She fought like a tiger the day we first met. Or perhaps like a crane. She certainly displayed the ferocity of a tiger, slicing through my soldiers like a hand through water, and yet, the way she moved, the way she dipped, and dodged and leapt through my men’s ranks, was so graceful that I couldn’t help but be reminded of a crane taking flight.
Perhaps that was why, when Colonel Yi and I arrived on the scene, finding her panting over the corpses of no less than 40 soldiers, and the Colonel told our archers to fire, I yelled out “No!”
“No?” he asked, turning in his saddle to face me. I felt my cheeks flush with color, and cleared my throat.
“No. Spare her.”
Colonel Yi exchanged an incredulous look with Captain Zhang before turning back to me.
“Princess–” he began, adopting the condescending tone of a parent addressing a child.
“That’s General, Colonel Yi!” I snapped. “My father left me in command of this Army, so unless you wish to hear from the King of Xia, you will do as I say.”
Colonel Yi wrinkled his nose, as though my words carried some foul odor, but said nothing. He wouldn’t dare say it outright, but, deep down; I knew he resented being led by a woman. And, even deeper down, I knew that if I pushed him too hard, it wouldn’t matter who my father was. He’d kill me and take command. That’s why, as soon as I saw his expression go dark, I instantly changed my tact.
“I understand your confusion, Colonel.” I said, doing my best to appear calm and level headed. “And I understand your desire to seek vengeance for our brothers. But let’s be pragmatic. We’re outnumbered. The Tang are closing in. And this woman single-handedly managed to kill 40 of our soldiers. We need every warrior we can find, and this woman just might be the secret weapon we’ve been looking for.”
“You’re saying you want to recruit her?”
“Give me three days, and I swear I’ll have her waving the flag of Xia.”
He looked at my face long and hard, as though it were a piece of armor and he were searching it for cracks. I looked right back at him, giving, and saying, nothing. Finally, he nodded, and looked away.
“As you wish. Archers, stand down!”
“Stand down!” Captain Zhang repeated, waving his arm at our men.
Down the line, our archers lowered their bows, and, even from a distance, I could see the shock in her eyes. This brought a smile to my face, and I tapped my heels into my horse’s side, sending it trotting forward. The sight of me approaching caused her to scowl, and raise her sword as though she meant to skewer my steed.
“You want some too?” She snarled, daring me to come closer.
I tilted my head to one side. Being this close to her allowed me to see how young, and beautiful, she was. Even under all the blood, even with her hair inn tangles, she was radiant.
She must have thought my staring odd, because she tilted her head to one side and asked,
I shook my head. Hard.
“Give up, sister,” I called out, “You’re outnumbered, and surrounded.”
“That’s what this lot said.” She grinned, gesturing to all the dead soldiers. Something about her smugness, about the sheer confidence of her delivery, stung my pride, and I found my cheeks again flushing with color.
“But did ‘this lot’ have arrows?” I asked, folding my arms in defiance.
This shut her up good and quick. She looked around at the archers, at how really and truly cornered she was, and then glanced back at me. For a brief moment, I saw fear in her eyes. It truly did last a heartbeat, but that small display of doubt touched something inside, and, before I knew it, I was dismounting and walking over to her. I could hear my men’s murmurs of disapproval, but I didn’t care. She was all that mattered.
“It’s all right, sister,” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “No one will hurt you. I promise.”
She looked into my eyes, searching them for hints as to whether or not I was deceiving her. I looked right back, silently preying that my sincerity would be felt through my gaze. For a long while, we stood there, saying nothing. Then, at last, she looked down, and offered me her sword. I took it, and led her by the hand back to my horse. Together, we mounted, and began the long ride back to camp. As we passed Colonel Yi, I gave him a quick, sideways glance. His eyes were as cold as a river at midnight.
Back at my tent, I poured out two glasses of plum wine. I offered her one, but she shook her head, “no.” I shrugged, and took a sip.
“What’s your name, sister?” I asked after I’d set the cup down.
She didn’t respond.
“Why are you dressed like a man?” I probed, taking a step forward. Her eyes flashed with fear, and she quickly backed away.
“What do you want from me?” she snapped, balling her hands into fists.
This caught me off guard. It was a simple enough query, and certainly logical for the situation. And yet, in all the time it took to get from the place where I captured her back to my tent, I’d never once thought of an answer.
“I’m no one important,” she chattered, her words coming out quick and jumbled. “So there’s no point trying to get ransom.”
I laughed, and shook my head.
“Sister, there was never any question of ransom.”
“Then why spare me?” she pressed, taking a step forward. “Why take me to your tent?”
I pursed my lips.
“I… I couldn’t let someone as fair as you just die.”
She stared at me, mouth agape.
Again, my cheeks flushed with color.
“I– Well, what I mean is–”
“You want me?”
I stopped; looked her right in the eye. She nodded, the gears of her brain turning fast.
“Of course, it all makes sense.”
“No! No, nothing makes sense!” I snapped. “I don’t– The fact that you would even imply that I would want–”
“Then what do you want?” she asked, folding her arms.
I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
“I want my father to win this war. And the only way we can is if we have warriors like you in our ranks.”
“Is that right?” she chuckled, running a finger up my arm.
“Yes it is!” I snapped, turning my back on her. “And, starting tomorrow, you’ll begin training my soldiers. Understood?”
Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid her. This proved to be far more difficult than I thought. First, I had to restrain the men, who wanted nothing more than to kill her. Next, I had to find her a place to sleep, since I certainly couldn’t just leave her in the barracks. And, wouldn’t you know it, the only place that was safe for her was my tent. And, finally, I had to keep reminding her that it was not at all appropriate to indoctrinate the men with Tang propaganda. I can’t even begin to count how many times I came upon her, lecturing my soldiers about how the armies of Tang were invincible, and how they were better off surrendering now, instead of wasting their time training. It happened so often that I spent more time chaperoning her than strategizing with Colonel Yi and the others. I don’t think he minded, since it gave him the chance to take command. As a matter of fact, I know he didn’t mind. That was the problem.
As the weeks wore on, I started noticing a change in his demeanor. When I gave him orders, he would either ignore them, or be slow to respond. When I reminded him that, as the daughter of the King of Xia, I was in charge, he would simply smile, and say, “for now.” And on one occasion, I caught him standing outside my tent, surveying it with something close to a buyer’s eye.
“What are you doing?” I barked.
“Just checking on your majesty’s residence,” he responded smoothly. “It would be quite a shame if something were to happen to it.”
I opened my mouth, but he was already gone.
And yet, despite all that, and despite all my efforts to avoid her, I couldn’t help but learn details from her past. I learned that a blind man named Liu taught her how to handle a sword. (This detail slipped out during a training exercise). I learned that she had two sisters. (This tidbit was divulged while insulting one of my men; “My sisters could swing that axe better than you”). And I learned that her favorite fruit was persimmons. (This was made evident by the fact that she devoured at least three of them everyday). But perhaps the most important thing I learned about her was her incredible talent with a needle.
I learned this on a hot day about a month into our relationship. I was training with my bodyguard, Shen, and, as always, he was letting me win. He never said he was, but I could tell. I was lousy with a blade, and Shen had been a professional soldier for over a decade. There was no way in hell that I could beat him in sparring every single time. She knew that, and when she saw us training together, she came over and pushed Shen out of the way.
“What are you–?”
“Giving you a real lesson in combat.”
I scoffed, and looked at my men for support, but none of them made a sound. This caused her to snicker, and my cheeks to burn red.
“Don’t look at them. They want you to learn as much as I do.”
I scowled, and turned my back on her.
“There’s nothing you can teach me that I don’t already know.”
I took a step forward and instantly felt a sharp sting against the back of my head. I whirled around, clutching my throbbing skull, only to find her smirking, and tossing a pebble up and down.
“You sure about that?” she said with a wink.
That sent me over the edge. I drew my sword, and lunged for her. She easily sidestepped, and slashed her blade upward, cutting my arm. I cried out in pain, and clutched at my wound, which, by that point, was bleeding profusely.
“Never let anger rule you in battle.” she said, sheathing her sword.
I groaned, and fell to my knees.
“Oh, come now.” she huffed, turning around. “It’s not that bad–”
She fell silent when she saw how much blood was coming out of my wound. Her whole demeanor instantly changed, and she fell to her knees beside me.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to cut you that deep.”
I didn’t respond. I was too light-headed to speak. She looked to the men for help, none of whom did, or said, a thing. She sighed, and ripped off a piece of cloth from her uniform.
“Someone get me a needle and some thread!” she shouted, wrapping the makeshift bandage around my wound. None of them moved.
“Now!” she barked, and they finally went off in search of medical supplies. At that point, my head was spinning, and my fingers had become numb. The last thing I remembered before passing out was the sight of Shen returning with a needle and thread.
I woke several hours later in my tent. She was sitting over me, stroking my forehead. A few weeks ago, I would have balked at such a blatant sign of intimacy, but, at that moment, it was like a ray of sunshine on the glacier of my heart.
“You’re awake!” she smiled, cupping my face with both hands.
“Yes.” I sighed. “Thanks to you. Where’d you learn to stitch a wound like that?”
“You grow up on a farm, you get injured. And when you grow up poor, the only doctor you can afford is yourself.”
A silence followed, in which both of us pondered how best to say what was on our minds. She broke it first.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have challenged you–”
“No, I’m glad you did.”
I nodded, and stared up at the roof of my tent.
“I’m a proud fool. I needed to be humbled.”
She looked down. I turned to face her, and place my thumb and forefinger beneath her chin.
“Pride’s kept me from doing a great many things. And it’s held me back from admitting a great many more.”
“Oh really?” she asked slyly, leaning forward. “Like what?”
“You know.” I said, bringing her lips to mine.
She didn’t leave my side that night, or any night after that.
“I’ve got it!” I said, after an evening of particularly passionate lovemaking.
“Got what?” she asked, draping an arm across my chest, and burying her face in the crook of my neck.
“I finally found out what you are.”
“What I am?” she laughed, arching her eyebrows.
“The first day we met, I couldn’t decide what you were more like; a tiger or a crane. You were ferocious like a tiger, but graceful like a crane.”
“Oh. So which am I?”
I smiled, and cupped her face with both hands.
“Yes. But not just any flower; a flower that only grows in earth that has been soaked with blood and tears; a flower that never wilts, even in the dead of winter. A flower of war.”
She smiled, and gently kissed my lips.
“I like that,” she said. “I think you’re right.”
A week later, she broached the topic of leaving.
“We can’t stay here.” she said. “At least, you can’t stay here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your men are planning on killing you.”
“The truth, and you know it.”
I looked down, and nodded.
A long silence followed, in which the weight of truth bore down on us like a blanket. I was the first to break it.
“I want to leave,” I groaned. “But, my father–”
I rounded on her.
“What did you say?”
“It’s true,” she nodded. “As I was making my way to the battlefield, I learned from some passing Tang troops that the King of Xia had already been killed. All they were doing now was routing out rogue regiments that hadn’t yet been captured.”
I stared at her, uncertain as to whether or not I should believe her words. It seemed plausible. We hadn’t heard anything from father in weeks. It was possible he’d been overthrown. But was it true?
“How do you know they weren’t lying?”
She looked away.
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Mulan!” I shouted, tears rolling down my cheeks. She sighed, and looked me in the eye.
“They had his head on a pike.”
Her words pierced me like a dagger. I looked away, and covered my face with both hands. She reached out to comfort me, but I shrugged her off. I stayed like that, weeping, for what felt like an eternity. I wept and I wept, until it honestly felt as though all the liquid in my body would pour out. Finally, I could weep no more, and so I stopped, and looked her right in the eye.
“Let’s do it.”
Her face broke into a massive grin.
“You mean it?”
“Yes. Let’s do it tonight.”
We packed as quickly, and quietly, as possible, taking only what was necessary to survive. Finally, we had what we needed, and we snuck out the tent under cover of darkness.
She at first moved towards the stables to steal some of the men’s horses, but I held her back.
“No,” I whispered. “I’ve got a better idea.”
That, “better idea” was the pair of stallions Colonel Yi kept by his tent. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing as we untied them and led them to the outskirts of camp. By the time we mounted them, and began our long ride off towards the horizon, I felt great warmth seeping through my veins. I had lost my father. I had lost my home. And yet, in that moment, I felt strangely optimistic. I was free; free to do whatever I wanted, and go wherever I pleased. And more important than that, I had the woman I loved–my flower of war–by my side. Our lives would not be easy. Our lives would not be safe. But together, through our trials and our turmoil, we would make the brightest blossoms bloom.
Copyright 2018. Nathan Liu