had brought her.

“A third of an army is better than none,” Zhu sighed, lifting her other hand to help hold the cup. As she sniffed its contents, she found it to be mint tea. She took a sip of the hot liquid, her tongue and throat now burning thanks to her impatience. Her stomach, however, began to settle a bit. “I hope this nausea stops soon…I do not know how much more of this I can take.” She scrunched her nose up slightly when she felt Mundzuc kiss the top of her head.

“I’m sure it will be,” he told her, his voice moving away. “Bolormaa said this tea should help. I’m not sure what’s in it, but she has never done us wrong.”

“It could be made of horse shit for all I care,” she groaned. “So long as it gets rid of this nausea.”

There was a contemplative sound to her left—Roua. “It’s odd that your stomach only acts up at night.”

“When has my body ever done anything in the normal fashion?” she groaned. She grew tense when she felt Mundzuc carefully set his hand over her stomach.

“Our child is growing inside you,” he reminded her, voice surprisingly gentle. “Nothing is going to be normal for you for some months.”

She frowned. “Do not remind me,” she mumbled. Despite knowing that her pregnancy meant getting an even larger army to protect her sisters, she wasn’t thrilled about growing another human inside of her. ‘Maybe if the child had been made with someone I actually loved, things would be different…’ she thought, taking another sip of her tea.

Her eyes suddenly shot open and she clamped a hand over her mouth, her face growing pale. Cursing, Mundzuc grabbed a nearby bucket and pushed it into her lap. His timing was perfect—Zhu lurched forward and started to vomit into the bucket. Roua leaned over and started to rub her back in small circles.

“I remember your mother going through this same thing when she was pregnant with you,” he told her, “though, her vomiting was in the morning. But it didn’t last through the entirety of the pregnancy.”

“When did it stop for her?” she groaned, her voice sounding oddly echoey inside the bucket.

He watched as Mundzuc darted across the tent, pouring some water into a wooden cup. “It stopped when her pregnancy started showing.”

She groaned. “Spirits kill me now…”

No one is going to kill you,” Mundzuc scolded, grabbing a rag. “I’ll make sure of that.” He sat down beside Zhu once more, waiting until she finished throwing up before helping her sit up. Her face was no longer pale, but red and blotchy. Cupping a hand under her chin, he held the cup to her lips so she could drink.

Roua narrowed his eyes as he stared at Mundzuc. “Odd words coming from the man who’s wanted her dead for half her life.”

“I never wanted her dead. Near death, maybe; but never dead.” He took the bucket from her, setting it aside. Then, using the rag, he carefully wiped off Zhu’s mouth and chin.

“Could have fooled me.”

“Well, that isn’t—”

Stop,” Zhu suddenly ordered, her voice firm. “I cannot handle another argument between the two of you today.” She leaned over, hoping Roua’s arm was close enough to lean against. Thankfully, it was and she let out a quiet sigh as she closed her eyes. “How the two of you did not kill one another in the last five years, I will never know…”

“Sorry,” the two men murmured. Only Roua’s voice bore actual shame.

Bringing her knees to her chest, she curled up beside Roua. “How long must we stay in Baibalik before heading to the summering grounds?”

“A few weeks at the minimum,” Mundzuc replied.

“Why so long?” she asked, frowning.

“My father will want to make sure that we’re properly married and that you’re actually with child,” he explained. “Then, he will need to shuffle his forces around. From there, we’ll need to gather more supplies and food for the additional warriors.”

Roua cocked a brow. “Properly married?” he repeated, voice dry. “What’s that supposed to mean? You’re already married to her.”

Mundzuc sighed. “It means we’re going to have a second marriage—a Mongolian marriage.”

Zhu scrunched her nose up. “I don’t want to marry you again.” She took a sip of her now-cooled tea. “Marrying you once was bad enough—and not because of the reason you are thinking of, Roua. I did not like all of the attention on me and having to wear so much jewelry…”

“Then you’re going to hate our second wedding,” Mundzuc chuckled. “There’ll be even more attention on you and far more jewelry. Some of it will be a permanent addition to your wardrobe.”

She frowned. “…I am afraid to ask.”

“Married women in my culture wear special headdresses,” he explained. “They are elaborate in and of themselves, but as you are a queen, yours will be even more so.”

Groaning, she buried her face in her hands. “Spirits help me…”

 

~*~

 

Mundzuc was nothing like his father.

Zhu had expected Hadan to be lean and wiry with sharp face like Mundzuc, but she found that her mental image couldn’t have been farther from the truth. He was similar in size to Shan Yu, being tall, broad, and muscular. Unlike Shan Yu, however, his hair was long and silvery-grey and he had a short, pointed beard to match. His face was covered in scars and wrinkles, making him look every bit the fearsome warrior Zhu had heard about. He walked with an air of pride, but not of arrogance.

She had also expected him to be just as cold and calculating as Mundzuc, but he once again proved her wrong. When she first met him, she was more than a little surprised when he scooped her up and hugged her tightly. He let out a loud, booming laugh and enthusiastically proclaiming that it was about time she and Mundzuc were ready to wed. Then, upon finding out that she was already with child, he ordered a great feast to be made ready so that the good news could be suitably celebrated.

For now, however, they were having their morning meal together. “Now, if only your brothers could be here!” Hadan laughed. He clapped Mundzuc on the back, making his son lurch forward somewhat. “Imagine how jealous they’ll be once they hear that you’ve married a queen while they’re pining after some mere princesses!”

Mundzuc straightened up, a displeased look on his face as he used a cloth to sop up some of the wine he had spilled on himself. “Yes…so jealous…” he murmured. “Are you aware of what they’ve done, by the way?”

Hadan cocked a brow, his smile beginning to fade. “Hmm? What’d they do this time?”

“They killed the Emperor of China,” Mundzuc answered.

Because they discovered he had sent the princesses into hiding,” Zhu added. She hesitantly ate a piece of mutton; though it was midday, she was afraid that her stomach may begin to act up if she ate too much.

A dangerous look passed over his face. “Those idiots did what?!”

Mundzuc nodded. “You heard correctly.”

He rubbed his forehead, growling under his breath. “Those numbskulls, always thinking with their damned cocks and not their brains—do they have any idea what sort of repercussions are going to happen now?!” He slammed his cup down, making the table shake. “I knew should have castrated them the last time they visited! I had been wanting to avoid a war with Taizong!”

“Well, Taizong is dead now,” Mundzuc pointed out, “and, save for all the bastards he sired with his whores, he has no family left. China’s noble families are now left to feud among themselves over who gets to rule now.”

“What of the princesses? Did your brothers find them?”

Zhu shook her head. “I made sure that your sons will never find them,” she replied, her voice taking on a dark tone.

“The princesses are Zhu’s half-sisters,” Roua quickly elaborated. “They share a mother—the former Empress of China. As her only remaining family, Zhu is fiercely protective of them.”

Hadan nodded slowly, stroking his beard in thought. “Good,” he finally said. “Those idiots don’t deserve whores, let alone princesses, for wives.” He then patted Mundzuc on the shoulder. “You always were the good son, Mundzuc. Thank the gods you didn’t turn out like those idiots.” His voice had a hint of laughter to it.

Zhu’s brow rose somewhat. ‘Mundzuc? The good son?’ she thought, sipping a bit of her drink. It was an odd, orange tea made with juice from a berry called a sea-buckthorn. Though it was tart, she enjoyed the flavor. ‘If only Hadan knew what his son has been doing these last ten years, he wouldn’t think of him as the good son anymore…’

“So, Shan Zhu,” Hadan said, drawing her from her thoughts, “answer me this: I had been told you and your uncle suffered a fiery death—in fact, it was Mundzuc and Roua here who first told me the news. And yet, here you sit: Alive and with child no less.”

“I had died,” she answered, setting the tea down, “but thanks to an…otherworldly being, I was given a second chance. I am still not entirely sure how or why, though.” The last bit was a lie; she didn’t feel like explaining the true circumstances.

He stroked his beard again; his amazement was all too evident on his face. “Interesting,” he murmured, eyes wide. “Very interesting…and yet, you came back unscathed?”

Mundzuc shook his head. “She has an enormous scar as a reminder,” he answered before Zhu could speak. He smirked, seeing her cheeks grow dark—he knew how much she hated the scar. “It covers her entire back. How she had any skin left afterwards, I’ll never know.”

“Because magic,” she blandly retorted, her eyes narrowing as she glared at him. She took another drink of the sea-buckthorn tea, having to use a great deal of willpower to not hold the cup too hard for fear of shattering it; Mundzuc had no right to tell anyone about the scar. Sighing, she set the cup down and tried to eat another piece of mutton.

So far, it seemed to be settling alright.

“Is that the reason why your eyes are black, then?” Hadan questioned. “Or rather, black and silver?”

“Yes. Though, with the new moon, my eyes return to normal and I am rendered blind for up to a week. The blindness, I know, was caused because I opened my eyes as the explosion happened.” A shudder ran down her spine as she remembered the blinding light of the hundreds of fireworks going off all at once.

Reaching over, Mundzuc tenderly ran his knuckle against her cheek, an almost pitying look on his face. “Let’s talk of something else,” he suggested, voice soft. He tucked some hair behind her ear. “She doesn’t need to relive that moment.”

‘Even though you partially instigated it,’ Zhu thought, tearing off another piece of meat.

“How long do you think it will take for the wedding preparations to be completed?” Mundzuc asked his father. “With Zhu having no family present, I assume we can just skip to the ceremony part instead of the whole proposal bartering and other such nonsense.”

Hadan’s brow rose. “Nonsense?” he repeated, a bit offended. “You know better than to call our traditions ‘nonsense’, Mundzuc,” he scolded. “But, yes, I suppose many of the traditions can be set aside, as you’re already married—by Hun standards.” He took a long drink of his milk liquor before setting his cup down and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Zhu will need to be fitted for the proper attire, of course, and a headdress made for her—”

“A simple outfit and a beaded headdress will suffice,” Mundzuc told him. He glanced at Zhu, surprised to see a thankful expression on her face. “She isn’t a fan of wearing too extravagant of clothing or accessories. That, and we cannot stay here for more than a month.”

“And why not?” he asked, almost pouting.

Zhu gave him an apologetic smile. “My family is not aware that I am with child,” she explained, “and when the time comes to give birth, I would like to have my mother and sisters with me.”

He nodded in understanding. “That makes sense,” he conceded. “Having some women you trust around when such a time comes will surely be better than being surrounded by a bunch of clueless men.”

At that, Roua pouted. “Mundzuc may be clueless, but I’m not,” he argued. “I helped deliver Zhu.”

Mundzuc’s cheeks pinkened. “I am not clueless,” he growled. “I know how pregnancy works.”

Hadan let out a loud, amused laugh. “Seeing a pregnant woman from afar and actually being married to one are two completely different things, my boy. In the coming months, you are going to learn just how much hardier women are than us men. And you’ll find yourself grateful that you have only one pregnant wife.”

“…You had more than one wife pregnant at the same time?” Zhu asked, her brow rising.

“Yes,” he chuckled, “three, in fact—and I made sure it never happened again.” He shook his head, still laughing. “I can look back and find it humorous now, but back then, I had been praying to the gods for even five minutes of sleep because, of course, the children refused to have the same schedule.”

Her brow still raised, she looked at Mundzuc. “You never told me you had more siblings.”

“I don’t,” he told her, voice dry. “Those three children are my elder brothers. All born on the same day, within the same hour.” She drank the last of her tea and, not wanting to risk making herself sick, she pushed her mostly-full plate of food away from her a few inches.

“So they’re not actual triplets?” Roua questioned, frowning in confusion. “But they look so alike!”

Hadan laughed again. “That’s because their mothers were ‘actual’ triplets!” he explained. “Mundzuc’s mother, though—she came from a tribe near the eastern coasts. She didn’t speak much, but she was fiercely intelligent—twice as smart as any man, that’s for sure.” He nodded at his son. “He inherited her smarts and a good thing, too, because apparently, his brothers were born without brains.”

Zhu slowly nodded, rubbing her stomach. “Well, someone had to inherit them, I guess.” Though she didn’t feel sick, she didn’t feel quite right, either.

“Are you alright?” Mundzuc asked, his brows furrowing.

“I…am not sure,” she admitted. “I cannot tell if my stomach is wanting to get sick or if it is just gas building up…”

He frowned and started to get up. “Time for you to go lay down, then,” he said. Once on his feet, he helped her stand.

As soon as she stood upright, Zhu covered her mouth. Instead of vomiting, however, she let out a massive belch that took the three men by surprise. Seconds after the first belch, a second, smaller one followed. Her cheeks bright red, Zhu let out a nervous chuckle.

“…Well, I feel much better now.”

 

~*~*~

 

Twenty-eight weeks into the journey

 

“Ow, ow, ow!”

“Shh, shh—just try to relax. Tensing up like this isn’t going to help.”

“I would like to see you try to relax when it feels as if your bones have turned into red-hot iron!” Zhu hissed through clenched teeth.

Roua sighed, doing his best to help her by massaging her calves. “Have you done much walking today?” he asked, kneading a bit harder.

She quietly swore under her breath. “No. Less than usual, actually,” she answered, her eyes clenched shut. “Mundzuc is refusing to let me do any walking he deems unnecessary.”

“That could be why your legs are cramping up—because you’re not stretching them as much as usual.” He switched to her other leg, trying to rub them as evenly as possible. “It is good to stay active for as long as possible; at least, that’s what your mother lived by. Something about it keeping the body in shape for when it comes time to push the baby out…”

Sticking her tongue out, she shuddered. “Please do not remind about that…” she murmured.

Roua raised his brow, glancing up at her. “About what? Giving birth?”

She nodded.

“…Zhu, I’m not sure if you know this, but giving birth is a part of pregnancy,” he told her, voice heavy with sarcasm. When she tried to lightly kick him, he caught her leg. “You know it’s the truth.”

“Yes, I am well aware of the stages of pregnancy,” she grumbled, “but that does not mean I cannot be—be disgusted by the thought of them.”

He frowned. “You’re disgusted by your own pregnancy?” he asked, concern filling his voice. “But…Zhu, you’re growing another life inside you! How can you not think that a beautiful miracle?”

She gave him an unamused expression. “Roua, there is something growing inside me,” she stated. “A thing. Growing. Inside me. And, as a result, it is putting me through hell. I am always tired; I can no longer fit into my clothes; I cannot get a decent night’s sleep—I cannot even eat a meal without some part of it nauseating me!” Tears started to flow from her eyes as she listed off the reasons. “And the worst part is everyone touching my stomach and telling me that I should feel so blessed and so lucky to be bearing this child!”

His frown grew in size and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Zhu…I…I didn’t know that’s how you felt…”

“It is,” she sniffled, trying to wipe her face off with her sleeve. “And it is only going to get worse.” Closing her eyes, she ran a hand over her hair only to end up skewing the beaded headdress she wore. She quietly growled and yanked it off her head, tossing it to the ground beside her.

“I am sure things would be different if this child was a product of love. But they are not,” she continued. “And I know I can’t be upset at them—and I am not, honestly—because this isn’t their fault. But—but this whole thing just feels so completely gross, Roua!”

Sighing, Roua pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, not really sure what to say. Zhi hadn’t been like this when she had been pregnant—quite the opposite, really. She had been excited to be with child and didn’t mind it when people touched her stomach.

‘Then again,’ Roua thought, ‘Zhi had a normal life until we kidnapped her. She was raised around women and knew what to expect from pregnancy. But Zhu? She was raised among men and women who weren’t likely to get pregnant. Of course she wouldn’t see this as a miracle…’

“What happened?” He looked up, startled. Mundzuc was hurrying towards them, his brows furrowed with worry. “Why is she crying? Are you alright, Zhu?” He knelt down beside them, carefully pushing some hair from Zhu’s face.

“She was having leg cramps,” Roua explained. “And…she had a bit of an emotional moment.” He frowned slightly when Mundzuc carefully pried Zhu away from him only to cradle her against his own chest.

“Is that all?” he asked, not entirely convinced. “Or is there more to it than that?” He started to gently rock her as she cried.

“I broke down,” Zhu choked out. “I broke down and ranted about how much I hate being pregnant and about how much I hate it when people touch my stomach just because there’s a thing growing in me. Nothing of importance.”

He leaned back slightly, frowning as he looked down at her face. “I didn’t know you didn’t like having your stomach touched.”

She used her sleeve to wipe her face. “I hate it! I hate it so much! Just because there’s a baby in there does not mean everyone is free to come up to me and feel it. It is still my stomach and they have no right to touch me without my permission.”

Mundzuc was silent for a moment; he pulled her close again, stroking the middle of her back. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” he murmured.

Roua sighed as Mundzuc glanced at him. Needing no words to be spoken, Roua nodded and stood up, leaving the tent. Not that he wanted to—he didn’t trust Mundzuc whatsoever. But he knew that he wasn’t dumb enough to hurt Zhu while she was pregnant.

Argue with her? Yes.

Try to physically hurt her? No.

“Do you really hate being pregnant?” Mundzuc asked after some minutes.

“Yes,” she mumbled, feeling weak and tired. Her crying had ceased, but her voice was still quaking. “It is disgusting.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Of course it is. Whoever claims otherwise is a fool.”

She tried to look up at him, but couldn’t see much past his chin. “You have no idea how gross it is. You only get to see what happens on the outside. But on the inside? I can feel the child move. I can feel as they turn themselves around and as they start kicking and stretching.” She shuddered; almost as if on cue, the child within her kicked. “It is vile and disturbing and so fucking gross!”

Mundzuc pitied her; on more than one occasion, he had seen her near-death and she hadn’t complained once. Whatever it was she felt had to have been bad to make her break down like this. Sighing, he knew nothing he said would do anything to help and, so, he remained silent. He continued to rock her and stroke her back, hoping that it was bringing her some form of comfort.

Despite their arguments and physical altercations, he did care for her, after all. And he didn’t like knowing she was going through such turmoil because she was bearing his child.

“If you wish it,” he murmured after some time, “after this child is born, we won’t have any more children—blood children, at least.”

“I do wish it,” she grumbled. She had tried to curl up into a small ball, but thanks to her stomach, it was impossible. “You can take on as many concubines as you like and have children with them if you ever want more blood children.”

His brow rose. “I have no desire to take on any concubines. The only woman I want is you—and you already belong to me.”

She suddenly shoved him away and got to her feet, as hard a task as it was. “I belong to no one,” she snarled, snatching up the beaded headdress. “You least of all. Yes, I am your wife. Yes, I am bearing your child. But no, you do not own me and you never will.” Putting the headdress on, she stormed towards the door of the tent.

Quietly growling, Mundzuc got up and darted after her. He caught her before she could leave, his hands gripping her arms. “Need I remind you of who commands the horde of Mongolian warriors out there?” he hissed beside her ear. “And need I remind you of who graciously kept your people safe and fed when you were being held prisoner? Or who gave you warning about my brothers?”

Zhu said nothing, glaring at the tent door.

“You can deny it all you want, Shan Zhu,” he continued, “but I do own you. I’ve owned you since the moment you first whimpered my name in ecstasy.”

 

~*~*~

 

Forty weeks into the journey

 

The air smelled heavily of plums and apricots.

Opening her eyes, Zhu found herself looking out over the Fa Family orchard. The sky was a cloudless blue and the air was the perfect temperature—warm, but not overbearingly so—and the tree she was reclining against was surprisingly comfortable. A contented sigh left her mouth as she let her eyes fall shut again. She shifted only to hear two different, incoherent grumbles of protest.

For the second time, Zhu opened her eyes and looked down. Stretched out in the grass beside her was Mulan, who was using her leg as a pillow. On her other side, Ling was curled up next to her and using her shoulder as his cushion. In his lap was Little Brother, who was sprawled out on his back with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

She remembered this scene—they had just spent half the day picking plums and apricots for market and decided to take a nap. She could remember watching them fall asleep and wishing so badly that she could bring them closer to her; that she could hold them close and never let go.

Slowly, she raised a hand. Her fingers brushed against Mulan’s face, ever so gently pushing stray bits of hair back over her shoulder. Her skin was soft; far softer than Zhu could have guessed. A tender smile came to her lips as she let her palm cup Mulan’s cheek. Mulan mumbled something in her sleep and snuggled closer to her.

Spirits, how she loved this woman.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

It took every ounce of willpower for her to not jump, she was so startled by Ling’s voice. She looked at him, her cheeks darkening. “Wh-What was that?” she asked, keeping her voice quiet.

His eyes were half-open as he looked at Mulan. “Mulan. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Impossibly so.”

Ling carefully reached over her, letting his long fingers slowly trace the curve of Mulan’s jaw. “Who could have ever thought such a beautiful woman would have made for such a klutzy man?” he quietly chuckled. “In hindsight, it was so obvious.

“In hindsight, yes,” she agreed, “but at the time, none of you could have imagined a woman willing to risk death in order to join the army.”

“Let alone two women.”

Her brow rose as she looked down at him. “My disguise was far more convincing, as I looked—and still look—more masculine than half the recruits.”

He frowned. “You don’t look at all masculine,” he said. Pulling his hand away from Mulan’s face, he pushed himself into more of a sitting position. “You’re just as beautiful as Mulan.”

“I am not the least bit pretty, let alone beautiful,” she told him, voice dry. She was about to say something else, but she never got the chance.

Ling had leaned forward, silencing her with a kiss.

How long had she craved to know what his lips felt like against hers? She didn’t know. Zhu only knew she couldn’t stop herself from melting into the kiss. She sighed against his mouth as she felt his hand come to rest on the side of her face before sliding back. He ran his fingers through her hair, letting his hand come to rest on the back of her head.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered against her lips. “You’re so damned beautiful. Both of you. Gods, how did I get so lucky to be loved by you two?”

 “I often ask myself that same question.”

Ever so slightly opening her eyes, Zhu found that Mulan was now sitting up. Yet again, before she could say anything, she was quieted by a kiss. This time, however, it was Mulan who kissed her and she found herself overwhelmed by the smell of cherry blossoms and strawberries.

She gasped as Mulan wrapped both arms around her, pulling her away from the tree and closer to her. Ling snuck behind her, trailing kisses along her shoulder and up her neck. Nothing mattered more to her in that moment than finally being able to kiss and be kissed by Mulan and Ling. They kissed her mouth, along her jaw, along her neck; their hands roamed her body. She made no protest when one of them had started to untie the sash around her waist while the other slipped their hands under her shirt.

And then came the pain.

Zhu suddenly lurched forward, crying out as she gripped her stomach. Her entire pelvic region felt like it was on fire. Her spine felt like it was being ripped apart, one vertebra at a time. She had never felt pain like this before; she tried to look up at Mulan and Ling for help, but they were gone.

In their place was Mundzuc, a wicked grin on his lips. “Why would they be here for you?” he taunted. “They don’t love you and they never will. You’re nothing more than a Hun to them. You will never be anything more than a Hun to them.”

 

Zhu woke up screaming.

Chapter Text

“I think the ratio is off.”

“Really? It seems like the right consistency t’ me.”

“Yeah…I think this batch is just a bit too wet to me.”

“Hm. Maybe we should mix it up a bit more before formin’ the bricks?”

Ling wore a frown as he looked down at a pile of what looked like strangely smooth, wet mud. “No. Let’s add a bit more shale powder. I think two scoops should be good.”

Yao nodded. Trudging over to a nearby bucket, he used a wooden cup to scoop out a fine powder. “We’re goin’ t’ need t’ grind up more shale soon. After this, we’ll only have enough for one more batch o’ bricks.” Coming back over, he sprinkled the powder on top of the mud. “If we don’t make ‘em too wet, that is.”

“That’s fine. We’ll need to get these first bricks fired first, anyway.” He started to mix the powder into the mud, kneading it almost like bread dough.

“Yeah, but…we don’t have a kiln. How are we supposed t’ fire the bricks without one?”

He glanced up at him. “A kiln is easy enough to make. I can make one in a day with just some clay, stones, and dirt.”

Yao snorted. “You? Make a kiln?”

“What do you think I did all day when we were kids and you were hauling things for Old Man Xiao and Chien-Po was off cooking in the kitchens?” Ling pouted. “I didn’t just learn how to make bricks. I learned how to make all sorts of things!”

“Surprised ya remember how, then,” he chuckled, kneeling down and once more beginning to help mix the mud together. “I’ve forgotten most o’ the stuff I learned back then.”

“It’s a simple enough recipe.” Shrugging, Ling picked up a handful of the mud and rubbed it between his fingers. “There we go. This is much better! We can start forming now.”

Yao nodded, grabbing the wooden frames they had constructed to make sure each brick came out the same size. Thanks to the forms, they were able to make a tedious job easier and quicker. They merely needed to set the frames on the wide, stone platter, fill them with mud, and then remove the excess from the top. They repeated this until there was no more space left on the platter. After that, the wet bricks would sit outside in the sun for a few days to dry up, giving Ling plenty of time to construct a kiln.

“I’ll go put these with the others,” Yao said, lifting the platter with a grunt. “Is it alright if they’re tipped just a bit? I don’t know if there’s goin’ to be enough room for all the trays to sit flat.”

“So long as it’s not a severe tilt, they should be fine,” Ling replied, dunking his hands in a bucket of water. “Thanks for your help, by the way. I really appreciate it.” He started scrubbing as much of the mud off his skin as possible.

Yao gave him a curious look. “Why are ya thankin’ me? Ya never thank me.”

His brow rose. “Uh, because you were the only one besides Little Brother who was willing to get filthy with me in order to make these things?” He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Next time, I’ll be sure to remember to not thank you. How does that sound?”

“Better.”

“And you say I’m the weird one?” he murmured, shaking his hands dry.

Stepping out of the house, he looked around. It had been nearly half a year since they first reached this place, making it almost a year since they had left China. When they arrived, they had found seven houses left by the Huns who-knows how long ago; but they were in good enough condition that they only needed minor repairs.

Thanks to Su and Chien-Po, there was a large garden overflowing with various herbs and vegetables. Ling, Yao, Shang, Mulan, and Ting-Ting were to thank for the new houses—designed by Zhou and Chi-Fu—being built. Mei, Zhi, Li, and Grandma kept things clean and kept everyone’s clothes tailored. And Little Brother, of course, was in charge of doling out amusement and doggy kisses.

It was almost like they had never left China.

But there was a lingering uneasiness felt throughout the settlement. Regardless of how well things were going, they were still strangers in an unknown land. Despite Zhu’s assurances that the area was well-hidden from other tribes, they still barricaded the doors at night and slept with their weapons near at hand. They couldn’t risk being unprepared should their luck turn.

“You and Yao sure have amassed quite a number of bricks.” He was drawn from his thoughts by a voice to his left; looking over, he saw Mulan walking towards him. She had a clay jug tucked under her arm and a whetstone in her hand. “How many more are you going to make?”

“Hundreds,” he replied with a smile. He then pointed at the whetstone. “Ting-Ting’s chisels need sharpening again, huh?”

“Not this time. It’s for the ax.”

He nodded in understanding. “Finally got dull, did it? Only took—what, three, four?—trees to do it.” He started to walk alongside her, resting his hands on the back of his head.

She grinned. “Five and a half,” she retorted, feigning sarcasm. “Shang was so disappointed. He was really hoping it’d last for five and three-quarters.”

Ling snorted. “What a pity.”

Mulan quietly giggled. “How long do you think it’ll take before the bricks are ready to be used? A couple of days?”

“Oh, gods no. A week at the very least.” He glanced over at her, finding her eyes wide in shock. “They need to dry a few days in the sun. While they’re drying, I need to build a kiln so I can then bake them. After they’re baked, it’s going to take a couple of days for them to cool down to the point where we can handle them. It’s a long, tedious process—but, hopefully, it’ll be worth it.”

“I…didn’t know it took so long to make bricks,” she murmured. “I thought you just took mud, shaped it into a rectangle, and let it dry.”

He chuckled. “Don’t worry—a lot of people think that’s how bricks are made. But, no. They have to bake in a kiln for a couple of hours. And the hotter the kiln, the stronger the bricks get. That’s not even including getting the shale, grinding it into a powder, and so on…”

“Don’t you need bricks to make a kiln, though?”

“Not always. Sometimes, you just need some rocks, a little mortar, and lots of dirt.”

She nodded in understanding. “Let me guess: Stack the rocks and use mortar to hold them together, then cover them with the earth to keep the heat in?”

His brow rose, a small smile on his lips. “Sounds like you’ve built a kiln or two.”

“Not a kiln, no,” she chuckled, “just an earthen oven. Now that I think about it, though, there isn’t much of a difference, is there? Kilns are just bigger and made to get hotter.”

As they approached the designated woodworking area, he watched as Mulan handed the whetstone over to Shang. “…You know, I didn’t even realize that until you pointed it out.” He wasn’t quite sure why, but he glanced away when Mulan stood on her tiptoes, kissing Shang’s cheek.

“Didn’t realize what?” Shang questioned before thanking Mulan as she also handed him the pitcher.

“That kilns and earthen ovens are basically the same thing,” Mulan answered. “Ling was telling me how he needs to build a kiln in the next few days so he can fire the bricks.”

Shang blinked, clearly surprised by this information. “You know how to build a kiln?”

“Who knows how to build a kiln?” Ting-Ting asked, pausing in her hammering of chisels to hear properly.

“Evidently, Ling does,” Shang told her.

Her eyes widened as she set down her tools. “Really? You can build a kiln?”

Ling pouted and threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. “Why is everyone so surprised about this? They aren’t hard things to make!”

Ting-Ting giggled as she came over to him. “I was just teasing you,” she said, kissing his cheek. “I remember you mentioning it to me one. Do you need help collecting the rocks?”

“I might,” he replied, kissing her cheek in return. He was thankful that stress of the journey had finally lifted itself from Ting-Ting’s shoulders. All the traveling they had done had filled her with such strong self-doubt, it nearly drove them apart. “I’m going to need a lot of them—I have to make it big enough to hold at least two shelves worth of bricks.”

A thoughtful look came to Shang’s face. “Is that so? Then why don’t you dig a hole—or mound up some dirt—to make a kiln?”

“The combination of rocks and dirt holds the heat in better,” Mulan and Ling chorused. Not only did they surprise Shang and Ting-Ting by speaking in unison, but they also surprised themselves.

Mulan laughed. “And the two together gets the inside hotter,” she added, her cheeks turning a bit pink.

“The higher the temperature used to bake the bricks, the stronger they are,” Ling finished, also chuckling. “It’ll be fine, though—I don’t have to make it huge.

Shang nodded in understanding. “That makes much more sense. Well, good luck with your rock hunting. I have a dull ax to sharpen.”

“Good luck with that. Hopefully, you’ll be able to reach that five and three-quarters target!” Ling joked as he and Ting-Ting started to walk towards the lake.

His brow rose. “…Five and three-quarters?” he repeated, confused, as he sat down on a wooden bench.

“A joke,” Mulan explained. “I told him you had been hoping you got the ax sharp enough to get through chopping up five and three-quarters trees, but only managed to get five and a half.”

“I should have known,” he smiled, rolling his eyes. Pouring some water over the whetstone, he started to carefully drag the edge of the ax across it. “On a more serious note, though: This ax is on its last legs—and it’s our only ax.”

She frowned. “…Can’t we melt it down and make a new head with it?”

“Unless someone among us knows how to actually smith metal…I don’t think so.” He sighed. “Eventually, we’re going to need to try and find other settlements to trade with or teach ourselves to mine and, possibly, blacksmithing. And we’re going to need more meat; we can’t keep living off of dried meat, fish, and game animals—well, we can, but it’s getting hard for Su and Chien-Po to keep coming up with dishes we’re not sick of. We need chickens, eggs, cows, pork…”

Mulan bit her lower lip. “We’ve been doing just fine so far,” she told him. “Su and Chien-Po have been making delicious food as always. Yes, a little more variety would be nice, but it’s not necessary.”

“No, it’s not. The metal, however? That is necessary. With things the way they are right now, we won’t be able to repair our tools when they break. And without our tools, we can’t build or cook.”

Shaking his head, he flipped the ax over and started to grind the other side of the blade and let out a heavy sigh. “I’m…just worried. We don’t know this area and we don’t know if there are any friendly people within a hundred miles.”

She gently rubbed his arm; she had come to learn that it was a way to help calm him down and bring him a bit of comfort. “It’ll be alright,” she assured him, resting her chin on his shoulder. “Everything is going well. We have shelter, we have food, and we have each other. If a tool breaks, I’m sure we’ll find a way to either fix it or come up with something even better to replace it.”

He sighed again, pausing his sharpening. “I wish I had your optimism,” he admitted, setting his hand over hers. “I guess being in the military for so long made me more of a pessimist than I thought.”

“You’re not a pessimist. You’re just—just a realist. Which is why we’re so good together: You make sure to bring me down to earth when I’ve got my head in the clouds.” She smiled, thankful when Shang chuckled.

“And you lift me up when I’ve dug myself a hole,” he told her. He gently pulled her down, kissing her on the lips. “Which I seem to be doing more and more as of late…”

She kissed his temple as she rubbed his arms again. “Everything will be fine,” she once again assured him. “You’ll see.”

 

~*~

 

“This…is so disgusting.”

“As true as that is, this is the easiest way to treat a hide.”

“Is it really, mother?”

A laugh left Zhi’s mouth as she reached into a barrel of disgustingly grey and chunky water. “It isn’t so bad once you get past the smell, I promise.” Pulling her arm out of the barrel, she let the sopping wet deer hide drain above it for a few minutes.

Mei covered her mouth and her nose, feeling her stomach churn at the sight of the liquid. To most people, it would have looked like the dirtied remains after washing a bunch of clothes. She knew, however, that it was grey due to containing a number of animal brains.

“Mother, I honestly don’t think I can do this,” she murmured, her stomach protesting even more when she caught of whiff of the barrel’s contents. “I really think I’m going to be sick.”

Zhi frowned, looking over her shoulder at her daughter. “Hm. What if I pulled them out of the barrel for you and shook the brains off for you?”

“I would only have to wring them out at that point?”

“Yes.”

She thought for a moment, using her sleeve to cover her nose. “I may be able to,” she admitted. “It’s just the smell that’s mostly getting to me. I could pretend the bits of brain are slugs or something, but that smell…”

At that, Zhi smiled in understanding. “Alright then. Go fetch one of my handkerchiefs and take it to Su. Have her put a few jobs of an oil of your choice on it before tying it around your nose and mouth. That should help block the smell.”

Mei frowned. “But, the oil would stain your handkerchief! I can’t do that!”

Waving frivolously, Zhi laughed. “Mei, love, it’s only a handkerchief—not some rare and exotic piece of silk!” She carried the still-sopping animal hide over to a wooden rack. “I promise, love, I haven’t a care in the world for how stained they get. Now, go on: Go fetch one and soak it in oil.”

With a pout on her lips, Mei headed into the house she shared with her mother and Yao. Yao was out helping Ling and Mulan make a couple of kilns, leaving the one-room building empty, save for their belongings. It took her some time to find one of her mother’s kerchiefs, but she eventually found them in the bottom of a trunk.

‘I really don’t want to ruin this,’ she thought, inspecting the square of fabric. ‘This was a gift to her from father…I don’t know how she can tell me to use it without a second thought…’ She closed her eyes and held it to her nose, hoping—praying—that it would have some scent of her father on it.

But it only smelled of lilies—like her mother.

Sighing, she closed the trunk and stood up. Handkerchief in hand, she went next door where she knew she would find Su. This was the house where Su and Chien-Po lived and where they made the meals for everyone. The two had wasted no time in creating racks to hang meats, herb bundles, and cooking utensils from as well as widening the fireplace and building a pit for the woks to sit in. How Su managed to still fit in the house—let alone Chien-Po—was still a mystery to her.

“Su? Are you in here?” she asked, poking her head into the house.

“Over here!” Her sister’s voice came from behind a curtain of noodles that had been hung up to dry.

Her brow rising, Mei walked over and carefully parted the noodles. Su was sitting on the floor, kneading a large ball of dough in one of her massive, wooden bowls. “You’re making more noodles?” she chuckled.

“No, silly,” she giggled. “This is going to be tonight’s dinner! It’s dumpling dough!” Clapping the excess flour off her hands, she covered the bowl with a towel before standing up. “What do you need?” she asked, brushing some flour from her skirt.

Mei held up the handkerchief. “I need a few drops of jasmine or rose oil,” she answered. “I’m helping mother with the animal hides and…the smell is rather nauseating.”

Su snorted. “Well, yeah—those skins have been soaking in what’s essentially fermenting deer and boar brains.” She ducked under the noodles and cross the room.

A shudder ran down her spine. “Please, don’t remind me,” she murmured. “Where is Chien-Po?”

“Hunting mushrooms.” She had to jump in order to reach a box stacked atop the pile of barrels and trunks in the corner. “I just hope the ones in this part of the world are similar enough to the ones in China that he won’t accidentally end up poisoning us.”

At that, Mei frowned. “What do you mean?”

Su glanced at her, a brow rising. “You don’t think all the animals and vegetation over here is the same as back in China, do you?” she asked with a small laugh. Opening the box, she started to look through the plethora of small bottles and pots.

“Aren’t they, though?”

“Gods, no!” Her eyes were wide as she looked at her sister. “There have been all sorts of differences we’ve seen since we left China! Haven’t you paid them any attention?”

“To be fair, my mind was more focused on repairing clothing, injuries, and Ting-Ting’s self-esteem,” she replied, voice bland. “Paying attention to the land and its animals isn’t really my ‘thing’.”

Sighing, Su shook her head. “Well, you should have. We could have passed all sorts of flowers or minerals that would have made excellent clothing dyes or even been good for making fibers!”

Mei’s eyes widened. “…Are you serious?”

“Yes! We’re in an entirely new world over here—who knows what kind of discoveries you could have made along the way?” She held out her hand. “Handkerchief, please.”

Handing it over, Mei let out a disappointed sigh. “Now, part of me wants to retrace our journey to see what I can find…”

“I’m sure Yao would be willing to accompany you,” she giggled. Then, noticing that the kerchief was one that belonged to their mother, she frowned. “…This is one of mother’s.”

“I know. She told me to use it.”

“But…” Looking up at Mei, she shifted uncomfortably. “Father gave her this…”

She nodded in understanding. “I know. I’m also hesitant to stain it with oil, but she promised me she doesn’t mind. It’s just a handkerchief, she said.”

“Well, yeah…it is, but…” She shook her head and sighed once more. “If she insists…” Pulling a small bottle from the box, she opened it and carefully dropped four droplets of fragrant oil onto the cloth. “There. Four drops of peppermint.” As Mei opened her mouth to protest, she handed the cloth back over. “I know you said rose or jasmine, but neither of those can overpower the smell of fermenting animal brains well enough. They’re delicate scents and, while you are a delicate woman, you need something hefty to block that smell.”

Mei nodded in acquiesce. “That is true,” she admitted, watching Su return the box to its spot atop the pile. “Thank you.”

She moved back to her spot on the floor. “If you need more, let me know. Heavens know I have plenty of it.”

“Do you have enough to dump into the barrel of liquid brains?”

At that, she snorted. “Ha! If only. No, it would take a great deal more than what I’ve got to cover that much of the stench.”

Waving to her sister, Mei left the house. As she walked back towards her mother, she folded the two of the handkerchief’s corners together before tying the kerchief around the lower half of her face. Immediately, she was overcome by the smell of peppermint and, as she breathed in through the cloth, a chill filled her mouth, nose, and lungs. She wondered if Su had put on three too many drops.

That is, until she was standing beside the barrel and found herself unable to smell its reek.

Taking the wet hide from her mother, she carried it over to a clamp that hung from a low-hanging tree branch. ‘Little sister knows best,’ she thought with a small smile.

Clamping the two ends of the hide together as tight as she could, she shoved a stick through the resulting loop and began to twist the hide. After a few minutes of twisting, fetid liquid began to ooze down the hide and drip onto the ground. She was careful to avoid stepping in quickly-forming puddle; she didn’t want to ruin her only good pair of boots.

“You’re doing a wonderful job, love,” Zhi told her when she just over half the liquid forced from the hide. “And you put up far less of a fight than I did when I had started learning how to tan hides.”

Mei glanced over at her mother. “It’s a disgusting process,” she replied. “The only reason I have been able to do this much is because of the peppermint. I haven’t the slightest idea how you were able to overcome the smell…” She shook her head. “I don’t know how anybody could overcome the smell.”

“It’s less of a drain on resources than using salt,” she reminded her. “And a bit quicker, as the hides only have to soak for a day. Using salt means waiting up to a week before we can work the leather.” She helped Mei twist the last of the excess liquid from the hide before removing it from the clamps.

“Is it time to smoke it yet?”

“Almost. We need to stretch it and then let it dry entirely, first. Then, after it is dry, we can check to see if we properly stretched it.”

Mei’s brow rose as she took one end of the hide and her mother took the other. “How will we know if we stretched it properly?”

“It will be soft and supple all over.” She started to tug on the hide, nodded at Mei as a sign for her to pull as well. “Any parts not stretched will be stiff and hard.”

Grunting, Mei turned the hide a few inches before pulling on the new spot. “And if that happens?”

“We soak it again and repeat this process.”

“In other words: Make sure we stretched this as much as possible so we don’t have to repeat this process.”

Zhi laughed, the sound a bit breathless thanks to their work. “I suppose you could put it that way,” she chuckled. “After you’ve done a few hides, it honestly is not that bad, love. The smell isn’t nearly as bad if you do one hide at a time, but with just the two of us doing this, it is best to keep the rest in a barrel of the brain oils and water.”

She shuddered. “I would have never thought that brains, of all things, have oil in them—let alone oil that helps soften skin…”

“Looking at them, you would think they would just be lumpy mounds of dense meat, wouldn’t you?” Zhi teased. “But, no—they are light, creamy, and similar to scrambled eggs!”

Mei shuddered once more, feeling her stomach beginning to churn in protest yet again. “Mother, please…”

“I’m sorry,” Zhi chuckled, an apologetic expression on her face. “You just make the silliest expressions sometimes; I couldn’t resist. I promise I’ll stop talking about them now.”

She pouted. “I will remember that the next time Chien-Po and Shang find a fish filled with roe,” she grumbled. “I will be sure they gut it in front of you. Then it will be you with the ‘silly’ expressions.”

Somebody’s beginning to take after her eldest sister,” she chuckled, a brow rising. “You are getting better with your threats.”

Mei sighed. “Now if only Zhu were here to do the threatening for me…”

Zhi closed her eyes for a moment, though she continued to pull on the hide. “I do wish your sister would hurry up and get here,” she admitted. “It has been nearly half a year—far longer than the timeframe she gave us.”

“Maybe she was forced to winter in Mongolia?” she suggested, her voice hopeful. “I’ve heard the winters up there can be harsh, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she had been forced to stay there longer than anticipated.”

“I can only hope that is what’s kept her.”

Frowning, Mei paused in her hide pulling. “What do you mean? What else could be keeping her?”

“That man she said she was going to marry. She said he was the younger Mongol prince—who’s to say he wouldn’t have found some way to keep her trapped in his homeland?” She used the upper-half of her forearm to wipe a bit of sweat from her forehead. “Or he could have done something worse. What if he hurt her or handed her over to his brothers?”

Mei rolled her eyes. “Mother, you’re letting your worry overwhelm you again,” she sighed. “Zhu knew what she was doing and I’m positive she made all sorts of contingency plans.”

“I have no doubts she did just that,” Zhi chuckled, the sound more tired than amused. “She’s like Chi-Fu in that fashion…always coming up with some sort of plan in case anything were to go wrong.”

At that, Mei laughed. “I’ll be sure to let her know you said that whenever she gets here.”

Zhi’s brow rose. “Said what? That she has something in common with her uncle?”

“Yes,” she giggled. “You know how much she hates Uncle Chi-Fu.”

Rolling her eyes, Zhi tossed her end of the hide at Mei, who squeaked and used her arms to shield her head from the damp hide.

 

Chapter Text

Having only just risen, the sun gave off little light. Beneath the fir and pine boughs, shadows were long and dark, making it hard to see any obstacles one may come across. But Khan picked his way carefully, ensuring that neither he nor Mulan came to any harm.

It had been a number of weeks since the two of them had last been able to sneak away from the settlement to do a bit of exploring. They had already been gone nearly an hour, having left before the sun rose, and had left a number of miles behind them.

'I wonder who will find my note first: Father or Little Brother?' Mulan thought, an amused smile on her lips. She leaned forward, ducking under a branch. 'I hope father—otherwise, they'll have to piece it together from the shreds Little Brother leaves.'

Reaching down, she rubbed the side of Khan's neck. "Enjoying not having to pull a stump out of the ground or a boulder out of the way?" she asked him.

He turned his head slightly, exhaling loudly through his nose.

She chuckled. "I thought you'd say that," she smiled. "I'm a much lighter burden...Though, I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of reward treats for you right now."

He nickered in reply, seemingly unbothered by this revelation.

She patted his neck again. "I had a feeling you'd say that," she teased. "Tonight, though, I'll give you some dried fruit. Maybe some salt, too, depending on how much we push ourselves today."

The plan was to get as close to the mountains as possible before having to turn back. Along the way, they would also look for anything that could prove to be a useful resource: More shale deposits, fruit trees or berry bushes, beehives, game trails...If Mulan thought it looked useful, she would write herself a note.

On their last adventure, they had traveled along the lakeshore to its northern edges and explored the foothills a bit. They hadn't found much on that trip, but they had found a beaver dam, lots of driftwood, and even some freshwater mussels. The most important discovery of that trip, however, had been the size of the lake that made up the majority of the settlement's northern border: It was nearly twenty miles from north to south and twice that from east to west.

'I hope today will be a bit more fruitful,' Mulan told herself, not bothering to cover her mouth as she yawned. 'I know Ling's shale supply is running low thanks to all the bricks he and Yao have been making. I know I won't be able to find any ore deposits for Shang, since I don't know the first thing about ore...but maybe I'll be able to find some oak or cedar for Ting-Ting! And if there are any caves, I could take a quick look to see if there are any bats so Su and Chien-Po have a new fertilizer source.'

Khan snorted, bringing her out of her thoughts. Blinking, she looked around to find that they were heading up a gradual incline. The trees were beginning to thin out, allowing for more of the sun's light to reach the forest floor. Mulan was now able to make out the silhouettes of fallen logs, clumps of ferns, and even some mushrooms growing on the sides of trees.

'This forest looks so similar to the ones back home,' she pondered, 'but it feels so different. Back home, there was always a feeling that I was being watched. But here? It just feels...peaceful. But I know I can't drop my guard down; there are still dangerous animals out there. This part of the world may not have tigers, but I know it still has its fair share of hunters.'

A shudder ran down her spine. She remembered hearing strange, human-like screams come from the forest earlier in the summer. Zhi had told them it was a creature called a mountain lion, though she had never seen one. Hearing that had made Mulan wonder what sort of lion would live in the forest—maybe it was actually a type of tiger?

She prayed she would never see one to find out.

Just in case, though, she had a bow and a quiver full of arrows strapped to Khan's saddle. She also had her sword, though she knew it wouldn't be of much use against an animal.

"Especially against an angry boar," she murmured to herself. "It took Yao, Chien-Po, Ting-Ting, and Shang to bring down just one of those. I didn't know they could get so huge!"

When horse and rider reached the top of the hill, Mulan brought Khan to a stop. By then, the sun was fully risen and she was able to see her surroundings quite clearly. What she couldn't see, however, was just how far away from home they were or how close to the mountains they were. As such, she looked up through the canopy of evergreen branches, trying to see which of the trees was the tallest.

Choosing a fir tree, she started to climb. It was a bit difficult at first, as the lowest-hanging branches were out of her reach. With some help from Khan, however, she was soon climbing her way towards the sky. A lot of the branches this low on the tree were a bit on the brittle side, so she took care to evenly distribute her weight and to not grab or step onto any branches that had absolutely no clumps of needles—those, she knew, were the dead branches.

By the time she reached the top of the tree, her hands and legs were covered in sap and there were twigs sticking out of her hair. But the climb had been worth it: The fir tree stood taller than the others around it, giving her the ability to see in all directions. She quietly gasped, her eyes wide.

It was beautiful.

To the west were the mountains, their white peaks glistening in the morning light. From where she was, they looked to only be a few miles away, but it was nothing more than a deception. Thanks to their enormous size, they looked much closer than they actually were—she had maybe thirty or forty more miles until she would reach their base.

To the north was the lake; she was able to see its shimmering waters even from this far away. Just south of the lake was their little settlement—the houses were impossible to see thanks to the tree line, but she could see a small trail of smoke rising into the sky. She knew the smoke belonged to Su and Chien-Po's home; they were almost always the first ones awake.

To the south was an ocean of evergreens. They stretched on and on for as far as the eye could see—and further. Even when she had crossed China, Mulan had never seen such an expanse of trees. The only thing that she could think of that could compare was the bamboo forest near Moo-Shung, but even that only stretched on for ten miles or so.

To the east, the rising sun obscured most of the horizon. She could make out the silhouettes of hills and more trees, but there was very little else she could make out aside from the colors of the sky: Pinks, oranges, and even a touch of violet surrounded the giant, golden orb that was the sun. The sight reminded her of one of Mei's winter dresses and she smiled; Mei had promised to make her a similar one.

She was about to start climbing down when she noticed something to the north she had missed upon first look. Squinting, she shielded her eyes from the sun only to see what looked like dark storm clouds lining the horizon. They were barely within sight, but their color made them stand out against the pink clouds around them. A frown came to her lips and she started to make her way back down the tree.

"Bad news, Khan," she sighed once she reached the bottom. "Looks like a storm is rolling in from the north." She started to brush herself off.

"Hmm? Whazzat 'bout a storm?" Both Mulan and Khan jumped in surprise as Mushu's head rose out of the quiver. The little dragon yawned, tiredly rubbing his eyes. "What's everyone so surprised about? Can't a dragon find a cozy place to sleep?"

Frowning, Mulan reached over and gently lifted him out of the quiver. "Mushu, how long have you been in there?"

"Since last night," he replied, yawning again. Then, leaning backwards, he started to stretch. "So, what was that I heard about a storm?" Finishing his stretch, he looked up at Mulan only to frown. "Girl, when was the last time you bathed?" He scuttled up her arm, starting to pull twigs and bits of moss from her hair. "Look at you, all done up like you're some sort of tree..."

She laughed, rolling her eyes. "I just got done climbing a tree," she told him. "I wanted to see how far from the settlement we were and I ended up seeing what looked like a storm rolling in from the north."

"A storm?" Mushu repeated before sniffing the air. "Hm. Don't smell like a storm's heading this way. Doesn't feel like it, either."

"You can feel when a storm's coming?" she skeptically asked.

Both Khan and Mushu gave her an odd look. "You can't?" Mushu asked, his brow rising. "Don't tell me you've never noticed how everything around you starts to feel heavy and oppressive the day before a storm hits!"

"I've never noticed that, no," Mulan told him. "Though, grandma sometimes mentions that she can feel changing weather in her bones."

"Well, yeah—she's old. Old people always feel weather changes because their bones are all arthritic and stuff." He frivolously waved his hand before darting along her arm and hopping onto the tree Mulan had climbed. "Give me five minutes and I'll tell you if there's a storm comin' or if it's just passing by." Before either Mulan or Khan could protest, he scurried up the tree.

"He is so strange," Mulan murmured, shaking her head. She quietly laughed as Khan snorted in agreement.

Not long after he disappeared up the tree, Mushu came hurrying back down. Unlike Mulan, he had managed to avoid getting sap and bits of tree stuck to him. "Well, girly," he said, walking across a branch, "those are storm clouds, but they're makin' no effort to come rain on your parade." He dropped down onto her shoulder and resumed picking bits of wood and moss from her hair.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because they're either spillin' all their rain right where they're at or they're super slow movin'." Finding a small spider in her hair, he made sure she wasn't watching before shoving the arachnid in his mouth.

Mulan did, however, hear him crunching on something, though she decided to not question it. "Well, that's good to know, then," she said. Climbing back into the saddle, she lightly clicked her tongue and Khan started to trot once more. "I was worried we'd have to head back before we even really got started."

His brow rose as he swallowed the spider. "Get started on what, exactly?"

"Just exploring," she replied, smiling. "It's been awhile since I was able to sneak away, so I thought today would be a good day. I'm hoping we'll be able to find some resources that'll help the settlement."

"What kind of resources are needed? You got food, water, fire, and shelter. You even got yourselves a big ol' garden!" he chuckled.

"We need more shale and it'd be nice to find some caves where bats or birds live—their excrement makes excellent fertilizer, Chien-Po tells me. And it'd also be nice to find some berry bushes or some oak and cedar among all this fir and pine..."

He nodded in understanding, though he still looked a bit confused. "And if you don't find these resources?"

She shrugged. "Oh, I know they're out there. It's just a matter of finding them. Whether I find them today or another day doesn't matter, so long as they're found before we're in dire need of them."

"Mhm...so why not just wait for Zhu to show up? She knows this area, so she should know where those things can be found. Give her the wagon and the oxen and she'll bring back loads of stuff for you."

Her brow rose. "What makes you think I'm going to let her go off and do all of that on her own?" she questioned.

He laughed. "She's a big girl, Mulan—a real big girl, at that. She doesn't need supervision."

"I haven't seen her in nearly a year, Mushu. When she gets here, I'm not letting her go anywhere without me," she half joked. Her voice then took on a more serious note. "I only had my best friend back for a couple of months before we were forced apart again...I'm actually at the point where I'm tempted to go out and look for her. And I'm not the only one, either. Ling is getting near the point, too."

"Ling? I can see why you'd be tempted to go out there, but why's Noodle Boy itchin' to go Zhu huntin'?"

She chuckled. "Contrary to popular belief, a person can have more than one best friend," she said. "Ling and I are her best friends. And...we're worried for her. Really worried." A sigh left her mouth and she bit her lower lip. "She's somewhere out there, married to a man she hates and is scared off. On top of that, she's also queen and having to make sure she does what's best for however many of her people are left."

Mushu gave her a pitying look before scuttling over and sympathetically patting her forearm. "Hey, don't go getting' all sad now," he gently told her. "Like I said, she's a real big girl—I'm sure she's fine. But, if it'd help bring you some peace of mind, I can ask Rabbit to go out and do a bit of a lookie-loo for you," he offered.

"Rabbit? Who's that?"

"You know: Rabbit, the swiftest of the family guardians?"

"You can do that?"

He shrugged. "Of course I can. All it takes is a bit of gong ringing and tada! Guardian awakened."

She nodded in understanding. "That's interesting. I didn't know that how the guardians were awoken. I just thought they came about when a person was most in need."

"That can happen, but it's not often. Usually, at that point, it was the Great Stone Dragon who'd wake up and go off to save the day." A sheepish grin came to his lips. "I wish I could say was the Great Stone Dragon, but I'm just Mushu the Magnificent."

A small laugh left Mulan's mouth. "Yes, but you're not shattered in a thousand pieces back in China," she gently teased, "so I think you've done better than the Great Stone Dragon."

He rubbed the back of his neck, looking away from her. "Uh...about that, actually..." A sheepish grin came to his lips. "I...may have been the one to break that statue." He watched her eyes widened. "But it was all an accident! I was tryin' to wake her up, but ol' Stony had vacated the premises."

"You mean the Great Stone Dragon had abandoned our family!?" she asked, horrified. "What had we done to make him do that!?"

"Her. The Great Stone Dragon was female," he corrected, his voice a bit snobbish. "Despite popular belief, the strongest family guardians are usually female."

"Well, then, what had my family done to make her abandon us?"

"She didn't abandon your family. She knew her physical form was growing weak, so she left it behind. That's why it broke."

She frowned. "So...where did she go?"

He rose up on his hindlegs and poked the top of her chest. "In you." He watched as bewilderment filled her face. "The night you decided to take your father's place was the night she knew you would be the perfect person to house her spirit."

"You mean to tell me that everything I've done up to this point is actually her doing?"

"No!" he cried, looking rather offended. "Mulan, honey, she chose you because you because you already had the strength and determination to do all of this! None of these achievements were made by her—it was all you. The only reason she resides in you now is because you're strong enough to house her spirit. That old stone statue? I hit it with a flimsy sheet of bronze and it shattered."

He then shook his head. "The point is, Mulan, you are the strongest Fa Family guardian now. And that courage of yours will be passed onto any kids you and Shang have and then onto any kids they have." He gave her a reassuring smile.

Her cheeks turned red, but she smiled. "Well...that's good to know. I had been wondering all these years if maybe the statue broke because of some dishonor I brought to my family."

"Nah. Quite the opposite," he chuckled, crawling up her arm and shoulder. He draped himself around her neck like he had done back in Moo-Shung. "Now that I think about it: It's probably why you're so protective about Zhu: You consider her part of your family." He laughed again and closed his eyes, resting his chin over his crossed arms. "Though, with how much you worry about her, you sometimes sound like her fretting wife."

Mulan laughed, her cheeks further darkening. "Now that's ridiculous," she said.

Mushu open an eye to look up at her and frowned ever so slightly. There was something about her laugh and voice that sounded more guilty than amused. He wished he could see more than just the back of her ear and the underside of her jaw.

"You sure about that?" he asked, making sure he sounded amused. "'Cause it does seem like you worry about her a lot."

"I don't fret over her that much," she chuckled. "Yes, I worry over her, but like I said: She's my best friend and I thought I already lost her once. I—I just don't want to lose her again." She shrugged. "Something about pretending to be men and deceiving an entire army of men together can really bring two women together."

Unable to stop himself, Mushu cracked up. "Alright, alright—I'll admit, you're right there, girly," he cackled, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye.

She grinned, her brow rising as she turned her head and glanced down at him. "Why are you laughing? I'm being serious!" She had tried to keep her voice even, but she broke into a fit of giggles halfway through.

Mushu shook his head and closed his eyes again, still chuckling. "Not to derail our conversation or anything, but my offer about waking Rabbit earlier: Would you like me to wake him and ask him to go look for her or not?"

Mulan was silent for a few minutes as she thought his offer over. While it would be nice to get some sort of estimate of how far away Zhu was, something told her that she should wait just a little while longer. Whether it was faith in her friend or her own hope, she shook her head.

"No. Not yet, at least. But I appreciate the offer." She reached up and gave Mushu a gentle scratch on the back of the neck. "If she's not here by the end of the week, then maybe."

"Gotcha," he said. "Ol' big ears gets to snooze a lil' longer then. Speaking of snoozin', I think I'm going to get me a few more minutes of shut-eye. If you don't mind, that is." He yawned.

"Feel free," she chuckled. "I'll wake you up if anything exciting happens."

"Just don't go throwin' me at any bears or boars and we're good."


 

"Ugh...this stuff is never going to come out..." Sticking his tongue out in frustration, Ling shook his as-clean-as-he-could-get-it shirt in the river before slapping it against a nearby rock.

The last three days had been long and exhausting, having been spent carefully stacking rocks before covering them with layers of mortar and dirt. But now, with fires roaring inside them, the three kilns would be ready for use by tomorrow afternoon. Su had been tempted to be the first one to properly use the kilns to make breads and cakes, but Chien-Po reminded her that Ling and Yao had hundreds of bricks they needed to bake first.

Standing upright, Ling grunted and leaned backwards. He felt parts of his spine pop back into place, earning a sigh of relief. "Now that those are all washed, it's time to wash myself," he murmured, walking out of the water and towards a small bag. Reaching into it, he pulled out a small bottle filled with an opaque, murky liquid. He also grabbed a clean rag before heading back out into the water.

As he waded out, a shiver ran down his spine; the water was refreshingly cool. Maybe just a bit too cool, but at the moment, he didn't care. He just wanted to get clean.

'I'm surprised I'm still able to move after getting coated in so much mortar,' he thought, opening the bottle and pouring some of its contents onto the cloth. He placed the bottle on a rock before beginning to scrub himself. 'Doesn't help I couldn't get the consistency I wanted. It was always too thick or too thin. Probably because I'm not used to having to mill my own ingredients.'

He stuck his tongue out in disgust when he saw, as he rinsed the rag out, the water around it turn brown. "All that was on my arms alone!? No wonder Ting-Ting refused to come within an arm's reach of me the last three days..." He shook his head and, balancing on one foot, started to wash his leg. "Didn't even get this dirty when making the bricks..."

When he was done with his legs, he stretched his back again before looking around. Though the settlement was still within sight, the trees and bushes around him gave him ample privacy. Peeking out from the tops of the trees were the mountains; the first few times he had bathed at this spot, it almost felt like the mountains had been watching him. For all he knew, they could have been. But now that he knew the area a bit better, the feeling was gone.

Normally, he would be bathing back at the settlement in one of the wash basins which he would then wash his clothes in. But after toiling in the heat and being asked multiple times if he needed help, he just wanted to be alone for a little while. He had accidentally managed to make Ting-Ting worried about him—he was the one person in the group who almost never needed to be left alone, after all. But after assuring her that he was just a bit worn out and just wanted to relax, her worries seemed to have mostly faded.

"It just got tiring, hearing the same offers of help over and over again," he murmured, closing his eyes as he scrubbed the side of his neck. "I know they meant well, but c'mon, guys: I said I didn't need help and I meant it." Muttering a curse under his breath, he let his legs fall out from under him and fell into the waist-deep water.

When he surfaced, he let out a small gasp and shivered again. He tried to flip his hair out of his face, but only succeeded in moving one lock of hair into his eye, making him laugh. "A mermaid I am not," he chuckled, pushing the bits of hair away. Tossing the rag onto the shore, he reached over and filled his palm with more of the soapy liquid. "Now let's try to avoid getting hair in my eyes when it's covered in soap..."

As he massaged the soap into his scalp, he started to hear a strange, faint noise. It almost sounded like thunder. "But the skies are totally clear," he murmured, frowning as he looked at the sky. "Maybe there's a storm rolling in? But wouldn't we have seen it from the settlement, since it's so open there? Or maybe there was an avalanche up in the mountains? No. I wouldn't be able to hear that from here..."

Dunking himself under the water again, he used his fingers to help remove all the soap and dirt from his hair. He didn't dare open his eyes to see how dirty it had been—he knew that, even in this amount of water, the soap could still get in his eyes and make them sting horribly. Just when he couldn't hold his breath any longer, he stood up, gasping.

This time, he was able to flick his hair back as if he were a mermaid.

He also heard a loud yelp.

Spinning around with his eyes wide open, he found Mulan sprawled on the ground some yards upriver with Khan minding his own business, drinking water beside her. There was a look of horrified shock on her face; it was obvious he had startled her when he popped out of the water.

A guilty smile came to his lips. "Oh, uh...hey there, Mulan! Sorry if I—Oh gods, I'm still naked!" He threw himself behind one of the rocks, the guilty look still on his face as he peeked out from overtop it.

He saw that Mulan had covered her eyes. "I'm sorry!" she squeaked. "I didn't know you were out here! I just saw your clothes and thought you had left them to dry!"

He chuckled, rubbing his arm. "It's fine, really," he assured her. "I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't know you were here, either. Then again, I was rinsing my hair." His brows furrowed somewhat; the thunder sounded louder now.

"You...spent nearly five minutes rinsing your hair? Underwater?" she asked, the skepticism obvious in her voice.

"I guess? I don't really keep track of time. I just knew that there were some stubborn soapy bits," he chuckled. "How was your day of exploration?" He started to make his way towards the shore, doing his best to keep his lower half out of sight.

"It was fun," she told him, crossing her legs, "but not very fruitful. I went out with the intent to find us some natural resources, but the only things I could find were cedar trees closer to the base of the mountains."

"That's something, though!" He didn't know why, but talking with her didn't aggravate him like talking with the others had done. "Cedar's a useful tree. I think you can use all parts of it in some fashion, can't you?" He glanced at her again, making sure her eyes were still cover. Seeing that they were, he darted to the shore and grabbed his only piece of clean clothing to put on.

"I don't know about the fronds, but I know you can use the bark and the wood." She dared to peek out from between her fingers to see if he was still hiding. Seeing that he wasn't and that she could, in fact, see his entire body at this point, she clenched her eyes shut and closed her fingers. "Have the storm clouds gotten any closer?" she asked, doing her best to sound as calm as possible. Her cheeks had grown extremely hot; she hoped he couldn't see them.

"Storm clouds? The sky's been clear all day."

"Really? This morning, the whole northern horizon was covered by storm clouds."

His brow rose as he pulled a length of golden fabric over his head. "That's odd...but that would explain the weird thunder noise I've been hearing." As he adjusted the fabric so that it sat correctly, he found himself listening for the thunder sound. He didn't have to listen hard; it was growing louder by the second now.

"You've been hearing it, too? Well...I guess now it's more noticeable, but earlier, it was more like a faint murmur."

"Yeah...but shouldn't a storm have pauses in the rumbles? I'm dressed now, by the way."

She cautiously opened an eye only to find Ling wearing a familiar outfit. "You were serious when you said you still had the concubine dress!?" she laughed.

He looked almost offended by her words. "Why would I lie about something so silly?" he pouted, his hands on his hips. "This thing is comfortable! Why wouldn't I keep it?"

"And you look good in it, too," she chuckled. "I'm sorry—I just thought you would have given it back to Ting-Ting by now." Standing up, she took Khan's lead and started to walk towards Ling.

He shrugged. "I tried, but she said I look better in yellow than her. Which, admittedly, is true. Yellow is a hard color to pull off. I can think of only a handful of people who can wear it and not look like they're going to be sick." He held out his hand, using his fingers to help list off people. "Me, Shang, Su, you...Hmm...Zhi can pull off the darker shades of yellow, but not the lighter ones."

She giggled, her brow rising. "I'd say I'm surprised you know so much about what colors suit different people," she said, "but you paint, so it doesn't surprise me much." She started to walk alongside him as they headed back towards the settlement.

"It's mostly about matching a person's undertone," he explained. "I've noticed three of them: Warm, cool, and neutral. Those who have warmer undertones tend to have skin that's more peachy, yellow, or even golden in its shades. Cooler undertones mean a person's skin is going to have pinks, reds, and even blues to it. Neutrals have a mixture of these, meaning they can pull off a lot more colors than average people."

Mulan stared at him, baffled. "I...had no idea there was so much color to a person's skin."

An innocent grin came to his lips. "You start noticing things when you're huddled up in a corner, drawing people," he admitted. He then frowned and glanced away, rubbing his arm. "Sorry...this is probably pretty boring to hear."

"No, it's not!" she assured him, eyes still wide. "It's fascinating, actually."

He looked down at her, confused. "...Really?"

She nodded. "Yes! I always wondered what it was that made it so some people could wear certain colors and other people couldn't. Like, I've always liked darker shades of green, but they always seemed to wash me out."

He smiled; it was clear he wasn't used to someone being interested in this subject. "Heh, yeah. But that isn't entirely because of your undertones: The shade of your skin is also a factor. You've got a neutral undertone but pale skin, so while you can wear almost any color, it's best for you to stay away from darker shades. The exception being that blue concubine dress of yours. It's a dark shade, but it looks really pretty on you."

Her cheeks, having only just recovered from seeing his naked backside, turned pink again. "Are there any other dark colors I could pull off?"

"Reds," he answered, not seeming to notice her blush. "And you can pull off dark green—remember your armor? It's lined with dark green silk. But the paleness of your skin means that greens that lean more to the yellowy side are better."

"Huh. I'll be sure to keep that in mind if ever Mei gets to dye cloth again. I'd love to have a green dr—" She abruptly fell silent as they came around the bend. There, in front of them, was the source of the thunder and it wasn't a storm.

Itwas the hooves of nearly a thousand, galloping horses.    

Chapter Text

Zhu didn’t know what sort of greeting to expect from her friends and family after arriving nearly four months later than anticipated. She imagined she’d be tackled to the ground by her mother and sisters who would, of course, be scolding her for taking so long between their sobs. She could also see herself getting crushed by one of Chien-Po’s hugs as he, Yao, and Ling half joked, half scolded her for taking her sweet time. Even the thought of getting warm, welcoming hugs from Zhou and Li while Grandma ranted in the background came to her.

But not once did she think that she would see Mulan and Ling—in his concubine dress, no less!—riding towards the army of Huns and Mongols on Khan as if they were the settlement’s last defense.

And yet, that was exactly what was happening.

Before the two of them could be crushed by her sea of horses and riders, she raised her hand and shouted out an order. Almost instantly, Umut began to slow her pace. The horses on either side of her, ridden by Mundzuc and Roua, also began to slow their pace.

By the time Mulan and Ling reached them, every single animal had ceased moving. She shrugged something from her back and carefully handed it over to Mundzuc. He took it, giving her a curious look as she dismounted. Before she could say anything to him, however, she was knocked to the ground.

A handful of riders lurched forward in their saddles, reaching for their weapons. When two, large men held out their hands, they eased up, but continued to watch with caution.

“Hello, Mulan,” she grinned, not caring that the wind had very nearly been knocked out of her. Sitting up, she returned Mulan’s hug. “I’m sorry I am late.” She glanced up as Umut trotted away from the group, followed by a young foal. ‘About to go introduce Khan to his son,’ she thought with a smile.

“You had better be!” Mulan half sobbed, half scolded. “Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been?!” She didn’t let go of her; instead, she clung on tighter.

“Overwhelmingly so, I’m sure. We had a few…unforeseen delays. But I promise, I have good reasoning for them.” Closing her eyes, she started to rock slightly, letting Mulan hug her as tight as she wanted. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed Mulan’s cherry blossom and strawberry perfume. “Spirits, I’m glad to find you safe…There were times I was tempted to offer the Earth Mother a sacrifice or two to ensure you made it here safely.”

Sniffling, she finally pulled back enough to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. “No sacrifices needed,” she choked out, “though there were times we were tempted to leave Chi-Fu behind.” She managed to laugh through her sobs. “We did have to linger in some places due to bad weather and illnesses, but never for more than a few days.”

Zhu laughed as well. “You should have Chi-Fu behind!” she grinned. “I’m sure even mother would have appreciated that after a while.” She looked up as a shadow fell over the two of them. “Hello, Ling. You look lovely in that dress.”

He laughed, rolling his eyes as he knelt down to hug her. “Says the one all done up in fancy silk clothes and beaded jewelry,” he teased back. Mulan scooted over just enough to let Ling hug onto Zhu as well. “Gods, I’m glad you’re alright! We’ve been getting really worried that you had been tricked into staying in Mongolia or something.”

“No, no tricks,” she promised, wrapping her arm around him. For the first time in a year, she felt safe. “I will explain more later, I promise, but for now…Let me enjoy seeing my best friends again.”

“Being that we’re not about to stop hugging you for another five days, I’m sure we can arrange that,” Ling chuckled. He closed his eyes and let out a near-silent sigh. He didn’t know if it was because he hadn’t seen her in so long or what, but holding onto her—and Mulan, for that matter—felt nicer than normal. Much nicer.

Mulan laughed. “I’m sure her sisters will find a way to pry us off soon enough,” she joked. “And they’ll be the ones hugging her for five days.”

Zhu let out a faux groan of despair. “Please, not hugs from my sisters! Anything but that!”

Ling cocked a brow and leaned back, looking Zhu over.

Her own brow rose. “…What…are you looking for?”

“I’m just making sure you’re the real Zhu,” he said, feigning distrust. His frown, however, was real; Zhu looked utterly exhausted. “Zhu isn’t the best when it comes to keeping up with humor, so I don’t think you are the real Zhu.”

“I don’t know,” Mulan said, also leaning back slightly. “If she isn’t the real Zhu, then she’s fairly close—her hugs are as good as Zhu’s hugs. Maybe even a little better.”

That would be due to the weight I have gained during the last year,” Zhu chuckled. “As for the humor, I guess being around my father-in-law helped me learn a bit more of it.” She watched as the two of them looked at one another; they exchanged expressions, but she wasn’t quite sure what kind of expressions they were.

“Is he a nice man?” Mulan asked, worry now coming to her face.

Zhu glanced up at one of the nearby riders. “Much nicer than his son,” she murmured. She then let her voice return to normal volume. “He and Grandmother Fa would get along excellently.”

Ling snorted. “I’m not so sure that’s a good thing,” he joked. He stole a look in the direction Zhu had glanced only to find a man with a sharp face and long, black hair. ‘If he’s her husband, I can see why she’s scared of him…’ he thought, a shudder running down his spine.

“They would either keep each other busy all day with their bawdy jokes or drive one another insane with how stubborn they can be,” Zhu smiled. “Either way, I am sure if ever they met, it would only mean trouble.”

Mulan giggled, rolling her eyes. “My grandma can be a responsible adult at times,” she said. Feeling one of her legs beginning to grow numb due to her strange position, she reluctantly let go of Zhu. “We should probably get back to the settlement. Not only is it getting late, but I’m sure you want to see the others.”

“I do,” Zhu smiled. It was a tired look that neither Mulan nor Ling liked; what had taken so much energy from her?

“Zhu.” They all looked up as the man with long hair, Mundzuc, spoke. “She needs you.”

Sighing, Zhu gently pried Ling off of her. “Pardon me,” she told them, voice quiet, as she stood up.

Who needs you?” Ling asked, frowning. He stood as well and helped Mulan to her feet. His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he watched Zhu keep her back to them as she adjusted something.

“The reason why I took so long getting here.” Turning around, the two could see that Zhu held something in the crook of her arm. She walked towards them, joy and guilt intermingling in her eyes. Pulling back a bit of cloth, she showed her friends a small baby girl. “Her name is Liling.”

Ling’s eyes grew wide as he stared at the child. “You—you—you have—you have—” he stammered, unable to fully form a sentence.

“I have a daughter, yes.”

Clapping her hands over her mouth, Mulan gawked at the baby. She had chubby little cheeks and chubby little arms and chubby little legs—just as any healthy baby should. She also already had a thick head of dark, wavy hair. Her eyes, though, took her by surprise: They were silver.

“She’s so small,” she gasped, her voice muffled by her hands.

“She came early,” Zhu explained. “That is why we were delayed. The pregnancy and the birth were…rough on me, to say the least. Mundzuc and Roua wanted me to regain some strength before we set out again.”

“Can I—Can I touch her?” Mulan asked, voice shy. When Zhu nodded, she hesitantly reached over and stroked Liling’s cheek. Her skin was softer than she expected and the child looked at her with wide, confused eyes. “…You actually have a daughter,” she murmured. She had no idea why, but she felt jealous; she and Shang certainly weren’t ready for kids! They weren’t even married yet!

Zhu looked at Ling, who had been silent this whole time. “Ling, are you alright?”

He slowly nodded. “Y-yeah, fine,” he answered, rubbing his arm. “Just—just—just shocked is all.” He was half lying, but his awe was real enough to hide that. Like Mulan, he had suddenly become overwhelmed by jealousy. And, like Mulan, he didn’t know where it stemmed from, as he also wasn’t ready to be a father.

But he did have a soft spot for children. “Can…Can I hold her?” he asked, taking both Zhu and Mulan by surprise.

“Do—Do you know how to hold an infant?”

“Yeah. I used to help care for the newborn orphans brought to the temple,” he explained. “Sometimes, I was the only one who could get them to calm down when they were fussy.”

She nodded in understanding; somehow, that didn’t surprise her. She glanced over to Mundzuc, who didn’t look at all pleased. The corner of her mouth twitched upwards in a small grin. Carefully, she handed Liling off to Ling, who cradled her against his chest as if he had done it a hundred times before. She almost took her back when Liling began to fuss, but he quietly cooed to her and rocked her in his arm. Liling quickly stopped fussing and instead became fascinated by his one of his long fingers when he offered her it to grab hold of.

“She’s definitely yours,” he chuckled, his brow rising. “She’s got your strength.”

“That is what I keep hearing,” she smiled. She watched as Mulan somewhat stood on tiptoe so she could better look at Liling. “You can hold her next if you would like, Mulan.”

Mulan’s cheeks darkened a bit. “N-No, thank you,” she murmured. “At least, not while standing. I’ve never held a baby before.”

“You’ll get some practice over the next few months, I’m sure,” Ling chuckled. He looked down at Liling again, watching her look around with her silver eyes. A small lump formed in the pit of his stomach. “…Hey, uh, Zhu? Do her silver eyes mean…y’know…?” His voice betrayed his concern.

She shook her head, easing the feeling in his gut. “She is not blind, no. I thought that at first, too, since my silver eyes did not come naturally and both sides of her family have brown eyes. But she can follow things with her eyes well enough for an infant. Umut believes it was caused by our pact.”

“That makes sense,” said Mulan. She bit her lower lip before daring to tickle the bottom of Liling’s foot. She giggled when a surprised expression came to Liling’s face and she started to kick her legs. “I see she’s also ticklish.”

Zhu smiled as she watched the two of them. “Yes, she is. Her stomach, especially, is ticklish,” she informed them. She hid the sadness welling up inside her well; seeing Ling holding her daughter made her wish even harder that Liling had been his child—not Mundzuc’s. And Mulan’s adorable amusement as she started to tickle Liling’s belly made her wish that she could be a second mother to Liling.

‘Don’t think about it,’ she told herself. ‘Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. You get to go see your mother and sisters soon. Think about them. Think about how Su is going to tackle you to the ground and ask if you want food. Think about how Mei is going gawk over your clothing and how Ting-Ting is going to hug you tight enough that it’ll be hard to breathe. Think about the scolding mother will give you. Don’t think about what could have been…’

Rubbing the back of her neck, she sighed. “We should probably go see the others,” she said, forcing a smile. “I am sure they’re going to be envious that you two got to meet Liling first. And I am going to need to feed her soon, which I prefer to do while sitting.”

Ling nodded. “Would you like her back?”

“I think it may actually be safer for you to hold her until after my sisters have finished tackling me,” she chuckled. “She looks rather comfortable in your arms, anyway.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Mulan smiled. “You’d think she’d be the opposite since she doesn’t know him.”

“The intuition of children is surprising. They do not know how to do anything, and yet they can tell if a person is good or bad,” Zhu said. “You two can start heading back. I need to give everyone else orders.”

“We’ll go wait by Kh—” Mulan’s words abruptly ended as she turned to face her horse. “Aww, Umut had her baby, too!” she cooed, seeing Khan and the foal playing.

Zhu chuckled. “Yes, and he takes after his father quite a bit. He does not have a name, however—I was thinking about letting you choose it. But, that is something we can talk over later.” She gently ushered Mulan and Ling forward.

When they were a few yards away, Mundzuc spoke again. “I can’t believe you’re letting him hold our daughter.”

“Whether you like it or not, Mundzuc, I am going to let those two be a part of her life,” she replied, voice bland and brow cocked.

He made a displeased sound. “The woman may be a bit of a good influence on her, but that twig of a man—”

“Their names are Mulan and Ling,” she snapped, “and I will not tolerate you disrespecting them while I am around or while they are around. Feel free to hate them all you want when you are alone, but spirits help you if I hear one more word of it.”

A sneer came to Mundzuc’s lips. “As you wish, my love.”

She shuddered and turned away from him. Cupping her hands on either side of her mouth, she called out orders for the Huns to begin making camp. Then, looking at Roua, she gave him a tired smile.

“Please have the men erect the yurt about twenty yards from the houses,” she instructed. “The others can place theirs where they wish, so long as the herders stick to the edges. I do not want to be wading in animal poo again.”

He nodded, chuckling. “I’ll have it done,” he replied. Glancing at Mundzuc, he smirked and leaned over. “Take as long as you’d like reuniting with your friends and family,” he told her, voice quiet. “I’ll be sure to keep your ‘beloved’ husband too busy to notice your absence.”

“Thank you, Roua,” she smiled. “If you need me for anything, I will be in…” She looked over her shoulder. “…One of those houses.” She fully turned away form him and sprinted away, trying to catch up with Mulan and Ling.

“There’s your mommy,” Ling chirped to Liling. He was still rocking her; she looked as content as could be. “Everything go alright?”

“Of course,” Zhu replied, a bit out of breath. “Roua and Mundzuc will be overseeing the raising of the yurts. I told Roua to make sure that my—our—yurt is closest to the houses.”

Mulan frowned; it had only been about a fifty-foot sprint. She remembered Zhu being able to sprint much father without losing her breath…“Does Roua share a yurt with you and Mundzuc? Assuming the two of you share one, since you’re…well, married.”

She nodded, walking alongside them. “Yes. I consider Roua family and, as families live under one roof, he stays in our yurt.”

“Aren’t yurts just one room, though?” Ling asked, his brow rising.

“Technically, yes. But we have ways of sectioning them off into different areas. Though, I have come to learn that the Mongolians do it differently from the ways we Huns do it.” She shrugged, brushing some of the beaded strands of her headdress over her shoulder. “You will be able to see what I mean later, though.”

“Assuming your husband lets us even enter the yurt,” Mulan grumbled. “He didn’t look at all happy to see us.”

“Well, I did give him a concussion the last time we saw him,” Ling joked.

“It looked like a greater dislike than that, though,” she said, frowning. “Like he almost wanted us dead or something.”

“Sadly, that was just his face,” Zhu told them. She smiled as they began to laugh. “I assure you, Mundzuc rarely looks like he doesn’t want to kill someone.” Her smile faded somewhat. “Spirits help me if Liling inherits his expression…”

Ling grinned reassuringly, giving her a small nudge with his elbow. “Even if she did, ol’ Uncle Ling will be making her laugh too much for it to ever be seen.”

The smile returned to her lips. “Something tells me that will happen regardless of whose appearance she favors when she’s older.”

 

When they reached the houses, Zhu’s mother and sisters greeted her almost exactly as she had pictured: Su tackled her and started firing off questions about her appetite; Mei hugged her and gawked at her clothing; Ting-Ting squeezed her tightly; and Zhi half sobbed, half scolded her as she hugged her. Then it was time for hugs from Yao and Chien-Po, the former teasing her about her lateness and the latter also questioning her about food. To her surprise, Shang gave her a hug but to her even greater surprise, Zhou and Li hugged her as well. Grandmother Fa, on the other hand, pretended that she was going to hug her only to lightly smack her upside the head and tease her about taking her sweet time.

“That is not nearly five thousand warriors.”

Zhu straightened up after getting a real hug from Grandma. Chi-Fu stood off to the side, his arms crossed and a displeased look on his face. “No, it is not,” she replied, voice cool, “but it is nearly one thousand warriors.” She watched as worried looks came to her sisters’ faces.

“Not nearly enough to stop the Triplet Princes should they find us.”

“Then you will be pleased to hear that they have begun fighting amongst themselves and their father.” At that, Shang let out a silent, but visible, sigh of relief.

“Hm. Even still, their armies—”

Zhi suddenly stepped between them. “Enough!” she ordered, hands on her hips. “Chi-Fu, if you have nothing to say to Zhu aside from interrogating her, then I suggest you hold your tongue lest I hold it for you!”

Chi-Fu clamped his mouth shut, looking more than a little offended that he had just been told off in front of so many people. Then, sticking his nose in the air, he simply turned away from them and walked off.

Closing her eyes, Zhi sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry about that, Zhu.”

“It is fine, mother.” She smiled, giving her mother a second hug. “I know he is a pain in the a—” She was interrupted by the sound of upset whining and grunting. “Just a moment.” Stepping away from Zhi, she went over to Ling. Beside him, Mulan looked mildly panicked. “Shh, shh…I am right here, love,” she cooed, taking Liling from Ling. She held her against her shoulder, gently rubbing her back. “Shh. You are probably hungry, are you not? Mama will fix that.”

Liling calmed slightly, but continued to whimper quietly against her mother’s shoulder.

Turning around, the group saw that she was wearing an apologetic smile. “Everyone, I would like you to meet one of the reasons I was delayed: Liling.”

Not much to her surprise, everyone was shocked. Once the shock had worn off however, she found Li and Zhi on either side of her, cooing to the cranky, hungry little girl. They led her inside the house shared by Zhi, Mei, and Yao where they promptly sat her down on Zhi’s bed.

Before Zhu realized it, her chest and left shoulder were covered by a blanket while Liling fed beneath it. There was a hot mug of tea in her free hand and everyone had gathered around her. She was telling them of her trip and of her other delays: Having to marry Mundzuc, having to marry him again once they reached Mongolia, the roughness of her pregnancy…She did her best to answer any questions they had, though she felt uncomfortable with all this attention on her.

As such, she started to ask about their journey. She learned that they only had minor delays—a few days of everyone being sick, four days of a bad storm, have to retrace a day’s journey after Ling accidentally read the map wrong. Ting-Ting told her about the friendly tribe they had ran into and how they had traded goods before parting ways while Mei told her of the beauty of the sea and how it seemed to stretch on forever.

By the time they had all caught up with one another, Liling had finished her meal. Zhi insisted on being the one to burp her, which Zhu didn’t mind; burping was one of her least favorite parts of parenthood so far—aside from the entirety of the pregnancy.

“Oof,” Zhi chuckled, resting Liling against her shoulder. “Despite her size, she is a heavy little thing! Much like you were when you were born.”

“She has Zhu’s strength, too,” Ling chuckled. “So be careful if she grabs your hair or something.”

Zhu’s cheeks pinkened. “That would be her Hunnic blood,” she smiled. She took a sip of the tea, closing her eyes. ‘Finally, a good cup of tea…I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had one of these…’

Ting-Ting lightly nudged Ling with her hip, her arms being crossed over her chest. “What made Zhu decide you would get the honor of being the first one to hold Liling?” she asked, her tone teasing.

He playfully stuck his tongue out at her. “I asked.”

Her brow rose. “You…asked? That is it?” She was puzzled by such a simple answer.

“Yeah.” He chuckled, rubbing his arm. “What can I say? I’ve got a soft spot for kids. And, I mean, she’s my niece. I was going to get to hold her eventually.”

“We’ll just have to wait our turns,” Mei giggled, handing her mother a cloth as Liling burped. “We don’t want to overwhelm the poor thing, after all. She’s still so new to the world and she’s already having to meet so many new people!”

“Mei’s got a point,” Yao agreed. “She don’t even know how to lift her head yet an’ she’s already seen so many people.”

Zhu chuckled. “She can hold her head up when she is laying down,” she corrected. “Not quite when I sit her up, though.” She covered her mouth as she yawned before taking another sip of tea. A small frown came to her lips as some of the shorter strands of beads from her headdress tried to dip themselves in her mug. Taking the headdress off, she set it beside her only to watch Mei pick it up.

She slowly looked it over, admiring the patterns formed by the different shapes and colors of the beads. “This is beautiful,” she complimented. “It must’ve taken days for someone to make this.”

“Not as long as some others, I will admit. Mundzuc made sure I did not get anything elaborate, despite it being my status symbol as queen.”

Mei, Ting-Ting, and Ling glowered upon hearing that. “What, doesn’t he think you are good enough for elaborate headdresses?!” Mei pouted.

Zhu cocked a brow, a small, amused smile on her lips. “I requested the simplicity.”

Her cheeks darkened. “O-oh…but why? You’re a queen! When mother was Empress, she had all sorts of gorgeously elaborate outfits and headpieces she would wear!”

“Yes, and the majority of them were uncomfortable at best,” Zhi sighed. “And the headpieces were heavy.” She carefully laid Liling in her lap, being sure to still support her head. A tender smile came to her lips as she used her other hand to fix her swaddling blanket.

Mei blushed even more when she heard that. “Really? But you wore them with such poise and elegance!” She handed off the headdress when Yao wanted to get a closer look.

“It took years of practice and years of building up my neck muscles,” she chuckled. She was pleased when Ting-Ting, Ling, and Mulan started giggling. Her eyes then widened as Liling let out a giggle, happily kicking her feet. “I’m so glad you find grandma funny,” she cooed to the little girl. “But your Auntie Ting-Ting and Uncle Ling are so much funnier. They’ll have you giggling for days when you’re older.” She glanced up as something moved in the corner of her vision.

Li had stepped out of her corner of the room to get a closer look at the child. “She is so adorable,” she smiled, watching as Liling tried to look around. Her silver eyes were as wide as could be and she tried to reach for Zhi’s hand. “What made you decide to choose the name ‘Liling’?” she asked, looking up at Zhu.

“…To be honest, I chose it because it sounded cute,” Zhu admitted. “I only later learned that it meant ‘white jasmine’, which made me like it even more, as jasmines are my favorite flower.”

Mulan tilted her head a bit to the side. “Really? I didn’t know that. …I didn’t even know you had a favorite flower.”

“I only realized it within the last two years,” she smiled.

Li smiled. “Well, I must agree with you that her name is cute,” she said. “But not quite as cute as her. She’s already got so much hair!” Crouching down, she reached over and brushed her fingers along the top of Liling’s head. She quietly laughed when Liling looked at her with those wide eyes. “And it’s so soft…I hope it stays that way as she gets older.”

“Oh, I know! She’d be the envy of all the women if it remained this soft,” Zhi agreed.

“And she will be quite beautiful, too, given her maternal lineage. She will have many suitors chasing after her!”

“Mother, she’s four months old!” Mulan groaned, embarrassed. “Don’t you think it’s a bit soon to start thinking about her future suitors?”

Li’s cheeks turned a bit pink. “Of course it is,” she said, pouting somewhat. “I was merely saying that she is going to grow up to be a beautiful woman.”

Before Mulan could answer, the door to the house opened and Su came in, holding a tray heaped with food. “I didn’t know what I should make you, Zhu, so I just made all of your favorites!” she chirped. Ling, Yao, and Mei stepped out of the way so she could bring it over to the bed.

“Spirits, Su! This is far too much for me to eat,” Zhu said, her eyes wide as she stared at the tray.

“Well, feel free to share,” Su smiled. “But make sure you eat plenty! We got to keep you well fed so you can keep this lil’ cutie well-fed!” As she spoke, she went over to Zhi and gently took Liling from her, taking everyone by surprise. “Isn’t that right, you chubby little thing? Your mama needs all the food she can get!” She gently swayed with Liling in her arms, as if she had held a child a thousand times before.

Ting-Ting and Mei stared at her, jaws slack and eyes wide. “That isn’t fair!” the former pouted. “I was supposed to hold her next!”

Su was beaming with pride as she stuck her tongue out at her sister. “Foodie before beauty,” she teased.

“So help me gods, when you hand that child off—”

Please don’t fight over my child!” Zhu laughed. “I promise you, you will all have your turn in the coming days to hold her.” She popped a Xiao long bao into her mouth, not caring when the still-hot broth inside it scalded her tongue. ‘Oh spirits, delicious food,’ she told herself, her eyes closed as she savored the flavors.

“Careful, girls,” Ling snickered. “Zhu may have to use her mom voice on you.” He winced, but continued to laugh, as Zhu threw a fried wonton at him.

 

After another hour of visiting, it was time for everyone else to go eat their own dinners. Zhi, however, stayed behind. Once more, she had Liling cradled against her chest and she was quietly humming to her.

“I am sorry I did not get here before the birth.”

She looked over at Zhu, frowning. “Zhu, love, it couldn’t be helped. I am just thrilled that the two of you made it here safely.” She then tilted her head down, kissing the top of Liling’s head. “This little one made the wait worth it.”

Zhu smiled tiredly, pulling a leg to her chest. “I wish I had had you or one of my sisters with me…I only had Mundzuc and Roua.”

“But, at the very least, Roua knew a thing or two from when I was pregnant.”

She nodded in agreement. “That is true. But it would have been nice to have a woman I trusted there with me—someone who knew what I was going through.” Sighing, she shook her head. “Do not expect anymore grandchildren from me, by the way.”

“Well, you hate the man. I cannot say I blame you for making that decision.” She glanced over at her daughter, finding her eyes closed as she hugged her leg. “He hasn’t hurt you, has he?” she asked, voice quiet.

She opened one eye and peeked over at her mother, seeing the concerned look on her face. “No. We fight, but it is mostly kept to heated words and insults. We haven’t physically fought one another since before Uncle Yu died.”

Zhi frowned. “What if it does reach a point where it becomes physical? What then?”

Zhu shrugged. “I will either fight back or I will stop him. He no longer ranks above me; I can fight back now.”

“Zhu-”

“I know, it is not the most favorable of outcomes. But—But I can’t divorce him and I cannot kill him. Both of those result in the Mongolians abandoning us. Or worse: Slaughtering us.”

Closing her eyes, Zhi leaned back against the wall. “Has he tried hurting Liling?”

“No. To be honest, the gentlest I’ve ever seen him is when he is holding her.”

“Good…good. If he so much as raised his voice at this little one, I don’t think I would suffer him to live.”

“He…has actually gotten a bit better since she was born,” she admitted. “I mean, we do still have our fights and he does not want me near Ling and Mulan, but we don’t fight nearly as often as we used to.”

Zhi gave her a confused look. “…And why doesn’t he want you around Ling and Mulan?” she asked, her words slow and cautious.

Realizing her mistake, Zhu forced herself to casually shrug. “Ling humiliated him by defeating him while dressed as a concubine and Mulan not only brought down an avalanche on Uncle Yu’s army, but also managed to kill Uncle Yu…and me.”

Though she had the feeling that her daughter was lying, Zhi said nothing regarding her suspicions. “So, he wants to keep you from them out of embarrassment?”

“Essentially. But I will not let him. They are my best friends, after all.” She shifted her position before reaching over and gently taking Liling back from her mother; it was the first time she had held her since breastfeeding her earlier. “And I am not about to let one man keep me from my best friends. Not after being away from them for so long…”

Liling grunted and wriggled slightly in her sleep. Her eyes opened for a few seconds before falling shut with an adorable, heavy sigh. Zhu smiled at her; it wasn’t an entirely happy smile, though, which made Zhi frown once more.

“Zhu…?” she asked, her voice soft. “Why did you do all of this?”

Her brow rose as she looked over at her mother. “What do you mean? You know why I did this.”

“You say you did it to get an army to protect your sisters,” she told her, “but you and I both know that this area is so far from China and unknown to non-Huns, that your sisters and your people would be safe here—army or no army.” She reached over, brushing some hair over her shoulder. “Why did you really do all this?”

Zhu grew a bit tense at her mother’s touch, but eased up with she remembered that it was Zhi moving her hair, not Mundzuc. “I did it all for them,” she murmured. “I did not want to risk the princes finding them or, if they did, that we would be adequately prepared to defend against them. But, even that did not work, as there are just barely eight-hundred warriors out there.”

“…You did not do all this because you have feelings for someone you cannot have?”

Her brow rose once more. “Why would I marry a man I despise just because I cannot be with someone else?

“Because you may feel that Mundzuc is the only person who would ever want you. Or, perhaps you think that, as a queen, you need a king in order to be taken seriously.”

She shook her head. “No. The only reason I married Mundzuc was for his army.” Though her words weren’t lies, they weren’t entirely the truth, either. “It’s growing dark outside. I should probably get this little one a clean diaper and into her crib before she begins to get fussy.”

Zhi nodded in understanding and stood up. “And you could use some rest yourself. You’ve had a tiring day, I am sure.”

“Seeing everyone again and having so much attention on me really did wear me out,” she admitted, a tired smile on her lips. Standing as well, she held Liling against her shoulder. “My yurt is the largest and closest one. You are welcomed any time, mother. Just remember to knock first.”

Zhi looked surprised. “Oh, you have a door on your yurt?”

“Yes. It’s much nicer than having the flap doors. And it helps add stability to the frame.” She chuckled. “I will see you tomorrow, mother.” Before she could leave the house, Zhi stopped her and kissed both her forehead and the top of Liling’s head.

“Be safe, my little one,” she gently ordered. “And sleep well.”

“You, too, mother.” She smiled again, watching as Zhi shut the door. Then, with a small sigh, she turned around and stared at the large yurt ahead of her. It stood a bit taller than the buildings, though it looked like it could easily cover the largest building with room to spare. There was a glow coming from inside and she knew it didn’t yet have all its layers of felt. Not that she expected it to—once it was erected, her people would need to see to their own yurts and gers.

Something in the corner of her eye made her stop, however. Turning, she saw Ling returning from the river, his nearly-forgotten clothes in hand. He stopped when he saw her before simply dropping the clothes on the ground and hurrying over to her.

“What was all that about?” she asked, laughter in her voice.

He smiled, his cheeks a bit flushed from embarrassment. “I was hoping you hadn’t gone to your yurt yet,” he told her, “so when I saw you, I—I kind of panicked and rushed over.”

She frowned. “Why would you panic? You could have simply called out and I would have waited.”

“Like I said, I panicked,” he laughed. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you…alone.”

“Alone?” she questioned. Though her face showed confusion, her heart began to beat faster. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ she scolded herself. ‘You saw him and Ting-Ting earlier. They are very much in love…’

He nodded. “Yeah. So, do you mind if I walk you to your yurt?”

“Feel free.” As she spoke, she adjusted Liling, who grunted in protest. She quietly cooed to her and rubbed her back. When Liling quieted, she smiled. “That’s mama’s girl,” she murmured.

A tender smile came to Ling’s lips as he watched her. He had never seen Zhu be so gentle…it was endearing. And yet, as sweet as the sight was, it made the odd sense of jealousy return to his stomach. But why was he jealous? He couldn’t possibly be jealous of Liling, could he?

‘No,’ he told himself. ‘I’m not jealous of a baby—least of all my best friend’s baby.’

“Ling?”

He blinked, coming out of his thoughts. “Sorry,” he apologized, rubbing his arm. “I’m a bit tired after such an exciting day.”

“That is wholly understandable,” she chuckled. “What did you want to speak with me about?”

“You, actually,” he admitted. When she became even more confused, he elaborated. “A lot has happened over the last year,” he began, his voice a bit quiet. “You’ve become a queen, you’ve gotten married, and you have a child…” He rubbed his arm again. “How are you holding up with all that stress?”

She was thankful that it was growing dark; he wouldn’t be able to easy see the uncertainty on her face. “For the most part, I am faring well. There have been times when I wished I had my friends and family with me, but I managed. And now that I am back with you all…Things will be easier, I feel.”

“That’s good,” he smiled. “And, you know…if you need any help—”

“I can come to you and the others,” she finished for him, smiling as well. “I know. And I plan to do just that when I feel overwhelmed.” She looked down at Liling. “With this little one, I cannot afford to let myself bottle everything up anymore…”

The tender look returned to his face as he reached over, gently running the back of his finger along her chubby cheek. “If ever you need someone to watch her, I’d be more than willing,” he offered.

Seeing his expression as he looked at Liling made a lump form in Zhu’s throat. “If my mother and sisters do not reach her first,” she told him, forcing a quiet laugh.

He glanced at her, seeing sadness in her eyes. It was a different sort of sadness—one had never seen before. It worried him; he had heard stories of women who hated their newborns so much, they ended up killing them. While he knew Zhu would never do such a thing to her daughter, he knew that she could be forcing herself into caring for the child—which would only lead to more negativity in the future.

“…Zhu? Can I ask you something personal?”

“How personal?”

“Extremely.”

She looked away from him for a moment, pondering his words. Curiosity won out, however, and she looked back at him. “You may.”

“Do you resent Liling?”

She frowned, horror coming to her face. “No, of course not!” she gasped, holding Liling closer to her. “Why would you think such a thing!?”

“I’ve heard stories of women who hated their children so much, they killed them,” he admitted. “While I know you would never harm a child, let alone your own flesh and blood…I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t an act.”

Zhu looked hurt by his words—and she was, though she understood his concern. “No. No, I do not hate Liling. I could never hate her; I love her far too much.” Closing her eyes, she gently kissed the top of Liling’s head. “But…I—I wish she had a different father,” she admitted in a whisper. “I love everything about this child, except her father. Things would be so much better if her father was a man I loved…” She blinked, suddenly feeling Ling’s hand on her chin.

He gently lifted her face so he could look her in the eye. “Zhu, if Mundzuc ever tries to hurt you or Liling…promise me you’ll come to us. Please.” He cupped her cheek, using his thumb to wipe a tear from her skin.

Her eyes shut and she unconsciously leaned into his touch; his palm was pleasantly warm. “I promise,” she murmured, taking him by surprise.

Ling hadn’t expected her to give in so easily; he had expected her to argue at least a little bit. “Thank you,” he murmured, wiping away another one of her tears. As she looked at him with her black and silver eyes, he couldn’t help but notice that they almost seemed to shine—or, perhaps, it was just her tears reflecting the dying sunlight? Regardless, they reminded him of stars against a night sky. “We’ll protect the two of you as best we can. No matter what.”

“I know you will.” A tired smile came to her lips. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

“Which part of this area gets the most amount of sunlight?”

“From what I remember, over here. But over here, on the eastern edge of the lake, it is rather sunny as well.”

“Then which area is less prone to flooding?”

“This one, here.” Zhu pointed at a spot on the map where there were no trees. “There should be plenty of land that we can turn into farming fields. It will take a bit of work to get the land ready for use, but not nearly as much as it took to ready the land back in Tianshui.”

Zhou nodded, setting a small rock where her finger had been. “Then we could use the eastern parts of the area as grazing fields for the animals,” he stated.

“But the animals will need to migrate with the change of seasons,” a second, slightly younger, man spoke. Plamen was his name; he was the eldest of the male Huns. “They’ll eat all the grasses if they stay in one area. They’ll starve!”

“I’m sure we will be able to find more land closer to the mountains for when we need to give the land a rest,” Zhou assured him. “If not, then there is plenty of open land just a few miles to the east.”

Plamen didn’t seem entirely happy by this answer, but he remained quiet.

“But what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to do when our supplies run out?” an older woman, named Yildiz, asked. Her wrinkled-line face was filled with concern. “We moved from place to place in order to survive, Shan Zhu. How are we going to survive if we remain in the same spot for the rest of our lives?”

Inwardly, Zhu frowned as she heard her full name said; it brought her nothing but painful memories. “Just as everyone else in a permanent settlement does,” she told her, shifting Liling from being against her shoulder to sitting in her lap. The little girl looked around with wide eyes, managing to soften the looks of the elders around her. “We will grow our own food. My sister, Su, is excellent with growing things. She will be able to teach our people how to ready the land, plant the seeds, and care for things once they begin to grow. What we cannot grow, we will hunt and we will trade for.”

“Hard to trade with people when you’ve got no allies,” Mundzuc spoke. “No one among us can afford to venture out to make alliances now, either. Not when we’ve so much work to do.”

“I have emissaries in mind,” she told him, her brow rising. “But it will be some time before I send them anywhere. I want my people to get established here—get homes built, fields plowed, paddocks made—before we make any deals. After all, we cannot offer what we do not yet have.” She was thankful Chi-Fu wasn’t present; she had the feeling that he would try to further argue with her and try to make her look like a moron.

Zhou nodded in agreement. “Though, it would not hurt to send out scouts at the very least,” he suggested. “If not to find potential allies, then to further map the area.”

“That’s a sound idea,” she murmured, glancing around at the others. Yildiz and Plamen still did not seem pleased by all of this. “Ling told me that he and Yao have already begun work on making bricks?”

“Yes. They’ve got nearly five hundred made,” Zhou explained, “though they have just under half that amount baked by now. But with more help, they should be able to make them in less time.”

“More bricks means more houses,” Mundzuc murmured, reaching a hand over to Liling. She grabbed onto his finger and pulled it to her mouth, beginning to gnaw on it. “Which will be good come winter, but we don’t know how to build houses. Gers, yes, but not brick-and-mortar houses. It would be like watching a child try to lead an army.”

“Chi-Fu and I are in the process of drawing up plans for various sized buildings,” Zhou told him, “and Ling and Yao will, no doubt, be able to teach others how to build, as well.”

Mundzuc used his free hand to stroke his chin in thought. “That name is familiar…” He then looked at Zhu, a bit of a smirk on his lips. “Isn’t he the man Shan Yu sent you to kill?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Yes,” she told him, admitting her failure, “though, as it just so happens, he has a brilliant mind for strategy and architecture.” She could hardly believe herself: Defending Chi-Fu of all people?

Zhou seemed surprised by her words, though his brows rose only slightly. “It’s true,” he agreed. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been the late Emperor’s advisor.”

Mundzuc mumbled something in Mongolian only to have Yildiz thwack him upside the head. Zhu had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing as the woman scolded him for speaking, not only ill of the dead, but in a language not everyone present could understand. He rubbed the back of his head and grumbled incoherently, his cheeks bright red.

“As I was saying,” Zhou spoke, bringing the attention back to him, “Chi-Fu and I have been making building plans. So far, we have three different sized houses and two sizes of barns, as well as feed and store houses. We’re still working on a functional palace layout, however.”

Zhu’s brows furrowed. “…A palace? We have no need for a palace.”

“You’re a queen, are you not?” he asked, chuckling. “You and your descendants will need a place to live that can withstand the elements and any potential attacks.” He leaned back slightly, rubbing his right knee as it began to ache. “Your yurt may work for the time being, but they can last only for so long.”

She shifted Liling slightly. “I would rather you and Chi-Fu focus your efforts on coming up with plans for places for the people to live in first.”

“My question is how long is all this going to take,” Plamen stated. “You speak of all this crop planting, pasture making, and house building as if it’ll take place overnight.”

“No—it will take a few years at the very least to get all of this accomplished,” Zhu told him. “If we had more able-bodied people—”

“Then go capture people from the neighboring lands!” Yildiz scolded. “Enslave them and make them do the work for those of us who can’t!”

Zhu glowered in her direction. “I am not my uncle,” she said, voice firm and almost dangerous sounding. “Slavery will not be tolerated, nor will the sacking and pillaging of neighboring settlements.”

Yildiz scoffed at her. “Yet another proud tradition you wish to remove from our lives,” she said, crossing her arms. “What next? You’re going to sell off all of our horses and tell us we have to ride goats everywhere?”

“There is nothing ‘proud’ about enslaving another human being,” Zhu stated, her voice still firm. “Nor is there anything ‘proud’ about taking the lives and belongings from innocent people.” She found herself thankful when Mundzuc took Liling from her.

“Shan Yu led us to greatness by doing just that!” Plamen argued. “Because of his pillaging and enslaving people, we were almost restored to the greatness we once had under Attila! And now you want us to just willingly fade into nothingness by making us settle here!”

Zhu suddenly stood, her hands slamming down on the table. “Because of Shan Yu, thousands of men needlessly lost their lives,” she snapped. “Because of Shan Yu, hundreds of innocent children were slaughtered before they could see their fifth year. Because of Shan Yu, our people do not know what peace is! They only know war, violence, and pain!”

Yildiz and Plamen leaned back, their eyes wide at her outburst. Zhou’s brows had risen in surprise; Mundzuc didn’t look the least bit startled as he held Liling against his chest. No one spoke a word as they watched Zhu sink back into her seat.

She sighed, rubbing the back of her neck; she felt bad for her outburst, but she hated how they compared her to Shan Yu. “I want to undo all the evil Shan Yu has done,” she told them, her voice quiet now. “Our people have suffered long enough. If we fade from the world, then so be it. At least we will have faded with peace and—hopefully—happiness.”

Straightening her posture slightly, she locked gazes with Plamen, who still wore a bit of defiance on his face. “There are many traditions we can still keep: Raising horses, making felt, keeping our religions—there are so many traditions we can keep. But we do not have to continue the cruelty of our foremothers and forefathers.”

“You could also come up with new traditions,” Zhou added. “That is what my family and our friends will be doing.”

Yildiz frowned. “It’s different for you,” she argued. “You’re used to living in one place. We’re not. For five hundred years, our people have lived nomadic lives.”

Mundzuc cleared his throat, bringing the attention to him. “You are actually forgetting an important part of your own history,” he said. “There have been times when your people did make permanent settlements. During Attila’s time, there were dozens of villages where non-nomadic Huns lived. But once his sons took over and started to war with one another, the people became entirely nomadic.”

“And how do you know that?” Plamen questioned, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. “You’re not a Hun.”

His brow rose. “That may be. But if you recall, I was one of Shan Yu’s elite,” he reminded him, voice cold. “And I made it a point to learn the history of your people when I became betrothed to Zhu.” He finally looked away from the two elders as Liling wriggled on his lap. Seeing that she was trying to get her foot to her mouth, he offered her his finger again. “Liling, feet aren’t for eating,” he murmured.

Plamen shrank back slightly, remaining silent.

“I think it is time to end this meeting,” Zhu sighed. “We can meet up again in a few days. Perhaps Fa Zhou will be able to bring some of the plans he and Chi-Fu have come up with?”

Zhou nodded. “I will,” he agreed. “I believe they’ll help give a more solid image of the future you intend to bring.”

Yildiz nodded slowly, using her cane to help her stand. “Something to look at instead of just hearing words would help,” she said. Hobbling her way over to the door, she left.

“I’m still uncertain about this,” Plamen told them, contempt still in his voice. “Some of our people may be willing to make these ludicrous changes, but the majority of them?” He shook his head and left the tent before anyone else could say anything.

Zhou stood as well. Setting his hand on Zhu’s shoulder, he gave her a surprisingly fatherly smile. “When they see our ideas, they will be more accepting,” he assured her. “In a year’s time, they will be thanking you for the changes you’re bringing to your people, I’m sure of it.”

“I can only hope,” she sighed, slouching back in her seat. She closed her eyes for a moment.

Chuckling, Zhou made his way towards the door. “Remember: They are old and we older people are more hesitant to accept change. We’re like trees in that regard; the older we get, the more stiff and stubborn we become.”

She let out a small, tired laugh and looked over at him. “That is true,” she agreed. “Thank you again, Fa Zhou, for being apart of the meeting. Your presence was most welcomed.”

“I’m just glad I was able to be of some usefulness.” He gave her another fatherly smile before nodding and taking his leave.

Mundzuc watched as the door shut behind Zhou. “Plamen and Yildiz are fools,” he said, shifting Liling so that he held her in a standing position on his lap. “How can they not see that this is the only option for them? There’s no way they would have lasted another five years traveling across the steppes and plains.”

“As Fa Zhou said, they’re old and stubborn,” she sighed, rubbing her forehead. “And there is nothing foolish about them being suspicious about these changes. Yes, it is frustrating, but…” Sniffing the air, she could smell a familiar, unpleasant scent. She looked over at him and Liling before holding her hands out to him. “Her diaper needs changed.”

“I’ll change her,” he said, standing. “You need to rest.”

Her brow rose. “I have done little more today than sit,” she frowned. “I think I have had plenty of rest.”

“You’re still recovering,” he countered, laying Liling in her crib. He started to search for the necessary supplies for changing her diaper. “The last thing your people need is a queen who’s died from exhaustion.”

She rolled her eyes. “I am fine,” she stated, getting to her feet. “The only thing wrong with me is the approaching new moon.” Crossing the yurt, she grabbed a pitcher and filled a wooden bowl with water. “And the fact that I have yet to earn the respect of my own people. Which, frankly, is understandable. I was away from them for five years and, when I returned, I wanted to uproot their lives and drastically change their future.” She grabbed a cloth and started to walk towards him.

“They would have died if you hadn’t done such,” he reminded her, tucking the clean diaper under Liling before he removed the soiled one. “If you hadn’t come back, they would have all frozen or starved to death during the winter. Why? Because they’re idiots who decided moving between the same three spots for five years without giving the lands a rest would be a good idea.”

She threw him a glare. “Will you stop insulting them?” she snapped, setting the bowl of water and the cloth beside him. “You are their King Consort. You are supposed to care for them and better their lives—not stand here and insult them as if they were ants.”

“They are ants,” he retorted, beginning to change Liling. “Ants who, for the last five years had no colony and no queen to give them direction. They flailed about uselessly, letting other, stronger insects take advantage of them until their strongest were picked off one-by-one. Ugh, child, why does your diaper smell so horrible? Your only meal is milk…”

“I have been letting her try some fruits,” Zhu told her, her voice dry. “And I will not tolerate you insulting my people. If your people suddenly lost their leader, I am positive they would react in much the same way.”

“Isn’t she a little young to be trying fruits? I thought Bolormaa said we should wait until she’s six months old?” He used the cloth and water to clean up Liling before tying the clean diaper onto her. “And my people wouldn’t have to worry about losing their leader. My father may be their king, but there are many tribes with their own chieftains. They would not be leaderless like the Huns were.”

“My mother, Fa Li, and Grandmother Fa all said it was alright.” As he handed her the soiled diaper, she was tempted to shove its contents into his face. She resisted and, instead, dropped it in a bucket of other soiled diapers that would be washed later that day. Rubbing her face, she went over and sat down on the bed.

She wouldn’t admit it to Mundzuc, but she was tired.

Ever since giving birth, she was always tired.

“Here.” She looked up, somewhat startled to find Mundzuc just a few feet in front of her. “Hold your daughter and forget about being a queen for a little while.” As he handed Liling to her, he stole a kiss from her.

Her nose scrunched up and she pulled back from him. She took Liling from him, holding her against her chest as she leaned back against the pillows. “Like I can forget so easily,” she murmured, gently rubbing the child’s back. She watched Mundzuc stir the coals in the firepit before setting the kettle over them.

“They would probably respect you a bit more if you were a bit more violent,” he told her.

“I am not going to be like my uncle,” she grumbled. “He may have earned respect by making people fear him, but I will not. I will earn it with kindness.” She quietly cooed to Liling as she started to fuss.

“Kindness will get you nowhere.”

“Kindness is why I have more friends than enemies now.”

“You still have enemies—they just have yet to rear their ugly heads.”

“Well, good luck to them. They will not find us here.” She brought both legs onto the bed as she continued to rub Liling’s back. “I do not want to continue Shan Yu’s legacy of fear and blood. I do not want Liling and any children my friends and family may have to grow up knowing only pain and hatred like I did. I want them to grow up to know calmness and love.”

Mundzuc glanced at her from over his shoulder. “Isn’t that what every parent wishes for their children?” He crumbled some tea leaves into a cup.

Her brow rose; Liling continued to fuss. “Evidently not.” She grabbed a pillow, setting it over her stomach before positioning her daughter for an afternoon meal. Yawning, she let her head fall back against the pillows behind her. “You still need to meet my mother, by the way. And my sisters.”

“I would rather meet them with you in the room than meeting them alone,” he told her, voice dry. “It would make things a little less awkward, don’t you think?”

“Hard to say. They know who you are and the things you have done. Whether I am with you or not, it will be an awkward experience for you.” She opened an eye, watching him as he grabbed the kettle from the fire. “At least you will not have to meet them while pregnant.”

At that, he laughed. “As true as that is, my father was still impressed by how loudly you belched.”

Her cheeks burned at the memory and she closed her eye. “I am just glad it was a belch…There was a strong chance it could have been vomit.” Sighing, she shifted slightly. “For which you should be thankful, by the way. If it had been vomit, then it would have gone all over you.”

He cringed at the thought. “Thank the spirits it was only hot air then,” he murmured, filling the cup with the hot water. “Otherwise, I would have vomited, too.”

“Then it is a good thing that did not happen then, isn’t it?” Zhu yawned. Opening her eyes, she looked down at Liling only to find that the little girl had fallen asleep. With the utmost caution and gentleness, she carefully shifted Liling so that she was once more against her shoulder. Liling grunted and wriggled somewhat in protest, but calmed down as Zhu cooed to her.

“I can put her in her crib if you’d like.”

She shook her head. “No,” she replied, voice quiet. “She is fine.”

“If you say so.” His tea having steeped long enough, he used a spoon to gather up as much of the leaves as possible. Picking up the cup, he turned around to face his wife and child only to find that both of them were now fast asleep.

Sighing, he shook his head and walked over to them. His free hand grabbed one of the blankets, carefully covering Zhu’s lower half with it. Then, leaning over, he kissed the top of Liling’s head and Zhu’s forehead. “Sleep well, my loves,” he murmured.

 


 

 

When Zhu woke up, the yurt was a bit on the dim side. She blinked in tired confusion and rubbed her eyes before looking around again.

“How long did I sleep?” she murmured. Close to her ear, she heard the sounds of Liling happily gnawing away on something. “Oh, love, how long have you been awake?” Bringing her knees up, she laid her daughter against her thighs only to find that Liling was happily gumming her hand. She smiled toothlessly, her eyes nearly disappearing thanks to her chubby cheeks. “You are an adorable little drool monster, do you know that?” she quietly laughed.

Liling’s only response was to giggle and happily kick her legs.

“She really is an adorable little drool monster.” Zhu nearly jumped as the voice spoke. Looking up, she saw Roua across the yurt, sitting up in his bed. “Did I startle you?” he chuckled.

She closer her eyes, swearing under her breath. “Yes,” she admitted. “How long have you been over there?”

“Only for about half an hour,” he explained, standing up. He came over to her and took Liling from her. “I saw that you were sleeping, so I didn’t want to disturb you. Hello, little one.” He held Liling in the air above his head, grinning as she squealed in delight. “You’ve been awake for a while, haven’t you? I know you were—I heard you grunting as you pooped!” He lowered her enough to rub his nose against hers, grinning as she squealed a second time.

Zhu smiled as she watched the two of them. “Two poops in one day? My, my, she’s becoming regular.” She started to get out of bed, intending to change Liling’s diaper, but Roua was already crossing the room. “Did you need to speak with me, by the way?”

“Need? No. Want? Yes.” He set Liling down in her crib so he could gather up the diaper changing supplies. “Roua said that Yildiz and Plamen had voiced a number of concerns regarding your ideas for the future.” Glancing over his shoulder at her, he continued, “He said that they upset you quite a bit.”

Rolling her eyes, she grumbled. “They did not upset me. They voiced their concerns, which was entirely understandable—”

“He told me that they compared you to Shan Yu and you had a bit of an outburst.”

She stared at him, her cheeks starting to burn. Remaining silent, she closed her eyes and looked away.

“Your silence tells me that he spoke the truth,” he told her, cleaning up the mess of Liling’s bum.

Sighing, she stood up and walked over to him. “They want me to be like him, Roua. They want me to send out raiding parties to capture innocent people and enslave them. They want me to use violence to instill fear and obedience into our people.”

“And that’s the furthest thing from what you want for our people.”

She nodded. “Yes. I told them I want us to live in peace and for our children to grow up knowing peace and love. I do not want them to have the life I had; I do not want them to grow up to be coldhearted killers like I had been.”

“They’re old, Zhu,” he told her. “They’re old and they’re stubborn. They don’t want to admit it, but they’re afraid of change. Their lives have been the same for so long.” He tossed the soiled diaper across the yurt, watching as it landed perfectly in the bucket of other dirty diapers.

“Nice shot,” Zhu blinked.

“Thank you,” he chuckled, turning back to Liling. “But, yes. Yildiz and Plamen are old. If anything, they’re jealous that the younger generation is going to have a better life than them. They probably want the younger people to go through the same amount of hardship—or more, even—than they went through. Aw, Liling, seriously? I just got this on you!”

Zhu laughed as she watched Roua grab a second diaper. “At least she is a girl,” she told him. “If Liling had been born a boy, then it would have gone everywhere.”

His brow rose. “You’re telling me?” he joked. “Even when we’re grown, it still gets everywhere.”

She continued to laugh. “Of course it would—it is difficult to find a target to aim at, I am sure.”

A wide grin was on his lips. “Spiderwebs are rather handy for that. Or, when no spiderwebs are around, we look for flies. Sometimes birds or squirrels.”

Zhu doubled over with laughter. “No wonder it gets everywhere!” she cackled. “You are too busy deciding on a target to keep it one spot!” She wiped some tears of mirth from her face, though continued to laugh.

“I haven’t made you laugh that hard in quite a while,” he chuckled, switching out the diapers once again. “I almost forgot you could laugh that hard.”

A breathless chuckle left her mouth. “Of course I can still laugh this hard—Ling, Yao, Su, and Ting-Ting manage to make me laugh this hard rather often.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiled as he looked over at her; it was an almost fatherly look. “Being with your Chinese family has done a lot of good for you, you know. And not just because you’re happier with them—you’ve become humble. You think about others more than yourself.” He threw the second soiled diaper across the room, watching as it joined the others.

She nodded slowly, leaning against the table somewhat. “Mulan and the others really have taught me a lot,” she quietly agreed. “And they are still teaching me things. Because of them, I now know what real friendship is and what love is. I know what happiness is.”

He nodded slowly as he listened to her. “Once upon a time, you knew what those things were when your uncle still lived,” he sighed, “but then that demon crept further into his mind and you were forced to forget them.” Picking up Liling, he was able to cradle her in just one of his large arms.

Zhu opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, there was a knock on the door. A look of milk confusion came to her face as she went over to the door. Opening it, she smiled as she saw Ting-Ting.

“You’re awake!” Ting-Ting smiled. “I came by earlier, but you were napping with Liling.”

Stepping aside, she motioned for her sister to come in. “I apologize. The meeting earlier wore me out. Did you need anything or…?”

She shook her head. “Other than to visit with my big sister and teeny-tiny niece? No.”

“Then, I will pass your teeny-tiny niece off to you,” Roua said, handing Liling over to Ting-Ting. He chuckled, watching as Liling started to giggle when her aunt tickled her belly.

“Did you have a good nap, little one?” she cooed, continuing to tickle the child. “You certainly seem like you did! You’re just giggling up a storm!”

Zhu smiled as she watched the two. “She is almost always in a good mood, thankfully,” she said. “The only time she is in a foul mood is if she has colic or is hungry.”

“Or when you and Mundzuc fight,” Roua added, heading for the door.

Her cheeks turned a bit pink as she watched him leave. “…Which…is not as often anymore,” she mumbled. Sighing, she moved to get herself a bit of food; she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. “Onto another subject: How is my sister?” She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Ting-Ting. “We have not gotten to talk much since I arrived.”

“Which is exactly why I’ve come to visit you,” she chirped, gently bouncing Liling in her arms. “I have been well. I’ve gotten to do so much woodworking since we came here!” A small laugh left her mouth. “In the last year, I’ve already carved twice the amount of wood that I did before we left China.”

Opening a ceramic jar, Zhu pulled out a handful of dried fruit before closing it once again. “That is wonderful!” she smiled. “I have been noticing your handiwork in the new doors and windows of the old shepherds’ homes. It seems you have improved greatly; which is saying something. You already were excellent with woodworking.”

Ting-Ting laughed again, following her sister as she walked across the yurt to sit in a chair. “It helps that I have had to make entirely new doors and window frames,” she said, also sitting down. Setting Liling on her lap, she made sure the child was propped against her stomach. She then started to play with Liling’s toes. “I have the feeling that, in the coming months, I will have even more work to do.”

“You will have help this time around, though,” Zhu smiled. “We acquired some woodworkers some years ago from the Danish lands and they are still with us.”

Ting-Ting tilted her head in curiosity. “…The Danish lands? Where are those?”

“Northwest of here—on the very edge of the continent.” She ate a dried plum. “There are many, many trees in those lands, and they have excellent carpenters. There are about five among our numbers.”

“How did you come about them?”

She ate another dried plum. “Shan Yu paid them quite well to make spears, bows, and arrows for us.”

“Will I be able to speak with them?”

Zhu laughed. “Yes, you will,” she assured her. “Their Chinese may not be the best, but they are vastly better at Chinese than they are Mongolian.”

“Do you speak any of their language?”

“A smattering, but not enough to consider myself fluent.” She then shook her head. “Aside from woodworking, how have you been? I see you are still with Ling.”

She nodded, having to move one of her braids over her shoulder as Liling tried to grab it. “Aside from the woodworking? I have been well. And yes, Ling and I are still together.” As she spoke, Zhu noticed that she didn’t sound as thrilled about her relationship as she had a year ago. “I’ve started helping Su and Chien-Po in the garden. Planting things and tending to them is surprisingly relaxing.” She chuckled. “I now know why they enjoy it so much.”

“The more hands helping in the garden, the better,” she smiled. A bit of concern then came to her voice. “You did not sound very thrilled about your relationship…is it not going well?”

Ting-Ting’s cheeks flushed a bit; she had forgotten how observant her sister could be. “No, no—it’s going well,” she assured her. “It’s just—it’s just not the same as it was a year ago. On the way here, we had some fights that very nearly broke us apart.”

“And yet, the two of you are still together.”

“Yes, but, admittedly, I’m not entirely sure it’s because I love him or if it’s because everyone wants us to be together.” She shifted in her chair slightly; even though she knew she could speak freely with Zhu, it still felt odd to finally tell someone the truth.

Zhu frowned, confused. “What do you mean by that?”

She started to gently bounce Liling. “Zhu, you know exactly what I mean: There was one lieutenant for each of us princesses and there was Mulan for the general. Even you had hopes that we would all end up falling in love.”

“That—that does not mean I wanted you to be with him if you did not love him,” she frowned, cheeks pinkening. “Ting-Ting, if you have fallen out of love with him, then you need—”

“I don’t know if I’ve fallen out of love with him,” she interjected. “He still makes me laugh, we still have our deep conversations, and he still makes my stomach flutter at times. It—it just doesn’t happen nearly as often anymore.”

“Have you spoken with him about this?”

A guilty look came to her face and she looked down at Liling. The child was happily gnawing on her hands, which were now coated in drool. “I have tried bringing it up with him,” she explained, “but, for some reason, I just—I can’t bring myself to do it.”

Zhu gave her a pitying look. “You are afraid that you will hurt him?”

“No. I am afraid that he will feel the same and we’ll end the relationship, disappointing everyone.”

“You would not be disappointing anyone, Ting-Ting. Everyone wants you to be happy. Continuing a relationship with a man you feel you may no longer love would only work against you.”

Ting-Ting gave her a curious look. “Says the woman married to a man she hates.”

Zhu’s cheeks burned. “My marriage is different—it is purely political. You and Ling, however? There is nothing political about it.” She brushed one of her braids over her shoulder. “You are not a princess anymore; how can it be political?” A small, reassuring smile came to her lips as she looked at her sister. “Ting-Ting, trust me on this: You need to talk with Ling before it is too late. Maybe you will find that you are both still madly in love, maybe you will find out the opposite. But you will not know unless you talk to him.”

She was silent for many minutes and she kept her gaze down towards Liling. Her niece was now trying to grab her foot and failing; she did succeed, however, in grabbing Ting-Ting’s finger and pulling it to her mouth. “You’ve become quite knowledgeable in regards to love since you left.”

“…I had a lot of time to observe others while I was pregnant,” Zhu admitted. “Once we left Mongolia, the warriors and the civilians have gotten to know each other quite well. There have been many new relationships blossoming with some already resulting in marriage. Others were as fast burning as a wildfire and ended with bitter quarrels. When I watched those whose relationships were flourishing, I came to learn that communicating with one another was the key to their success.”

Slowly nodding, Ting-Ting adjusted Liling so that the child could gnaw on her other hand. “Then…I suppose I should talk with him,” she admitted with a sigh. “I suppose I am also afraid that I will only hurt him. He’s such a sweetheart…”

“He really is, isn’t he?” she agreed with a small chuckle. “He has already volunteered to be Liling’s babysitter should I need a break.”

At that, Ting-Ting laughed. “Has he really? Do not tell mother or Mei; they will throw a fit!”

She rolled her eyes, smiling. “Everyone will have their chance to babysit my daughter if they want it,” she laughed. “In the coming days, I will need to have my mind focused mostly on queenly duties and I will actually be needing Mundzuc’s help…”

Her brow rose. “Why? What is going on?”

“The Hunnic elders do not agree with me that creating a permanent settlement is a good idea, nor do they enjoy the thought of having to share said settlement with a group of Chinese people.” As she spoke, she rubbed the back of her neck; just the thought of it gave her a headache. “On top of that, we need to start building homes for people who do not have their own yurts or who would benefit from more enduring housing. We also need to begin sectioning off areas of the land for the will-be farmers, the herders, and the tanners. All the while, trying to ensure that the peace between everyone is kept.”

Tilting her head back, she stared at the roof of the yurt. “Mundzuc has more influence over the Mongolians—understandable, as he is their prince. I have influence over the Huns, though they are wary of me, since I was gone for so long. Roua, however, has been helping to remind them that I am their queen and what I am doing is for the best.”

“You no longer have the numbers needed to keep traveling across the lands as nomads,” Ting-Ting agreed, nodding. “Especially since there is no guarantee that your new army will even stay. They’re still loyal to your father-in-law, correct?”

“Yes, they adore Hadan.”

She nodded in understanding. “Then it’s a very real possibility that, if they don’t like it here, they’ll simply return to Mongolia, correct?”

“Correct, although they could get punished for doing such. After all, they would be deserting their duty.” Shaking her head, she shifted her position from sitting normally to sitting sideways in the chair, a leg thrown over the arm of the chair while the other she left resting on the ground. “Coupled with raising a child…? I have quite a bit on my plate.”

“It certainly sounds like it,” Ting-Ting said, a frown on her lips. “I am sure mother will be more than welcome to help you; she did live among your people for five years, after all. Maybe she holds some influence over them?”

Zhu shook her head. “Everyone who she had influence over is dead—save for Roua. Thank the spirits he survived, though…I do not know what I would have done the last year without him.”

“He seems like a nice enough man.”

“He is. He and his late twin, Ruga, raised me more than Shan Yu did. His humor can still be a little dark, but he is a sweetheart. Liling adores him, so I told him to consider himself ‘Grandpa Roua’.”

Ting-Ting chuckled. “That’s sweet.”

Zhu smiled. “After putting up with me for so long? He deserves it.” She lifted her head as she heard a knock on the door. “Come in!” she called, nearly cracking up when Liling let out a loud ‘baaah!’ in joy.

Looking at the door, Ting-Ting and Zhu watched as Mulan came in. In her hands, she held a couple of long, rolled up scrolls. “I’ve a delivery from my father,” she chirped. “He sent me with the plans for you to look over. He said he would have come himself, but his leg started to act up.” Seeing Ting-Ting, her cheeks turned a bit pink. “Oh…I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” Ting-Ting assured her. “We were just venting to one another.”

Beckoning for her to come join them, Zhu righted herself in her chair. “Does anyone want tea?” she asked, standing up.

“Tea would be lovely, actually,” Mulan smiled. “Would you like help making it?”

She shook her head. “No, I am fine. You can set the scrolls on the table over there, by the way.”

Setting the scrolls down where she was instructed, Mulan moved to take a seat in one of the chairs. She couldn’t help but giggle as she looked at Liling, finding the child toothlessly smiling at her as she gnawed on her hand. Her chubby cheeks nearly hid her eyes from sight. “Well aren’t you just the cutest little drool monster in the yurt?” she teased, reaching over to tickle Liling’s foot. “Does your hand taste good?”

“It must,” Ting-Ting laughed. “She’s been gnawing on it nonstop.”

“She must be getting ready to start teething, then.”

“She is.” Zhu came back over, holding the kettle with one hand and a wooden horse with the other. The horse she handed to her daughter, who laughed and happily started to gnaw on that instead. “I cannot say I am looking forward to it, though—mother was telling me that babies can get quite cranky when their teeth come in.”

“That and, if they’re still nursing…” Ting-Ting stuck her tongue out at the thought. “That will be painful.”

“I was trying to forget that part,” Zhu groaned.

Mulan couldn’t help but laugh. “At least, her teeth coming in mean that you can start feeding her more solid food, right? Since she’ll be able to chew it herself.”

“Yes, but that will be some months away.” Instead of sitting in her chair again, she kicked some cushions over to the area before laying on them. “Even then, it will only be soft foods and she will still need milk. However, I do not always make enough milk for her, so sometimes Roua will milk Umut for me and we give her that instead.”

Ting-Ting and Mulan gave her curious looks. “How does she drink the milk, though?” Mulan asked. “Do you have a—well, a breast-shaped bag you put it in?”

Zhu laughed, shaking her head. “No!” she giggled, the mental image of holding a breast-shaped bag of milk oddly hilarious to her. “No bag needed. A woman by the name of Zoraida made me a special pot meant to help babies get milk if, for some reason, they cannot get it from their mothers.”

“Oh! I think I’ve heard of something like that!” Ting-Ting chirped. “Some of father’s concubines had to use them when the wet nurses were busy with other children.”

Zhu nodded. “I did not know such a thing existed until Zoraida showed it to me. She is both a healer and a potter, so when she learned I did not always make enough milk, she whipped one up and had it ready for me in just a few days.”

“A healer and a potter? That’s interesting combination,” Mulan smiled. “But, from the sounds of it, quite handy. You should introduce her to grandmama—she loves making things from clay.”

Both Zhu and Ting-Ting looked surprised. “Really?” Zhu asked, head tilting slightly.

“Why do you think she’s so hunched over?” she giggled. “She spent most of her life stooped over her throwing wheel.” A small, reminiscent sigh left her mouth. “I remember her trying to teach me how to make bowls when I was younger. I…didn’t really have the patience for it, but she insisted that one of the bowls I made get fired. We still have it, as a matter of fact.”

Ting-Ting smiled. “That is really sweet!” she chuckled. “Which bowl is it? Or do you keep it hidden away?”

Mulan’s cheeks turned pink again. “It is that strange bowl we often use when making dumpling dough.”

“The one that’s all wavy and uneven?”

“That very one.”

Zhu smiled. “I always liked that bowl,” she said. “It definitely looks like a child made it, but in an adorable way.”

Her cheeks growing darker, Mulan laughed. “I’m glad everyone seems to like it,” she said, “because I actually hate it.”

“Aww, why?” Ting-Ting giggled. “Because you think it looks bad?”

Mulan shook her head, still chuckling. “No, I just hate how large it is! Do you know how hard it is to find a place to store it when we’re not making dumplings?”

Zhu snorted. “Spirits, you are right—that thing would be difficult to store!” She then looked up at Ting-Ting. “If you do not wish to hold Liling anymore, you are more than welcome to put her on the floor.”

Ting-Ting pouted. “But the floor is dirty…”

“Not really. I swept this morning.”

Glancing between her sister and her niece, Ting-Ting hesitantly put the child on the floor. “Like this?” she asked, laying her on her back. “Or do you want her on her stomach?”

“Either is fine.”

As she chewed on her toy, Liling grinned up at her aunt and kicked her feet.

“You are just so cute!” Ting-Ting cooed, giving her cheek a very gentle pinch. “Look at that sweet smile of yours!”

“She is very cute,” Mulan smiled. She then glanced over at Zhu, who had rolled onto her stomach and was resting her chin on her crossed arms. “You’re doing a wonderful job with her, Zhu. I know she’s still so young, but with how much love and care you give her, I’m sure she’ll grow up to be a well-loved queen.”

A half-hearted smile came to her lips. “I can only hope,” she sighed. “Being a mother is not as hard as I thought it would be, yet at the same time, it is so much harder.”

“I can only imagine,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m scared about having children.” She brushed a bit of hair out of her face. “That, and pregnancy in general is a scary thought.” She shuddered. “Shang told me he wishes to have many children…I don’t have the heart to tell him I only want one or two.”

Ting-Ting and Zhu exchanged curious glances. “Talk with him,” Ting-Ting told her, voice gentle. “Communication is important in a relationship.”

Mulan glanced between them, curious. “…I take it you were recently told to communicate more?” she chuckled.

“Guilty as charged,” Ting-Ting replied. “I may have unconsciously sought advice from Zhu about my own relationship.”

“Oh, really?” She giggled and looked over at Zhu. “I’m surprised, Zhu. A year ago, you were the one seeking relationship advice.”

Her cheeks turned a bit red. “It was not so much relationship advice as it was general advice. If you wanted relationship advice, then I would suggest going to Mei, mother, or Li.” Standing up, she grabbed a cloth and used it to grab hold of the kettle’s hand before taking it over to a cooking bench.

“Grandmama gives good relationship advice,” Mulan smiled. “I know it’s hard to believe, but she really does.”

“I remember she once told me that if a man ever broke my heart, I should stab him,” Zhu chuckled, her brow rising. She glanced over her shoulder at the others as they started giggling. “Something tells me that that was not one of her more serious pieces of advice.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mulan laughed, “though, she’s told me the same thing. It makes me wonder if she’s done such a thing one or twice in her life.”

Zhu brought over a tray of teacups and a teapot. “Knowing your grandmother, Mulan? She has—and has made sure the bodies were never found.”

 

Chapter Text

Zhu let out a quiet sigh as she stepped out of the yurt, Liling strapped to her back. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed the sight of snow-capped mountains bathed in the warm pinks and oranges brought on by the sunrise. A content smile came to her lips; she almost felt like she was home.

But home came with chores and the first chore of her day was going to inspect the lands picked out for the animal herders. She whistled quietly, not wanting to wake anyone. After a few minutes, Umut came around to the front of her yurt; her foal wasn’t with her.

“Leaving him with one of the other new mothers, are you?” she murmured, reaching out and stroking Umut’s neck.

I would like him to stay here, where there will be multiple pairs of eyes watching over him, Umut replied. She flicked her mane out of her face as Zhu mounted her. It will be hard for me to watch over him while we inspect things.

“That is true.” She kept her voice quiet; she had left without waking Mundzuc and wanted to make sure he didn’t follow her. “Thank you for agreeing to do this so early.”

Think nothing of it. I have missed our morning rides. She started to trot off. If only we were joined by Khan and Yan…and their riders, of course.

Zhu felt her cheeks grow a bit warm. “I am not about to wake up Mulan and Ling just to go ensure the herders have enough room for their animals while also being in a safe area.”

As true as that is, the ride would be so much more pleasant with them.

“Umut,” she groaned, rubbing her forehead. “You know I cannot do that. Yes, being around them makes me happy and I feel safer with them around, but…” She shook her head. “No. The last thing I need is for Mundzuc to find out and come up with some plan to hurt them in retaliation.”

I do wish you would let me deliver a swift kick to his face. It would save you so much trouble and it would allow you marry someone of your choosing.

“I did marry him out of my own choosing,” she grumbled. “Yes, it was for political reasons, but no one forced me into it. And if you were to kill him, the Mongol warriors may abandon us.” She ran a hand over her hair; she decided to not wear her headdress that day. It would only serve as an unwanted distraction for her. “I know it is unlikely that they will abandon us, but it is a risk I am not willing to make. Especially when we can use their help with manual labor.”

Umut snorted, reluctantly accepting defeat. I will continue to trust your judgement on this, though I do not agree with you.

Leaning forward, she patted the side of the mare’s neck. “You need not to,” she told her, a small smile on her lips. “Thank you.”

She merely flicked her head back, whipping some of her mane out of her face.

 

It wasn’t a very long ride to the fields that would become the grazing ground for the village’s animals—it only took ten minutes at a canter. The land here was a bit hillier than the area where the village was, but its grass was tall and green and filled with wildflowers. Nearly two miles of open land stretched before her eyes, with the distant trees forming a natural barrier around it.

“Perfect, isn’t it?”

Swearing, Zhu brought Umut around only to find Mundzuc riding towards them. “How did you know where to find me?”

Wearing a victorious smirk, Mundzuc brought his horse alongside her and Umut. “It was obvious,” he told her. “We have a meeting about your plans for the future—including the creations of farms and pastures for the animals. It’s only natural that you would want to inspect the areas for yourself to ensure their usefulness.”

She felt her cheeks beginning to burn. “I did not wake you for a reason, Mundzuc: I can do this on my own.” Without her instruction, Umut began to walk away.

His brow rose, not impressed by her answer. Flicking the reins, he made his horse begin to follow alongside the two. “As your king consort, I should also be aware of any pros and cons about these lands,” he retorted. “And with you carrying Liling on your back, you need someone to protect you should anything happen.”

She rolled her eyes, motioning to the bow and quiver hanging from the side of Umut’s harness. “What do you think these are for? Decoration?”

Reaching out, he grabbed hold of her wrist. “Don’t be an idiot, Zhu,” he scolded. “We both know that there are creatures in these forests that could stalk and kill you without you ever knowing they were there. Not to mention the possibility of you running into bears or boars.”

“I do not plan to go into the forest,” she sighed. She tried to pull her hand away from him, but his grip held firm. “Will you please let go?”

“Only if you promise to not go off on your own again—or, at least, not with Liling.” His eyes met hers and Zhu found herself hating how there was genuine concern them. “You don’t have to bring me along. Just bring someone—even if it’s that crossdressing bamboo stalk.”

“His name is Ling,” she quietly growled. “And, fine: So long as I have Liling with me, I will only leave the village with someone else in attendance.”

His brow rose, but he loosened his grip enough to allow her to pull her hand away. “Thank you.”

“You are not welcome.” She glared at him from the corner of her eye. “Why do you suddenly care if I leave unattended? You had no issues with it before we arrived here.”

“There aren’t mountain lions, bears, or wild boars on the steppes,” he told her, voice bland. “Here, however? You remember the last time we were here and how Bleda barely survived that mountain lion attack. His legs never did recover.” He brushed a small beetle from his sleeve before looking back up at Zhu. “Not to mention that you have yet to fully recover from Liling’s birth. You nearly died that day—you’re lucky you haven’t been confined to bedrest for the last two months!” He shook his head, cursing under his breath.

“I cannot build my strength back up if you never allow me to do anything.” Her nose scrunched up slightly. “You treat me as if I were a glass doll when I am the furthest thing from that.”

“Because I don’t want you to die, Shan Zhu.”

Her eyes shut and the corner of her mouth rose slightly, exposing the tiniest hint of her teeth. She was about to snap at him, but then she remembered the tiny bundle on her back that was the sleeping Liling. Instead, she took a deep breath in through her mouth before slowly releasing it through her nose. ‘Keep your temper in check, Zhu,’ she scolded herself. ‘Don’t wake Liling.’

Mundzuc glanced up at her. “Did you at least eat before you left?”

“I was not very hungry,” she replied, keeping her eyes on the horizon. “But I did eat some dried fruit.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Yes, I brought some food and water with me for later,” she added, not giving him the chance to further scold her.

“Good,” he murmured. Shaking his head, he let out a quiet sigh. “These fields look wide enough for the horses, goats, and sheep to each have their own section of land,” he said, changing the subject. “There would even be room to spare should we get cattle in the future.”

She nodded. “Once we get a better look at the perimeter, then we will know for sure if placing the animals here would be a good idea.”

“It would also give us an idea of how much fencing we will need to build—and how tall to build it.”

“We will not need to build too tall of fencing if we place it far enough away from the trees.”

“That doesn’t matter. Mountain lions and bears will climb walls if they know that food’s on the other side.”

She gave him a bland look. “By that logic, Mundzuc, the animals will simply keep climbing no matter how tall we make the fencing. Unless we were to grease the fences, there will always be a chance of a predator breaking into the pastures.”

His cheeks turned a dark shade of red. “You know what I meant,” he grumbled.

 

The two of them spent nearly three hours riding around the perimeter of the fields. As far as they could see, it would be a perfect area for the animal to graze and raise their young. There was even a small stream towards the northern end of the area. A lot of fencing would be needed, however, and Zhu knew well enough that meant a good amount of the surrounding trees would have to be cut down.

Part of her didn’t like the idea of removing so many trees, but she knew they could always plant more trees should they use too many. ‘It’s always good to offer apology to the Earth Mother for harming her,’ she thought as they rode back to the village. ‘Though we will take hundreds of her trees, I will make sure that hundreds more are planted to replace them.’

She looked down at her chest, where she was holding Liling. The child had woken up only fifteen minutes ago and had woken up starving. Now, she was loudly eating her breakfast while clutching to Zhu’s shirt.

“Child, you sound like Roua scarfing down some stew,” she told the little girl. “Only cuter.”

“She may be loud, but at least she’s getting a full meal,” Mundzuc sighed. “I don’t think either of us thought to bring her little pot should you not have been able to feed her.”

Zhu felt her cheeks burn; she didn’t want to admit, but she had forgotten the pot. “I have been doing well in terms of making milk,” she told him, “and, with her starting to eat solid foods, the milk will not be as important.”

“She will still need it, though.”

“Yes, but not as often.” Sighing, she pushed a braid over her shoulder. “Regardless, she has been eating well and getting enough food lately.”

Mundzuc glanced over at her. “From what you’ve told me, your youngest sister will ensure she gets enough food one way or another.”

“Su will ensure everyone gets enough food, one way or another.”

As they approached the village-in-progress, they could see that people were awake and going about their morning chores. Horses and goats were being fed, water was being gathered, and smoke started to furl out of the tops of the yurts as fires were built. People greeted them when they rode past, some giving respectful bows. Zhu smiled and wished them a good day in return.

“You’re being too nice to them,” Mundzuc grumbled.

“I will let you be the mean one,” she replied, brow rising. “How many times must I tell you: I will not treat my people poorly. They will be treated as my equals.”

He rolled his eyes. “And how many times much I tell you: They will never respect you if you don’t take any measures to let them know that you’ve got power over them?”

“Oh, just shut up and let her rule how she wants, Mundzuc.” The two of them looked in front of them only to see Roua coming towards them. He looked at Zhu. “One of the Chinese men is wanting to speak with you, Zhu,” he told her.

“Which one?”

“The one who looks good in a dress.”

She nodded in understanding. “That would be Ling.” She didn’t need to look at Mundzuc to know he was now glaring at her. “Did he say what he wanted to speak about?”

“Yes. He wanted to speak with you about the brick production. He said to meet him behind the largest house.”

“Thank you, Roua.” She looked down at Liling, noticing that she wasn’t eating anymore. Shifting her, she pulled her shirt back down and held Liling against her shoulder. “I will head over there now,” she told him, beginning to gently pat Liling on the back. “I would imagine he is wanting to know when he can expect more help with the brick making…”

“I’ll come with you,” Mundzuc told her, voice cool. “I may as well get to know my wife’s best friends. After all, they’re going to be playing a large role in her life.”

Zhu gave him a bored look. “You will join me when I go to speak with my friends out of fear of me being unfaithful and, yet, you refuse to meet my mother.”

“I will meet your mother, but I would prefer it if you were there with me,” he retorted. “In fact, I would prefer to meet your entire family with you present.”

Roua rolled his eyes. “What? Are you afraid they’ll find some way to get rid of you? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re trying to make peace with our peoples. By getting rid of you, that would defeat the purpose.”

Mundzuc narrowed his eyes. “I am aware of that,” he snapped. “I would—would just rather have my wife present when I meet her family so that she can introduce me.”

Zhu’s brow rose; everything about Mundzuc’s demeanor was telling her he was embarrassed: His slightly pink cheeks, his defensive behavior, and the slight hesitation in his voice. But why would he, of all people, be embarrassed? Was it because he was the reason she was in an unhappy marriage?

‘No,’ she told herself, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly as she both watched and listened as the two men continued to bicker. ‘He’s not embarrassed.’

A small smirk then came to her lips. “Mundzuc is nervous about meeting my family,” she stated, voice even, but cool. “He is not the best when it comes to speaking with people he does not know, so he would like me there as a sort of security blanket.”

His cheeks turning pink, he glared at her. “I wouldn’t phrase it quite like that,” he grumbled, “but, yes, I would like you there for that reason.”

“Funny. You have no problems when it comes to talking with men you do not know.”

Roua snickered. “Why doesn’t it surprise me that women of all creatures would scare him?”

Mundzuc growled, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the reins in anger. “Shut. Up.”

“Now it makes sense why you always let someone else do the talking when business was conducted with women and why you were so hesitant to speak to Yildiz the other day.” Zhu started laughing, but there was no humor in it. The sound was, instead, a mixture of sarcastic and condescending. “No wonder you settled for me,” she sneered. “I am the only woman you were ever able to talk to without pissing yourself in fear!”

Roua’s eyes shot open as Mundzuc suddenly backhanded Zhu across the face. The force nearly knocked her from the saddle, but she was just barely able to keep her balance.

“You’re lucky a man like me ‘settled’ for you at all!” Mundzuc hissed, watching as blood began to ooze from her nose. “If it hadn’t been for me, you and your family would have been slaughtered by my brothers and their armies!” Before either she or Roua could react, he turned his horse around and rode off.

Zhu winced as she pressed her sleeve against her nostril. “I did not think he would do that,” she murmured, pulling her hand back to inspect the amount of blood. “He usually reserves hitting me for when I am not holding Liling.”

“He’s a damned coward, that’s why he did it,” Roua growled. Shaking his head, he looked up at her worriedly. “We should get you to a healer.”

“What can a healer do?” she asked, her brow rising. “Tell me to hold a cloth to my nose until it stops bleeding?” Sighing, she adjusted Liling so that the child was also sitting in the saddle, her mother’s arm helping her to stay upright. “I will be fine, do not worry.” She gave him a small smile, though any reassurance it held was driven away by the blood on her face.

“You tell me not worry after I witnessed you get backhanded by your husband?” he asked, voice dry and sarcastic. “You’re so comforting.”

Zhu gave him an apologetic look. “I do not know what else to tell you.” Every time she spoke, her cheek ached.

“Tell me I can backhand that bastard across the face for you,” he replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

Rolling her eyes, she chuckled. “Feel free,” she told him. “I, on the other hand, need to go see why Ling wants to talk about bricks.”

“You may want to wash the blood from your face first.” He turned, walking alongside her as Umut started to walk.

“I will once I stop bleeding,” she told him. “Which, hopefully, is soon. The last thing I need is for one of them to see me with a bloody nose…”

“And a large bruise on your cheek.”

A look of exasperation came to her face. “Is one already forming?”

He nodded. “It’s still more red than anything, but there is a bit of black and blue starting to form.”

Sighing, she closed her eyes. “It cannot be helped, I guess,” she murmured. She could already hear the mixture of worry and scolding words Ling would be telling her. “I will see you later. Maybe hit Mundzuc a little extra hard for me?”

“Oh, I’ll make sure it’s more than a ‘little’,” Roua said, his brow rising. “He’ll have a bigger bruise than you by tonight, I promise.” Reaching up, he gave Liling’s cheek a gentle pinch. “You be a good girl for your mommy, alright? She’s having a rough day.”

Liling made a quiet noise as she tried to grab hold of his hand. It was quickly pulled out of her reach, however, as Roua stopped walking and Umut continued to walk. Continuing her baby babbling, she instead picked up Umut’s reins and started to play with them.

‘Ling is going to be so upset with me when he sees this,’ she thought with a sigh. ‘And I can’t even lie about it; it’s obvious someone struck me—and it’s even more obvious who struck me.’

She swallowed hard as she looked down at Liling. ‘Things would be so much easier if Ling was your father…but no. Life isn’t easy.’ She gently ran her fingers along the top of Liling’s head. ‘I can only hope the Earth Mother and Sky Father take pity on you, my sweet little daughter…’

She shook her head and sighed. Her nose no longer feeling like it was bleeding, she wiped her face a final time before reaching for her water flask. Carefully, she balanced Liling against her while she used the water to rinse out her sleeve and then to wipe her face clean.

It didn’t take much longer for Umut to reach the spot where Ling wanted to meet. There, she found him shoving a heavy-looking shale tray of unbaked bricks into one of the ovens. He grunted as he stood upright, wincing as he leaned backwards to stretch backwards. Spotting Zhu from the corner of his eye, he grinned and started to walk towards her.

“I see you got my message,” he said. “And I see you brought Liling! Is she going to help make some bricks?” He chuckled, but the sound faltered in his throat. Seeing the bruise forming along her cheek and the bits of blood that still clung to her nostril, his eyes widened in shocked horror. “Zhu, what happened?!”

She leaned over, handing Liling to him. “It is nothing,” she told him. Throwing her leg over Umut, she dismounted. “Roua said you wanted to speak with me about the brick making?” She smoothed her clothing out, trying to ignore the half-scolding, half-pouting expression Ling was wearing.

“He hit you, didn’t he?” he asked, ignoring her question. “Why?! Why did he hit you?!”

Zhu sighed in defeat; she knew that, no matter how much she insisted that the bruise was nothing, Ling would continue to press her for an answer. “I mocked him,” she finally answered. “I mocked him for being afraid to talk to women.”

“And he hit you for that!? I tease Yao about that all the time and he’s never hit me—out of anger, anyway!” He adjusted Liling, holding her more against his shoulder now. “Zhu…”

“I will be fine,” she said, a reassuring smile on her lips. “Now, please: Tell me why you needed to speak with me, Ling.”

He was silent for a moment, still watching Zhu. Then, turning from her, he started to gently bounce the child and walked towards the house. “We’ve got a pretty good supply of bricks built up already,” he told her, “but the thing is: Since Yao’s started to help Ting-Ting and Shang out with harvesting lumber, it’s just been me making these things.”

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Zhu was only a few paces behind him. He opened the door, beckoning her inside. Once the two of them were inside, he closed the door. He then jumped as Zhu sneezed, startled both by the sound and by how adorable it was.

“Was that a—?!” he gawked.

Her cheeks were bright red. She opened her mouth to speak, but the only sound that came out was another sneeze…and another…and another. Liling started giggling at her mommy’s silly noises. After a few minutes, however, Zhu’s nose settled down.

“That was the most adorable sound I have ever heard leave a human’s body,” Ling grinned. He looked down at Liling, whose giggles were beginning to quiet down. “Weren’t those cute little sneezes your mommy had?”

Zhu’s cheeks were bright red. “I believe we were talking about bricks, not sneezes,” she grumbled, clearly embarrassed. The sneezes had been unavoidable; the room smelled heavily of dusty earth.

A pitying smile came to his lips, but he couldn’t help but continue chuckling. “Yeah, bricks. As I was saying, it’s just been me making bricks the last few days. This would be fine and dandy if it was still just us here, but with all your people…”

“You will need help making them.” She walked over to the stacks of baked bricks, picking one up to inspect it. “I am sure I can round up a good number of people to help you with that. Does it matter if they are good with pottery or not?”

He shook his head. “Not at all. The hardest part is getting the ratio of ingredients right and then mixing them together,” he chuckled. He looked down at Liling, lightly poking her nose. “I bet you’ll be pretty good at playing in the mud once you start toddling about!” he told her. “Maybe you can help Uncle Ling make bricks?”

Zhu felt a pang in her heart, but kept her face free of any emotion aside from amusement. “How many workers do you think you will need?”

“I don’t know, to be honest.” He shrugged. “I guess however many you’re willing to part with. I know we’ll probably have to build more kilns, too, but that can wait a while.”

Setting the brick back down atop the pile, she looked around the room again. More than three-quarters of it was filled with bricks ready to be used; they were stacked in piles tall enough to reach her hips. The rest of the bricks were stacked on rock shelves, many of them looking still quite damp.

“I will try to get you at least thirty,” she told him, brushing her hair over her shoulder. “More, if possible. But I will be needing to put a lot of our manpower into timber harvesting.”

“I understand,” he nodded. “Wooden houses are faster to build than brick houses. But, you can’t build ovens and stoves without bricks or stones.” He smiled at her. “And even if you can’t get me that many people, I’m perfectly fine with just three even.”

“Or four. I will help you out at times.”

His brow rose. “You? Help make bricks?” He started to laugh.

She frowned. “What is so funny about that?”

“You’re a queen, Zhu. You’ve got way more important things to do than to help me make bricks.”

“What good is a queen if she does not help her subjects with their jobs once in a while?” she questioned, crossing her arms over her chest. There was a small pout on her lips. “Just because I am a queen does not mean that I can no longer help my friends and family.”

Ling cocked a brow, still chuckling. “I’m happy to hear that,” he admitted. “I know being a queen can’t be an easy job and…I’d be lying if I told you some of us weren’t worried about you being too busy to be around us anymore.”

A bit of hurt came to her face. “Even if I were empress of the entire world, I would still make time to be with my friends and family,” she told him, voice gentle. “It…just may not be as much time as I would like it to be.”

“The downsides of being a ruler, huh?” He gave her a pitying smile. “Well…at least you’ve got Roua to help you out. He seems like a nice enough guy. He was the one who tried to give me my apple back when I was in drag, right?”

She laughed, her brow rising as she watched her daughter. “Yes, he was.” As Liling tried to gnaw on the neck of Ling’s tunic, she pulled a wooden toy from a pouch on her belt. “Here, Liling. This is better than Ling’s shirt.”

He smiled. “She’ll be cutting a tooth soon, won’t she?”

“I am afraid so,” she smiled, opening the door to leave the storage house. “Though, I think she may be cutting more than one; when I felt her gums the other day, there were a few bumps.”

“They’ll come in at different times just to annoy you,” he teased. “That’s how it always happen: They never come in at the same time.”

Her brow rose. “Are you aware of how much you sound like a father when you speak like that?” she joked. “If I did not know already know any better, I would have thought you and Ting-Ting had a child while I was away.”

He rolled his eyes, his cheeks turning a bit pink. “Very funny,” he replied sarcastically. A sigh then left the back of his mouth as shifted Liling. “To be honest, I don’t think that’ll ever happen between the two of us.”

Zhu felt her stomach lurch slightly. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know…It’s just feels like we don’t have the same spark that we used to have. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but…” He shrugged.

‘He feels the same way as Ting-Ting?’ she thought, surprised by his confession. “It makes perfect sense,” she said aloud. “Sometimes, people fall out of love. But rather than continuing on in a loveless relationship, you should talk with her about it.” It made sense to give him the same advice she had given her sister; at least then, if they admitted to each other that they had vented to her, they wouldn’t think she had given them differing answers.

“Yeah…The problem is trying to bring it up without sounding like an idiot.” He let out a half-hearted laugh. “It’s not really a subject I ever thought I’d have to bring up.” As she looked at him, she saw guilt intermingling with the uncertainty.

“Do you need to talk about it?” she asked him, setting her hand on his shoulder. “You sound and look torn up over this.”

Ling paused in his steps, looking between Zhu and the other houses as he thought over her offer. Then, sighing, he nodded. “That would be nice. But—Not here. There’s something I’m going to tell you that I don’t really want anyone overhearing by accident.”

She nodded in understanding, feeling her stomach beginning to churn. What sort of secret could Ling of all people have that he didn’t want others to know about? “That is fine. We can wander off somewhere more private. I’d offer my yurt, but…well, if Mundzuc is there.”

“Yeah, no. I want to keep you away from him for as long as possible,” he said, his tone growing a bit protective now. Shaking his head, he sighed a second time. “Let’s go by the river. There’s a nice spot with some boulders we can sit on.”

“That works for me.”

Ling led her away from the houses, still happily toting Liling. Zhu offered to take her back, but he refused in the form of blowing a raspberry at her and making Liling giggle. It wasn’t a long walk to the spot he had mentioned; it only took them about ten minutes. Zhu thought it was a rather pretty spot, with the morning sun glittering off the water and the trees around them.

“I found this place when I wanted to take a cold bath a few weeks ago,” he told her, carefully sitting down on one of the boulders. “It’s far enough away from the houses that I can’t be seen, but still close enough that I can run back and warm up if I get too chilled.”

“It seems like it would also make for a good thinking spot,” she said, sitting down atop a nearby boulder.

“Yeah, I guess it does.” He chuckled quietly, crossing his legs. He sat Liling down in his lap, angling her so she was propped against his chest. A sigh then left his mouth and he ran his hand through his hair; Zhu had noticed he’d been wearing it down the past few days. She thought it looked quite handsome. “Gods, how do I even begin…?”

“Start at the beginning,” she suggested. “Tell me why you think you and Ting-Ting have lost your spark.”

“Well…for starters, our hugs and kisses have been feeling almost—almost forced. But not like we’re forcing each other to kiss! Just that we’re forcing ourselves to do said things.”

She nodded in understanding. “Believe me: I know exactly what you mean.”

“So, yeah…there’s that. There’s also the fact that we don’t really see each other much these days. She’s been busy with all of her wood working while I’ve been making bricks and kilns. And when we are around each other, we just…it’s hard to explain. There are still moments where it feels like we’re still as deeply in love as we were a year ago. But those moments are getting fewer and farther between.”

“It definitely sounds like you need to sit down and have a talk with her,” she told him, reaching over and setting her hand on his knee. “It will not do either of you any good if you continue to let it stew inside you.”

“Yeah; the last thing we need is for me to have a total breakdown,” he chuckled, glancing down at his hand. “Trust me, you do not want to see me crying like a blubbering idiot.”

She glanced away from him. She wanted to tell him that she had, in fact, seen him crying like a blubbering idiot, but knew it wasn’t the best of times. “So…what is the part that you did not want anyone else overhearing?”

He let out another sigh, this one heavier than the others. For a few minutes, he said nothing; he was too busy contemplating how to say it. Looking down at Liling, he half-heartedly smiled down at her. He had only known this child for a few days and he already wanted to protect her with his life. Then again, he had always had a soft spot for children…

“Do you promise not to tell anyone?” he suddenly asked.

“Of course.” Her brows furrowed in confusion as Ling held his hand out to her, all fingers but his pinky clenched in a fist.

“Pinky promise,” he told her.

“…Do what now?”

“Pinky promise,” he repeated. “It’s just—It’s just a thing I learned as a kid. It somehow adds weight to the promise, I guess.”

“Alright,” she chuckled, her brow now lifted. Reaching over, she clasped his pinky with her own; she was surprised by how much longer his fingers were than hers. “I promise I will not tell anyone what you are about to tell me.”

He nodded, giving her pinky a small squeeze. He remained quiet for another minute or two before his cheeks started to burn. “I think I’ve fallen in love with Mulan.”

Her eyes widened and she felt a brick suddenly drop into her stomach. “…What?” she asked, voice barely a whisper.

“I think I’m in love with Mulan,” he repeated, his voice heavy with shame. “I—I don’t know how it happened. But, lately I’ve been noticing that I’ve been enjoying her company more than I have Ting-Ting’s. And being around her, I feel so at ease and just so…content.” Thanks to Liling being in his lap, he couldn’t rub his arm, so he instead rubbed his leg.

“Being around her has always felt different than being around other woman,” he continued. “I’ve never felt nervous or self-conscious around her. I can poke fun at her and she pokes fun right back, but she also lets me know if I’ve gone too far without hitting me like Yao does.”

Glancing over at Zhu, he saw that she was still wearing a look of shock; he had no idea that he had just caused a dull ache to fill her heart. “But she’s too good of a friend to admit my feelings to. It’d just make things awkward, since she’s with Shang. I don’t really want to lose her friendship, you know?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied, forcing herself to sound as if she wasn’t hurting. Pulling a knee to her chest, she wrapped her arms around her leg before resting her chin atop the knee. “I must admit, I am rather surprised to hear this. Mulan is a wonderful and amazing woman, but I would not have thought she was your type.”

A weary laugh left his mouth. “Neither did I. But, I guess these sorts of things just sneak up on you.” He gently took hold of Liling’s legs, beginning to make her ‘dance’ and earning a fit of giggles from her. “But, like I said: I’m not going to tell her. With luck, this is just a crush that’ll fade away as I meet some more women.” He then shrugged, chuckling. “Maybe I’ll find myself a strong Hun or Mongol woman and marry her.”

“Perhaps,” she said, a small smile on her lips. She watched as he continued to make Liling ‘dance’. “Whatever happens, I already know you will end up being a wonderful father.”

“I can only hope I’ll still have the patience for it,” he laughed. “I’m at the point in my life where I enjoy sleeping in almost too much to give it up. With children—well, newborns, at least—you’re up every few hours, either feeding them or changing them.”

“Trust me, I know. You have no idea how grateful I am that Liling has begun sleeping through the night. Even with Roua and Mundzuc’s help, I inevitably had to be the one to console her back to sleep.” She turned her vision down to the river, watching the twinkling water as it flowed over the rocks.

He looked over at her, watching her. He would have thought the past week would have been restful for her, as she was no longer traveling and had her friends and family again. Instead, though, it almost looked like she was even more exhausted than when she arrived.

“Hey Zhu?”

“Hm?” She didn’t bother looking up, having found a little fish to watch. A smile came to her lips as she watched it dart from one hiding spot to another as it tried to avoid detection from larger fish.

“Are you alright? Healthwise, I mean.”

Her brow rose and she peeked over at him. “Why do you ask?”

“You just seem really tired all the time. I know that can be chalked up to parenthood, but…”

A guilty smile came to her lips. “It is a mixture of things,” she admitted. “Parenthood, queendom, traveling…but, mostly, it is because I still have yet to recover fully from Liling’s birth.”

His frown grew. “I remember you saying it was a rough birth, but just how bad was it?”

Zhu was quiet for a moment as she looked back at the water. Then, she held her hand out to him, pinky extended. “Pinky promise you will not tell my mother or sisters,” she ordered, voice quiet.

That bad?” he asked, worry in his voice as he reached out, clasping her pinky for a second time.

She nodded. “I…I very nearly died that day,” she murmured, voice barely audible above the sounds of the river. “Liling’s birth was not easy. I could not seem to—to push her out, but when I did get her out, I lost a lot of blood.”

“What?!” he yelped, eyes wide and face paling.

“Yes…Evidently, I was on the threshold of death for nearly a week. Zoraida, the midwife, later told me it was because my hips are too narrow.” A soft sigh left her lips and she pulled her braid over her shoulder, starting to run her fingers along it.

He frowned. “I wouldn’t have guessed that. I mean, sure: You’re not the most curvy of women, but you should have enough hip space for a baby to pass through. Does this mean you can’t have any more kids?”

“It is recommended I not have anymore. And, frankly, I cannot say I was disappointed by her suggestion. Unless some miracle were to happen and Mundzuc was removed from my life, I do not plan on having more children.”

His brows furrowed in confusion. “So, what you’re saying is: If you were able to divorce Mundzuc or became his widow, you would find someone you actually loved and you would risk your life to have their child?”

“Yes.”

“But…why? Why do that if it could kill you?”

She closed her eyes, sighing heavily. “Because…Because I want to know what it is like to have a child with someone I loved.” She opened her eyes again and looked down into the water. The smaller fish from earlier was still darting about, but there was a larger fish making its way towards it. “But as I said: Only a miracle would be able to make that happen.”

The larger fish charged forward, catching the smaller one in its mouth and swallowing it whole.

“Well, miracles happen,” Ling told her, trying to sound hopeful. “And you’re way past overdue for one, don’t you think?”

A quiet laugh left her mouth. “I think my coming back from the dead has used up a lifetime’s worth of miracles.” She turned, looking at him. “Having Liling will be enough for me,” she assured him. “No, I may not love her father, but I do love her. While she may not get siblings, she will have plenty of cousins to run around and create havoc with.”

“No doubt. I think Yao and Mei were discussing the possibility of having six kids in the future.” His legs beginning to fall asleep, he scooped up Liling and slid off the rock.

“That…honestly, does not surprise me much. I have never seen a pair so completely in love with one another as them.” She watched him as he crouched down at the water’s edge, resting Liling on his knee.

“Do you see the fishies, Liling?” he asked the little girl, his voice quiet. “If you dip your toes in, they sometimes come up and try to nibble your toesies. But their mouths are so tiny, it just ends up tickling like a feather!”

Though she didn’t understand a word that was being spoken to her, Liling watched the spots where Ling had pointed to, her eyes wide as she continued to gnaw on the wooden toy. She occasionally added in a soft ‘mahh’ or gurgle of contentment as she continued to listen.

“Oh, look over there!” Ling whispered, pointing at a spot near the base of Zhu’s rock. “Look just below your mommy’s foot. Do you see it? The little, teeny tiny frog?”

Liling grunted, watching the spot while still oblivious as to why she was watching it.

Zhu leaned forward slightly and ever so slowly moved her foot. Sure enough, below her, there was a frog perched atop a small rock pile. It made no noise, but the skin on its throat was bubbling in and out with its every breath. Her brow rose and a smile came to her lips.

“You can call her ‘Lili’ if you would like,” she told him. “It is what I call her at times.”

Ling glanced up. “Lili?” he repeated with a grin. “That’s adorable!” Looking down at the child, he blew a raspberry against her cheek and made her giggle. “Little Lili, Princess of the Huns. It has a nice ring to it.”

“I thought so.” The smile remained on her lips as she watched Ling stand back up.

He once more cradled Liling against his chest. “Shall we head back now? I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. And I think the little princess needs a diaper change.”

“Oh dear…Well, it does not surprise me. She had just finished breakfast before I came to meet with you.” She carefully slid off the rock, taking care to not startle the frog. “Though, I must admit: Food does sound quite good right now. I had only a handful of dried food before I went out this morning.” She held her hands out to take Liling from him; after all, who wanted to hold a stinky baby?

Evidently, Ling, as he refused to give her back just yet. “Hm? Just for a morning ride?”

She shook her head, starting to walk alongside him instead. “No. I wanted to inspect the lands we are thinking about turning into grazing pastures. I had wanted to do the job alone, but Mundzuc followed me without my knowing. As such, a job that would have taken me an hour at most instead took three hours.” Shaking her head again, she let out a heavy sigh. “He was afraid that some wild animal would attack Liling and me.”

“…You have a magic horse,” Ling said, his voice bland. “And you have the best aim with a bow in the whole world. I’m sure if something tried to attack you, you would have kicked its ass.” His eyes then widened and he clapped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry!” he said, his voice muffled.

“…Sorry for what?” she asked, brow rising in confusion. “For cursing?”

He nodded, frowning when she snorted. “What? She’s an impressionable young lady! She doesn’t need to learn such foul words at her tender age.”

Zhu continued to laugh at him. “Ling, she is less than five months old. She barely understands the words ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’, let alone ‘ass’!”

“Children are like sponges!” he argued, a playful pout on his lips. “They absorb everything around them!”

“Yes, when they are old enough. As it is, Liling is young enough that she is still getting the hang of pooping.”

“Oh, no. I think she’s mastered pooping. It’s eating solid foods she’ll need to work on soon.” He glanced over at Zhu, a wide grin on his lips. “And when that happens, she’s going to be twice as stinky as she is now. Isn’t that right, you precious little pooper?”

Liling giggled as Ling gently tickled the bottoms of her feet. She kicked her legs, trying to evade his tickles. But it was useless, as he was holding her. Not that it mattered much to her; she continued to giggle at him.

“You have the cutest little giggle I have ever heard,” Ling grinned, finally ceasing his tickling. “It’s almost as cute as your mommy’s sneezes.”

Zhu groaned. “Spirits, help me…here comes the teasing…”

 

Chapter Text

“Tófi is in charge of leading the carpenters while Ting-Ting leads the foresters. Zoraida will be in charge of the potters while Ling is in charge of the masons. Ghunan is one of our best herders, so he will be in charge of overseeing the creation of the paddocks and pastures while—”

“What about the farmers?” Yildiz demanded. “Who will be teaching the younger Huns and Mongols how to farm?”

Mundzuc cocked his brow. “Your memory is failing you, Yildiz,” he said, arms crossed over his chest. “Zhu has told you multiple times before today her sister and her lover will be in charge of teaching our people how to farm.”

The old woman sneered at him, opening her mouth to speak. Zhu, however, interrupted her before she could get out a single syllable.

“Actually, my sister alone will be in charge of farming,” she corrected. “Chien-Po will be in charge of teaching our people how to make more vegetable and fruit-laden dishes.” She crossed her legs as she leaned back in her seat. “Narinogoril is one of our best smiths, so he and a group of his choosing will make our weapons and tools.” She shot Yildiz a look as the woman tried to interrupt her again, the look keeping her silenced.

“Enkhtuya and her band of sisters will hunt for us while Ibakha and Kinggiyadai Bukha will be our tanners,” she continued with a sigh. “Lastly, Dengizich and Shang will be in charge of coming up with a patrol system and figuring out what sort of defensives measure we should take to ensure our town remains safe. And that, I believe, covers almost all of our necessary jobs that need to be done in order for us to survive.”

Zhu looked around at the people staring at her; unlike before, there were far more people present for this meeting. All of the Chinese were present along with many of the Hunnic elders and some of the seasoned Mongol warriors. Her stomach was a fluttering mess of nerves and it was difficult to keep up the appearance of being calm. She was certain this was the work of Yildiz and Plamen in an attempt to unnerve her.

It was working, but she would never let them know.

A large man with pale, white skin and hair as red as fire spoke up. “Queen Zhu, forgive interruption, but which is Ting-Ting?” he asked, his Chinese not the best, but understandable.

Ting-Ting gave a small wave from her spot near Zhi. “I am,” she replied, a small smile on her lips. Her eyes, however, were wide in awe; this man was tall enough that he made Zhu look short. “You’re Tófi, I take it?”

He grinned, nodding. He would have replied, but Plamen spoke up, stopping him before he could get started.

“What about the people who are supposed to help with these jobs?” he demanded. “Who have you picked out for each of the groups?”

“No one,” Zhu replied, her brow rising. “I only know who the best of the best are—it will be their jobs to pick who works with them.”

“You’re our queen,” Yildiz argued. “It’s your job to know your people and to know what they’re good at.”

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “If that is the case, then I appoint you and Plamen to be the pair who complains incessantly about every little thing I do.” She hadn’t mean for the words to slip from her mouth, but she heard snickers and quiet laughter from the others.

The two elders stared at her in a mixture of shock and insult.

Zhi cleared her throat, drawing the attention to herself. “There are very nearly one-thousand people living in this area. To learn everyone’s names as well as their occupations or favored crafts would be nearly impossible,” she said. “That Zhu knows as many of these people as she does is already quite a feat. You should be thankful that she is already so knowledgeable when her queendom has only just begun.”

Yildiz’s eyes narrowed as she glared at Zhi. “Biased words from a biased woman,” she hissed. “You are her mother—of course you would say such flowery words about her!”

“Flowery or not, she’s right,” one of the female warriors—Enkhtuya, in fact—spoke up. “How many other young queens can claim to be so organized, especially after being confined to a bed for nearly two months?” She crossed her arms over her broad chest. “I suggest you remain quiet unless you want to be removed from the meeting.”

Both Yildiz and Plamen looked at her, their eyes narrowed in anger. But, they knew that Enkhtuya would carry out her threat should they continue their complaining. As such, Yildiz merely glared at Zhu while Plamen crossed his arms and sunk down in his chair.

Zhu gave Enkhtuya a thankful smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Now, are there any questions?”

A middle-aged man with a long, salt-and-pepper beard raised his hand. “You said you’re placing me in charge of the herders,” he said, “but I don’t know where we’ll be putting the animals.”

“In the fields to the east,” Mundzuc answered. “The hilly ones. Zhu and I inspected the area a few days ago and it looked to be perfect for the animals.”

“What about the farms?” Su asked. “Where are we putting those?”

“In the western fields,” Zhu answered. “We have yet to inspect those fields, but I wanted to bring you with me when I did it. To me, they seem as if they would be perfect. But, you are the expect.” She watched as Su’s cheeks turned bright pink. She then looked over at Mei, who had a bit of a confused look on her face. “Mei? Is something wrong?”

“You forgot about textiles,” she replied, almost a pout on her lips.

Zhu gave her a reassuring smile. “I have not forgotten about textiles,” she gently assured her. “There are many, many skilled seamstresses, cloth makers, ropemakers, and carpetmakers among our numbers. I am merely trying to figure where it would be best for them to work and who should oversee which group. The seamstresses, especially, are a difficult group. You are one of the best seamstresses I have ever seen, but there are two or three other women who possess the same amount of skill as you—however, the clothes they make are entirely different from the ones you produce.”

Mei nodded slowly. “Well, let me meet them at some point and I’m sure we can figure things out,” she said, smiling. “I would love to learn some new clothing patterns and it would be interesting to combine Hunnic, Mongolian, and Chinese styles into something entirely its own!”

“Do you work well with others?” Mundzuc suddenly asked.

Zhu glanced at Mundzuc; though the others more than likely didn’t notice it, Zhu could hear a bit of hesitation and a hint of a waver to his voice. She was surprised that he had actually spoken up. ‘He must want to prove me wrong after the insult I gave him the other day,’ she thought. ‘But I can hear that he’s nervous…’

“…Yes,” she cautiously replied. This was the first time her brother-in-law had actually spoken to her.

“Are you able to settle quarrels between other people? Or prevent them from happening in the first place?” he questioned. His hesitation was less, but the nervous waver in his voice was still present. “I ask because Umay and Özge hate each other fiercely and, if forced to work together, end up at one another’s throats.” He shifted in his seat, brushing some hair over his shoulder. “Separate, they are fine. Serpil, however, is gentle and obedient. You would have no problems working with her.”

Mei nodded. “Thank-you for that information,” she said. She wasn’t sure if she should trust his words; after all, she knew how much Zhu hated him. But when her sister didn’t refute his words, she figured he had to be speaking the truth.

“Are there any other questions?” Zhu asked.

“When will things be getting started?” one of the Mongols asked. “And how long until we start to see results?”

“As soon as possible and hopefully, within a few weeks,” she answered. “When this meeting is over with, I’ll be sending word to those overseers who are not present about their new roles.” She shifted again, eyes darting around the room. Still, everyone was staring at her and, still, her stomach felt fluttery with nerves. “I will also send out word to the various tradesfolk to tell them who to report to. If anyone suffers any trouble, do not hesitate to seek me—” She stole a look over at her husband, internally sighing, “—or Mundzuc out. We will do our best to solve any problems that may arise.”

There was a quiet murmur of agreement amongst the audience members.

“If that is everything,” Mundzuc sighed, “then I believe it is safe to say—”

He was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a loud, but joyous, squeal behind him. Both he and Zhu turned in their seats. They found Roua in the doorway, his cheeks red with embarrassment as he held Liling.

“I…apologize,” he said, gently bouncing the baby girl. “But the princess is demanding her lunch.” He was relieved when he heard some laughter from the group.

Zhu smiled, holding out her arms as Roua came towards her. “She is a demanding little thing, is she not?” she joked. Taking her daughter, she gently nuzzled her nose into Liling’s chubby little cheek. “Come here, my sweet. Let us get you fed.”

“Would you like your shawl?” Mundzuc asked, glancing between Zhu and the crowd of people.

She shook her head. “No. I am warm enough as is. I do not want her to overheat as well. Anyway, as you were saying, this meeting seems to be over.” Before Mundzuc could further protest, she undid a few buttons of her dress and freed her breast. Seconds later, it was hidden from view once more as Liling began to feed.

Sighing, Mundzuc leaned back in his chair. He watched as most of the people started to leave the yurt; Zhu’s mother and sisters, he noticed, stayed behind. Swallowing hard, he lightly gripped the arms of his chair.

“Is anyone else ready for lunch?” Su asked, her voice almost sing-song as she stood up. “That was such a long meeting; I know I’m starving!”

“Food sounds wonderful, actually,” Zhu said. She looked at Mundzuc. “Could you please show her where to find everything?” she asked, her voice firm, yet gentle.

As badly as he wanted to protest, Mundzuc nodded and got out of his chair. “The cooking stuff is over here,” he murmured as he walked past her.

Zhu watched as he showed Su where to find the food, the dishes, and the cooking utensils. As they did that, Ting-Ting, Mei, and Zhi brought their chairs over to be around her.

“She’s such a noisy little eater,” Mei quietly giggled, hearing the loud sounds Liling was making as she ate. “I wonder if she’ll be just as loud when she starts eating food?”

“That would be hilarious,” Ting-Ting grinned. “Then she could give her Uncle Yao a bit of competition when it came to noisy eating.”

Mei pouted. “Yao’s gotten better!” she countered. “He no longer sounds like a starving boar…”

Zhu snorted. “That is very nearly a perfect description for how loud he can get during meals,” she grinned.

“It really is, isn’t it?” Zhi agreed with a smile. Reaching over, she let her granddaughter grab hold of her finger. “But, she will most definitely be a far messier eater. I can already see her covering herself in mashed beets or mashed berries.”

Ting-Ting and Mei laughed at the look of defeat that overcame their sister’s face. “You already know how right she is, don’t you?” Mei teased.

“She is a baby,” sighed Zhu. “Of course she will slather herself in meals.” A half-hearted smile came to her lips. “At least she will look adorable while doing it. The cleanup, however…?” She leaned over ever so slightly, her brow rising as she looked at Mundzuc, who Su had put to work chopping carrots. “I believe I will leave that to Mundzuc,” she told them, voice quiet so only they could hear.

Zhi smiled, her brow rising in amusement at her eldest’s words. “A good answer,” she told her. “Though, he will not appreciate it so much.”

“I am the one who wakes up during the night to change her and feed her,” Zhu replied. “He can handle washing her up after meals for a few years.” She shifted Liling slightly, her arm having started to fall asleep. “Thank you, by the way. For coming to the meeting. It was reassuring to have you there.”

Mei smiled brightly. “It was nice to see you being so queenly. Especially when you’re in all those lovely shades of red and grey with that headdress—you looked like you could be an empress!”

“Even though you did let a bit of your sass escape,” Ting-Ting gently teased. “To be honest, though, those two deserved it. I was ready to throw them out of the yurt myself.”

Zhi and Mei nodded in agreement. “I was surprised they were supposed to be well-respected elders among your people,” Zhi stated. “They acted more like bickering children than concerned adults. I would ask that new wise-ones were chosen, but I know times have been hard and not many still live.”

Zhu quietly laughed. “How I long to have new wise-ones chosen. I know it is an age-given right, but…clearly, their ages have not made them wise.”

“Then change it,” Mei suggested. “You’re their queen—surely, if you don’t agree with something, you can change it to be something you do agree with?”

“In certain cases, yes, I can do that,” Zhu sighed. “But this is not one of them. It is tradition that dictates who becomes a wise-one and not a tradition I am about to challenge. At least, not yet. I have already uprooted my people’s lives by bringing them here and making them end their nomadic lives.” Feeling that Liling had stopped eating, she lifted her up and rested her against her shoulder. She then adjusted her dress so that her breast was no longer exposed. “I think if I were to get rid of or ruin any more traditions, they would have my head.” She began patting Liling on the back.

That I highly doubt,” Zhi said, pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve as she stood up. Walking over to Zhu, she carefully placed the cloth over her shoulder just in case Liling spat up.

“I do not,” Zhu sighed. “Shan Yu had ingrained into their minds that good leaders earn respect through fear and through force. I…am doing neither of those things.” A tiny burp came from Liling followed by a little grunt. “Oh, good burp, my sweet,” she cooed, smiling. “Can you do that again for mama?”

Ting-Ting sighed. “A good leader earns respect through doing what is right for their people and by helping their people. Shan Yu did neither of those things.”

Mei cleared her throat. “Yes, but like Zhu said, he all but beat it into their minds that that’s how leaders are. It’s going to take Zhu quite a while to convince them otherwise—just like it took Zhu quite a while to adjust to living life as a Chinese person instead of a Hunnic person.” Her nose scrunched up slightly when the four women heard a louder, wetter burp come from Liling.

“I’m glad I set the kerchief over you,” Zhi chuckled, her brow rising. Leaning over, she used a clean portion of the kerchief to wipe a bit of spit-up from her granddaughter’s mouth and chin. “Oh, look at that smile! Yes, I would feel better, too, after such a big burp!” she cooed. She lifted her granddaughter from Zhu’s shoulder nuzzling her with her nose. “Such an adorable child you are!”

“I never thought I would hear something like spitting-up get called ‘adorable,” Mei chuckled, standing up. Watching Zhu peel the kerchief from her shoulder, she took it from her and carried it over to the bucket of soiled diapers. “Then again, Liling is mother’s first grandchild…”

“Except for especially bad poops, she is exempt from being gross,” Zhi teased. She started walking around the yurt, gently bouncing Liling in her arms. “But after those gross poops, you feel so much better, don’t you, my sweet?” She kissed her forehead as Liling giggled.

“I don’t know. The spit-up is pretty gross.” They looked up as Su and Mundzuc came over, the latter carrying a cooking pot filled with chopped vegetables and a small bowl of butter. “Whether it’s from an adult or a baby, it’s gross.” She motioned for Mundzuc to put the pot over the fire before setting her own tray of skewered meat on the stones beside the fire. Taking the bowl of butter from Mundzuc, she used a wooden spoon to scoop nearly half its contents out and into the pot.

Zhu nodded in agreement. “She is right. Any sort of vomit is gross,” she chuckled.

Mundzuc’s nose scrunched up slightly. “Can we…not discuss vomit while food is being made?” he asked, his voice quiet. He stirred the vegetables as Su handed him the spoon.

“Yes, the change of subject would be much appreciated,” Ting-Ting agreed. “What is this Tófi fellow like?”

“He is almost always in a good mood,” Zhu answered. “He speaks the best Chinese out of the Danes, though it is still broken.”

“He’s strange,” Mundzuc sighed. “He’s very talkative, though he talks more to the animals and to the trees than he does to other people.”

“Because he speaks to the forest spirits,” Zhu told him, her brow rising.

He glared at her from the corner of his eye. “There are no spirits in this part of the world. The humans here have begun abandoning them, so they left.”

Zhu’s brow rose. “There are still spirits here, clutching onto the hope that the humans will return to their senses.”

Ting-Ting glanced between the two of them. “Well, I think it will be quite helpful that he can talk with the forest spirits. When we go to harvest timber, I do not want to earn their wrath.”

“Curious that you would put your sister in charge of the timber harvesting while Tófi is in charge of the actual woodworkers,” Mundzuc commented. His voice was still quiet, though it was confident now. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around? You’ve mentioned that your sister is quite the woodworker, but surely Tófi is more skilled when it comes to harvesting?”

“He has more experience with working the wood and preparing it to become houses,” Zhu replied. She was surprised by how civil he was being—then again, something told her it was merely a ruse to try and fool her family. “Ting-Ting knows how to harvest timber and knows how to make furniture, cooking utensils, and decorative pieces, but she still has much to learn about carpentry.”

Ting-Ting chuckled, a bit of a blush coming to her cheeks. “Exactly. Which is why I chose to be a harvester,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel very comfortable leading a group of people in a craft I am not terribly skilled at.”

“Which is noble of you,” Zhi assured her. She still held Liling as she wandered about the yurt. “Many nobles would jump at the chance to show off their leadership skills, even if they haven’t the slightest idea of how the group they’re to be leading works. But to admit that you’re not experienced enough and that someone else is better qualified? That’s the mark of a good leader.”

Su chuckled. “Well, what do you expect? Ting-Ting was raised to be an empress.” She had placed one end of the skewers into the ground, letting them lean over the flames so the meat could roast. “Mundzuc, some water, please.” She took the spoon from him and stirred the pot’s contents, hearing the vegetables sizzling away.

Watching her brother-in-law begrudgingly get to his feet, Ting-Ting let out a small sigh. “I won’t lie and say I am not glad to no longer be destined for a throne,” she admitted. “I’ve come to learn that I don’t have the confidence it takes to lead an entire civilization, let alone a group of my friends and family.”

“You got us here safe and sound, didn’t you?” Mei smiled. “You need to give yourself a bit more credit, Ting-Ting. You’re the younger daughter of two separate royal lines. You were born to rule, just as Zhu was.”

Zhu laughed, the sound more sarcastic than amused. “I will let you continue to think that, Mei,” she chuckled, “because I am positive the only thing I was born to be was confused.”

Ting-Ting snorted. “And I am certain I was born to be bored most of my life,” she joked. “At least, that’s what I originally thought. I now know I was born to make boards.”

Su, Zhi, and Mei groaned at her pun. Zhu, on the other hand, started to laugh, thankful to hear one of her sister’s jokes again.

 


 

 

“Well, hello there, big eyes! Whatchu doin’ wide awake at this hour?”

Zhu stirred, her brows furrowing in tired confusion. The yurt was pitch black, save for the very center. There, a dying lantern hung, its dim light like a single star against the night sky. Beside her, she could hear the slow, even breathing of Mundzuc as he slept. Across the yurt, Roua’s quiet snoring could be heard.

“Aren’t you just the cutest little thing? Almost as cute as me when I was a baby!”

Her eyes shot open; the voice was coming from Liling’s crib.

Slowly rising up, she just as slowly slid out of bed. Not only did she not want to alert the person by the crib of her presence, she also didn’t want to wake Mundzuc. Not yet, at least.

As she approached the crib, she could hear Liling giggling, clearly amused by whoever was looming over her. “Does baby girl want to see a magic trick?” they quietly asked, Zhu now able to recognize their voice. “Of course you do, what am I sayin’?”

Before she could say anything, however, she jumped as there was a small flash of light. Now illuminated by the light of a tiny flame was Mushu, who was perched on the end of the crib. He had a wide grin on his lips as he looked down at the baby. He tossed the flame back and forth between his hands, earning a wide-eyed stared from Liling.

“You could have come during the day, you know,” Zhu said, her voice just loud enough for Mushu to hear.

He didn’t seem startled by her sudden presence. “I could have, but I knew your ol’ ball and chain there would make it hard for you to be anywhere by yourself.”

She frowned. “How did--?”

“Our girl, Mulan,” he replied before she could finish. “She’s worried about you, you know. And this lil’ cutie right here.” He scuttled down into the crib, tossing the flame to rest atop the tip of his tail, which he kept lifted. Carefully scooping Liling up, he held her in a sitting position so he could get a better look at her. “She is just the chubbiest lil’ thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on. And lookit that smile of hers!”

Liling cooed, her small hands reaching out to feel Mushu’s scaly skin.

“Oh, and you’re so gentle! I ain’t ever seen a baby who’s gentle.” He looked up at Zhu, his brow lifted. “Trust me: I have seen a lot of babies in my lifetime and not one of them could resist tryin’ to squeeze the life out of me.”

“Well, she is still learning how to control her body.” She leaned over, resting her arms on the side of the crib. “I am surprised you were eager to meet her. No offense, but I did not think you to be the kind of creature who adores babies.”

“Adore? No. Fond of? Depends on the baby.” He shook his head only to watch as Liling yawned. “Ooh, such a big yawn from such a little person! And here’s mean ol’ Uncle Mushu keepin’ you wide awake. Well, let’s get you all tucked back into your bed here…” He laid Liling down and scurried around the crib as he pulled the blanket up around her before securely tucking it beneath her. “There you go, you little cutie. Now, your mommy ‘n me are going to go outside and have us a private chat, alright? If your mean daddy wakes up, try and poop yourself so he won’t come after us.”

Zhu’s brow rose, an exhausted smile on her lips. “So, then, why are you here?” She held her arm out to him, letting him scurry up it to sit atop her shoulder.

“I wanted to see if what Mulan said was true,” he told her, shrugging. The flame on his tail extinguished itself as Zhu leaned over, kissing Liling’s head. “That you had somehow managed to come back from the dead in one piece. I see now that she was right.”

Leaving Liling to fall back asleep, she started to walk towards the door. “Not exactly in one piece, but close enough,” she sighed. “I am sure there is more to your visit than just that, however.”

“Well…” He drew the word out, betraying his guilt. “There may be another reason…”

“And that reason would be…?” She opened the door just wide enough to let her slip outside before closing it again.

He sighed, laying down on her shoulder and resting his hands behind his head. “You know what I am, right? Besides the most handsome dragon that’s ever lived?”

“You are a guardian of the Fa Family.”

“That’s right. And I’m a darn good one, too, if I say so myself.” He chuckled, finding himself not at all surprised when Zhu started walking towards Umut and her foal. “Anyway. Our girl, Mulan, has started to consider you to be part of her family. That’s all fine and dandy, but her parents consider you family now, as well.”

A mixture of joy and sadness filled Zhu’s stomach as she heard his words. “That is good to know,” she replied, a smile on her lips.

“It is. Especially since it now means that you and that sweet lil’ doll of yours have limited protections from us Fa Family guardians.” He looked at his claws, checking their shine in the moonlight. Breathing on them, he buffed them against his chest. “But that ain’t the problem.”

Zhu tensed, her brows furrowing. “…There is a problem?”

“There is. Though, it’s not exactly a problem yet.” He sat upright before hopping onto Umut’s back. “You’ll want to hear this, too, Future-Missus-Khan. Or have you two already become exclusive mates? I see you’ve birthed his foal.”

Umut lifted her head, turning to look back at him. Mushu. It is the early hours of the morning. I am not awake enough to deal with you right now.

“Testy, testy,” he chuckled, patting the top of her neck. “I’m serious, though: You’re going to want to hear this.”

Make it quick so that we may return to sleep.

Zhu could barely contain a laugh as Umut groggily grumbled at Mushu. Her humor, however, quickly faded when Mushu next opened his mouth.

“Have either of you heard of a demon named Lilitu?” he asked.

She felt the color drain from her face. Umut snorted loudly, her eyes widening in shock.

How do you know that name!? she demanded.

“I’ll be taking that as a ‘yes’,” Mushu sighed. “I know her name because I popped on over to the spirit world earlier today—yesterday? Yesterday.—and got told by some spirits that the daughter of a demon named Lilitu was seeking revenge against the one who killed her mother. Apparently, this daughter was no big deal, but her mother’s killer recently returned to these lands…”

Zhu swallowed hard, looking at Umut. “This is not good at all,” she told her.

No, it’s not, Umut agreed. We must find a way to protect this land from Lilitu’s daughter.

“But how?” She motioned at the land around them. “There are miles upon miles of land that we are going to be living, farming, and hunting on! We cannot protect all of them!”

We can make some sort of barrier. One that keeps those with evil intents at bay. She snorted. It may chase Mundzuc out as well.

Mushu glanced between the two of them. “So, Zhu, when were you goin’ to tell me you were a big, bad demon killer?” he demanded. “First that Hayabusa guy and now this Lilitu lady?”

Zhu did not kill Lilitu, Umut told him. I did. Years ago, when Zhu was but a child.

His jaw dropped and he gawked at the mare. “W-wait, wait, wait: You, lil’ miss horsy, killed a demon?”

“Umut was once a djinn,” Zhu explained. “She…technically still is, but after resurrecting me from the dead, she has been drained of most of her magic and is left to remain in this form.”

He nodded slowly. “Gotcha,” he said. “But, Zhu’s right. This place is far too big for any sort of barriers to be erected.” He stretched out across Umut’s back. “Now, we’ve got some to come up with a way to stop this chick, because from what I heard, she’s stuck in a corporeal form as well. Not sure as what, though. Could be human, could be animal, could even be insect. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just get a flyswatter and SMACK! No more demon lady.”

“It is never that simple,” Zhu sighed, closing her eyes. Her mind was racing; they had come to these lands to escape trouble—but now there was trouble actively looking for them. No, not for them: For Umut.

This was something she could have never anticipated happening.

There is a simple solution, Umut sighed.

“No,” Zhu murmured, as if reading her mind. Opening her eyes, she threw a small glare at the mare.

No. You should not have to run away because of one being.”

And you and the other humans should not be put at risk because of my presence. If I leave, it will be safer for you.

“Ladies, ladies,” Mushu interrupted. “As I said, we have time. We can discuss this in the morning—preferably with our gal Mulan here to help throw around some suggestions.”

Sighing, Zhu closed her eyes again. “He is right,” she murmured. “We are both exhausted and it would be best to have others included in this conversation.” She shook her head. “I hate to say it, but we may need to include Mundzuc in it.”

Child, no. You suffer his presence enough. You don’t need to include him in matters such as magic!

“Like it or not, Umut, Mundzuc is my husband…and he is king of this land,” Zhu told her, her voice gentle, but scolding. “You never know. He may know of a way to keep Lilitu’s daughter at bay.”

Mushu nodded in agreement as he scuttled down Umut’s leg onto the ground. “I hate to say it, but queenie here is right. The more important people we have in this conversation, the better. Especially if they know about magic and spirits and all that jazz.”

Umut and Zhu exchanged curious looks. What…what does ‘all that jazz’ mean? The former questioned.

He dismissively waved his hand. “Don’t you worry your pretty little forelocks about it,” he told her. “Now, I’m going to let you ladies get back to bed. Remember: We have time. So don’t go thinking you need to be calling meetings the second the sun rises, alright? Get some rest.”

Zhu nodded before rubbing her face in a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. “I knew things had been going too well,” she murmured, defeat in her voice. “Of course, something had to rise up and ruin things.”

Things aren’t ruined just yet, child, Umut assured her. If Mushu says we have time, then let us trust him. We can’t give up hope before we even know what we are up against.

Peeking through her fingers, Zhu half-heartedly smiled. “I know…but you know how hard I find it to be optimistic at times.” She reached over, scratching under Umut’s jaw. “It can be a challenge.”

After everything you’ve been through, it’s understandable. But, remember, child: This is a new beginning. Our stories aren’t going to end so pitifully soon.

Chapter Text

Zhu found it difficult to go back to sleep after learning of Lilitu’s daughter. Stuck somewhere in the realm of half-conscious and half-asleep, she was left tossing and turning the rest of the night. Her mind was racing with thoughts of the future: How could she protect her people? How could she protect Umut? Yes, Umut could spare them all any potential pain by simply leaving, but Zhu didn’t want to lose her. Nearly losing her once was enough.

She was not going to let it happen permanently.

By the time the sun began to rise and the rest of the world began to wake up, she was only just on the brink of falling back asleep. She could feel her body finally giving in to exhaustion when a familiar pair of arms snaked around her waist, pulling her further into their embrace. Her brows furrowed and she quietly whined in protest.

There was a quiet chuckle as Mundzuc buried his face in the crook of her neck. “I see you’re awake,” he murmured. He was surprised; usually she would tense up or try to shove him away when he attempted to initiate morning cuddles. This morning, however, she only whined. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I didn’t sleep well,” she grumbled, pulling her pillow down a bit so she could bury her face into it. “And I was finally beginning to fall back asleep.”

He frowned. “Why did you have trouble sleeping?”

She was silent for a few moments. She knew she had to tell him what Mushu said, but something told her it would be best to wait until later—after all, how could she explain to him that a tiny guardian dragon came to her in the middle of the night to give her the bad news? Shaking her head, she sighed, “I will tell you later…when I have gotten more sleep.”

Mundzuc’s brow rose, though she couldn’t see it. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“You say that about a number of subjects I talk about,” she grumbled. Grabbing the edge of the blankets, she pulled them up closer to her chin. “Let me get at least another hour’s worth of rest. Otherwise, I am going to be useless to the world today.”

“That’s doable,” he sighed, pulling away from her. Sitting up, he threw his legs over the edge of the bed before stretching his arms above his head. “Liling will be having mare’s milk for breakfast, then?” he grunted, both hearing and feeling as his back cracked in multiple places.

“Yes,” she murmured, rolling onto her stomach. Burying her face fully into the pillow now, she also pulled the covers up over her head, essentially cocooning herself from the world. She hoped this would ensure that she got at least a little bit of sleep before she had to face the day.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Barely half an hour passed when there was a knock at the door. Zhu listened as a groggy Roua trudged his way across the yurt and opened the door. Part of her wanted to poke her head out from under the blankets to see who it was, but she also didn’t want to let the world know she was still awake.

“Is Queen Zhu awake?” came a voice she recognized rather well.

“Ah, I don’t think—” Roua began, glancing over at the bed.

Zhu sat up with a sigh, letting the blankets fall to her lap. “Yes, I am. Please come in, Zoraida.” She smiled tiredly, watching as Roua stepped aside to let the woman in.

Seeing that she was still in bed, Zoraida frowned. “I apologize, my queen—I can come back later if you’re still resting.”

Shaking her head, Zhu threw back the covers. “No, it is fine—I have been awake for some hours.” She gave her a reassuring smile as she rose from the bed. “What can I help you with?”

“I wanted to discuss a few things regarding my new position as head of the potters,” she answered. When Zhu motioned for her to sit down in a chair, she did such. “I understand you would like for us to get started as soon as possible and, while I already have a handful of people interested in helping me…we are greatly lacking in supplies. We don’t have wheels or kilns. Only a handful of us have tools. I don’t even know if we have enough space that we could use to let the pottery dry out a bit before firing…”

Zhu nodded. “Yes, I know and I also know that you are wrong about some of those points,” she chuckled. “We have kilns. Of course, if need be, more can be made. As for the tools, tell the carpenters what you need and they should be able to help you.”

“The wheels, I’m afraid, are going to need a bit more work than some simple wood carving.” She brushed a bit of her veil from her face, showing some of her dark sideburns. “But the main thing we will need are flat, rounded plates of stone.”

“Hm. Well, I know Ling knows where to find some shale that can be used to make said plates,” Zhu said. Her eyes lingered on the tattoos along the center of Zoraida’s face. It was common for women of the southern deserts to have facial tattoos; but she had always found Zoraida’s to be especially lovely. “How important are the wheels?”

“Rather important if you want us to make jars, pots, and bowls that are even.”

She nodded in understanding. “Then I will have Tófi and Ling meet with you and discuss how to make the wheels,” she sighed. “Luckily, you will not have to worry about the clay; I remember there being a rather nice supply of it along the western edges of the lake.”

Zoraida smiled. “Yes, that is one of the few things we won’t be needing to worry about,” she chuckled. Her head tilted slightly as she looked Zhu over. “You look exhausted.”

“I am.”

“Have you been red meats and citrus fruits like I instructed?”

“I have. Mundzuc and Roua make sure of it.”

She nodded. “Good, good…But you still look exhausted.”

“I did not sleep well last night.” She waved her hand in a dismissive manner. “It is nothing to get worried about, I promise.” A reassuring smile came to her lips.

There was a bit of skepticism on the woman’s face as her brow rose ever so slightly. “You know I don’t believe you, right?”

Zhu pouted. “You should, because I am telling you the truth.”

“As much as I hate to admit it, she is telling the truth.” Mundzuc came over, handing Zhu a steaming mug of tea. He offered one to Zoraida, knowing she would be here for a while. “She doesn’t tire out nearly as quick as she did a few weeks ago and she’s able to go most days without a nap.”

Thanking him as he handed her the tea, Zoraida nodded. “Good…That means her blood is almost back to its proper amount.” She looked back to Zhu. “And what of your body? Do you still hurt anywhere? Have you noticed anything strange with certain parts?”

She shook her head. “Not really, no.”

“Also good.” She smiled. “It seems like you’re finally getting better.” She sniffed the contents of the mug she was handed; it smelled like a citrus tea. “Which is good, considering now that we’ve arrived here, you’re going to be quite busy running the place.”

Zhu felt her cheeks turn a bit red as she sipped at her tea. Unlike Zoraida, hers had some milk added to it. “I know. There is so much I am going to have to do…I am lucky to have Roua—” She paused, glancing over at the two men as they went about making breakfast. “—And Mundzuc here to help me.”

Zoraida also glanced over at the two men. It was so odd for her to see the men doing the cooking; normally, that was a woman’s job. “You also have your friends and family, it would seem. Your mother, especially, seems willing to help you. And the people already know her, so they’re more willing to trust her. Most of them, at least.”

“Yes…I can see her being a big help if ever I need advice on a problem.” She smiled before taking another sip of her tea. “Admittedly…I almost wish she could take my place.”

“But she is not Shan Yu’s heir—you are.” She gave her an uplifting smile. “If it makes you feel any better, I think you’re doing a wonderful job so far. The things Yildiz and Plamen complain about are trivial matters and you shouldn’t listen to them.”

A quiet laugh left Zhu’s mouth. “I am glad you think so, though I cannot help but wonder if the majority think the same as those two.”

“And that is why you’re already a better leader than your uncle.” She leaned forward, resting a comforting hand on Zhu’s knee. “But you needn’t worry so much.”

“Not about my popularity, at least,” Zhu told her. “There is so much other stuff I need to focus my attention on. Our food supplies, our medicine supplies, how we’ll be surviving the winter…” She shook her head. “My popularity is the last think I am concerned about, to be honest.”

“You’ve already made a good start by breaking everything up into different groups.” Shifting in her seat, she brought both her legs up, crossing them beneath her. “You’re not forcing people into jobs they don’t want or can’t do—remember how Shan Yu forced my brother into helping train the younger warriors in horseback archery?” She chuckled. “He hated it so much. He wanted to teach them horseback swordsmanship. But you were too busy with various missions for Shan Yu, so you couldn’t teach them.”

Zhu chuckled at the memory. “Yes, I remember. He would throw quite the fit afterwards, especially when people were not getting the hang of it.” She shook her head. “You brother should have never been put into a teaching position.”

“No. He didn’t have the patience for it.” She laughed before taking a drink of her tea. “His lack of patience is what got him killed…Meanwhile, father’s abundance of patience is what got him killed. A bit ironic, isn’t it?”

Knowing that Zoraida had little love for her father and brother, Zhu nodded in agreement. “It was clear that neither of them would survive a true battle. For your brother to last as long as he did was some sort of cruel miracle.”

“A cruel miracle…” she repeated, a thoughtful look on her face. “I like how that sounds.”

Zhu took another drink of her tea, saying nothing in return. Inside, however, she thought about how her second chance at life had been just that: A cruel miracle.

 

~*~*~

 

Shang looked up as there was a knock on the door. His brow rising, he stood and went over, opening the door only to reveal Mulan on the other side. She smiled up at him, holding out a bowl of soup to him.

“You missed lunch again,” she told him.

“Did I?” A frown appeared on his lips as she nodded. “I’m sorry.” Stepping aside, he let her enter the house “I guess I was too absorbed in my work.”

As she looked at the table, Mulan saw it covered in various sheets of paper. Some of them were covered in writing while others had small diagrams drawn over them. “Working on coming up with the best ways to defend the village?” she asked with a small laugh.

He darted forward, quickly pulling the papers into a small pile. “Ah…yes,” he admitted. “I know Zhu doesn’t want to build a defensive wall just yet—and I can’t blame her; we don’t have the resources—but I thought I would get a head start on trying to design one that would suit our needs.” His cheeks were red as he tapped the stack of papers on the tabletop, forcing them into a neater stack.

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate the ideas when the time does come to build a wall.” Mulan smiled as she set the bowl of soup down on the table. “I’m glad she chose you to help organize the military,” she told him, pulling a spoon from her sash. “I mean, I know you’re a bit of an obvious choice, but she could have also kept the military entirely Hun and Mongol led.”

Taking the spoon from her, Shang kissed her temple. “It’s a great honor, that’s for certain,” he said, a small smile on his lips as he moved to sit down. “And it gives me a chance to learn how the Huns and Mongols protect their people without the use of defensive walls. I would imagine it involves sending out patrols to search the area once or twice a day.”

“Perhaps it does.” She sat down across from him at the table. “For now, though, you need to focus on eating. You’ve been getting so absorbed in these little details that you’ve missed three meals in two days.” Her brow rose and a sarcastic smile came to her lips.

He smiled sheepishly before shoving a spoonful of soup into his mouth. “So, out of all the different sorts of jobs,” he said, trying to drive the subject away from him, “which one do you think you may help out with?” He ate another spoonful of soup; it was egg flower soup—one of his favorites.

“I’m not sure yet.” She leaned back as she crossed her legs in front of her. “I was thinking of maybe helping Ling with making bricks or helping Su with the farming.”

His brow rose. “I wouldn’t have expected you to consider those two jobs.” Looking down into the bowl, he tried to scoop up as many ribbons of egg as he could. “I thought you would be more likely to go for the textile work or the military work.”

She let out a small laugh. “I’m a farm girl, Shang. I’m not exactly made for delicate sewing or for going on patrols.” Brushing some hair out of her face, she plucked up one of the papers he had been writing on when she arrived. “I’m more suited to a job that ends up with me covered in sweat and grime.”

“Patrolling can leave you like that,” he told her, a slight pout making him purse his lips.

Laughing again, she reached over and gently poked his nose. “Don’t pout at me,” she gently teased. As she looked the paper over, she found it covered by a diagram of a second of wall where a guard tower was positioned. “You know I’ve always preferred farm work to military work. That being said, if you and—what was his name? Dengitic? Dingizit?”

“Dengizich,” Shang corrected.

She nodded her thanks. “That being said, if you and Dengizich need a bit of help as you get started, I’d be more than willing to help. But not forever, mind you.”

He nodded. “That would be appreciated. You’re more personable than I am.” A small smile came to his lips. “The Huns and Mongols will probably take to you quicker than they take me.”

Dismissively waving her hand, she set the paper back atop the pile. “They’ll like you just fine,” she assured him.

“Mulan, barely six years ago, most of these people wanted us dead,” he reminded her, his voice dry. “I’m still not entirely sure if they’re to be trusted…there are so few of us compared to them—we’d easily be wiped out by them.”

She frowned, her brow rising. “There you go, thinking like a pessimist again,” she sighed. “No one’s going to try to hurt us—least of all under Zhu’s watch. Why would they want to hurt us anyway? We’re not anyone important.”

“Not anyone important? Zhi is the former Empress of China; Ting-Ting, Mei, and Su are the former imperial princesses; you’re the woman who killed the great Shan Yu; and I’m the former general of the Chinese army.” He shook his head before drinking down a bit more of his soup. “We’re a group of fairly important people, Mulan.”

“Not anymore,” she corrected. “If anything, to them, the only important person here is Zhi. She’s Shan Da’s widow, after all.” Tilting her head slightly, she wore a look of sadness. “We’re safe here, Shang. These people are our allies now.”

A heavy sigh left his mouth and he allowed himself to lean back and close his eyes. He felt frustrated that Mulan couldn’t see the gravity of the situation—but, at the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder if she was right. Perhaps she did know the precariousness of their lives now, but was merely choosing to look on the bright side of things instead of the darker side?

“I’m sorry,” he said eventually. “I am being pessimistic. But I just don’t want any of us to wake up and find that one or more of us have been killed all because we’re Chinese.”

Reaching across the table again, she grabbed his hand and held it. “There will still be biases against us,” she told him, “but I don’t think any of them will try to harm us. Even if they wanted to, I’m sure they fear Zhu’s wrath too much to make any sort of attempt.” Letting go of his hand, she stood up. “Anyway, if they want to survive here, they’re going to need our help just as much as we’re going to need theirs, right?” Circling the table, she kissed the top of his head.

“That is true,” he sighed. He looked up at her as she started to head for the door. “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to stay with me for a bit?”

She gave him an apologetic smile. “I just remembered I told Ting-Ting that I’d help her scout out some areas that would be good for timber felling.” Turning back to him, she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the lips. “I’ll have dinner with you tonight, though. How does that sound?”

“That sounds doable. I’ll hold you to it, though.”

Laughing, she nodded. “Says the one who’s been forgetting to eat lunch the last few days.”

“Lunch isn’t as important of a meal as dinner is, so I’m more likely to remember to eat then,” he chuckled. “Have fun tree spotting.”

She rolled her eyes, a grin on her lips as she opened the door. “We’ll have the hardest time finding the forest through all the trees.”

“That was a horrible pun,” he snorted, watching as she shut the door.

 

~*~*~

 

“Wow…I wasn’t expectin’ so many people to show up.”

“No kidding. I was only expecting five at the most.” Ling stood upright and rubbed the back of his neck; he wasn’t sure how long he and Yao had been grinding shale down into powder. However long it was, it was long enough to make his neck and back ache.

Turning, he looked at the group of nearly twenty men and women were working away. Some were mixing up the ingredients for clay, others were using the finished clay to form bricks, while a few others were loading up the kilns with firewood so they could be fired later that day. “Can’t say I’m disappointed, though.”

Yao, his arms crossed over his chest, glanced up at him. “They’re already increasin’ production by threefold. If more come t’ help us, then just think about how much we’ll be able t’ get done before winter.”

Ling chuckled. “We’ll need to make more kilns, that’s for certain. Especially since we’re going to have to share them with the potters. And, from what Ting-Ting was saying, the woodworkers may have to use them sometimes in order to speed-dry wood for their use.”

He cocked a brow. “Why can’t they just use green wood?”

“Green timber is too limber.” He snickered as Yao nudged him with his elbow. “It’s true, though: Green timber has more bend and give to it than aged wood.”

“Huh. Didn’t know that. Makes sense, though—Kind o’ like how saplings are more flexible than older trees, right?”

He shrugged. “I guess.” He watched as one of the younger Mongols—he could scarcely be older than fifteen—removed the form from a brick only for the clay to sag a bit at the top. “You need to compact them more.” Going over, he knelt down. “Here, like this.” Taking the form, he carefully set it back around the brick. Then, taking a squared-off piece of wood, he started to tamp down the clay.

“But I was doing that,” the teen said, his brows furrowing.

“You were, yes,” he replied, glancing up at the man, “but just not quite enough. Do you hear how it still makes a sort of wet slapping noise when I hit it?” He continued to tamp down the clay.

“Yeah?”

“When you’ve got it compacted enough, it starts to sound more solid. Like this.” He hit the clay with the block again; this time, the sound wasn’t nearly as squelchy. “Hear the difference?” He did it a few more times to make sure the man could properly hear the difference.

The teen nodded. “Yeah, I do.” Watching as Ling removed the form, he saw that the brick now stood perfectly straight and had no sag to it. “Thanks. I’ll go back and fix the other bricks now.”

Ling gave him a reassuring smile. “It takes a while to get right,” he told him. “But you’re already doing pretty good. You’re even getting the amount of clay right. I’ve already had to tell the others to add more when they get it tamped down.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “And now that you know how to recognize your error, you can help the others recognize it if I don’t catch them.” He handed the form and the tamping block back to the teen before standing up. Brushing off his knees, he returned to the table where Yao was still grinding away at pieces of shale.

Yao glanced up at him as he came back. “You’re handlin’ that well,” he commented.

“Handling what well?” he asked, his brow rising. Picking up his grinding stone, he sprinkled some bits of shattered stale on the table. He then started to crush them with the stone.

“Bein’ in charge of a group o’ people,” he replied. “Back when we were trainin’ recruits at Moo-Shung, ya weren’t so good at it. But now it’s almost like you’re a natural.”

Ling snorted. “I don’t think I was meant to be in charge of soldiers,” he said. “Do you know how hard it is to teach a kid the proper way to handle a sword when he thinks you’re too scrawny to lift the damned thing?” He shook his head. “Here, it doesn’t seem like I have that problem.”

“I don’t know…you’re still barely half the size o’ some o’ these people.” He glanced over at the group, watching as a woman in her forties easily lifted one of the boards full of fresh-made bricks. “If anythin’ though, your scrawniness puts ya at an advantage: Everyone who sees ya is goin’ to underestimate you if ever a fight breaks out.”

Again, he laughed. “These are Zhu’s people, Yao: If they’re half as observant as she is, then they won’t be underestimating any of us. Except Chi-Fu, of course.”

Cocking his brow, Yao looked up at him. “Huh? How so?”

A wry grin spread across Ling’s lips. “They’ll underestimate how annoying he is,” he snickered.

Yao snorted before looking up. A silly grin suddenly came to his lips, telling Ling that Mei was making her way over to them. “Well, there’s the prettiest girl in the whole wide world.”

“Oh, you flirt,” Mei giggled. As she approached them, Ling saw that she had two folded bundles in her hand. “I’ve finally finished these aprons for you two! I’m sorry they took so long; I wanted to make sure they were durable and had plenty of places for you to put your tools.” Unfolding the first apron with a flick of her wrists, she put a loop around Yao’s head before moving behind him so she could tie it into place.

“That’s fine,” Ling smiled. “I’m sure our clothes are going to appreciate them whether or not they’re durable.” He leaned over a bit so Mei could put the loop of his apron over his head. “The fact you made them at all is nice. You really didn’t have to, you know.”

“Oh, of course I did!” she giggled. She stepped behind him, tying his into place as well. “Like you said, your clothes will appreciate it. That, and if you two have these aprons with pockets, you’ll have more places to carry things, so you can be more efficient. No wandering around, looking for lost tools…”

Chuckling, Ling cocked his brow. “That is true,” he agreed. “I hadn’t thought of that, to be honest. Then again, when you told us you were making aprons, I didn’t think pockets would be an accessory you’d give us.”

“She thinks o’ everythin’,” Yao grinned. “It’s why she’s the top seamstress in the known world. Ya don’t even have t’ ask her t’ do something an’ she’ll have done it for ya anyway just because she knew it’d be a handy thing to have.” Standing on his tiptoes, he kissed Mei’s cheek. There were a few giggles from the nearby women, but he ignored them.

“You,” Mei said, poking his nose with a small grin, “need to stop flattering me so much. You’re going to make me get an unflattering ego!”

Yao cackled. “You? Have something unflattering? Love, that’s impossible.”

She playfully stuck her tongue out at him. “While I’m here, can I get your input on something?” she asked, changing the subject.

“What kind of input?” Ling asked, going back to grinding the shale.

“I’m going to make Zhu a new dress—as a surprise for her, of course. But I don’t know what color I should make it.”

At that, Yao frowned somewhat. “Ah, love, ya know I’m not so good with colors ‘n stuff. ‘S why I always stick t’ neutrals an’ reds.”

She sighed. “I had a feeling, you’d say—”

“Pink.”

Blinking, Mei looked at Ling. “Pardon?”

“Pink,” he repeated, glancing up at her. “Make her a pink dress. I remember she had one before we had to flee China and that it looked very lovely on her.” He quietly grunted as he used his grinding rock to break a bit of shale into smaller fragments before looking over at Mei. “Maybe with some darker pink—or even some of that purple you’ve got.” Shrugging, he looked back down at the table.

A grin began to spread across Mei’s lips and her eyes widened in excitement. “You’re right! Pink is such a wonderful color on Zhu—and it’d make her look like a gentle ruler. Do you have any other recommendations?” she asked.

He felt his cheeks grow a bit warm. “Uh…N-not really,” he replied. “Though—maybe something with only a few layers? Anything more than three seems like it’d just make her look a little too bulky.”

Mei nodded in understanding, an excited look on her face. “Yes, I agree—I may be able to even just get it down to two layers and a sash,” she chirped. “And I still have her measurements from before—Though, I’m going to have to add a few inches to her bust measurement and her hips…Hm.” As she started to walk off, she continued to mumbled to herself. “Time to go do some math. I hope I have my abacus somewhere easy to find…”

“Middle drawer o’ the dresser on the left!” Yao called after her. He blushed, noticing the look Ling was giving him. “I’m tryin’ to help her stay a lil’ more organize.”

“With all the sewing she does, I’m sure she appreciates it,” Ling chuckled.

Yao grabbed his rock and started to grind shale again. “You’d be surprised,” he admitted. “Back in China, she had her own way o’ organizing. Yeah, it looked like a big ol’ mess, but it was the way she kept things organized. But ya know me—I like the sort o’ organized that’s neat an’ tidy.”

He nodded in understanding. “So it was actually difficult for the two of you to live together at first?”

“Yeah. We compromised, though. She’s allowed to make a mess, but only in one half of the house. The place is so small, if I allowed it all over the house, we’d have nowhere t’ eat an’ sleep.”

“At least the two of you reached a compromise. I don’t think most would be able to do that in regards to the cleanliness of a home.”

Yao shrugged. “If ya love someone, ya got t’ learn to love their faults, too. That means acceptin’ their faults an’ being willing t’ work together in order to meet in the middle.”

Ling snorted. “I never thought I’d be getting relationship advice from you,” he chuckled. He didn’t want to admit it, but Yao’s advice was only filling his stomach with a mixture of uneasiness and guilt. “Let alone good relationship advice…”

Very funny.” He raised his brow as he looked over at Ling. “Just keep it in mind, alright? You could think a person is perfect, but everyone’s got their faults. Some more ‘n others—hell, it’s obvious I’ve got more faults than pros an’ somehow, Mei still loves me.”

“Which in and of itself is a miracle.” He laughed, ducking as Yao threw a shale pebble at him.

 

~

 

That evening found Ling carrying some firewood over to the kilns. Though they had been fed less than an hour ago, he wanted to give them a bit more fuel before calling it a day. Kneeling down in front of the first kiln, he started to shove a log into the hold at the bottom of the kiln, though he quickly had to pull his hand away.

“Good and hot, I see,” he murmured with a chuckle, shaking his hand. Using a second log, he pushed the first one further in with it. He added two more logs before standing up to go fetch more firewood. But, as he turned around, he found he didn’t have to go fetch more.

Ting-Ting was walking towards him, her arms laden with firewood. “I saw you were feeding the kilns, so I thought I’d help out a bit,” she said. Despite the smile on her lips, Ling could see guilt in her eyes and he felt his stomach drop with guilt as well.

“Thanks,” he chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I was actually going to go looking for you after this.”

Letting the wood drop to the ground, she brushed the bits of bark from her arms and chest. “Is that so?”

“Y-yeah.” He felt the uneasy feeling return to his stomach, mixing with the guilt. “We need to talk. About—about us.”

To his surprise, she nodded in agreement. “Yes, we do. I think we’ve needed to talk for a while now, to be honest.” She watched as he grabbed a few of the logs to add to the fire of the second kiln.

“We have,” he agreed. “I just…don’t think either of really wanted to admit it.” He looked up at her, a small smile on her lips. “At least, I didn’t for a while.”

“I didn’t either, but…Zhu said I should talk with you.”

He chuckled. “She told you that, too?”

She blinked, a bit taken aback by his words. “Zhu gave you advice, too?”

“Just that this is something you and I could only solve by talking.” After getting the second fire fed, he stood up again. “So…Let’s talk.”

“…But where do we even begin?”

“Maybe we should start with how we both feel about the situation?” he suggested, grabbing the last pieces of firewood and carrying them over to the third kiln. “That seems like it’d be a good place.”

She nodded. “Right. Well…I feel like we don’t really have a spark anymore. I mean, I still enjoy your company, but…”

“It doesn’t feel like there’s any romance left?”

“…Yes. But—But, at the same time, there are times when it feels like there’s still something there. If that makes any sense…”

“It does,” he assured her. The guilt and uneasiness began to slowly leave his stomach; it was a relief to hear that she felt the same. “It’s beginning to feel like we’re together only because it’s expected of us.”

“Yes! That’s exactly it!” she agreed, her eyes widening ever so slightly. “And—And I don’t really want to disappoint anyone because they all think we’re meant for one another, since Mei and Su lucked out…”

Brushing himself off, Ling gave her a reassuring smile. “Trust me, that is exactly how I feel,” he told her. “I mean…there may be a tiny spark left somewhere between us, but…I don’t think it’s going to grow again.” He rubbed his arm. “But that’s not to say I don’t still want to be friends, of course.”

“Oh, of course not.” There was a relieved smile on her lips. “You’re going to still be one of my best friends. Who else can I make bad puns with?” she chuckled. “Mei and Su roll their eyes at me and Zhu is still learning…”

He chuckled, starting to head back to the houses. “Mulan’s pretty good when it comes to puns,” he told her. “Shang’s told me that she’s been making them when it’s just the two of them together.”

She laughed, her brow rising as she followed alongside him. “Oh no. It sounds like we’ve corrupted her.”

Snickering, Ling nodded in agreement. “It sounds that way, doesn’t it?” he grinned. He then rubbed his arm, his expression softening a bit. “Ting-Ting?”

Ting-Ting looked over at him. “Yes, Ling?”

“You were a great first girlfriend.” He chuckled, the sound a bit awkward. “You set the bar pretty high for any future girlfriends.”

A soft laugh left her mouth and she gently elbowed his arm. “And you were a wonderful first boyfriend,” she replied. “It’ll be hard to find someone as funny as you.” She plucked a stray sliver of wood from her dress. “Might be harder to find someone as handsome as you, too,” she added with a chuckle.

He rolled his eyes, grinning. “Please: You’ve a whole army of Mongols and Huns to choose from. I’m sure at least one of them is a bamboo stalk like me.”

 

Chapter Text

“Is Zhu in?”

Despite how intimidated she felt at the sight of Mundzuc, Mei wore a bright, cheery smile as she stood at the door to the yurt he shared with her sister and with Roua. The man before her lifted his brow, as if debating whether or not he should tell her the truth. After a small pause, however, he nodded—it would be useless to lie.

“She is,” he told her. He stepped aside, a signal that she could come in. “My love, your sister is here to see you,” he said, only having to raise his voice a little in order to be heard across the large tent.

Stepping into the yurt, Mei found everything to be too-dark to see for a few seconds. Once her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, she looked around. She spotted her sister near the fire, using a metal stick to poke at the coals. Smiling, she went over to her.

“Hello, Mei,” Zhu greeted with a smile. Standing upright, she brushed the knees of her dress off. “What do you need?”

“I was wondering if you’d be willing to accompany me into the woods to find some flowers to make dye with?” she asked. “I know you, more than likely, have queenly duties you need to attend to, but I thought I’d try asking anyway.”

“It would depend on which part of the forest you wanted to look in,” Zhu replied with a chuckle. “Because if you wished to go look in the northwestern bit, I could use that as an excuse to inspect the land for any faults as well as potential defensive positions should we ever build a wall.”

Her brow rising, Mei chuckled. “Well, then, let’s go to the northwestern portion. I had no specific area in mind.” A frown then came to her lips. “Oh, but it’s been threatening to rain all day. Would Lili be alright out there?”

At that, Zhu let out a small sigh and the smile faded from her lips. “No, I do not think she would. Should it start raining, the poor thing would get soaked, even if she were in her oilcloth sling.”

“Darn. Well, maybe next—”

“I can watch her.” Both women looked over at Roua. “It’s not like I haven’t watched her before,” he chuckled.

Zhu nodded, a small smile on her lips. “Thank you.” She moved across the yurt and opened a trunk. “It should not take us more than a couple hours.”

“No, it shouldn’t. I only need a small amount, since the fabric I want to dye is only two feet long.” She watched as Zhu closed the trunk and turned around, holding a bundle of white and black striped fur. “…Is that a tiger skin?” she asked, her eyes widening.

“A tiger skin cloak, yes,” she said with a small chuckle. “It was a gift from my father-in-law.” Unfolding it, she wrapped it around herself; Mei had to admit that she was thankful the head wasn’t still attached. “He had it waterproofed for me so I could have something warm to wear in the winter.” Pinning it over her shoulder, she then belted a quiver to her waist and grabbed a bow.

Seeing her grab the bow, Mei frowned. “Is that really needed, Zhu? We’re in peaceful territory.”

“The humans know that,” she chuckled, “but not the animals. It is just a precautionary measure.” Going over to Liling’s crib, she leaned over and kissed the sleeping child’s cheek. “Be good for your father and Uncle Roua,” she quietly told her. “Mama will be back later.” There was a tender smile on her lips as she stood upright.

Seeing the look, Mei smiled as well; it wasn’t often she saw Zhu look so gentle. Motherhood, she thought, was doing her sister quite a bit of justice. “Shall we, then?” she asked, turning slightly as she motioned to leave.

“Yes. The sooner we leave, the less chance of getting rained on we will have.” She walked over to the door and opened it, letting Mei leave first. She waved goodbye to Roua and Mundzuc before stepping out and shutting the door behind her. “Do you want to walk, or would you like to take our horses?” she asked.

“I’m fine with walking,” Mei replied. “I was sitting all last night while sewing; I could do with the bit of exercise.” She chuckled, pulling her own cloak a bit closer around her. As they walked through the village of Huns and Mongols, she looked around. Many of the people gave her an odd look, but once they saw Zhu, they seemed to nod to themselves before returning to their work.

Glancing down at Mei, Zhu chuckled. “Taking in the sights of your new neighbors?” she asked.

“Kind of.” She felt her cheeks turn a bit pink when she was caught people-watching. “I must admit, I thought they would be…different than this. I’m glad I’m being proven wrong, though.”

“I cannot blame you. You were raised to think them to be bloodthirsty warmongers.” She, too, looked around. “Just as I was raised to think the same of the Chinese. With time, however, everyone will see that they are not so different from one another.” A quiet sigh left her mouth and she rubbed the back of her neck. “And, hopefully, I will be able to help them heal from the damage my uncle did to them…Many of them still seem to think that violence is the only way to solve problems.”

She nodded in understanding. “They’ll change soon enough—you’ll see. After all, they looked up to you once, didn’t they? Surely, they’ll realize that if a beloved figure such as yourself stopped using violence to solve problems, it’s better to use other methods of problem solving?”

Zhu let out a small, humorless laugh. “They never looked up to me, Mei. They feared Shan Yu and respected him somewhat, but they hardly considered me a threat, let alone a worthy heir.”

“…Why?” she asked. Her brows furrowed slightly in her confusion. “Was it because you were a woman?”

She snorted. “No—it was because I was the smallest of his elite. Even Bleda, who was the smallest until I came along, was larger than me.”

Mei cocked her brow, giving her sister a dry look. “Zhu, no offense, but you’re not a small woman by any means. I can’t believe that you were the smallest.”

“Of the elite? Yes, I was. Height-wise, no; Bleda and Mundzuc are shorter than me. But Roua, Ruga, and Edeco? Edeco was larger than Roua and Ruga was the same size as Roua. And Shan Yu was bigger than all three of them.” She shook her head, letting out a long sigh. “I was the small one and that didn’t earn me much fear or respect. And it did not help that I was not nearly as eager to loot villages as they were.”

“But…what about now? Surely some of them respect you—otherwise, they wouldn’t have come all this way with you.”

She shrugged. “Some of them, yes. But as you witnessed the other day, many do not. I suppose, however, that is how it is with all rulers. If everyone liked their ruler, then there is most definitely some black magic at work.” She chuckled, looking down at Mei. “So, what colors of dye were you hoping to make?” she inquired, wanting to change the subject.

“To be honest? I don’t really care. I just wanted an excuse to be with my big sister.” There was an innocent smile on her lips as she looked up at Zhu. “However, there are some things I wanted to talk to you about that I didn’t want anyone else overhearing. Especially that Mundzuc.” She shuddered as she said his name. “Even if you hadn’t warned us about what kind of person he is, I would have suspected he was a bit of a creep. He’s got an odd aura about him.”

Zhu cocked her brow, now concerned about what Mei wanted to speak with her about. If she didn’t want anyone overhearing it, it could only mean it was bad—right? “He always has had an odd feel about him…From the moment I met him, I did not like him.”

It was Mei’s turn to raise her brow. “And yet…you slept with him long before the two of you were engaged.”

Her cheeks turning bright red, Zhu glanced away. “As Yao once put it, it was nothing more than ‘hate fucking’.” She looked over as her sister gasped in horror. “What?”

“I know Yao uses foul language, but he’s really used that word?!”

“Which one? Fucking?”

“Yes!” she squeaked. “Don’t you know how disgusting of a word that is?”

“…Mei, it is just a word.”

“A word with a crude origin and horrible connotations!”

She frowned. “What are connotations?”

“They’re—no, no. Never mind. Just know that that is not a word you use in polite company.”

Zhu shook her head, letting out a quiet laugh. “If you insist, Mei.”

 

After an hour, they had finally reached the spot where Mei wanted to forage for plants and roots. As she looked around on the forest floor and around the bases of trees, Zhu kept a look out for any creatures that may wish to make a meal out of them. Luckily, no animals that wanted to eat them were around.

“What did you wish to speak with me about?” Zhu asked after some minutes. She looked over at her sister, watching as Mei happily tugged a root from the dirt. Though she knew Mei was willing to do laborious, dirty work if she had to, seeing her sister willingly dirtying her clothes and her hands was an unfamiliar sight.

“Hm?” She looked over her shoulder at Zhu. “Oh, yes! I had nearly forgotten. Thank you for reminding me.” Putting the root into her basket, she stood up and, smiling, started to brush off her skirt. “I wanted to ask if you have feelings for Mulan or Ling—or Mulan and Ling.”

Zhu’s eyes widened ever so slightly and her body stiffened. “Wh-what? That is preposterous. Why would I have feelings for either of them? They are my best friends.”

Mei gave her a bland, unimpressed look. “As good as you are at lying, Zhu, this isn’t something you can hide from me. You know I’m good at detecting when people have feelings for one another.”

She looked away, her lips slightly pursed in a pout. “Yes, well, even if I did have feelings for the both of them, it is not like I could ever act upon them. Mulan is happy with Shang and Ling—well, he will find himself an amazing woman, I am sure of it.” She let out a heavy sigh. “That, and the fact that I have a husband already…”

“You’re the queen of a newly settled land!” Mei told her, her tone mildly scolding. She walked over to her sister and poked her in the middle of the chest. “You make the rules here—if you want more than one husband, then take more than one husband!”

Zhu sighed, shaking her head. “It is not that simple, Mei,” she countered. “My marriage to Mundzuc is the only thing keeping his people from turning and killing us all. If I were to take a second husband—especially Ling, who so horribly embarrassed him—he would not be at all happy.”

“But he’s nothing more than King Consort!”

“But still heir to the entirety of the Mongolian army.”

At that, Mei let out a heavy sigh. “That is true,” she grumbled. “Can’t you take him on as a lover, at the very least, though?”

An exasperated laugh left Zhu’s mouth. “Why are you asking me these things as if he has feelings for me as well?” she asked. “He has fallen in love with someone else—someone far more deserving of his love, mind you.”

“Oh? And how do you know that?”

“He told me. But, before you ask who, I cannot tell you that. I pinky promised him I would not tell.”

Mei paused, the confession taking her by surprise. “You…pinky promised him that you wouldn’t tell?”

“Yes.”

“…Pinky promised.” Her voice was heavy with skepticism.

“…Yes?” Her brow rose, uncertain as to why her sister seemed to be mildly annoyed by her words.

“Zhu, pinky promising is a thing children do.”

She shrugged. “Ling seemed to take it more seriously than a normal promise, so I went with it.”

Shaking her head, she let out a heavy sigh and started to walk further into the woods. “Regardless,” she said, “I think the two of you would make for a cute couple. He already adores Liling; imagine if the two of you—”

“No.”

A frown came to Mei’s lips and she glanced over her shoulder only to find Zhu’s eyes closed and her shoulders somewhat slouched. “…No, what?”

“You were going to tell me to imagine what it would be like should the two of us had children,” she replied, voice quiet and heavy with sorrow. “I have already imagined it…many, many times. And every time I imagine it, my heart aches.” She rubbed the back of her neck, opening her eyes only to look down at the damp earth. “It is a future that will never happen.”

“There is always a chance it will happen,” Mei frowned. “The two of you are best friends! You two may end up together one day!” An encouraging and hopeful smile came to her lips. “And when that day happens, I will be there to say ‘I told you so’!”

Zhu shook her head, clearly not believing her. Saying nothing, however, she let out a quiet sigh and followed Mei as she continued to hunt out ingredients for her dyes.

‘Why would Ling ever fall for me?’ she thought. ‘I’m a Hun. No Chinese person in their right mind would marry a Hun…’ A small shudder ran down her spine as Mundzuc’s words echoed through her mind.

 

~*~

 

“Where are you going?”

Ling blinked, turning to look over his shoulder as he harnessed Yan up to a small cart. He saw Mulan walking over, her sleeves rolled up; her arms and shirt were covered with flour, which she was currently trying to wipe away. A chuckle left his mouth and his brow rose.

“You look like a sack of flour fell on you,” he told her, his amusement all too clear in his voice.

“You’re very nearly right,” she sighed. “I helped my mother, grandmother, Chien-Po, and Su make dumplings.” She continued trying to brush the flour from her skin.

“Ooh, is that what we’re having for dinner?” he asked with a grin. “Because if it’s your grandma’s recipe, I want to go steal some right now!”

She laughed. “It is grandmama’s recipe. But none are cooked yet, so you’re out of luck.” Then, nodding at the cart, she chuckled. “Are you going to tell me where you’re going or am I going to have to start making wild guesses?”

At that, he laughed. “The wild guesses would be far more exciting than the truth,” he said. “I’m going to collect more shale. With all the extra helpers, we’re going through it pretty fast.”

“Would you like some help, then?” she asked. “Or, at least, some company?”

“I take it you’re done with the dumpling making?”

“More like exiled.” A guilty smile came to her lips. “I’m not the best when it comes to cooking, let alone making dumplings. After I failed to even make a simple, one-fold dumpling, I was sent away.”

He cringed at the thought. “Ooh, harsh…I suppose it’s for the best, though. I’m sure the house was pretty crowded with all of you in there.” He tightened one of the harnesses on Yan. “And sure, I’d love some help-slash-company. Yao would normally be going with me, but he’s helping Mei make some dyes.”

“I was wondering what I was smelling when I left Su’s place.” Quietly laughing, she moved to the other side of Yan, attaching the cart to the harnesses on that side for Ling. “I’m surprised you don’t have one of your new helpers doing this with you.”

“Ah, I figured I’d give them the day off,” he smiled. “We’ve been working an entire week without a break. I think they deserve a day or two off.”

She nodded in understanding before whistling sharply. In the distance, they heard Khan whinny. “How are you liking it, by the way? Being in charge?”

He let out a long breath, his cheeks puffed out as he did so. “It’s…definitely a new experience,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his head. “I think I’m doing alright, though. No one outright hates me yet and we’ve been getting a lot of bricks made. I’m thinking about making some molds for larger bricks—you know, for foundations. Maybe even some decorative ones if we get enough of a cache made. Of course, before that happens, we’ll need to make a better storage house than the one we’ve currently got, because at the rate we’re going, we’ll run out room by this time next month.”

“Sounds like you’ve got quite the plans in mind,” she smiled. From the corner of her eye, she could see Khan trotting over. “Do you think you’ll take on more helpers?”

“Hard to say,” he replied, shrugging. He watched as Khan shook his forelocks out of his face as he came to a stop next to his rider. “We’ve already got a decent amount. Coupled with Ting-Ting and Tófi’s logging, I’m sure we’ll be building houses in no time.”

“Don’t they have to let the wood dry out before they can make a house out of it?” She rubbed Khan’s nose before moving to mount him.

He shrugged. “I’m not sure, to be honest. Tófi is in charge of the actual carpentry portion of the woodworking, and he’s not from our part of the world. He and his men probably know different ways of building houses than us.” Mounting Yan, he rubbed the side of the gelding’s neck before clicking his tongue. The horse started to walk, the cart rolling behind him.

“That is true.” She had to bite her tongue to keep herself from giggling—thanks to Khan’s larger size, she sat a good head taller than Ling. It wasn’t often she got to be taller than someone; after all, only Yao, Su, and her grandmother were shorter than her. “I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. From what I hear, Ting-Ting will be leading a team of woodsmen into the forest tomorrow to begin their logging operations.”

“I had heard a rumor that that was what she’s been planning to do all week.” He glanced up at Mulan, feeling his cheeks grow just the faintest bit warm. “They’ll have plenty of trees to pick from. Zhu and Zhi said this forest goes on for miles and miles.”

“It does,” Mulan smiled. “Khan and I go exploring sometimes—if we manage to wake up before everyone else. We have yet to make it to the foot of the mountains, but we explored some of the foothills.”

“That sounds like it’d be fun…just going out and exploring all day without worrying about chores.” He looked back at the scenery ahead of them. “I haven’t gotten to do much exploring outside of looking for mineral deposits, I’m afraid. I’d like to, though.”

She looked down at him, smiling. “You’ll have to come out with me one of these days,” she told him. “And not just to find more mineral deposits. This land is really quite pretty.” Running her fingers through her hair, she pushed it back out of her face. “It’s different from China, and yet, it feels almost the same. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense, though…”

“It makes plenty of sense,” Ling assured her. “We’re surrounded by the same sorts of plant and animal life that lived in China. Yes, there are differences, but for all we know, we could be living in the mountains of China.” A quiet laugh left his mouth. “I daresay I like this area better—there aren’t any tigers to worry about.”

“No, but there are still bears and wolves.” She giggled as Ling looked up at her with a pout. Gathering up her hair, she started to braid it so that it would stay out of the way.

“I was trying to not remember about those,” he told her, his lips still pursed. “But, I suppose you’re right. After all, nowhere can be entirely perfect—though, it can come close to being perfect.”

She nodded in agreement. “True. Though, Zhi and Roua had mentioned that bears and wolves don’t frequent this area much, since anytime they came here, they were driven away by an army of Huns.” Getting her hair braided, she started to feel along her person for any string or ribbon that she could use to tie off her braid. Finding none, she frowned. “Ling, you don’t happen to have any string or ribbon on you, do you?”

“Just the stuff in my hair,” he told her, looking up at her. A pitying smile came to his lips as he saw her holding the finished braid. “I can wait here while you ride back to get some,” he offered. “I know it’d only be a few minutes.”

Mulan shook her head, sighing. “No, it’s alright. If I go back now, I’m sure I’ll get roped into helping someone with their chores.” A defeated laugh left her mouth as she tossed the braid over her shoulder. It almost immediately began to unravel, but not fully. “Maybe I’ll find some grass or something I could use to tie it back later…”

“Hopefully,” he agreed with a nod. “Or even a pair of sticks to hold it up with.”

“Truthfully, I’m tempted to just cut it all off again,” she admitted. “I have been for a few months now.”

His eyes widened in shock. “R-really? But it’s so long!”

A laugh left her mouth. “That’s why it’s been so annoying!” she told him. “Not only is it a pain to wash and to brush, but it gets so warm and it’s so heavy…” She shook her head. “I liked it much better when it was short.”

He nodded in understanding. “That makes sense, then.” He started to chuckle. “Though my hair has never been anywhere near as long as yours, I remember getting frustrated with it when I was in my late teens. It was a really hot summer, so I shaved all of it off.”

“Wait—are you serious? You shaved all of your hair off?” Mulan asked, her eyes widen and her mouth slightly agape.

“Yep,” he laughed. “And trust me, I will never do that again! Not only did I look ridiculous, but I ended up getting a sunburnt scalp! Yao kept saying I looked like a really skinny—” His cheeks suddenly went red and he cleared his throat. “Let’s just say I look much better with hair.”

“Leave it to Yao to make the crude associations,” she giggled, her brow raised. “But you’re right: You do look quite nice with hair.” She then tilted her head as she noticed that he hadn’t been wearing his hair in a bun—it was in a braid that went past his shoulders. “Actually…Now that we’re talking about it, have you been growing your hair out?”

His cheeks went a bit darker. “…I have,” he admitted. “I just want to see how I look with longer hair,” he quickly added, hoping she wouldn’t think him weird. “You know, just to see if maybe I look better with waist-length hair or not.”

Her brow rose again. “…Or are you growing it out so you can look nicer in a dress?” she asked, speaking a bit cautiously. She knew he had enjoyed wearing the yellow dress every now and again, but had he enjoyed it that much…?

Ling swallowed hard, keeping his focus on the road ahead, but his cheeks were bright red. “M-Maybe,” he stammered. “M-maybe I just want to feel pretty some days instead of feeling handsome.” He then frowned. “Not that I often feel handsome, mind you…”

“Hey.” She leaned over, setting her hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright if you like wearing dresses and feeling pretty,” she told him, wearing a reassuring smile. “Gods above know you look amazing in them! And gods only know how much I enjoy parading around in men’s clothing from time to time.”

“It’s different for you, though,” he sighed, unable to bring himself to look at her. “Being a man is seen as being honorable and strong and good, but being a woman is seen as gentle and weak and…well, not good. Not that I’m saying being a woman is bad, mind you—I think women are way more amazing than men. I mean, have you seen a guy with a cold? It’s pathetic! Meanwhile, a woman can pop out a baby and go back to her chores as if it were nothing!”

She let out an amused laugh. “Ling, I know you think women are wonderful,” she told him. “But I can also understand your hesitation about wearing feminine clothes.” She gave him a pitying smile. “But, Ling? We’re not in China anymore. If you want to wear dresses and makeup, then feel free. No one will look down on you about it—except Chi-Fu, but Chi-Fu is an asshole.”

He glanced up at her, chuckling quietly as he reached over, rubbing his arm. “You say that, but we’re surrounded by nearly a thousand Huns and Mongols…”

“So?” A reassuring look came to her face. “Look who their queen is, Ling: Our best friend. And guess what? She thinks you look just as amazing in dresses as I think you look. If anyone wants to try and stop you, then they’ll have to go through her—and we both know who’ll be on the winning end of that fight.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s true,” he said, a small smile forming on his lips. He finally managed to look up at her. “I guess…I’m still just nervous about it. I’ve gone nearly thirty years having to hide the fact that I enjoy wearing dresses just as much as I enjoy looking at them.”

“Do…do you prefer wearing them to men’s clothing?” Mulan asked. “Forgive me if I’m being rude.”

“You’re not,” he smiled. “At least, I don’t think you are. As for your question: Some days, I do prefer them.” He rubbed his arm again. “Rather, there are days where I feel like a man—it could be one or two days or it could even be weeks or months. But there are also times when—when I—when I feel like a woman. But a lot of the time, to be honest? I don’t feel like either.”

She slowly nodded in understanding, though she didn’t quite get what he meant. She was trying to, though. “What do you mean, exactly, when you say you ‘feel’ like a man or woman? Or when you don’t feel like either?”

He glanced up at her. “I’m…Not sure how to explain it, really,” he admitted. “You know how most people are born just…just knowing they’re one or the other? Like, Yao was born knowing he’s a guy and most definitely not a woman, whereas Mei is the exact opposite? She knows she’s a woman and most definitely not a man. And I don’t mean knowing as in they were told they were a man and a woman, respectively.”

“You mean the intrinsic knowledge that we are who we are?” she asked, brows furrowed as she tried to understand him. “Like, for me, it would be ‘Yes, I am a woman and not anything else. I may put on man’s clothing, but I am still a woman’.”

“Exactly!” He seemed to perk up again as she was able to verbalize the jumbled thoughts in his head. His cheeks started to grow pink; it would seem she was able to read him a bit better than he thought. “Well, I—I don’t really have that. Like I said, there are days when I know I’m a man, but there are days when I know I’m a woman or when I know I’m neither.”

“But how can you be neither?” she asked. “I don’t quite understand that part.”

“I don’t quite understand it, either,” he sighed. “I’m…I’m still learning a lot about myself, if I’m being honest.” He glanced at her, his cheeks still red. “In all actuality, I only started coming to terms with all…this when you had us dress in drag.”

She smiled. “Oh?”

Nodding, he smiled awkwardly. “Yeah…when I was in that dress with all that makeup and the apples for boobs, it just felt so…so right at the time—which was nice, considering that I wasn’t feeling like a man during that time period. And I thought I looked so pretty.”

“You were pretty,” she chuckled. “You were the prettiest out of the three of you.” She ran her hand through her hair, not caring too much when she felt the last of the braid unravel. “And you’re still pretty, by the way. Whenever you wear the dress, you always look so happy. Th-that’s not to say you don’t normally look happy, though!” She smiled awkwardly, her cheeks growing warm. “I mean, you just seem so at peace when you’re in it.”

He quietly laughed. “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever noticed. I just know wearing it does make me feel happy—on the days when I feel like I’m a woman or neither, that is. On days like today, I’m definitely feeling masculine.” He then puffed out his chest and held his arms out, flexing them as if he were as muscular as Roua. “Very masculine, if you didn’t notice,” he added, making his voice sound deeper and more…well, masculine.

Mulan burst out laughing. “Gods above, Ling!” she giggled, doubling over on Khan’s back from her laughter. “If you make me laugh any harder, I’ll fall off Khan!”

He grinned broadly, feeling his stomach flutter as he made her laugh so hard. “Don’t worry! I’d be sure to catch you—with my manly man arms!”

She started to laugh even harder and felt her eyes welling up with tears of mirth. After a few moments, her laughter started to subside a bit, allowing her to sit up. But she sat up too fast and the blanket that covered Khan’s back slid sideways, bringing her with it. A yelp left her mouth as she had no harnesses or straps to hold onto as she fell.

But she didn’t fall far, as a pair of ‘manly man’ arms caught her.

“Are you alright?” Ling asked, his brows furrowed with worry.

“I’m fine,” Mulan replied, blinking in confusion. “I…honestly didn’t think you could catch me.” Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, but there was a thankful smile on her lips as she looked up at him.

A playful pout came to his lips. “What, do you think I lied when I said I’d catch you? I could drop you on the ground if you’d prefer—but it’s pretty hard right now, so I don’t recommend that.”

She giggled. “No thanks—I prefer not hurting my hindquarters at the moment. Especially when we’ve got a bit of a ride ahead of us.” As Ling brought Yan to a halt, she slid down onto the ground before retrieving the fallen blanket. Khan turned his head, giving her an apologetic look.

“Are you sure you’re alright, though?” Ling asked, the look of concern returning to his face as he watched her replace the blanket. “You didn’t land wrong or anything when I caught you, right?”

Mulan gave him a reassuring smile, noticing how his cheeks turned a bit pink as she did so. “I’m fine, I promise.” With ease, she hopped back up onto Khan’s back. “But I wouldn’t be if a certain ‘manly man’ hadn’t caught me.”

He rubbed his arm, a cheeky smile on his lips. “Well, I wasn’t about to let you fall. I think Shang would tan my hide if that had happened!”

“Oh, he wouldn’t tan your hide,” she chuckled, her brow rising. “He’d just make you run laps or something.”

At that, he balked. “Oh gods, not laps,” he murmured. “I hated those…even though they were easy for me. He’d always make me run more than everyone else.”

“Because you’ve got long legs and endurance,” she reminded him with a small laugh. “I remember you were constantly ahead of everyone when we had to do those marching practices up that cliff—Everyone was jealous of you when they saw you coming back downhill and we were only halfway up.”

“Hey, these long legs come with a price,” he laughed. “They make me even more noodle-like.”

“Ling, if you didn’t have those long legs, then you would just look strange.”

“How so?” he frowned.

She shrugged. “You’ve a long torso, so having short legs would just make you look—well, sort of like a horse with a pig’s legs.”

He snorted. “That’s an interesting mental image,” he told her, his brow rising. “And I suppose if I had a shorter torso on these legs, it’d be like looking at Yao on stilts?”

“Only less concerning,” she giggled. “If Yao were to try using stilts, I think he’d end up injured somehow.”

“Of course he would—don’t you remember how poorly he was during our morning stretches back at Moo-Shung?” He snickered, remembering how often Yao had fallen over when trying to balance on one foot. “Even Tingfei could balance better him and that guy was horrible at balancing.”

Nodding in agreement, Mulan chuckled. “Zhu told me he was at some other training camp as an instructor,” she told him. “Evidently, he wasn’t very well liked.”

“Who could like that git? He was a bully!” He stuck his tongue out, blowing a raspberry. “I’m surprised he wasn’t left to shovel horse dung.”

“I don’t think he’s even fit enough to do that.” She shook her head. “I still remember how he took pride in the fact that he had fractured one of her ribs.”

“At least she broke his nose in return.” He looked up at her. “I wish we could have broken something of his, but he never gave us the chance.”

“There was one time he gave me the opportunity,” she admitted, “but Zhu managed to scare the wits out of him somehow. That…and I wasn’t the most confident person at the time.”

Learning this, Ling frowned. “What was it that he did?”

“He kept throwing insults at us after we had finished up some archery practice,” she explained. “I don’t remember all of it, but I do remember him saying I was Zhu’s girlfriend and that my lips looked like I give ‘good head’—whatever that is.”

His eyes widened in horror. “He said what?!” He watched as Mulan nodded. “Well, no wonder Zhu scared him shitless! You don’t just say that about a person!”

Her brows furrowed slightly, confused by his words. Clearly, he knew what the insult had meant. “…What does it mean?” she cautiously asked.

It was Ling’s turn to be confused now. “You don’t know what that means?” She shook her head. “Well, uh…it means going down on a guy.”

“And what does ‘going down’ mean?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “Really, Mulan? You were in the army and you didn’t learn any of those terms?”

She pouted. “Only you three and Zhu ever talked to me, so no. I didn’t learn any of those terms.”

A heavy sigh left his mouth. “Well, then, this is going to be kind of awkward for the both of us…” His cheeks started to turn pink yet again. “It’s a—uh, it’s a—” He rubbed his arm, his brows knitted together in concentration. “Well, when two folks are trying—” He let out a cry of frustration and buried his face in his palms. “How the world am I supposed to explain something like this!?”

 

Chapter Text

Zhu rubbed her temples as she sat in a tub of hot, jasmine-scented water. After a long day of settling squabbles between the seamstresses as well as dealing with Yildiz complaining that her yurt had been set up too close to the animals, she welcomed the peacefulness of a late-night bath. Baths weren’t usually taken by the Huns and Mongols, who preferred to use a cloth or sponge to clean themselves, but it was a luxury she had come to enjoy quite a bit during her stay in China. As such, she had borrowed Ting-Ting’s bathing tub and had set it up in the back of her yurt, a length of tapestry separating her from the rest of the home.

‘I need to at least tell Mulan what’s going on with Lilitu’s daughter,’ she thought, her fingers rubbing circles down from her temples to behind her ears. ‘I feel she’s the least likely to jump to conclusions or start to panic…Maybe I should also tell Shang? After all, he’s good with defenses…But not my sisters. How can I tell them that we’ve already got a new threat on the way when I promised them that they would be safe here?!’

Letting out a heavy sigh and clenching her eyes shut, she suddenly slumped down into the water so that her entire head was submerged. She stayed under the water for as long as her body would allow; it felt nice, being so surrounded by the hot water. It was like receiving a gentle hug—warm, welcoming, and soothing.

When her lungs began to burn, she pushed herself back up, a quiet gasp leaving her mouth. A good portion of her hair was now hanging in front of her face like a curtain. She parted it only enough to uncover the center portion of her face before reclining back against the wall of the tub.

‘So…Mulan and Shang for certain. Would adding Chien-Po be a good idea? He’s far more spiritually inclined than Ling or Yao,’ she told herself. ‘Roua…Mmm…No, not yet. If this turns out to be more serious than we anticipated, then yes, I’ll include him—’

Her eyes suddenly snapped open as she heard the tapestry rustle ever so slightly. Standing across from her was Mundzuc, who seemed startled that she had noticed him.

“I came to check on you,” he told her before she could ask. “You’ve been in there quite a while.”

“I am relaxing,” she told him plainly. Though she could see him well enough, he was a bit blurry—as was everything else in her vision, regardless of how close it was to her. It was Umut’s way of warning her that the new moon would be arriving the next night.

“You don’t look like you’re relaxing.”

Her brow rose. “Oh?” Her eyes narrowed slightly as she watched him begin to walk around the tub.

“You look like you’ve a lot on your mind.” He plucked up one of the glass bottles from a tray on the floor. Opening it, he sniffed its contents; he scrunched his nose up as he was assaulted by the pungent scent of roses.

Zhu made sure to stay as still as possible so that she wouldn’t make any noise aside from her voice; she wanted to be able to hear what Mundzuc was doing. “My body can relax while my mind works,” she replied. She heard the faint tinkling of glass on wood, along with the occasional waft of a different floral or spicy scent. “What is the real reason you are back here?”

A quiet chuckle left his throat. “What? Can a husband not come back to check on his wife who has spent nearly half an hour in the bath?” he replied, his amusement evident in his voice. He picked up a wooden jar and opened it. The sight and smell of the paste within told him that he had finally found what he was looking for.

“Surely it has not been that long,” she murmured. She jumped slightly as she suddenly felt Mundzuc’s fingers on her scalp and she pulled away from him. “What do you think you are doing?”

“I was going to wash your hair,” he told her, voice bland as he held up the wooden jar. “You’ve so much of it, I thought you could use the help.”

Her eyes glanced between his face and the jar a few times before she finally eased up. “Alright,” she relented.

He chuckled again. “You must have something truly important running through your mind if you’re suspicious of hair washing.”

“It is not the hair washing that I am wary of—it is the person doing the hair washing.”

“Come now, Zhu.” He leaned over slightly as he started to gather up her hair. “I’m your husband. You’ve no need to be wary of me.” He smirked, watching as she shivered slightly when his fingers brushed against the back of her neck. “Now tell me: What’s got you so worked up, my beloved?”

She felt the corner of her mouth draw back slightly in disgust. However, she knew she needed to inform of him of the coming danger. Closing her eyes, she drew her knees to her chest, resting her chin atop them.

“…I found out that danger is coming,” she admitted, her voice quiet.

Mundzuc’s brow rose as he worked the paste into her long locks. “And how did you find this out?” he questioned, slowly making his way up her hair. The gentle scent of jasmine began to fill his nose; so this was what made his wife smell so lovely…

Zhu was quiet for a moment; she knew Mundzuc was skeptical of the supernatural, despite Umut—and, formerly, Hayabusa--being living proof that such things existed. But how else was she supposed to let him know…? That she had heard it from a little bird?

“One of the guardians of Mulan’s family told me,” she admitted. “I know you despise Mulan, but I trust her and her family’s guardians. The one who told me, especially. He has proved his worth in the past.”

He grunted, the sound betraying his doubt. “So then, my beloved, what kind of danger are in for?”

She shuddered as he called her ‘beloved’. “A demon trapped in corporeal form,” she answered. “The demon is the daughter of the demon my father had made a pact with.”

“And why is she coming to us?”

“Not to us specifically. She is coming for Umut, who had been the one to slay her mother.” As Mundzuc began to work the paste into her scalp, she hated how her body leaned into his touch. She hated herself more for admitting that his hands felt nice on her scalp. “Before you suggest it: No. I refuse to send Umut away.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest it,” he told her, taking her by surprise. “Why would I? She is your eyes. If you sent her away, you’d be left permanently blind.”

At that, she rolled her eyes. “I am more concerned with Umut’s safety and the safety of our people than I am my vision. I could remain blind for all I care.”

“Could you?” he posited. “Could you really spend the rest of your life, never seeing the faces of your loved ones or the smile of your daughter? Could you really go that long, knowing you wouldn’t get to see your daughter grow and change?”

She grew tense at his words. Admittedly, she hadn’t thought about that. She had been more worried over how to protect Umut for selfless reasons. The safety of Umut and of her people had always been at the forefront of her thoughts.

But could she really go longer than a few days without seeing Liling’s precious smile? Or seeing Mulan and Ling’s smiles—let alone them in general? She pulled her knees closer to her chest, clenching her eyes shut.

“Of course, we’ll protect Umut for other reasons,” Mundzuc continued, running his fingers the length of her hair to make sure the paste thoroughly coated every strand. “But dare I say your vision is the most important of reasons.”

“No, it is not,” she grumbled, her voice muffled by her knees. “Umut’s life is the most important reason.”

His brow rose, though he let out a defeated sigh. “I suppose you’re right…after all, if we don’t protect her, then there is no hope for your vision.”

She suddenly turned around, glaring up at him. “Why are you so adamant I keep my vision?” she quietly snapped. “Yes, I will no longer be able to see Liling’s smile or watch her grow but should my vision be lost, I can live with that. But I cannot live with knowing Umut was hurt or killed because I was not willing to part with my sight!”

A hiss of pain suddenly left her mouth as Mundzuc snatched her chin between his thumb and index finger. He pulled her towards him, his eyes narrowing and a wicked smirk coming to his lips.

“Because I want you to see your beloved Ling and Mulan be happily in love with other people,” he told her, his voice soft and eerily gentle. “I want you to see how those two will never gaze upon with the same need and want that fills your mind and your heart whenever you look at them.” He watched as tears started to well up in her eyes, making him grin in delight. “I want to see the heartbreak that fills your eyes the day they marry their loves and you finally realize that they will never love you as you love them. I want to see the utter despair and hopelessness in your eyes as you realize that it’s all because they are filthy, lying, Chinese snakes and you are nothing more than the last in the line of once-proud Hunnic leaders.”

Zhu yanked herself away from him, snarling. “You sick, sadistic—” As she tried to shove him away, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back against his chest.

Gripping her hair tightly (which was a bit hard to do, thanks to the cleansing paste), he held her in place. “You need to face the facts, Shan Zhu—They will never love you and you need to stop living under the delusion that you will someday have a chance to win their hearts,” he hissed.

“I do not—”

“Nearly every night, you mumbled their names in your sleep,” he growled, tightening his grip on her hair. “Nearly every night, you twist and turn as you dream of winning them over. All while having a perfectly good husband sleeping beside you—a husband who loves you, Shan Zhu!” He suddenly let go of her as Zhu punched him in the gut. Doubling over, he fell back onto his hindquarters while gasping for breath.

“You do not love me,” she snarled, staring down at him. “You’ve never loved me! The only reason you even wanted to make me your bride was because I’m the only woman you were ever able to fuck—let alone talk to—without pissing yourself in fear!” Grabbing a bucket of clean water, she started to slowly pour it over her head, rinsing the cleansing paste from her hair. The whole while, she watched his every move.

Groaning, Mundzuc kept a hand around his stomach as he pushed himself upright. “You enjoyed it,” he bit back. “You enjoyed those trysts of ours when we were younger—you enjoyed them even now! And you keep coming back—back to me!” He narrowed his eyes, which stung slightly thanks to tears of pain that threatened to fall due to the ache in his torso. “You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel something for me, Shan Zhu! You may try to hide it behind those heated, hurtful words, but I know that, deep down, you feel some sort of affection for me.” There was a sneer on his lips as he looked up at her.

Her eyes seemingly glowing with her anger, Zhu stood up. Saying nothing, she snatched her towel and wrapped it around herself. Getting out of the tub, she stormed away from him and across the yurt to get dressed.

Mundzuc wore a smirk as he got to his feet. “Your silence speaks multitudes, my beloved,” he murmured under his breath.

 

~*~

 

“Are you sure you are alright with doing all this work, Zhu? You don’t look as if you got much sleep.”

“Why would I not be? I am only hauling wood.”

Ting-Ting raised her brow, watching as her sister carried a literal half of a tree across the clearing before tossing it onto the pile of logs. Between her and Zhu, the two women had managed to pick up nearly every tree that had been felled that morning. “Zhu…you have carried enough wood to make ten houses on your own.”

Zhu shrugged. “Your point being?” Though she wore a smile, she was red in the face and covered in a layer of sweat. She was also squinting; her vision was even poorer than the previous night, but she could still make out the shapes of trees, of people, and of animals—enough to let her walk about with moderate ease. “I have not worked like this in a few years, Ting-Ting. I missed getting my hands dirty in a task that didn’t involve gutting someone or something.”

“If you insist,” she murmured, her brow rising.

Wiping some sweat from her brow, Zhu started to trudge back across the clearing. There were only three more logs to retrieve before they would harness up the teams of horses to drag them back to the village. Truthfully, her entire body ached and she felt a bit faint. But she didn’t let it show—she needed this. She needed a way to vent her anger and frustration from the previous into something beneficial; she wouldn’t allow herself to stew on it and let it fester until she exploded.

She wouldn’t be like Hayabusa-possessed Shan Yu.

The last log, the sisters found, was quite big—much too big for Zhu alone to pick up. As such, Ting-Ting hoisted up one end while Zhu carried the other. Crossing the field, the sisters could see groups of five- or six-men carrying logs half the size of the one they currently held. Or, rather, Ting-Ting could see the groups while Zhu saw what looked like giant bugs slowly making their way across the field.

“Are you sure no one is going to think we are possessed by some sort of demon because of our strength?” Ting-Ting asked. “After all, we are lifting quite a bit more than them…And we are women…”

“They know of our family’s strength,” Zhu assured her, “and they have seen me lift an ox. This is nothing new for them to behold.”

“Please tell me you did not lift the ox while pregnant…”

Zhu grinned. “Then I will not tell you that.”

“Zhu!” She looked over her shoulder, wearing a scolding pout.

“What? I was not pregnant!” she laughed. “I was barely twenty-four at the time.”

Ting-Ting rolled her eyes, letting out a sigh. “I think you have been hanging around Yao and Ling too much lately,” she joked.

“Not enough, in my opinion.” She shifted the log on her shoulder, needing to free her braid that had been pinned under it. “Speaking of Ling…I heard that the two of you finally spoke.”

“Yes. It…It was a huge relief to hear that he felt the same, to be honest.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Thank you…your advice really helped us. Even if I’m sure we disappointed mother.”

Zhu shrugged, though it wasn’t noticeable thanks to the tree. “I do not think she is disappointed in you so much as she is in the fact that you are not the bubbly and happily in love Ting-Ting you were a year ago.” As they reach the pile, she grunted as she gave the log a little toss and watched it fall onto the other logs. “But, you have many, many men—or women, if you prefer—to choose from now. And you need not worry about them being of a different status than you.”

Ting-Ting gave her an odd look. “…What do you mean ‘or women, if you prefer’?” she asked.

“Exactly as it sounds. If you end up preferring women to men, you will have—”

“Wait, you’re not making that illegal?!” Her eyes were wide in shock.

Zhu looked horrified. “No! Why in the world would I do such a thing?!”

Ting-Ting rubbed the back of her next. “It was illegal back in China. Women could only court men and men could only court women. I am not saying it should be illegal, by the way—I think it’s wonderful that you are allowing it!”

“But—why—how—why?” she stammered, trying to process Ting-Ting’s words. “The emperor really made it so women could not openly be with other women or men with other men?!” Her sister nodded. “And, let me guess, only a man could have multiple spouses, but not women?” Again, Ting-Ting nodded. “If I had any doubts before about bringing you, Mei, and Su here, I have them no longer.”

Ting-Ting frowned slightly at her words, but knew them to be true. “So, people in this village will be allowed to marry whoever they please?”

“So long as everyone is consenting to the marriage, yes.” Her brows were furrowed and there was a determined frown on her lips. “What use would it be, keeping people from being with the person or persons they love? It would only garner frustration, anger, and hate—not to mention, said persons taking risks in order to be with their lover.” She shook her head. “It wouldn’t be fair.

Ting-Ting cocked her brow; something about the way Zhu spoke made her wonder if she had meant that everyone except Zhu herself would be allowed to be with the person or persons they loved. But she knew better than to question it—at least, for now. “Let’s get these horses hitched up to the logs,” she said with a small smile. “The sooner we get the logs back to the village, the sooner Tófi and his men can start debarking them and turning them into houses.”

Zhu nodded in agreement. “Yes, let us. I was thinking about five horses for each of the smaller logs and about ten for the larger ones.”

“Sounds about right.” She brushed bits of moss and bark off of her shoulder. “But, then again, you are the one who knows horses—I, admittedly, still don’t know how much a horse can pull.”

“These horses can pull a decent amount if they are working in teams,” Zhu explained. “After all, they are used to hauling yurts and such across the plains. Jiang, Umut, Bohai, and Khan are larger horses meant for farm work and for endurance, so they can be their own team to haul the medium logs.” She squinted, trying to make out the different horses as they stood some yards away, ready to be harnessed.

Ting-Ting frowned. “Zhu, maybe when we get the first logs back, you should call it a day,” she suggested. “I do not want you tripping over something and accidentally getting run over by one of the teams or their logs.”

Much to her surprise, Zhu nodded. “Yes, I suppose I should…” she sighed. “At least I was able to do something productive today…”

“I am sure you will be able to find other ways to be productive,” she smiled. “I recall Mulan saying she was going to be cleaning out the barn, since most of the horses are out here, pulling logs. Maybe you could help her?”

“That sounds like an idea—if she has not got it done already.” A quiet laugh left her mouth. “Even if she has, though, I do still need to talk with her. And Shang, for that matter.”

Ting-Ting smiled. “Well, then, it sounds like you have plenty of things left to do when we get back!”

Snort, Zhu rolled her eyes. “Yes, talking with two people will take up the remainder of my day…”

 

Nearly two hours later found the siblings—along with a small cavalry of men, horses, and logs—found themselves back at the edge of the village. The Danish loggers came over to meet them, Tófi being the first to arrive. His blue eyes were wide in awe at the size of these first logs.

“Was expecting big trees, but not this big!” he laughed, resting his hands on his hips. “Would be good long ships!”

Zhu nodded in agreement. “I think they will serve as better houses, though,” she smiled. “Are these a good size for building, by the way?”

He nodded. “Yes, yes! Each will make many, many boards. Many, many boards means many houses! Will take time, though. Need to make kilns to dry wood fast. But! The skinny man said will help with that.”

Ting-Ting did her best to not giggle; she found Tófi’s way of talking to be endearing. “Do you mean Ling?” she asked.

“Is skinny man’s name?” He then grinned. “Good to know! Will have to work with him at times, especially if need more kilns in future.” He called out to the other Danes before moving to help unhitch the horses from the logs.

“I should probably go find Mulan now,” Zhu told her sister. “Are you certain you will not need any more help?”

She nodded, giving Zhu a hug. “Go and talk with your best friend,” she chuckled. “I will see you at dinner.”

Zhu smiled. “Let us hope—this conversation I am about to have is going to determine how the rest of my day goes.” She walked off, taking care to step cautiously. Instead of going directly to the barn, however, she went back to her yurt.

Entering it, she heard no voices of greeting and heard no sounds of life. She breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be alone for the time being.

‘First I’ll wash up a bit,’ she thought, crossing the room. Now that she was somewhere familiar, she could walk with confidence. ‘Then I’ll grab my staff and go find Mulan and Shang. Should I get Liling from mother and Fa Li, though? I haven’t spent much time with her over the last few days, after all…’

After removing her shirt, she filled a basin with water before using a cloth to wash first her face, then her underarms. Retrieving a fresh shirt from her trunk, she pulled it on—after making sure it was the right way around, of course—before also grabbing her walking stick and leaving the yurt.

Not long after, she had Liling strapped to the front of her chest as she headed for the house Shang shared with Ling. Fa Li had told her that Mulan and Shang were having their midday meal there, leaving her to hope that they were actually eating and not…taking part in other activities. As she walked, Liling made soft baby noises, her attention focused on the little, cloth doll Zhi had made her. Half its head was already soaked by her drool.

“Do you like the doll grandmama made you?” Zhu smiled, gently running her hand over Liling’s hair. “Perfect for little teething babies named Liling, isn’t it?”

Liling looked up as her mother spoke. Though she had no idea what was being said to her, she still smiled up at her with that adorable toothless grin of hers.

Zhu suddenly felt an ache in her heart; she couldn’t make out any of her daughter’s facial features, let alone see her smile. ‘…Could I really go the rest of my life without seeing her face?’ she thought, tilting her head down and kissing Liling’s forehead. ‘Can I really bear not being able to see such an adorable little smile…?’

“Zhu?”

She looked up, though wasn’t able to see much more than a blob—two blobs, actually, and ones that she was able to just barely tell were Shang and Mulan. A small smile came to her lips. “Well, that was easy,” she smiled. “I was on my way to talk with you two.”

“You were?” Shang asked, a bit of confusion in his voice. “Both of us?”

“Yes, both of you,” she replied, her brow rising. “…Is now not a good time?” she then asked, suddenly wondering if she had interrupted something.

Mulan shook her head. “Now is fine,” she chuckled. “We were just returning our lunch dishes.” She looked over at Shang as he took her bowl and cup from her.

“Go ahead and take her back to the house,” he told her, smiling. “I’ll join you after returning these.”

Nodding, Mulan moved to take Zhu’s arm, guiding her towards the house. “How was logging with Ting-Ting? I can’t imagine it was too easy, what with the new moon arriving tonight and all…”

Zhu chuckled. “It was an interesting challenge, that is for certain,” she agreed. “But I helped haul the logs to the pile and hitch the horses up to some of them.” She looked down in surprise as Liling suddenly squealed in delight, her little hand smacking the doll against her mother’s chest. “Child…”

“Did someone get a new dolly?” Mulan giggled. “She looks like she’s already well-loved.”

She snorted. “Yes; I guess the fabric is wonderful on her sore little gums. Our mothers said that she has not stopped chewing on it since it was given to her.”

“Well, that’s good! Whatever helps ease her pain is a welcomed gift, isn’t it?” She chuckled, opening the door to Ling and Shang’s house. “So, what is it that you need to talk with me and Shang about…?” She guided Zhu over to a cushion so she could sit.

As she sat, Zhu let out a heavy sigh. “Something Mushu told me a few nights ago.” Judging by Mulan’s lack of response, she knew her to be shocked. “I take it Shang doesn’t know about Mushu?”

“Only you and I do.” She sat down beside her, reaching over to rub Liling’s cheek with her knuckle.

“…And now Mundzuc.”

“You told Mundzuc!?”

A guilty look came to her face. “I had no choice—well, looking back on it, I suppose I did have a bit of a choice. But at the time, I felt I had no other choice.” She closed her eyes and sighed a second time. “When Shang gets back, you will hear why I had to tell him. If you do not want me to say anything about Mushu, however, I could say a different creature told me.”

Mulan bit her lip, glancing towards the door. “I think that may be best for now. Shang already has a hard time accepting that Umut isn’t just a normal horse; if he knew about Mushu, I think his head would explode.”

She nodded in understanding as she started to unwind the cloth keeping Liling strapped to her chest. “That is one of the last things we need at the moment,” she murmured. She did her best to support Liling as she continued to mess with the cloth, but part of it seemed to have gotten tangled in on itself, making it difficult to mess with both child and cloth.

“Here, let me,” Mulan murmured. Zhu fully expected her to take over untangling the cloth, but she instead lifted Liling from her arms. It was the first time she had the child—she had always declined before.

“That is a first,” Zhu commented, smiling. Reaching behind her with both hands, she managed to get the cloth untangled. “Usually, you refuse to hold her.” Though she couldn’t see it, she could hear the smile on her daughter’s face as she looked up at Mulan.

“…With good reason,” she quietly admitted. Her voice, Zhu noticed, sounded a bit depressed all of a sudden. But then the door opened as Shang returned and she quickly whispered, “I’ll tell you later.”

Nodding slightly, she glanced up at the blob that was Shang. He sat down across from them, though she was unable to read his expression.

“So, what brings Queen Zhu to this humble abode?” he asked, a bit of humor in his voice. She was a bit surprised to hear it; usually, Shang wasn’t the sort to joke around.

Rubbing the back of her neck, Zhu half-heartedly smiled in his direction. “I am afraid it is a rather serious matter,” she replied. “A few days ago, I was told by a spiritual contact that a threat is heading our way.”

“…What kind of threat?” His voice had taken on a grave tone almost instantly. “And what kind of spiritual contact? Umut?”

“No, not Umut. A creature from the spirit world who knows Umut, though. He told us that the threat is a demon.” She heard Mulan gasp and Shang swear under his breath.

“You mean like Hayabusa?” Mulan questioned. Upon hearing the news, she had unconsciously clutched Liling to her chest. “If it’s a demon like Hayabusa, then there’s no telling what kind of trouble it’ll bring!”

“Actually—”

“We don’t have any defenses for physical attacks in place, let alone defenses for magical attacks!” He glanced over at Mulan, tensing slightly when he saw her holding the baby against her chest. He quickly turned his attention back to Zhu. “How are we supposed to defend ourselves against a demon, Zhu!?”

She let out a heavy sigh. “If you had let me speak,” she told him, voice calm, “then I would have told you that the demon is actually in a fairly weakened state. She is trapped in a corporeal form. Yes, she still has magic at her disposal and is a great deal stronger than any of us, but there are ways we can defeat her.”

“But why is the demon even coming here?” Shang demanded, his voice a bit louder in his frustration. “What do we have that it wants!? Does it want you, Zhu? Or does it want something else?”

Liling whined, squirming as Shang raised his voice. Mulan shot him a scolding look, but he ignored it.

“She wants Umut,” Zhu explained, remaining calm. “The demon is the daughter of Lilitu, the demon who Umut killed. From what I understand, she wants revenge.”

Shang quietly growled under his breath as he rested his head in his hands. “Zhu, you told us that we would be safe here,” he said, his voice quiet, but filled with frustration. “You told us we wouldn’t have to worry about enemies anymore.”

Zhu felt her stomach drop and she swallowed hard. “I thought we would have no need to worry about such things,” she told him. “But this? This is something I could have never anticipated, Shang. Not even in my wildest dreams. The Mongols turning on us? Yes. Gantulga, Narankhuu, and Othonbayar finding us? Yes. But the daughter of a demon wanting revenge on Umut? Never.”

Mulan reached over, setting a comforting hand on her knee. “What else do you know about this demon, Zhu?” she asked, voice gentle. “Do you know how much time we have until she gets here? Or what form she’s stuck in?”

She shook her head. “No, but I was told that we have plenty of time until she arrives. We…also do not know what form she has been trapped in.” She ran her hand over her hair. “My contact told me that they would let me know as soon as they found out more information, however.”

“Have you told anyone else this information?” Shang asked. “Or are we the first ones to know?”

“I told Mundzuc.”

“Did he have any suggestions?”

A sarcastic laugh left her mouth. “No. He is more worried about me keeping my vision than anyone’s life.”

Mulan’s brow rose. “…Why? You can live without your sight, but Umut cannot possibly live without our help.”

“He is Mundzuc; he has his selfish reasons, I am certain,” she sighed. She hated lying to the both of them, but she couldn’t tell them the real reason Mundzuc wanted Umut around. “Either way, he knows and will, no doubt, be less than helpful. I know I need to tell a few more people what is going on, but I know better than telling the entire village.”

“Why can’t you tell the village?” Mulan asked.

It was Shang who answered, not Zhu. “If she were to tell the village, they would panic. Their trust and confidence in Zhu is already minimal; if they were to find out a demon was on its way here and she had no idea how to protect them from it…well, let’s just say she may no longer have a head.”

Her stomach churning at the thought, Zhu turned her head away from them guiltily.

“But this demon only wants revenge on Umut,” Mulan argued. “From the sounds of it, she doesn’t want anyone else. Surely, that means everyone else is safe? That we just have to protect Umut?” She glanced down at Liling, her face softening into a bit of a smile when she discovered the child fast asleep against her shoulder.

“She is a demon, Mulan,” Zhu said with a sigh. “Not just any demon, either—she is the daughter of a truly bloodthirsty and cunning demon. The very demon who managed to bring about my father’s downfall all because he would not let her have my…” Her eyes widened and she felt the color drain from her face.

‘What if she wants my soul as well?’ she thought.

Shang and Mulan must have come to the same conclusion. “Zhu,” Mulan murmured. “Please tell me that this demon doesn’t want you as well.”

“I…honestly do not know. As far as I know, she only wants Umut.”

“I think you need to get ahold of your contact and tell them just how dire this situation is,” Shang told her, his voice firm. “If they’re able to go to the spirit world, then they should be able to find out what this demon looks like and if she wants you dead, too.”

She nodded slowly, her mind now racing with new fears. “I need only know what this demon looks like,” she murmured. “If she is stuck in a corporeal form, that means she is not immortal. It means she can be killed—permanently.

Biting her lower lip, Mulan looked between Shang and Zhu; while Zhu looked lost in determined thought, Shang looked more than a little angry. His anger was understandable, though—after all, they were supposed to be living out their happily-ever-afters, weren’t they?

But this certainly wasn’t it.

“We need to tell Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po,” she finally said, drawing both Shang and Zhu’s attention. “Even if we don’t tell anyone else, those three will be a big help. Chien-Po is spiritually inclined, Yao is as tough as nails, and Ling is good at gathering information.”

Shang cocked his brow. “Is he really?”

She nodded. “He’s a people person and he’s non-threatening. You’ve never noticed how easily he talks with complete strangers?”

Zhu nodded in agreement. “Not to mention, he is a sweetheart. No doubt he will be able to gather information the easiest of us all.”

Shang sighed. “How, exactly? He can’t travel to the spirit world—unless there’s something else I don’t know about him.”

“Not all information will be found in the spirit world,” Zhu told him. “If there is a demon in disguise somewhere, people will talk. It may be a particularly vicious boar in the woods or it may be an enormous fish in the lake or even a frightening bird in the skies.” She ran a hand over her hair before allowing herself to flop backwards onto the floor. She was starting to feel faint again and wondered if, perhaps, it was due to her poor night’s sleep. “If a creature like that were to suddenly appear, there will be rumors.”

“And what if she were to appear as a completely normal creature?”

Zhu shook her head. “Though it is a possibility, demons enjoy causing chaos. She will most certainly look at least somewhat monstrous.”

Sighing, Shang nodded before rubbing his face. “And you will tell us as soon as you learn any more information, right?”

“I promise.”

Mulan watched as Shang suddenly stood up. “I need to go process this,” he murmured, heading for the door. “I’ll be back later.”

Zhu heard him open the door and shut it as he left. “…Well, he took it better than I expected,” she murmured.

Moving one of the cushions so that it was beside Zhu on the floor, Mulan used the greatest care as she set Liling down atop it. Then she, too, stretched out, choosing to lay on her side. “How did you expect him to take it?” she asked, keeping her voice soft.

“With more yelling.” She turned her head so that she faced Mulan; her vision was even worse now. All she could see were splotches of color that occasionally moved. “I take it Lili fell asleep?”

“Mhm. I’ve got her laying on a cushion next to you.”

“Thank you,” she sighed. “…You do not hate me, do you?”

She frowned. “Why would I hate you?”

“For being unable to find somewhere truly safe for us.”

“Zhu, even you admitted this was something you couldn’t possibly anticipate happening.” Seeing that she had some stray bits of hair hanging in her face, she reached over and gently brushed them behind her ear. “And, to be fair, I would much prefer a single demon than the rest of the Mongolian army.” Her brow rose slightly when she saw a bit of color come to Zhu’s cheeks.

“Still…I cannot help but feel like I failed everyone.”

Don’t even think that. You’ve failed no one.”

“But—”

“Zhu, what did I just say?” She reached over and lightly tapped the end of her nose like she did when scolding Little Brother. “You’ve failed no one. This whole thing was unpredictable.”

A half-hearted smile came to Zhu’s lips. “I suppose my mind is not in the best of places at the moment.”

“Did you fight with Mundzuc?” she asked, frowning.

“Fight? Not so much.” She sighed. “I do not really know how to describe what transpired. I suppose there was a bit of arguing, but also some threats and mocking?” She shook her head. “He does not care about protecting Umut for Umut’s sake—he only wants her alive so I can retain my vision.”

Mulan’s brows furrowed in a mixture of anger and confusion. “What!?” She then winced, realizing that she had raised her voice a bit, making Liling stir. “Sorry,” she whispered. Reaching over, she gently rubbed Liling’s belly in an attempt to soothe her and keep her asleep. “Why does he only want to protect her for the sake of your vision?”

She was silent for a few minutes, trying to think of a way that would leave her telling Mulan the truth while still being vague enough that she wouldn’t learn of her affections for her. Sliding her hand across the floor, she carefully felt her way to Liling before stroking the child’s hair.

“He wants to watch me suffer,” she finally murmured. “He wants to watch me watch everyone else fall in love and have families with the people they love while I am forced into being his wife and the mother of his child.”

Mulan felt herself grow tense. “He…he really said that?” she asked, the anger in her voice clear despite its soft tone.

“He did,” she murmured. “He is also convinced that I feel some sort of romantic attraction to him, despite all evidence to the contrary.” Pulling her hand from Liling, she rolled onto her stomach and rested her chin on the backs of her hands. “I do not know why he thinks that—I have never showed him anything that could be interpreted as love.”

“I hate to say it,” Mulan murmured, watching her roll over, “but maybe he thinks that, because you had sex with him, that means you love him?”

She snorted. “He could not be more wrong, then. I only had sex with him recently in order to produce an heir that would get me more soldiers to protect my people with.”

“What about in the past…? You’ve mentioned you slept with him before…”

“I was always under the assumption that it was simply us taking out our frustrations with one another in a way that wouldn’t leave one or both of us dead. It was not even that good! Five minutes and he was done while I was still frustrated.” She turned her head towards Mulan as she heard her snort. “I am serious, though! Sex with him is unsatisfying!”

“I wouldn’t know, thankfully,” Mulan giggled. “…To be honest, I wouldn’t know how sex is in general.”

“You and Shang have not…?”

“Oh, no—no, no, no!” She let out a small laugh. “Not only have we constantly been around my parents, but Shang is terrified by the though of me accidentally getting pregnant.”

Her brow rose in confusion. “Because you are not married…?”

“No.” She, too, pulled her hand from Liling before rolling onto her back. “Because he…is scared of infants and pregnant women.” As she spoke, she felt an ache rise in her heart.

“…What?”

“I know, it’s strange.” She tucked her hands behind her head as she stared up at the ceiling. “But, I mean…his mother died in childbirth, he’s heard about some of the problems Zhi had during her pregnancies, and now knowing that you—the strongest woman we know—are still recovering from giving birth? He has every right to be scared.” A small, albeit unhappy, laugh left her mouth. “I’m surprised I still want children, despite knowing all that I do about pregnancy.” She paused. “Which, to be honest, isn’t very much—but enough to know that it’s a scary thing.”

“Is that why you have been hesitant to hold Liling? Because you feel as if holding her would make your desire to have your own children stronger?”

She nodded. “It is…and I hate to say it, but even just seeing her adorably chubby face makes me want children of my own.” She swallowed a bit harder than normal as she felt her eyes starting to sting. “Shang’s told me he wouldn’t mind adopting older children and…while that would still be a good thing to do, I want at least one child of my own.”

Unable to hold back her tears, Mulan used her sleeve to wipe them away before they could fall. “I know it’s really weird of me to say, but I want to know what it’s like, having to wake up at odd times during the night to feed a child or what it’s like to hold a baby against my chest as I sing them to sleep. But Shang doesn’t want any of that.” She sniffled and rubbed her eyes again; she had cried enough over this in the past. She didn’t want to cry over it anymore.

Zhu rolled onto her side again. Then, carefully sliding the cushion Liling was on a bit further up so that she was no longer between the two women, she reached over to Mulan. She was able to easily scoop the smaller woman up and bring her against her chest.

“I don’t know what to do,” Mulan choked out, clinging onto Zhu. “I love Shang and I understand his point of view, but I also want children of my own…”

“No doubt, it does not help that your parents are surely starting to pressure you more towards marrying Shang and producing children, are they not?” As she held her, she slowly stroked the back of her head.

Why did it have to feel so right, holding her like this?

Mulan nodded against her neck. “They were pressuring us to marry while we were still traveling here. By the gods, they were wanting us to have a rushed marriage ceremony before we left!” Though tears still fell from her eyes, the faint scent of jasmine lingering on Zhu helped to calm her down a bit. “What do I do, Zhu?”

“…I do not know, Mulan,” she quietly admitted. “In my mind, you have three choices, but none of them are preferable.” A quiet sigh escaped her lips. “You could cheat on Shang with a man willing to get you pregnant; you could leave Shang for a man willing to have a family; or you could stay with Shang and accept that you may never have a child of your own.” She suddenly felt helpless; she wanted to help Mulan, but how could she? This was something she had to work out with Shang.

“You’re right,” she mumbled. “None of those are good options.” Her brows furrowed slightly as she saw something glinting on Zhu’s neck.

“…How often have you spoken of this with Shang?”

“A handful of times…and each time ended with us both walking away, upset.” She reached up, pushing back the collar of Zhu’s shirt. Her brows rose slightly; the glinting she had seen was the bronze flower pendant of the necklace she had won at the festival. “You still have this?” she murmured.

Zhu’s cheeks had grown quite warm when she felt Mulan push back her collar. “You mean the necklace?”

“Yes.”

“Of course I do.” She managed a small smile. “It is pretty. I do not think I do it justice, but it cannot hurt to wear it once in a while.”

She pouted. “It looks quite lovely on you…and the way the jade picks up the hues of whatever you’re wearing is very pretty, too. Have you worn it with your headdress?”

“Not yet. I think it would be too many beads.”

“Maybe. But, maybe not. It’s such a plain color compared to your headdress that it may be understated and blend in a bit.” She reached up, running her fingers along the beads again; they were warm to the touch. “Zhu?”

“Hm?”

“What would you do if you were in my position?” It didn’t surprise her when a silence fell between them.

A few minutes later, however, Zhu spoke. “…If I were you,” she began, her voice having a bit of a cautious tone to it, “I would talk with him again in hopes of finding some sort of happy medium. If one could not be found…then I do not think I would stay with him, since we clearly do not have the same wants and needs in life.”

She nodded slowly, sighing as she hugged onto Zhu once more. “I had a feeling that’s what you were going to say…”

Chapter Text

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.”

“…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?”

“Correct.”

“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.