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Fa Zhou doesn’t need to ask how the meeting with the Matchmaker went. Not when Mulan returns home shamefaced and quiet. He waits for her return on the porch of the house but she drifts past and takes Khan to the stables without meeting his eyes.

His daughter looks beautiful — her face white with powder, her hair smooth and sleek and held back with Li’s white magnolia flower hair comb, her clothing as fine as they can afford. And absolutely none of it makes up for the weight of her sorrow and disappointment.

“The Matchmaker knew nothing,” Grandmother Fa says, stomping up the stairs with more energy than he can muster on a good day. “Our Mulan is better than her. Hmph.”

She disappears inside the house, muttering more deprecations beneath her breath. Possibly entreating the ancestors to lay curses on the Matchmaker — and if the family ancestors are anything like Grandmother Fa they just might do it.

Zhou sighs. “Li?”

His wife lays a gentle hand atop his. She smells — for some reason — faintly of smoke. “She will make no match for Mulan,” she says, soft but with firm certainty and resignation. This is no small error that they can apologise for or wait out, then.

Sometimes, raising a child has felt like discovering over and over again which things are forgivable and which are not. In many ways, Mulan has taught them that the world is kinder than they’d expected. That very few things are really so bad that they might never be recovered from.

In others...

“I had hoped…” he says and trails off before he has to articulate exactly what he had been hoping from this encounter. Li knows.

It seems wrong to say ‘I had hoped that Mulan would try’ because it is not that Mulan is not dutiful. She is. She tries but she is… wild. Spoilt, some might say, but she is their only precious child with no brothers or sisters to share their attention. All their love has always belonged only to Mulan.

And Grandmother Fa has certainly never done anything to discourage her.

I managed just fine!” Grandmother Fa calls from inside the house, voice echoing, as if she can hear his thoughts. Or perhaps she has just continued the whole conversation on her own, talking to herself and reaching the same conclusion.

Zhou hopes he and his mother do not share the same thought patterns.

“It will be fine,” Li says, still soft, still firm. “We will manage. Somehow.”

“Somehow,” Zhou echoes, thinking about the letter he had received that morning.

If Mulan had impressed the Matchmaker, if there was the certainty that there would be a husband found for her, someone who could be relied upon to take care of her and her mother and grandmother…

It’s not that the three of them are incapable. They’re some of the most capable people he knows, and Zhou wouldn’t be surprised if his mother outlived him. But if anything happens to him, with no son to inherit and take ownership of the family land… there will be little that they can do. That is something no amount of stubbornness can change.

Any match for Mulan would have been better than nothing. A second son, or even third or fourth, with no inheritance of his own. It would have been an unequal match, but they would have happily accepted it to provide security for the family.

But it is not to be.

“I will speak with Mulan,” Zhou says. “And then we all must talk.”

Li’s face pinches with worry and Zhou gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile, before limping across the courtyard and towards the family shrine. The magnolia trees that line the walk are in full bloom, with the white and pink blossoms of early spring. The mùlán flowers. He hopes that is a good omen — they can use all the promising signs that they can get.

As he walks, Zhou thinks about what he wants to say, about duty and honour and perseverance. Not all failures are endings, and Fa do not give up. But when he sees her, sitting huddled on the stone bench beside the path, all he can say is, “the blossoms are beautiful this year.”

He settles himself beside her, hand loosely clasping his cane in front of him.

His daughter gives him a wobbling smile. She knows he is disappointed — is disappointed in herself for that alone. It hurts her even more than the humiliation of whatever happened in town. “Father…”

Disappointment doesn’t mean a lack of love. Duty can be a heavy burden at times and Mulan is not suited to the one she must bear. But no one ever gets to pick their path in life, and they must make do with what they have.

“All will be well,” he says, gently. “In time.” That much he can promise. In enough time, all hurts fade. “Come. Wash your face, and we shall go inside.”

He stands, using his cane as leverage to get to his feet and to take the weight off his injured leg. It aches, as it always does, and nearly gives way beneath him.

In a flash Mulan is there, circling around him and threading her arm through his, so she may support him.

“Careful, Father!” she admonishes. “You know the doctors say you aren’t supposed to walk so far. Especially if you spend all day kneeling and praying to the ancestors! You could take a chair to the shrine, you know. I’m sure they would understand!”

Zhou smiles faintly and allows her to scold him as they make their way slowly back to the house.

Li and Grandmother Fa have set dinner out on the table, waiting for them. There are dishes they spent the previous day preparing, when they anticipated they would be having a celebration tonight.

Instead, they’re quiet as they eat.

Finally, Zhou sets his chopsticks down. He clears his throat. He doesn’t wish to disrupt the peace of his family life, but there will be no putting it off. Change has come for China, whether they want it or not. “I received a letter from an old friend in the army,” he says.

He rarely speaks of his time in the Imperial Army, despite Mulan pressing for stories when she had been younger. She had known enough from village gossip to know that he had been a ‘hero’ and been desperate to understand, to be proud of him. But some stories are not for children's ears, and Zhou had never quite been able to separate the truth into a neat story, to strip the blood and mud and pain from it and leave only the clean lines of victory. He had done the things that had needed to be done, served with honour — and then received the injury that had ended his service.

“From the army?” Mulan repeats, head tilted curiously to the side. She sets down her nearly empty rice bowl with a click of ceramic on wood. “Do they want something?”

Zhou nods, gravely. “It seems… that there has been an attack from the Huns. The Emperor will send out conscription notices all over China in short order.”

Li gasps, hands flying up to cover her mouth. She’s clever, his wife — she can see the outcomes already.

Not that it takes very much to see. With no brothers or sons… the only person in this family that could answer such a call is Zhou himself.

If it were necessary, he would do his duty. He would die, in doing so — no doubt — but he would go and go with honour.

“Father!” Mulan protests. “You can’t go! Your injury… surely the army can make an exception! There are enough young, able men to fight.”

Zhou holds up a hand to stall her. “But,” he goes on. “Fenghao has offered me a position in the Imperial City — as a special tactical advisor.”

Twenty years ago, a position as an advisor, safely out of the danger of fighting, wielding a brush more than a sword, would have offended him to the core. A position for old men, for those too weak to fight.

Today, it brings only relief.

He is an old man. He cannot fight. He must still balance his duty with his country to his duty to his family. He must survive until they are taken care of.

“Idiot son,” Grandmother Fa says, pressing a hand against her heart. “Giving an old woman worries like that.”

Zhou bows his head in her direction. “Forgive me, Mother,” he says. “I was not intending to alarm you. But I must make for the Imperial City within the week. I ask that you and Li stay here to take care of the household but, in light of recent events… I will take Mulan with me.”

Li is already nodding in approval. “Yes,” she says, folding her hands into her lap. “Yes, there will be other matchmakers in the city. And many soldiers will be looking for wives before they go off to war.”

Mulan makes a face, but they all pretend not to see it. It is lucky that there will be another chance for her, even if she does not like it.

“I will do my best to see our daughter looked after,” he promises.

“And I will do my best to look after you,” Mulan interjects, too lively to simply allow herself to be talked about, like an object changing hands. “And make sure you follow the doctor’s orders! Drink your tea, father!”

Mulan spends the next few days in a flurry of activity — packing and running around at her mother’s command. Time seems to fly away and she fluctuates between the sadness of leaving home with the anticipation of going elsewhere. On an adventure.

She has never been to the Imperial City before. She has never gone travelling.

Her father eases himself into the back of the cart with all their belongings. They have hired a cart driver and mule to pull it — Khan is a warhorse, her father keeps reminding her, bred and trained for a specific and dangerous purpose and not to pull carts or be ridden by daughters.

Mulan is going to ride him all the way to the capital, anyway. She slings herself up onto his back with ease, holding his reins loosely and steering him around with her knees.

“Journey safely,” her mother says. Her hands are folded carefully in front of her. She looks poised and refined and the perfect picture of a lady waving her husband off on a long journey.

“We’ll pray to the ancestors,” Grandmother Fa says, looking much more familiar. “We’ll pray a lot.

Mulan swings Khan out of the gates before that can continue into the usual lecture and expound on the disappointment they have with how she acts and behaves.

“We’ll write!” she hollers back.

The cart travels slowly, but Khan is shivering with energy beneath her, ready to go, so Mulan gives him his head and they race off towards the village. It’s a familiar road, but it feels different, knowing that this time they’ll follow it so much further. There will be no stopping at the grocers, no turning around at the tea house. They’ll just keep going, and going and going.

It feels… freeing.

“Sorry!” she calls as Khan nearly runs down Ho Chen as he wheels his cart along the road. Khan dances to the side, narrowly missing him, and Mulan calls, “It’s the last time, I promise!”

Chen’s grumbling follows her a bit further, and she sheepishly slows down, slowing Khan to a trot.

There’s no real purpose in running ahead. She’ll have to turn around and make her way back to her father and the travelling cart.

But not yet.

The journey takes a long time. It’s not that Mulan didn’t know, in advance, that it would be so — her father had shown her the maps and even quizzed her on the path they would take, like he thought she might get lost or something — but maps don’t do justice to the sheer scale of China.

For some of the day, she sticks near the cart, either riding with her father or walking to give Khan a rest. But her father spends much of his time reading or thinking solemnly and she doesn’t want to weary him with endless questions, or grows bored with the pace and rushes ahead.

No one needs to tell her that this freedom is just a brief respite — once the journey is over she will have to be collected and demure and contained once again.

She rides ahead as often as she can, often stumbling across trees heavy with ripened fruit, or little forest glades and streams that take her breath away with their beauty.

One night, when the next town is too far away, they make camp instead of staying at an inn. It’s a warm night, with no chance of rain, but Mulan still worries for her father’s health.

“It will be fine, Mulan,” he says with calm patience. “Look, I have something to teach you.”

He removes his shoes and rolls up the legs on his pants, wading into the low stream they’re camping near. He brings his cane with him, placing it carefully amidst the river rocks as he moves into the water.

“You’ll fall!” Mulan says, hurriedly pulling her slippers off, and wading out next to him.

“Shh,” her father says. “Be still, Mulan. Wait.”

The water is cool around her ankles, but clear as glass. Within minutes, she can see river dirt they stirred with their footsteps settle back down, and the darting of silver fish around their legs.

And, liquid quick, her father’s hand snatches one right out of the water.

“Still got it,” he says with a chuckle. “We used to do this in the army,” he tells her. “If you could catch it, you could cook it. And after a week of rations, everyone was more than willing to go fishing. When they come back, you try it.”

The fish around their legs have scattered, and he carefully limps back to shore with his prize in hand. He settles himself onto the grass, looking happy and content.

Mulan stares apprehensively down into the water. “I just… grab one?” she asks.

“Just so,” her father confirms.

Mulan takes a deep breath, stares down into the water at the fish. They’re so fast. She can barely make out one before it slips away, twisting around another identical looking fish and confusing her eyes.

But there are many of them. She just has to grab one.

She slaps her hand into the water, clutches her fist around something and pulls.

“A … rock?” Disappointed, Mulan lets it drop back into the water with a splash. “Never mind! I’ll get it this time,” she assures her father.

But she doesn’t. The second and third and fourth attempts go no better. She splashes too much, scares the fish away, misses them entirely.

“Mulan,” her father says, as she grows frustrated. “Look.”

He pokes his cane into the water and holds it there until he is sure he has her attention.

“See the way the wood seems to bend where it touches the water?” he asks. He pulls his cane out. “It is not bent, of course. It merely looks that way. So… the first step is to acknowledge that what you see might not be what is really there, what is really true. Sometimes… our eyes may deceive us.”

“Right,” Mulan says, and squares her shoulders. “Let me try again. I’ll get it this time.”

Her father smiles at her. “You will,” he says. “A Fa does not give up. We’re stubborn, we are.”

That doesn’t sound like it’s just about the fish, but he’s not wrong. Mulan isn’t sure anyone in their family has ever given up on anything.

There are worse legacies than stubbornness, she feels.

Especially when, as the sun dips towards the horizon, they start a campfire and roast fish for dinner. She falls asleep with the warm glow of satisfaction and happiness.

It takes them another week after that to reach the Imperial City. They approach it from the south and it looms large ahead of them. The road that leads to it is wider and better maintained than any they have travelled on so far, and even from a distance the walls of the Imperial City are larger and more impressive than anything she’s seen before, and the red rooftops of the Imperial Palace rise above even them.

“Today,” Mulan’s father says, “I will ride Khan.”

“Father?” Mulan asks, surprised. She cannot recall her father ever riding — though he was the one who taught her how.

“I must appear strong,” he says. He has dressed in his armour and insisted Mulan wear her nicest — and cleanest — dress. “And that means I must ride through the gates like any other soldier.”

But it is not so easy. He cannot raise his injured leg high enough to place it in the stirrup and it is not strong enough to hold him up while he uses the other. And while they try, Khan grows agitated and dances in place making the whole exercise more difficult.

“Wait, stop,” Mulan says, bending down to grab the cane that has been dropped into the dirt and giving it back to her father. “Just give me a second.”

She grabs Khan’s dangling reins and pets his face to calm him down, until he stops moving so much. “You big baby.” She gives her father an uneasy grin. “Don’t be mad okay? Khan, kneel.

Like she trained him to, Khan folds his legs beneath him and sinks down to the ground, headbutting her until she feeds him an apple slice as a reward for his trick.

Her father runs his hand over his face in exasperation. But when he says, “you trained him to do what,” it sounds more amused than anything.

“Lots of things,” Mulan admits, because Khan is smart and much easier to train than her dog Little Brother had been. “But this is useful now, right?”

And it is. When Khan rises, it’s with her father on his back, looking every inch the soldier. Mulan scrambles onto the cart and tries to look equally picturesque as they enter the Imperial City — but she feels she must gawk terribly. It’s so big! So strange! There are so many people!

They head for the General Headquarters of the Imperial Army, deep in the city near the Imperial Palace. It takes nearly as long to cross the busy roads of the city as it had to enter it in the first place, lines and lines of carts and horses and people everywhere. The buildings grow fancier and more impressive as they go — shops with silk banners proclaiming their wares, houses with guardian statues proudly on the eaves, oil lanterns hanging along the roadside.

There are a pair of Lion Dog statues that guard the gates to the army compound, as large as the Fa family’s Great Stone Dragon, and simply the gate guardians. She bows politely to them as the cart rattles through, just in case.

Mulan settles back into the cart until they arrive at the stables. Men in uniform rush out to take the horses, and Mulan slips from the cart to help her father dismount. Getting down is easier than getting up, but he staggers slightly as he lands and she’s glad she’s close enough to help steady him and hand him his cane.

“Thank you, Mulan,” he says.

She sticks close to his side as he directs their luggage to be dispatched to the barracks, Khan to be cared for and the cart driver to be paid.

By the time that is done, there is a runner waiting with a message for him.

“Major Fa! Colonel Fenghao sends his greetings,” he says, saluting. “I am here to direct you to the Special Tactical Administration offices.”

“Thank you, private,” Mulan’s father says, saluting back. “Please lead the way.”

The private pivots swiftly and sets off briskly into the buildings, but slows down almost instantly when it becomes clear that Fa Zhou’s pace is much slower. Mulan concentrates on taking small steps and not tripping over the hem on her gown, trying to stay half a step behind her father like an obedient daughter.

It gives her a lot of time to look around as they walk. When she’d imagined an army headquarters, she had pictured something… plainer. Like the school halls or community center or like the well worn buildings of the village temples. But this is nothing like those places. The timber of the floor is dark and polished, the walls are covered in fine tapestries. There are plinths with statues and vases along the halls. Parts of the building appear to be laminated in real gold.

It’s sumptuous. It’s extravagant.

She feels terribly out of place.

When they get to the offices, it’s slightly better. Colonel Fenghao meets them, saluting her father and greeting him like an old friend. He’s older — maybe another twenty years older than her father — but tall and broad shouldered.

“We will get you an assistant, Fa,” he says after the initial introductions are past. “Someone to do all the fetching and carrying for you.”

Mulan’s father bows slightly. “I humbly appreciate the allowance,” he says. “And until such person is found, I will have my daughter assist me, as not to disrupt your team.”

Fenghao claps his hands together. “Always two steps ahead, Fa,” he says in approval. “That’s the tactical mindset we need around here. You always did have a solution to the problem before anyone else even knew it was an issue.” He sounds satisfied. “I’m pleased you accepted my offer. It’s not glamorous work but it is necessary.”

“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought,” Mulan’s father quotes. “It is my honour to serve China in whatever way is necessary.”

He is introduced to the rest of the officers in the Tactical Administration. They ignore Mulan, largely, beyond a few curious glances, but she tries to pay attention to who is who anyway, in case she needs to find them to deliver messages. It’s odd to see their reactions to Fa Zhou — Mulan has always been impressed by her father but he’s her father.

Even in the village, where people had known he was a war hero, it had been a distant fact. He’d been as well respected as any other landowner and village elder, but no more than others. Here, these men — these soldiers — seem almost awed by him.

“What did you do?” Mulan asks, much later, after they have been shown to their living quarters. They seem small, compared to the sprawl of the Fa house, but there are three rooms. A bedroom for each of them and a main room, all of them furnished with furniture already. Mulan takes care to unpack their belongings and set things to right the way her mother would, to make it as homely and familiar as possible.

“Only what was necessary,” her father says, lowering himself onto a seating cushion with a groan. “Pay no heed to their reactions. It is only my absence that has made the story grow — there are many greater men here, but they are known and known to have all the foibles of men. They will soon grow just as weary of me.”

Privately, Mulan wishes they wouldn’t — it’s nice to see people respecting her father as he deserves — but she supposes he would know better than her.

For the next several weeks, she shadows him and assists as he works — taking notes, and pouring tea and carrying the items that he cannot carry himself. Running messages to other officers. She watches and listens and reads his books and his maps and his deductions, and bites her tongue nearly bloody, repeating quiet and demure, a calm and obedient daughter brings honour to her father in her mind to prevent herself from interrupting.

If she dishonours him in front of the other officers by speaking her mind, then she will be banished from these offices. She isn’t supposed to be here — war is not a woman’s duty — and if she draws attention to herself they will remember that they meant to replace her with a real assistant.

At night they play Xiangqi together, as they always have, and Mulan tentatively asks questions. About his work. About the books that she sneaks from his shelves — the Seven Military Classics, Sun Tzu and Jiang Ziya and Wu Qi — that the men quote nearly daily. About the army in general and which ranks the rest of the officers hold and what that means. About the City, which she ventures into whenever he has no need of her, much to his amused despair.

And then a month after they arrives he says, “you must visit the Matchmaker soon.”

Mulan winces. “Father,” she says helplessly. She knows she cannot stay his assistant forever but… she likes it. She understands it, and sometimes — if there are no other officers around — she can offer her own interpretations.

Sometimes, she thinks she tells him things he didn’t think of himself. Sometimes, she thinks he’s proud of her when she does so.

“I know,” he says, almost sorrowful. “I know, Mulan. But this is no world for a daughter. You must visit the Matchmaker and find a husband.”

Mulan takes a deep breath. It’s her duty. She knows that. “Yes, father,” she says. “I will go tomorrow.”

She spends the night refreshing her memory of the texts that Matchmaker Haiyan had tested them all on. She hadn’t intended to pack them or bring them with her, but her mother had insisted, and Mulan finds she’s grateful, because the words have slipped from her mind in their entirety.

“Quiet and demure,” she mutters to herself the next day as she carefully dresses and does her hair. “Graceful, polite. Delicate and refined.”

She can do it. She won’t write notes on her wrist and risk smudging the ink again. She’ll just… remember it.

Her father carefully tucks her magnolia flower hair comb into her hair. He presses a hand beneath her chin, careful not to smudge her makeup, until she looks up to meet his eyes.

“Brave,” he corrects. “And kind and clever. In these times, those are the qualities any husband should be honoured to see.”

Mulan blinks quickly so that her eyes do not tear up and ruin her eyeliner. “Brave,” she echoes. “Yes… father. I will be brave.”

Bravery is acting despite fear, he’d always told her. Doing what is necessary.

She will do her duty. “Wish me luck,” she says, and holds her head high as she walks out of the army compound and into the Imperial City.

Matchmaker Jiayuan is several blocks away, but still close enough to the palace that Mulan suspects her father traded in favours in order to get her an appointment. It’s the kind of place that high ranked families of the court use to arrange matches. It makes her promise even harder that she’s going to do well this time — she’ll make it worth it.

The building is just as impressive as the rest of the buildings in the Imperial City. Maybe even fancier — it looks like somewhere that high ranking court families would spend time comfortably, which makes it somewhere Mulan feels very uncomfortable. There’s a piece of art on the wall that looks exactly like a Gu Kaizhi artwork and she has the horrifying thought that it might not be a copy.

“Fa Mulan,” Matchmaker Jiayuan says. She’s a small lady, especially compared to Matchmaker Haiyan, but beautiful. Her dress is opulent, and every move she makes is graceful and certain.

Mulan feels humbled to be in the same room as her. “Yes, honoured matchmaker. Thank you for seeing me.”

Jiayuan motions at the table. “It will be my honour to see you married according to your station and manner,” she says. “So I will first be testing you on your knowledge of womanly arts. In that light… what are the Three Letters and Six Etiquettes?”

Not fair. Those are your job, Mulan bites back her initial response, taking care to move her limbs in a graceful manner as she settles in at the low table. She makes the appropriate motions to pour the tea for an honoured guest, and buys herself a little time to get her thoughts into order.

“These are the basic principles that are essential to a marriage,” Mulan says, trying to keep her voice low and calm. Pleasant but not forceful. Ladylike. “The Three letters are the Betrothal Letter, Gift Letter and Wedding Letter…”

Fa Zhou takes his dinner at the officers mess, in the absence of Mulan to share his table with. Surely, the appointment going so long is a good sign.

Better than her coming home in a haze of smoke and tears, anyway.

He enters the mess slowly, intending to find an empty table and order dinner for himself. The room is crowded and smoky but the noise is hushed and polite. Nothing like the rowdy campfires he remembers from his last service. Of course not — this is the finest of the finest, in the Imperial City itself, not a group of half drunk men on the plains.

“Fa Zhou,” a familiar voice says, “I had heard you were in the City.”

Zhou bows politely. “General Li,” he says. “It is good to see you again. My congratulations.”

They had served together, once, all those years ago. The same age, the same rank and the same skill. And now look at them — the difference in their stations, where their lives had taken them.

Li is accompanied by a young man, a captain by the ranking stripes on his uniform, that can only be his son. He looks just like Li. That is, if Li had been another head and shoulders taller.

The introductions prove it.

“Captain Li Shang,” the General says. “My son.”

The captain hastily bows, deeper than rank and politeness requires of him. “Fa Zhou,” he says, with what is nearly a stammer. “It’s my honour. To meet you, I mean. I studied the Battle of Shaanxi — your actions turned the whole tide of the campaign.”

Zhou tries not to grimace at the awe. It doesn’t sit well with him — all those things were so long ago and had never seemed that impressive at the time. It strikes him as odd that people remember them, even now. That they offer him so much respect when there had been dozens, hundreds, of men with him and every one of them just as vital to their victory.

“Thank you, captain,” he says. “And my congratulations to you as well: I heard you graduated first in the Imperial Examinations. Jinshi, is it?”

The captain stammers an agreement. Proud of his achievement, but not arrogant enough to converse deeply about it. Zhou approves.

“Indeed! First of his class!” General Li says, clapping his son on the arm in fatherly pride. “And he has been granted the honour of training the Wu Zhong reinforcements, once the conscripts start arriving.”

A high honour for a fresh captain. Li Shang cannot be much older than Mulan is, and already he has such responsibility from the state. No doubt he has been prepared for it his entire life, but no training can truly prepare for open warfare.

Zhou finds himself entreated to sit down with them and eat, and the brisk and efficient staff in the officers mess quickly bring them their food.

It is not unpleasant conversation — most of it remains firmly on the topic of war, which all three of them are deeply familiar with. It behoves Zhou to pick General Li’s brain, to soak in all those accumulated years of knowledge, while he has the option. There is only so much that reading the reports stored in the headquarters helps to understand the current state of the standing army, and the most recent battles and strategies that they have utilised. Zhou might not be the one taking to the field this time, but he will not shirk his duty to do his best for the Emperor.

But eating with General Li is a double edged sword — little escapes the man’s notice.

“And what worries you, Fa?” Li asks, eyes sharp. “I see you glancing towards the door. Do the battles press on your mind?”

Zhou gives a deprecating smile. “Only the hardest battle of a father,” he demurs. “My daughter is visiting the matchmaker as we speak and — as any man with a precious treasure — I am loathe to part with her without a fight.”

The tension breaks. General Li gives a booming laugh. “Ah, a battle indeed. I know many a man who faces battle without flinching and yet slinks away from the prospect of a matchmaker.”

Captain Li shifts and looks away, as if studying the far wall in sudden and rapt fascination. Unmarried, then.

“It is a far more terrifying prospect,” Zhou agrees. “A battle may be won and an enemy defeated, but a marriage continues on.”

Li Shang thinks that it’s directly because of that conversation that his father insists Shang makes an appointment with the matchmaker before he ships out to train the new recruits. Before now, the General had only made off hand mentions to the idea, easily dropped and faster forgotten when distracted with more interesting topics.

As for why Shang goes… well.

Perhaps he is curious. The Fa Zhou, who had won Shaanxi, who had held Xi’an, who had been commended by the Emperor himself, and yet left the army and Imperial Court for life in the rural provinces.

What kind of daughter does a man like that have?

And sure, maybe that’s not the greatest reason to go, it’s vague curiosity and nothing more, but Shang still finds himself at the matchmakers building instead of avoiding it.

He has only the vaguest idea of what is expected on him from here on out — something like a test? And to start with, that doesn’t seem to have been an incorrect assumption. Matchmaker Jiayuan welcomes him politely but soon has him strictly filling out forms. There are in depth questions about his family and lineage, about his age and occupation and standing.

But Shang is experienced with tests and examinations and these are all questions that he does know the answer to, so he dutifully completes them. It’s not half as stressful as the Imperial Examination.

He’s given tea to drink and the matchmaker goes over his answers with a thorough eye. Shang sits quietly and drinks and tries not to feel like he’s being judged, even though he most likely is.

And then she brings out the other folders, as if she has already been prepared for him. Part of him approves of the efficiency — the rest of him is wary of the ambush.

“Captain Shang,” she says, placing them down on the table in front of him. “Please look through these. I feel they will be the best match for you.”

Cautiously, Shang opens the first one and begins to feel immediately out of his depth.

It’s not that the information is bad. It seems neat and concise and thoughtful. There is family history and background, similar to what he wrote, there are lists of feats and skills. Each file has an additional paper — a letter or a poem, written in beautiful calligraphy on coloured or perfumed paper.

He has no idea what any of it means.

If he were looking at resumes for men for his battalion, he would know what he was looking for. Which companies and commanders they had served with that meant anything, which battles showed experience, which medals were for valour and skill and which were simply for time served or family connections. Which references were truly meant and which were backhand compliments at best.

But these… he doesn’t know.

One says ‘refined’ and one says ‘poised’ and is there any difference? Does it matter? One writes poetry of seasons, another of fruit. Does that make a difference?

What is he looking for?

Marriage and wives are an expectation, Shang knows but… vaguely. It’s just a thing that happens in a man’s life, he grows and gets married and has children. But the details of it all... His own parents had hardly been in the same province at the same time for most of his life — he can hardly base it on them. Other officers have wives, but he can count on one hand the number of times he may have met any of them.

He’s inches from fleeing — from performing a strategic retreat — when he realises he has not even seen the name he came here to see. There are names he knows, other officers, families of the courts, Zhang and Liu and Chen and Fu but no Fa.

“Is there no daughter from the Fa family?” he asks, looking up at the matchmaker just in time to see her mouth tighten into a white line. “I had heard they had contracted your services.”

“There was,” she says, “Fa Mulan. But these five are far more compatible matches for you, Captain Li.”

Shang gives her the same expectant, commanding stare that makes the quartermaster give over the correct supplies instead of shorting his division simply because they’re new recruits, and it works just as well. The matchmaker brings out another file for him.

“As the Fa family recently moved to the Imperial City,” she says, “I do not have as much background information on her and cannot vouch for her with the same certainty. I believe your families are not of equal standing, and you would be marrying down to a considerable degree.”

Shang starts to read.

In a way, Fa Mulan’s file is just as disappointing as the rest. There are the same statements, the same judgements and metrics. He learns she is Fa Zhou’s only child, with no brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles. He learns she can sing. He learns she is described as ‘dutiful’ — is that better or worse than ‘poised’? — and ‘eager’.

The accompanying calligraphy sample is not on a sheet of its own, but on the back of the last page of the record, and isn’t even a poem. Instead it reads ‘The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.’ which is the most famous opening of the Art of War.

The calligraphy is neat but hurried, and a little smudged as though it were put away without being properly dry.

Shang still doesn’t know what it means but…

He’s a soldier. He knows that text. It’s familiar ground.

He can do this.

“I should like to meet her,” he says. One meeting is no agreement — the process is long and complicated, he knows that much. If it is still no good, he can ship out quietly and without regret.

The matchmakers face goes sour. She doesn’t approve of his choice but she accequises. “As you say, Captain Li,” she says.

With great relief, Shang takes his leave.

The meeting doesn’t happen instantly. He knows the matchmaker runs message between their families first — General Li makes one singular comment about it over dinner and Shang is glad for his restraint — and arranging a time when both General Li and Fa Zhou are able to attend is no small task in itself.

But a week and a half later Shang finds himself heading back at the matchmakers building. He waits anxiously outside General Li’s office as a meeting wraps up, hoping it doesn’t drag on. Of course, the business of the military is more important than a personal meeting, but being late would be a terrible first impression.

Thankfully, General Li is as punctual as ever, wrapping up the meeting with brisk efficiency and bustling the Emperor's Chief Advisor out of his office the second the allocated time ticks over, despite the Advisor’s protests.

“General,” Shang says. “Your next appointment awaits.”

“Excellent,” General Li says. “Chi Fu, if the issue concerns you further then schedule another meeting. I know you enjoy doing so.”

They march briskly out of the military compound, down the streets of the city to the matchmaker. Shang tries to maintain his composure, as if this is simply another routine outing and not something terrible and new.

It is the lunch hour, and the streets are heavily trafficked with people rushing to and fro. The crowd parts easily before two soldiers in uniform, but Shang can’t help but glance around to see if anyone is travelling to the same destination.

The reason he does not see them becomes apparent as they turn down the street of their destination. Fa Zhou is already there, seated on the stone bench outside the matchmakers house, seeming serene and contemplative. There is no one in his near vicinity who appears to be his daughter — maybe she is already inside? — and Shang is disappointed slightly in the lack of opportunity to gather advance information.

However slight that ‘advance’ might be.

Fa Zhou catches sight of them and rises to his feet, waiting for them to close the distance.

And then there’s a commotion as a solid black warhorse darts down the crowded street. A solid animal, with a strong barrel chest and a high neck — proud and well bred. Not an unfamiliar sight in the Imperial City, though the haste with which it traverses the street is impolite.

“Sorry, sorry, coming through,” the rider calls, as the horse darts nimbly around carts and between groups of people. “Father! I’m not late. I’m not!”

Fa Zhou sighs. “Mulan.”

“What?” the rider dismounts and it’s a lady— and oh, this must be

Zhou bows carefully, perhaps not as deeply to the General as politeness dictates he should but as deep as his injury easily allows. “General Li. Captain Li. Please forgive the distraction.”

Mulan spins to look at them and a look that can only be horror passes across her face before she also hastily bows and her hair falls forward to block her expression from view. “I— Oh. Yes. You saw nothing. I mean— Please forgive me!”

Shang can almost feel himself cringe in sympathy. “We should go inside?” he offers, floundering. That’s what the matchmaker is for, surely, to speak between them until it’s appropriate for them to talk to each other. Which it isn’t. Yet.

Mulan bows again, quickly patting what must be their horse on the nose before and tying the reins to the hitching post, before hurrying back to her father’s side and helping him ascend the stairs into the matchmakers building.

Shang chances a glance at his father but cannot interpret his expression. Approving? Disapproving? All he can think is that she was a good rider, as graceful and smooth as a leaf on a river, moving in eddies around obstacles instead of disrupting them. Confident and in control of a powerful warhorse, not letting it get away or spook in a stressful environment.

It seems promising.

The first part of the meeting with the matchmaker is… well. Boring. It mostly involves family history — ensuring their families are in good standing, have no history (good or bad) with each other, that their parents do not object to the match — which seems like it should be self evident from the fact that they’re here and more at ease than either of them but apparently takes nearly an hour to confirm.

Then Shang is asked a series of questions about his station and military service, which he answers as concisely as he can. He’s fairly sure that everyone in the room knows the answers before he gives them — General Li and Fa Zhou must do and surely Fa Zhou has spoken to his daughter.

But he’s interested in hearing what answers Mulan might give to such questions. He knows little of her life and upbringing and what she might intend to do in the future.

But instead of such personal information, Mulan is asked to recite lines from the Admonitions Scroll.

“Uh,” she says looking down quickly and then glancing away. “Um. The— The way of the household is regulated, the plans of the ruler are organised. Ordered! Are Ordered. Uh. A woman's virtue is valued by… I mean, virtue values gentleness; she conceals beauty within and is pure and perfect.”

She looks relieved to have gotten through it and Shang himself feels like he has been put to test and feels only more so as the matchmaker continues on, relentless. None of the questions Mulan gets asked are ones he could answer either, and it puts him on edge, waiting for the sharp knife of evaluation to be turned back onto him.

Poetry, scholarship, court texts — Shang isn’t unintelligent but he feels it as such references fly over his head. These aren’t the ones he studied for his captaincy or his Imperial Examination. He feels more and more out of place the longer the meeting goes on. Surely he can catch his father’s eye and somehow extract themselves?

But General Li won’t catch his eye. In fact, he seems to be having a very quiet private conversation with Fa Zhou and ignoring the stressful situation that Shang is trapped in. This is very unfair, but Shang resigns himself to seeing this through after all.

And then General Li raises his voice just a little too loud — enough to intrude on the questions that the matchmaker is pelting Mulan with — and says, “Yellow River? No, no, the Huns can’t possibly have made it that far. How could they?”

And with the relief of someone finally asked a question that they know the answer to, Mulan says, “if they brought sufficient horses for each soldier to always be riding a fresh horse, they might expect to cross 60 miles a day. And they’re from the steppes so the geography of northern China isn’t going to be unfamiliar or imposing to them — they might have even crossed the Yellow River by now and be as far as the Songshan Mountains.”

Fa Zhou hides a smile behind his cup of tea but the matchmaker looks horrified. “Matters of war do not concern a lady!”

Mulan wilts, the pride at having answered the question turning to shame.

Shang frowns. “If the Huns had made it so far, the First Division would have seen and reported them,” he argues. “The incursion across the wall was hardly done with stealth — they want us to know they’re here.”

“That’s just it,” Mulan argues, eyes meeting his passionately. “There haven’t been any further reports. Otherwise the First Division would be engaging them now. The army should be preparing to encounter them in unexpected locations.”

“Enough!” the matchmaker snaps. “This behaviour is unconscionable! General Li, Captain Li. I apologize most severely, but I think this meeting is over.”

Somewhat disappointed, Shang allows himself to be shuffled out of the building. Just when things were starting to get interesting too.

“Hm,” General Li says. “What did you think, son?”

Shang rubs his chin and considers. “I want to look at the war map,” he says. “It seems like an idea that should be given due consideration, but I would be hesitant to agree with it without further information. If we assume the Huns have come so far… we would have to spread our forces out simply to encounter them. It would be risky.”

General Li laughs. “On that topic as well,” he says, strangely, but drops the conversation.

And well. Looking at the maps gives no evidence that Fa Mulan is right. But there’s no evidence she’s wrong either.

And whether she is or not… well. Shang might not know what to do with a wife, but one who can ride horses and who speaks the language of a soldier and who can analyse tactical situations surely must be a better option than one who recites poetry and plays the guzheng.

A chance like that doesn’t seem like it will come again.

He nods to himself, cementing the decision. “Father. I want to write to the matchmaker and have her finalise this match.”

It feels like going all in on a dice roll, like swinging a sword and waiting for your opponent to respond. Risky, dangerous. How will it land, how will it end?

General Li appears genuinely surprised. “Well. She isn’t what I expected for a daughter but… if you’re certain, Shang. I have no objections.”

The letter arrives the next day, waiting innocuously in their living quarters for them once Zhou’s day of work has finished. That’s unusual in itself — the military correspondence gets delivered directly to the office, and while there have been letters exchanged between her family they are few and far between. It’s not easy to get one sent from their village to the Imperial City, because few people make that journey.

Mulan doesn’t pay much thought to it beyond that, stomping around their rooms dropping off all the work that seems to follow them home, and then darting back out towards the mess hall.

Fa Zhou has arranged for their meals to be picked up by Mulan, rather than have them make their way to the mess hall each night. Ostensibly, this is so he doesn’t have to walk the not-inconsiderable distance every day. But Mulan knows that he hates making allowances for his own weakness, especially to the other soldiers here, and that the real reason is most likely so that she doesn’t have to mind her manners while they eat as strictly as she would have to if they were in public.

“It’s right on the end of the bench there!” the cook says as Mulan darts into the kitchen, waving at a tray with metal cover on the edge of the bench. “Enjoy!”

“Thank you!” Mulan says, back, raising her voice above the roar of the busy kitchen. Sometimes she takes time to talk with them, or help, but she has mixed feelings if she actually succeeds or simply gets in the way.

When she gets back to their rooms, her father is waiting for her. The letter is open on his desk.

“Is it important?” she asks, kicking the door closed with the back of her foot, already considering how she might convince him to eat before his sense of duty calls him back to work.

“It’s from the matchmaker,” her father says.

Mulan cringes. “I’ll put some tea on, shall I?” she deflects, sliding the tray of food onto his desk with slightly more force than might be necessary. It nearly slides right off, and would have if her father hadn’t raised a hand to stop it.

“It’s a betrothal letter from Captain Li.”

“Wait.” Mulan stops dead in her tracks. “What?

“Captain Li has put forth a proposal,” her father repeats. He looks happy. Proud. “He’s also included the description of the betrothal gifts already. They’re quite substantial. He’s very efficient, Captain Li. I will give him that.”

Mulan is still boggling. “He wants to marry me?” she questions, waving her hands, as if that will help impart how crazy an idea that is. “Even after all that? But I ruined it.”

Arriving on Khan. Speaking out of turn. Matchmaker Jiayuan had thrown them out because of her behaviour. And that had still been an improvement on how things had gone with Matchmaker Haiyan.

“Apparently not,” her father says. “Do you approve?”

Mulan hesitates, eyes dropping to the letter. It’s just… she’s never thought about what comes beyond this. It had seemed so unlikely that she would ever impress the matchmaker at all — so unlikely that she’d given little thought to actually making a match.

A woman gives honour to her family by marrying well.

But Mulan has always focused on the honour and not the marriage.

She can’t say ‘no’. Not only is this likely the only match she’ll ever be offered, it’s a good one. Better, maybe, than she really deserves — the Li family is a high ranking military family from the Imperial City itself. The Fa family only hold lands in a rural province. They’re not exactly equals.

Captain Li had been… intimidating. Solemn and stern. But he’d also treated her answer about Hun movement with gravity, as if her opinion held some weight. He’s only a little older than her, a well respected soldier, and his father’s only son.

A far cry from the poor match anyone expected Mulan to make. This is no old man, looking for a younger wife. No second son, more interested in her inheritance than her.

Captain Li has other, better options and has, for whatever reason, chosen Mulan.

“I accept,” she says, and feels like something has fundamentally changed in the world. Soon, she will leave her father’s household and join her husband’s, wherever that may be, whatever that may look like. She will never return to the Fa ancestral home, to her mother and grandmother.

She wonders if they felt like this too. She can’t imagine her mother being so scared.

“Mulan…” her father says, sounding strangely hesitant. “If you object… you needn’t agree. I know we insisted you go to the matchmaker but if you are opposed…” he reaches out and touches her cheek. “You can say no. Your home will always be your home.”

Mulan closes her eyes against the tears and smiles, helplessly. She loves him, more than she can say, for offering her a way out even now. Even though it would disappoint him, disappoint everyone… he still offers it. “I don’t object,” she says. “I’m just… nervous. That’s all.”

“There will be more meetings,” her father reassures her. “It’s not finalised quite yet.”

That doesn’t really make her feel better. All it means is that Captain Li might come to his senses and change his mind.

The next meeting at the matchmakers is one where they’re supposed — allowed — to speak to each other. It’s… awkward. Quiet. Matchmaker Jiayuan is far enough away to not be part of their conversation — to not really hear what they’re saying — but a silent chaperone to ensure they don’t misbehave. And likely still judging her.

Mulan fumbles through the conversational openers that a lady is supposed to know by heart, the smooth courtesies that ease social interaction and keep a party engaged and interested. Half her attention is focused on the correct pouring of tea, but Captain Li only responds tersely, answering the questions directly posed and doing little to help the conversation flow naturally.

She nearly resorts to digging out conversational party games — even though she only half remembers those — when he says, stilted, “Last time… your horse…”

“His name is Khan,” she says brightly, relieved that there’s at least a topic he wants to talk about. And one she can easily carry a conversation on. “He’s a Ferghana, bred from the mount that father was awarded at the end of his last military service—” because the question of how a rural family came to own a heavenly horse is one that Mulan has answered many times before. And why they kept a warhorse when it was clear Zhou would never ride again. “—He’s fully trained and very calm!”

Captain Li nods. “He seems like an excellent horse. Will you… bring him with you? Or do you wish to acquire a new steed? I can— I mean, it can be part of your betrothal gifts, if you like.”

Mulan doesn’t point out that Captain Li has already offered an incredible amount. Adding a horse on top of that would just be ridiculous.

But she’s pleased anyway because — surely offering to buy her a horse means he doesn’t disapprove of her riding. No one who disapproved would enable it like that.

“Father has offered me Khan,” she says. Her father can’t ride, but more than that leaving Khan behind would have broken her heart. “If there’s a place for him in your household.”

“Of course there is,” Captain Li says, somewhat wry. “Or rather, there’s plenty of space within the military stables for him.”

Which, she supposes, answers the question of where they might live. It’s not that she expected anything else — Captain Li is a soldier at the beginning of his career, and clearly resides within the same military compound that she and her father live in right now. She’s just not clear if they have any familial lands outside the city — perhaps where his mother or extended family live? — that she might be sent to.

“You may know,” Captain Li goes on, somewhat less certain sounding. “That my next posting is the Wu Zhong training camp. I’ll be in charge of it. It will be… isolated but safe. And officers wives are allowed to accompany them to base camps. If you would like to, I mean. It will be quite a ride to get there, but it seems like you would be able to manage.”

“Yes,” Mulan says, a little too fast. “I would like to. It sounds interesting.”

At least that answers another of her questions about what she would be expected to do. She could continue to assist her father, but it seems… upsetting to marry and change nothing.

It’s not like Mulan has ever thought of what living on a military base would be like, or knows what to expect, but it’s a concrete plan. Something to anticipate.

And… she likes that Captain Li has thought about it. And not just that — has considered that Mulan might have the skills to manage.

Hah, take that, she thinks. Riding is a useful skill for a wife.

The wife of a soldier, anyway. Which is what she will be.

Her stomach ties itself into knots at the thought. Mulan casts around to try and keep the conversation going. “Can you… tell me about the camp?” she asks.

The question seems to relax him, more than her earlier inquiries about his hobbies and interests, or the recent talk from the city.

“It’s a small camp,” he begins, cupping his hands around his tea cup. “Only several hundred men, the conscripts from a rural province…”

And the end of the meeting they affirm that they still wish to go forth with it. Matchmaker Jiayuan accepts their decision, smoothing away her own opinions with professional courtesy and begins to calculate the most auspicious date for their wedding — based on the astrological signs and their birthdates and… many things. It looks complicated, from the brief glance that Mulan takes of it.

“Preferably,” Captain Li says, nearly sheepishly, “the most auspicious date within the next two weeks.”

“The most auspicious date would be early next spring,” Matchmaker Jiayuan says.

Mulan winces. Nearly a whole year away.

“I’m being deployed soon,” Captain Li says bluntly. “I don’t know what my movements will be beyond that, nor can I predict when I will have time to return to the Imperial City. Or if I will ever return. Such is the way of the army.”

The matchmaker looks at Mulan. “Is that acceptable to you? To disregard the auspices of the stars for expediency?”

Mulan nods, quickly, and tries not to give too much thought to the idea of losing a husband before she’s even really gained one. Marrying now is the smart choice.

Part of her is also sure that if he has so much time to consider it… he will change his mind. There will be other, better, options for wives and Mulan will have to go through all this all over again.

“Of course,” she says. “That we have found each other is auspicious enough, isn’t it?”

THe matchmaker doesn’t appear happy but — well — she hasn’t been happy with any of this, and seeing it through means she gets her final payment for successfully negotiating their marriage. It’s in her best interests to see them out of her way as fast as possible.

“In eleven days,” Matchmaker Jiayuan says, finally, having run through the calculations again and compared their horoscopes. “We will begin arrangements immediately.”

Everything seems to happen so fast after that, and time flies away until Mulan is waking up one morning and scrambling to get ready. Her dress is red, with golden dragons embroidered on it and she struggles to fix her hair and makeup properly without the help of her mother and grandmother.

They should be here, she thinks, because they wanted this so much. They would have enjoyed seeing it happen.

But she knows they will still be proud, even if they don’t see it happen with their own eyes.

It seems too early but there’s a knocking on the door. Mulan scrambles back into her room, onto the two layers of quilts laid out on her bed. Good luck charms for harmonious marriage and wealthy life and children and all she has to do is sit here and wait.

Captain Li’s voice calling. “We’re here to escort the bride,” he says properly, then pauses for a long time. “Uh. Can we come in?”

There’s the squeaking of the door as Fa Zhou opens it. “No,” he says.

Mulan huffs. “Father! You’re doing it wrong!” she calls. She doesn’t want him to actually prevent the Li family from coming inside. She can’t get off the bed yet but if she leans just right—

She snags one of her slippers off the floor — she was supposed to hide them, whoops — and throws it through the open bedroom door. It smacks harmlessly onto the wall instead of hitting anything, but Fa Zhou chuckles. He must move out of the way and allow her husband-to-be in because within seconds, Captain Li is in her doorway, her thrown slipper in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.

Like her, he’s dressed in red and gold and she thinks he looks very fine.

“For you,” he says, thrusting the flowers at her. “Uh. This is also for you?” he holds her shoe out like he isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Mulan snags it and shoves it on her foot. “The other one is over there,” she says, pointing. Hiding the brides shoes is supposed to be a traditional lesson that taking a bride is no easy task but she’s pretty sure the Captain has already got that message during their meetings with the matchmaker.

Captain Li passes her the second slipper and Mulan bounces to her feet, now free from the trap of the quilts. “Thanks!” she says, clutching her flowers tightly. She feels wired with energy, wants to move and move.

Graceful. Poised. Demure. You can do this, Mulan, she encourages herself, trying to channel her mother’s voice.

Out in the main living area, General Li and Fa Zhou — her father, both of them are her fathers now — have settled in to talk to each other. Mulan flits around, getting the Tsao Chün tea ready, clattering around with more force and excitement that strictly necessary.

No one says a word about it.

Once they’ve drunk the tea with sufficient gravitas and ceremony, the two elders hand the couple a lucky red wedding envelope of wedding wishes.

“Thank you,” Captain Li says, formal and stilted. “We must be on our way to the temple now.”

He extends a hand to Mulan, who takes it. She expects to be swept up into his arms, but is still surprised and stifles a yelp at the speed and strength with which he manages it. She tries not to clutch at his shoulders too hard as he carries her across the threshold and out of her house forever, and ensures her feet don’t touch the ground as they travel. He doesn’t appear at all bothered as he strides through the halls of the compound and towards the stables.

A soldier is holding a white horse by the reins in the middle of the courtyard and Captain Li takes her towards it, helping her into the saddle. She can see that the horse has red ribbons wound into his mane and tail — decorated for the wedding — and it makes her smile.

The ceremony itself is mostly a blur — neither of them had wished for a big affair and given the speed at which everything had been arranged likely couldn’t have managed one even if they’d wanted it. But there is a wedding banquet afterwards which, by necessity, is held in the military headquarters and the guest list is mostly the other officers and their families who live in the compound.

Some of them Mulan knows — from assisting her father — but many of them are strangers. Some Captain Li appears friendly with, but others seem like strangers to him too, invited through the convoluted politics of the military and court.

“Because my father is the General,” Captain Li explains quietly. “They wish to gain his favour by celebrating us.”

Mulan feels like she should be insulted by this, but is mostly just overwhelmed. There is even a missive from the Imperial Palace, written by the scribe to the Emperor and signed with the Emperors seal congratulating them on their honourable match.

Mulan takes it with shaky hands.

A daughter does her duty to her father by marrying well, everyone had always told her. And here is the proof that she has succeeded, from the Emperor himself. No one can say Mulan has failed.

What duty she will be able to provide to her husband is yet to be seen. But this… this she has done.

“May… may I present this to my father?” she asks. “I would like to have it sent to my mother and grandmother.”

Captain Li nods, appearing little interested in it. If he grew up in the Imperial City, maybe he’s used to receiving things from the office of the Emperor.

Her father, at least, understands why Mulan bows and hands him the scroll. He sets it to the side and cups her cheek. “The greatest honour has always been having you for a daughter,” he says.

Mulan smiles.

Maybe they were right to say her wedding would be the happiest day of her life.

Fa Zhou stands to the side of the courtyard as the small contingent of men heading for the Wu Zhong camp prepare to move out. Horses are saddled, wagons are loaded, men in armour begin to fall into formation.

And his daughter is with them, looking blindingly happy.

“Father,” she says, breathlessly, as she leads Khan over to him. He doesn’t know what kind of running around Mulan has been doing this morning, or why, and has no wish to ask. Ignorance can be blissful. “Wish us luck!”

“May the ancestors watch over you,” he says, even though Mulan’s fate is in the hands of the Li ancestors now. If he knows anything about the meddling nature of his own family — that wouldn’t stop them.

“I know, I know,” Mulan says, rolling her eyes. “You’ll pray. A lot.”

She turns away and then spins back around, throwing herself at him for one last hug.

“I will pray. A lot,” Fa Zhou confirms, hugging her tightly. “Now go. You have much to do.”

Mulan beams and flings herself onto Khan’s back, whirling around until she’s next to her husband at the head of the formation.

The drums begin to sound and the group moves out. Zhou watches until they are entirely gone, gaze drifting upwards to the stone lions that guard the gates. If he thinks he sees something red and dragonlike moving along the rooftops, well.

The ancestors will watch over her.