Book 1: She Surrounds Me
Pipa strings reminded Wheein of her grandmother. When the sun diminished for the moon to watch over the fields, the elderly sat on the cobblestones outside of their home. One hand resting on her hip, she would always ask Wheein to be a good child and fetch the pipa for her. Every night, Wheein would roll her eyes because she knew that her grandmother was simply too lazy, fully capable of holding a child as she tended the crops and swinging a sickle to slice tall grass. Wheein would know, she was that child after all.
Despite the lie, every night Wheein would carry the instrument and hand it over to her grandmother. The sound of cicadas chirping reached her ears as Wheein sat down beside her. She would stop tuning the strings in favor of brushing away the hair from Wheein’s eyes, laughing when Wheein whined and swatted her hand away.
Every night, Wheein closed her eyes as she listened to the music of her grandmother mixed with the cicadas and distant chatter from nearby families. Every night, Wheein basked in the humid air as strings were plucked and her grandmother hummed a faint tune. Every night, Wheein missed her. It clung to her like dirt on her skin, suffocated her like smoke in her lungs.
As the performer played the pipa, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine she was back with her grandmother, back in the summer nights where she only had to fight mosquitos pricking her skin. However the more she listened, the more it sunk in that Wheein was not where she belonged. The musician was too skilled, too perfect. She heard talent, but no love.
A man coughed and Wheein flinched. Among the hundreds of people surrounding her, Wheein felt cold and shivered. Nonetheless, her throat tightened as if engulfed in smoke. She opened her eyes and willed herself not to cry, to stop thinking about her grandmother and the humid air and the cicadas and stop thinking. This was not home.
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Wheein held herself as people filed out of the theater, sound near deafening as the people talked and cackled. She moved slower than the women that brought her would have liked, but she did not want to bump into someone. “Why is she walking so sloppily?” one of the women whispered. Another member of royalty or of noble blood, Wheein was sure. Those were the only people that associated with—
“Maybe she’s just like that,” another said. She didn’t attempt to hide her scorn. They giggled and Wheein gulped.
A hand rested on her shoulder and Wheein winced. Burning, she felt like she was burning. “Did you enjoy the show?”
Tightening the grip on her own clothing, Wheein turned to the source of the voice. Red lips curled up in a smirk and an eyebrow was raised in question. Wheein didn’t want to show her anything that resembled weakness, though it was clear that she had no power. Words lodged in her throat and she settled for a nod.
The woman lifted her arm and what Wheein guessed was a smile rose, but it was cast aside for a neutral expression as she turned and sauntered her way outside. As a few people cleared the way to let her pass, the aristocratic girls fumbled before going after her like turtle-ducks following their mother. Power drawn to power.
Wheein turned to her shoulder, focusing on the cloth that was touched by the woman. Though there was no signs of burns, there was fire in Wheein’s skin. Gaze on the floor, she rolled the cotton of her skirts between her fingers. Red. For once Wheein tried to stop thinking about where she was and where she could never return as she followed them.
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She was a symbol. She represented how the Earth Kingdom was better off making peace with the Fire Nation, rather than fighting against the future of prosperity. That was why Wheein was here. That was why Wheein was alive.
At least that’s what her hijacker—he demanded to be called Captain Daedu but he would never hear her thoughts—told her. She wondered why he bothered with the theatrics. Both knew she was essentially meant to be a glorified slave.
Wheein cracked her knuckles as she straightened her posture and stared at the palace gardens. The last time she was caught slouching, the head maid had smacked her back and so Wheein ignored how her muscles begged to lie down. In the distance, she could hear the mumble of men inside the room. She never understood what they were saying, so she blocked them out and concentrated on how the wind made the trees dance. Within the room, she knew the woman from the theater was listening. The woman she was serving.
Her ears picked up on the sound of scuffling feet and her shoulders tensed. Wheein took a deep breath and told herself to calm down. The door slid open and Wheein adjusted her stance as wood knocked against wood. She remained in place as two men sauntered down the wooden hall. One yawned and Wheein dug her nails into her hand, but they went by without paying her any mind. They wore military uniforms, adorning the colors of red and yellow.
One, two, three, four. Five seconds passed before a group of three filed out of the room next, two in front with their shoulders almost pressing. The third one walked in a languid pace behind them, his features suggesting he was much older than the other men. Despite this, his posture was straight with his hands resting behind his back. Wheein started to speculate whether he was a military figure or a politician when he turned towards her.
He blinked and her nails dug into her skin until they turned red as he approached her. “You’re the girl that the palace won’t stop talking about.” It wasn’t a question. The man was close enough for Wheein to smell the smoke clinging to the dark clothing. There was the possibility that he was a smoker. There was the possibility that he had used his bending recently. The latter made Wheein unable to tear her gaze as she nodded.
Raising an eyebrow, the man looked her up and down. It wasn’t as menacing, but there was a glint in his eye similar to the aristocrats at the theater. Judging her value, judging the reason she was here. He reached forward and Wheein shut her eyes as fingers clutched onto her hair. She didn’t squeeze them, knowing that he could take offense if her repulse was evident.
“Is something the matter, Commander Jeaki?”
The man’s face was calm as he turned to the woman, but Wheein caught the way his hand retracted as if she caught fire. Though the woman wasn’t looking her way, Wheein shrinked when she saw the former’s eyes.
He coughed into his hand, composing himself. “Nothing, Your Highness. I was merely inquiring if this was the new Royal Servant.”
She hummed. “She is. If it sates your curiosity, she’s been a fine addition so far.”
So far, Wheein repeated in her head. The prospect of not being “fine” made Wheein tighten her hand until it threatened to strain.
With no reason to stay, the man bowed as he placed a hand against his chest. “It does. Until next time then, Princess Hyejin.”
His eyes met Wheein’s again for a brief moment before he straightened his posture and sauntered down the hall like the others. Silence filled Wheein’s ears when the sound of his slippers scraping against the wood faded. Wheein kept her head down. She didn’t need to see where the princess’ gaze lied. Yellow patterns swirled at the edge of Princess Hyejin’s dress. There were no signs of wrinkles.
“Did you wait long?” Her eyes slowly trailed up until it landed on the princess’ visage. No signs of imperfection.
“No, Your Highness.” Wheein’s fingers held onto the cloth at the front of her skirts, scratched at it. It gave her something to do. When her hands were occupied, the need to use her feet—to walk away, to run away—was suppressed.
“Good.” She didn’t move. “Did he hurt you?”
Wheein blinked. “Pardon, Your Highness?”
“Did he hurt you?” she repeated. Calm was apparent in her eyes and face, regarding Wheein like she was speaking of the weather.
“N-no,” she said. Then, she fumbled. “Your Highness! I mean—no, Your Highness.”
Princess Hyejin hummed, satisfied. “Come along then,” she beckoned. “My mother wanted me to see her as soon as the council was adjourned.”
She watched the princess proceed forward, thinking. This wasn’t home. Wheein followed her. Her steps felt as heavy as the earth.
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She was the youngest out of the family. Neither of her sisters followed their ancestors’ footsteps, one preferring the comfort of the castle walls and the other better suited with the pen as her weapon. Reasons upon reasons stacked to the brim of Wheein’s mind on why Princess Hyejin shouldn’t be fighting in the war. But she did.
Princess Hyejin chose to fight in a war, adept enough to hold the title of lieutenant. Men in Wheein’s village wept as they were drafted and some in the village already mourned the losses the war would bring. One of the grievers was Wheein’s grandmother. Princess Hyejin chose to go against the men that held their children like an anchor that could somehow prevent them from leaving. Princess Hyejin chose to taint the dirt with fire, fill the air with smoke.
She chose to accept Captain Daedu’s gift. One decision from her easily kept Wheein alive. One decision from the princess could easily change that.
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“The girl isn’t going to kill me while I’m bathing.” Princess Hyejin sighed as she unlocked the golden pin, hair spilling and settling past her shoulders. Wheein’s gaze shifted from the woman to the guard that glared at her with a fire that matched the bending he must have possessed. His eyes revealed everything. He must have been proud of his nation, for he would show no hesitation in ridding anyone that wasn’t a part of it.
“Your Highness, I believe it’s best that someone is on standby,” he said.
“And you will be.” Princess Hyejin held out the hairpin towards Wheein. The latter retrieved it, careful not to brush their fingers. Placing the clasp on the table by the bathtub, she was grateful for the excuse to turn away. Her eyes scanned the comb, the rag, and the soap. She knew that the man was still staring, but it felt good when she didn’t coerce herself to meet his gaze. “Outside.”
“But Your Highness—”
“You are not here to follow what you believe. You are here to follow orders.” Wheein winced and her grasp on the bowl almost wavered. From the princess’ tone, Wheein knew that she sent her own scowl towards the soldier. Though Princess Hyejin never threw a glare at Wheein herself, the sight still struck fear. Everything about her struck fear. “I’m starting to believe that you wish to stay for reasons that aren’t honorable.”
Wheein’s throat felt dry, tight. “I apologize, Your Highness,” the guard spoke after a long pause. “Offending you wasn’t my intention. I’ll be at your beck and call outside.”
Only when the man walked away and shut the door with a clang did a tremor run through Wheein. She heard Princess Hyejin sigh again. “Honestly,” she whispered.
Princess Hyejin cleared her throat and Wheein straightened her posture. “Wheein, correct?”
Wheein blinked. She presumed Princess Hyejin didn’t remember her name. It was odd to hear it wrapped around her low voice. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Come and help me with these robes.” Swiveling her head, Wheein caught sight of Princess Hyejin’s bath gown. Her stomach twisted and something in her throat prevented her from speaking. Wheein nodded and stepped towards her. She undid the knot against Princess Hyejin’s waist, her stare flicking away as the fabric gave way. Wheein placed her hands on Princess Hyejin’s shoulders and lifted the gown from tanned skin. She took note of the stillness in the bathtub’s water.
A chuckle stopped Wheein’s ministrations. The fabric cascaded to the marble floor. “Why are you looking away?”
Mortified, Wheein forced herself to look up. Amusement was plain on Princess Hyejin’s face. “I… thought you would prefer for me to not look, Your Highness.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Considerate,” Princess Hyejin started. “But pointless, given you need to see me to fulfill your task.”
A blush burned Wheein’s cheeks. “Right, Your Highness. How silly of me.”
“Silly, yes.” Wheein knelt down to gather the fabric. Though the design itself was simpler than Princess Hyejin’s regular dress, the silk was of fine quality. “But again, considerate.”
The sound of water rippling as Hyejin stepped into the tub was distant in Wheein’s ears as she froze, unsure of what to think.
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The tip of Wheein’s sleeves were soaked. Princess Hyejin made it clear that she noticed, sparing a glance, but didn’t say what was on her mind. Either she didn’t care enough to voice her opinion or she decided to not question it. Wheein was grateful for the silence regardless.
Wheein gently grabbed the princess’ arm as she scrubbed it against the warm rag. She worried her actions seemed aggressive, but Princess Hyejin didn’t voice any harsh complaints or warning. Her skin was brilliant and smooth, a contrast of Wheein’s own flesh. When she finished cleaning the princess’ other arm, she paused. Hesitant, Wheein willed herself to peer lower.
Through the water, Wheein could see Princess Hyejin’s stomach clearly. Against her stomach, there was a patch of skin white like sand that acted as a path on her sun-kissed skin. Wheein’s eyes widened, clinging to the view of the scar.
“It was from a run-in with the Avatar.” Wheein watched fingers submerge to run along the jagged skin. Princess Hyejin’s eyes were closed, a closed fist propping her head lazily. “My brigade and I were trained on our outpost when she came with a few men. We outnumbered them, but you can probably guess that it didn’t matter.”
Tearing her gaze towards the water, Wheein understood the picture she was making. Everyone knew and expected the power the Avatar possessed, but no amount of preparation could stop the impact when the power was displayed. Similar to the damage a spreading fire could do to a forest brimming with greens. Wheein took a moment to breathe.
“Are you alright, Your Highness?” Wheein asked out of courtesy.
Princess Hyejin hummed. “Before you arrived, my condition was more crucial. But now there’s just this scar to show for it.”
“I see…” Wheein found the image of the princess injured difficult to imagine, impossible. She focused on the bathwater rather than the woman engulfed in it. “What was the Avatar like?”
It wasn’t until she saw the ripples emerge and heard the water slosh did she realize what she said. “I was out of line, Your Highness,” she forced out. “Please forgive—”
She froze when she met Princess Hyejin’s stare. Her eyes didn’t hold a blaze, but it was definitely focused. “The Avatar wasn’t what I expected.” Before Wheein could ask for her to elaborate, she watched the princess’ lips lift into a smile. Dangerous. “She wasn’t what I expected, just like you.”
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Wheein brought her knees to her chest as she stared at the humble campfire. The air was too humid. As she knocked her heels together and shifted the dirt beneath her sandals, Wheein closed her eyes as she listened to her grandmother’s voice. She always dragged Wheein with her to mingle with the rest of the elderly, the former insisting that each story they shared was a thousand lessons for Wheein to learn. Wheein frowned and believed her grandmother simply didn’t know how to let her go.
She didn’t remember what the aging men told her even though she knew it was the same type of story. Wheein could never forget her grandmother’s stories though, for the latter’s tales were always complemented with the music from her pipa as she sang a hymn. This was one of the rarer days where Wheein’s grandmother relied on her voice alone. Wheein didn’t mind.
“The fire won’t kill you, Wheein.”
She stopped shuffling her feet. That wasn’t what Wheein remembered. “Mama,” she frowned. “That’s not right.” When she opened her eyes however, her grandma was nowhere to be seen. Instead, her gaze focused on the head maid from the castle.
Wheein rose from the ground, her skin cold despite the fire between her and the woman growing and growing until it separated them. She backed away as she watched the flames, tumbling as her feet hit the log she had been sitting on.
Dirt scraped against her skin and the rocks cling to her dirtied cheek. She winced as she struggled to stand on her feet, the blood on her hands seeping into the earth. Her arms were pulsing and ached and Wheein was scared, she was so scared and confused.
“Now that’s no way to act around your elders.” Captain Daedu stood before her, his armor glistening and red. She realized the shine on the metal was blood. In his hands was a net the color of tree bark. “Come here, Wheein.”
Without wasting any time, she scrambled away from the man and the fire. She heard her name leave his lips repeatedly as she ran farther into her dark surroundings, hating how it rolled off his tongue. As his voice grew quieter and quieter, Wheein’s senses felt dull and she couldn’t stop thinking about how heavy she felt. She didn’t know how she was able to move forward.
All of a sudden, Wheein’s senses heightened as a scream pierced her ears. She wasn’t at the fireplace near the outskirts of the woods. She was at her village.
Wheein whipped her head as she ran, trying to see past all the smoke and ash clouding her vision. She recognized the people nearby her: the troublemaker child with no parents in sight and tears washing his dirt covered face, one of the widows calling out for her father and daughter.
A gasp left her throat, but not from the lack of clean air. Her grandmother, where was she?
“Mama!” Wheein called out. She squinted her eyes to decipher the faraway shadows without any luck. Wheein caught something in the corner of her eye, turning towards the ground. Her stomach dropped, her heart froze, but her feet kept running. Corpses laid on the dirt, the ash becoming a blanket to hide their open, lifeless eyes. Was her grandmother one of them?
She let out a yelp as she lost her footing as they struck one of the many bodies, the side of her cheek and arms scraping against the pebbles. Her arms throbbed with a pain that couldn’t be associated with falling and Wheein fought the urge to cry.
“There you are.” Wheein forced herself to look up. Fire already catching on her fingertips, Princess Hyejin stood in front of her. The flames were nothing compared to the burning hate that shone in her eyes.
“Wheein!” Goosebumps rising in her skin, she whipped her head to find the person who called her. There was a lone figure amidst the dirt and smoke that ruined her vision. And yet, Wheein knew exactly who they were.
“Mama!” She reached out with her free hand, bright orange in the corner of her eyes to signal the flame in Princess Hyejin’s hands hurling towards her.
The vision of her grandmother faded through her fingers like sand and so did her dream. Wheein blinked rapidly, heaved as if the air was forced out of her lungs and she was reaching for bits and pieces. The surface below her body was hard and cold. She must have tossed and turned until she fell out of bed.
She stared at the wallpaper of her room. Red burned into her eyes like fire. There was nothing but red around her.
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Unsurprisingly, they made sure Wheein would never have a chance to use her bending. Guards were everywhere she looked, by the door frame as she searched for spare plates, near what Wheein could only assume were ways to exit the castle, at the hall when she stepped out of the bedroom with Princess Hyejin. Their eyes were coal, waiting for Wheein to offer a reason—an excuse to light up and burn her. But Wheein refused to give them anything and they remained simple lumps of coal.
The guards were unnecessary. How could coal strike fear when she already tended to a fire that had burned greens and villages and would most certainly burn her until she was nothing but smoke and ash? Every waking moment would be spent to serve Princess Hyejin, spent by her side. That was enough for Wheein to give up before she could even try.
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No matter what, Wheein found herself shaking as she approached the mahogany door. She didn’t know how many times she knocked on the door, the days slipping through her hands like dirt. Secretly, Wheein kept a piece of paper and tallied the days she had been in the Fire Nation. When she heard footsteps outside of her bedroom, panic and heat rose as she tore the parchment to shreds and hid the evidence. All she knew was that she stayed in this palace long enough to fall into a routine, but not long enough for the seasons to change.
Wheein turned around to stare at the bed across the room. She wanted to back away from the mahogany wood, slip under the covers and forget that she was even here. Shaking the thought out of her head, she cleared the constricting of her throat. If she wasted time, the day would end before she knew it and so would her own. Her knuckles involuntarily flex.
“Your Highness? I’m coming in.” Wheein didn’t hear a response. She didn’t expect one.
The room was dark when Wheein entered, the morning still new. Around this time, her grandmother shook her awake to start the day and cultivate the crops. Dew clung to the plants outside their home and Wheein would complain that even the flowers wanted more rest. She should have been digging through the dirt to harvest the potatoes and cabbages.
Princess Hyejin lied silently, her long hair thrown over her exposed shoulder and spread out on her pillow. Stirring her awake was always a difficult task, partly because the woman was a deep sleeper and partly because Wheein feared in crossing the invisible boundary.
“Your Highness,” Wheein whispered. No answer. “Your Highness, please wake up.”
When Wheein knew calling out wouldn’t work, she swallowed the lump in her throat. Reaching out, Wheein held onto Princess Hyejin’s shoulder and shook her gently. “Your Highness?”
A groan left the princess’ lips and Wheein flinched, the latter reclaiming her hand and retreating. The princess slowly sat up and yawned, a languid palm covering her mouth. Wheein bowed in greeting. She wondered if her grandmother would be proud if she knew that Wheein showed respect, so unlike the girl that only waved when an elder greeted her before getting smacked by her grandmother. Given the situation, Wheein had a hunch that pride wouldn’t bloom in her chest. Her grandmother would express shame instead, so much shame that her throat would tighten as if she couldn’t breathe.
“I hope you had a pleasant rest, Your Highness.” Robes, Wheein needed to retrieve Princess Hyejin’s robes. She made way towards the dresser as soon as she straightened her posture, avoiding piercing eyes. “We have a long day ahead of us.”
Even in the dark, as Wheein knelt to open a drawer and find an outfit that was worthy, she felt Princess Hyejin’s eyes on her.
“Good morning, Wheein.” She paused, the silk almost sliding off her hands. Gulping, Wheein moved her head to take in the sight of the princess.
Princess Hyejin had one hand buried in her hair, the sleep wrapping around her voice. Her sheets were thrown in the corner of her bed, nightclothes revealing skin that forced Wheein to meet her eyes.
“Good morning, Your Highness.” The princess smiled at that and Wheein burned, abruptly standing with the dress in her arms.
No matter what, no matter how many times she went through this routine, Wheein would never get used to Princess Hyejin.
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Princess Hyejin enjoyed daily strolls around the castle. Wheein didn’t mind at all, favoring that over waiting outside conference rooms because in the end she was a war prisoner. It sounded a lot better than wasting away in her room, left with reminiscing what she lost and risking the loss of her sanity as well. Therefore walking around the princess sounded lovely, even when guards were everywhere she looked. Princess Hyejin disagreed.
By the time they walked past the fifth guard in less than twenty paces, Wheein noticed that Princess Hyejin started leading her to a different route. She ignored how the heels of her feet burned as she struggled to keep up with the princess. Her eyes scanned the halls, aware that the red men were boring their coal eyes into their backs as they walked away. Nerves shook her body when Princess Hyejin led her to areas with less soldiers, then no soldiers. The wooden floors ended suddenly and she found her surroundings void from red. She took in the sight of grass, bushes, trees—there was so much green.
The only red Wheein could see was Princess Hyejin’s attire, the fabric scarcely touching the dirt. Wheein stopped her chase when Princess Hyejin paused at a stone bridge, staring at the flowing stream below. She panted, the fear failing to loosen her throat, looking around in confusion. Wheein wondered if her mind was playing tricks on her, if her dream would torture her by burning these field right in front of her and trap her. Then, she wondered if it was trick from the princess herself, if the princess would show just how much destruction her fire can create.
“Y-your Highness,” Wheein said. “Where are we?”
“We’re at the gardens.” Princess Hyejin smiled as she leaned back against the bridge. “The soldiers have been becoming an eyesore, don’t you agree?”
Wheein blinked. She shouldn’t answer that. “But,” she pointed back at the castle halls. “The garden was back there.”
Princess Hyejin shook her head. “That small thing is what my sister attends to in her free time. Since she refuses to leave the castle walls, we had to bring the garden to her.”
Wheein took in her surroundings once more, attentive towards the lack of red men watching. Any second now, they would come pouring in and accuse Wheein of attempting to harm the princess. “Your Highness,” she started. “If they find out we’re outside, they’ll—” They’ll punish me, they’ll kill me.
Princess Hyejin stared at her, an eyebrow raised. Wheein tried not to shake, but she couldn’t gather courage when the princess looked as if she could read every fear and worry in Wheein’s eyes. “Nothing will happen.” She sounded so sure. “It’s not the first time I’ve done something they didn’t approve of.”
“Your Highness, I—”
“Nothing ever happens in these gardens,” Princess Hyejin interrupted. “Therefore, no harm will come our way.” She smiled at Wheein and the latter was reminded of the bath incident. The tension, the adrenaline accompanied with the fear, was the same. “Right?”
Wheein knew what the princess was really asking, the implication. She shook her head. “No harm will come, Your Highness. I promise.”
She swore that Princess Hyejin’s expression changed, the amber in her eyes softening, but Wheein knew it could have only been a trick of the harsh daylight. “Lovely. Are you still tired, Wheein?”
“No, Your Highness.”
She let out a hum. With that, Princess Hyejin continued to cross the stone bridge. Wheein watched Princess Hyejin’s retreating back, took in the red that stood out amongst all the green. Her feet started moving and Wheein followed the princess without a second thought.
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As Wheein observed Princess Hyejin sit on the cut grass and lean against the tree, she noted that her face was neutral. It then hit Wheein that the only times she saw Princess Hyejin smile was when it was directed at her. Wheein didn’t know what to think of that.
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Sometimes, Wheein knew when the dreams were happening. She despised knowing, despised running through her burning village to find her grandmother when she knew that the end wouldn’t change.
Wheein stared at the stick poking into the fire. Coals were flipped on their bellies with a flick of the wrist, embers flying out. She winced when ash landed on her arms, the burn growing even as she brushed the bits away. Her stomach dropped when she heard a chuckle.
Peeking up at her, Wheein saw Princess Hyejin tend to the fire with a smile. When the princess met her gaze, the flecks of amber in her eyes glistened against the fire. “You’re such a silly girl, Wheein.”
She could never meet Princess Hyejin’s stare for long. The cicadas were hush as Wheein stared into the fire. She knew they were dying and yet she did nothing. “Where is my grandmother?”
“Why do you care?” The long stick Princess Hyejin held in her hands was burning. She didn’t seem to notice. “You didn’t care before.”
Her eyes stung, but she refused to wipe her eyes. “Where is she?” she repeated. “I want to see her.”
Wheein’s plea was met with silence. When she peeked over the fire once more, Princess Hyejin was no longer there. Mulling over whether she should go after her, Wheein flinched as screams cut through the air.
She stood up just for a woman to shove her aside, losing her stance as she tripped and crashed against the dirt. Wheein groaned as she struggled to pick herself off the ground, dirt clinging to face and threatened to get into her eyes.
Villagers trampled each other, the dirt they kicked up mixed with smoke that flooded their home. She coughed violently as she watched them rush for survival.
“Wheein!” She gasped at the sound of her name, scrambling to her feet. She jumped to see over the flow of running villagers, but was unable to find her grandmother.
“Mama?” she called out. “Mama where are you?”
Goosebumps rose when she heard her grandmother shriek in agony, her pained voice immediately falling to an abrupt silence. “Mama!” When her grandmother didn’t respond, Wheein felt her senses dull.
Wheein yelped when her hair was yanked back, meeting Captain Daedu’s eyes. They were pure gold, filled with fire and rage. She flinched when he caressed her cheek. “You were too late to save her, Wheein.”
She shivered amongst the hot air, amongst her burning home.
“I know you want to see her again.” Captain Daedu forced her to face the mob of running villagers, restricting her hands behind her back. “I can help you.”
Before Wheein could question him, Captain Daedu kicked her into the crowd. She let out a cry as she bumped into a man, crashing into the dirt. She went into a fetal position as feet trampled and covered her in dirt, her arms pulsing in pain.
Wheein gasped and opened her eyes, taking in the sight of red walls. She was not dead. She was not with her grandmother.
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As soon as the first signs of morning light came, Wheein knocked on the mahogany door and entered Princess Hyejin’s room. Her head throbbed as she fetched the princess’ dress, eyes burning with every blink. Exhaustion aside, Wheein was still able to feel Princess Hyejin’s stare. She must have known what was running in Wheein’s mind. The idea made her want to combust on the spot.
“How old are you, Wheein?” The aforementioned girl paused, her hands lingering on the ribbons wrapped around the princess.
Wheein stared, wondering why she would want to know such a thing. She wasn’t in a position to question her however. Thus, Wheein told her. Princess Hyejin widened her eyes and Wheein froze in turn. Surprise was foreign when it came to the princess.
“What’s the matter, Your Highness?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Princess Hyejin shook her head. “It seems that you’re the same age as me. All this time, I thought you were younger.”
Blinking, Wheein raised a hand to cover her gaping mouth. “I thought you were older than me,” she muttered.
Her face burned when Princess Hyejin laughed, aware of her own carelessness. “I get that a lot.”
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In the middle of the night, Wheein woke up shaking. Her arms trembled and she huddled into herself. She couldn’t understand. She trembled as if she was dumped in ice, but her dreams were fire and smoke. She quivered until her teeth chattered, but her eyes burned.
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Captain Daedu had his hands wrapped around Wheein’s neck when she woke up, the girl gasping for air as she reached for her neck. The shaking wouldn’t cease even as she felt no touch on her skin besides her own. She stared at the red walls, her breaths hurried and short. She gasped and tightened her hands until fists, forcing herself to take slow gulps of air. When she felt herself regain composure, Wheein brushed away the strands of her that stuck to her forehead.
She could never fall back to sleep after a bad dream, the adrenaline and fear pushing her bed away as if it was poison. Getting up from her bed, Wheein walked to the window sill. Her fingers roamed over the metal bars, another precaution they made for her. It was understandable, but unnecessary. At least the rods didn’t block out the light from seeping through the glass.
Her grandmother told her that if she ever needed guidance, all Wheein needed to do was to look at the moon. But as Wheein continued to stare at the soft light, she was still lost.
Before Wheein could decide on what to do until morning arrived—her choices were limited—she jolted in place as a groan resounded in the room. Wheein whipped her head around, searching for the source of the sound. She waited a moment for the sound to return, but her room was silent. Sighing, Wheein told herself that she imagined it. It made sense, considering how Wheein was constantly on edge.
However, Wheein was proven wrong as another moan filled the room. With widened eyes, she directed her gaze towards the mahogany door.
Oh no. Wheein pondered on what she should do, ignoring the part of her that knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to find out what was happening, but she knew punishment was sure to follow if she chose to enter the princess’ chambers at night. Her reasoning was cut short when the groan rung in her ears.
The cry was in pain, weak. Frowning, Wheein sauntered to the closed entrance. She took a deep breath as her hand tightened on the door handle. If she ended up imagining the cries of anguish, she would have no excuses to barging in the princess’ room. Maybe she could pretend she was doing late night cleaning. No, Wheein thought, I would get burned on the spot.
Sliding the door open, Wheein tiptoed inside the room all the while holding her breath. The moonlight had a greater shine in this room, multiple windows lining the scarlet walls. Wheein swiveled her head when the moan made itself known again. The sound was clear without the door to block it and Wheein was stunned when she deciphered the voice.
Approaching the princess’ bed, Wheein’s hunch was correct. Princess Hyejin laid in bed, her face contorted in agony with sweat on her forehead. In hindsight, it made sense that the cries came from Princess Hyejin, but at the same time it wouldn’t click with Wheein. She never once saw the princess look so vulnerable, Wheein’s portrayal of her strictly cunning. She pictured strength. Wheein never expected weakness from Princess Hyejin, weakness similar to her own.
Hesitantly, Wheein placed a hand on Princess Hyejin’s shoulder. She shook her gently, just as Wheein always was when she had to wake up the royal. “Your Highness,” she whispered. “Your Hi—”
Wheein yelped as she was jerked forward, one hand in a tense grip while her free hand stopped her body from hitting the bed. Her stomach twisted in knots as Princess Hyejin glared at her. It was the first time the princess shot Wheein unveiled hostility, the same heated gaze she threw at Commander Jeaki and the soldier.
“Why,” Princess Hyejin hissed. “Are you here, Wheein?”
Her grip on Wheein’s wrist stung, the pain pulsing. Wheein was more afraid of the possibility that Princess Hyejin would trail up to feel her arms. “I-I,” Wheein struggled. “I kept hearing you groan in pain and it looked like you were having a nightmare.”
The heat in Princess Hyejin’s eyes subsided, her grip less harsh. Wheein lowered her head. “I-I apologize, Your Highness. I should have known better.”
Wheein immediately rested her hand on her side when Princess Hyejin let go, backing away from the mattress. She paused in the middle of the room, waiting for a response, waiting for a punishment.
A sigh left Princess Hyejin’s lips, a hand running through her hair. “You didn’t need to do that. The nightmares aren’t foreign to me.”
There was a beat of silence as the words sunk in. Wheein nodded, her face warming. “I apologize again, Your Highness. Do you wish for me to leave?”
Princess Hyejin waved her hand in dismissal and Wheein bowed before turning towards the door. She knew she should’ve been grateful for receiving no retribution, but an indescribable feeling lingered inside her.
Stopping in place, her throat tightened as she faced Princess Hyejin. “Yes, Your Highness?”
She watched Princess Hyejin bite her lip. “Thank you, Wheein. Though you didn’t have to, it was considerate of you to check on me.”
Wheein stared at her in stunned silence. When Princess Hyejin refused to look away from her however, the former snapped out of it. “You’re welcome, Your Highness. Please tell me if you need anything in the future.”
Closing the door behind her, Wheein stared at the wall as she attempted to contain her shock. For the rest of the night, Wheein kept repeating the words of appreciation in her head. Confused, Wheein was very confused. It wasn’t until the sun began to peek out did Wheein realize that she didn’t think about her own nightmare.
☀ ☀ ☀
Princess Hyejin didn’t mention the events that transpired. As Wheein removed her layers and helped the princess into her fresh robes, the silence was thick. Wheein felt hot, licking her upper lip as she straightened out the wrinkles.
“What is on the agenda?” the princess asked.
Wheein cleared her throat. “Besides your usual duties, your weekly art lesson is taking place today. The empress also requested that you join her for flower arranging later.”
The princess nodded, checking her reflection in the mirror. Wheein stood back and watched her, waiting for the cue to leave. There were no signs of exhaustion despite her nightmare. Wheein froze when Princess Hyejin met her gaze through the mirror, the former dropping her head. Her eyes were still piercing and held a fire that could burn everything.
☀ ☀ ☀
Her strokes were precise and never stayed on the canvas longer than necessary. Wheein’s eyes darted from the flower painting to Princess Hyejin. She adjusted her standing position to ease her back and feet, placing her hands behind her back.
The emotions Princess Hyejin presented to Wheein were limited, ranging from aloof to slight amusement. Last night felt like a dream, the signs of pain on Princess Hyejin’s face created from her imagination. Wheein didn’t know how to feel about knowing that despite everything, Princess Hyejin was in fact human.
Princess Hyejin turned to Wheein suddenly and the latter winced, but didn’t look away. Wheein waited for her to request something from her, but she focused back on her painting without a word.
Wheein needed to stop thinking about that incident. Before, she refused to meet Princess Hyejin’s eyes unless spoken to and all of a sudden she found herself stealing glances towards the princess. It didn’t change anything. Just because Princess Hyejin had nightmares like Wheein, that didn’t mean Wheein would think of her any differently. In the end, Princess Hyejin didn’t suffer like Wheein. In the end, Princess Hyejin would throw her away when she was no longer needed.
☀ ☀ ☀
The next time Princess Hyejin experienced a nightmare, Wheein was waiting for it to happen. After Wheein jolted awake, she stared at the ceiling, for she was unable to drift back into slumber. The vivid images flashing in her mind forced her to keep her eyes open. Not wanting to remember her burning village and the smoke that clouded both the people’s vision and lungs, she thought about Princess Hyejin.
As moonlight shifted through the glass, Wheein started to doubt. Princess Hyejin might have lied about the nightmares being common, an excuse to shoo Wheein away. Maybe Princess Hyejin’s fears didn’t enter her mind every night like Wheein’s did. It would make more sense. When the pained sounds started however, Wheein sat up with her eyes aimed at the mahogany door.
Swinging her legs to the side of the bed, Wheein tugged her sleeves down to ensure her arms were covered. She could have tried to ignore Princess Hyejin. She told Wheein that what she did last night was unnecessary. If Wheein tried, she could have blocked out the noises and waited for morning to come. The nightmares aren’t foreign to me. Wheein opened the door separating her and Princess Hyejin’s room, ignoring the fear that was on the brink of choking her alive.
Her movements were slow as Wheein approached Princess Hyejin, her eyes never leaving the bed. When she towered over the sleeping princess, Wheein watched the distress coating her features. She took in the sharp nails that clutched at the sheets, took in the frantic breaths that left the princess’ lips. This was real. Whether Wheein liked it or not, Princess Hyejin was human.
When Wheein shook her lightly, Princess Hyejin groaned and opened her eyes rather than capture the other girl in a sturdy grip. Wheein almost let out a sigh of relief.
Princess Hyejin blinked, turning her head towards Wheein. Upon recognition, the fatigue in her eyes disappeared as Princess Hyejin propped herself up on one arm. Her gaze wasn’t spiteful, but it held focus. “You’re here again,” she said simply.
Wheein nodded. “I know you said your nightmares were common, but…” She trailed off, not knowing what she wanted or should to say.
Exhaling a puff of air, Princess Hyejin ran her free hand through her hair. “I see.”
A silence befell them and Wheein averted her gaze, unsure of what to do next. The cool light shone on Wheein and she knew she couldn’t escape. Gulping, Wheein attempted to not shrink under Princess Hyejin’s gaze. She always looked at Wheein as if she was trying to find something.
“Your Highness,” Wheein muttered. “When you have these nightmares, what do you do after?”
“Make an effort to fall asleep again,” she answered.
She didn’t need to ask if Princess Hyejin had trouble sleeping. “Maybe…” Wheein silenced the warning signs that sparked in her head when Princess Hyejin raised an eyebrow. “Maybe I can help you.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?”
Immediately, an answer came to mind as Wheein remembered how her grandmother put her sleep. Her face began to warm. The idea was childish, she knew. However, Princess Hyejin asked and she couldn’t think of another method. “I can try singing you to sleep?”
Princess Hyejin blinked. Wheein bit the inside of her cheek, regretting her words. She closed her eyes and waited for the princess to laugh instead, but was surprised to hear blankets shifting. When Wheein opened her eyes once more, Princess Hyejin was lying on her bed properly. She left an empty space beside her on the mattress.
Nodding in acknowledgement, Wheein approached her like she was approaching a fire that needed to be quelled. She slowly sat down in bed, checking Princess Hyejin’s face for any signs of disapproval. Princess Hyejin merely stared, curious.
Breaking eye contact, Wheein glanced down at her sleeves. “It would help if you close your eyes before I started singing.”
Chuckling, the princess obliged. She was smiling.
Wheein gulped. She hoped that she wouldn’t make a fool of herself. She mulled over what song to sing. The first thing on her mind was her grandmother playing the pipa while the fireflies were out, her voice singing about the sun and moon in harmony. Wheein shut her eyes.
Wheein thought about the humid air as she sang. She thought about the wood that creaked under her feet as she approached her grandmother. She thought about the villagers that talked in the summer night, murmuring about tomorrow’s harvest. She thought about how her grandmother smiled at her when she finished the song.
When Wheein finished, Princess Hyejin was fast asleep. Wheein raised the blankets to cover the princess’ shoulders. She stared at Princess Hyejin’s peaceful face, a striking difference to the expression that twisted in pain. Quietly, Wheein marched towards her own room and shut the mahogany door.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein took in the flowers and the trees around her as Princess Hyejin took a seat amongst the shade, leaning against the tree behind her. It was hard to believe that there was so much green right outside a castle that was filled with nothing but red.
“You have a pretty voice.” She flinched. Princess Hyejin had her eyes closed, her lips quirked up in a small smile. Wheein expected her to not speak of what happened last night, just like she did before.
She gulped, tried to rid of the tightening sensation in her throat. “It’s an honor to hear that from you, Your Highness.”
Princess Hyejin hummed. “I never heard of that song before. Where did you learn it?”
Lowering her gaze, Wheein shrugged. She began to play with the linen of her sleeves. “Just something from my childhood. It always stuck to me.”
When she peered at Princess Hyejin, the royal had her sharp eyes open. Wheein thought Princess Hyejin wanted to pry further, but the latter merely shut her eyes again. The breeze picked up strands of the princess’ hair and pushed it away from her face.
In the silence, Wheein stared at the open fields. She thought of her grandmother carrying a younger Wheein on her back, proving she was stronger than the average elder. She thought of her grandma playing the pipa, singing lyrics that always lingered in her mind.
☀ ☀ ☀
It had become a part of Wheein’s routine. Like how she woke Princess Hyejin from slumber in the morning, she found herself repeatedly shaking Princess Hyejin out of her nightmares in the dead of night. Though it wasn’t official, attending to her at night became another one of Wheein’s duties. Witnessing the anguish in Princess Hyejin’s face became her duty. Singing the song her grandmother sang when the fireflies came out until Princess Hyejin fell asleep became her duty. Avoiding questions on how she was able to rush to Princess Hyejin’s side when the groans and cries started and avoiding questions on why she was even awake for so long, became part of Wheein’s duties.
☀ ☀ ☀
With half-lidded eyes, Wheein raised the blankets until they reached Princess Hyejin’s shoulders. She laid peacefully, no evidence of her groans and her nightmares seen. Wheein wondered how Princess Hyejin was able to do it. The head maid pointed out the bags under Wheein’s eyes on a daily basis.
Leaning against the headboard, Wheein pondered if this was how her grandma felt. When she grieved over her mother leaving for work in Ba Sing Se, her grandmother stayed by Wheein’s side until the tears stopped flowing and sleep took over her senses.
She closed her eyes when she felt them begin to burn. Her grandmother was always there when Wheein needed her. It didn’t fall both ways.
As her consciousness began to fade, the last thing Wheein thought of was her grandmother playing the pipa.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein stirred as the sun’s rays hit her. Yawning, Wheein stretched to work out all the kinks in her back. Rubbing at her eyes, she glanced at the window to see dawn approaching. Good, Wheein didn’t oversleep.
“Wheein?” She froze at the voice, realizing that the window she looked out of wasn’t decorated with metal bars. Feeling for the covers, she realized that the blankets were too soft and silky to be her own. She realized that the warm body under the covers wasn’t her own either. Peeking down, Wheein found Princess Hyejin staring up with her with a surprised expression.
Jumping up from the bed, Wheein bowed until she could only see her feet. “I apologize, Your Highness! I didn’t mean to sleep in your bed, it’s just that—”
“Raise your head, Wheein.” Wincing, Wheein obeyed and straightened her posture. She blinked when she saw Princess Hyejin hide her lips behind one hand. She was trying not to laugh. “It isn’t something to fret over. You go out of your way to ensure that I rest, accidentally sleeping here isn’t out of line. I trust you.”
Wheein widened her eyes. “I-I see.” Princess Hyejin trusted her. It didn’t fall both ways.
☀ ☀ ☀
Soon enough, sleeping in the same bed didn’t become an accident. It was the result of Princess Hyejin holding her hand when Wheein sat up from bed, a question left unsaid from her lips. It was the result of exhaustion weighing Wheein down like dirt, ridding the need to move her legs to reach the mahogany door. It was the result of Wheein admitting to herself that she worried about Princess Hyejin suffering from the nightmares if she left.
☀ ☀ ☀
When she stepped foot inside the village, Wheein knew that her grandmother was gone. She still rushed through the crowd however, hoping to reunite with her. She ran despite blood oozing out of the cuts in her legs and face. Tears welled up in her eyes as she fought her way through the smoke surrounding her, almost falling to the ground as she tripped over corpses already coated in dirt and ash.
“You can’t run from me, Wheein.” Her skin burned when she heard his voice. Even though adrenaline pumped into her veins, her legs felt heavy and she knew she wasn't fast enough. She shrieked when rope pulled tight and caused Wheein to tumble into the ground, coughing up the dirt and smoke that began to enter her mouth.
“Did you really think you could escape?” Wheein knew it was Captain Daedu that tied knots to constrain her legs, dragging her through the dirt and past the unmoving bodies beside her. She stared up and observed the silhouette of the red man, the horns of his helmet rising like the flames that destroyed her home. Besides Captain Daedu, Princess Hyejin walked through the chaos as if it was one of their strolls in the garden.
Captain Daedu was taking Wheein away. She would never see her grandmother again. She reached for the rope around her feet and severely tried to loosen its grip as the material scraped her fingers, but failed. Princess Hyejin watched her endeavor, her eyes filled with fire and hate.
Armored hands snatched Wheein’s arms and she cried at how rough he was, writhing against his grip to no avail. “You don’t know your place, do you Wheein?” There was joy in his tone. “That’s okay.” He fastened his hold and Wheein’s arms began to burn. Wheein screamed, the tears hot and flowing down her face. “You’ll know how to be obedient soon.”
In her dream she screamed until her voice ran out, but when Wheein woke up she was completely silent. She shook despite feeling warm under the covers, warm against the arm that cradled her close. Princess Hyejin didn’t notice, her sleeping face the picture of serenity. Wheein’s mind flashed to when Princess Hyejin glared at her as she watched her struggle to become free.
Her stomach twisting, Wheein softly pushed Princess Hyejin’s arm away and rolled in bed in order to not face her. Wheein squeezed her eyes shut. The shaking wouldn’t stop and she wasn’t able to fall back asleep.
☀ ☀ ☀
One night, Princess Hyejin told her about the nightmares. They were about the men and women in her brigade who lost their lives. She would dream about pressing on their wounds and desperately try to keep them alive just to watch the fire diminish in their eyes. She would dream about them asking Princess Hyejin to bring back their bodies to have a proper burial for their families, other times cursing Princess Hyejin for putting them in this position. It didn’t matter what they said because in the end Princess Hyejin blamed herself for being a bad lieutenant. She claimed she was still a bad lieutenant for being escorted to the palace when she was injured while her brigade was still obligated to protect its post. Princess Hyejin blamed herself for not doing anything when she could have helped.
Wheein had no words when Princess Hyejin finished, instead hugging her tighter. As the latter rested her head on Wheein’s shoulder, she thought of her village. She thought about the village she left behind. She thought about how there was no village to return to. Wheein blamed herself too.
☀ ☀ ☀
While Princess Hyejin had cancelled meeting with her sisters on multiple occasions, she never failed to have downtime with her mother. Serving the Empress was easy, contradicting to what her title indicated. The sister that spent her time cooped up in her quarters deemed Wheein as dangerous the moment she stepped inside, demanding that Princess Hyejin kick her out. When Princess Hyejin refused, the air was fire and Wheein thought about running on her own accord. The Crown Princess was calm, speaking one sentence at most. Princess Hyejin told Wheein that her eldest sister preferred expressing her beliefs with parchment and ink. Wheein doubted it, knowing the Crown Princess’ opinion on her the moment she laid eyes on her.
The Empress was most prone to smiling out of everyone in the royal family. Her eyes were soft, unlike the sharp fire that came from Princess Hyejin and the icy stare from the Crown Princess. All she desired was for someone to pour tea for her and company from the daughter that war had taken from her. If anything, the only thing that didn’t sit well with Wheein was how the Empress seemed to know everything. Wheein thought the Empress’ knowledge was limited to gossip within the castle and war battles that apparently people of all statuses had info on. But one day as the Empress caught sight of Wheein’s sleeves, her smile growing the smallest bit when she met Wheein’s eyes, she learned that the Empress was perceptive.
Wheein bowed, tea kettle in hand, when she filled both the Empress and Princess Hyejin’s cups. “Why don’t you sit down with us, um-Wheein, was it?” The Empress chuckled when Princess Hyejin raised an eyebrow. “The other servants are out tending to garments, they won’t know if you rest for a minute or two.”
“I—” Her feet screamed in pain. Wheein shook her head. “I’m content with standing, Your Majesty. I don’t want to intrude on you and Her Highness.”
Humming, the Empress smiled. “Alright, but know the offer still stands.” When she focused on her daughter, Wheein sighed and set the pot on the table.
Princess Hyejin rested her chin on a manicured hand and Wheein had to admit she appeared inattentive to the rumors her mother shared. Her face was neutral around the Empress like she had been with Commander Jeaki and her sisters, but she seemed more relaxed considering her sitting posture was very messy.
“Enough about that.” Wheein blinked. “I need to tell you this, lest I’ll forget.”
“What is it?” Princess Hyejin asked. From her position, Wheein wasn’t able to see the Empress’ expression. However with the way Princess Hyejin regarded her mother with interest, Wheein guessed she was smiling.
“A man wishes to court you.” Princess Hyejin slumped in her chair. “Oh, you haven’t even heard who the man is.”
Sighing, Princess Hyejin pressed her cheek against a closed fist. “Who is it then?”
“Captain Daedu.” The Empress took a sip from her cup. “People are saying he’s been enamoured with you for quite some time.”
Princess Hyejin only stared. Wheein couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Wheein kept shaking. She didn’t know the kind of face she was making.
“His rank is low, that isn’t something we can ignore,” the Empress continued. “Other military officials find potential in him however. Your father wished to know what you think of this proposition.”
Wheein couldn’t shake off the tightening of her throat. She needed to calm down, she needed to breathe. Princess Hyejin scoffed. “I know when you’re lying mother.”
The Empress was silent at first, but then laughed. She set down her cup. “Your father predicts that you’ll agree. He’s been trying to figure out why you accepted Captain Daedu’s gift.” Wheein clutched onto her sleeve, but her fingers wouldn’t stop shaking no matter how much she squeezed her hands. “As of right now, he believes you have interest in Captain Daedu as well. I’m the one that wishes to hear your thoughts.”
When Princess Hyejin lifted her head to find Wheein’s eyes, the latter lowered her head. However, Wheein saw Princess Hyejin’s expression change and knew she wasn’t able to hide her fears. She couldn’t breathe, as if there was nothing but smoke surrounding her. The shaking wouldn’t stop.
“No.” Wheein froze at the severity in Princess Hyejin’s voice. “Captain Daedu hasn’t done anything that would make me wish to see him.”
The Empress hummed. “I assure you that I would have supported your decision either way, but I’m glad to hear that you’re on my side of things.” Wheein heard glass clanking and knew the Empress was drinking more tea. “I find more faults than potential in the man.”
“Faults?” Princess Hyejin asked.
Even though Wheein’s head was turned away with her eyes clenched shut, she knew Princess Hyejin wouldn’t stop looking at her. “He’s hot-headed. Violent.”
He was fire, Wheein thought. Captain Daedu was the embodiment of fire.
☀ ☀ ☀
Princess Hyejin had been pursuing her royal duties for awhile now. Her father decided it was time for her to train again, to still be fit to hold the title of lieutenant. Wheein was forbidden to enter the training grounds. They probably feared that Wheein would escape with information on Princess Hyejin’s fighting style. Wheein was glad she wouldn’t be able to see it. She already had to deal with the knowledge of Princess Hyejin having the ability to firebend, she didn’t want to actually see it.
Wheein waited patiently in her room. Princess Hyejin ordered her to wait, not explaining the reason. She stared at herself through the mirror the castle allowed her to have. They didn’t want Princess Hyejin’s servant to be unsightly after all.
She adjusted the sleeves of her dress, took in the sight of her in red. It didn’t matter how long she wore the color. Wheein didn’t belong in red.
Turning her head when the mahogany door opened, Wheein blinked when Princess Hyejin walked inside. In her hands, she held a canvas and paints.
“Wha—” Wheein watched Princess Hyejin place the art materials on her bed. “What is this, Your Highness?”
Princess Hyejin cleared her throat. “Some thought it was in everyone’s best interest for you to stay in your room in the time that I’m training.”
“Oh.” Wheein knew they wouldn’t want her roaming around without Princess Hyejin. They feared for their safety, feared Wheein would use the chance to escape. That didn’t explain the canvas and paint.
Tucking a hair behind her ear, Princess Hyejin faced Wheein. “I told them that anyone would be restless if they had nothing to do, which is why I’m giving these to you. I remember how intent you were when I attended my art lessons.”
“You mean,” Wheein ran her hand over the tarp. “This is for me?”
Princess Hyejin nodded. “If it displeases you, I can find another hobby for you to partake in.”
“No!” Princess Hyejin raised an eyebrow. “No, I mean, I’m grateful Your Highness. It’s perfect.” Wheein’s face warmed when Princess Hyejin laughed, a hand raising to hide her lips. “W-what is it?”
“Nothing,” Princess Hyejin assured. She lowered her hand and revealed her smile. “It’s just that...in all the time we’ve been together, this is the first time I saw you smile.”
Wheein touched her lips, realizing Princess Hyejin was right. She also realized that she still didn’t know how much time had passed. How long had she been in this castle, how long had she been away from her home?
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein stood beside Princess Hyejin as the latter brushed her hair. She counted twenty strokes before Princess Hyejin stopped the action. “Wheein?”
She widened her eyes when she saw Princess Hyejin’s reflection staring at her. “What’s wrong, Your Highness?”
Princess Hyejin set down the comb. “I want you to say my name.”
Wheein tilted her head. “Your Highness?” she repeated.
She frowned, causing Wheein to gulp. “I don’t want you to refer to me by my title. I want to hear you say my name. Hyejin. Can you say it for me?”
“I—” Even as a reflection, Wheein couldn’t meet Princess Hyejin’s eyes for long. She stared out one of the windows, focused on the bushes and the plants and the green. “Your Highness, I can’t do that.”
Wheein let her hand be taken, let her fingers intertwine with Princess Hyejin’s. “I’m not expecting you to say it around everyone,” Princess Hyejin said. “I’m asking you to say my name when we’re alone. I’ll allow it.”
Princess Hyejin allowed it. Wheein herself didn’t allow it. She refused, refused to think of what Princess Hyejin meant to her if she went as far as disregarding honorifics either out loud or in her head. “I—”
She felt Princess Hyejin squeeze her hand with a soft touch. “Please.” Wheein’s hand burned. Her face burned.
“P-Princess Hyejin,” Wheein whispered. She turned away from the window, deciding to look at her directly. “I can call you Princess Hyejin.”
Hyejin smiled. “I suppose I can settle for a compromise. For now.”
Wheein was burning under Hyejin’s touch, but didn’t feel the need to pull away.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein caught sight of the bordering walls as Hyejin led her to the tree near within the gardens. She tried not to think about it as she nodded along to whatever Hyejin was saying. She tried not to think about it even when they had returned to the castle from the gardens hours ago. She tried not to think about it as she huddled in Hyejin’s bed and closed her eyes. She tried not to think about how she would never see the outside, truly. There was no point in mulling something she already knew.
☀ ☀ ☀
Her grandmother was screaming for her. Wheein ran through the village, dodging the armored hands that reached out for her. She always let her grandmother down. Why couldn’t this have been an exception? She cried out for her grandmother, the cries of the men, women, and children overpowered by her grandmother’s voice.
She let out an unsteady breath as her body screamed for her to stop, her legs pulsing as she rested her hands on her knees. When she wiped the sweat from her eyes, Wheein saw all the corpses among the smoke. Many had their eyes open, their eyes coated with the ashes of the fallen. Nobody in Wheein’s village was alive.
“This is all your fault, Wheein.” The girl flinched when burly hands shoved her, her head and back colliding with the wall of her neighbor’s house. It was one of the homes that managed to hold up despite the fire. “You let all these people die.”
Wheein tried to push Captain Daedu, but the red man snatched her arms. She screamed at the burning sensation. He was so close. “You were the only one in your village that could earthbend, Wheein. Why didn’t you help them?”
“Leave me alone,” Wheein spat. “Why can’t you leave me alone?!”
Captain Daedu yanked Wheein forward just to shove her against the wall again. Her head shook, Wheein struggling to keep steady as her focus wavered. Her head hurt, her legs hurt, her arms hurt. “You keep trying to save your grandmother and for what?!” he screamed. “You always fail, but you won’t fucking stop! You value your grandmother’s life over every mother and child in your village.” He pinned her arms on either side of Wheein’s head, the latter wincing. “You can’t save your grandmother. You can’t save your village. You can’t save yourself.”
Wheein writhed against his grasp, but froze when he saw two figures stand behind him. Hyejin and Wheein’s grandmother watched her, unmoving. “Why haven’t you tried to escape, Wheein?” His breath was hot against Wheein’s ear. “Why have you stopped dreaming of going outside the walls? What’s the real reason?”
Tears threatened to leave her eyes and Wheein closed them, shaking. The next time she opened them, she was in Hyejin’s room instead of the remains of her burning village. Hyejin stared down at her with wide eyes and both eyebrows raised, her hands gripping Wheein’s shoulders. “Wheein,” she whispered. “Wheein, are you okay?”
“Y-yes.” Wheein hurriedly wiped the tears from her eyes and sat up with Hyejin. “I’m fine, Princess Hyejin.”
The frown in Hyejin’s face wouldn’t leave as she ran a hand through her hair. “You had a nightmare.”
Wheein winced, then nodded. “I apologize. I was loud and disturbed your rest, didn’t I?”
“No,” Hyejin said. “You were quiet. You wouldn’t stop shaking.”
Lowering her head, Wheein tugged her red sleeves down. “Oh.”
Hyejin rested her hand over Wheein’s. She was too close to her sleeve, too close to finding out. “Do you remember what your dream was about?”
Wheein shook her head. “I can’t remember,” she lied.
She didn’t meet Hyejin’s eyes, but she could tell that the latter doubted her. “Okay.” For the rest of the night, Wheein’s mind flashed to Captain Daedu and the red men everytime she closed her eyes. She was unable to fall back asleep.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein was afraid. She was afraid of someone in the castle insisting that she was too dangerous to live. She was afraid that Captain Daedu would come back to take her away. She was afraid of losing the people she already lost and held dear. She was afraid that Hyejin would grow tired of her and throw her away, despite everything that happened. She was afraid of Hyejin, despite everything else she felt.
She knew that it fell both ways. They were afraid that Wheein would crack and attack Hyejin or any person adorned in red. They were afraid that Wheein was planning the usurp of the Fire Nation with agents from the Earth Kingdom. They were afraid Wheein would escape.
To escape, Wheein would need to have a place set as a goal, a home to reach. She had no home. The fire burned everything it touched, burned her village until all the green diminished to smoke and ash. There was no reason to run.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein rubbed her eyes, unable to shake off the exhaustion. She winced when the head maid slapped her hand, immediately fixing her posture out of habit.
“When I was starting to believe you were sleeping like a normal person, you show up looking like a raccoon-bear.” She shook her head. “What do you even do that is more important than sleeping?”
“I apologize.” The head maid was a lot different than her grandmother. She was harsher, leaner, age less apparent in her features. But like her grandmother, she wanted the war to end and lectured Wheein whenever she was doing something wrong. Wheein started to think that she was one of the few people that wasn’t scared of her.
“Just be sure to get some sleep, otherwise you’ll become a hindrance to Her Highness.” The head maid sighed. “She doesn’t need anymore pressure.”
Wheein frowned, thinking of the reason she slept with Hyejin. “You mean from Her Highness’ royal duties?”
“That is one of her problems.” The head maid massaged the side of her temples, eyes closed. “With how much the Avatar has been fighting our soldiers as of late, the Fire Lord wants Her Highness to get back into battle soon.”
A weight crashed down on Wheein when the head maid finished. Her throat was tight and it was difficult to breathe.
“Empress Eunae didn’t react well to what His Majesty suggested,” the head maid continued. “She doesn’t want her daughter to confront the Avatar, let alone return to her rank as lieutenant.”
Her eyes began to burn, her throat acted like it was engulfed in smoke. “Wh-what did…” The head maid widened her eyes and Wheein knew she needed to calm down. “What did Princess Hyejin say about the matter?”
If the head maid noticed Wheein’s change in formalities, she didn’t address it. “Her Highness hasn’t given either of them an answer.”
☀ ☀ ☀
The moonlight shined on Wheein’s fingertips as she fiddled with her sleeve. She peeked at Hyejin, whose back was turned towards her. “Princess Hyejin,” she called.
For a moment, there was no response and Wheein was about to assume Hyejin was asleep after all until the girl turned towards her. “You can’t sleep?” she asked.
Wheein shook her head. It had become a habit of Wheein’s to only fall asleep after Hyejin fell into slumber. She didn’t flinch when Hyejin stretched her hand to caress her cheek. The touch was warm and Wheein closed her eyes.
“You haven’t been sleeping well.” Hyejin scoffed when Wheein smiled. “More than your norm, Wheein.”
“I know.” Wheein paused. “And you’ve been on edge lately, Princess Hyejin. I can tell.”
Hyejin sighed. “My father asked my trainer to be more critical with our exercises. His expectations are high.”
Training to get back into the war. “Princess Hyejin, do you wish to fight on the front lines again? Or do you want to stay in the castle, similar to what the Empress wants?”
Wheein felt Hyejin’s fingers clench. “I—” She opened her eyes, shocked to find Hyejin hesitating. “I don’t know.”
That was understandable. It was a hard decision. But Wheein knew Hyejin as sure and confident.
“Let’s not talk about that, Wheein.” When Wheein nodded, she saw twinkling in Hyejin’s eyes. “I want to do something with you.”
Wheein blinked. “Right now?”
Hyejin laughed, shaking her head. “No, tomorrow.”
“Well, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” It was easy to say since Wheein meant it.
“Good.” Hyejin brushed away a stray hair from Wheein’s eyes. “I want to go outside with you. Outside the castle.” She was smiling, her eyes were lit up like a fire.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein held Hyejin’s arm against her chest, eyes darting to all the men and women and children adorned in red. She flinched when a child bumped into her, tightening her hold on Hyejin, missing the apology that slipped from his lips before skittering the opposite direction. This wasn’t proper of Wheein, she knew, that she wasn’t supposed to use Hyejin as an anchor. Hyejin didn’t seem to mind though, laughing as she covered her lips with her free hand.
Hyejin shot her a look of apology when Wheein pouted. “You’re so tense, Wheein.”
“Of course, Princess Hyejin,” Wheein hissed. She glanced at the woman eating dumplings nearby them and then back at Hyejin. “You’re not allowed to roam outside the castle without Their Majesties’ permission. I’m not allowed to leave the castle at all.”
The royal adjusted Wheein’s cape, making her face shadowed by the cloth. “We’ll be fine,” she assured. “This isn’t the first time I snuck out.”
Wheein widened her eyes. “I don’t remember that.”
“It was a long time ago,” Hyejin shrugged. “Before the war.”
Not wanting to divulge in the topic, Wheein nodded. “What are your people celebrating, Princess Hyejin?”
“The Fire Days Festival.” A man holding a food pouch approached the duo and Hyejin held the snack towards Wheein after paying. “Try some.”
She was skeptical as she stared it down, flakes dyed in deep red. She looked around the festival grounds and saw children and couples merrily chomping on them. Wheein grabbed a handful, shoving them in her mouth to get it over with.
Hyejin bursted out laughing as Wheein started coughing, both of their hoods threatening to fall off. It was hot, it was burning.
☀ ☀ ☀
“Where are we going?” Wheein asked. Hyejin swiveled her head with a grin, her stride steady as she dodged the crowd of people.
“We’re going to watch a performance,” Hyejin told her, tightening the cord around her neck. “I overheard the servants talking about how good this man is.”
Wheein frowned, wondering what people in the Fire Nation enjoyed in festivals. Her blood ran cold when a burst of hot air reached her. Her eyes were wide, her hands frozen, but her legs follow where Hyejin was guiding them.
Five paces later and the duo caught sight of the performer, the man wearing a mix of red and gold. He shot out a line of flame towards the sky and the other side of the crowd surrounding him cheered. Wheein focused on the ashes that reach the stone tiles, falling down like burning leaves.
The man posed and released a breath of fire, imitating the dragons engraved in paintings hung in the castles. The people screamed and Wheein blinked, seeing people wearing green instead of red.
He approached Wheein and Hyejin’s side of the crowd. Hyejin started clapping when Wheein released her arm, her own hands trembling. He was yelling something, evoking hoots and laughs from the spectators. Wheein couldn’t breathe, already seeing the smoke clouding her eyes.
His smile was big and bright like the flames he created. He met Wheein’s eyes and she saw Captain Daedu taunting her. His arms blasted flamed to the sides of the crowd, so close to the crowd that few of the men yelped and jumped. As soon as his fires diminish, he took out a rope from his pants and hold up the material for all to see. There were whistles as he promptly set the rope ablaze and held it like a whip.
Wheein couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t breathe. Her heart pounded at her chest until it hurt.
Grinning, he met her eyes and Wheein saw Captain Daedu approaching her, saw Captain Daedu holding the whip as her village burned, saw Captain corner her when she had nobody to help her and—
Wheein screamed as she knelt to the ground, burying her hands into her eye sockets until it burned. The people around her cheered, laughed as the whip burned the tiles in front of her and Hyejin. She wanted to go home, there was no home, she had no home.
A hand rested on her shoulder, someone called out to her, but Wheein was numb. She was numb, she was shaking, she was afraid.
Behind her eyes, she saw the green of her village destroyed by the red of the Fire Nation. She saw Captain Daedu drag her away from the remains. She didn’t see her grandmother.
☀ ☀ ☀
“Wheein if you see a fire grow bigger than this, you need to run.” She watched her grandmother tending to the fire, her eyes serious.
She tilted her head, frowning. “I’m not that stupid, Mama. Who wouldn’t run from a forest fire?”
Her grandmother’s eyebrow twitched as Wheein knocked her feet together. “I never said you were stu— oh, never mind. I’m not talking about a forest fire, Wheein. I’m talking about a Fire Nation raid.”
“Why would they want to raid our village?” Wheein asked. “The war is far from here and nothing interesting ever happens.”
Her grandmother’s lips twitched upwards, shaking her head in disapproval. “You can never be too careful, Wheein. We don’t know how those monsters think.”
“Whatever you say, Mama.” Wheein dreamed of reuniting with her mother in Ba Sing Se until her grandmother shook her back to her senses. “Ow! What Mama, I was listening.”
“I need you to pay attention,” her grandmother set the fire iron aside, narrowing her eyes at Wheein. “I won’t allow you going on with your day unprepared.”
Wheein frowned. “Well? What is it?”
She placed both of her wrinkly hands over Wheein’s shoulders. “You need to be careful, Wheein. If the fire doesn’t kill you, the smoke will.”
It wasn’t until Captain Daedu marched in with his troops and made her village a new army base did Wheein understand what her grandmother went. So many villagers didn’t die from the hands of the soldiers and the fire they unleashed. It was the smoke. As Wheein ran, she witnessed men and women lie on the ground with dirt clinging to their skin. The smoke had surrounded them, taken them. That was probably what took her grandmother as well.
With her grandmother’s plea to escape running through her mind, Wheein disobeyed and searched for her grandmother. She pushed at the soldiers, raising a block of earth between them when they got too close. She scrambled with men and women running behind her, the crowd thinning as time went on.
Captain Daedu was the one to capture her, his eyes igniting with excitement when he dodged pieces of the ground Wheein raised herself. He secured Wheein’s hands with a burning whip, her skin sizzling as she shrieked.
She never saw her grandmother, but she knew she was dead. When Captain Daedu threw her on the back of the cart, a soldier asked him what would be done to the survivor. Captain Daedu said she had a use for Wheein, finding her too valuable to kill. She was the only one that survived. Wheein didn’t help anyone when her village was destroyed and in turn nobody would help her now.
☀ ☀ ☀
She didn’t die from the smoke that surrounded her village, but it never left her. It choked her when she remembered her grandmother, choked her when the fact that she let her grandmother down rang in her mind. Her grandmother was always with her, surrounding her, but she was gone.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein gasped for air, her knees shaking. She didn’t know where Hyejin had taken them, but they were surrounded by trees and no people in sight. She flinched when Hyejin pressed a hand against her cheek, but didn’t push it away.
“Breathe, Wheein,” Hyejin commanded. Wheein was dizzy, she couldn’t feel her hands. “I need you to breathe for me.”
“I-I want to go back,” she whimpered. “Please, I beg of you, let’s go back to the castle.”
Hyejin nodded. “Okay, Wheein. We’ll do whatever you want. I just need you to breathe for me.”
She couldn’t. She couldn’t do it.
“Slowly,” Hyejin instructed, reaching for Wheein’s arms. “I need you to—” She paused, her eyes widening. Wheein watched Hyejin blink rapidly, realization washing over her face. Wheein watched Hyejin pull back the former’s sleeves, taking in the knots and the cuts and the twisted skin under her fingertips.
“What is this?” Hyejin whispered and Wheein thought it was as if Hyejin couldn’t breathe as well. “Wheein, what happened to your arms?”
Refusing to answer, her eyes clouded, Wheein fell forward and Hyejin wrapped her arms around her in an embrace. “I want to go back. Please, I don’t want to be here anymore.” Wheein wanted to go home.
☀ ☀ ☀
The servants were at a loss. One day Princess Hyejin was contained, the next she was a wildfire. A maid was told to enter Princess Hyejin’s room because it was past noon and she had yet to leave her quarters. Princess Hyejin ended up threatening the woman and slamming the door shut.
She was most likely imagining it, the maid knew, but she couldn’t shake off the image of the war prisoner lying on Princess Hyejin’s bed.
Empress Eunae beckoned the maid to sit with her hours later, asking her to share her worries. When the maid finished explaining what she saw, the Empress was still smiling. It was distant. Her eyes held a warning. She ordered the maid to not speak of this again.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein’s eyes were red-rimmed, burning. Hyejin offered to give her space, but Wheein responded by pulling her flush against her. She closed her eyes, but refused to sleep. Hyejin’s warmth was the only fire that didn’t scare Wheein, instead keeping her close. She kept Hyejin close like she was scared to lose her.
☀ ☀ ☀
The next day, Wheein and Hyejin went to the gardens. It was silent as they walked through the castle walls. Servants pretended to be occupied with chores when Hyejin passed, their gazes lingering on Wheein as she followed behind. The head maid almost looked worried when Wheein glanced at her.
Hyejin asked her to sleep when they rested by the tree. Wheein nodded, her eyes already shut. They knew Wheein wouldn’t listen.
A low mew made Wheein snap her eyes open. She stood on her feet, following the noises until she reached the corner of the garden walls. A cat Wheein could only guess was the mother was dead. Beside her, a kitten with eyes still shut called for its parent.
Gathering the kitten in her arms, Wheein looked up. Hyejin stood behind her, her gaze shifting between the kitten and Wheein. She waved for a gardener to properly bury the cat. She told Wheein that they need to hurry and care for the kitten. A wave of emotion washed over Wheein, her eyes threatening to burn.
☀ ☀ ☀
Ggomo the kitten exposed his belly as he slept, his basket of a bed positioned next to Hyejin’s. Hyejin held Wheein’s wrist, an emotion in her eyes the latter couldn’t read. “Tell me what happened,” Hyejin said. “Please.”
Wheein lowered her head, her eyes taking in her burned arms. She nodded.
☀ ☀ ☀
Hyejin ran a hand through her hair, speechless. Wheein never thought she would see this, see fear in Hyejin’s eyes.
“They told me you were a war prisoner,” Hyejin said. “All this time, I thought you were a soldier.”
Wheein thought of a time where she was younger and her grandmother helped her plant carrot seeds, laughing as she licked her thumb and wiped away the dirt on Wheein’s cheek. “I am a war prisoner,” she whispered. “It just wasn’t my choice to be in the war.”
She let herself be embraced by Hyejin. When she realized Hyejin was shaking, her arms held her tighter.
☀ ☀ ☀
Princess Hyejin lost her bending. The servants hid behind the pillars as the Fire Lord marched into the training grounds. It made sense that he didn’t believe the news because it sounded like absolute slander. How could her daughter go from being a prodigy to becoming as inadequate as a nonbender? Time passed and the servants considered leaving to attend to their duties, but they hid when the sound of glass breaking reached her ears.
Not long after, the Fire Lord exited the grounds with flames behind his eyes and flames threatening to escape his fingertips. Princess Hyejin followed him, her hand clutching onto her arm.
Soldiers believed Princess Hyejin lost her inner fire. She had forgotten the reason she was fighting in the first place.
☀ ☀ ☀
Wheein set Ggomo down when Hyejin closed the mahogany door. Worried, Wheein asked what was wrong because Hyejin looked like her world was ending. Hyejin didn’t reply. She fell on her knees and brought Wheein closer, acting like she was an anchor that could keep Hyejin steady. Wheein closed her eyes and let Hyejin hold her, taking in the warmth. Hyejin didn’t smell like smoke just like Commander Jeaki. She smelled like the irises her grandmother planted.
☀ ☀ ☀
Hyejin’s father wanted her back in the war as soon as possible. He ignored Empress Eunae’s plea to keep their child safe; he simply didn’t care for Hyejin’s opinion. His daughter forgot about her goal because she was cooped up in the castle like her sisters. Her fire was close to extinguishment and he intended to preserve the flame before it happened.
She asked her father what would happen to Wheein. He told her that they had more than enough servants. Returning Wheein to Captain Daedu would tell the man that Hyejin wasn’t interested in his courtship.
Wheein didn’t want to see Captain Daedu. Wheein didn’t to lose Hyejin. She didn’t want to lose the closest thing she had to home.
“When does he want you to leave?” Wheein whispered. She didn’t bother to wipe the tears flowing down her cheeks. Hyejin wiped it for her.
Her father saw this as Hyejin’s chance to keep her honor, but she never looked more ashamed. “In three days.”
Wheein shook her head, covering her mouth when a whimper left her lips.
“They’re taking me to Ba Sing Se,” Hyejin continued, because what else could she do? “They need more forces to oppose the Earth Kingdom.”
“I—” Wheein dropped her hand. “I don’t want to go back to him.”
Hyejin nodded. “I know. I’ll ask my father for another solution. I’ll go on my knees and beg if I must.”
Wheein shook her head, her vision cloudy. “That won’t work.”
“I need to try,” Hyejin refuted. “You can’t see that man again. I won’t let you get hurt again.”
It was too late. The Fire Lord was about leave a wound Wheein could never heal.
“Hyejin.” The princess watched with wide eyes as Wheein held her hands. “I don’t want you to leave me.”
The princess stared as sadness filled her eyes and Wheein knew she picked up on the implication. She waited for disapproval, a sign that her second home was gone for good. Instead, Hyejin held Wheein’s burned arms. Leaning down, Hyejin pressed a kiss to the twisted skin.
☀ ☀ ☀
Before dawn broke through the sky, Wheein and Hyejin left the castle. They wouldn’t let go of each other as they passed by guards and servants, tense as they went over the castle walls. They had nowhere to go, but they pressed forward.
When they reached the edge of the forest and began to hear the sounds of the harbor, Wheein stopped. Hyejin raised an eyebrow, bringing her hood closer to her face. “What’s wrong?”
Ggomo mewed in her dress, but Wheein pushed the kitten back inside. “You have a family. I don’t want you to regret this.”
Hyejin had the audacity to smirk. “You’re really making sure if I want this now? After everything that happened.”
Wheein’s face burned in embarrassment. “Is it silly of me to ask?”
“Yes,” Hyejin promptly said. She chuckled when Wheein pouted. “Silly, but considerate nonetheless.”
Wheein let Hyejin hold her face in her hands. “I love my family, but I can’t say the same about this war. You made me realize that I needed to fight for it to end, not because I needed the Fire nation to come out victorious.” For a second, Wheein thought a blush dusted the princess’ cheeks. “I don’t want to leave you either, Wheein.”
Her vision blurred but when Hyejin wiped away Wheein’s tears, her sight had never been clearer. As morning came and went, they snuck aboard one of the many passing ships, their fingers intertwined the entire time. When the ship set sail, their hands were steady.