Author Lian-hua (email@example.com)
Disclaimer: Mulan, Shang & Ling belong to Disney, everyone else is mine
Chronology: After "Plum Concubine"
Rating: PG-13 (language and lots of kissing
Reason: The world needs more swashbuckling
Dedication: For Wendy, this is *her* cheese :)
"Look at them!" Meifei lifted the edge of her tapestried dress to place a dainty foot on the padded stool before her, white face beaming up at Mulan through her make-up.
Tie-lin would be envious, Mulan thought as she eyed the exquisite silk slipper so gracefully displayed for her. It was impossibly small, though Meifei's feet were not bound, pointed at the toe so the wearer's foot was curved to balance on the high narrow heel. The ruby-dyed silk was crawling with painstaking embroidery, intricate flowers wrought by thread-of-gold and touches of blue and mauve, a thousand times more elaborate than the designs on either of their dresses.
"Just to find someone that skilled in needlepoint must have cost the Emperor a fortune," Mulan mused. She could not recall ever seeing a piece of jewelry or clothing that was ever that fine. But it was true Li Longji doted on her more than all the other concubines.
Meifei nodded, clearly ecstatic at this lavish little gift from the man she loved. "He wants me to wear them when I dance later tonight." Then her smiled widened, lowering her foot and smoothing back her skirt again. "I am so happy that he invited the three of you to his birthday banquet. It is good to see His Majesty finally willing to accept your husband as part of the Court again, even if it has taken him a year. "
Glancing through the doors, Mulan watched the Emperor chatting casually with Shang and Tai-shan. They had started out rigidly discussing the military situation at the border, but when the conversation moved to a silly polo wager between Tai-shan and Longji Mulan had been more than willing to let Meifei usher her out on the terrace to talk. Both men were incurable braggarts and it seemed the topic of sports was enough to make even rivals forget their rivalry seeing the way Shang was laughing with them.
"Amazing, isn't it?" She smiled at Meifei, indicating the men.
Her friend laughed. "Next it will be drinking contests and then sparring matches. His Majesty will be too sore and besotted with drink to attend his own birthday banquet. There will be no one to blame but that General Meng."
"If Tie-lin were here he'd behave himself," Mulan grumbled. Tai-shan was insufferable, and Shang did nothing but encourage him.
With a wave of her hand, Meifei seemed to put them from her mind. "There's quite the gossip around here lately," she began in a hushed voice, so hushed that Mulan had to lean closer to hear her. "Both Qifei and Linfei have had their slippers stolen in the past three days. You should have seen the fit Qifei threw; she wailed and cried so much that Eunuch Gao had to carry her to her rooms and lock her there. Linfei was angry and screamed that the thief was a pervert. He stole her shoe right while she was taking a bath!"
"Didn't she see anyone?" Mulan's eyebrows climbed. "And just one shoe? How come no one has told the Emperor about this?"
Leaning even closer, Meifei looked left and right to be sure no one was listening. "No, she saw no one, she said he slipped behind her and that all she could catch sight of was a bit of a black cloak. The thief must have jumped out of the window, she said. She called for the guard but no one took her seriously, they thought it was Qifei getting her back for laughing at her the day before." Pausing for a breath, she shook her head. "No one would dare tell His Majesty! You know how he overreacts. He might think it's a Turkish spy and wage a war! I hardly think two stolen slippers are worth calling up a draft."
Shrieking a laugh, Mulan clasped her hand over her mouth when she realized the men had heard her, staring at her through the open doors. Her cheeks colored, and she smoothed her dress ruefully. In another minute the men had turned back to their conversation, with Tai-shan behind Shang, one arm around his neck while his free hand made explanatory gestures, demonstrating some sort of wrestling move to Longji. The other man was fascinated, mimicking the position of Tai-shan's hand as Shang stood still and cooperative between them as if Longji had not been ready to execute him a year ago. Or perhaps it wasn't cooperation at all, but the two men not so subtly reminding the Emperor of their combined superior fighting skills in the way men did to intimidate a rival.
"Let's go to my room," Mulan suggested at last, seizing Meifei's arm. "You can tell me more there."
~ * ~
Shang was so aggravated by Tai-shan's animated boasts that he hardly noticed the women walking quietly by them, Mulan and Meifei chatting and gossiping a mile a minute as they passed. He was not exactly happy to be here with Longji, but Mulan was right, it was unwise to refuse his peace offering. The man was still Emperor, and his cousin. His friend and Longji had been so busy casually trying to outdo with each with tales of their heroics that they had forgotten Shang all together, he had even had to pry Tai-shan's arm from his neck after the topic had shifted from martial arts to tactics. Shang sighed, they were perfect company for each other, both loved hearing themselves talk and neither could resist the chance to show off.
"Your Majesty." Someone let out a polite cough and stepped near. Shang clenched his jaw to keep his mouth from flying open at the man who stood only a few feet from him now.
Longji turned away from Tai-shan then, smiling at Shang. "You remember Yin Ling? I hear he served under you." He nodded, how could he forget one of Mulan's friends, and the laziest recruit next to "Ping?" There he was, skinny Ling with the same big nose and sloppy grin, somehow managing to look even mildly impressive in his officer's uniform. "I meant to change the officers of my Bodyguard, and he was recommended to me by another general."
"General Li." There was just a hint of falsely sweet mockery in that as Ling inclined his head. "And General Meng. I still owe you a gambling debt."
Tai-shan blinked and arched his brow as if to say he was surprised the other man still remembered. But the way he folded his arms and turned up one corner of his mouth in a self-satisfied grin made it plain he was arrogantly amused that Ling had not forgotten whatever threats he had made then.
"What news?" Longji interrupted curtly before Tai-shan could respond with something flippant.
Ling scratched his head nervously, remembering his manners and making a bow. "General Xin sent me to fetch you, Your Majesty. He's come back with a treaty from... eh.... " He waved his skinny fingers in a clumsy, absent-minded gesture. "From Tibet, Your Majesty. He requests an audience."
Sighing, The Emperor gave the two generals an apologetic nod. "If you'll excuse me," he smiled slightly as he turned away from them, leaving Shang and Tai-shan glancing at each other.
"Your cousin has changed," Tai-shan observed quietly as the pair began walking back to their rooms. The banquet would begin in two hours, Tai-shan needed at least three to admire himself in the mirror before he would be ready for the feast. "I still wouldn't trust him though, not after what happened last time. He brags too much anyway."
Smiling with sarcasm, Shang patted his friend's shoulder. "Tell me about it."
They both stopped inside the apartment he and Mulan had been given when his wife called out from inside her dressing chamber. "Meifei had her seamstress make me a dress to wear tonight, I'll be out in just a minute."
"A minute?" Tai-shan echoed irritably. "Nothing ever takes a woman a minute, except to break a man's heart." Shang shook his head, how could his friend be oblivious to the fact that he was twice as vain as any court lady?
Mulan giggled, stepping out in the same clothes she had worn earlier but Shang noticed she now had more elaborate slippers on her feet, red silk slippers, the pointed toes just peeking out from under the hem of her embroidered blue dress. "Why, Meng Tai-shan, I always had the impression that you were the one doing all the heartbreaking."
He grumbled, more annoyed than amused. "I never make promises," he replied with a small tilt of his head. "And I prefer to do something other than heartbreaking." That was said with a cocky self-assurance. "Now, if you two don't mind, I'm going to go find something decent to wear. Behave yourselves while I'm gone. I'd hate to have to explain to Longji that you two missed his birthday banquet because you couldn't keep your hands off each other."
"Get out, Shan," Shang ordered with a sigh. He had a bad feeling about tonight.
~ * ~
The soft landing of boots whipped Meifei's head around where she was seated on her bed busily adjusting her sash. She had a performance tonight, in fact Longji had requested that she be saved for tonight's finale, and she intended to get in at least an hour of practice in something that somewhat resembled the costume she would wear.
Frightened now, she rose to her feet. There before the open window stood a tall man in a black mask and cape, holding a sword that he casually sheathed with a bow. She caught sight of his eyes, flashing her a look that was openly arrogant as he stepped closer, or swaggered rather. At that moment she felt more like clapping a hand to her mouth in laughter than screaming for the guard, and realized a moment later that she did not feel afraid at all anymore. This was almost too ridiculous for fear.
"My lady Meifei," He bowed again, the smoothness of that action sending a rush of something strange through her. There was a kind of charisma to him, swathed in black silk as he was, the way he spoke so softly and stood there in that easy manner of his.
Managing to get a hold on herself, Meifei drew herself up though she doubted the top of her head would scarcely reach his neck. "Reveal yourself at once or I will call the guard!"
"I don't think you will, my lady," there was a gleam of danger in those eyes of his sending her heart beating faster. "Not if you can't speak." He advanced on her and forgetting her fear she found herself mesmerized. He was thin as a blade yet strong, fluid, his bearing like that of a king in the guise of a rogue. A king of rogues, she giggled in her mind.
But when his arms seized her around the waist she froze, reminding herself of the danger of the situation. This was a strange, masked man in her bedchamber, a sword strapped to his side. He could... His hands weren't on his sword, but on either side of her face, warm and soft as he pulled her closer. She whimpered in both delight and protest when his mouth pressed itself to hers, edging her surprised lips open just enough to touch the tip of his tongue teasingly between her lips, the kiss deepening as the fingers of one hand lowered to stroke one side of her neck.
She was gasping for air when he pulled away, left standing there pressing her own fingers to her lips that still trembled. Her whole body was trembling, tingling from head to foot. It wasn't until he had climbed out of the window again in a swirl of black cloak that she realized what had happened.
Glancing down, she caught sight of one ruby silk slipper only inches from her feet. In her breathless state she vaguely recalled him bending down, snatching up one of the shoes she had not yet stepped into when he had arrived.
Furious, Meifei ran over to the window, her eyes combing the gardens below for a trace of the black clad bandit. There was nothing, no sign of him at all. She realized then when she pursed her flushed lips that there was no way she could call the guards now. The only person she could think to tell right then was Mulan.
Slipping into a pair of plainer shoes, Meifei clutched the single precious slipper as she made her way down the halls. A concubine was not usually allowed freedom to roam through the Palace, but she had asked Longji days ago for permission to visit Mulan at will. He had agreed, seeing no threat in the female general and so Meifei flew up the steps and around corners in a frenzy, even without a servant or guard behind her.
Li Shang and Meng Tai-shan were talking in the doorway, the sight of them together forcing Meifei to heave a sigh of appreciation at such gorgeous men. The first was stony faced and statuesque, dignified, while the second was athletically slender with large dark pools for eyes. She cleared her throat, they were staring at her.
"General Li, General Meng," she made a hasty bow, her heart was pounding again out of nervous fear. "Where is Mulan. I must speak to her, it's urgent."
"Urgent?" Li Shang repeated, then with a curt nod of either acceptance or understanding, ducked back inside his room, leaving her alone facing General Meng in the hall.
She stepped closer to him, desperate now and oblivious to the fact that both men had stared at her as if she had gone mad. They didn't understand, if she didn't get her slipper back before it was time for her performance then Longji would know, and that was sure to mean something drastic.
"General Meng, you must promise to help me. I'll get on my knees if you wish."
The cocky young general smirked openly, angling his head as if trying to look at her sideways. "I'm a married man, my lady." She'd be damned if the remorse in his voice weren�t all pretended. "I'm afraid the only thing you can do is bribe me."
Before she realized it, she had whacked him on the shoulder with her slipper. "I'm not in the mood for flirting!" She snapped. "This is serious."
Thank goodness Mulan and Shang appeared then, and grabbing her skirts with one hand Meifei led the way inside the parlor, leaving the three generals no choice but to follow after her in confusion. Once inside, Li Shang shut the door after scanning the hall cautiously while Mulan and General Meng only stood there staring at the shoe she held up in one hand.
"A masked man stole my slipper!" She blurted out when their expectant faces were too much. "He climbed into my window and stole my slipper! He had a sword and a cape and he stole my slipper!"
The two men exchanged a look. "Did he hurt you?" Li Shang sounded unperturbed.
"Did he threaten to hurt you?" General Meng looked like he wanted to laugh.
Meifei shook her head, their mockery only making her all the more hysterical. "No! He came in through the window... he was tall and beautiful and arrogant and he had this look in his eye that ravished me. Then he put his arms around me... and kissed me and... " She dropped onto the sofa with a hand to her breast, swooning in remembrance. "It was magnificent!"
Both Mulan and Shang turned their eyes away from her suddenly.
"It wasn't me!" General Meng cried, backing away from them defensively with his palms out. But Mulan and Shang were still staring at him accusingly. "If I were after something from a woman it would be her-" He cleared his throat. "Well it wouldn't be her slipper."
"It wasn't him," Meifei agreed, recovering herself. The accused general let out a relaxed breath. "This thief looked entirely different. The point is, I need my slipper back before I have to dance tonight or the Emperor will find out it is missing and something terrible is sure to come of it. I came to the three of you to get it back for me. Say you will." She gave the men her most innocent and pleading eyes.
Li Shang's frown was dubious, his words stiffly formal. "I've risked my life for foolish things, my lady, but don't you think a shoe is going a bit far?"
General Meng was more animated. "A shoe? You're a woman, don't you have hundreds of shoes you could wear instead? Meaning no disrespect, my lady, but with a-" he coughed and cleared his throat again at Shang's glare. "a face like that who's going to be looking at your feet?" She blushed despite herself, realizing her hand was still on her breast.
"You don't understand!" Mulan and Meifei echoed in unison. "The Emperor ordered her to wear those shoes tonight as a part of her performance. If he sees she isn't weaning them, well with suspicions running high the way they are, I don't want to imagine the consequences. He might even blame you, Shang."
That made the stoic general blink, but he did concede. "He did say something about tightening security in case of Turkish spies."
"Alright, alright," General Meng sighed. "Don't worry, my lady, we'll find your shoe before he snaps and the reign of terror begins. But we only have two hours though before the banquet, so we'd better think fast."
Rubbing his chin, Li Shang's began to pace, musing to himself. "Hmm, if I were to steal a woman's slipper what would I be doing with it?"
Shaking his head, General Meng turned to Meifei almost apologetically. "My lady, are you sure you want to wear this shoe after we find it?"
Feeling the color flood to her cheeks, Meifei buried her face in her hands.
~ * ~
"What if it is a spy?" Shang mused as he and Tai-shan made their way through the gardens where Meifei had indicated the thief had fled. They weren't going to find any traces of him, Tai-shan was well aware of that, but at least they would get an idea of the terrain where he had made his escape.
Tai-shan just shook his head, watching Shang's eyes examine the walks and pavilions as if he were expecting an ambush. That made Tai-shan want to laugh, an ambush of black-masked, kissing slipper thieves. He could out-kiss any slipper thief. "I think it's just a man who needs a woman badly, Shang. I mean, what kind of information can a spy get from stealing a slipper?"
Nodding, Shang sighed. "True. This place always has been full of wild characters.. But I wish she had just gone to the guards or Longji himself."
He did too but he wasn't going to answer that. Meifei may have been fussing over a shoe and swooning over a bandit but she had never struck him as particularly petty or stupid. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if the woman was hinting that Longji might be seeking any excuse to start a war with the Turks. Tai-shan knew what that meant, months and months on the battlefield to conquer territory the size of Ch'ang-an. No, he sighed to himself, they were going to find Meifei's slipper tonight, and he was going to take the thief to find a woman.
"There's Ling," Shang pointed through a cluster of plum trees. "I told him I'd make a man out of him someday, never though I'd even almost succeed."
"Almost?" Tai-shan echoed with a laugh, watching the scrawny fool prance around with a flourish of his red cape, waving a hand at an underling with a put-on aura of authority for the pretty serving girl standing nearby. "He thinks he's so suave. A few minutes alone with him and I'd turn his whole world upside down."
Shang ignored that comment, as usual. "So what's this debt between you two?"
"Oh that?" Tai-shan chuckled. "Last year I saw him in Louyang and I took him out, you know farmboys, they don't know anything about the city. He thought he was a real man gambling with the other officers, until I beat him. No money to pay of course, but it was fun making him look bad and beating him at his own game. We were all pretty drunk."
His friend only shook his head and shrugged. Sometimes Shang was no fun. "Come on, the sun is setting. All we've learned out here is that he's someone who frequents the Palace grounds, only the guards and concubines are allowed here. He's a fast runner whoever he is, no one's talking about seeing anything strange. We'd better go back and see what Mulan and Meifei have learned."
~ * ~
"He's stolen another slipper," Meifei informed the men when they returned. Mulan was watching them from the couch and frowning. There was only an hour until the banquet and she was already dressed and combed, they had been gone that long. "This time it was Jiaofei, in the practice room just outside the banquet hall. She was there alone, the guards were outside the doors. That makes four including myself. Only he tried to seduce Jiaofei, thankfully she kept her wits and made him stop at kissing."
Sitting down on the sofa beside Mulan, Shang looked puzzled. "So that's twice in one day, meaning he's likely to strike tonight with all of you ladies in your finest for the performance."
"But you say he hasn't tried to hurt any of you?" Tai-shan sat down beside Shang, looking even more puzzled when Meifei shook her head. "I told you it's a desperate man, Shang, but at least he isn't dangerous. Maybe if one of us went down there and kept an eye out we could follow him when he strikes again. If we catch him, we get Lady Meifei's slipper back."
Mulan sighed, men had no concept of time and they over simplified everything. "In an hour? I don't think so. I don't know about the rest of us, but if Shang isn't on time for the feast then the Emperor will suspicious I think."
"She's right," Shang folded his arms.
"Well the Emperor doesn't give a damn about me, I'll go." The three of them nodded at Tai-shan gratefully. "And we could just say Mulan isn't finished fixing her make-up yet, that's a perfect excuse for her being late." She glared at him, but supposed it was true.
Shang stood up. "Very well, then. You three had better go down stairs and work as quickly as possible. I need to get changed."
Rising as well, Mulan ushered her two accomplices out into the hall, making their way down several flights of stairs to where the concubines would be practicing their dancing. "You two will need disguises," Meifei reminded as they rounded a corner. "Especially you, General Meng. You could be executed if you are caught among the Emperor's concubines."
She watched as Tai-shan made a face then shrugged as if to say he was undaunted by the risk. Mulan only hoped the man could keep his hands off the concubines. "We could dress him as a eunuch," she suggested innocently.
"Wait," Tai-shan stepped in front of the two women with a gesture of protest. "There is no way in all the nine levels of Hell that I am going to even pretend to be a eunuch! There are men and women in the Palace who might recognize me and will surely weep."
Letting out a groan of exasperation, Mulan exchanged a look with an equally vexed Meifie. She just knew bringing him along was going to make everything twice as difficult. "You'll have to be a concubine then," she snapped tiredly.
"Fine." He truly seemed not to care. Then he gave her some kind of smile she supposed was meant to be charming. "You'd make a much better eunuch anyway. All you have to do is act like a man but without... urges. It'll be just like being," he paused, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Ping, was it? I think Shang mentioned that name once or twice in the dozens of letters he wrote me during the war. They were such long letters too."
That was it, Mulan was going to slap him. But Meifei grabbed her hand. "Enough you two. We have no time for bickering." With a shrug for Mulan and a salute for Meifei, Tai-shan turned and fell back to walking at Mulan's side again while she fought the urge to trip him.
~ * ~
Shang slid into his place somewhat nervously at the banquet table, trying not to make his glances towards the wide doors at the end of the vast hall too obvious. There was still no sign of Mulan or Tai-shan, and Shang had tried stalling as much possible before he came downstairs.
He tried to distract himself with his surroundings, the bright garlands strewn across the tables, the festoons and lanterns strung along the walls while even more lanterns shone in glowing bulbs of light where the long windows revealed the terraces outside. There was plenty of noise and chatter around him besides, officers and officials exchanging pleasantries, friends discussing the situation with the north. And then there were those busy watching the musicians and dancing troupes performing on the decorated stage in front of the hall. Amid all of that, Shang hoped the absence of his wife and friend would go unnoticed.
"Cousin," Li Longji turned to him after a few minutes, sounding a little less than sober at that point and clutching his wine cup almost possessively. "Where are Fa Mulan and General Meng? I was going to ask him if he wanted to attempt a little duel later. He said he was a master with a spear."
Sipping his own wine, Shang made an effort not to swear. "He also claims he can play the flute like no other," he managed smoothly. "He is feeling ill, Your Majesty, he said he was going to lie down for awhile and hope he wouldn't miss all of your birthday. Mulan should be here any moment, she had a... wardrobe crisis."
"Pity," The Emperor muttered after another draught of wine. "Perhaps if he isn't feeling better you will oblige me. I know you are a master of the guang dao."
Behind the cover of his wine cup, Shang grimaced. He wished they would hurry up.
~ * ~
Tai-shan stepped out of Meifei's dressing chamber with a sheepish grin, waiting for the two women on either side of the door to explode into laughter. They didn't though, thank the gods, only smirked a little as Meifei reached up to smooth the pale pink sash holding up the top of his embroidered blue gown. He fidgeted with the wide sheer sleeves a moment, thankful the heavily gilded floral embellishments did much to hide his arms, toned and defined from years and years of martial arts practice. The last thing he wanted was to be discovered tonight.
"He needs make-up," Mulan mused, arms folded where she stood in the blue robe of a eunuch. Eunuch Wugan, he snickered to himself. Meifei was too busy looping a purple scarf over his arms. He stood there cooperatively and didn't even make a face about the make-up either.
Finished, Meifei nodded. "Keep an eye out, Mulan, we'll be out in a minute." Tai-shan tried not to grumble as she ushered him back inside the room, that meant they were going to be here for an hour.
Still, he sat down patiently at the vanity table, spreading his skirts around him fastidiously before he realized what he was doing, or rather that Meifei was watching his care not to wrinkle the fine silk with amusement. Shaking her head, she opened the lids of several small pots and drew out their corresponding brushes. But first she turned him towards the mirror and began combing through his hair before pulling it back and securing it with little combs. He sighed, making eyes at himself in the mirror.
She was kneeling on the floor now, placing a red cushion for him to kneel upon as well. He did, and taking his face in one hand she began her work with the brushes and paints. First, it was the heavy white powder, then the ink across his lashes and finally the red lip paint he just knew she was applying with a teasing slowness by the sultry way she was staring at him. Tai-shan sighed a little when she ran her thumb across his lip to clean up a smudge. She deliberately winked and laughed softly at his reaction.
"Do I look convincing enough?" He asked when she was done. The paint was heavy and it made his skin itch, but somehow he felt as if the make-up filled him with new powers of seduction.
Nodding, she reached up to dust some excess powder from his cheek, pausing to let her gaze linger up at him. "You have the most wanton eyes, General."
"Do I?" He gave her his most dashing smile.
"General Meng," she leaned back with her hands spread behind her, angling her body with a tilt of her chin that made her eyes widen dramatically. "If you weren't married to a beautiful priestess and if I didn't belong to His Majesty would you be flirting with me now?"
His nod was emphatic. "Shamelessly."
It was a reflex at that smile of hers when he placed his hands gently on either side of her waist, edging himself close enough to touch his lips to hers. It was meant to be a quick, playful kiss, just to tease her back, but when she gripped his shoulders for balance he couldn't help himself. He was drawing on her lips deeply, letting the tip of his tongue dance across the lower, muffling her little sighs as her arms crept around his neck.
When they pulled apart she was struggling to catch her breath. "General Meng," she managed, untangling her arms from around him. "For a kiss like that I'd give you all my slippers."
He only flashed her a grin that was inwardly triumphant, wishing the slipper thief could only hear her say that.
~ * ~
In a panic, Mulan burst through the door just as Meifei was finishing with Tai-shan's lipstick. "He's here!" She called, pointing behind her. "In the hall!"
The pair blinked as if they did not understand what she said, busy staring at each other with silly star-struck expressions. Mulan groaned, she was going to kill Tai-shan. But in the next moment, they were on their feet, following her hurriedly outside.
"That's definitely him!" Meifei pointed as they reached the main hall, fuming at the sight of the black clad figure striding boldly between the dozen women standing on either side of the corridor, waiting for their turn to dance. Mulan had not seen him come through the window, but she was sure that was how he gotten in these quarters. The usual entrance was too heavily guarded, and he couldn't have possibly come through the banquet hall where the dancers came and went, not without being noticed.
He had stopped now, his sword still drawn, seizing a green-clad dancer by the shoulders and pressing her against the wall, kissing her long before he reached down to slide her slipper from the foot she had anchored against the wall to brace herself against the force of his kiss. When he broke away the lady's cheeks were first red with passion, and then red with fury when she finally realized her slipper was gone, disappeared somewhere inside his costume. But the thief was already several feet from her, making his way closer to the opposite end of the hall, his eye on a another lady in particular.
"He's gotten braver," Tai-shan mused at Mulan's right. "Get me a sword."
But the woman in the green dress raised a shout before Mulan could answer. "Guards! Guards! That charlatan stole my slipper!" Sending a chorus of shocked gasps through the crowd.
Armored men burst through one of the doors with their swords drawn. The masked man only paused and stood there waiting with his own blade poised, flashing an arrogant smile for the ladies who heaved a sigh in return despite themselves. He blocked the onslaught of his first opponent easily, spinning around in a swirl of black cloak and with a deft move, gracefully disarmed the guard. The women sighed louder, infuriating the second man who approached him, features pulled into a snarl under his helmet. After the initial crossing of swords, they exploded in a swift, intricate dance back and forth across the hall, with the thief crouching and posing and making sultry eyes at the women all the while.
"Well met!" He taunted his foe with a low, easy laugh. The guard was tiring, his form and method becoming lax, yet he was still able to match the bandit blow for blow in the fight. "You've countered everything I've thrown at you," There was a tense pause, and then with another boastful laugh and a cocky toss of his head, the man in black flipped his blade into the air. "With my left hand." And catching the sword in his right, the duel began anew.
"Look at him fight!" A slender beauty clutched her friend's arm, half faint and transfixed. "He's a master with a sword!"
Smiling over at her, the thief gave a practiced flick of his wrist, sending his opponent's sword flying. The ladies squealed and applauded as he flourished his cap for them triumphantly then sauntered up to his slim admirer, bending her back in a deep, smothering kiss, hooking one leg around his waist that allowed him to take the slipper from her foot.
She took two steps back and collapsed into her friend's hold when he finally let her go, gazing at him with smeared make-up and dazed eyes. He only smiled, flourishing his cloak again. "My sword is always ready to pleasure you, my lady," he purred with a bow.
"Enough," Mulan heard Tai-shan mutter irritably. She shook her head, ignoring the comment, then wished she hadn't when he took off running, snatching up the sword the guard had dropped only a moment ago. Meifei clapped a hand to her mouth in near hysterics as Tai-shan advanced on the thief, the tiny slippers he wore forcing him to mince and shuffle his way down the hall. The women gasped in envy and the defeated guards whistled at the way his small, quick steps caused him to sway as he moved. But he was oblivious to it, and in another minute had his sword pointed at the bandit's throat. "Pleasure this!" He challenged with a thrust of the blade.
Several of the women screamed.
Mulan had no choice but to run after him, cheeks red with utter embarrassment. Leave it up to a hotheaded man to give their ruse away. "Just calm down, my lady," she was tugging at Tai-shan's arm, hoping he would catch her significant look. "You don't know how to use that thing, just leave this for the men."
Thankfully he relaxed his arm, but unfortunately that gave the thief enough time to dart back around and jump through the window the way he had come. Mulan sighed, but peered over the ledge into the night, the gentle glow of lantern light allowing her to catch sight of his shadow moving through the garden.
"The Officer's Quarters," Meifei whispered at the same time Mulan realized it herself. "He's an officer." The women looked at each other in alarm and confusion.
"You!" Another eunuch appeared in the doorway before either of the women could speak again. He was pointing at Tai-shan who stood there with the sword in his hand still. "You're exquisite. You must be next to dance for the Emperor. A sword dance. Come."
The general blinked, caught utterly off guard. "But I-"
Mulan quickly cut him off, turning to the eunuch with a smile. "M'lady is a shy maiden," she explained. The women around her giggled, calm now. Then she turned to Tai-shan and spoke for his ears alone. "Tell Shang the thief is an officer, find some way for him to leave the banquet and go to the Officer's Quarters."
He nodded, standing patiently as Meifei arranged a blue veil over his face which she had borrowed from a woman standing nearby. "Don't be nervous when you're out there, general," she coaxed with a little smile. "Remember dancing is a prelude to seduction." That was said through a giggle and strangely Tai-shan responded with a nod of deep understanding, leaving the women to their puzzled glances as he followed the eunuch into the banquet hall.
~ * ~
There was still no sign of them, Shang was beginning to panic inwardly. Almost an hour through the banquet and not a single trace of Mulan, Meifei or Tai-shan. Maybe he shouldn't have come down without them, maybe he should have stayed in case they got in trouble. Sipping his wine, he tried to keep composed and make the best of the evening.
A servant was muttering something in Longji's ear and when the man scurried away a grin was plastered across the Emperor's face, clearing his throat to call the attention of his guests. "It seems we have a most special treat tonight," he announced with just a hint of excitement coupled with that covetous smile. Waving the hand that held his wine cup, he gestured towards the stage where a lone figure was lurking in shadows, waiting for the attention of the audience. "The lovely Junfei as the Sword Maiden of Yue."
The music softened to the trilling of a single flute as a tall, veiled women arrayed in blue silk stepped into the light, the tasseled sword of a guard in one hand. The audience looked on in delight as the figure danced lightly through sword forms, taking graceful leaps through the air on delicate blue slippers, the trailing ends of her scarf fluttering about her like wings. Shang found himself staring more intently then the others, but for a different reason. He could swear there was something about those fluid movements that was entirely familiar.
The lady caught his watching and, toying with him a bit, brought the blade upright with the tip resting against her mouth, letting her eyes linger on his face as long as she could in a slow turn that sent her garments swirling. Shang gulped, that teasing look above the veil was too heated for a room full of people. But then he blinked, the dancer was still holding his gaze but making deliberate motions with the sword as if acting something out. She pointed behind her back through the shadows where she had appeared then swept the sword down and lifted her skirt to display her shoes. Finally she raised the blade high in a wide arc, stopping to point precisely at the empty place beside him where Tai-shan should be now. Nearly spitting out his wine, Shang coughed, realizing that for a moment he had been drowning in the eyes of his best friend.
A shower of applause rewarded the dancer, and then a beckoning hand from Longji ordered Tai-shan to come forward. Shang was still staring without being aware of it, trying to puzzle out what exactly Tai-shan's message had been.
"General Li can't keep his eyes off you, my dear," Longji laughed as did several other of the men, all fairly drunk by now. "Come, come," he waved a hand for Tai-shan to draw nearer. "My cousin doesn't look like he's enjoying himself. Fix that."
Without an apparent qualm, his friend hopped onto his lap, flinging both arms around his neck and tucking his head under Shang's chin. But when the Emperor gave him an impatient, encouraging gesture, Tai-shan raised his head again, resting one painted cheek against Shang's as he pretended to nuzzle Shang's neck. Shang stiffened in nervous embarrassment and irritation at first, knowing full well his friend's strange sense of humor, but relaxed when Tai-shan actually whispered something sensible in his ear.
"We have to go," he seemed urgent. "We caught the thief on his way to the Officer's Quarters, he has to be one of Longji's guards."
The men around them responded to the display with catcalls and whistles. "Kiss him, my lady!" One officer demanded, so sodden with drink it was a wonder he wasn't slumped over the table unconscious. "Wipe that sour look off his face!" The entire table burst into laughter at that. Shang groaned, he was going to find this slipper thief and wring his neck.
But Tai-shan seemed amused, and unfortunately so did Longji. "Ask me, Shang," his friend whispered softly.
Drawing a breath, Shang sighed. "Kiss me." He doubted the words had ever sounded so devoid of romance.
Tai-shan looked hurt, but stared directly into his eyes. "Call me your lady."
It took all his effort not to punch his friend. "Kiss me, my lady." Shang was going to kill him.
"Pretend you like it," Tai-shan whispered soothingly as he leaned closer. Shang braced himself expectantly but still nothing prepared him for the feel of his friend's lips on his. It was just like any other kiss, really, and then again it wasn't. Tai-shan tightened his arms around Shang's neck, closing his lips around his a little less then innocently, drawing the kiss out enough to nibble playfully on Shang's bottom lip as if he had forgotten whom he was kissing and was actually enjoying himself. Shang put his arms around him, to tell him to stop, but held him tightly enough a moment so that their audience might mistake his desperation for enthusiasm. When they finally pulled part Shang noticed his friend was on the verge of laughter. He was never going to live this one down.
"Tell me when to stop pretending," Shang whispered back roughly once he caught his breath. He had meant to sound angry, but he wasn't. It was just Tai-shan.
"If you like her so much, General Li," Longji was saying after another long drink from his cup. "Take her to your rooms and enjoy her. Just be sure to be back before my Meifei dances later tonight."
Ordinarily, Shang would have been blushing and fuming. But thanks to Longji's lewdness - and drunkenness - they now had the perfect opportunity to slip away and track this thief. Tai-shan wasn't exactly light, even for him, but sucking in a breath Shang managed to lift him in his arms and carrying him away from the table, away from the whistles and cheers and laughter of the very drunk men around him.
"Oh, come on," Tai-shan grinned when they were safely out of the banquet hall and half up a flight of stairs. Shang wished he could just put his friend down but the other man made no move to let go. "Don't be mad, just step back and see the humor in it."
"Humor?" Shang repeated roughly, nearly dropping him on purpose. "You were having a little too much fun back there, Shan." Junfei, he snickered to himself. Talented Concubine.
That made Tai-shan laugh outright, which he quickly turned into a high-pitched giggle when a servant passed them. "Too much fun?" His look was incredulous. "It's not like I put my hand on your pr-"
"Shan!" Shang growled in a warning. When they reached his room, Shang deposited his friend unceremoniously on the bed, pacing on the rug while he pondered the best way to catch the bandit. Raising a panic in the Officer's Quarters could be as bad as startling concubines, mainly because the men not high-ranking enough to attend the banquet were likely too drunk to be of any logical assistance. "Get out of that dress!" Shang ordered impatiently. They had a thief to catch.
With a sultry wink and a wicked grin, Tai-shan pushed himself up on all fours, crawling towards Shang on the bed. "I need the help of strong hands, General," he purred in a girlish voice.
Before Shang could strangle him the doors creaked open. Tai-shan gestured as if to say ambush and in a trained response to heed his friend's hand signals, Shang threw himself on the bed, letting Tai-shan pull him down in the pretense of a passionate embrace.
"Oh!" Came a woman's startled shriek and both men raised the heads ruefully to see Mulan standing in the doorway, a hand over her mouth. With raised eyebrows and silly smiles, the two generals pointed nervously to each other. But when Shang rose with some gesture of explanation Tai-shan had collapsed in wild laughter in the pillows. Shang was ready to ask her why she wore a eunuch's robe, but looking at Tai-shan's gown decided that was not necessary. "I need to get out of this robe before we go to the Officer's Quarters. We don't want to be caught. I'll be just a minute." And slamming the door to the inner room she left them there on the bed.
~ * ~
Mulan was glad that the heavy eunuch's robe allowed her to keep her dress on underneath. Peeling off the thing she laid it on the chair, only meaning to take the briefest moment to straighten her dress before stepping out again. The last thing she needed was Tai-shan complaining again, she'd had enough of him tonight.
"My lady," a silken voice purred from behind her suddenly. Mulan jerked around, clutching her hands to the front of her robe nervously even though the dress was securely fastened. The masked bandit was there, striding towards her slowly, a gleaming wantonness in his eyes. She opened her mouth to call for the men outside, but he raised one gloved hand in a gesture for her to keep silent, lowering the sword he held slowly and replacing it in its sheath, holding up his now empty hand as if to say he meant her no harm.
"Who.... you..." She found herself breathless, and that was completely insane considering all the trouble this thief had caused tonight.
He only smiled, pausing to spread his cloak fastidiously behind him, angling his slender black clad form so that she could appreciate the grace of it in the candlelight. He was a creature of such lean balance, such agility, that smile holding the promise of delirious sensual bliss. Her mind was in a fog, she wanted to hurl something at him, to call for Shang. Even Tai-shan would do then. This man in his silence and his grace had thrown such a spell on her.
"Oh, my lady," he was very close now, gloved hand stroking her chin. She tilted her face expectantly, parting her lips despite her inner qualms. The brush of gentle breathing lingered on her skin, like the silk of his touch and his voice. Inside she was swimming in helpless mezmerisation. "You are paler than the moon and your eyes shine like stars."
All she could do was sigh pleasurably. Then his mouth came down on hers, and her little whimpers climbed in pitch each time he took a bite or nibble of her lips. His tongue was in her mouth, hot and relentless as it flicked and tasted then slid back across her lips. The kiss seemed to go on for years and years, years and years of bliss. Her knees gave way and she sank back onto the chair, hands desperate for something to grasp.
She really was on the verge of fainting when he released her lips, her vision dusted with flurries and stars leaving her so vaguely aware of him sliding out of the window again, of his cloak rippling in the night breeze. It was a long, long moment before his words came back to her.
You are paler than the moon and your eyes shine like stars.
Looking down at her feet, Mulan let out a scream.
~ * ~
Before Shang could bolt up and run to Mulan, she had already burst through the door in a fit of hysteria, hopping on one foot with a hand pressed to her mouth, pointing behind her with the other in an outburst of unintelligible shrieks.
"Mulan, what's the matter?" He tried to comfort her with an arm around her but she was inconsolable. Tai-shan just lay on the bed with his chin in his hands, staring.
Finally she pulled her hand away and was able to speak again. "Ling kissed me and I liked it!" Shang's jaw dropped, fists clenching in anger, but before he could shout or growl or swear she was pouring out frantic words in a rush. "It's Ling! The thief is Ling! He's been stealing all those slippers and he stole mine just now!" Raising one bare foot for proof, she placed her fingers to her lips again.
"Ling?" Tai-shan repeated incredulously. "Skinny, clumsy, delusional Ling?"
"Sensual, dashing Ling" Mulan corrected impatiently.
Snatching his sword from the table, Shang stormed through the door and over to the second story window where Ling had escaped. "Dead Ling," he muttered under his breath. Swinging a foot over the ledge, Shang began lowering himself to climb to the ground. Tai-shan was right behind him, balancing on those little shoes, and without thinking of what he was doing, Shang placed a steadying hand on his friend's arm. "Careful," he said quietly. "Don't fall."
Amused, Tai-shan shook his head. "You don't have to treat me differently just because I'm in a dress, Shang, I'm still the same person, you know." And with a showy leap he landed on the ground just a bare second after Shang did.
Shaking his head, Shang gestured with his sword the way Mulan had indicated. The pair broke into a run, swiftly passing moonlit pools and pavilions, a pair of sweeping shadows in the dark. It felt as though they ran forever, both of them tired and pausing for breath beside a fountain. Shang blinked, a dark shape was also paused beneath a peach tree twenty feet to his left, encircled by the shadow of a cloak that rustled about him in the breeze, yet the figure stood still and quiet as the tree itself.
Creeping closer, Shang caught sight of a masked face as the wind stirred the branches, letting a brief touch of moonlight play across the black silk. It was Ling indeed, a sword in his hand.
"We know it's you, Ling," Shang tried not to sound hostile. He didn't want to frighten him into a long chase. He was tired.
But Ling was not the least bit frightened, in fact he seemed amused, stepping out bravely into the circle of moonlight. "Don't come any closer, Li Shang," Ling held his blade poised, Mulan's slipper clutched in his free hand. "Or you'll meet your fate at the end of my sword." He managed a low arrogant laugh as he casually flipped the blade from hand to hand.
Advancing on him, Shang raised his own sword. "Enough of this game, Ling," he called back impatiently. "Just give me the shoes and give up or I'll have you arrested."
His eyes flashed dangerously above his mask, but there was still that playfulness in it. The man was even worse than Tai-shan. "A hero would suffer the worst of laws for a lady!" With another rich laugh, Ling turned in a flourish of black cloth, giving Shang no choice but to chase him further through the garden. He caught up with him at the base of a statue, leaping onto it to give himself the advantage of higher ground, then with a running jump landed directly in front of Ling, swiping at him with his sword. The move should have disarmed him, it had when Shang had trained him, but he was able to parry it now, boots sliding back and forth, able to counter the series of blows Shang dealt him.
"Enough, Ling," he demanded again. "And stay away from Mulan."
Shang was angry now, angling the blade in a quick hit that actually pierced Ling's shoulder. It was a minor wound though, only causing him to yelp and falter a bit. But after the initial shock wore off Ling was back to waving her slipper with a taunting grin. "You want this? Come get it, pretty boy!" He was giggling now, black cloak swaying as they danced to and fro over the grass. Shang sighed, he was furious, but he did not actually want to hurt Ling. It was infuriating that Ling mistook his reluctance for concession. "Finally ready to admit I'm better Li Shang?" His laugh was self-pleased. "We all know the better swordsmen wins the slipper, and as I've proven. I'm the best!"
Before Shang could even react, even laugh at his conceited ridiculousness, an arm wrapped around Ling's waist from behind, yanking him around roughly. Shang's eyes nearly popped out of his head in disbelief when Tai-shan pressed his mouth to Ling's, keeping him engrossed in a deep kiss while he pried first slipper than sword from Ling's hands. Tossing Mulan's slipper to Shang, Tai-shan quickly ran his hands over Ling's body, making the other man groan and return his kiss fiercely with no idea who his assailant was. But when Tai-shan finally let Ling go, Shang saw his friend now held another ruby slipper in his hand. Meifei's slipper.
Without a word, Tai-shan wiped the remnants of red paint from his mouth, mincing his way back through the shadows. Ling was staring star-struck. "Who was that?" He asked Shang breathlessly. "I saw her earlier."
"Junfei," Shang returned calmly, setting his sword down. "Now give up Ling."
Sighing, Ling untied the mask, his features falling into frown.
~ * ~
A little abashed at his spoiled make-up and disordered dress, Tai-shan made his way quietly through the clusters of gossiping concubines, hoping the women were too busy with their chatter to notice him. A silence swept through the hall at the sight of him of course, and then snatches of whispers behind veils and fans. He grumbled inwardly, but kept on with a straight back and a high head, despite the fact his feet were aching.
Knocking quietly on Meifei's door, he leaned against the wall and waited. At least he had her slipper back for her. She saw it instantly when she opened the door, ushering him in with a hardly contained squeal of delight.
"General Meng! My slipper!" She smiled as she greeted them both. But then that smile warmed a little as she leaned back against the wall, lifting one leg to hold a dainty, bare foot out to him. "Will you?" Her tone was teasing, almost challenging.
Sighing, he dropped to one knee, barely hiding a grin as he played along. It really was a shame the Emperor had too many women to appreciate her. "If you do not mind the rough touch of a soldier, my lady." That only made her giggle when he finally slid the shoe back on her foot.
"It's just like a story," Meifei was utterly delighted. "The brave general who risked his life for my shoe." Not his life, he corrected her in his mind, just his dignity. But he had never had much of that in the first place. But she had her hands behind her back now and was twisting her body playfully under his gaze. "General Meng, if you weren't in love with your wife and if I weren't in love with His Majesty, would you carry me off and ravish me just like in my stories?"
That made him laugh, a striking contrast to Shang's rigidity. "For seven days and seven nights," he told her with a little wink for emphasis. "Just like the merchant Liu Buwei and that courtesan named Xia." Her brow arched in near startlement. It must have been her favorite. But he just shook his head. "Joyous dancing, my lady," he wished her with a bow before he turned out of her room.
Shang would have been proud of him, Tai-shan thought as he slid into his place at the banquet table just a quarter-hour after leaving Meifei. His friend would have never believed that he could wash and dress so quickly. He looked a mess though, but for once he hardly cared, too tired even for vanity.
"General Meng!" The Emperor greeted him drunkenly. "You look pale. Are you well?" With a sigh, Tai-shan nodded, gladly accepting the wine cup the servant offered him. He planned to have many many of those before the night was done. "Where are Fa Mulan and General Li? My Meifei is ready to dance now."
Tai-shan chuckled despite himself. "I think he's still enjoying Junfei, Your Majesty. As for Fa Mulan, I think perhaps she might have gotten a little jealous." He snickered a bit, recalling Mulan's face when she had caught them in bed.
But all attention was turned on the woman stepping out onto the stage, her short graceful figure twisting and posing its way lightly across the floor, making every effort to display the fine slippers on her feet. After a proud smile, Tai-shan leaned back and watched her critically, wondering if he had looked that good.
~ * ~
Sitting on her bed, Mulan looked around the chamber that was only lit now by a tiny candle beside the vanity, the dim glow of amber light shining faintly through the open door. She sat there wearing her one shoe, folding her arms impatiently, having lost count of how long the men had been gone.
She blinked, then nearly caught her breath, startled to see the shadowy form of a black-cloaked figure standing suddenly in the doorway, sheathing his sword and making his way towards her in the darkness, his cloak flowing smoothly as he moved.
She rose to her feet indignantly. "Not again!"
Laughing softly, the masked intruder let his arms close around her, pulling her against him possessively. She did not struggle when his lips descended upon her own, drawing on them with a teasing gentleness. A rush of heat swept through her from head to foot when she felt his tongue enter her mouth, his gloved hands holding her face while his thumbs stroked along her neck and just behind her ear. Everything about his touch and that slow kiss held a torturously meticulous deliberation.
Her head fell against his chest when they finally drew apart, his heartbeat racing wildly against her chest, but not so wildly as her own. "What? Have you come for my other slipper?" She demanded playfully.
"No, my lady," he laughed again, stroking her cheek with those silken fingers. "Your dress."
That brought her head up in surprise. "My husband might kill you," she cautioned when she was able to speak again, barely hiding a smile.
Tearing off the silk mask with one hand, Shang grinned in the darkness.
"Oh really?" And with that smothered Mulan's words with another kiss.
~ The End ~
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