She was a general, feared by the kingdoms near and far. It wasn’t what she was ever supposed to be. A woman, fragile-looking, and full of beauty. She wasn’t what you would typically see ruling over battalions of soldiers ready to fight at her beck and call.
How’d she get there? Well it’s a road of pain after pain, of sorrow and losing her loved ones all at once. They never tell you while growing up that kingdoms like the one she belongs to aren’t always well-protected. People are too busy being happy, working always towards the betterment of the kingdom. She’s not that angry about it to be honest, she would just have preferred knowing that she’d lose it all in the blink of an eye.
Does she love the kingdom? Does she love the rulers of the North and all its nearby territories, so feared by the other nations because of their power and might? Not really. But she’d die for it, for them, because it’s not the power nor the people that tethers her in this place. It’s not the beautiful scenery or peace she tries to maintain in the kingdom everyday of her life that makes her stay.
It’s for one girl who, at her lowest, gave her something to live for again. It’s for a gummy smile that shines brighter than the sunrise that could be seen from the highest towers that she guards. It’s for the princess of the kingdom, someday destined to rule but with a loving and gentle hand.
She’d stay in the place where she lost everything because it also holds the one thing she doesn’t have but will forever treasure.
“Hey, captain,” Jeongyeon greets her. “Been brooding again?”
“How many times have I told you not to call me captain? You’re setting a bad example for the rest of the troops,” she says plainly.
“They know that only some of us can call you that, don’t worry,” her second-in-command only continues.
Most days, she wonders why she surrounds herself with people who seem to find it fun to annoy her but then she remembers that it’s just their way of showing love. Gods know her younger self took forever to get used to it.
“Do you want anything from me?” she asks.
“Not really but I heard there’s a royal gathering later, it’s going to be hard to accommodate everyone in front of the castle again.”
“Yes, it’s been planned since last week, Jeongyeon. Why weren’t you informed?”
“I was gone for that assassination down South.”
“I was told that you just led a watch in the East Kingdom to train some of our new recruits,” she says stiffly.
The silence that ensues is tense. She’s never liked not being in the know when it comes to the people she leads. Call her possessive but she’s the head of this kingdom’s military, the King isn’t supposed to overrule her, damn it.
It’s always been a point of resentment for her.
She remembers the night her life changed. It wasn’t raining heavily nor was it stiflingly hot. It was so average and maybe that’s what caught them all off-guard.
She was nine years old. She was nine when she heard footsteps coming from the front door, and her father shouting about getting help. She was nine when she realized that swords don’t make much sound when cutting, not when people were so fragile and soft and full of liquid.
Her mother came into her room and told her to hide and keep quiet. She was scared and wanted nothing more than to protect her mother but she couldn’t do anything else when her mother lifted her up and put her in the trunk. Had she made noise, she would have alerted them more to the presence of her mother.
Her silence was for naught because the men that entered her home and killed her father wanted to leave no witnesses behind. She doesn’t know why they were chosen that night. She doesn’t know why it was her father that was slashed in the chest so deeply that she saw what could have been his heart exposed. She doesn’t know why it was her mother that had to scream so loudly out of pain and anguish while protecting her little sister from the men’s weapons. She doesn’t know why they had to kill even little Yeri who couldn’t have recognized them had she survived.
She lost her family, so she just sat there. Maybe she would die too. That would have been nice. But morning came, she only knew from the sounds of birds singing outside like her whole world hadn’t just burned down. There were also loud noises, probably horses that were ridden by the soldiers who patrol the area. What a waste of resources, they couldn’t even save her parents. What was the point?
Someone entered her room, she still didn’t make any noise. Maybe they wouldn’t find her. Maybe no one would care enough to think that there would be a survivor. But no, Lee Sunmi has always been a competent soldier and checks every possibility when the time is not limited. So she finds her, looking at her resentfully, and she wouldn’t know it but her heart would break for the little girl who sat in there all night and didn’t bother to call out when she knew she could be saved.
“What’s your name?” the woman asks. “I’m General Lee Sunmi.”
“Why weren’t you here last night?” she asks sullenly because that was her mother’s blood glinting with sunlight in their hallway.
“I am so sorry, little girl. We tried to find out where those men were headed and we failed,” she says solemnly.
“Doesn’t bring them back though, does it?” she replies, looking like she’s about to cry. But she doesn’t. What would’ve been the point? She’d just end up being an orphan now.
The woman looked lost too, but she just holds out her hand. She liked the gesture. She wouldn’t have liked it if she just grabbed her. She decides to take it.
They go out of the room and she sees her family one last time. One could say that showing dead bodies to a little kid is wrong but that was her family. She would rather see them like this one last time than not at all, even if it broke her heart all over again. At least the general could understand that, probably knowing much more loss than her.
She says her goodbyes, not verbally but she knows it’s there, floating around somewhere in the heavens. General Lee leads her out of the bloody place and she wonders if she’ll someday live in this house again.
Maybe when she’s old enough to live on her own. She doesn’t know if that’s something to look forward to.
“Where do you want to go from here?” the general asks.
“Shouldn’t you put me in an orphanage?”
“I could. Or would you like to learn how to defend yourself from other people?” she says with a slight smile.
“Why should I?”
She pauses at that, then reconsiders.
“What about protecting other people then?”
“I have no one now,” she says honestly.
“Maybe someday you will. Don’t you want to keep them safe?”
She thinks it over. Later, she’d realize that she gave her purpose. She gave her something to focus on against the grief. She’d be forever grateful because even at such a young age, she felt like she was drowning.
“Captain, I know it’s not what you want for me but I can handle the darker missions too,” Jeongyeon mutters from beside her, breaking her away from her musings.
“I have been there, Yoo. I know how much it takes from a person.”
“Then you should know why we want to lighten your load,” Jeongyeon replies.
This frustrates her. She only wants her subordinates protected, cared for, and whole. She doesn’t want them ending up like her. Was that too much to ask? What was a few more assassinations on her hands anyway? It’s not like she didn’t handle tons of those before they promoted her to her position now.
“We all know your dark spiral, Nayeon. We wanted you saved from it,” the blonde continues.
She only grunts in response, hoping the topic would be closed.
“We were all ready to bow down to the princess and grovel when she gave you and the king an earful about having those missions.”
She couldn’t say anything to that, she was so close to the breaking point when it happened.
“I’ll be off to secure the perimeter with Momo and the others. Guard the royal family with your life, grab Taehyung and the others too,” she says instead.
“We’re okay, right?” Jeongyeon asks.
“Of course. Stay alive.”
She proceeds to do what she just said she would. The guards were already there and people were trickling into the courtyard already.
She, too, wonders why there’s a sudden announcement today. She hasn’t been told the reason for it and it’s bothering her a bit.
Then she hears the king being announced. The man himself isn’t all that intimidating at first glance, but one would have to be a fool to ever mess with him. Aside from Jeongyeon being a prominent figure standing discreetly near the princess, the king himself was skilled in the military arts. The North wasn’t feared because the rulers were soft and nice, after all.
“Good day to you all, my beloved citizens,” he starts. “Just a week ago, my daughter, your Princess Mina, just celebrated her 18th birthday.”
Ah, yes. Nayeon spent that day feeling alive again. With the excuse of guarding the princess, they spent the day together near the forests, creating flower crowns, and hoping that the rest of their days could be spent just like that.
“As is tradition, it is time for the duels that will decide the future king of this kingdom.”
She wasn’t a perfect woman, no matter how much her soldiers would like to say otherwise. She was still that little girl who lost her everything and doesn’t know what to do with herself. She didn’t even have her mentor anymore.
She wonders what Sunmi would say. Would she be disappointed that she turned down Mina’s offer to run away together and live on some faraway cottage with her? Would she be proud that, even if it took all of the courage in her body, she refused the offer with a gentle smile?
Sunmi would probably beat her up first for that string of suicidal missions she took when she died on a mission while protecting Nayeon. Still, she likes to think Sunmi would understand.
She walks away before she could hear more about the upcoming event. She could have won without ever having to fight. But that’s all she’s good for anyway, right? A perfect soldier, but a crappy human.
Sunmi was gone. She lost her parent again. Just how unfair could the world be?
Well, if it was going to be that cruel, then maybe the world could finally do her the favor of reuniting her with everyone else.
Those long and depressing missions? She’ll take them. Those missions that chipped apart your humanity piece by piece? Just keep them coming. Maybe if she feels less human then it’ll hurt less.
She thinks of it like that until she feels a slap to her face.
“My lady?” she asks, startled by the sudden act.
“Im Nayeon, you have no right to call me that when I can see you obviously throwing your life away,” the princess says, tears gathering in her eyes.
They were in a meeting with the king and queen, her briefing of what happened on her last mission, an important one that affected the trade between all kingdoms greatly.
She didn’t expect to be chastised for her success.
“I am sorry, are there any specific things you want done during these missions, princess?” she asks, because she really thought she did everything right.
“No, you idiot! And you!” Mina says to her father. “Why do you keep sending only one person to these kinds of things?”
“She’s the best we have, sweetheart,” the king says placatingly.
“Don’t talk down to me like that, father. I have been taught about these things from adolescence. I know that we’re not supposed to burn out our best resources. You’ve been lazy and Nayeon has been making it too easy for you,” the girl continues, seething.
The king is looking shamefaced and she’s still trying to process the turn of events. The queen looks like she’s trying to hide her smile but is failing.
Then the thought strikes her.
“Do you,” she starts weakly.
“What?” Mina turns to her with a frown.
“Do you care about me, princess?” she asks.
That weakness was embarrassing, she couldn’t have sounded more vulnerable had she tried.
“Of course,” Mina replies, her frown softening. “What would I do if you were gone?”
How could she reply to that?
“We’ll be in the throne room, love. You should talk some sense into our general,” the queen says while ushering out her husband from the room.
“Why would it matter to you if I were to die?” she questions helplessly because she knows that she holds emotional attachments with a few people, but none of them would be unable to move on from her death if given enough time. Her soldiers are strong, and death as familiar to them as life. But Mina? She doesn’t understand.
“Didn’t you promise that you would protect me forever and ever when we were kids?”
She remembers those days fondly. She was close to Mina’s age so Sunmi thought it would be good for her to socialize, having someone who knew how to fight around Mina was a plus too. They were both lonely kids.
It wasn’t all fun and games because she was still training during those days but she does remember getting rest days and spending them tagging along Mina’s adventures around the castle or sometimes even outside when Sunmi spared them a soldier to ensure their safety.
When Nayeon officially became a soldier and was about to go on her first mission, Mina cried.
“You might not come back to me,” the girl cries into her shoulder.
She only smiles lightly and tugs the girl closer.
“Don’t be silly. I’m the best, of course I’ll come back to you,” she says, something in her chest settling.
“Do you promise?” the princess asks her, holding out her pinky but still hiding her face in her shoulder, probably embarrassed at the gesture she’s initiating.
“I promise to protect you forever and ever,” she says, winding her pinky with the other’s. “You can’t get rid of me that easily. You can leave me someday but I’m not going anywhere.”
How did she forget that?
Oh, right. Death, again. Then again and again and again.
She needs better ways to deal with her grief. She almost lost track of her mission in life.
“I’m sorry,” Nayeon says.
“Why?” Mina asks her, wanting to make sure that she gets it this time.
“I- I wasn’t me for a while. I’m sorry that you lost me for a while. I’ll try to come back now,” she says honestly.
“That’s all I want,” Mina says, looking tired but content.
She opens her arms and the princess settles against her once again.
She’d get better. Maybe not immediately but she’s going to start.
She’s sitting on the roof of her favorite tower. If she was less trained, she’d have fallen when she felt someone sit beside her.
“She’s getting married, huh,” Momo murmurs.
“Yeah. To some idiot who fought other idiots for her hand,” she replies.
“I did tell you that we could’ve all left and become farmers or something,” Momo jests.
“And have her resent me for it years down the line? No thank you,” Nayeon says, pretending that even just the thought of that choice didn’t break her heart.
“You’re a fool, you know that captain?” Momo tells her, a sad smile on her face.
“I know. I’d kill to be the one beside her, I could have killed everyone else in that competition,” she states.
Momo bumps her knees with hers at that.
“We were all kind of hoping you would, even the queen looked like she was expecting it,” Momo admits.
“Yes, well, I’ll probably still kill for her anyway. I’ll guard her forever, maybe die for her somewhere along the way.”
“You just don’t want to get hurt again, do you?”
She doesn’t respond to that.
They sit there watching the sunset for what feels like hours.
“I’ll always be here for her, serving my station,” she says while standing up and holding her hand out for Momo to take. “I'll always be hers, even though she isn't mine. Even if she doesn't think I'm hers at all. ”
“I don’t think I should be the one you’re telling this to,” Momo says, standing up.
“I’m a lonely general, and you’re my willing soldier. I can only tell you,” she laughs.
“You should’ve been a prince, then you wouldn’t be this brooding mess of a captain,” Momo laughs with her.
“In another life perhaps.”