It was midday when Sayong entered the lively courtyard of the trading group’s quarters. He carefully made his way through the bustling crowd of workers carrying wrapped bundles into a storehouse under the sharp-eyed supervision and frequent exhortations of Manager Gyepil. The small green bird that perched on his shoulder, almost hidden by his long black hair, stirred uneasily at the commotion. Sayong raised a hand and stroked the bird in reassurance.
“Careful with that box! It has pottery brought all the way from Han, and if you break it--” Manager Gyepil gestured emphatically as Sayong moved closer to him. The sudden movement startled the bird, which flew from Sayong’s shoulder. After circling the workers’ heads in flapping confusion, the bird alighted on the ground a short distance away.
“Please stay still for one moment,” Sayong said earnestly. Moving quickly but with smooth motions toward the bird, Sayong whistled softly, two low notes and a higher one. The small parrot’s head swivelled frantically, trying to find the source of the call. Sayong whistled again. This time the bird raised his head and called back. Two low notes and a higher one. A moment later, the bird fluttered onto his outstretched hand.
Manager Gyepil bustled to his side. “I still don’t know how you do that,” he fretted as Sayong stroked the bird gently. “One of these days, you’ll lose that bird.” The older man gestured for emphasis. “It’ll fly away and it won’t come back!”
Sayong smiled. “The Lord once bet me two pieces of red jade that this bird wouldn’t return,” he said softly.
The manager waited a moment for him to continue and then prompted him, “Well? What happened?”
“In the end, he had to pay up.” Sayong could feel the bird’s heartbeat, so much faster than a human’s, against his cupped fingers.
The manager chuckled, his eyes crinkling. “I haven’t often won a bet with our Lord,” he confessed. “That bird may be good for something after all.” He gave Sayong a stern look. “But you should at least clip its wings, Sayong. It’s too risky to leave it like that.”
“That would be cruel,” Sayong said, becoming grave at the thought. “I am afraid he would break his heart wanting to fly.”
“But how do you know it won’t fly away? I tell you, it’s too risky!”
Manager Gyepil was Sayong’s elder and superior, and contradicting him would be impolite. “I will keep that in mind,” he answered instead with a slight bow.
Mollified, the manager turned his attention back toward his workers. Sayong glanced around the courtyard. He could stay here for now, but as the only man in the courtyard not performing an assigned task, he had only a few minutes before his presence became conspicuous.
He walked over to stand beside the worker who was noting down the items as they were brought into the storeroom. Sayong wore a thoughtful expression as he looked over the list, but in truth his attention was fixed on the courtyard entrance. It was not entirely coincidence that brought him outside at this hour.
Soon enough his care was rewarded, as the burly form of Prince Jumong’s bodyguard Hyeopbo strode through the entrance. His strong face had an intent expression. The Prince must have him on some mission, then. Sayong tilted his head and waited to see what Hyeopbo would do.
He knew when the other man noticed him, because Hyeopbo stopped short. Sayong offered him a smile, but Hyeopbo cleared his throat and looked away. Sayong’s smile faded. It was his duty to observe everything and analyze it clearly. In service to his Lord, he had learned to see beneath the surface, even to the unacknowledged feelings in people’s hearts. Only in the case of Hyeopbo did he doubt himself, questioning and re-questioning his own conclusions.
He sighed as Hyeopbo disappeared into Prince Jumong’s quarters. With the distraction gone, Sayong returned his attention to the list of goods long enough to take note of whatever seemed interesting. He bowed courteously to the manager and left the courtyard.
In his quarters, Sayong seated himself at the table and picked up one of the documents awaiting his attention. The bird hopped closer to look over his work, and Sayong gently shooed him away. He knew from experience that the bird’s powerful beak could damage even a bamboo scroll, though from curiosity rather than malice. For a short time, he was able to lose himself in the spy’s report from Haengin, considering how each detail might affect matters of trade and his Lord’s widespread and subtle dealings between nations. And if from time to time Sayong’s thoughts wandered in the direction of a certain shaggy-headed guard, only the bird was there to see his mind wander.
Some time later, a familiar gruff voice sounded from outside the door. “Are you there? It’s Hyeopbo.”
Sayong smiled with delight, then quickly suppressed the smile in favor of a neutral, mildly curious expression. It wouldn’t do for Hyeopbo to realize just how glad Sayong was to see him. “Yes, come in.”
Sayong rose and bowed as Hyeopbo entered the room. “What brings you here?”
Hyeopbo looked awkward. He cleared his throat and presented a small bundle of scrolls. “These are the scrolls on iron working that you lent to Prince Jumong. He’s done reading them, so he wanted me to return them. Thank you.”
It was a foolish excuse. Sayong allowed himself to hope that Hyeopbo’s true reason for coming here was a desire for his company. Sayong felt warmth rise to his cheeks. He accepted the scrolls with a slight bow and put them on the table. Hyeopbo ducked his head.
From the tilt of his head, the parrot was contemplating another assault on the bamboo scrolls. Sayong deftly scooped him up and gently scratched the bird’s head with a fingernail. The bird half closed his eyes contentedly and raised the feathers on his head.
“Ah, where does the bird come from?” Hyeopbo asked suddenly. “I haven’t seen one like that before.”
“He comes from a land far to the south and east of Han.” An unusual creature indeed, the bird was shorter from beak to tail than Sayong’s hand, but sturdily built; the toes of his feet were divided two and two, rather than three and one like most birds; and his feathers were shaded in greens and blues that looked as if they were painted on. “I bought him from a trader who had made a voyage by sea. I have not seen another of his kind.”
“He doesn’t get lonely?” Hyeopbo asked in concern.
“I do not believe so,” Sayong replied softly. “He has someone to take care of him.”
Leaning over the table, Hyeopbo reached out a thick finger toward the bird. His breath gusted past Sayong’s ear, and it took Sayong a moment to remember that the bird, rather than himself, was the focus of Hyeopbo’s attention. If he did not speak, Hyeopbo would surely notice his distraction. “Be careful,” he said earnestly. “This bird is very brave. He may bite if he thinks you are a threat.”
Hyeopbo looked from the bird to Sayong’s face, unsure if he was joking. He chuckled and extended his finger. Did Hyeopbo think that the bird was helpless, merely because he was small and beautiful? The small parrot drew back and flattened his feathers close to his body, a sign of fright.
Of course, Hyeopbo was not familiar with the bird’s moods. As Hyeopbo persisted, the bird fluffed up all his feathers to make his diminutive form appear larger and made a soft hissing noise. “Be careful,” Sayong began. “He is --” He did not have time to finish before the bird’s head darted out with a shrill cry and his small curved beak fastened firmly in Hyeopbo’s finger.
Hyeopbo gave a startled exclamation and instinctively shook his hand. Dislodged, the bird flew back to his perch, where he chittered a shrill war cry at the intruder.
Sayong quickly rose to his feet. “Parrot,” he chided, “That was very ill-mannered.” The bird fluffed up his feathers and chirped, not the least apologetic.
“Please forgive me.” Sayong bowed to Hyeopbo. “I should have trained him better.”
Hyeopbo’s surprised expression was almost comical. He eyed the bird warily and examined his injured digit. “It’s bleeding!” he said in disbelief.
“What? Let me see.” Sayong reached for Hyeopbo’s hand with concern.
“No, it’s nothing--”
Hyeopbo broke off as Sayong’s hand captured his fingers. Sayong’s breath caught. Hyeopbo’s fingers were rough, calloused from riding and fighting and hard labor. Sayong had seen Hyeopbo swing an axe in battle with deadly skill. In his strong hands, the axe could bite through armor to the flesh beneath. And yet, that very strength made Sayong feel utterly safe in Hyeopbo ‘s presence. He transferred his gaze to Hyeopbo ‘s face.
Hyeopbo ‘s eyes were wide and intent, fixed on Sayong. He barely moved, save for the rise and fall of his broad chest beneath his tunic. Sayong found himself smiling, delighted that Hyeopbo did not try to move away. How different from earlier days on the road to Gosan. If his feelings were not fully returned, he thought they would be in time.
He released Hyeopbo’s hand at last and went to find clean water and a cloth. Though his back was turned to the other man, Sayong’s hearing was alert for any change. He heard Hyeopbo sigh and shift his weight. Sayong smiled to himself.
Returning to Hyeopbo’s side, Sayong cleaned the bite efficiently, not allowing his hands to linger. He pressed a clean cloth to the injury. “Hold that here until it stops bleeding.”
“All right.” Hyeopbo conscientiously followed his instructions. Sayong felt him start a little as their fingers touched.
Sayong looked down at the cloth he had used to clean the bite. It was smeared with a few drops of Hyeopbo’s blood. A nip from a bird’s beak was not dangerous, but what if Hyeopbo were someday carried back here, his body ripped open by a sword? The thought made Sayong shudder. “When you go into battle,” he said with soft concern, “don’t discount an opponent because he looks harmless. Like the bird, he may still be able to strike.”
Hyeopbo listened to him intently. “Thank you,” he rumbled. “I will keep that in mind.” Their eyes met for a moment before Hyeopbo looked away. “I should go back to my duties. I’m sorry I scared your pet.”
Sayong murmured a polite negation. They exchanged bows, and Hyeopbo strode out the door. Sayong looked after him for a long moment. The future was uncertain, always. For now, he would cherish each of these moments, store them in his heart like rich tiger furs and pieces of red jade.
He sighed softly and returned to his neglected bamboo scrolls.