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steps towards destiny

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Fa Mulan is born with a mark of the dragon that covers her entire back.

It causes a minor uproar in the village – being born with a soulmark at all is rare, and to be born with such a large one, of such an important creature is even more so. Temples are consulted. Horoscopes are studied. Paintings of the soulmark are made and passed around and everyone and their grandmother has an opinion.

Dragons are symbols of the weather — obviously she’ll be caught in a storm! No, there’ll be a drought and she’ll bring the rain! It’s a symbol of good luck, is all! No, prosperity! It's the Imperial Dragon — maybe she’ll meet the Emperor!

“Bah,” Grandmother Fa scoffs. “Our family totem is a dragon, too. The Emperor isn’t the only one that can claim to be a descendant of dragons. Why get so worked up about it?”

“People are just concerned,” Fa Li says politely to her mother-in-law. “It is a very large mark…”

For her daughter to have any destiny at all is concerning. For it to be so very large… She cradles her infant daughter in her arms. Mulan is so very small. How could she possibly be destined for anything?

“People are just gossiping,” her mother-in-law says back, perceptively. She cackles. “This is the most exciting thing to happen in this village for years!”

In the end, it is the matchmaker that brings them answers. The pictures of Mulan’s soulmark have been passed up and down the country, using the network of communication that the matchmakers use to compare families and find suitable brides.

“As you can see,” the Matchmaker says, laying down two scrolls on the table between them. “The marks are an exact match.” She strokes her chin in thoughtful satisfaction. “The meaning of the mark is clear now; they are destined for each other. It is a match I am honoured to help facilitate.”

Below the table and out of sight, Fa Li clutches at her husband's hand.

“And who,” Fa Zhou asks, “bears the other mark?”

“The young son of General Li,” the Matchmaker says in satisfaction. “There is quite the expectation in the Imperial City regarding him, you know. As they say: To hope one's son will become a dragon.”

Left unsaid — one does not hope one’s daughter becomes a dragon. Left unsaid — what can a soulmark mean for a woman but a strong husband and a good marriage. What other destiny is there?


“And you are certain?” Fa Li asks. “Of this match?”

“The horoscopes have been compared,” the Matchmaker says, nodding sagely. “It is a good match. The Li family has already given their approval. Why, they have even offered to take her now in a tongyangxi marriage.”

“No,” Fa Li says, instantly, instinctively even though a good wife would not speak over her husband.

Fa Zhou does not contradict her. “She will remain with us and be married at sixteen.”

The Matchmaker does not disagree — she will get her fee for arranging the match either way. “At sixteen, then. A perfectly respectable age for a girl to be married.”

So Mulan grows up knowing she is betrothed, which is a fact far less interesting to her than knowing there are red bean pastries in the kitchen or knowing that there are frogs to catch in the carp pond.

She grows up knowing she has a soul mark too, which is a little more interesting. If she twists and cranes her neck, she can see it, twisting up her spine to curl over her shoulder blades. She thinks it looks fierce and a little bit frightening.

When she’s at the market, she spies a merchant with a blue snowflake mark on his hand, and slips away from her mother the second Fa Li is distracted haggling.

“Is that a soulmark?” she asks, eagerly. “I have one!”

The merchant laughs at her. “Do you, now?” he says. “Then you will do something wonderful one day! Do you want to know my story?”

Mulan very much does.

“Picture a snowstorm!” he says, sweeping his hand out in front of him. “The most terrible winter! It was so cold, the river froze over! It was so windy, you couldn’t walk in a straight line! The snow fell so thickly, you couldn’t see a mile ahead! And there was me, a young merchant, travelling with five of my friends – caught out in the storm!”

Mulan listens raptly.

“We couldn’t stop, because there was no shelter! But we didn’t know at all where we were going, and what if we took the wrong road? Or walked right past a town? But I had this mark, you see, so I knew the storm was important to me! I rode ahead and checked every side road and what did I find?”

“Me!” the merchant's wife says, ducking out behind her husband.

Mulan squeaks, surprised. “You?”

The wife shows Mulan her hand, which has the same snowflake mark. “I knew the storm was important to me too,” she says. “And my family had the biggest house in our village — when the snow blew in, everyone moved into my house where it was safe and warm. So I went out and I put flags all along the road, so that they would all know where to go.”

“That’s smart,” Mulan pronounces, gravely. If a house had lots of flags like the temple does, she would definitely want to go there!

“Thank you,” the woman says back, equally grave. “But there were so many people in my house that they ate up all the food!”

“But luckily,” her husband says, taking the story back, “my friends and I had plenty of food! And when I saw her flags I knew where to go. She saved me and my friends, and I saved her and her friends! That’s what our marks mean, and that’s how we met.”

It makes perfect sense to Mulan — except there aren’t really such things as dragon storms, are there? But she hasn’t seen a single dragon yet so she will probably know for sure when she has to go and do something important.

And then Fa Li notices she’s missing and comes to drag her home, apologising profusely to the merchant and his wife for their trouble.

Mulan only meets Li Shang once during her childhood — when she is twelve and he is fifteen — when he and his family come to her village for an official meeting. He’s about to join the army, or something, and everyone is full of congratulations for him. Mulan sits quietly and tries not to fidget too much, even though her mom made her dress up in an uncomfortable dress and she’s bored and probably no one would notice if she just snuck out…

Eventually, the adults become engrossed in conversation and leave the two of them to their own devices.

“Err,” Li Shang says, looking around the room as the awkward silence between them stretches out. “Oh, do you play the pipa? You could, um, if you wanted, I mean. Play a song?”

Mulan has, in fact, managed to not play the pipa ever since she’d dropped it during practice a year ago and snapped the neck. The instrument is delicately balanced in the stand so that it looks whole, and if she moves it her crime will be revealed. Not to mention, her playing always sounds horrible.

“Let’s go outside,” she says hastily, bouncing to her feet and practically dragging him out through the doors. “We’ve got good gardens. Or… Khan! If you’re a soldier then you have to like horses, right?”

“Yes,” he says, instantly. “That is. I like horses.”

Mulan smiles at him, pleased. By the time the adults come looking for them, the hem of her dress is muddy and Shang has taught her a game involving throwing chestnuts around and she thinks he’s alright, even if he’s kind of weird and formal.

They write letters to each other after that — Shang always writes with military precision, letters arriving every two weeks like clockwork. They’re formal and usually a page of vague boringness about his training or exams or soldiering stuff.

Mulan’s responses aren’t so routine. Sometimes she just forgets to answer before the next letter arrives! Sometimes she sends him six pages of rambling about the village. When she gets scolded for that and her lessons about proper correspondence get too strict she copies out boring poems and presses flat flowers from the garden to send to him like she’s supposed to, or draws (mostly good!) sketches of Khan — to which he replies with a much better drawn sketch of his own horse.

“Unfair. Look how much better it is,” Mulan tells Khan, showing him the picture. He tries to eat it and she only just manages to save it so she can carefully store it in her keepsake box with the other letters.

“Ah, leave her be, Li,” Grandmother Fa says to it all, when Mulan is struggling through her ‘how to be a lady’ lessons. “They’re destined to be married, apparently. She can be as bad at it all as she likes.”

“There is that,” Fa Li says with a sigh. “That’s no excuse, though— Mulan!”

“Gotta go!” Mulan says, taking the first possible opening to scoot away from her lesson. “Uh, chores to do!”

When her father teaches her how to play Xiangqi, she writes that in her letters — and they start to play a game by correspondence, one move at a time. It’s horribly frustrating to play so slowly, and Mulan always forgets what she’d meant to do next by the time he’s responded. But that just means she has to think it through each and every time and her mom and dad laugh at her and tell her it’s ‘teaching her patience’.

When she's sixteen and the other girls in the village are visiting the Matchmaker for the first time, Mulan gets married. She's always known it was coming and Shang isn't exactly a stranger, but it still manages to seem strange and sudden. Suddenly, everything about her life changes, all in one great swoop, just because of some mark she was born with.

"Well," she says, somewhat awkward, with a nervous laugh. "I guess, at least we can finish a game of Xiangqi in less than a year."

"There is that," Shang agrees with what might even be a smile. He seems taller and grimmer than the Shang of her memory, more intimidating. She wonders if that's just part of being a soldier, or growing up, or if he's really actually unhappy with this.

Mulan has occasionally argued about the necessity of getting married — the marks only mean they're going to do something important. Something important in the same place at the same time, her mother had pointed out, calm and serene, together. How else do you think that will come about?

That had been harder to argue with than the people who scoffed at the suggestion that Mulan would ever do anything important, the ones that thought she was some kind of reward or only there so her husband could achieve great things.

Together is why Mulan accompanies him to the training camp once China goes to war. Any officer is allowed to bring their wife and family, though he hesitates to ask her.

"It won't be dangerous," he assures her. "We will spend many weeks training the new recruits before even thinking about seeing combat."

"I'm not worried," she assures him back. She had been more worried about her father, when the conscription notice had come around, but Shang had assured her he would take it himself and her father would be safe.

After that, there wasn't a thing in the world that she feared.

Shang is not so far removed from his own training as a soldier that he doesn't remember how it went — but it's markedly different to be on this side of it. Added to that is the fact that these men are conscripts; they haven't chosen to join the army out of pride or purpose, and in many cases wouldn't have been accepted if they had.

But they are what he has now, raw clay to mold into shape, and Shang means to do his best.

It keeps him busy, fills his days with the rhythm of staff training, archery, endurance runs, strength exercises. These are the things he knows how to do, how to teach, and his life in the camp takes on a familiar shape.

Even having Mulan there isn't that strange. They share meals and a tent but then he's off training the men for the day and only really sees her hovering at the edges, watching them work.

And then, they return from an endurance run early. The men are improving, and Shang had felt magnamious enough to return to camp via an easier route — a reward, a motivation to them. The harder they work, the easier the work becomes, in the end.

And when they walk into camp, Mulan is sitting atop the arrow post.

Shang blinks up at her, completely silent. At the distance, he cannot see her face, but she quickly descends, almost sliding down the post, and stumbles to a stop before him.

"Husband!" she says with a nervous laugh, quickly untying the weights from her wrists and letting them drop to the ground with heavy thunks. "You're back early. Uh. Good job men. I was just… going to do a thing."

She bows and flees.

Shang picks up the weight and hefts it thoughtfully. Yes. There is no trick there, they're still as heavy and solid as he remembers. How had she possibly carried them to the top of the post?

He turns to the men, silent to the last.

Well, there are many different types of motivation. "Who wants to prove themselves?"

They all raise their hands, every last one of them.

None of them make it to the top — but they do do much better than the first awkward attempts — and by the time Shang is finished supervising that it's late evening. He dismisses the men for their meal time and makes his way to his tent to clean up.

Mulan is there, waiting for him. The tent has been tidied, returned to the neat military precision Shang that had always kept it in before he'd known how much more stuff two people had compared to one. Her hair is pinned up and she's wearing the nicer of her dresses, the one with the long trailing sleeves that she seems to hate.

And there is a bowl of hot food waiting on the table for him.

"Ah, thank you," he says, ducking inside. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting." It's nice to have someone around, someone who takes care of little tasks like that, someone who he can speak with without feeling judged for weaknesses.

"Of course not," she says quietly and doesn't meet his eyes. She doesn't talk while he eats, either, which is unusual — he finds he's no longer quite so accustomed to the silence.

"Is everything—"

"I'm sorry!" she blurts out. "I know I wasn't supposed to climb— I didn't think anyone would see me!"

Ah. Shang puts his bowl down. Mulan is and is not under his command. She is no soldier and Shang isn't her captain, but he is the head of the household, if only because his father is leagues away. He doesn't know where the rules for this lie, and it seems neither does she.

"It's fine," he says, carefully. "I don't think there is any reason you shouldn't have climbed it. It's not… forbidden, or anything."

"It's not very ladylike," she says glumly, as if it's something she has been told many times. Probably as a generality, rather than this specific situation, because the only person in the camp who might rebuke his wife would be Chi Fu… and Shang wouldn't exactly put it past him, but Mulan has also been pretty clear on exactly how much weight she gives Chi Fu's opinion.

"I guess not," he concedes, because he's not the expert on what is and is not ladylike behaviour. "But it was impressive. None of the men have managed to get to the top yet."

She looks pleased but shakes her head and says, "I did cheat a little bit."

"You got to the top and carried the weights," Shang points out. He frowns. "How can you cheat at climbing?"

It's definitely a sign that her mood has improved when she only grins at him and won't answer. "Think on it!"

He sees her watching their training more frequently, after that, and one afternoon, when he catches her practicing staff fighting down by the river, she only attempts to hide what she's doing briefly.

"Your left hand should be higher," Shang says, critically. "You won't get much power out of your swing like that."

"Then show me how it's done, Captain Li."

When Mulan lights the rocket she thinks this is it, this is the dragon.

It makes sense. The rockets have dragon heads. This will save all of China, save thousands of people, save the Emperor and the Imperial Dragon banner itself.

The snow starts to tumble down off the Yellow Mountains and she thinks, no one promised you would survive your destiny.

But then Khan is there, powerful muscles straining against the snow, and Shang's hand is in hers and they do survive it, barely. Enough to lick their wounds and retreat and make camp.

It's dark and quiet by the time Shang settles down next to her at camp. The tent is dark and surprisingly silent, the snow outside muffling any sort of noise. Mulan can't sleep, though — she feels too jittery and nervous, as if any second she might have to run and fight again.

"So that was it," Shang says quietly, running his hand over his face. She can only see his silhouette, a dark shadowed shape, but she thinks he looks weary.

She wonders if he is half as frightened as she is. He doesn't seem it, but maybe he's simply better at pretending.

Mulan sits up, dragging her blankets with her to keep her carefully created warmth. "Do you… mind?" she asks, voice low. "That I… fired the rocket?"

"No," he says, immediately. "It's not that. Of course not. I would have never thought of it — and we couldn't have fought them all and won. It was… it was well done, Mulan."

A tension she didn't know she was carrying releases itself. Maybe she had been worrying about it. Women weren't supposed to show up their husbands, weren't supposed to march with soldiers or fire rockets. She doesn't regret it — could never regret it — but she doesn't want Shang disappointed in her, either.

"It's only," he says, after a long pause. He sounds hesitant, like he isn't sure of his words. "All my life… everyone said I would do something great. And it… just doesn't feel like enough. I was just there. If all I had to do was bring you here..." He rests a hand on his shoulder, as if reaching towards his mark. "What do I do now?"

Mulan considers that. "No one ever told me that," she admits. "No one ever seemed to think I would do anything. For every story of soulmarks I heard, there was another person telling me that all I had to do was get married. No one really understands the marks. Maybe this wasn't it. Maybe there's something else we have to do. Something bigger."

"Bigger than saving all of China?"

Mulan shrugs. "You're the one who felt like it wasn't enough," she says and lies back down. "Maybe the Imperial City will be attacked by a dragon and we'll have to fight it off."

That draws a chuckle from him, if only a small one. "I'm glad that's unlikely," he says. "I think the worst we'll have to deal with in the Imperial City will be an awards ceremony."

"I don't know," Mulan yawns. "I think we could do it. You and me. Together."

(The Imperial City isn't exactly attacked by a dragon, but it turns out Mulan isn't far off, either.)