I sat up straight in my chair for the first time in what felt like hours, feeling strain against my shoulders, neck, and back from having sat still for such a long time. I must have been sat in the same wooden chair since the sun was highest in the sky and now the hazy, sea-scented light was growing long in the windows. My fingers ached most of all, having held the tiny needle as I worked on embroidering a ceremonial sash, sewing with gold thread a hawk preying on a wolf into the heavy silk fabric. There were many holes from when my governess, Lady Jeon, had insisted that I take out a section and begin again, as it wasn’t quite as straight as she knew it could be. I turned my head lightly towards the window and felt a refreshing gust of wind on my furrowed brow.
Even though I enjoyed the work-especially with Lady Jeon’s tender instruction- all afternoon, I could see from the corner of my eye flocks of seagulls playing along the rocky shallows and gliding over curls of sea-salt scented breezes. Every time I could see their white feathers gleaming in late afternoon sun beams, I felt wisps of envy as I was caged in my library where most of my instruction took place. Though it was a beautiful cage with polished shell-lined bookshelves and decorated with delicate driftwood furnishings, I longed to feel that same breeze comb through my hair. Lady Jeon had noticed my wistful side-glances towards the sweeping open window and a kind smile blossomed on her patient face.
“Go ahead and go, my child. You’ve put quite a lot of work into your embroidery for today and I think your poor fingers need rest,” she stated, not looking up from her own work. I couldn’t help but to spring up out of my seat, in an unladylike fashion, and bound over to her. Lightly, I wrapped my arms around her neck and placed a dainty kiss on her cheek.
“Oh thank you. I will not go far. Just as far as the old apple tree in the meadow to the north of the palace walls,” I promised with a gleeful smile on my face. “And I will be back before dark.”
“I know, child. Now hurry, you’re wasting sunlight,” she commented. I hurried out from the intricately carved driftwood library doors and took the servant stairwell down towards the kitchen, as it was always faster than the grand staircase.
I dashed straight down to the stables, the scent of hay and sweet feed greeting me along with the soft exhaling from several velvet noses. Running to the last stall on the right, I could hear the impatient stamping of Sparrow’s slender hooves. The stable attendant swiftly had her saddled and bridled, her bit-chain jingling like bells. My heartbeat quickened as he helped me mount her and we galloped off with a windswept thank you.
Sparrow’s golden coat glistened like the seagull’s feathers, her white mane whipping about my face and wrapping around my legs. We shot through the Northern Gate of the palace and headed up towards the high meadows. The old apple orchard was one of my favorite places, as the palace was just out of eyesight on the horizon and a river fled by. My heart beat seemed to pound along in rhythm with her gallop and the concept of time seemed to melt away.
I saw the lonely apple tree still standing proudly, a lone survivor in an empty meadow and I could hear the rush of passing water in the river nearby. As we arrived, Sparrow slowed down to a trot and I slipped down from her, giving her free reign. A giggle passed through my lips as I saw her prance to a smattering of apples that had fallen. I caught up to her as she munched on their sweet crunchiness, pulling a small leather-bound journal and graphite pencil from her stitched saddle bag. I walked over to the base of the tree, where the thick roots were bending out of the soil: it created a perfect spot to sit. With a fluid movement, I took off my shoes and lifted my long, cumbersome gown up past my ankles, feeling the sun against my skin.
Situating myself and opening my book, I began to immerse myself in writing. I hardly had filled out two pages when a slight uneasiness crept up in my stomach, almost as if someone may have been watching me. I glanced up towards the edge of the forest, feeling as if it could be someone sent to protect me. My eyes fluttered up into the gnarled branches of the tree, thinking maybe my guard could be perched there. My previous uneasiness left as I saw no one, except a perfectly jewel-toned apple hanging above me. I stood up, attempting to reach it. It was beyond my grasp: I stood on a raised root at first but when that proved unsuccessful, I attempted to jump. Frustrated and in defeat, I sat back down with a huff from my lips. Though, as I picked up my literature again, the same sense of uneasiness crept back to me.
A light crunch sounded from above me and the perfect apple landed directly in my lap. Protruding from its core was a long arrow with three black, iridescent crow feathers at one end. I picked it up, quickly surveying the edge of the forest in the distance.
There, casting a long shadow stood a lone, dark bowman.
His hair grasped my attention first, as its length was flirting with his leather belt and the color was reminiscent of the feathers on his arrow. His hair fluttered around his prophetically peaceful expression, strands of it touching his quizzically drawn brow. His blackened leather jerkin revealed his muscular arms. His long, tawny buckskin trousers were tucked into a tall pair of artfully crafted boots. After a few moments of sharing our glances, he broke into a broad smile. His pink lips parted to reveal his beautifully white teeth and his eyes crinkled into crescent moons.
As he walked towards me, his head slightly bowed and his right hand placed over his chest, I recognized him.
My cheeks flushed as I remembered having seen his wanted poster, hastily removing it from a palace bulletin, and tucking it away in my journal. His face wasn’t quite what it had been in the poster, as he had been depicted with cruel eyes. The face approaching me was kind and gentle. My legs instinctively moved to conceal the leather journal as he came closer to me.
“I saw you trying to reach that particular apple and I thought I’d offer my assistance,” he commented with the slightest of smirks lingering on the corner of his lips. I leapt up and held the arrow back with its tip still buried in the apple in a menacing manner. He threw his head back and heartily laughed. “You look quite dangerous, Princess.”
“I am,” I insisted with a crinkle of my nose. “How did you know I was a princess?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.
“Everyone knows the Princess wears pearls in her hair and a golden sparrow upon her breast.” He laughed as I tried to cover the embroidery on my lapel. “I assure you, I mean no harm. I only wanted to offer a lovely princess what she obviously wanted,” he shrugged lightly. He removed his bow from his back and set it an arm’s reach away as he sat in front of me, cross legged. I was intrigued by his relaxed manner.
“May I remove the apple from my arrow for you? It would be a shame to let such a fine specimen spoil because of our distrust of one another.”
I thought for a moment before I handed it to him. He gave me another smile as he carefully worked the arrow head from the apple, twisting it. As it parted, the apple broke into two perfect halves. He offered them to me. I only took the top half. “You should eat the other,” I stated.
“If the Princess requests, I’ll eat this half deliciously,” he commented. I watched his full lips wrap around the red outer flesh. As he bit into it, some of the juice ran down the side of his hand and onto his flexed forearm. My face went hot as he licked the juice slowly from his wrist while his eyes intently held my gaze. I blinked before slowly sitting down and taking a bite from my own half.
“Pray, what is your name, sir?” I asked cautiously. He gazed back at me with an expression I could not discern in his dark eyes.
“I am Jimin, of The Laughing Ones. But you may know us as The Wolf Riders,” he commented back.
“I know of your people,” I hummed back to him.
“May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?” he asked.
Suddenly, a Bo-staff hit the ground like lightening, its silver tip resting between Jimin and I, though it pointed more towards my new acquaintance. I stood up, as did Jimin, his body half bending towards his bow.
“Stay your hand,” threatened the staff wielder from clenched teeth. Jimin stood frozen, his eyes having hardened and narrowed.
It was Jeongguk. Lady Jeon must have told her son where to find me. Though, this wasn’t uncommon, as he had been my shadow for as long as I could remember. I should have expected his arrival. He stood straight and tall, about his proud shoulders was a silken plum robe embroidered with the hawk symbol that was bestowed upon him as an infant. His normally doe-eyed expression hardened to stone as he and Jimin’s glares could not be broken. The familiar scar on his cheek had turned slightly pink in his anger at Jimin’s informal and personal manner with me. His black, shoulder length hair was tied back neatly, revealing his twitching jawline.
“Stand down, sir! This gentleman was only harmlessly offering me something to eat,” I explained, my voice sounding harder than I intended.
“But, Princess. I recognize this Wolf Rider. He’s wanted for crimes against our people,” Jeongguk insisted, his eyes never breaking away from Jimin’s still body. I bit my lip.
“Now, we shouldn’t use such slurs in polite company,” I stated to Jeongguk, chastising his manners. Jimin simply laughed, shaking his head as he did.
“No, no I am not offended. Do not worry, Princess. I personally do not consider that term a slur. Wolves are my brothers,” he said with pride in his voice, his laughter turning into a smile.
“I intended it to be a slur. My only regret was that I used such a term in the company of the Princess,” Jeongguk snapped back. Jimin’s smile evaporated and his expression darkened.
“Both of you take a step back and sit with me,” I commanded. Jimin instantly turned and bowed to me before complying with my orders. Jeongguk, on the other hand, remained tense and positioned to fight. Lightly, I reached out and touched his forearm. I could feel him slightly relax his grip and his eyes flickered to me for only an instant. Hesitating, he took his step back and sat himself down, keeping his staff in his hand by his side. “Your staff, sir,” I implored.
“Keep your distance from her, sir,” Jeongguk gritted, intentionally laying his staff down carefully on top of Jimin’s bow. Biting sarcasm hung in his last word.
I regained my composure, sitting down at the top of the triangle, smoothing down my gown.