Mulan - Before the Sword - Grace Lin

SHE DISLIKED when they transformed into spiders. When she was a spider, her sight dimmed and everything became shapes of smoke. But she saw well enough to follow Daji. Even in the shadows, the white spider seemed to glow. One of Daji’s nine translucent legs brushed against her, and she felt the pain of a slapped face. Daji was irritated they had failed so many times. How many times had they done this? How many years, only to be thwarted?

The white spider tapped a leg on the floor impatiently, and she knew the message behind the flashing eyes. Get the right girl, the eyes said. Daji found the other girl an infuriating nuisance, always in the way and always somehow stopping them with her clomping feet or sudden movements. “Obviously,” Daji had said, “she is not the one we want. That clumsy calf could never save the Emperor. We want the other one.”

So it was the other one they crept toward. The girl that smelled of embroidery threads and woven cloth. The one with clean, half-moon fingernails and smooth hair that glistened almost as much as the poison dripping from their spider fangs. They pushed against the floor and moved out of the shadows. Crawling. Watching. Crawling. Unnoticed, they stole across the floor and up the leg of the table. Then, Daji’s spider legs, like the craggy petals of a white chrysanthemum, disappeared into the folds of the girl’s dress. They were closer than they had ever gotten before. And getting closer.

Then, the white spider leapt from the sleeve onto the girl’s hand—the skin as soft and delicate as a freshly steamed dumpling. The girl gasped, but it was too late. Daji had already stabbed her needle fangs deep into flesh. At last, said the glint in the beady eyes. The girl screamed.

The door flew open. The other girl, the one that smelled of horse and chicken feathers, rushed in. “What happened?” she called out. “Xiu! What’s wrong?”

“The nine-legged spider!” the stricken girl said, grasping her sister’s strong arms. “The spider! It bit me! Oh, Mulan!”

HUA MULAN felt Black Wind’s mane whip her face as she pressed the horse to run faster. The man who sat behind her was tall but did not seem heavy, for Black Wind quickened his stride with ease. Still, Mulan worried. Faster, she thought. We need to go faster.

She urged the horse through a field, a shortcut that only she knew, while the dust Black Wind’s hooves kicked up behind them rose like smoke. They galloped up the slope, the sun-tipped stalks stretching on either side of her as terraced rice paddies and farmlands below came into view.

This would be faster than following the road, she knew. But she also knew that if Ma or any of the villagers saw her, they would shake their heads with annoyance. Mulan always seemed to veer off the road.

But Mulan could not forget the look on Old Auntie Ho’s face. When Auntie Ho had seen Mulan’s sister, her wrinkles had frozen as if carved of wood, and Mulan felt a dread come upon her. Xiu was as pale as the moon and as hot as fire, and she lay motionless with eyes that could no longer open.

“Mulan,” Auntie Ho had said, the worry clear in her voice, “your sister needs more help than I can give. In the Lu ­Family Village, there is a visiting healer. Take your horse and get him. If you go now, you will be back before dark. Go now. Quickly!”

Her parents had sensed the urgency, quickly waving Mulan off. Her mother had not even