Li Shang is born with a red dragon and vibrant fireworks spread across his back and shoulders.
His father crows in delight upon receiving the news. “Ha! A colored destiny mark! Well, no surprise there, with my own impressive destiny mark!” General Li’s destiny mark is indeed impressive, a rendition of a suit of armor taking up a full foot along his calf. It is true that those who bear destiny marks are more likely to sire children with them. It is not true that his son’s large and colorful mark is no surprise.
Years pass, and Shang is sent to military school, where he spends his mornings training, his afternoons and evenings studying strategy, and his nights listening to the whispers of the boys jealous of his eventual glory.
At first he hides the mark, but learns quickly that covering it up only guarantees more vitriol. The other boys call him a coward, leer at him and ask if he’s a warrior or a useless, fragile thing.
After he knocks out two teeth out of the mouth of one particularly vile boy, the teasing stops. Shang starts to wear his mark with pride, no longer self conscious of its size and vibrancy. He even begins to forget it, a little—it is part of him, same as his hand or foot or hair. The time will come.
General Li is less patient, but still wise enough to know there is no rushing destiny. Much as he wishes for his son’s chance at glory, the general will not force an encounter with fate. He does, however, ensure Shang receives the best education possible: not merely in military matters, but in manners and diplomacy. After all, those with colored marks often end up in the halls of nobility and the scrolls of history. Shang will be prepared.
Decades pass, and when Shang is on the cusp of twenty-five, the Huns attack the northern border. General Li is summoned to the front lines at once, leaving his son in charge of training the newest recruits.
Shang wonders, briefly, if this brawling mess of boys is a test sent by the gods and ancestors, to see if he is worth the mark they have bestowed. When the instigator of the fight is revealed to be Fa Zhou’s son, Shang almost wants to laugh. He is not supposed to pity or deride his elders, but to think that the great war hero Fa Zhou, who served alongside his own father, sired such a scrawny and idiotic son? The man must be ashamed.
The next morning, Shang sheds his shirt like he usually does to train. Murmurs break out among his soldiers-to-be as they glimpse his mark in its full glory. Those who don’t whisper stare with wide eyes, including Ping. Shang doesn’t care. Let the boys be intimidated. It will serve them better in their training.
Weeks pass, and the recruits fail every single task he lays upon them. Worst of all are Ping and his merry trio of tormentors, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po. One day, he takes the trainees out for a mountain run, each carrying a staff laden with twenty pounds of rice over their shoulders. Ping falls further and further behind, until Shang is forced to come back for him. Ping is collapsed facedown in the rocks, dust smearing with his sweat. He looks up at Shang’s approach, fear and shame agonizingly transparent on his face. A flash of red catches Shang’s eye for a brief moment. The color slides under Ping’s shirt as the boy looks up. A toy? A plush? Some reminder of youth, no doubt. Shang picks up Ping’s staff and turns away, not bothering to hide his disdain. As he jogs to catch up with the rest, he makes his decision. He knows Ping snuck in with his father’s conscription notice, knows his father probably had no idea his son intended to take his place. Ping is obviously underage—short, without any signs of manhood—and a discharge, however dishonorable, still counts as time served. Fa Zhou will not be required to report.
He sends the boy off with nothing more than a scowl as he slaps the reins to Khan into the boy’s palm. Ping flinches and walks towards the camp’s edge. Shang heads into his tent, unaware that as he sleeps, Ping climbs the pole and retrieves the arrow by the break of dawn.
At least, until the arrow is flung right at his feet.
He allows Ping to stay, as his success with the arrow only motivates the rest of the troops. By the time Shang’s father’s letter arrives, Ping is leaps and bounds above the rest of the company, though trailed primarily by his former tormentors.
As they march to battle, the discussion turns to destiny marks. Shang can’t help but eavesdrop as the men compare their marks and describe those of people they know. Chien-Po has a set of shoulder plates on his stomach. Ling has a sheathed sword along his left forearm. Yao proudly displays a piece of armor wrapped around his ankle.
“Hey, what about you, Ping?” Ling drapes his arm around Ping’s shoulders. “Got a neat destiny mark?”
Shang could swear Ping looks at him, then, before flinching away. “Uh, nope, no, no neat destiny mark for me!”
Yao grunts. “Bet it’s embarrassing, huh?” He suddenly leers. “Now I really wanna know.”
Ping gives a firm shake of his head. “No, uh, I don’t have one.”
The group falls quiet. Chien-Po offers a quiet apology for prying, almost lost in the thundering of hoofbeats. Ping shrugs.
“But man, you should see my father’s mark!”
Shang has heard all about Fa Zhou’s mark—an unsheathed sword right down his spine, from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. The same sword, he realizes, that Ping carries into battle. It must be why Ping snuck into the camp. Those with marks tend to sire children with marks—Ping must have been desperate to prove himself since he had none.
Or, Shang thinks, as he strides angrily into the medic’s tent, she must have been an arrogant fool—
His train of thought is completely derailed as he sees, plain as her bound chest, a colorful explosion of fireworks curling around her shoulders. His mind goes blank. He’s only heard legends of those with matching marks, and he prays desperately to the ancestors and gods that his fate is not to be bound with that of a treasonous—
Shang unsheathes Fa Zhou’s sword, the great warrior’s destiny mark, and prepares to execute said warrior’s daughter. She stops protesting—her name is Mulan, she did it to save her father, everyone knows of the injuries Fa Zhou sustained in the last war—and quietly accepts her fate, as a woman should. She lowers her head, exposing her back. From this angle only Shang can see the matching red dragon flying across her back.
He feels sick to his stomach. He throws the sword into the snow.
“A life for a life,” he says, words hollow. “My debt is repaid.”
He orders the men to move out. They ride to the Imperial City as heroes, but all Shang can think of is her smooth face as she closed her eyes preparing for death. He wonders if it was really mercy, leaving her to freeze or starve to death in the mountains.
As fireworks explode from the palace, Mulan flies across the sky to escape the flames. Shang sees, for the briefest moment, not a woman, but a crimson dragon blazing across the night sky.