Chapter 6 : Meetings in Xiían
Mulan kept her head low. She couldnít risk being recognised by anyone, especially by anyone she knew personally. Almost by a sixth-sense she felt herself being watched every step she took through the square. Barely anyone rode horse-back through the square so she had to leave Khan behind at a public stable. She wore a cloak that covered her from head to ankles, the hood pulled down low over her head.
The Imperial Palace stood before her, its size overwhelming. The last time she was here during Chap Goh Mei it was surrounded with celebration, she hadnít actually looked at the amazing structure itself. The Emperor had told her she was always welcome in the Imperial Palace, but now she felt herself to be the enemy of the Palace.
She took a deep breath. Mulan put her right hand into the pocket inside her cloak, feeling the medallion she had kept there. There were guards nearly everywhere around the Palace, and they would easily strike down anyone who tried to enter without permission. Just showing the medallion would let down the guard of those men.
What could she do? Mulan knew she couldnít kill the Emperor, even if it was for her father. But her father was everything to her. She couldnít let him die, either. Shan-Yu could be anywhere, watching and waiting. Mulan had to do something, and it had to be soon.
Mulan was shivering underneath the cloak. She was scared. She just couldnít see the Emperor, not yet. Gingerly she made herself walk to a nearby stall and pretended to study the pottery they were selling there.
"And stay out!" Mulan heard someone yell over the din. She heard a door slam, and from the corner of her eye saw it was a restaurant. Someone had just been kicked out from a restaurant, most probably because he couldnít pay.
"Donít have to be so touchy," the person who was kicked out muttered. Mulan froze. She recognised that voice. It couldnít possibly belong to anyone else. Just to make sure she turned ever so slightly to look at the person. Her fear was confirmed. The person turned toward her, as if sensing she was looking at him.
Mulan immediately turned around and lowered her head. Pulling the cloak tighter around herself, she made her way through the people, wanting to make as much distance between herself and that person.
Suddenly a hand rested on her shoulder.
Mulan jumped and swirled around, subconsciously lifting her hands to a fighting position. She groaned when she saw it was the exact same person she was trying to get away from. He grinned and also lifted his hands to a fighting position.
"Wanna take me, Mulan?" he asked jokingly.
"Hello, Ling," Mulan sighed. Her cover had been blown.
"Whatís with the cape? Latest fashion?" Ling asked.
Despite her worries, Mulan smiled. The tall, scrawny man was comical as he grinned down on her like a sadist. "IímÖ uhÖ undercover."
Ling mouthed an Ďoí. "Doing what? Oh, sorry. Itís all secret-secret stuff, isnít it?"
Mulan nodded wearily and tried to get away from him.
"Where you going?" Ling asked. "Donít I even get a few minutes to talk with an old friend? Itís been lonely here without the gang, you know."
"Iím sure," Mulan said.
Ling became concerned. "Whatís wrong, Mulan?"
"Nothing," Mulan said quickly. "I just have some business to do. Maybe we can have tea later, how about that?" Ling nodded, but he was not convinced. "Okay. Iíll see you later." Then Mulan scurried off, glad to get away from all the questions. She walked across the square as far as she could from Ling, not even turning to the Imperial Palace. She couldnít let Ling see her enter the Palace. More questions were sure to come up if he saw her.
Ling watched as Mulan disappeared into the crowd. He waited until he could no longer keep track of her tiny stature among the bustling crowd, then he turned around and walked off. Mulan was okay, he thought, but strange at times.
Walking coolly across the pavement, Ling casually took an apple from a nearby cart and bit into it. The owner was too busy negotiating with a customer to even notice. Ling grinned to himself. He hadnít had a steady job since he came to Xiían. His hopes to become rich and famous were going nowhere even though he was one of the heroes who saved the Emperor. The Emperor himself had said he would gladly help anyone of them, but Ling wasnít the kind to ask for help.
Suddenly a tall shadow fell on him. Ling gulped, and quickly hid the apple behind his back. He didnít want to get into trouble with the authorities again that week.
"Uh, IÖ I was gonnaÖ" Ling stammered, and looked up.
"You were going to what?" Shang asked, eyebrows raised.
"Oh, oh, oh, itís you," Ling sighed, patting himself on the chest. Relaxed again, he bit the apple and chewed. "You here with Mulan, eh? Kinda figured that out."
"Mulan?" Shang barked. "Where is she?"
"Oh, I get it," Ling said with a grin. "You two are playing hide-and-seek, arenít you? So thatís what she was up to with the cloak and all."
Shang frowned, really confused. "Just what are you talking about, Ling?"
Ling paused in mid-bite. He bit, chewed, then swallowed. "Mulan. She was there a moment ago, looking really distressed, wearing a huge cloak. Wouldnít talk to me. I thought something was wrong." He paused. "Whatís wrong?"
"Iím not sure myself," Shang told Ling. "But we have to find Mulan. Come on."
Shang ran off to where Ling had pointed, Ling right behind him, still eating the apple. Once he bit off the last of the edible part, he tossed the apple back to the same stall he had taken it from, and it landed neatly in the ownerís apron. Grinning, Ling waved at the owner, then ran off.
"Weíre here," Mei Yin announced at the gateway of Xiían. "Told you my horse was fast."
"He sure is," Mushu nodded. "Címon, Cric-kee. Weíre gonna find Mulan." The two started to climb out of the pouch on Mei Yinís saddle but Mei Yin pushed them back into the pouch. "Hey, watch it, sister!" Mushu protested.
"You canít be seen crawling about Xiían like that," Mei Yin whispered to the dragon, softly enough so that no one else could hear her. "Nobody wants lizards and crickets running around in the market. Theyíll whack you flat before you can even think."
Mushu made a face. "For one thing, Iím not lizard. I thought I made that clear to you. And secondly, we can make it quite fine without being found, thank you for asking."
"How are you going to find her in that?" Mei Yin asked, pointing to the enormous crowds in the open areas of Xiían.
Mushu tapped his nose gently. "Iím a Fa family Guardian. I can smell out a Fa in a crowd as big as that without any problem. Satisfied? Now can we go?"
Mei Yin looked at Mushu, then at the crowd. Without warning she slammed the pouch shut and dismounted her horse. She took the pouch and clipped it to her belt, placing a firm hand on it to keep the struggling creatures inside. Then Mei Yin brought her horse, Lee, to the nearest public stable and brought him in. She paid the owner and then tied Lee to an empty rail.
Finally she released Mushu and Cric-kee. The irritated cricket leapt up onto her shoulder and began screaming in its little voice.
"Yeah, you had no right to do that!" Mushu agreed.
"Sorry, but I couldnít let anyone see you," Mei Yin whispered. She looked around. There was no one in the stables besides the horses.
"Is that you?" Mushu asked someone nearby. Mei Yin turned, and saw that Mushu was talking to a horse that was tied just nearby. Mushu walked across the rail to the black stallion who neighed. "It is you! Hey, look! Itís Mulanís cow!"
Khan grunted at Mushu, threatening to bite him. Mushu waved his claws. "Watch it, Bessy. Iím a bona-fide Guardian now, donít mess with me!" Khan seemed to neigh-laugh, and it was a strange sight indeed.
"Shouldnít we get going now?" Mei Yin asked.
Cric-kee chirped in agreement. Mushu listened to Cric-kee and then nodded. "Yes, it would be easier if we split up. Iíll take the eastern side and you can take the western side."
"Me? How about me?" Mei Yin asked.
Mushu waved a finger at Mei Yin. "You can go home." Then Mushu gestured to Cric-kee. "You know how to find me." The dragon jumped out the window and was gone before Mei Yin could protest. Cric-kee was about to follow suit but Mei Yin caught the cricket in her hands before it could jump.
"Youíre coming with me," she said, and stuffed the wriggling cricket into her pouch. "Donít move so much. People around here hate crickets, especially when theyíre loose in their fruit. Iím doing you a favour." Cric-kee sighed and stopped wriggling. Mei Yin left a small opening in front of the pouch so that Cric-kee could look out and chirp if he saw anything. Mei Yin then left the stables and moved to the western side of the market in search of Mulan.
Mei Yin smiled politely to whoever she could and pretended to be just another girl shopping for goods. She had never noticed how hard it was to find someone in the square of the Imperial City. She had thought it easy to spot Mulan for she had relatively short hair which she never tied up and wasnít donned up like every other young woman in China, but so far she had come up with nothing.
Cric-kee was grumbling to himself inside Mei Yinís pouch. She walked so slowly it was so annoying since they were in a hurry to find Mulan. Cric-kee sighed, but kept his little eyes peering through the small opening out into the streets. He couldnít even see anybodyís faces, only from the belt downwards.
Then Cric-kee had enough of staying in the small area and carefully pulled open the pouch cover, making sure Mei Yin didnít notice. Once he had a big enough opening, Cric-kee jumped out and into the street. He didnít care what Mei Yin said, he sure could cope out in the open.
The little cricket jumped from box to barrel to cart, looking for Mulan. He couldnít see any trace of her at all. Mei Yin was soon out of his sight, but Cric-kee didnít care. He knew how to find Mushu when he got tired.
Finally Cric-kee jumped up onto the rooftops and across a few buildings, hoping the overview would help him in his search. Then he saw something move on the roof. Cric-kee blinked, wondering whether the sun was playing tricks on her eyes. Then he saw it again. Jumping carefully, Cric-kee made his way across a few rooftops. He saw somebody hiding between the cracks of an alley near the roof.
"Nothing," the person said. Cric-kee chirped in surprise. He could see from the build and appearance of the person that he was a Hun. The same dark skin, broad build and funny eyes. Cric-kee looked down into the alley, and saw that there was another Hun there.
The Hun saw Cric-kee, and attempted to squash him, but the cricket jumped out of the way. "Annoying bug," the Hun muttered, then turned his attention back to the streets. From his hidden position within the shadows and between the roofs, he would not be detected, even from the balconies of the Imperial Palace, and yet he had a good view of both the western square and the steps of the Imperial Palace.
"She had better hurry up," the Hun down in the alley whispered.
The Hun on the roof nodded. "No one has entered nor left the Imperial Palace. She might have entered through a side doorway."
"Perhaps," the other Hun said. "We will wait. I wonder how long Shan-Yu will."
Cric-kee squealed in alarm and jumped away. He scrambled down the walls of the building into the streets. He jumped across the square and across carts, much to the annoyance of the sellers who were waving frantically to get that insect off their merchandise.
"Cricket!" a fruit-seller shouted. "There must be more!"
"Iíll get it," one man said, picked up a small board he used as a swatter. Cric-kee shrieked and jumped away as fast as he could.
"Sorry!" came a feminine voice, and a pair of gentle arms scooped up Cric-kee from one of the stalls and into her pouch. Mei Yin bowed her apologies. "Iím sorry about that. It wonít do any harm, in fact it brings luck."
The man grunted and turned away.
Mei Yin sighed and shut the pouch firmly around Cric-kee who was chirping furiously, trying to warn Mei Yin about what he saw and heard. Mei Yin patted a finger on the pouch gently, just enough to warn the cricket that she was in no mood for games. Cric-kee grumbled and sat down at the bottom of the pouch. There was nothing he could do until he could speak to Mushu.