Yona, it seemed, was doomed to acquire new skills the hard way. With lots and lots of practice.
Jae-Ha lounged on his bedroll a safe distance from the campfire. Yoon was attempting to teach Yona how to cook. A difficult enough task with proper equipment, quality ingredients, and a real stove. But over an open fire with wild herbs and only a few spices that had to be carefully hoarded…
He watched the red-haired princess try a sip of her first stew. And bit his lip to keep from laughing at the face she made. “Yoon, this is awful!” she wailed.
“You haven’t given the herbs enough time to simmer in the broth,” the young chef/healer/general caretaker of their sorry group assured her. “Remember, soups and stews are some of the most forgiving dishes. It’s rare that you can’t salvage them from poor flavoring or poor skill.”
“Is that why we eat so many of them?” Yona asked brightly.
And Jae-Ha wondered, not for the first time, why Soo-Won hadn’t simply married her. Look at her. She was adorable as sin. If Soo-Won had wanted her father’s throne so badly, what on earth made him think that killing the man was the easiest path?
“Just a little bit of that now… not too much… AAAHH!”
Jae-Ha made himself get up and walk off a little ways. He doubted that Yoon would appreciate him laughing at his coaching efforts. Fortunately, Hak was sitting at the edge of their little camp, whittling some new arrows for Yona’s quiver. The princess’ surly bodyguard was almost as much fun to pester as Yona was herself.
“Story time, Hak.”
Hak looked up from his work and all but growled at him. “Not now. I’m busy.”
“Now, we haven’t talked all day. Don’t be like that.”
“Go bug Kija.”
“I’ve already worn out my welcome there for today.”
“Funny. Same here.”
“Stop,” Jae-Ha ordered mildly. “I want you to tell me some stories about your princess.”
That got a reaction. Hak lowered a wicked-looking knife. “Your princess too. You said.”
“I shall follow Hime-sama as long as she will have me.” Jae-Ha put a hand over his heart. “But I want to know about your princess.” He crossed his legs comfortably. “I mean, you knew her when she was actually a princess.”
Hak frowned. “She’s still actually a princess.”
“Semantics. When she wore gowns and dressed her hair and ordered servants around.”
Hak waved a half-done arrow at him. “Still ordering servants around.”
Sometimes, Jae-Ha was sorely tempted to kick the man in the face. Sometimes, even with his dragon leg. It’s part of what made him enjoy Hak’s company so much, if he were honest. “Don’t be difficult. What was Yona like in the palace? Also, I’m willing to bet you volunteered to do the arrows.”
Hak leaned his head back against a tree. “She…tried not to order people around, I think. When she was younger, at least.” He smirked at a memory. “Once, she got mad that I wouldn’t help her out of a tight spot. Apologized to me later, told me she knew she needed to learn to handle stuff on her own.”
“Oh?” Jae-Ha leaned forward. “How’d she apologize?”
Hak flushed and took up his knife and arrow again. “I forget.”
“Lies. Tell me.”
Hak glared at him. “With fruit, okay? So you can stop thinking whatever you’re thinking.”
“I was thinking nothing of the sort. What else?”
Hak scraped the knife down the length of the arrow shaft. “What do you want to know?”
Jae-Ha bit the inside of his lip. How to ask about Soo-Won without sending Hak into whatever dark place he went to at the mention of the man’s name? “Friends. Tell me about friends.”
A flicker passed over the bodyguard’s face, but it cleared quickly. “She wasn’t allowed out of the palace much,” Hak admitted. “She’d have birthday parties, and people her age with titles would show up. But she didn’t really know any of them. So we always had our own parties later.”
Jae-Ha was willing to bet he knew who the we in that sentence was. “I’m sure they were a scream. You must be fabulous at parties.”
Hak glared at him.
“But really, out of all those ‘people her age with titles’...” Jae-Ha paused. “No one tried to court her?”
Hak’s mouth fell open.
“Oh, come on, she’s of age, she’s a royal, she’s not bad to look at, and unless she’s changed drastically since then, she’s pretty fun to be around.” The green dragon raised an eyebrow. “You’re telling me that no one was interested?”
Hak gritted his teeth and went back to his whittling. “If an offer was ever made, I was never privy to it.”
Jae-Ha glanced over his shoulder toward the campfire. Judging by the proud look on Yoon’s face, dinner was coming along rather better than before. Yona was pushing her hair out of her eyes and laughing.
“I wonder why.” Jae-Ha wasn’t even aware he had spoken out loud until Hak looked up at him.
“It wasn’t something we talked about with any regularity,” the bodyguard recalled. “But I’d guess it has more to do with King Il putting off the inevitable than anything else.” Hak fidgeted with his knife. “And the princess…well, her mind was elsewhere.”
Jae-Ha watched him twirl his knife absentmindedly. The dragon had some vague idea that Soo-Won was involved in the story’s unspoken bits. However, pulling Hak from a murderous black rage was decidedly not on his To Do list for the day. But. Could Yona have been interested in Soo-Won? It was an intriguing thought. Could they have been quietly courting? Jae-Ha frowned in Yona’s direction. That didn’t actually fit either. The girl was too naive. He tried to imagine her in a serious courtship. All his mind could conjure was some poor schmuck holding flowers and a jewelry box while Yona ran past him into the woods with her bow and arrow and her shabby cape.
“Well.” Slapping Hak on the shoulder a bit harder than necessary, Jae-Ha got to his feet. “We’ll just have to watch over our little princess until her mind does go there, yeah?”
He would have loved to see the expression on Hak’s face, but looking back would have spoiled the effect.
The evening was well worn-on when Jae-Ha handed Yona a chipped cup of tea at the campfire. Hak, Yoon, and Kija were washing dishes and fetching water at the river, Zeno was already snoring like a bullfrog in his bedroll, and who knew where Shin-ah was hiding for his lookout. Really, opportunities like this didn’t come around every day.
“Mm, how sweet of you. Thanks!” Yona sipped the hot tea with enthusiasm. It couldn’t be anything like as fine as she’d had most of her life. Jae-Ha made himself stop that line of thinking. Even though the way they were raised had been worlds apart, Yona was more than used to this style of living by now.
“Yona, dear.” Jae-Ha settled himself comfortably by the fire. “Tell me about your first love, won’t you?”
The hot tea must have stung a bit as Yona spilled some down her front. “J-Jae-Ha!” She mopped at her chin with the back of her sleeve. “Wh-where did that come from?”
The green dragon waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever do you mean? Perfect campfire conversation.”
Yona was very probably blushing hard, but it was difficult to tell in the firelight. She sat up straight. “Well. Well, all right. But.”
Jae-Ha raised an eyebrow and grinned. “But, Princess?”
“Share and share alike. You go first.”
He stared at her. She raised her chin. “Why, Yona, darling.” Jae-Ha tried not to laugh. “My stories are hardly interesting.”
“Such a pity. I’m quite a good storyteller.” Yona sipped her tea with a bit more composure.
Jae-Ha chewed his lower lip and regarded her with narrow eyes. “Well,” he said at last, “far be it from me to miss out on a skilled artisan. I suppose it can’t be helped.” He leaned back on his hands. “I can’t recall how old I was. Certainly not in my teens yet.” Still chained to the wall every night. “Let’s say I was seven.”
Yona giggled and drew her cloak snugly around her. She looked for all the world as though she was enjoying herself. “Love found the Ryokuryuu at such a young age.”
Jae-Ha tried for a small smile. He hadn’t conjured this memory in ages. “My guardians were very strict with me. I was…kept inside most of the time.”
Yona’s brow furrowed. “Oh, how sad. I can’t imagine keeping the green dragon indoors.”
Damn. Should have just given up on hearing Yona’s story. This is… “Yes, well, a certain young boy agreed with you.” Jae-Ha wiped a hand over his mouth. “He was a bit older than me. Again, the age escapes me. I doubt I ever knew it. But he was tall.”
“Tall? Is that all you can remember?” Yona teased.
I remember everything. “Oh, you wanted more?” he asked with a grin that was almost real. “All right. His name was Obi. And he was, yes, tall. And slim. And his hair was dark as anything.”
Yona leaned forward. The fire made everything about her seem red. “What about his eyes?”
“Gold. Like the prettiest cat eyes you’ve ever seen. The first time he looked through my window, I almost screamed, thinking it was a wild animal.” I did scream. He told me to shut up.
“Anyway, Obi brought me things sometimes. Fruit. Fried biscuits, those were good. One time, he brought me a ball.” Jae-Ha spread his hands. “I was helpless to fall in love with him.”
“You were seven,” Yona protested, but her smile was sweet and a little awestruck.
“You know what kindness is when you’re seven,” Jae-Ha countered with a raised finger. And selflessness. And risk.
“So…did you ever confess?” Yona hugged her knees to her chest.
Jae-Ha stared into the fire. “I did not. The moment escaped me.” You heard he was beaten for giving you his food. Badly. “He was no longer in my village when…when I left.”
Yona might not be naturally gifted at a lot of things, Jae-Ha reflected. But he watched her face as she absorbed his story. She’s not an idiot. It was obvious from her sober look that she could tell he’d left out a lot.
“And with that, you want to know my story.” Yona selected a small log and added it carefully to the fire.
Oh yes. That’s why I was talking. “That was our agreement, my dear.”
“He was tall.” Her eyes met his, mischief dancing in them.
He felt a true smile tug at his lips. “You like tall men, Princess?”
“I plan to surround myself with them, Ryokuryuu,” she said, indicating the others with a sweep of her hand.
“You’re doing a poor job. Only Hak and myself are anything to brag about when it comes to height.”
“How quickly you dismiss Shin-ah and Kija!”
“They,” Jae-Ha stressed, “are simply not short. You cannot compare them to me. And as for Yoon and Zeno—”
“Now don’t be rude. Do you want to hear the rest or not?”
“Oh, yes, let’s.” He leaned forward. Perhaps her skill was making the melancholy of her dragons fade into forgetfulness.
“He was always taller than I was,” Yona continued. “Even when we were very young. I remember…” Her voice was soft. “I remember when I noticed how he had grown so much more than I had. I hadn’t seen him in a year. I was fourteen.” She laughed. “I’m sure he thought I’d grown intolerably dull when we met. I was tongue-tied beyond belief.”
“Not possible.” The words were out before Jae-Ha realized he planned to say them. “I’m sure he thought you were enchanting,” he managed with his usual over-the-top gallantry.
Yona rolled her eyes. “Hak told me I sounded like an idiot.”
“Hak is a moron.”
“Come now, I love him dearly. He’s still a moron. Now.” Jae-Ha smiled encouragingly. “This tall young man. What on earth did he do to win the affections of the sought-after Princess of Kouka?”
Yona blew out a breath and poked the fire with a stick. “The sought-after princess. I wonder if that’s why I fell for him.” She was quiet. “I hardly knew anyone else. And he was so kind. Really lovely. And smart. Even when I’m sure I was a completely spoiled child, he always made me feel he liked being with me. And my father…my father liked him.”
“Yona.” Jae-Ha watched her helplessly for a moment. She didn’t look on the verge of tears. It was worse. She looked empty. “I guess neither of our first loves went exactly according to plan.”
Yona gave a short laugh and shrugged. “If yours had, you may have gone off somewhere happily together. I might never have met you. And if mine had…” She stood and brushed off her dress. She favored him with a smile where he sat. “If mine had gone according to plan, I would have missed having you all in my life. And I’m telling you now, I wouldn’t want that.”
Jae-Ha got to his feet. He took a step to her and then another. Damn this dragon blood. But he rather doubted he could in good conscience blame his draw to her on his ancestors.
“You’re saying…” He kept his voice low. Calm. “...That you would rather have us. Than your first love?”
She looked up at him, and her violet eyes colored strangely in the firelight. “I would rather have any one of you than his love.”
Her voice was quiet, but it carried a finality that filled his lungs. He closed the distance between them. Reached a hand out and caught one of her curls between two fingers. “I could probably speak for the others,” he said at last. “But, Yona. Without question, you have me.”