In the midday sun, with the gentle ocean breeze, a certain, distinct feeling of dread had found its way into Yona’s stomach. News of a new human trafficking ring in Awa had reached the ship, and even she knew it would become her responsibility to snuff it out. Yona had eliminated Kumji, after all—it was practically her job to take down the local tyrants.
After having taken down Kumji, she asked Gigan to let her and her friends join their group of pirates. The older woman had insisted that she was going to disband their gang, but part of Yona felt that Kumji was only one piece of the puzzle. It wouldn’t end with him, that was too easy.
No, if her travels had taught her anything, it was that there was always someone else, ready to take the place of those who had fallen. True, they had remained pirates masquerading as fishermen for quite some time, but eventually, a new human trafficker had taken Kumji’s place.
This leader was someone the public of Awa referred to as Yang Kage—the shadow of Yang Kumji. Before him, there were plenty of small fries; leaders who would be eradicated within weeks of their emergence. They were people with little money, power, or influence, making it easy to expose their secrets. Kage, though, was a different story. He was the eighth one to take over the trafficking trade, and had learned from the mistakes of the others to perfect his system.
They had targeted prostitutes and working women, first. Then, they moved to abducting girls—some younger than 10—off the streets. Sometimes, it was broad daylight, sometimes it wasn’t. As time went on, Awa once again became an unsafe area for women of all backgrounds.
This leader was much more insidious, one who did not take pleasure in showing himself in the public. He operated in the shadows of the city, and refused to surface. Instead, his goons were the ones who were being captured. However, they were far more resilient than they seemed, and would rather commit suicide than reveal the secrets of their trade.
Truly, “shadow” only began to describe Kage’s presence. Some of the underlings had never even seen the man, and for a while, Yona wondered if he even existed.
That is, until one fateful evening.
The mission had failed. They had fallen victim to Kage’s mind games, and psychological warfare, and had been successfully deceived. The location had been wrong the entire time—it wasn’t the warehouse they had thought, the one that all the evidence pointed to. No, they had cleared out of there earlier that day.
Yona ran to the nearest brothel, her fears confirmed when she saw several different men carrying unconscious women out of the back. That is, except for one. A tall, slender figure stood in the shadows of the building, his silhouette defined by the dim lanterns behind him.
She was alone, with only a few small blades on her person—it would be too dangerous to fight him. The others wouldn’t be along for at least a few minutes, making it reckless to even think of fighting. After all, it would five against one.
But those women—they would be sold off as slaves, or brides.
Or, in most cases, both.
Yona refused to let that stand. She would be as reckless as she needed to be.
Kage noticed her first, this woman rushing him with her dagger, a deep scar on her cheek highlighting the eyes bright with hatred, her red hair illuminated by the lanterns that surround them. Unsheathing his sword, he blocked her, effectively stopping her from moving forward. Silently, he loomed over her, holding her off without visibly exerting any effort.
Yona took the opportunity to memorize his facial features. The most noticeable of these features was the fact that he was heterochromatic—one eye was a bright hazel, the other, an icy blue. Scars etched his face more than wrinkles did—he was young, but war-torn. Probably in his late twenties, or early thirties; a change of pace from the usual 50- or 60-year-old men that tried to take over the human trafficking trade.
Shorter layers of his hair hung around his face, but the rest of his brown, shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a small ribbon. With his stoic expression—he didn’t even look troubled by her ambush—he gazed down at her, freezing her blood and her resolve with only one look.
Glancing over his shoulder, Kage nodded lazily at his men, signaling them to continue on without him.
Throwing in a solid kick to Kage’s stomach, she threw him off just long enough to rush past him. Grounding herself, she took one of her small knives, and threw it at a downward angle, slicing the leg of one of the men. His legs buckled, and he collapsed, the woman he was carrying falling to the ground with him.
Yona was about to rush forward to take out the other three men, or at least stun them, when she was yanked back. Kage had grabbed her hair and threw her to the ground, staring down at her as he passed by. Yona kicked at his feet, aiming for his Achille’s Heel, but before she could register much more, there was a blade mere inches from her face.
Glancing up the length of the blade, she could see the triumph written into Kage’s features. With a carefree gesture, the remaining three men hoisted the women higher onto their shoulders, before disappearing into the shadows of the alley. The one that had been wounded was left behind in his agony. Glancing between the departing men, and Kage, Yona’s eyes communicated how much hatred she felt for the man before her.
She did not bother to hold back.
“Good,” he smiled down at her—cold and unfeeling—before sheathing his sword. His voice was deep, and the sound of it burned into her memory. Crouching down to her level, he stared intently at her. Part of her felt like he was appraising her, and the other part of her felt like he was sizing her up. “You are not an idiot, as most are,” he praised her, sending a shudder down her spine. His formal tone certainly didn’t help.
When he reached for her, she recoiled, but all he did was take a strand of her hair between his two fingers, and examine it. He glanced back at her, a quizzical look on his face—he almost looked as if someone had told him a bad joke. Yona hated the way she was completely at the mercy of this man—it was time to change that.
“You’re Yang Kage.” It was not a question, but an accusation.
“Interesting hair color…” he mused, ignoring her. Yona, absolutely fed up, slapped his hand away. He seemed amused by this, which somehow made it worse. “My, what a temper.”
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.
“Very well.” He stood up, dusting off his clothes. From around the corner, a group of footsteps could be heard, approaching where they were. It was the rest of her group, finally catching up with her.
“Yona!!” they called, their voices carrying through the street. Kage looked down at her, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.
“’Yona’...” He only looked at her for a moment longer, taking a few seconds to memorize the last of her features, before turning, and walking away casually. He looked down at the man that Yona had attacked, the one who was unable to walk, and unsheathed his sword. “We shall see each other again.” And with that, he stabbed the man in the throat without any hint of hesitation. Yona’s blood ran cold as she watched the man bleed onto the street. Kage glanced over his shoulder and gave her a twisted grin. “You may call me Jin. After all, that is my actual name. Until next time, Yona.”
And with that, he was gone.
Him, his goons, and the women. They all vanished with the cover of night.
She hadn’t done enough. Those women would end up as slaves because of her failure. She could have done more—she was sure of it. But there she remained, frozen, sitting on the ground, watching the spot where Jin had disappeared from sight.
There was something in the way he spoke to her, something that was different from the previous leaders. It was almost as if… he didn’t consider her so much of an enemy, as he considered her a prized animal that should be hunted. His last words to her made her feel like she was prey, and he would take his time to savor hunting her down.
Her blood rushed, her fingers trembling, making her light-headed. By the time the dragons had reached her, tears were already streaming down her face, the light from the lanterns catching on the small streaks. Kija and Shin Ah rushed forward, immediately checking if she was hurt, or traumatized in any way.
She had vaguely pointed in the direction that Kage had gone in, sending Kija and Shin Ah over to him, while a few of the other pirates shortly caught up with her, helping her to her feet, and getting her back to the ship.
Kija and Shin Ah’s search turned up nothing. Even with Shin Ah’s vision on their side, Kage still could not be found. It was as if he and his men had really disappeared into oblivion. But still, Yona had seen him, and could confirm that he was not just a figurehead. He existed, but she wished he didn’t.
That night, Jae Ha held Yona in his arms, being the safe space she needed to release all of her fear. He stroked her hair as she cried against him, her hands balled up into fists, clutching at his clothes. It was as if she needed a reminder that warmth existed.
After all, this was a risky business. It wasn’t something you could just walk away from at the end of the day.
Yona told Jae Ha everything—recounting every minute detail about Jin, as if she was trying to reassure herself that he existed at all. Even in the middle of the ocean, she felt as if he could show up at any moment, there to claim her life. The burn of his eyes, as if he was boring into her soul, haunted her for weeks; the apathy he expressed at killing his own subordinate always at the back of her mind.
If he can kill someone who was loyal to him like that, what’s going to happen to me?
Having his name and knowing his face proved to be fruitless information. Nobody had ever heard of a “Jin” before, and no one had seen a man with heterochromia that matched his description. He truly stuck to the underworld, it seemed. It was weighing down on all the crew more than usual, knowing that someone so unknown was lurking around Awa, out of sight from even the Seiryuu’s eyes.
Deep down, every member of the crew knew that Yona was going to be the key to capturing him. The dragons absolutely refused to let her be bait—despite Yona volunteering, because she’d rather sacrifice herself and take Kage down than let him wander the streets.
Beyond the anxiety surrounding Jin, there was something more. As Yona’s eyes scanned the ocean, her brows furrowed in thought, as if to meditate on what that other danger could be. She was picking up on something, somehow, and it meant trouble. The only logical step left was to figure out what it was, and eradicate it.
Running her fingers along her cheek, her fingertips lingered on her scar, a reminder of past battles, and a warning for battles to come. The third leader, a forgettable man in his 50s, was a coward himself, but his henchmen fought for their lives. It was one of his henchmen that had used a rough knife to try and cut out Yona’s eye.
He had missed, but only barely. The blade had torn through the soft tissue, but still, Yona fought. Some of the others that had been in the area later told her she looked like a demon, with blood pouring down her face, her eyes filled with bloodlust as she took the man down.
It had been a rare moment where Gigan would excuse the killing of another person. It was either Yona, or the man. He wasn’t showing signs of giving up until she had used his own blade to plunge through his heart.
Yona kept the weapon for herself.
As time continued on, so did the attempts to find Kage, and eliminate him. The others tried their best to keep Yona out of it, but after almost a month and a half of continuing disappearances and no sign of the man behind it all, they had no choice.
The next several days, they would be in the port of Awa once again. They had no choice but to send Yona in, most likely undercover. After all, she had been the only one to see his face, and would be able to spot him without difficulty. However, that also meant she would have to work with one of the brothels in town—that gave her the best chance of finding him again.
The dread surrounding that task weighed on her, but it was not the same as the feeling that nagged at her. Dread sat in the pit of her stomach, but this… anxiety, this foreboding resided deep within her heart. It moved her blood, controlled her body.
“Something wrong?” a familiar voice chimed in, breaking her away from her thoughts. Yona turned, a smile already pulling at her lips, as she faced Jae Ha.
“What makes you think something is wrong?” she asked, half teasing. Quirking an eyebrow at her, he leaned against the mast.
“Nobody looks out over the water like that unless something’s wrong.” He got her there. Yet her smile remained—at least she had someone to talk to. Of all the crew, she enjoyed spending time with Jae Ha the most, but she didn’t want to worry him. Her silence marked her hesitation, and Jae Ha’s teasing ebbed. “I’m sure there’s another way for them to find Kage. If you don’t want to go, I can—”
Jae Ha didn’t expect any less from her. She had always been like this: headstrong, reckless enough to keep him awake at night, and totally determined to do what was right. It drove him crazy with worry, but he could never stop her from being herself. With a reassuring smile, he smoothed the hair on top of her head, wild curls popping up from the sea breeze.
“Just thought I’d offer.”
“Thanks anyway, Jae Ha.” It honestly meant a lot to her that he was so concerned for her well-being, but he also knew when to let her have her freedom. She was never suffocated by him, or his protective nature.
Never mind the feelings behind the concern.
“Think you can help me look like an escort?” she joked, shooting Jae Ha a cheeky smile. “You’re the one always making trips to brothels, after all.” He rolled his eyes before smiling at her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. Yona had to pretend that her heart didn’t race at the contact.
“Leave it to me, and my oh-so-expansive knowledge of brothel culture,” he replied sarcastically. He didn’t go nearly as much as he used to—part of him just didn’t feel right whenever he did. “A little makeup, and some nice clothes, and you’ll look the part.”
Yona thought, for just a moment, that his grip on her shoulder tightened slightly, but concluded that it was all in her head. He was probably just worried, as a fellow crewmember. She doubted there was anything behind it.
After all, she had gotten her hopes up before, and it had only left her crushed.
Leaning into him, an action that was barely perceptible, a sigh escaped her. It felt as if it had left her heart directly, and made the ache in her chest only more apparent.
Being around him was a comfort as much as it was a curse. His presence was a security blanket, but it only made her more aware of the reality of the world.
He didn’t think of her in that way—he never did, and he never would.
Yona knew this much, and would be damned if she ever let it show.
Reveling in that moment—warm, and bright, like the calm before the storm—she felt the anxiety melt away. Even if it was just for a moment, even if it returned when he let her go, she would let herself be happy in those few seconds.
Giving her a quick squeeze before letting go, Jae Ha gave her a gentle smile.
“Everything is going to be okay.”
And for a moment, she believed him.
Giving him a quick smile, she sighed out a farewell, and returned to her work.
Six years. It had been six years since she witnessed Soo Won cutting down her father, since she and Hak had escaped the palace, since her life had been changed forever. Six years since she had cut her hair to free herself from Tae Jun’s grip, since she had fallen off the cliff…
It had been six years since Princess Yona, as everyone knew her, died.
After coming to Awa, she had basically secured her anonymity. After all, the only one who seemed to recognize her was Kumji, and that problem had been taken care of. To the public, she was Rina, adopting her name that she had been given in the Wind Tribe.
There were times that she had thought about returning to the Wind Tribe, and living in peace, but she knew that word about her would spread too quickly, and too carelessly. It was too much of a threat to those she knew.
Who knew what would happen if Soo Won found out she was alive?
She had more or less remained unknown, more of a legend than anything. The girl with the red hair, the protective spirit of Awa. To anyone else, maybe that was all she was—a ghost of a former princess, killed by insurgents of the castle.
She planned to keep it that way.
Every now and again, she thought about what the people in her old life were up to. She had no way of knowing who was alive, or dead, or if anyone had gotten married, or had children. She could only hope that everyone was doing well, and was happy, moving on from their grief.
It had taken her quite some time to move on from her own grief.
That was then, this was now. She had no time to dwell on the past—the present was currently holding all of her attention. At that moment, she had Jin to worry about. Soo Won was a dream compared to that lunatic.
Time crawled, making the remainder of the trip to the port an absolute nightmare. Yona had too much time to think about what could possibly go wrong, who could die, who could get hurt. Imagining herself being kidnapped, tortured, or killed was nothing in comparison to what they may do to her friends. The images haunted her for the last remaining days—but she kept a brave face. If she showed any signs of vulnerability, it would shake the foundations of morale for the whole crew.
Despite this, as soon as the harbor was in sight, she wished she had more time. It had gone too quickly, she wasn’t prepared for what the shadows of Awa held for her. However, they had no time to lose, and had to start their investigation that night.
Time continued to pass her by. Before she knew it, they were already in port, and she was already being led off the ship into the town of Awa. Sights, smells, and sounds melted together, creating a Pandora’s Box of sensory overload. It overwhelmed her, mixing with the anxiety that already weighed her down. Her eyes flitting around, catching on faces, but never resting there for long.
Anyone with brown, shoulder-length hair made her nerves kick into overdrive. Rationality claimed that there was no way it could be Jin, but her fear screamed that it was. Never had she realized how many men in Awa could have shoulder-length brown hair, and how exhausting it would be to walk through town.
Yoon and Jae Ha kept their hands steady on Yona as they walked through town, noticing how unsteady on her feet she was. They didn’t bother to say anything—they could imagine the reason why. Linking his arm through hers, Yoon glanced around, keeping an eye out for anyone matching the description of Kage that Yona had given them.
He was worried about her. Yona was tough, but she had the right to be terrified. Her presence alone was challenging Kage, luring him out of the shadows. If he had any sort of grudge against her, she could be dead before morning came.
Gently laying his hand over hers, Yoon gave Yona a reassuring smile. They had been friends for a long time, and part of him was glad that he was one of the crewmembers chosen to accompany her. He would be posing as a servant boy, most likely, as he could no longer pass as a female, now that he was 21 years old.
But he would be close to her at all times. If anything went wrong, he would be one of the first people to know. He would be her anchor, and she could rely on him as much as she needed.
Jae Ha, as well, would be sneaking in to keep an eye on her. However, servitude wasn’t for him, so, naturally, he was going to be a customer at the brothel for the next few evenings. Yoon didn’t expect anything else from him, if he was going to be honest.
Once they reached the brothel, they introduced themselves, and explained their intentions. The owner’s eyes fell upon the deep scar on Yona’s cheek.
“And what about that? We don’t want damaged goods here.”
“Some makeup and you will never know it was there,” Jae Ha retorted, standing his ground. Thankfully, his height was helping their cause, as he was a full head taller than the owner. “Besides, it’s not like she’ll be here forever. A few days won’t ruin your reputation.”
It took some arguing and “you need our help” logic, but eventually a deal was made:
“You can work here for the next five nights. You will act as a proper escort, adopt our culture, and follow our rules. If you sully our reputation, you will be banned from entering here ever again.” The owner was red in the face, but he understood the danger that Kage was posing, at the very least. “And don’t think I wouldn’t tell the other brothels about your behavior.”
“But--!” Yoon exclaimed.
“I understand, and I accept your terms,” Yona said coldly, no emotion in her voice. Bowing deeply, she waited until the owner spoke once more before straightening her posture.
“Then, you shall work under the name ‘Tsubaki’. At least it matches your hair.”
“Thank you for your kindness."
Once the deal was made, and all the conditions were set, it was time for Yoon and Yona to take on their roles. At the entrance, they stood with Jae Ha, saying their quick goodbyes. Ruffling Yoon’s hair, Jae Ha smiled at him.
“Take good care of her. Of both of you,” he murmured, voice laced with concern. The lump of anxiety in his throat made his voice waver, but he put on a brave face.
“I will,” Yoon promised. All three of them were faking courage, and hoping it wasn’t obvious to the others. He watched as Jae Ha’s gaze moved to Yona, and lingered for a few moments longer than usual. Sighing, he turned. “Well, I better go in and get started with the help.”
Yona silently thanked Yoon for his perception. Once he disappeared from sight, she turned back to Jae Ha, the silence between them saying everything neither one of them wanted to admit. It was impossible to shake the feeling that something big was going to happen, and both of them could feel it in their cores.
Without warning, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
She gasped, before melting into his touch, and returning the embrace. He ran his fingers through the end of her hair, and took a moment to breathe her in. Closing her eyes, she buried her head into the crook of his shoulder, taking a moment to listen to his heartbeat, to ground herself. The steady rhythm of his heart was a reminder that she was there, she was alive.
“Please…” he whispered, his voice a warm breeze against her ear. She blushed, and tensed only slightly, her hands bunching the fabric of his clothes. “Please, be safe.”
His words shook her resolve. She wanted to stay with him, to never risk something like this ever again, but she knew she had to do this. Otherwise, the women of Awa would never feel safe. If she could be the one to end this regime, then she would.
Moving to press his forehead against hers, he closed his eyes, and savored the moment. She could feel his breath on her lips, and wanted, more than anything, to show him how she felt. She wanted to touch him, no matter how soft, or fleeting. She wanted to share these moments with him far more often—she wanted to be selfish with him. Whole days dedicated to lounging in each others’ arms, sleepy kisses… total security.
But that was nothing more than a fantasy.
Tears threatened to fall at the mere thought of reality.
“I will,” she breathed.
Jae Ha looked at her one last time, his hands cupping her cheeks as he glanced over the features of her face, memorizing them as best as he could in that moment. His thumb brushed over her cheek, and he wished for nothing more in the world than to hold her in his arms for days at a time.
But he just couldn’t hold her back like that. He didn’t have the heart for it.
He knew the look she would get in her eyes when she had achieved her goal. He could drown in that look. If he were to stop her, it would rot her from the inside-out, it would make her life a living hell.
No, these moments would have to do. As long as she came back in one piece, that would be enough for him. To watch her say I took down Kage! with so much pride and triumph, to have conquered the fear that was smothering not only herself, but Awa, that was what made it all worth it. Watching her grow from a young, scared princess into the woman she was now had been one of the biggest blessings he had had in his life.
It breathed life into him.
Tearing himself away, he forced a smile.
“I’ll be here tonight. As soon as the doors open.” With that, he had turned on his heel, and began to walk the other way, disappearing into the hustle and bustle of the town.
Thus, the first of five nights began.
The dressing went as well as expected—seeing as how Yona had not worn anything particularly high-end in quite some time, she had forgotten how heavy some of these clothes could be. She couldn’t help but remember those carefree days in the palace, when she would be dressed up for some special occasion or another, worrying about how her hair looked.
She felt like an eternity had passed since those days. It was impossible to even imagine her current self in the palace. She knew she would have been as ignorant and carefree as she was when she was 16. There was no life for her there.
When the women who were helping her began to prepare her makeup, she wondered how she would end up looking. That scar on her cheek was rather prominent, after all. Part of her shuddered at the thought of having to wear a full face of makeup—not only that, but being the only one who had to.
“If you ask me, the scar isn’t that bad. It gives her a certain edge,” one escort thought aloud. “It gives her this… ‘forbidden beauty’ kind of feeling, doesn’t it?”
“Do you really think so?” Yona asked, suddenly much more self-conscious of her scar than before. The escorts smiled and nodded.
“A little rouge, do your eyes and hair, and you’ll hardly pay attention to it.”
A small part of the anxiety ebbed away from Yona. It felt nice being surrounded by women. She was constantly in the middle of all the male crewmembers, and it could be a little overwhelming at times. Rather, it was extremely overwhelming, all of the time.
They all worked really hard to make sure that Yona could attract customers—they were even sweet enough to let her borrow certain accessories.
“It’s a small price to pay for safety,” was what they had said.
With her hair half-pulled back—two strands braided, and finishing in a bun, and the rest hanging loosely—her eyes and bottom lip lined with a deep red that rivaled the color of her hair, teardrop earrings, and a small hair ornament designed to look like a cherry blossom in her bun, she was ready to go.
When Yona saw her reflection in the mirror, she was pleasantly shocked. She never expected to look so mature, or grown up. It was a little hard to believe that she was looking at herself.
“Thank you,” she beamed at the other women. “Thank you so much!”
With a little more confidence, Yona headed to her own room, prepared to face the seedy underground of Awa.
However, she would quickly find out that being a prostitute with no reputation would prove to be extremely boring. Most of the evening was spent by herself, surrounded by the sounds of everyone else conducting their business.
A small knock came at her door—something uncommon for customers to do. Eyes flashing towards the panel, she watched as it slid open, her heart constricting momentarily. However, she relaxed upon seeing Jae Ha.
“Hey,” he greeted with a smile. As he glanced at her, he did a double-take, before taking her appearance in. With a whistle, he chuckled, “Look at you!”
“Does it look strange?” she asked, a little self-conscious about him seeing her in something that revealing. After all, it was showing off her assets, and he had never really seen her in something like that before.
“Not at all,” he breathed, genuinely impressed by her appearance. She had never been one to shy away from doing the work onboard, so to see her in something as demure as her current dress was a treat, to say the least. “You’re absolutely beautiful.”
Yona’s heart jumped, her cheeks heating up at his words. No matter how many times she tried to convince herself that his words held no deeper meaning, she couldn’t shake the feeling—the hope—that they did.
“You’re doing alright?” he asked, smiling, but eyes filled with worry. Giving him a reassuring smile, she nodded, and couldn’t help but notice that he relaxed just a little bit. “Good.”
“No one is here to see me, so I’ve been sitting here all evening. No trouble at all.” Jae Ha sat across from her, crossing his legs casually. “How are you? All that strenuous investigating work getting to you yet?” she teased.
“Yep, having beautiful women hang on my every word while serving me sake is hard work,” he smirked. Yona chuckled, her cheeks flushed a beautiful pink in the lantern’s light. His eyes couldn’t leave her, no matter how hard he tried. Before he could stop himself, he spoke again, “You’re seriously beautiful.”
The look she gave him nearly drove him over the edge.
He half-expected her to roll her eyes, and brush it off. But she did the exact opposite. Her eyes darted to his, shining in the light of the lanterns, her hair framing her face just perfectly in that moment. Lips parting slightly, she couldn’t say a word, she only exhaled softly. Her eyes left his, searching the room for an explanation, for something else to focus on, her cheeks reddening as she refused to look at him.
To make matters worse, his mouth ran off without him once more.
It was too much for her to bear. Did he have any idea what he was saying to her? Did he have any idea what his words did to her? He couldn’t just compliment her like that—it would plant the thought in her head that he actually held interest for her.
She knew he saw her as nothing more than a little sister—a nuisance, a bother, someone he had to protect, or she would get in trouble with the big kids.
He knew she saw him as nothing more than an older brother—overprotective, an annoyance, someone that she coddled her and reprimanded her like a child.
The silence between them that usually rested comfortably, was laden with tense regret.
“Sorry… that came out weird,” he tried to laugh it off, but the atmosphere only became more awkward as time went on.
“No… no worries,” Yona tried to reassure him, her voice unsure. She was happy he had said she was beautiful, but knowing that he didn’t see her as a woman was frustrating. She had already convinced herself that it was true; it would take more than that to convince her otherwise.
“I should go.” Jae Ha stood up, quickly followed by Yona. By the time he tried to turn, she was already grabbing his sleeve, silently asking him not to go. A small blush crept into his cheeks, but he tried to play it cool by turning into his usual flirtatious self. “Hm? Don’t want me to go?”
“… No.” Her voice sounded stubborn, as if she didn’t want to admit it, but she did anyway.
Damnit, she’s cute!
“How about we order some sake?” he offered, a charming smile finding its way to his lips. “I’ll be your customer for the evening.”
That ended up being one of those sentences that sounded much better in his head.
The expression on Yona’s face only confirmed how awkward it sounded. A moment later, she sputtered, followed by a laugh. His heart soared at the sight of her smile, so genuine and true.
“Has that ever worked?” she giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. He put his arms around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him and shooting her a smile.
“Then we’ll just order sake. Does that sound better?” he asked, smiling. Almost instinctively, she placed her hand against his chest for support, glancing up at his face, and nodding. For a moment, Jae Ha’s mind wandered to a fantasy world where she looked at him like that every day, leaning into him just as she was in that moment.
“That sounds wonderful, sir,” she agreed, her voice smooth and charming, slipping into her role of an escort. As if it was second nature, she rested her head against his chest. After all, she was acting the part—something this innocent wouldn’t be too frowned upon. Giving her a startled look, Jae Ha gulped at the sudden change of demeanor. However, the moment was broken when a quiet laugh escaped Yona’s lips. “You were the one who said you wanted to be my customer, weren’t you?”
“I wasn’t—” Serious? No, that’s not true. I wasn’t expecting that? Brushing his bangs away from his face, he chuckled to himself. “I did.” There was no use fighting her on it—he knew what he said. His eyes focused on her once again, his fingers moving to brush her cheek so lightly she could barely feel his touch.
He was convinced he was dreaming. Perhaps it was the lantern light that was painting her in such a brilliant red; perhaps it was the smell of her perfume—floral, light, ethereal—or perhaps it was the lingering feeling of her hand against his chest. The cacophony of the brothel was nothing more than a gentle hum as his eyes searched her face.
Jae Ha’s eyes flitted over her features, her face reddened, turning his warm fingers into a cooling sensation. He couldn’t be serious—she was struggling to convince herself of such as his eyes rested on hers. They were so warm, and welcoming; if she were to take that chance, what would become of them?
She moved her other hand to his chest, turning slightly so as to face him entirely. That simple action set his pulse racing, a phenomenon even she could feel. His arm, that had been around her shoulders, found itself draped around her waist, providing the smallest bit of pressure to bring her closer. However, even without his help, they had slowly been drifting towards each other.
Yona found herself exchanging glances between his eyes—she dared to think that they held warmth for her—and his lips—welcoming, beckoning her. He was driven speechless by her, by how warm she could be, and by how she looked at him. If he could be so selfish as to take this one chance…
For three years, he had been waiting for a chance like this.
He found himself cradling her neck with his hand, his arm around her waist pulling her as close as he could. Her hand had already combed itself into his hair, pulling his face closer to hers. Her core tightened, her fingers shaking only slightly. If he rejected her there, it would all be over. She’d have to force herself to face reality—no matter how painful it would be.
She made that promise to herself.
Three years of this damned, insidious longing.
Please, give me this chance.
Experiencing three years of unresolved tension, fleeting glances to see the other turn away, and a longing so intense it could make one feel sick—any touch, any meaningful phrase, anything. It had a voracious appetite that always demanded more, and yet, it couldn’t be satisfied. It never accepted cheap gifts, like a genuine smile, or a word of praise. It always demanded more.
Yona’s eyes fluttered closed, her breath mingling with his, and as he was closing the last few centimeters of distance between them, he paused.
Her face, betrayal etched into her features, flashed through his mind. Tears streaming down her cheeks as she threw insult after insult at him.
And he pulled away.
He couldn’t do it. She deserved better than that.
Her eyes opened, and he felt like the biggest ass in the kingdom. Emotions pooled in them—hurt, shame, embarrassment—and bore straight into his own, asking, if not pleading, why? Looking away, Yona sighed, and untangled herself from his grip, turning her back to him.
“I think you should go,” she muttered, an undeniable edge to her voice. His mouth opened to protest, but he couldn’t argue with her.
Without another word, he left, sliding the door closed behind him. Cursing under his breath, he made his way to the other side of the brothel.
Yona wanted to break something. Anything. She wanted to lash out, scream, cry—anything that would make the humiliation go away. It had seemed mutual! Where had she gone wrong? What was he thinking?
“Son of a bitch,” she hissed, her voice barely audible, as she pressed her nails into her palm. “Calm down.” A promise was a promise. He rejected her—that was the end. She was going to move on, and forget all her feelings for him.
If only it were that simple.
Part of her wished, even for a moment, that she had never met him. That she had never developed these feelings for him. But his sweet words and kind looks had swept her off her feet, just like every other damned individual he decided to woo.
She wanted to resent him, she really did… but she just couldn’t. Deep down, she knew they were both at fault. They had gotten themselves into this mess. It wasn’t worth the effort of denying it anymore.
It was time for her to move on.
Yona sighed deeply, feeling some stagnant air leave her lungs. It was almost relieving, in a way. Once more, she focused on the rise and fall of her chest as she inhaled, and exhaled. A slight moment of calm, a feeling of independence, and a newfound resolve to work harder at doing what was best for her.
That moment of serenity was broken when a woman’s scream broke out from just down the hall. Her legs rushed forward before the rest of her could catch up, and she found herself facing three rooms that could have been the one she needed.
Throwing open the door, the first room held no signs of trouble. The second was the same as the first. Opening the third door, a bulky man had the prostitute over his shoulder, knocked unconscious. He was already halfway out the window leading to the outside balcony; Yona shuddered at the thought of being any later.
Removing her blade from her obi, she ran after him. He jumped over the balcony, still carrying the woman, and had just made it to the ground by the time she reached the railing on the perch. However, she would not let this stop her.
Launching herself over the railing, she jumped the seven feet to the ground, landing as silently as possible. Rushing the man, she threw her arm in front of his neck, yanking him back and pressing the blade against his jugular.
“Unhand the woman,” she commanded, her voice barely above a whisper. He was one of Kage’s men, she was sure. She would not lose this chance.
Unbeknownst to her, a man watched from the shadows of a nearby alleyway. His eyes fell upon her red hair, and it felt as if he had been punched in the gut. He had seen her run past, but he thought it was a specter of his past.
Princess Yona… alive? It couldn’t be possible. There were plenty of witnesses that watched her and Hak fall off that cliff. To think they had been alive all this time was utterly impossible.
But how many women had hair like that?
The impossibility of it was only reinforced more when this apparition assaulted the man—the sheer force behind it proved this was not her first time handling someone in that way. The princess he knew could never be capable of that.
He watched as the man dropped the woman he had taken, her body hitting the ground with a solid contact. However, it was not out of compliance to the red-haired woman, but to move to grab her with more ease. His breath caught in his throat as he watched the thug reach for this woman—even if it wasn’t Princess Yona, she was still in danger.
It was reckless of her to try and take this man down alone.
At least, that was what he had thought. That thought was utterly annihilated once she pulled her arm back sharply, bringing with it her blade, and his blood. The man’s strangled cry for help was swallowed by the action, and it had never made it out of his throat. The blade, now covered in the man’s blood, reflected the moonlight as the man crumpled to the ground.
The witness felt his stomach drop, and all the blood leave his face.
It can’t be…
The woman attended to the fallen prostitute, trying to wake her up.
“Yoon! Jae Ha!!” she called, tucking her blade into her obi, her voice echoing against the walls of the buildings surrounding her. Even though time had passed, she even sounded like Princess Yona, just as he remembered. But this woman had just killed a man—a human trafficker, no less—behind a brothel. She, too, must have been a prostitute, judging by how she was dressed, he thought.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, the witness disappeared through the other end of the alley he had been hiding in. He knew what would happen if they saw him.
He couldn’t let the investigation end that easily. It was sloppy.
However, this was certainly an interesting development. One that he would keep to himself for as long as necessary, until he could verify it himself. Without another sound, the man disappeared.
Yoon and Jae Ha quickly made their way to where Yona was, and paled when they saw the trafficker’s body. Glancing at Yona’s hands, Yoon could quickly surmise that she had been the one to kill him.
Yona always adopted a look in her eyes when she had killed someone. This was hardly the first time, and it was most definitely not the last. But Jae Ha could always recognize it. It seemed as if she had seen the ultimate darkness—her eyes had no life in them. They were dull, cold, and unfeeling.
Carrying the unconscious woman inside, Jae Ha gave Yona one last look over his shoulder, thinking it better not to say anything to her at that moment. After what had happened earlier, it would probably be better to give her some space, he thought.
Yoon helped Yona up, wiping her hands with a spare rag he had on him. Both of them glanced at the now-lifeless body lying in the street—one with disgust, the other with a mix between concern and horror.
“Leave him,” Yona spat, turning on her heel. “I’m sending a message.” With one last hesitant look, Yoon followed Yona back into the brothel. It was time for both of them to retire.
With that, the first night ended.
It was already almost dawn, and despite the fact that she had stayed up all night, Yona couldn’t seem to sleep. The thought of the coming day kept her mind buzzing—no matter how exhausted she felt physically, her imagination ran wild, dragging her along for the ride.
Thoughts of the trafficker that she had killed, the state of the woman that was almost kidnapped, and the safety of the remainder of the women working there—herself included—bounced back and forth, their incessant screaming rattling her bones and her mind alike.
Exhaustion eventually won out, her consciousness fading into a quiet hum of anxieties. Right as she began to doze off, her body relaxing and her breathing becoming steady, the door to her room quietly slid open.
A presence, almost imperceptible, entered the room, silently padding across the floor until they reached her. Suddenly uncomfortable, Yona turned in her half-sleeping state, ending up on her back. Something felt off, but it wasn’t enough for her to truly acknowledge it—more a dull threat in the back of her mind.
The apparition reached her, kneeling, and sitting comfortably next to her futon. A ghost of a hand brushed her hair away from her face.
“Yona,” a voice cooed. “It is time to wake up.”
She didn’t fully respond, her body feeling heavy. A quiet protest escaped her—she was just falling asleep, she didn’t want to get up yet.
“Yona…” the voice persisted, sounding a little more urgent. “I received your message.”
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Dragging her body back into consciousness, she tried to open her eyes, but failed. She felt a gentle hand caress her cheek, but it felt wrong. This wasn’t anything like Jae Ha’s gentle touch—it was much more insidious.
“I do not appreciate you killing my underlings, Yona.”
Heart lurching into her throat, she jumped, eyes flying open as she scrambled away, arms swinging wildly to banish the intruder.
But no one was there.
By the looks of it, no one had ever been there. It was a hazy, fading memory of a dream.
To her, it seemed more like an omen than a nightmare.
Dread was not an easy feeling to shake off.
That nightmare had lingered with Yona, haunting her with its message. The weight in her stomach only worsened when they had found that the body had been moved. It could be assumed that Kage’s goons had taken the body with them, and surely that message had reached their leader.
The brothel was now on his radar—that much was undeniable.
As the other women prepared Yona for her second night, she told them of what had happened—with considerably less gruesome details. Even so, they were shaken by what they had heard.
“So we’re not safe?”
“I’m most likely their new target,” Yona answered, her voice low. “But make sure you stay safe. If any customers make you uncomfortable, tell Yoon, or Jae Ha.”
As the sun set, she watched from within her room, waiting for the darkness to come, and the lanterns to be lit. Customers began to filter in, choosing their escorts for the evening. However, she remained, sitting silently in her room, lost in thought.
Her silence was broken by a voice outside of her door.
“Tsubaki, come here.” It was the owner—what did he need from her? Opening the door, she was greeted with a sour look from the man. “You’ve been summoned. A customer wants you, specifically.”
Her stomach dropped, and the blood left her face. Swaying slightly, she grabbed the door for support—her hands were trembling, her breath escaping her in short pants. Kage moved much quicker than she had expected, and she was sure she would be met with her fate that evening.
“Are you okay? You don’t seem well.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted, swallowing down the lump in her throat. Straightening up, she took a breath. “What did the man look like?”
“I couldn’t tell. He was covering his face with his hat.”
It has to be him, she thought. If she was going to meet Jin, she would do it without any sort of hesitation. It would nearly suck up all the resolve she had in her body, but she would not show him she was afraid. His tricks would not work on her—she knew he was a tangible being, not some ghost.
“Remember: if you ruin our customer’s stay, you’ll be out of here before dawn. You follow our rules.”
She understood exactly what she had to do.
He doesn’t scare me.
It took some repeating, but she eventually was able to carry herself as a proper escort. Pushing past the owner, she walked with perfect posture past all the other rooms. It felt as if demons were forming behind her with every step she took, as if they knew her life was in danger. With meaningful steps, she made her way to the man’s requested room—or rather, her execution.
Upon reaching his door, she knocked lightly, entering the room as she was taught. Keeping her eyes to the ground, she stepped to the cushion on the floor in the middle of the room, and sat. She was the perfect image of a respectful escort.
She had to be. This investigation was riding on it.
Bowing respectfully to her customer, she kept her eyes planted to the floor.
“I humbly apologize for the wait, sir,” she cooed, her voice as light as any of the other escorts’. “I do hope you have not been inconvenienced by my tardiness.”
“Not at all,” the customer finally spoke—but it wasn’t Jin. His voice didn’t sound anything like that. Relief washed through her. Even if she was dealing with one of his goons, it wasn’t Jin himself, and that was enough for her. “Please, sit up.”
Following orders, she straightened, returning her hands to her lap. It was that moment that she finally looked at her customer for the evening.
Her eyes widened, and she was sure that she would be sick in that moment if she wasn’t too shocked to heave. Her blood had no idea where to rush to—it rushed back and forth from her head, making her light-headed and dizzy. Her mouth parted slightly, but it was so unbelievable that she couldn’t form the words.
“So it is you,” he mused, his eyes wandering her face. “You’re alive…”
She couldn’t believe this. It couldn’t be happening. She wanted to scream, to rush out of there, but she knew she couldn’t. Even if she could, her body was frozen there, only a few feet away from him. She wasn’t sure whether she should cry, or be filled with rage.
“Yona,” he breathed, her own name sounding like poison.
“… Soo Won.”