Min will rescue the sacred princess.
She knows this, and always has. It is, after all, foretold; she was only a child when she found the medallion, but the nuns knew at once what it meant. It is prophecy—destiny. Min will rescue the sacred princess, and not even the Shadow King himself can prevent it.
She has been told the story since she was a girl. It has been a thousand years, because time cannot defeat the Shadow King; only the sacred princess can do that. That is why she was taken. Tricked, because the Shadow King could not have done it any other way, and stolen, her medallion sliced in half by a fire dog's claws. Dragged away to a black fortress on the border of the Shadow King's lightless land—and if Min is good, and works hard, and does as she is told, she will one day rescue the sacred princess from that place.
Of course, Chun-hwa no longer ends the story that way, now that Min is almost ready. But she still smiles and tells it, when Min asks her to; when they are finished sparring, when the swords have been cleaned and put away, when Min's only remaining duty is to sleep well so they can begin again tomorrow.
And Min still sits and listens, attentive, and thinks about the sacred princess.
The sacred princess will, of course, be dutiful—devoted. Min has learned duty and devotion, and she is no sacred princess; surely the sacred princess will exceed her in these respects by far. The sacred princess will be pious, gracious, without effort—her eyes large and dark and humbly lowered in her moon-round face, though of course a princess such as she is required to lower her eyes for no one. She will be beautiful, too, in the way of sacred things: with a distant and breathless perfection. Loveliness will not be bestowed upon her by silks or paints or lacquered nails, certainly not; it will shine out of her like starlight. Min will bow, will kneel—will, perhaps, feel the sacred princess's perfect hand alight for a moment upon her shoulder, and will want nothing else—
"Yes, Master?" Min says quickly, bowing her head.
Chun-hwa is not fooled, to judge by the smile that creeps low at the corner of her mouth; but she does not chastise Min for her inattention. "You have learned all that I have to teach you," she says instead, quiet. "You have mastered the sword, and the bow, and your own body; you know how to call on the spirits of air and earth and water for their aid; you have studied all the great treasure of knowledge we hold here, and have learned the ways of the Shadow King and his creatures, and the dangers that await you."
"Yes, Master," Min murmurs.
She should not be surprised to hear it. It is prophecy, is it not? It is destiny. She will rescue the sacred princess, and in order for that to happen, her training must first be complete.
So she should not be surprised, she tells herself, and ignores the unsteady pounding of her heart.
"There is only one thing I have left to give you," Chun-hwa says, "and I hope you will accept it, Min."
"Of course, Master." What other answer is possible?
"It is simply this," and Chun-hwa reaches out, catches Min's hands where they are clasped respectfully and wraps her own around them. Chun-hwa is older now than she was when Min was a girl—of course she is, that is stupid; but it's as if all at once Min is noticing the difference, in this moment. Chun-hwa's hands are warm and strong and steady, as they have always been, but—
But wrinkled, too, across the backs. And that was not so, once.
It is not respectful; but Min looks up, and Chun-hwa does not scold her for that either.
"Understand," Chun-hwa murmurs. "To demand satisfaction of the universe, to think that if only your will were done, your vision made real, then all would be well: this is the heart of suffering. The Shadow King hungers for a world to call his own, because all his vast kingdom does not satisfy; but if he had that world, still it would not be enough. Still he would seek after what might be, and all the while his eyes would pass over what is."
She raises her eyebrows, and says nothing more.
Min hesitates. She should not claim to understand, not when—well, this is her purpose, is it not? To perform, in a sense, the will of prophecy; to make real the visions of the ancient sages. To rescue the sacred princess, who will be perfect and pious and beautiful, who will shine with a light even the Shadow King cannot dim.
But Chun-hwa is her master, and is saying this, so it must be important. "I will keep these words in my heart, Master," Min says at last, "and let their wisdom guide me."
Chun-hwa looks at her closely, in the dim light of the lanterns; and in the end she nods, seemingly satisfied. "That is good," she says, and pats the back of Min's hand. "I know you will carry out your duty, Min, with care and with piety and with honor; and if I could have chosen, I could have had no better student."
And surely, surely, Chun-hwa will excuse a smile. "And I no better master," Min murmurs; and Chun-hwa smiles back, and for an instant squeezes Min's hands.
"And now we had better stop complimenting each other and go to sleep," Chun-hwa says. "There is much to be done before you leave tomorrow."
There is much to be done, but Min has always expected that.
She expects, too, to be given the white armor. The nuns had taught her how to make it, metal scales underneath, and the undyed cloth Min had woven with her own hands—light, and bright, so the King's shadows cannot swallow her; so his fire dogs will burn their tongues on her and spit her back out.
The sacred sword is for Min, and the bells—gold and silver—and a flowering branch from the courtyard tree. Much has been cast into darkness by the Shadow King, but the monastery is protected: there are spirit stones at all four corners of the grounds, and at the pillar gate. The grounds are uncorrupted and so is the tree, and the water of the monastery spring; a vial of that is among Min's supplies as well.
All this, Min expects. And she is prepared.
She is prepared to bid Chun-hwa goodbye; she is prepared for the tightness in her throat when she bows, and the number of times she finds herself having to blink. She is prepared for Chun-hwa's last touch to her wrist, for Chun-hwa's last smile. And she is prepared to turn, and walk away, and leave the monastery behind.
The journey, too, proceeds just as Min had expected. She had known she would need to climb the great mountains, to cross the three rivers; she had known there would be shadow-soldiers, dark and faceless, swarming her in the night like billows of smoke. The mountains, the rivers, the forest between—all of it is corrupted, the water clouded with poison, the stones gone slick and black beneath her feet, the trees gnarled and rotting.
But the sacred blade of the monastery cuts through the shadow-soldiers. Min kneels at the banks of the rivers, as she has been taught, and rings the silver bell, plucks a single flower from her blooming branch for an offering; and spirits of water stretch out agreeably into bridges of spray and rainbow. She makes her own four spirit stones, to place around herself as she camps through the mountains, so the blackness seeping over the ground cannot crawl into her eyes or her mouth as she sleeps. The gold bell, and a prayer, and another flower for the air—and the breeze blows in the same direction for all the time she is traveling through the forest, so she cannot lose her way.
She was taught the shape of the Shadow King's black fortress; she is not surprised to reach the sea at last and behold it looming there above the water. "I am ready," she tells it, and she rises to it on the last of the forest wind, the sacred sword in one hand and the sacred medallion—half of it—in the other.
And there are shadows here, too. But they cringe away from her blazing white armor—they hiss and crawl into the corners of the great black corridors like her very presence burns them.
And then, at last, as she nears the center of the fortress, she sees a light.
How could it be otherwise? The sacred princess carries light with her wherever she goes, Min thinks, her heart lifting; she wishes almost that it were her destiny to seek out the Shadow King himself. In this moment, she feels sure she could defeat him. But—
But that is not so. Perhaps this is what Chun-hwa meant, Min thinks. Perhaps this is the moment her words were meant for: to save Min from foolish pride. That is the sacred princess's task; and Min's is to rescue the sacred princess, and that is what is.
The light comes from a little room, muted by a paper door—some dark power keeps it shut, Min is sure, and so she does not reach to slide the pane aside but slices it apart with the sacred sword.
So, in the end, it is the princess herself who is the one thing Min does not expect.
For a moment after the paper falls away, Min thinks nothing at all. And then she thinks, wildly, that she is—she is in the wrong place, somehow. There is more than one paper dungeon in this place; the Shadow King felt her coming, and prepared five hundred of them, and he will watch her search them all trying to find the real sacred princess and will laugh.
Because the girl beyond the paper is—
She is pretty, Min supposes; or would be, perhaps, if four deep curving scars were not carved from her temple to her jaw, twisting the corner of her mouth. In the moment she turns and sees Min, she is almost lovely: her eyes are wide, her face round and startled, and the way she moves, the sweep of her chima, is briefly graceful.
But that is all.
Her clothing is richly made, her hair is sleek—but she is staring at Min uncertainly, even rudely, hands twisted tight in front of her, no transcendent celestial beauty in it at all. The sacred princess would be—perfect, polite; would greet Min with a quiet demure smile and say—
"Who are you?"
"My name is Min," and that is how she had always meant to begin, but oh, she cannot say the rest of it, not to this girl: and I am here to rescue you, Princess, and protect you, as you vanquish evil and defeat the Shadow King—
She chokes on it, falls silent; and the girl waits for a moment and then says, "Oh. I—I am Eun-jeong."
Min blinks. None of the ancient stories about the princess being stolen away had ever mentioned her name. "Eun-jeong," Min repeats.
The girl seems to take this as an expression of skepticism, and falters. "I—think so?" she says, hesitant, which is all wrong; the sacred princess is sure, sure and wise and pious, with sublime consciousness of place— "I cannot quite remember. But it is written down on almost every turn in all the scrolls," and she gestures toward the lacquered scroll cases on the low table. "And I think it is pretty."
She offers Min a wavering smile. Min stares at her helplessly, and then glances around the room.
It is pleasant, for a cell in the fortress of the Shadow King. Cushions, and silk coverlets, and low stools; the scrolls, a brush and ink, a tray—
"The food appears there," Eun-jeong says, as if Min has asked. "It was—I do not think it was always like this?"
"How was it, then," Min says flatly, peering around; she cannot help it, she feels as though if she only looks hard enough the true princess will come out of hiding.
"Smaller," Eun-jeong says, and the tone of her voice is so changed that Min looks at her: it has gone strange and tense, and Eun-jeong is not gazing at Min anymore but has turned and cast her eyes somewhere in the middle distance, at something Min cannot see. Her fingers are wrapped tight around each other, knotted like rope. "Smaller and—darker—"
It does not matter whether the cell has always looked as it does now. Min shakes her head, and reaches out to take Eun-jeong by the wrist—she would never have dared it with the sacred princess, but this is just some mad confused girl in a fine gown. "Never mind," she says, and raises the sword again in her free hand. There are so few shadows, in the fortress, and they are weak and small; perhaps the Shadow King is not even here. And if that is so—
If that is so, then Min and Eun-jeong had better get out before he returns, and can realize who Min is—that she will find the real princess one day and destroy him.
"Come on," Min says.
"Wait—wait, I," Eun-jeong says, stumbling as Min tugs.
(Min would never have to tug the sacred princess, who would know her place and her duty and would follow with grace and speed.)
"Wait," Eun-jeong says again, and yanks her hand free.
"We must go," Min says, and then stops. She understands what is at stake here, but Eun-jeong does not; Eun-jeong does not even seem to know where they are. Min draws a deep breath, and thinks of Chun-hwa—who would smile, and quietly explain, and be patient. "Eun-jeong—we are in the fortress of the Shadow King, and we must get out. You cannot want to stay in this room."
Eun-jeong stares at her. "I do not remember ever being outside it," she says.
So perhaps she is not even a prisoner, Min thinks. Perhaps the Shadow King made her—placed her here as a trick. Perhaps she is a demon, who will wait until Min falls asleep and then eat her.
But Min has no way to tell. The nuns will know—the nuns will know, if Min can only get out of here and take Eun-jeong to them, and if Eun-jeong holds within her any of the Shadow King's plans or any knowledge of the true princess, the nuns will know how to make her speak it.
"There are many things outside it," Min begins, reaching out again for Eun-jeong's arm, but Eun-jeong shies away.
"The scrolls," Eun-jeong says, "they have—pictures. But I—" She swallows, and looks past Min at the hole Min cut through the paper wall, the blackness outside of it. Min supposes it does not look inviting, at that.
"It is dark," Min agrees. "But this sword," and she holds it up, tilts it so the edge will flash, "kills shadows, so we will be all right."
Eun-jeong swallows again; and then her brows draw down a little, and her chin comes up, and she says, "All right. There is one thing—"
She turns and crouches down, crumpling her chima unmercifully, and digs through the silks and cushions for—
"What is that?" Min says sharply, grabbing Eun-jeong's shoulder, and Eun-jeong jerks and brings her hands up to push at Min; and in one of them is half a medallion, sliced on a curve.
"It is mine," Eun-jeong snaps, and there is no point in arguing. Whether it matches the half that is tucked away beneath Min's armor or not, it does not matter. The Shadow King does have the sacred princess somewhere; who can say he did not take it from her, and give it to this decoy girl? It is of no consequence.
"Then bring it with you, and come on," Min says, and turns to walk out through the paper hole without looking back to see whether Eun-jeong is following.
Eun-jeong does follow.
At first, Min does not think she will—but footsteps do follow Min out of the paper room. At a distance, at first, reluctant to leave the light of the room behind; but more closely, in a sudden rush, as the air grows dark and chill around them and the shadows begin to creep out from their hiding places.
They do not speak again until they are safely away. Min must hew some of the bolder shadows apart, into wisps that sigh away like smoke; and she must kneel down at the edge of the great black wall and pray again, pluck a flower from the monastery branch and drop it into the wind, and ring the tiny golden bell.
But the wind does come, and it bears them both down to the shore, and from there it is not far to the relative shelter of the dark and dying forest.
Min walks until she finds a good place: level ground, beneath a tree that is twisted, covered in white mushrooms, but does not appear to be rotted through. And when she stops and turns around, Eun-jeong is still there.
Her fine clothes are streaked with grime—the branches in the forest are wet and black and come apart when touched, most of the time. Min feels a moment's guilt, looking at her feet; the noblewomen's slippers she is wearing are not suited for scrambling after Min over the rocky shoreline. If she had said something—
If she had said something, she had no reason to think it would matter, because Min had not listened to a word she'd said in the paper room. Even if she is a demon, Min supposes she might not know it; and in the old stories, even demons may be thwarted by humility, generosity—politeness.
"We will stop here for the night," Min says. And then, a little awkwardly, "Are you all right?"
"This is not what the pictures were like, in the scrolls," Eun-jeong says unsteadily. "Is nothing—green?"
Min glances above them, at the black grasping branches of the trees. The monastery and its grounds are safe behind spirit stones; things still grow green there, because the Shadow King's corruption cannot get at the soil, the water, the roots. But beyond the stones, all that fades quickly. Some weeds still cling to life, close enough to the stones that they are not lost. But Min—
Min had wandered out once, when she was a girl, and picked a flower. And she remembers the slick black thing that crawled from the heart of it, between two wilting petals—that had oozed a dark cold path across her fingers, seeped beneath her fingernails and into the creases of her knuckles. Trying to find a way in.
Chun-hwa had taught her to make her own spirit stones after that, while her hand was healing.
"It was once," Min says aloud. "The Shadow King was given a realm of his own, which is black and silent and was meant to be so. This world is not like that, and was not made for him—but he has tried to take it anyway. His shadows and his fire touch what they should not have touched, and all falls into disorder."
And, in thinking of spirit stones, she is reminded to slide her supplies from her back, to unearth the ones she made and set them out. They should not stand still here for much longer without them.
"And in all this disorder," Eun-jeong says, "you came to the black thing in the sky to get—me?"
The reminder of failure stings, all the worse because it—it should not have been possible. To rescue the sacred princess is Min's destiny. Prophecy does not lie.
So all that means is that she will try again, she tells herself. All that means is that it is not yet the appointed time.
And perhaps if she tells herself this enough times, it will stop sounding so hollow.
"I went to the Shadow King's fortress," Min says, "to rescue the sacred princess, who is pure in heart and mind; who is pious and gracious, and beautiful beyond compare; who will defeat the Shadow King, if only she is freed from the prison he tricked her into a thousand years ago. It is prophecy." She draws out a second spirit stone and stands, to move to put it in place, and as she does she looks up.
Eun-jeong is staring at her. Eun-jeong's eyes are very round, and her face is very pale; and she has wound her hands around each other again, again, taut as a strung bow. "But the only thing there was me," she says, very low.
"Just so," Min agrees, and sets the second stone down. "I do not know who you are, and as best I can tell, you do not either, since you have said nothing except that you do not remember. But I will take you back to the nuns anyway, and they will soon find out."
"It was dark," Eun-jeong whispers. "I remember that," and she presses her hands to her face.
Min feels another pricking of guilt, low in her heart; she nudges the stone into position and then turns. The sacred princess would have been—would have been perfect, beyond all description: as lovely as the moon, and as far away.
But Eun-jeong is not like that. Min would have knelt before the princess, would have thrilled at one touch of her hand and served her forever after from a respectful distance; but Eun-jeong—she can put her hand to Eun-jeong's hair, her elbow, and say, "I will keep you safe. It will be all right, Eun-jeong. The nuns will know what to do."
And it is true, is it not? If Eun-jeong is a demon, she is a very bad one. Min took her from the paper room, where she was comfortable and there were no shadows, and brought her here; Min bears a responsibility toward Eun-jeong now, and cannot shirk it.
After all, she would not be worthy of the princess's service if she did.
And then Eun-jeong looks up—not at Min, but past her; and her voice is strange, clear like Min's gold and silver bells, when she says, "It is dark. Min—Min, it is very dark—"
And that is when the fire dogs leap out from between the trees.
They bring with them a cloud of eddying blackness; the red flame of their eyes, their teeth, shines out from it like dying coals. The blackness parts and peels away from the two spirit stones—but without the other two, there is no shelter from it, no space that is safely sanctified.
Min keeps one hand on Eun-Jeong, and draws the sacred sword with the other.
Three dogs come snapping for her at once, in a rush of choking smoke, sparks and fire—one swing slices the nearest into a pile of blackened ash, and opens a fiery line along the side of the second, but the third goes untouched. And there are two more, Min thinks, or maybe three; the darkness swallows them up, they fade away into it and then reappear elsewhere, and she can only count their eyes so quickly—
There, there is the wounded one again. Min lunges for it, and drives the sword so deep that it goes hot in her hand before the fire dog comes apart. She grits her teeth and holds on. She cannot afford to drop it.
They are standing next to the second stone; if Eun-jeong stands between it and the first stone, and Min beside her, it will at least be easier to see the dogs coming. "There, quickly," Min says, "we have to—" and then another dog charges.
The fire dogs of the Shadow King are huge; their smoking black shoulders are easily even with Min's hips, when the darkness swirls aside long enough to show them. But they are still dogs, and this one goes for Min's leg, to see whether she can be brought down.
Eun-jeong had already begun to move between the stones; she grabs at Min, pulls her around even as the dog's jaw begins to close. Min feels the teeth against her armor, hot as half-forged metal—but they do not go through, scraping and then snapping shut on nothing as her leg moves backward out of their reach. The dog whines, too; it tore away the white cloth, which is caught in its mouth and is blazing with light. Min aims for the light and swings, and cleaves through something that scrapes against her blade like charcoal—and then all resistance is abruptly gone, and another cloud of ash sweeps across the forest floor.
The dogs are warier of Min, now, and draw back, to circle her and growl; Min steadies herself, tests her leg beneath her, and that is when one of the dogs decides it is better off eating Eun-jeong instead.
There is no time to switch hands, or to turn and bring the sword around—there is no time to do anything but shoulder Eun-jeong sideways, and then cry out when the dog leaps and fixes its teeth in Min's arm.
They dig in just below the large thick plates over Min's shoulder; just where the scales go light and thin, and the fire dog's red-hot teeth drive through, bend the metal or pierce it altogether, and sear deep into Min's arm. She cries out for the pain of it, the burning, and the smell that rises up from it—it is like something has come loose in her head from it, she needs to lift her good arm but somehow she cannot do it, cannot do anything but gasp for a breath and then sob it out—
Eun-jeong's hand wraps around Min's knuckles, and the sword comes up; Min blinks the helpless wetness out of her eyes long enough to aim, and the dog growls out one last breath of blazing heat and then comes apart.
But not quickly enough, Min thinks. The bites of fire dogs do not only burn. Her shoulder, her arm, her whole side feels like it is flame; but underneath that—underneath that there is something cold and slow, creeping black into her veins.
"Min," Eun-jeong is gasping, "Min—"
"The sword," Min manages to say, and slides her hand out from beneath Eun-jeong's, presses Eun-jeong's fingers carefully into place around the hilt. "You will need the sword. It will kill anything that is shadow, do you understand? Anything."
"Min," Eun-jeong says again, clutching at the sword, fumbling to find a place to hold Min up by that is not burned raw. And then—
Then something strange happens. Perhaps it is only Min dying: perhaps that is where the light comes from. Perhaps she is going blind first, the corruption climbing straight to the eyes; perhaps that is why everything goes white, just before it all stops.
Min wakes up.
That, she thinks, makes two things she did not expect.
She blinks, shifts, and then wishes she had not.
"Min!" Eun-jeong says, somewhere very close by.
Min waits for the throbbing to ease, just a little, and then manages to pry an eye open, though she cannot quite stop grimacing.
"I am not dead," she says. "And neither are you."
"No," Eun-jeong agrees. "There was—" She hesitates, looking away; the sacred sword is still in her hand, and Min finds herself thinking that it suits Eun-jeong somehow.
She looks tired, a loose lock of hair fallen free of its pins, her hanbok stained not only with the black sludge of the trees but with gray and black ash—but the scars on her face, the sword in her hand, make her look strong, too. The blade is still bared, and she is balancing it comfortably across her knees without even seeming to realize it.
"The dogs left," Eun-jeong is saying, and Min almost lets it pass and then understands, belatedly, what she has just heard.
"They left," she repeats.
"They are gone," Eun-jeong says, still not looking up.
And Min must concede that it is true. It is dark, but brightening slowly—dawn arriving. She would not be able to see it if the black smoke of the fire dogs were still surrounding them.
Which means they are gone. Perhaps they had only come for Min, because the Shadow King has discovered what she has done and has learned her destiny, and went away when they thought they had bitten deep enough; perhaps the Shadow King does not care one way or another what might happen to Eun-jeong.
And the dawn also means she has slept here all night, and has not—gone away.
"I did not know how to take off your armor," Eun-jeong adds, and now she does meet Min's eyes, so as to grimace in apology. She tilts the sword, in explanation. "I had to—cut."
Min glances down. The white cloth has been neatly parted, and the lacing between the metal scales underneath has been sliced carefully and then knotted to either side, peeled away, and the padding cloth and Min's shirt beneath it likewise. Eun-jeong has wrapped Min's shoulder and arm with something white—not the fabric Min's armor is covered with. Her own sokchima, then, Min guesses. And Min cannot see through it, cannot tell for certain whether her skin is oozing black underneath, but—
But it feels hot, the way wounds do. Not cold—not even a whisper of it; not even the deep silent cold she might have expected to feel, seeping slowly from the bone underneath. Her upper shoulder, her neck, and her arm below the burn: warm. All of it, warm.
Min finds she is almost frowning. She must have been mistaken, somehow. The teeth did not puncture all the way, that must be it. There was no corruption after all. She was only delirious from the pain, from a burn of such severity.
"You did it very well," Min says, because it is true and Eun-jeong should know it. "I am grateful."
Eun-jeong looks at her silently for a long moment. "As I am grateful," she murmurs eventually, "to you."
It is dim, and her eyes are dark. She is seated close by Min's hip, so close Min can feel the whisper of her chima against Min's side every time she shifts her weight; and she is looking down at Min with that single fallen lock curving past her scarred cheek; and her lips have parted—
Min jerks her eyes away, and belatedly tries to sit up. Her head has been resting on her pack. Eun-jeong found the other two spirit stones, and placed them—perfectly, Min discovers, squinting at them through the gloom.
"We should go," she says. She does not need her arm to walk, after all. No doubt Eun-jeong, who has been lying on silk behind paper walls, will want to argue the matter, but that is because she does not understand. Min has trained all her life for this duty, has always known she might be called upon to continue in the face of injury. She could not rightly consider herself fit to protect the sacred princess, if she were not—
"Yes," Eun-jeong says, and shifts—but not to push Min back down; only to reach behind her for the pack, to sling it across her own back. "The maps you brought with you show that there is a village less than a day away. We can stay there while you heal."
"That is not what I meant—"
"I do not care," Eun-jeong says coolly. "There is a prophecy you are meant to fulfill—that is what you said. If you are still going to rescue your sacred princess, then you had better make sure you do not die. Except you seem very bad at that, so I will have to help you."
"Maybe the prophecy means I cannot die," Min says, "while it remains unfulfilled," and then she lurches up and feels briefly certain that she is dead—or perhaps just wishes she were.
"Surely the princess is too important for you to test it," Eun-jeong muses, stepping close to loop Min's good arm across her narrow shoulders, while Min is still too short of breath from the pain to object. "Also, I am the one carrying the supplies. And the sword, for that matter."
Min must bear up by herself for a little while, at the start, so Eun-jeong can collect the spirit stones. But after that it is all a haze she drifts in: the slow dawn light, Eun-jeong's warm weight against her side, the steady predictable drag of their steps. Only the occasional jolt of pain manages to pierce this haze, at the times when Eun-jeong loses her footing or Min's balance goes awry.
But Eun-jeong did not lie: she must have looked at the maps for a long time. The sky is clouded, and once the sun rises high enough it cannot be steered by—from horizon to horizon, it is all gray flatness, bland light growing murky down between the trees. But Eun-jeong does not go astray.
Min can tell this not because she knows the way herself, but because after a very long time drifting in this manner, she blinks and drags her head up and suddenly there is a spirit stone in front of them.
It is cracked. Not broken, not yet; but cracked. The monastery has large spirit stones, old and solid, to keep all its grounds as green as they are. The ones Min made to carry with her are much smaller, because when she camps she needs only enough ground to lay out her things, and to lie on. A whole village, though, takes many spirit stones, well-made, sunk deep. When the tide grows too strong against them, and there are too few stones to hold the line—they crack.
But this one is old, and was well-made, and has only cracked a little. When they pass beyond it, there is a path, which is a good sign: it is only safe to have such things within the boundaries of spirit stones. It is only safe to have them where it is sure they will not change direction, or suddenly vanish, or lead straight into a den of fire dogs.
And the village is still there. The ground is wet, the grass yellow; but there are still fields, and what grows in them must not all rot away, for there are also still people.
Including a mudang, who looks up from her tiny green garden and immediately calls out, rushing forward across the bridge over the village stream to help Eun-jeong. "This way, this way," she says to Eun-jeong, and then, to the two neighbor-women who have peered out of their doors, "Come on, come and help!"
It is like a blur, after a whole morning of nothing but walking, to be guided in and clucked over, to lie down at last on a warm thick mat.
"Fire dog, hm," says the mudang, making a face, without even peeling back Min's bandages. "But no teeth, I think, or you would already be lost."
Min's good arm is still draped against Eun-jeong's back; she can feel Eun-jeong startle, and twist to look at the mudang.
"Some teeth," Min murmurs, and then hisses helplessly when the mudang carefully lifts her injured arm by the elbow. "Ah—"
"Oh, you are a warrior woman," says the mudang briskly, "do not tell me you have never been hurt before," and then she does undo Eun-jeong's bandage, unwinding the cloth from Min's arm with quick sure hands.
Min cannot help but look: it is all raw and vile underneath, blistered round the edges in the shape of the scales of her armor—heated up by the fire dog's teeth, and then pressed into her skin. And there were teeth. As though someone had driven in red-hot spikes, in a curving line; and Min can feel that there is another line on the other side of her arm, matching, though she thinks perhaps they are not as deep.
The mudang looks at them, and for the first time her wise old eyes go wide. "Teeth," she agrees. "But—you are clean, warrior woman. I do not understand it."
She darts a quick glance sideways at Eun-jeong, who is looking away; as if Eun-jeong could explain it where a mudang cannot, Min thinks distantly.
"All right, then, warrior woman," the mudang says. "Go to sleep, if you can. I will see what I can do to soothe the burn. And you, you had better rest yourself—"
"No," Eun-jeong says, and Min has already closed her eyes but almost smiles anyway. Hah—now at least Min is not the only one who has to deal with Eun-jeong and her stubbornness. "No, please. I want to see what you do for her, and how. I will take care of her. I—she is—she was hurt because of me."
And that is stupid, Min thinks. That is—Min was hurt because fire dogs have teeth, not because of Eun-jeong. Because, perhaps, the Shadow King now knows Min has been to his fortress and come away again alive; but that was always her destiny. Eun-jeong is not to blame for that either.
She tries to say this, but it does not come out, except as a single soft sound low in her throat. "Oh, hush," the mudang says, "hush," but the hand that comes down, cool, against Min's forehead is not the mudang's at all, but Eun-jeong's.
And oh, that feels—it is lovely. Eun-jeong has lovely hands.
But Min does not manage to say that either, before she slips away.
Together the mudang and Eun-jeong remove Min's armor entirely; and then they no longer need her, and let her fall asleep properly. And while she is far away, they do something to her arm that works so well that when she wakes, it takes an incautious movement for her to remember that she has been injured.
Min, still wincing, looks up: it is Eun-jeong, of course.
She has exchanged her clothes for something borrowed, the fine chima and jeogori perhaps taken away to be washed; the fancy gold hairpins are gone, too, and her hair is neat again, brushed smooth and tied back carefully. "Min," she repeats, scolding, her mouth turned down in a frown that is made almost severe by the scars. "You must be careful with that arm—parts of the bite are very deep."
Min looks at her, and then at her hands, because Eun-jeong is carrying a bowl of noodles. "How careful?" she says.
Eun-jeong meets the look and lifts her chin; but a flush is creeping up her face, slow and pink. "Very careful," she says. "The mudang has said so herself."
"I do still have one hand," Min says, but not unkindly.
"Then I will hold the bowl for you," Eun-jeong insists.
Min looks up at Eun-jeong's determined scowling face, pink dusted delicately across those sharp scars, and then at the bowl in her hands, and feels—she does not know a word for it. This, she thinks, was not in the prophecies. "I would like to sit up," she says firmly, instead of smiling—she wants, she discovers, to do both.
And that, at the very least, Eun-jeong does not argue with. She sets the bowl of noodles down on a low table that has been placed beside Min's sleeping mat; and then she kneels down and eases in beside it, so close they are nearly touching even before she leans in to work an arm low under Min's back.
She keeps her eyes down while she is easing Min upright, and Min watches the flush climb all the way up her ears and wonders vaguely why—Eun-jeong has bandaged Min's wound, half-carried her through the forest, and now will hold her bowl for her while she eats. Surely they are past politeness.
And then Eun-jeong angles a glance at Min, and that is the moment Min discovers her own hair is no longer tied.
It spills down across her shoulders, smooth—brushed, Min thinks slowly.
Eun-jeong clears her throat and looks away. "It was thought that you might be more comfortable sleeping with it loose," she says, and Min feels suddenly and entirely sure that it was not the mudang who thought it.
"Thank you," she says, testing.
Eun-jeong does not deny it; she only clears her throat again and reaches for the bowl—
"Wait," Min interrupts, and that, at last, brings Eun-jeong's gaze back up. "It is more comfortable for sleeping, and I am grateful, but—" She motions toward the noodles with her good arm. "I do not want to eat it. Could you—?"
Eun-jeong bites her lip. Min tries very hard not to watch her do it, and only partly succeeds.
"A plait, that is all," Min hears herself say.
But that, of all things, makes Eun-jeong's eyes go wide; and Min cannot helping raising her eyebrows.
"You cannot braid?"
And suddenly, like stepping up to the edge of the Shadow King's great black walls, there is a distance that gapes wide. Everything that was warm in Eun-jeong's face is gone, and she lowers her eyes and lifts her hand away from Min's back, and says very quietly, "I cannot remember."
Of course—Min curses herself silently. Eun-jeong remembers nothing but the room. Whose hair would she have braided? The Shadow King's? Who would have braided hers? It had been twisted up, Min recalls, pinned with those glorious gleaming hairpins, beads formed into flowers; but it had not been braided.
"Well," Min says, as though she has noticed nothing. "That, I cannot show you with one hand, so you will have to help me."
Eun-jeong is slow to look up; but when she does at last, and her eyes flick back and forth across Min's face, searching, searching—she must find whatever it is she is looking for, because she smiles.
They do complete a braid, in the end; a clumsy one, of twine, Min fumbling along with her good hand and Eun-jeong's brow furrowed in grave sober concentration, as she does her best to follow Min's directions. The second braid, this time in Min's hair, probably does not turn out any better—but then Min mostly cannot see it. And—
And it makes Eun-jeong laugh and go pink again. For that, Min discovers, she would bear a great deal.
The noodles are good, and Eun-jeong does hold the bowl, sitting next to Min with their knees pressed together. She asks questions while Min chews, about the world and about the prophecy, the ancient sages—the monastery, and the nuns, and Chun-hwa. And Min does her best to answer, in the space between bites.
In her own way, she thinks, she too has lived in a paper room. Studying, and preparing, and training, always training—which does not seem all that much like Eun-jeong, reading and singing to herself and eating the food that appeared on the silver tray; and yet it is, a little bit.
And then, when almost all the noodles are gone, Eun-jeong goes cool and still again. "And the Shadow King," she says, and then stops and looks down. "He is—your sacred princess is the only one who can defeat him?"
"Not alone," Min says, and catches up the last half dozen noodles all in a clump. "I will help her."
Something flashes across Eun-jeong's face, too quick for Min to understand it, and her eyes fall shut. "Tell me," she says, very low.
Min puts the noodles in her mouth and chews them, thinking, setting the chopsticks back in the bowl. Her bad arm does not hurt so much now; she eases backward onto her good elbow, and from there to the mat, and does not even need Eun-jeong's help to do it. "Well," she says, gazing up at the ceiling, "she will be as I have told you. Pure in heart and mind: lovely, and wise, and full of light. She will perceive her duty, and will do it, with piety and honor."
Eun-jeong has risen, taking the bowl away; Min can no longer see her, but can hear the shuffle of her steps, the swishing of her chima. And Eun-jeong says nothing—does not ask Min to stop, or to tell her something else. So—
"She will know me the moment she sees me," Min says, because that is how she had always envisioned it, as a girl. "I will pledge myself to her service, because that too is prophesied, and I will go with her and protect her when she journeys into darkness to defeat the Shadow King."
It is dark in here, only one lantern still lit; and warm; and it is raining outside, Min thinks. Probably in trails of blood or fire, outside the spirit stones. But in the village it is only water, and the patter is soothing, calming.
She can only just hear Eun-jeong's voice above it, in fact, when Eun-jeong says very softly, "That sounds wonderful."
And only her paper-room girl would say such a thing, Min thinks drowsily: that to forge a path with evil on all sides, with the Shadow King at its end, might be wonderful.
"You are a little bit mad, I think," she says aloud. And Eun-jeong laughs, short and low, and does not answer.
Min wakes in the night and does not know why; for a moment all she can think is that she did not put out her spirit stones, she did not put out her spirit stones and she does not know where her sword is.
And then the room comes back to her, the house in the village and her aching arm, and the sound of rain falling, and—
And Eun-jeong, somewhere between Min and the doorway, crying out as if in pain.
Min rolls off the mat and up, and manages to jar her injured arm only a little; she grits her teeth against it and sets the pain aside. She does not need two arms to crawl to Eun-jeong. "Eun-jeong! Eun-jeong—"
Eun-jeong goes tense beneath Min's hand with a stifled gasp, and for a moment remains as though frozen that way. Frozen except that she is trembling; Min can feel it.
"Eun-jeong," Min says again, more softly, and gentles her grasp on Eun-jeong's shoulder—slides it up sightlessly in the dark, brushing Eun-jeong's unplaited hair, the hinge of her jaw—
"Min," Eun-jeong whispers, and catches her wrist.
Min swallows, and for an instant wants almost to apologize; she ought not to think about—the curve of Eun-jeong's throat, the way that loose lock of hair had fallen across her scarred cheek, when Eun-jeong is waking in the night unhappily—
"Min," Eun-jeong says again, and curls her fingers around Min's, and does not let go.
She is awake now, and unhurt. It serves no purpose to linger. But—
But Eun-jeong's paper room had been small once, Min thinks; small, and dark, and she had been alone in it. She should know she is not alone anymore.
So Min does not crawl away again. She eases herself down onto Eun-jeong's mat instead, close enough to feel Eun-jeong breathe, and she keeps holding Eun-jeong's hand, and says quietly, "Tell me, Eun-jeong. Tell me and you will feel better. What were you dreaming of?"
(It is what Chun-hwa had said, sometimes. After the flower—Min had slept badly, while her hand healed, and even thinking of the sacred princess had not been enough to soothe her. Chun-hwa had not chided her for weakness; had only smiled at Min in the dimness, clucked and shushed, and said, Tell me, Min—you will feel better after, I promise you. Tell me.)
Eun-jeong lies silent; for so long Min might have thought her asleep again, except that her hand is still holding Min's so tightly. And then she says, so low Min almost cannot hear, "I met a boy in the village today, while you were asleep in the mudang's house. He told me about the water here, the village spring—he said it is not good anymore, not like it used to be."
Min tries to think back to the bridge they had crossed when they arrived. Had she looked down at the water? Had it been corrupted? She cannot remember.
"The mudang can still—can still clear enough of it for everyone to drink," Eun-jeong murmurs, "and maybe enough for the fields. If it does not get worse; but everyone thinks it will get worse, because the spirit stones are cracking."
Min swallows, and says nothing. What can be said?
"His brother fell into the water," Eun-jeong whispers, and Min closes her eyes. "Fell into the water, and swallowed some, and he—he became—"
She falls silent; she cannot work out how to say it, Min thinks, what words to use, but that is all right, because Min does not need to hear it. She had—it had only been her hand, but she remembers. Chun-hwa had told her what it would have done, if it had reached her heart.
"And you, you—the fire dog's bite. I thought it was only that you were injured, and could not fight any more. I thought that was why you gave me the sword. But it was not so," and Eun-jeong's tone is low and sick and knowing, certain. "You thought that you were—what did the mudang say? That you were lost."
"Yes," Min admits, and Eun-jeong draws a slow shuddering breath and says nothing, and her fingers are tight, tight, around Min's hand. "But I—I must have been wrong, Eun-jeong. You saw it yourself, and so did the mudang. I am all right."
Eun-jeong still says nothing.
"It will all be all right," Min adds, because it is the truth. "I am still here, you did not have to put me to the sword—and prophecy cannot be wrong. I will find the sacred princess and I will rescue her, and we will defeat the Shadow King, and everything will be as it should be again. And," oh, it feels bold to say— "and afterward—"
She has been focused every moment of her life on her destiny, on the princess; she has never thought about afterward before. But it has begun to occur to her, now, that the day will come when this task, hers and the princess's, is complete.
And perhaps on that day, Min dares to think, there will still be Eun-jeong.
But she has no chance to say so: Eun-jeong breathes out unsteadily and turns her face into Min's good shoulder, and whispers, "I am sorry."
Min blinks into the dark. "Eun-jeong—?"
"I am," Eun-jeong repeats, which does not mean it makes any more sense than it did the first time, and then, all in a rush: "I—I think I am the one who wrote the scrolls, Min, in the paper room; I think I drew the pictures. I think I was trying to make sure I would remember, but it did not work, it—it was too long. Even after I learned how to make the room, to keep the shadows off. Even then it was too long—oh, I am sorry—"
She is confused, Min thinks; still remembering the dream, perhaps. "It is all right," Min says, "it is all right. You have nothing to be sorry for," and she keeps saying it, holding Eun-jeong's hand, until Eun-jeong has fallen asleep again.
Min had hoped that by morning it would be true, and Eun-jeong would be all right again; but it is not so.
They wake still curled around each other on Eun-jeong's sleeping mat, their hands still clasped together. But Eun-jeong looks away from Min and does not smile. She leaves instead, without saying a word, and only when she returns with herbs and cloth, the makings of a new poultice for Min's arm, does Min realize she had just been going to the mudang again.
She undoes Min's bandage in silence, cleans the injury—which is perhaps not quite so ugly as it had been at first, Min thinks, but does not seem to hurt any less for it—and dresses it anew and does not even meet Min's eyes.
But when she is finished, she does not move away.
She stays kneeling by the mat for a long moment, looking down; and then, startling just because it is a voice in a room that has been quiet, says, "Your princess. She could—she could undo it, what has happened to the spring and the stream. She could make it right again."
"And she would," Eun-jeong says.
"I—yes," Min says, bewildered. "Yes, it would only be right. It would be her duty, her destiny, just as rescuing her from the Shadow King is mine."
"She would do it," Eun-jeong says again. "Even if she were afraid."
She would not be afraid, Min almost says; the words lie ready on her tongue, in accordance with everything she has ever imagined the sacred princess would be. But—
But is it true?
The sacred princess is a thousand years old. Time would touch her only to make her wiser, Min has always assumed, only to make her spirit stronger; but this means, too, that she has spent a thousand years in the Shadow King's clutches, in—in the dark, Min thinks slowly. In the dark, alone. So perhaps she will be afraid sometimes, and perhaps that will only be fair—
"Eun-jeong," she hears herself say instead, unsteadily, but Eun-jeong is already turning away. Turning away and reaching for Min's pack, where it still lies intact: scrabbling through it for a spirit stone, and the silver bell, and a single half-crushed flower from the monastery branch, which because it came from the courtyard tree is still blooming. And, too, for the medallion on its cord—Eun-jeong's half, which she must have put there, because—because she does not even know that Min has the other. "Wait—Eun-jeong—"
But Eun-jeong does not wait; Eun-jeong has these things clutched in her hands and has stood, and a moment later is out the door.
For a moment all Min can do is stare. And then she jerks into motion—stumbles up belatedly off the mat and over to where her armor is laid out in the corner. That is where she chose to put her medallion, when she left the monastery: tucked away in the folds of the padding cloth. She fumbles for it, searching, and there it is; the mudang did not find it, nor topple it loose, and neither did Eun-jeong.
She closes her good hand around it, tight, and then levers herself up. She had walked away from Eun-jeong once, without looking to see if Eun-jeong followed—perhaps it is only fair that Eun-jeong should do the same to her.
When she steps outside, she has only to cross the path and look up the bank of the stream to find Eun-jeong.
And Eun-jeong is not alone. There is a boy standing with her, and she is holding his hand. "Trust me," Min hears her say, "please—please, Joo-won," and the boy is nodding. He is afraid too, Min thinks; he watched his brother taken by the water, and now he is standing next to it, wiping away the tracks of tears across his face with his other hand. But he is looking at Eun-jeong and nodding, all the same. And then he and Eun-jeong step into the water.
Eun-jeong had not lied: the water is corrupted. It is still flowing, but it is strange and viscous, cloudy—it has not all gone black, is not seething or sucking Eun-Jeong and the boy down into itself like mud. But it ripples where there is no cause for rippling, uneven, like a live thing, and all the reeds and grasses that grow in it have turned dark and stinking, rotten.
Except that the slow darkness lurking in it does not reach for Eun-jeong. It does not reach for Eun-jeong and it does not reach for the boy either, has not wrapped itself around their ankles and tried to find a way to climb in. It is—the water is clear where it touches Eun-jeong's chima, her dripping sleeve, clear and scored with light—
Eun-jeong smiles at the boy and takes his hands; she wraps them around the bell and flower and medallion, Min's little spirit stone, and then her own hands around his, and begins to lower them down.
The medallion—half of it, because the other half is still in Min's hand. "Wait," she says again, even though that word has not proven to be of any use with Eun-jeong today. And she rushes forward, skids barefooted down the bank and splashes into the water, just as Eun-jeong's hands and the boy's go under.
For an instant, Min thinks she is dying again, for real this time—that perhaps they all are. Light crashes over her like water: as physical a sensation, as difficult to stand in place against, and it is all she can see, all there is; there is nothing in all the world, in this moment, that is not light.
She braces herself against it, thinking dimly that her arm should hurt much more than it does, and against the stream, too, which is changing somehow around her, surging up in a wave—
And then it all stops.
The stream has changed: it is—it is only water again, clear and burbling, chuckling to itself, like the water in the monastery fountains. The earth of the banks, which had been starting to bleed black here and there, has been washed clean. The dead reeds and river-grass were pulled loose by that rush of light and water, and are floating away downstream, drifting up in clumps against the banks. And it is—it is impossible, there was not enough time; but Min thinks as she stumbles forward through the water that she feels the tickle of new shoots against her feet.
There is shouting somewhere. Behind Min, and above her—villagers who have crowded the banks, and the little footbridge, and the mudang crying out in delight and amazement.
But Min finds she cannot look away from Eun-jeong.
The boy stumbles back a step, looking dazed; he blinks down at his handful of sacred things, and then holds them out to Eun-jeong, and what can she do but take them?
So Eun-jeong is standing there in the clear water, up to her hips, with dripping sleeves and her hands full, mouth and eyes wide, when Min splashes up to her.
"I am sorry," Eun-jeong says, voice wavering. "I know it is not—I am not any of the things you felt your princess must be. I am not wise or lovely or brave, I am not—I do not know whether I can defeat the Shadow King—"
"The fire dogs," Min interrupts. "They left—sacred princesses should not lie, Eun-jeong."
"I did not know that would happen," Eun-jeong says quickly. "I did not know what was happening, I did not know how to tell you; and then I did not want to—"
"And my arm," Min says. "There were teeth, there was corruption. You saved me."
"—because I know I am—I know this is nothing you had expected or envisioned—"
"No," Min agrees. How had Chun-hwa known? "You are what is. And my eyes almost passed over you, because I am an idiot."
Eun-jeong stops, mouth still half-open.
"And surely even you cannot argue with that," Min adds, and puts her hands around Eun-jeong's, half the medallion pressed between them, so Eun-jeong will not drop anything when Min kisses her.
Which she does. Softly, because she means to make no more foolish mistakes; and then harder, helplessly, when Eun-jeong makes a sound and presses into her. It is—they are standing in a stream, dripping—kissing, warm and a little clumsy, nothing Min would ever have imagined. But that does not matter, because—
—because what is is so much better.