FICTION | Honor

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

31//10/2020

Tales grow in the telling, they say, and so they do, and yours most of all, a tale that has grown to become legend. A thousand years from now, two thousand, people will tell your story, thinking that they know you, that they know the truth.

 

It doesn’t matter. I know what really happened; I alone know the full story, and now it seems I’ll take it to my grave.

 

From the moment I saw you, I knew you were different, and, whilst I’m far from the only one in our battalion to have noticed this, I like to think that I was the first. Whilst the other conscripts – callow youths and scarcely-bearded boys drawn from various parts of China – swaggered and blustered about defending the motherland, bragged that they’d be the man to kill Shan Yu, you kept your counsel, supremely confident. Whilst some others trembled at the thought of facing their first Hun berserker in battle or pissed themselves before Commander Tung and the drill instructors, your hands were always steady, and you seemed to fear neither the enemy nor the officers. Whilst the rest of us raw recruits were pretending to be more than we were – peasants pretending to be warriors, boys pretending to be men – you were the only one who seemed to be pretending to be less than he was – like a tiger pretending to be human.

 

I recall our training: how effortless it was for you, how you sprang up the hills like a deer whilst the rest of us wheezed and panted and cursed, how you knocked all your opponents to the ground the first day of training, and the drill instructor too, how you put an arrow into the eye of a dummy at 350 yards, and even then it seemed like you weren’t trying, that this was the least of your powers, that you were, in fact, holding back.

 

Oh, and I knew you were a woman, too – and this I was the first, indeed, the only one to notice. There were many dead giveaways – and in retrospect I marvel at how blind everyone else was not to notice – the delicacy of your features, the slenderness of your figure, the strange tension I felt when we were close together. And, of course, there was your peculiar habit of bathing alone, late at night when you thought everyone else was asleep.

 

When I stole after you that night and saw the moonlight slivering the surface of the lake and your body, saw the water running in rivulets down your small breasts, I was surprised. And yet, at the same time, I wasn’t, as if I had always half-expected to see that, as if I had always known.

 

You noticed me then, and, surprisingly, you didn’t seem afraid, but the look in your eyes was a question: What would I do now? Would I rat you out? Would I keep your secret?

 

My only answer was to keep staring at you.

 

And that, I suppose, is how we came to be lovers.

 

When we made love inside your tent, I thought then that I saw you as you really were – that in your breathless sighs and stifled moans I came to know your heart. After, you told me why you did what you did, how you impersonated a son and assumed the mantle of the man of your household to spare your old and crippled father (who had already fought bravely for his country before) from the war. You told me of the premium your family placed on honor, and how you risked it all to keep him safe. You told me your name – not the fake “Jun” you gave to everyone else – but your true name. Mulan, I would breathe to myself whilst you slept, lily magnolia, and I was the only one there who knew.

You told me how you impersonated a son and assumed the mantle of the man of your household to spare your old and crippled father from the war.

Soon, all our friends noticed our relationship, though, of course, they assumed we were gay, or at least bi. Not that anyone minded – it wasn’t uncommon for some soldiers in His Majesty’s imperial army to be buggering each other.

 

“Practicing your swordplay with Hua Jun again, huh?” Ling, the joker, would tease when he caught me sneaking back from your tent in the middle of the night. “Who won this time?”

 

I didn’t care what other people thought. It was our secret: yours and mine.

 

But there were some secrets you didn’t share with me. Like how you were so good at fighting, how you moved so preternaturally fast. And there was something else in you too, something dark and simmering and barely-controlled. Once, you broke a man’s hand when he cheated at dice; another time, you beat a soldier half to death when he insulted your family before Ling, Yao, and I pulled you off him. Did this disturb me? Of course it did. But whatever secrets you had, I decided you’d tell me when you were ready, and whatever darkness was in your soul, we would overcome it. We shared a love, and a secret, and I was content.

***

Then came the end of our training and our 5th Battalion was ordered to reinforce a village in the north against the Hun invaders. “Finally!” cried Yao, the braggart, when he heard the news. “I’m sick of beating you losers; let’s go kill some Huns!”

 

We arrived there too late. The Huns had hit the village much sooner than we’d anticipated. All that was left of it was charred timbers and blackened masonry, and, beside it, were the remains of the Chinese troops defending it, the ground strewn with their bodies, their heads pilled in a large mound.

 

Commander Tung ordered us to search for survivors, and, when none were found, to bury the bodies. Many recruits, as green as spring grass, retched at the sight, others wept. Not you, though. I saw you walk through the ruins of the village, your mouth a grim line. But something stirred in you that day. You wandered through the fields of corpses, children dismembered or cloven near in two, butchered women with most of their clothes missing, and I saw your knuckles whiten on the hilt of your sword. When I saw your eyes, they seethed with cold fire.

When I saw your eyes, they seethed with cold fire.

We buried the bodies and camped nearby, whilst, in the distance, the Hun force that had done this camped too – we could see the glow of their cookfires atop a plateau.

 

Weary and grief-stricken, I sought you out that night. Yet when I came upon your tent I found it empty, and you nowhere to be seen, and somewhere in the dark I heard the beat of leathery wings. I crawled into your tent and waited for you until exhaustion took me and I fell asleep.

 

When you returned it was almost dawn, and I gasped as you stepped through the tent-flap, for you were covered with blood. Blood stained your white cheeks and covered your slender hands, and you stank of it, as if you had worked the whole night in an abattoir. You stripped off your stained clothes and cleaned yourself with a wet towel, and when I asked where you’d been or what you’d been doing, you just shook your head, though your lips formed a grim smile.

 

When the sun rose, scouts we’d sent to spy on the enemy camp returned with confusing reports. When we went to investigate, we found the Huns there – some 70 men – dead. Hun corpses littered the camp: some looked like they’d been slashed with swords, others like they’d been ripped apart by wild beasts. One Hun stared out of lifeless eyes, his body bisected at the waist; another grinned with half a face; another had his throat torn out. Who – or what – had done this? We found one survivor, his guts spilling from his belly like slippery ropes, and he gibbered to us about witches and demons before we put him out of his misery and cut his throat. The men muttered to each other nervously, and some clasped their amulets or prayer beads. I tried to catch your eye, but you didn’t look back.

Hun corpses littered the camp: some looked like they’d been slashed with swords, others like they’d been ripped apart by wild beasts.

With nothing left to protect, we marched to join the general and the 4th Battalion at the Mountain Steppe Garrison. But Commander Tung proved himself incompetent and marched us straight into a trap.

 

Their cavalry was the first thing we saw. Huns ride better than we ever will, and their horsemen descended on us from atop a ridge as we marched, mowing us down like wheat. When we regrouped and formed ranks of spears and shields, they feathered us with arrows. And then their infantry was upon us, a force twice our size, and they surrounded us and pressed us from all sides. Commander Tung himself was slain – an arrow finding his throat as he yelled at us to hold the line – then our ranks broke, and we knew it was all over.

 

It was then, ringed in foes and facing certain death, that you finally stopped holding back.

 

I was by your side when it happened. There was a shift in your stance, and a shift in the air, as if fate itself was shifting in our favor, and then, you attacked.

 

Your spear lanced out and skewered a Hun’s heart, another thrust went in between an enemy’s shoulder blades, a third drove into a man’s face with such force that the tip came out the back of his head. You anchored the man’s corpse with your foot and pulled your spear free, then you twisted and stepped forward and the spear leapt from your hand to bury itself in the torso of an approaching horseman, knocking him from his saddle.

 

And then your sword was out, shining in the sun. Your blade slid past an enemy’s guard and sheared off the top of his head, it smote through a Hun’s helmet and his skull, it clove through another’s clavicle. A backhand parry sent a foe’s forearm flying as he tried to strike you, and you finished him off with a thrust to the throat. You moved so fast that your sword arm became a blur, and it seemed to me that your blade was everywhere, that a dozen blades flew at your enemies from a dozen directions, that a dozen blades leapt to shield you from every attack. You seemed to dance as you fought, flowing with a grace no man could ever match. Your every movement was elegant, exquisite, flawless: watching you kill was like watching a master calligrapher – one who only used red. You butchered men in droves and I was horrified that you could make it beautiful.

Watching you kill was like watching a master calligrapher – one who only used red.

And then a Hun berserker swung his sword at you as you were trying to extricate yours from the skull of his fallen comrade, and you reached out your left hand to intercept it. The berserker stared in shock to see his blade caught by a hand that was suddenly a claw, hard as metal, each finger ending in a sharp, steely point. You tore out his throat with your other claw-hand as he gaped. You dodged a blow from another Hun and your answering swipe laid open his face. You stepped inside the guard of a man who was rushing at you and drove your fingers up from under his chin and into his brain. You snatched his sword as it tumbled from his nerveless fingers and your sword-dance began anew. You fought like an avatar of vengeance, like a bladed tornado, and none could withstand you. Men stood their ground, and died, turned to flee, and died, surrendered to you, and died. Possessed by bloodlust, you gave no quarter. Your body was drenched in blood, and when I saw your face it was twisted in a savage snarl.

 

Emboldened by you, we charged the enemy, pushing them back. In the face of this onslaught, the Hun army broke into a rout. Those on foot were cut down by us as they tried to escape, whilst those who were mounted rode away as fast as their horses could take them, as if all the demons of hell were after them. We cheered as the Huns fled like heartless hinds, and then, in the midst of this great victory, in the midst of all this jubilation, you collapsed.

 

Superhumanly fast you were, but not, it appeared, invulnerable. You were wounded in half a dozen places, including the left side of your chest. We laid you on your back and shouted for a medic.

 

What else could I do? I let them strip off your armor and your clothes, and a gasp went up when people realized what you were. A woman! Hua Jun’s a woman! The word spread through the ranks like wildfire, and I thought my own heart had been pierced as the doctor examined the deep wound in your chest, shook his head, and said there was nothing he could do. He left us then, to tend to the other wounded, and the four of us – me, Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po, the gentle giant – erected a tent around where you lay, and sat by your side and wept.

 

And yet, even as we wept, your breathing seemed to stabilize and color seemed to return to your cheeks. I pulled the sheet down from your chest, and it seemed to me that your wound was growing smaller. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, but as I watched I could almost see your flesh healing, your sinews knitting together again. The four of us sat there in wonder, not daring to speak, and after some time, you opened your eyes.

 

You rose, and, without a word, strode from the tent, wrapped only in the sheet, and a great cry went up when the rest of the battalion saw you emerge, you who, just a while ago, seemed at death’s door. We followed you out and watched, astonished, as you pulled aside the sheet to bare your naked breast where your flesh had healed without leaving so much as a scar. As one, we fell to our knees in reverence and laid our steel at your feet.

We fell to our knees in reverence and laid our steel at your feet.

From that day on, you were our leader – even if Commander Tung and his lieutenant hadn’t been killed in the battle, who else would we follow? Woman or not, you were the best of us, our champion, our savior, the one who rose from the dead.

 

You lived now openly as a woman, wearing your hair long, and I- well, I suppose I was now openly something like your consort, sharing the commander’s tent with you at night. Yet every time I asked you about what you were, how you did the things you did, you refused to answer. And every time I tried to make love to you as I used to, I thought of the beat of leathery wings, your hands transformed into slashing claws, your face snarling through the blood, and my manhood wilted and I could do no more.

 

When we reached the Mountain Steppe Garrison, we found only a blackened shell, the general and the 4th Battalion that guarded it slaughtered to a man, whilst Shan Yu and his army feasted outside its ruins.

 

You ordered us to attack them, and so we did – me commanding the right flank and Yao the left, whilst you led the vanguard and cleaved your red path to Shan Yu. You met the Hun warlord amidst the swirling chaos of battle, and he laughed loudly and scornfully to see a woman challenging him. He came at you, bigger and stronger and faster than any Hun berserker, brandishing his great curved sword, his amber eyes glittering with mirth. You sliced off his arm, lopped off his head, and mounted it atop a spear. When they saw what had become of their leader, the Huns turned tail and ran, and we slew them as they fled, laughing and drunk on glory.

***

But that’s not all that happened that day, was it?

 

When we went through the Hun camp, we didn’t just find animal pelts, rank, maggoty cheeses, and kumis, the fermented mare’s milk they loved so much.

 

We also found cages.

 

Inside those cages were women, young women seized from the parts of China the Huns had ravaged: sex slaves for the horde, some of them visibly pregnant.

 

When they saw us approach, the women cried with joy, and, when we broke open their cages, they embraced us and blessed us as liberators. We should throw a feast that night, Ling suggested, for ourselves and for these long-suffering captives too, for surely we all deserved it.

 

Just then a hush fell, and there you stood, your armor red with blood and your eyes like cold fire.

 

When you gave the order, we couldn’t believe our ears.

 

“These are Chinese women!” I protested. “Our people!”

 

You wouldn’t listen. These were Hun whores, you said. They had been dishonored by the enemy, and some of them were carrying further dishonor in their bellies, living symbols of the Hun’s rape of our country. They had no right to life.

 

The women’s relief turned to terror, and they began to wail and whimper in fear. We argued and pleaded, but to no avail. None of us would carry out your order, so you did it yourself. You were nothing if not hands-on. You drew your sword and fed their blood to the hungry earth.

***

I slept in my own tent that night, and every night after. If you missed my absence, you were too proud to show it.

 

You dispatched Shan Yu’s head and his sword to the imperial city. When he received them, the emperor was pleased. Not only did he let you retain command of the 5th Battalion, he reconstituted the 4th and placed it under your command, too.

 

We smashed every Hun army we came across, and with every victory your fame and the men’s devotion to you grew. Mulan! they now roared as they charged into battle, your name transformed into a vulgar war cry, giving them courage and striking fear into the hearts of our enemies. Muulaaan!

We smashed every Hun army we came across, and with every victory your fame and the men’s devotion to you grew.

Finally, we drove the Huns out of all our lands, save our northern-most province. Just before we could take the fight to them there, you received a summons to court from the emperor.

 

We arrived at the imperial city and were feted as heroes at court with such pomp and splendor as I had never seen in my life.

 

“Hua Mulan,” the emperor said, rather theatrically, “I’ve heard a great deal about you. You stole your father’s armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, and-” and now his features relaxed into a kindly smile, “you have saved us all.”

 

The emperor was very pleased with your performance. He admired your zeal for destroying the Hun invaders and scouring them from our land. Now, though, we had regained most of our territory and our people were safe. The country was weary of war, and the emperor had concluded a treaty with the new Hun leader, allowing him to keep the northern-most province in exchange for peace, and a promise never to invade China again. There was no need to press into Hun-occupied territory; we needed only to guard what we had. This was to be your new task, and, in recognition for your services, His Majesty would assign the 6th Battalion to your command, too, would raise you to the rank of general, would name you a royal councilor. He piled honor upon honor on you. Yet I saw your face then, and I knew you were not happy.

 

We returned to guard the north, as you were ordered, and yet, you fumed. How could the emperor surrender any of our land – and our people there – to the Huns? How could he let them keep what they stole from us? There was no honor in that! And what was the word of a Hun worth, anyway? What was to stop them from invading again when they sensed weakness? You voiced your displeasure privately; and then you began to agitate openly among the troops, criticizing the emperor as weak and deluded, surrounded by incompetent and deceitful advisers.

 

Eventually, word of this reached the emperor’s ears, and a messenger arrived. You were ordered to surrender your command and present yourself to His Majesty.

 

For the first time in your life, you refused an order. You knew what awaited you if you obeyed: disgrace and dissolution. And with you gone, you reasoned, the Huns would be emboldened, might even invade again.

 

In retaliation for your refusal, you were branded a traitor to the realm. And, in an act of breathtaking cruelty and stupidity, urged by his despicable chancellor, Chi-Fu, the emperor sentenced your entire family – to nine degrees of relations – to death.

 

Your uncle was killed as he tried to defend his house from imperial troops. Your cousins were decapitated. Your mother and sister were strangled to death. And your father – the very person you went to war to protect – bore the brunt of the blame for raising such a treacherous daughter and for failing to prevent you from taking his place. He was condemned to death by slow slicing, his body carved into many pieces and left for carrion.

***

When you heard the news, you were inconsolable. You stalked into the woods, your face a mask of grief, eschewing the comfort of comrades and friends, eschewing even me who loved you best, who still loved you, even now. And from the depths of the forest came an unearthly shriek that froze our blood and scattered the birds from the trees.

 

When you emerged some time later, you were composed, your anger cold and deadly. Your voice was steady as you laid out your plan. This evil was the fault of the emperor’s wicked councilors, like Chi-Fu, who had blinded His Majesty to the truth and poisoned him with their lies. We would march on the imperial city, depose these councilors, and free the emperor from their malign influence.

When you emerged some time later, you were composed, your anger cold and deadly.

Was it difficult to choose between the emperor and you that day? Indeed, it was, even for me, and it must have been even harder for the rest of our men. The emperor was our liege, the Son of Heaven, the closest thing to a god on Earth. But you were our general, our battle goddess, you had saved us from death and where you led we would follow.

 

And surely it wasn’t so bad to go against an emperor’s orders if those orders were actually dictated by recreant councilors who had deceived him, who had instigated something as wicked as the extermination of your entire family? Wasn’t it a good thing that we were marching to free him from them? At least, that’s what we told ourselves.

 

That night, I entered your tent, and when I saw the tears in your eyes, I took you in my arms and held you as I had that night at the lake, as I had before we went to war, as if not a day had passed since then.

 

We left the 6th Battalion to guard the north from the Huns and took the 4th and 5th. We intercepted the 1st Battalion before it could join with the other two and destroyed it, and, after they saw what we did, the commanders of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions switched sides and swore fealty to you.

 

With that, the path to the imperial city was open, and we took it easily and captured the emperor, his family, and all his court, who had been too slow or too stupid to flee.

 

Then, you climbed the steps to the throne and sat down.

***

The morning was bright and cold when you had Chi-Fu and the former emperor brought to the Hua Family mausoleum, an area containing the graves of your family members you carved out of the palace grounds.

 

There, you tore out both their hearts and placed them, steaming, before a headstone bearing your father’s name. You knelt in front the headstone and bowed.

 

That day, I allowed myself to think that this was the end of it, that this was the last of the bloodshed. I hoped that this would finally bring you peace.

 

It was not enough. It would never be enough. At the council meeting the next day, you spoke of retaking the northern-most province, and then taking the war to Hun territory. You spoke of exterminating the Huns completely to avenge the despoliation of our country and ensure they could never threaten us again.

 

Then, you said that your family’s spirits still cried out for vengeance, and honor demanded that you appease them.

 

There was no one else, I told you. You had executed the emperor and all his councilors. There was no one left to kill.

 

But there was, you said, and a chill went through me as your meaning dawned.

 

The former imperial family, who you were still keeping under arrest. The uncles, aunts, siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins. The numerous concubines and their children – even the little children. Just as the former emperor slew your entire family, so too would you slay his. You’d kill them all and pour their blood into the hungry earth as libations to your murdered kin.

You’d kill them all and pour their blood into the hungry earth as libations to your murdered kin.

I felt sick. I told you there was honor in defeating enemies in battle, even in punishing those who had harmed your family or plotted your ruin. But to slaughter their innocent relatives, people who had never done you wrong – there was no honor in that.

 

“Only blood may pay for blood,” you replied, and I looked at your face, so righteous and so terrible, and I realized I no longer loved you. Slowly, ponderously, I rose to my feet and drew my sword.

 

“No,” I said. “It cannot be. I will not let you do this.” Such a stupid, futile gesture. But I had stood by and watched you slaughter innocents once; not this time, not again.

 

You stared at me, emotions flashing across your face: shock, disbelief, betrayal. After a long moment, you motioned to your guards to seize me.

 

Other swords sang from their scabbards, and I turned in surprise to see Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po also standing with their swords in their hands.

 

“If you take him,” Yao said, “you’ll have to take us too.”

 

And so, they took all of us.

***

We kneel all in a row: Ling, Yao, Chien-Po, and I.

 

Snowflakes drift down and land on our cheeks, in our hair, where they melt.

 

And then you stride forward with your sword in hand. You are nothing if not hands-on.

 

You execute Ling, the joker, first, severing his thin neck.

 

You decapitate Yao, the braggart, next, and when his head rolls from his shoulders the expression on his face is as arrogant and defiant as it was in life.

 

You behead Chien-Po, the gentle giant, and his expression seems calm and at peace.

 

Lastly, you come to me, and though you don’t say a word, the question you want to ask is plain on your face.

 

Why? Why did you do this? I trusted you, made you a member of my council, my right-hand man. Why did you throw it all away – throw away your life – to side with people you don’t know, who never cared a whit about you?

 

I look at you with eyes full of pity. “Honor,” I say.

 

You hesitate a moment. Then you nod, and your blade comes whistling down.