the city surrenders without much of a fight when the army of the uprising reaches its outer walls. ‘surrender’ puts it too nicely, perhaps; the people throw open the gates for the army and line the streets to cheer their march forward. inside a palace already conquered by hysteria ryeowook gathers what’s left of the soldiers who haven’t defected to the other side’s banners and waits.
he does not have to wait long. the palace gates are barricaded only in a way to buy time while he moves men to the central courtyard and stairs and women and children into the inner palaces. there is no time left to smuggle them out of the city. perhaps that was their own fault, their own arrogance, that they had not expected not only a sizable amount of the population to join the uprising, but also a large section of the military. that they had not expected to lose. ryeowook has never been particularly interested in or exemplary when it comes to military strategy, but now adrenaline and fear and anger drive him, and he grips the sword in his hands tighter.
he knows, as even as he leans against a pillar and watches the front gate shake under the oncoming impact, that he will not be allowed to live regardless of what he does.
the first soldier who pushes through skids down the steps now slippery with red from a well-placed arrow, but the rest of the force that surges forward is overwhelming. ryeowook recalls the reports of how the uprising armies fought like the possessed and thinks that they may not be that far off at all.
they sweep through the courtyard and the few men who volunteered to go to the central courtyard with ryeowook. there are others, scattered throughout the corridors and rooftops of the palace, to make one last stand. not enough. not nearly enough. they’d known that when ryeowook had gathered them here, not a few hours ago, and now he’s seeing the results, splattered red and sharp across pristine stones.
the man he locks swords with parries his strike lazily, barely blinking as ryeowook stabs at his right. it’s almost insulting. he might never have been the absolute best when it came to swordsmanship but the instructor had praised him for his quick thinking and his ability to use his opponents’ strength against them.
most of those lessons seem like a lifetime away as he hisses, trying to press forward even as he feels his opponent pushing him back, trying to herd him into the wall. half-ducking behind a pillar, he pushes off from it, swinging his sword over his head at his opponent.
the clash of metal rings in his ears again, when his opponent knocks the sword clean out of his hands. snarling, ryeowook draws his knife and is about to draw back when he feels the sword scrape against his chin.
“put the knife down,” his opponent says. he’s both literally and figuratively backed into a corner, but there’s no way he’s going to let them claim that he took the coward’s way out.
“no,” he says. the edge of the blade presses a thin slice across his throat as he moves, and he can feel the slight trickle of blood run down his skin. “what are you waiting for? are you going to kill me or not?”
“drop your knife,” his opponent repeats, softer this time, like he’s soothing a wild animal rather than threatening another person with his sword. “if i can avoid killing you i’d rather do so, prince.”
at that, ryeowook stiffens. as a precaution, he’d removed any identifying insignias on his person and put on the armor of a common soldier.
the man smiles at him. “it’s not very obvious, don’t worry. but a face like yours is hard to forget and harder to confuse. now, your weapon, please.”
ryeowook slowly unclenches his jaw and drops the knife at his feet. “do me a favor and end it quickly.”
the man at his right pulls his spear forward and despite himself ryeowook winces and shields his eyes, bracing himself for the inevitable.
“wait,” the first one says. he is looking at him, considering him, and ryeowook doesn’t know whether that scares him more or less. probably more. it means they may not kill him quickly. that they might make a spectacle of it. he imagines his head being paraded around on a pike and winces a little at the thought.
the man holding the spear laughs in disbelief. “kyuhyun, you can’t be serious. what? are you going to leave the prince alive? so he can run off in exile and come back with an army five years later? yeah, right.”
kyuhyun . ryeowook isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. this is supposed to be cho kyuhyun? the military strategist and general who’d broken their armies’ lines at the head of a horde of peasants? a man who only barely looks his own age, standing here waffling around about killing him?
“the other sons were killed honorably on the battlefield,” cho says now. “people talk easily. popular sentiment will turn against us if they found out we spilled more blood than needed. besides, it’s bad luck to kill someone in a place you plan on living in.”
“so what do you plan on doing with him?”
cho hums. he looks down at ryeowook again, who glares back at him. “hyuk, go lead the rest of the men and clear out the rest of the palace. make sure nothing happens with the women and children. and be careful. i’m sure there’s other hostiles around here.”
“if you say so,” his companion scoffs, looking warily at ryeowook before signalling for the rest of the men to follow him deeper into the palace.
ryeowook watches them go, mind nearly blank. cho is still looking at him, in that way that lights the fire of unease in his stomach, but it’s barely registered under the overwhelming feeling of anger that swarms up and over his eyes, until all he can see and think of is that this is the man responsible for the death of his family. suddenly, dropping his knife seemed like a terrible idea.
“so it’s you. i was expecting something…” something. cho stands out, that’s undeniable. in the flesh, though, outside of jagged descriptions outlined by word of mouth, he looks too young, too soft too, if not for the barely healed cuts running along his chin and right cheek.
“does that disappoint you?”
“disappoint me?” it’s such a strange turn of phrase that a harsh bark of laughter mangages to escape him. his back scrapes against the wall as he sinks down to his knees. “you killed my family. i wouldn’t call that disappointing .”
“regretfully,” cho says, inclining his head. “would it comfort you if i reassured you that i have little intention of doing the same to you?” as if to prove his point, he sheathes his sword and holds his hands outward.
“what aspiring dynastic conqueror will not clear out his rivals’ children?” ryeowook snarls. “they say many unflattering things about you, general, but i doubt any of them imagined that you were a coward.” he’s half-kneeling, disgracefully so. his hands are scrambling on the floor. scrambling for the discarded knife. it isn’t far. he only needs a little time.
“i’m not a dynastic conqueror, nor do i intend to be,” cho says. he crouches down, so that they are now eye level. so that ryeowook’s hands could almost reach out and strangle him. “although historically, when someone stages a coup or an uprising, the victor will marry a member of the defeated house. as insurance, maybe. added legitimacy to their rule.”
ryeowook lunges for the knife.
he has a grasp on the handle before a strong grip closes around his wrist, applying enough pressure that he cries out in pain. for the second time that night, the knife clatters to the floor and leaves ryeowook defenseless and sprawled on the floor.
out of the corner of his vision, a foot kicks it to the opposite side of the courtyard.
“sorry about that,” cho says mildly. the most infuriating part of it is that he actually does sound a little apologetic. he stretches out a hand, presumably for him to take it. ryeowook pointedly turns his head the other way and stumbles back onto his own feet himself.
“no,” he spits. “you should end things now, because i don’t intend to be your puppet.”
“of the old emperor’s surviving children, you are the most suitable. it’s the most effective way to stabilize the kingdom and allow things to settle down.”
“no,” he repeats. “no, you can’t--i’m not--”
“i will ensure that you will be allowed to mourn,” cho continues, as if he has said nothing. “not publically, of course, but in private. if you accept, in three days’ time you will be crowned as emperor. after which, you will formally appoint me prime minister, and we will be wed soon after.”
“i have sisters.”
“whatever you may think of me, i have no interest in wedding married women or children,” cho says sharply. he glances down at ryeowook, evaluating. “no, i think you’ll do nicely.”
“if my arguments thus far have not been persuasive enough,” cho says, “consider this: it is the only way you will be allowed to live as a surviving son of the old emperor.”
he can’t help the dry smile that creeps onto his face. “there’s the threat i’ve been waiting for.”
“they work, don’t they? or i wouldn’t be here making them. you’ve been asking for me to kill you, but i don’t think you really want that.”
ryeowook sighs. he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder, at the knife kyuhyun has kicked out of reach, to know that it is not an area he will win in. the rapid fight or flight response that he had mustered after the palace had been breached is gone, replaced only by the grim realization that avenging this particular hurt will mean playing the long game.
“it won’t be so bad,” cho says, as if sensing the change in his thoughts. “in a few years, when the situation stables or a more suitable candidate or heir has come forward, you’ll likely be allowed to abdicate, and live out the rest of your life undisturbed, if you wish. in the meantime, you’ll be allowed to retain most of your family’s wealth and power, with some provisions of course.”
not so bad huh. well, if he wanted to think that, then ryeowook was fine letting him. “fine,” he says. “i concede the effectiveness of your argument. you military men do have your own way with words.”
cho smiles slightly. “i’m glad.”
“for your sake, i hope you won’t regret sparing me.” it’s probably not a good thing to say; the balance of power is hardly skewed in his favor. but ryeowook is now the heir to the throne, and he has never taken humiliation particularly well.
to his surprise, cho barely blinks. “i hope so too,” he says. he moves, as if to put his hand over ryeowook’s shoulder, before he thinks better of it. ryeowook is very glad he does. “truly. please understand me when i say that i want peace just as much as you do.”
ryeowook gives him a stiff nod and says nothing more.