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I Don't Want To Live On the Moon

Chapter Text

"The fishing this year is good, but-"

"Did you hear about what happened to the village down the road?"

"Yes, I have a cousin down there. She was fine, thank the gods-"

"It's the demon!"

A hush follows me through the village like a second shadow. The whispers start up again when I pass, like waves crashing on the shore.

I pay them no attention. After three years, you think they'd be used to me. Not so. I continued through the streets with my own bubble of personal silence following me. Mothers hugged their children close. The people that I looked at flinched away and no one tried to stop me.

I walk to headman's house. It's less run down then the others, but that's like comparing a broken arm to a shattered one. In the twenty first century it'd be condemned. Here, it doubles as the tavern.

The door slammed open with a rattle of the wood. An elder woman with dark, loose hair and sallow skin folded her arms in the door. "So you're back, Murderer. How'd it go?"

Ugh. "Jia. Where's your husband?" Every time they sent for me it ended up like this. The head man would be out, gone for the day. His wife would be home. She was always home.

Jia is a spiteful and petty woman. She looked me in the eye and called me a murderer. It be better if I could deny it.

But I can't.

I hated talking to her.

"Hah! Who the hell knows, with that bastard." Her eyes bore into mine. They have shadows as dark as a her hair. "Did you take care of the vermin problem? The elders said you wouldn't, as The more fools they. They always say you won't come back."

"Mother!" The young man says.

I roll my eyes. "Like a couple of bandits would even pose a challenge."

"Good." She said, her eyes like coals. A sickly smile crossed her face. "Did you make it hurt?"

Three years ago, this nameless village was a prime target for bandits. Jia lost her daughter to their blades. The loss scooped out the woman and something hungry lived in her now.

Vengeance, hatred, bloodlust - her slipping grip on reality was obvious to anyone with eyes.

I don't look away. I've seen to much to care for one woman's encroaching insanity.

"The payment," I said.

She blinked, coming back from somewhere far away and nudged a sack in front of the building with her foot. "Of course, Murderer. Three weeks rice." She tipped it over to me with her foot.

I heft the bag over my shoulder and I head back into the village.

"Murderer!"

I halt for a moment. "What, Jia?"

"You have blood on your face."

The young man squeaks.

I wipe at it without thinking. It wouldn't help -

There's blood on my hands too.

I look over my shoulder. The woman meets my eyes, like she always does. "Ah, thanks."

Another hard smile crosses her face. Her son holds all the fear that she doesn't and tugs at his mother's clothes. This time she follows him back into the house, the door sliding shut behind her.

I start the long walk home.

-

Home is a minuscule shack on the edge of the river - no one used to go there because bandits hid in the trees.

Now no one goes here because it's where the demon lives.

"I'm back," I said.

"It's about time, girl!" Granny says leaning out the door. Her steel gray hair and her wrinkled face don't take away from her powerful shoulders. She'd been fishing longer than I'd been alive, and all the hauling nets showed. "Is that blood? Tch. What did I say about dealing with that insane woman?"

I set the down the rice. "Not five years old, hag. I can make my own decisions."

"I'm serious. You can't keep on doing this - you're skilled. You can go to work at the palace as a guard. Why keep on as a two bit bounty hunter who works for twenty pounds of rice?"

Work for the nobility? No thanks. Been there, done that. Got the scars to prove it. The long, ugly one on my face twinges.

"You're a pain in the ass," I say out loud after a moment. "Still not five. Quit bitching."

Agony shoots through my head when the old woman grabs me by the ear and twists. "Who is a pain in the ass, you little brat?" She shouts.

"Ow, ow, ow, you old hag, leggo!" I stumble to keep her from pulling any harder.

She snorts, releasing me. "Whatever. You young people have no respect for the poor elderly who don't want to see you waste your life."

I rub my stinging ear. "You're stronger than a gorilla you old hag, you can't claim to be weak."

"What was that, you little brat?"

"Careful, hag, you might break a frail hip if you don't settle down."

A rustle in the trees attracted my attention. I tilted my head, my eyes narrowed. There you are, you little pest. Something followed me all the way from the village and it was getting on my nerves. "Come out where I can see you." A bandit that I missed somehow? A village kid? Jia?

A moment passed. A boy stepped out from behind a tree, with his hand scratching his head. There were leaves in his sandy brown hair. He laughed. "Sorry."

He was fair skinned and half a head shorter then me. Maybe thirteen… and weirdly familiar.

"Hi! My name's Soo-won. I was wandering - er, I was lost - and I heard laughter, you see, -"

Even in clothing that was more of a sack, mended and patched, something about him set off alarm bells in my head. I studied him. Dangerous, but not a threat. He looked like a village kid.

He set off all of my bullshit detectors, though. The way he stood said trained. The way he moved said trained well. Expensive training.

Only two types of people got training out here - nobles and people who served them. Either way he was lying.

"You're so full of it." I said in disgust. "You've been following me since I left the village. What are you, some sort of runaway noble?"

He stared at me. "Pardon me?"

I stare at him for one long moment. Wow, I hit the nail on the head. Go intuition. "Scram." I said to him. Then I turn back to the hag, effectively ignoring him. "I'm going to go wash the blood off. I'll even get the nets while I'm at it. Ain't I amazing?"

"Tch. Rude as ever, Jeong-hui. "

Jeon-hui isn't my name. I picked it when I first got here, back when I still had delusions of fitting in back then. I've had a lot of names since then.

I got used to it.

The blood is sticky on my skin. I scratch at it with a scowl.

I got used to a lot of things.

I wave over back at her. "Yeah, yeah. Don't forget to add lots of pickles to dinner." I shook my head, mouth and eyebrows lowering into a scowl.

It was in the past and I had work to do.

-

Or I would have work to do, irritation bubbling like a soup inside me, if this brat would stop following me.

I ignored him and the emotion. He didn't try to hide his interest ,but he didn't say anything either. I could deal with that. As long as he wasn't bothering me, he could do whatever he wanted. I wasn't quite far gone enough to attack a kid for being obnoxious.

The forest was quiet. I walked to the river, tracing the same path that I've gone down hundreds of times. I could hear the kid tripping around behind me. I smirked. The path was treacherous if you didn't know what you were doing.

When I reached the river, I shrugged the kimono's layers off, heedless of modesty, then my shoes, and waded in. Fuck, that was cold. The swift current tugged at my legs like a petulant child, but I stood firm. One last breath and I ducked under the waves.

Hoo - my breath left without so much as a goodbye. The world slowed down, went burry. I kept my eyes open, and the sun filtered through the water. The leaves were orange smudges through the water's surface. Winter was coming on fast.

Seven years ago, I fell into a river and climbed out into a nightmare world. The first two, I nearly drowned myself over and over and over again - just out of hope.

Maybe I could go home, if I could just stay under long enough.

It never works.

Still, I close my eyes. Hope was a hard thing to let go of.

I break the surface when my lungs start burning. Gasping, I tilt my head back. I glance out of the corner of my eyes. Still the same forest and the boy kneeling on the bank; he was watching me with eyes like chips of ice set into his face.

The disappointment always stings.

I shake the water out of my face. There was work to be done, and not a lot of time to do it in. Daylight was precious in fall.

I waded out of the water, shivering. The rope for the fishing nets was anchored securely to a post hammered into the river bank. I hauled the nets up, straining against the current. I heave it up inch by inch. The sun presses down as I get it onto the bank, unusually warm for near the end of fall.

It's a good haul. Fish glitter in the light, like silver coins. I wipe my forehead and stretch. Now came the gutting and the salting. The housewives at the market liked to have fish all ready to cook when they got home. Granny went to town to sell once a week. What we didn't sell would get preserved into fish jerky and sold with the next batch.

"That's a lot of fish," A voice said much closer than it should have been.

My body reacted before my mind did. I lashed out, still looking at the fish.

The person ducked under my hand in a truly impressive back-bend.

I was already in motion, leg slashing at his head.

He flipped back into a fighting position.

Not fast enough.

I spun into a combo, striking faster than thought- stomach, temple, grab the clothes, reel him in, strike the throat and end this-

-and then my brain caught up with my body. My hand halted just a centimeter away from his throat. I could feel his skin every time he inhaled.

He stared at me, wide eyed.

My heart was a drumbeat.

I nearly killed this kid.

"What," I said, "the fuck was that?"

"Uh -"

"Were you raised without manners or are you just stupid? Is there some sort of law that says nobles can just sneak up on people? Personal space. Learn it. Love it."

"Uh. I'm sorry?" His eyes were wide and his hands were up.

I looked at my hand, and clenched it. Let go of his robes and took two large steps away. I pulled my kimono back up and turned to the river. "Stupid it is. Go. Home."

He did.

The rage still boiled inside me. I waited until his footsteps faded away.

Then I punched a tree. Pain shot up my arm like white hot bars of metal inside my veins. Kids. Fucking hated hurting them. Even the annoying ones, even on accident.

I pressed my forehead to the bark. "Fuck." I said. Cradling my hand, I could pretend it was the pain that made it shake.

-

That wasn't the end of it.

Of course it wasn't.

Like a bad penny, the kid kept turning up. In the mornings, to trample through the forest and scare off all the game, and disturb my sleep. In the evenings, to watch me haul in the nets. In the middle of lunch to mooch onigri and salmon jerky off the hag, who doted on him like a son.

He didn't come every day - it was sporadic, twice a week at most.

That didn't make him any less obnoxious.

Always with the questions - how, why, what, blah blah blah. I did my best to ignore him as the months passed.

Despite the kid's best efforts, my life remained blessedly calm. I hunted and I gathered and earned my keep. I went through kata and didn't have to fight anyone at all.

In the winter, the bandits started up again. Jia sent more jobs my way, and I forgot about annoyances for a while.

Granny looked in the direction of town. "Soo-won hasn't been around. I wonder if something happened."

The ax thunked through a piece of firewood. "Who?" I asked, absently. Trying to get the perfect split was harder than it looked. The nights were getting a lot colder. It didn't bother me because I was used to colder weather. I just added an under-layer to my kimono and warmed up water before I washed.

The hag wasn't young anymore. It'd be bad if she caught a cold or something stupid. Medicine is primitive.

"Who - I can't believe you, brat. The only person who's been visiting for the past half a year?"

I gave her a blank look. See my confusion. See it.

She stared at me, pity on her face. "That poor boy," she added for no apparent reason.

Wait that did sound familiar. My brows came down. Oh right. That kid. "It has been annoyance free around here lately." No one interrupted my morning meditation for a while.

She threw an old cloth at my head. "You're heartless. I'm worried, Jeong. Go into town and find out what's keeping him."

I blinked and made an x by crossing my arms in front of me, careful with the ax. "No way. I don't care. You can just ask when you go into market. Plus, I'm busy not being annoyed out of my mind."

"I care, and I feed you. Trying to concentrate on cooking at when I'm worried is hard. Who knows, I just might mistake sugar for salt the next time I make onigiri." She shrugged in an exaggerated manner.

"That's cruel and unusual punishment, you old hag!" Pitting my love of food against my desire to pest-free. Devious!

She gave me a smug smile. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

I hesitated. On one hand, that annoying, ever questioning brat.

On the other - sweet onigiri.

I sighed.

"Take a hat with you. Your hair stands out too much." The hag said, tugging a gold brown lock hard. She dodges before I slap her hand away, and walks off laughing.

Hag.

Chapter Text

-

 

The capital of Kouka is bustling in a way that wears at my control. Cities have never been kind to me. I pull my hat low over my hair and eyes, trying not to shrink back. Someone shoves roughly past, and I move off to the side. I pull a scarf over my nose, trying to block the smell of too many unwashed bodies, animals and cooking food.

I hate crowds. They make me twitchy.

"Let's get this over with." I said.

I start with the taverns. I didn't know his family name, but at least I had descriptions.

Not that it helped any.

The large, smelly man cocked his head and scratched at his beard. Something fell out. I carefully didn't look any closer. "Oh, the kid? Yeah I know him. He hangs out around here."

It would be helpful, if the kid didn't know absolutely everyone.

I clenched my teeth. Ten taverns and four hours later, that was the normal response. If they didn't know him personally, they knew that him by sight. If they didn't know him by sight, they knew someone who knew someone else who knew him. "Have you seen him lately? In the past month?"

"Can't say I have." The man said with a hiccup. He turned back to his sake, evidently done with this conversation.

What nobody did know was where he was.

I shook my head. I left the man to his drinks, and I exited the tavern. The sun hung low in the sky, the gold of sunset dripping out of the sky to paint the town. Lamps were being lit. Okay. So how was I going to find - what was his name again? Woo-song? Sun-wu?

Soo-Won! That's it.

How was I supposed the find him if he was everywhere?

Should I go back home? But if I came back empty handed. I looked at the sun. It would take three hours or so to get back. It was plenty of time, but...

Sugar in rice. Blech.

I needed to find an inn.

Soo-won… there was something familiar about that name. I pulled my hat down again and waded back into crowd, mouth in a grim line. I tried not to breath through my nose. The name was something I heard a long time ago, or maybe read somewhere. Why did he need to know so many people? Some of the taverns I went to were rougher than a choppy sea, and twice as likely to kill you.

Before. That was what I was thinking of.

Lost in thought, I rocked on my feet when something hit my chest. I let out a low breath

I managed to stay on my feet, one hand on my meager purse, the other keeping the person on their feet. "Watch where you're going-"

I choked.

Soo-won looked as shocked as I felt.

We stared at each other.

"Jeong?"

"What are you doing here?" Because seriously. It's like I can't get away from this kid, even if I wanted to.

Now he decided to make an appearance? I scowl at him. "Being run into appar- is that a bruise?" I grabbed his chin and turned his face one way, and then the other. He was favoring his right leg "Why are you all bruised up, kid?"

Soo-won blinked, then laughed. His face was a little red. "Um, training."

"Hmm." Did I care enough to call him out on his lies? I let him go.

He glanced behind me, and his eyes became large and panicked. "Hak, stop!"

I was already in motion.

I ducked under a burning pole-arm that almost cracked into my skull. I came up on my knees, my own walking stick in hand - just in time to block another swing.

I shoved back- and wrenched the staff out of their hands. They went with it.

My attacker bounced off the nearby wall, and came in with a dangerous kick aimed at my head. I blocked with my staff again, but the impact shuddered down my arms. I kept my place, knees planted. I came up for another blow-

And pulled back an inch from Soo-won's head. There was a small cleared space around us. A few people stopped to watch, wary murmurs rippling out like a disturbed pond.

"Soo-won?" I said, keeping my eyes on my opponent.

I got a good look at my attacker. Black hair, feral eyes. A kid, about Soo-won's age. I glanced at the dent he left in the wall. Fucking strong. Underestimating the kid would get me killed.

"Hak," Soo-won said, "There's really no need for that. She isn't going to hurt me."

I glanced at him. "This violent guy a friend of yours? Why am I not surprised."

Soo- won laughed and clasped his hands behind his back. "I don't want to hear that from you, Jeong-Hui."

I frowned at him, taking my eyes off the other kid. The tension was gone. "What's that supposed to mean, brat?"

The kid- Hak, there was another name that sounded weirdly familiar - seemed to have come to the same conclusion. He stood, straightening his clothes.

Soo won handed me my hat.

"Ah, thanks." I guess it fell off. Or the kid kicked it off. I messed Soo-won's hair, which settled sometime in the last three seconds that I wasn't paying attention. My hair, pulled back into it's normal tight braid, didn't settle unless I fought it even after ambushing it with coombs and gell. It wasn't even curly. It was just… poofy. Poofy and abundant and impossible.

It was unfair.

"Jeong-hui! Cut it out!" He whined. Red spilling over his face he slapped my hand away. Hah, acting like a kid for once.

"Soo-won, What the hell is going on? Who's this thug?" The other kid said.

"Hah?" I said with my best sneer. "Who you calling a thug, brat?"

The kid glared at me. "Who you calling a brat, thug?"

It was sort of cute. Nothing like Soo-won - more honest. Like a baby tiger.

"Hak, this is Jeong-hui. Jeong-hui this is Hak. He's my friend." Soo won said. He tilted his head. "More importantly, why are you here? You hate the city."

"… and how the hell do you know that?" I asked, voice dry as a dessert. I never said it. In fact, I don't think I've ever talked about anything I like or dislike around him. Did he just observe me and come to that conclusion? What gave it away?

He waited patiently for my answer. His eyes like polished mirrors, gave nothing away.

Creepy, kid.

I scowled at him. He was still a little brat though. "You haven't been by in a while."

Soo-won tilted his head. Something flickered across his face, too fast for me to read. "...you were worried?"

"No." I said. It was the truth. He spoke to smooth, and showed too little for me to ever trust him. The best that could be said was that I wanted him closer so I wasn't taken by surprise at the last moment. "I don't care, but the hag does."

"You really don't like me," Soo-won said after a moment.

"Nope."

"Wait," Hak said, an unholy look of glee on his face. "This is who you've been sneaking off to see? I thought that it was a girl - you wouldn't stop smiling."

Soo-won punched him in the shoulder. "Shut up!"

"You kept trying to sneak out of the palace-" Hak said, louder.

Soo-won lunged for him.

It dissolved into chaos after that.

 

-

 

"I don't know how my life came to this," I said to no one in particular. "Fishing and dealing with bandits? Fine. I can handle that. Cranky old ladies and annoying children? Sure. Bring it. I worked retail. I can handle that shit."

I gestured to the palace as best I could with my arms full of sulking noble.

"This? I was chopping wood this morning. I caught fish. I still smell like fish. How the hell did I get Here?"

"Put me down!" Hak said, struggling against her right arm. "You bastard!"

"I am not luggage," Soo-won said in an almost was whiny tone.

I ignored them. "Maybe it's just that I do it to myself. I wonder if karma is an actual real thing, because that would explain some things."

I sighed, and waved to the guards. "Hey you! Yeah, you, the ugly one with the hair - I found some stuff that belongs to you!"

-

Chapter Text

Let me let you in on a little secret: I don’t understand royalty. Blood deciding the ruler? Just… why? What makes this particular blood better than any other?

In twenty first century, america, that was okay.

Nowadays… I’ve been into a few scrapes over “disrespecting” some noble. I touch my scar.  It’s an unpopular opinion. Here in Hakuka, the general’s orders are absolute. Loyalty to insane degrees was the norm.

 

I came into this world on the battlefield. People dying left and right, all for the chance at glory.

 

To be commended by the royals, one soldier told me. His eyes fever bright.  “To die in defense of those great figures is the highest honor,” he said. “I can only dream of being acknowledged like that. The gods would lift me up, without question.”

 

He was run down by the cavalry. I found his body, stinking and oozing in the mud. The general ordered us to march out the next hour. No chance to bury his body.

 

He was kind. Taught me some useful stuff, without being prompted.

 

He would keep me alive longer than that. I took his sword, and his name and his rank, and I lived.

 

No gods lifted him up.

 

Only a mass grave, and another pointless battle tomorrow.

 

I shifted, careful not let my dirty clothes touch the delicate porcelain vase displaying the poppies. Silk tapestries  shimmered in the breeze from the shoji, all sorts of colors working to bring out the beauty of the scenery outside. This room was worth more then I made in both lives, with the income or my entire family thrown in. Breathing wrong might break something that I couldn’t pay for.

 

“Is the room not to your liking, honored guest?”

 

I tensed, hands clenched at my side. I hand to force them to stay folded in my sleeves. No. Don’t attack the servant. She’s just doing her job. “...No. It’s fine.”  Ostentatious as hell, but fine.

 

Her mouth curled down at one side.

 

“Do you know where that bra -- Soo won went?”

 

She bowed low, pretty as any tapestry, sleeves fluttering. “There is nothing you could not ask for, Honored Guest. Any friend of Lord Soo-won is afforded the highest comforts. You need only wish for it.” There was something accusing in her voice.

 

Lord Soo won? What exactly was lordly about him?  “Right… I’ll keep that in mind.” I kept my disbelief off my face the best I could.

 

Lord Soo won my left foot. How high was he on the hierarchy here?

 

The servant bowed again. The room was silent. The wind brought the smell of clear water from the gardens. My hands itched. I stared out the window. God this was uncomfortable.

 

The last time is was in a room this fancy --

 

Nope. Not thinking about it.

 

“If Soo won comes back, tell him I’m in the gardens.” I tell the servant, eyes on the door.

 

If she protests, I don’t hear it.

 

I’m already out.

 

-



Before i ever came to this world, I was a gardener. Fresh dirt-- eating things that i grew myself-- the feeling of true self-sufficiency.  It was the happiest I’ve ever been. Fishing is the closest to that feeling that I've gotten here.

 

I swallow back against the ache in my eyes and throat. Homesickness rises in like a wave, pulling me along.

 

With the sun above me, I wait until I can breath again. I close my eye for a moment. Yes, the smell of perfume from the flowers, clean water, the soft buzz of insects in the air.

 

Something inside my chest eases. It was almost like being home again. I kick of my tabi and sandals, and dig my feet into the fresh cut grass.  I ignore the eyes on my back.

 

I look at my patched clothes, dull against the flowers. I smiled ruefully. Even the garden of this grand palace made me look shabby in comparison. Like a withered apple tree among the green. I wander through the garden, touching a plant here, a tree there. It really was beautifully maintained. Who owned it?

 

I found a nice shady spot and flopped down on my back. the tension was still there. The eyes were still on me. I was still trapped in the past. It was alright for now.

 

That was the best thing about gardens; the plants didn’t care what you were doing, or how stupid you looked. How out of place you were.  “Whatever,” I say to the sky, eyes closed. “I don’t care anyway.”

 

“You don’t care about what?”  My hat was lifted up.

 

My eyes popped open. All I could see was a halo of sun on red hair, falling around me like a waterfall.  Green eyes, small hands, imperious expression on her face. The scent of lavender.

 

The child cries out in the smoke, agony and I -- there’s nothing I can do but offer mercy --

 

Heart thudding in chest, I let go of my dagger.

 

Something burning, old and bitter. I shake it away.

 

“Are you sick? All of your color is gone.” The kid said. “I don’t want to get sick.”

 

I force my hands down. I clenched my hand on the grass. “No. I’m not sick. Who’re you? Where are your parents?” I made no move to get up. I was afraid that I’d throw up all over the beautiful garden.

 

What did I say next? I don’t know. I’ve never wanted any. After coming here, I wanted them even less. I never really know what to do with little kids, even though they liked me.

 

She couldn’t have been more than ten years old.

 

What do I do? A glance revealed no mysterious minder. She seemed content crouching over my head like some infantile gargoyle with red hair. She was still standing over me. A prickle that had nothing to do with the grass was running down my spine.

 

Shut up, it’s just a kid.

 

I heaved out a sigh, disgusted with myself. The finer life was getting on my nerves. I wanted the shack and the  honest work. Sweat and fish and all of it. I fit there better than I ever would here. I wasn’t the gardener anymore. “Where are your parents?” I asked again.

 

“I don’t know,” The kid said, in a way that made it very obvious that she did indeed know, and in fact actively tried to make happen. Shifty as hell. Guess they didn’t teach little kids how to lie up here in fancy land.

 

(And then I remember Soo-won.

 

Nah. it’s just that this kid was really bad at it.)

 

“Whatever. Not my problem,” I said again. “Go away. And give me back my hat.”

 

She stuck her tongue at me. “No way. I want it!”

 

She didn’t go away, nor did she give me back my hat. I didn’t want to snatch it from her.  Something in me balked at it. She was like a little doll, something that cracked easy and I--

 

The smell of smoke drifted past again.

 

--I didn’t want to touch her.  What if she broke?

 

Ten minutes passed, and the kid didn’t get bored. Instead, she made me the entertainment. Poking and prodding, refusing to leave and refusing to listen.

 

If Soo-won didn’t come back soon, I was gone. This place was bad for my heart.

 

The girl sighed big and dramatic. “I’m so bored.”

 

“What?” I glared at the hat on her head. I like that hat! It was mine!

 

‘I’m bored.”

 

“So?”

 

“Tell me a story.”

 

“No. Do I look like an entertainer, you little thief?  Go find your parents and give me back my hat!”

 

She gasped. “You can’t call me names! I’m very important. I’ll have the guards throw you out.  I have more than five.” She began counting under her breath, fingers going up. “I have at least fifty! They’re all tougher and better than you, and I’m in charge of them.”

 

Suuuure, kid. “That’s nice. You should definitely do that, then. After you give me my hat.  At least then you’ll leave me alone.”

 

She gripped it tightly and stuck her tongue out again. “Your hat is ugly and so are you!”

 

“Shut up!” I said, genuinely offended. It was getting a little frayed around the edges, sure. Beat up from the hard travel, fine. There was a sloppily mended slash through the brim from when I had no experience at any of this stuff. I’ve gotten better at in time, because I had to. There wasn’t anyone around to help me with stuff now.

That hat had been with me for … almost seven years. Christ.  

 

Would my family even recognize me now? Scars and callouses, weight loss from hunger evident in my frame, and the obvious callous from my staff and sword?

 

My heart sank. I don’t think that they would, in the end. Sometimes I didn’t even recognize myself.  

 

The little girl let out a gasp.

 

My hand went automatically to my belt, and I glanced around for the source of her alarm. Tension -- I looked at her, and found her staring down at my belt and at the knife that my hand rested on. I looked at her, then back down at my belt. “What?”

 

It was a simple thing, a bit more short sword then knife, and it was in a plain sheath.  

 

Her eyes were huge and one hand covered her mouth. “You have a weapon. That’s really bad. Father says only bad people need to carry weapons.”

 

“...That’s the dumbest thing that I've ever heard.”

 

“Father’s not dumb! He’s the king! You’re the dumb one, you - you dummy!”

 

Sick fires bro. I roll my eyes again, hand dropping from my belt. A spark of true irritation fizzled inside me. “Then all those guards must be for show right? And all of those pretty blades, there not really weapons, right? Fifty guards means fifty swords.”

 

The girl hesitated. “That's--”

 

“If you’re going to say something like that’s different, then let me save you the trouble; It really isn't. The world is filled with people who’ll hurt you, just because you can’t stop them. They think that because you’re carrying a weapon that makes you a target? Right? Wrong. They’d attack if you had the blade or not. At least you have a chance to defend yourself when you have one.”

 

“That’s an interesting philosophy.”

 

I didn’t jump, but it was a close thing. What was it with people sneaking up on me today? Was i getting soft? Fancy clothes, doughy face, bland eyes under a weird looking box thing on his head. Clearly someone important. No one wore a hat that stupid otherwise. Flanked by two mean looking guards in full regalia and armor. “Who’re you?”

 

“Father!” the little girl said, sounding a little startled.

 

The man smiled. “Yona. You know better than to wander off.”

 

I snorted. The girl glared at me. Whatever, it’s not my fault that she was found. She should have been more stealthy.

 

“Sorry,” She said ducking her head. That she got caught, I translated in my head.

 

The man smiled at her, and patted her on the head. “No harm done, love. Why don’t you head along to you lessons? You know better then to run off in the middle. Return the hat as well. We don’t take things without asking. It’s rude.” He gave her a stern look. “Apologize to our guest.”

 

She pouted.”..Sorry.”  She threw the hat at me. Then she made a face, eyes and tongue bugged out, and ran off, skirts flying.

 

What a little brat. I was amused despite myself. Her hair wasn’t the only thing firey about her, apparently.

 

The man was looking at me in a way that I don’t really like. A wind blew through the gardens somewhere, carrying the sound of chatter from the town.

 

Man, what was taking Soo-won so long? Screw the waiting. I had my hat back finally and  I was going home. I did what the hag asked, and i have no idea why I was sticking around for so long.

 

I put my straw hat back on my head and instantly I felt much better. “I was just leaving. Later.” I turned to go.

 

“You’re the one that brought Soo-won and Hak back to the palace?”

 

I glanced at him over my shoulder. “...Sure was.”

 

“Then I must show my appreciation. I am Soo-won’s uncle. His wanderings have caused me much grief this past season, and it’s a relief to know that he was only going to visit a friend in the outskirts.” He bowed his head a little.

 

The two guards started. They shifted restlessly, and one of them was giving me the evil eye.

 

What the hell, buddy? I didn’t do anything to you. “Sure, you’re welcome. I guess.”

 

Something about this situation was making the hairs on the back of my head stand up. A little warning bell was going off somewhere. Yona, Hak, Soo-won. Why were those names so familiar?

 

Yona said her father was the king.

 

Red hair.

 

Princess.

 

Yona.

Yona of the dawn.

 

“Would you care to take tea with me? I would love to hear your opinions of the weapons ban.” The king said. The king who would be dead at the hands  of his nephew in a few years time.

 

“...Sure.” I said.

 

I wasn’t in the past. It was so much worse than that.

 

I was in a fucking manga.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

How do I act around a king? I mean, the thing with royalty still stands. I don’t get it. Now that I’ve met some actual royalty, I super don't get it. What is there about this man that makes him better than everyone else?

Blood? He was just a man in his thirties, wrinkles and all.

He had power, but I could kill him where he stood.

I clutched fragile porcelain cup like a lifeline. The room is as fine as the one that I just left, all grace and finely carved wood. The king knelt across from me and his guards behind him. I could still feel them glaring at me. What would the king want from some fisherman? Some scarred ruffian?

An excellent question.

The man did something mysterious with his cup, a tiny whisk going round and round. “Please be at ease. I merely have some questions about my nephew. I”m entitled to that, don’t you think?”

“No,” I said point blank. “I don’t. If you want answers you should ask him.”

He looked up for the first time. “You’re quite… blunt, I see.”

“I’ve heard that.” Also I’ve been called a fucking battering ram of rudeness. I have little patience for dancing around the point. “You gonna throw me in the dungeon or something?”

The king laughed. “Oh, nothing like that. I must say, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard someone with your accent? Where are you from?”

What that hell kind of subject change was that? I turn the tea cup, admiring the little painted sakura blossoms. “Far away.”

“Oh?” He took a sip of his drink. “Is that so? How far?”

My throat tightened like a hand into a fist. My voice comes out normal. “I can never go back.”

He meets my eyes. I don’t know what he sees, but a few of the lines around his eyes ease. “I see. I apologize for any my impoliteness.”

“Whatever.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“...I’m a fisherman. I fish.”

For the first time, he sighed. “A fisherman?” He set the glass down on the low table with a click. “I must ask you to be honest. You brought Hak to a standstill. He’s one of the best soldiers I have, despite his age. Your hands are calloused. You carry two weapons - illegally, I might add - and you know how to use them.”

I set my down own cup. “And?”

He blinked. “And?”

“I’m waiting for the point. You don’t want your nephew hanging around with shady people. I get that much. Except, I’m a fisherman,” I said , “Because I fish for a living. I would still be fishing, if not for your annoying, persistent nephew. I didn’t come here for whatever you’re thinking. I don’t want to be here. Pointless luxury gives me hives. Knowing how to use a weapon isn’t illegal, and I’m not giving up my only defense because it makes some noble uncomfortable. I don’t care if you’re who you are. Your judgment is unnecessary and meaningless.”

“You disrespectful--” Said one of the bodyguards that I’d forgotten about, climbing to his feet. I tensed. If it comes down to a fight, I was ready to put an end to it.

“Enough.” The King held out a hand. The guard stilled, like the trained dog he was.

Stay. Heel.

The smell of jasmine. A man laughs, and I have to hide a smile.

I clench my hands under the table, hard enough to sting. It was hard to keep the sneer off my face. Loyalty was all well and good, but absolute obedience was worth contempt. I can’t even hate them. I, too, served once. I remember loyalty and it’s iron chains.

I would still kill them. Skilled warriors or not, neither of them had ever been on a real battlefield. Too polished.

I grew up on one.

Both of them were older than I was when I arrived in this world. It was unfair. It was so unfair.

I’m so far from my home.

I’m tired, of this place, and this world, and this belief in a some man’s hat .

“You brought me here. Why?” I asked.

He gave me a bland smile. “I would like to offer you a job.”

“A… job.” I said.

Something in my expression made him smile. “Of course. All of the warriors that I’ve put on Soo-Won retire. Not a single one of them can keep up with him. He’s quite slippery, my nephew.” And he sounded honest to god proud that his nephew is an annoying piece of shit. “It would be easier to bring in someone that he likes . Hak is taken, so it can’t be him.

That leaves you. It’s a rather neat solution.”

Silence fills the room. All of the tensions is gone. Even the guards looked at him like he’s insane.

“You’re out of your goddamn mind.” I realized. It’s finally clear. His funny hat went to his head. His crown was too tight.

“Is that a no?” He said, mild as milk.

A chill ran down my spine. I ignored it, glaring at him. “That’s a hell no.”

I would swear myself to any noble again.

Not after Kai.

“Ah, that’s a shame.” he brightened. “You might change your mind in the future. Feel free to stop by anytime. That child worries me sometimes. It’s been so long since he’s made a friend.”

What was with the mood swings in this family? I shake my head in wordless disgust. “If that’s all, I’m going home. Your majesty.”

His guards bristle again. Before either of them can do anything, the door slammed open, the frame rattling, and Soo-won burst onto the scene. “Sorry, uncle I’ll take responsibility for whatever she did -” He tripped into the room.

“Nephew, how did you fail to mention that you knew such a charming person? Shame on you.”

I snickered at his face. “Yeah, shame on you.”

As always, Soo-won recovered within seconds. “My deepest apologies for my oversight, Honored Uncle.

“Never you mind, dearest nephew. We’ve made each other's acquaintance now. Jeong-Hui has refused my offer.”

“Offer? What offer?” Soo-won said, a look passing over his face that I didn’t recognize.

“None of your business. I said no anyway.” I said.

“Indeed. Now, Soo-won, you haven’t been imposing on your friend have you?”

The two of them went on like that, and from the guards faces, it was common. Soo-won was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Like he was -- younger . Less canny, less conniving, less of a little shit.

Like he wanted to be underestimated.

All the amusement dropped like a sword from a tired hand. I looked at the man in front of me, and the boy. The love in their gentle fight wasn’t fake. In four or five years the king would be dead. The little girl from the garden would be forced out of the only home she’s ever known. Soo-won would lose all of his family and his best friend in one fell stroke.

I hesitated and I said nothing .

It wasn’t any of my business. I kept my nose out of other’s affairs, and it kept me alive. People in this era were candles, and they flickered out all too soon.

The sad truth of it: I didn’t care.

Before I came here, I had trouble caring. Now, whatever empathy I had shriveled and died.

I stand, interrupting the comedy hour. “I’m going home.” I said.

-

 

I walk home in the dark, a parcel of expensive tea for Granny in one hand. I have no idea how I got it.

I stare up at the sky. Stars are the same, no matter where you are.

Soo-won not so stealthy trailing behind me. The sound of my patience snapping with the brat stepping on yet another twig.

I look over my shoulder. “What the hell do you want?”

“Ahaha. Nothing?” Soo-won says. It’s dark, but I can still tell he’s rubbing the back of his head.

“Right. And, I suppose that it means nothing at all that you’ve been following me since I was in the palace. Cut the crap.”

“...sorry.”

“For what?”

“Leaving you at the palace. I should have known that you don’t like nobles.” He sounded frustrated.

“You’re not sorry. If you were sorry you’d leave me alone.” I turned to face him. “You don’t care, as long as you get what you want.”

He flinched. “That’s not true.”

“If you say so.” I shrug. I’m to tired to argue with him. “Why are you following me?”

“Jeong-hui. Will you be my bodyguard?”

I gave him a look. “You already know the answer to that.”

His face fell, and I shifted. “Look. I’m rude. I’m unpleasant, and I swear like a sailor. I was kicked out of the army for being insubordinate.” Among other things. “Why the hell do you want me anyway?”

The kid crossed his arms and looked at the ground. “You’re different.”

I waited a beat. “What, that’s your reason-- I’m different? What kind of reason is that?”

“You don’t care that I’m a prince.”

Well.

No. Obviously.

I raise one eyebrow. “So?”

His eyes burned in the dark. “I’ve known commoners who hated nobles, and commoners who loved them. I’ve never met anyone who just… doesn’t care. I could order you dead. You still call me a brat and chase me off when you’re annoyed. We’re on the same level, to you. You have secrets but you don’t lie to me.

I’ve never been - just some kid. You don’t put me on a pedestal, and it’s nice. It’s… different.”

I stared at him and bit my tongue on the yes that surged in my throat. My scar itched. Dangerous . So, so dangerous. “Was that an honest answer, brat? I’m shocked and appalled.”

The strange tension broke.

“I’m always honest!” I can’t see his face, but he sounded offended.

A thought hit me. “How old are you?”

“What?” He blinked.

“How old are you?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

I narrow my eyes. “Just answer the question.”

He shifted. “I’m fourteen come this winter.”

Thirteen. He was… seventeen when he killed his uncle right? So, I have three or four years before I have to deal with any of that. “Five years younger than me. You are just a brat.”

He pouted. “Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are too, times infinity. you’ll never change my mind, brat. Not even if you made me king and gave me all the gold in the world.”

“You can’t be king, you're a girl.”

I shrug. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“What do you mean by that?”

I smile. “I mean gender is boring. Go back to the palace, Soo-won. Your guards will be looking for you.”

He looks at the setting sun. “Tell Granny that I’m sorry and I’ll visit when I can.”

He doesn’t ask if I can make it home by myself. Point to him.

“See you, brat.”

The sun sets behind my back, heading into the woods.

Chapter Text

I spent most of the following weeks as I always had. Fishing, gathering, meditating.

"What’cha doing?"

I twitch. The brat had taken my invitation and run with it. His violent, feral friend followed. That meant that I had to deal with two bored kids instead of one.

I already regret it.

"Hak, she's not going to talk to you. She's meditating." Soo-won said.

"Ahhhh? You must be joking! There's no way someone who looks like that much of a thug knows how to meditate."

My eyebrow twitched. Well, sorry for being a thug.

No. Don't respond. You're an adult.

Focusing harder I turned inwards. I tried to find place that I fell into when I meditated. Like a cool pool, it doused the terrible burning anger and loss in the pit of my stomach. It didn’t happen everyday.

I picture it as a path up a mountain. Only you’re on fire, and bleeding.

I don’t always make it.

It’s going to be one of those days. My nose itched. The sun stung my eyes through the lids. The rush of the river and Hak and Soo-won talking filled my ears. Beyond even that, the sound of something crashing through the underbrush. Quiet, but not quite enough.

Someone walking from the direction of the village.

"E-excuse me. I have a message for the demo... Jeong-hui." A male voice called out from the front of the house.

Ah. That time again?

I sighed.

The old woman’s steady steps came out of the house. A cold made her voice rough. "Oh. It’s one of you . Headwoman sending in some boy to do her job again?"

The voice came again, and sounded injured this time. "She's busy--"

I climbed to my feet. I turned the opposite corner at the same time the boys did. They were doing that kid thing where they shoved each other around for no reason, except at full run and heading straight for me.

Soo-won barreled into my chest, knocking me back a few steps.

The young man let out a startled gasp.

My hand snapped out faster than thought, catching the fine fabric of the prince's kimono robes. I used it to right him. He was light for a boy.

He blinked up at me for a second then a blinding smile took over his face. "Sorry, Jeong. I wasn't paying attention."

I gave him a hard stare. Mischief danced in his eyes. There was no way that he just hit me - his reflexes were insane. His head was to twisty for me to understand, so I didn’t try. I snorted. "Watch where you're going."

Whatever he was scheming, it wasn't my problem.

I let go at turned to the messenger. He looked like someone who had ten years scared off his life, and his eyes kept glancing between me and Soo-won. I raised an eyebrow at him. "Yeah, what?"

He flinched back. "There's - there's a rumor of something attacking the village just north of here. Burning and pillaging. Trained dogs. Jia would appreciate if you could take a look." He looked at the ground. "And take care of any problems that you find, before you return."

Search and burn, huh? I ran a hand through my hair. "Alright. I'll go out tonight."

The man bowed, then took off running.

Guess his nerve broke.

"What about the market?" Grandmother said, disapproval dripping from her voice. "I'll need help setting up."

I glanced over my shoulder at Soo-won. He watched the conversation was a furrowed brow. He looked at me and nodded. I nodded back. "Soo-won and Hak will help.” I said. “They're not doing anything. Let ‘em work for their food."

Hak made an offended sound.

Grandmother gave me a look.

I gave her half a smile. Sick or not, both of us knew that she didn't need help. She wanted to give me a way out.

She always did.

She never approved of me taking on bandits.

I made a promise to the village. I would keep them safe, no matter how they treated me. Until I was released from my deal, I was stuck. I gave my word and the terms of the bargain was set.

Grandmother looked her age for once. "You hate killing, Jeong-hui. I know that you do."

"I promised."

"You have too much honor."

I snorted. Honor . "Don't say such stupid things."

You don't know what I've done, I want to tell her. I've killed and killed and killed just to survive - I could fill a lake with the blood of my victims and still have more to spill.

I can't even regret it - no matter how sick I felt, there’s nothing that I would’ve done differently. I survived, and so many others with honor hadn't.

I let out a deep breath, shaking the thoughts off like a dog with water. I dredge up a smile. " There might not be anything there to worry about anyway. I'll be back back when I can." I glare at the two boys listening to us. "Don't you two trouble grandmother. She's an old hag and she can't take any excitement."

There was a pause. Grandmother looked at me and sighed. Her face softened. "Who's an old hag you brat? I could eat you for breakfast, sickness or no sickness."

The true art of compromise leaves no one happy.

Don't ask me not to worry , her eyes said.

Sorry .

I always made her worry. I owed her a debt that couldn't be payed.

Soo-won laughed, breaking the moment. "I've always wanted to try market vending! Granny, will you teach me?"

"You're so weird," Hak said, shoving him. "What kind of prince wants to be a market vendor?"

 

-

I walked into the woods without a care.

I’m the strongest thing in them. I crunched the fresh snow, following the tracks that smelled the most of smoke. Bandits must have a genetic mutation that made them pyromaniacs. I scaled a tree when I had to, heading the general direction of north.

It was dull, and that left me open to memories of the past.

I remember how I came to live with Grandmother. Nearly three years ago, I was a mercenary. A good one - not that it stopped the company from trying to cash the price on my head.

A twinge of remembered agony pierced my side. In the past, I could see the tracks of my feet in the snow.

I don't. I don't want to see the blood spilling over my hands falling to the ground. If I didn't know how much I lost, then I didn’t lose it at all, right?

A branch snapped behind me.

I whirled around too fast. My head spun -

Agony .

Mistake. The ugly wound in my side bled, and I put pressure on it with one hand. In my other, a dagger. The only one that I managed to take with me.

The air stung my fever hot head.

I was in no shape for a fight.

I had no choice.

I never did.

“Who's there?” My voice was the only part of me that remained strong. After years of only Xingease, the language of Kouka sat awkward on my tongue.

The underbrush moved again. To my left this time.

I turned and came face to face with a girl. She took one look at me and let out a piercing scream. I flinched back from the pain that painted my ears.

My knees buckled. I lost my hard earned balance, electric pain running through my body.

I kept the scream between my teeth.

An eternity later, I made it to my feet. The girl was gone.

The world swam with every step I took.

I couldn't stay, not with people near. I couldn't go back the way I came. The wound wouldn't let me fight. The path ahead was full of civilians.

Targets.

Can't go back, can't go forward, and I can't keep this up forever.

Is this where I die?

Dae-Jung would laugh.

I pushed the thought away, and the bewildered hurt that went with it. The general wasn’t any friend of mine.

Not anymore .

(I would just lay down and die if I had to think about losing my home for the third fucking time.)

My body cried out for rest.

A branch broke again. The forest was silent.

Limbs like iron, I turned.

Eun stood there, his plain face held in his normal gentle smile. "Oh, there you are! I've been looking for you forever." Like he found an old friend in the forest, instead of hunting me like a wolf after it's prey. His dark eyes showed nothing but polite delight.

I just looked at him. My tongue had joined the ranks of the non functioning. I had my dagger in hand, but I wasn’t going to win this. Not now, not against him. I thought all my emotions were drained, but fear choked me like a too tight collar.

I didn't want to die. Even now, I didn’t want to die.

Something must have shown on my face. Eun laughed. "Oh, Jeong. You always surprise me. I thought for sure that you were going to just lay down and die. In recognition of your tenacity, do you want to know why?"

Why? Why what ?

Why the group was hunting me?

Why Eun stabbed me?

Why this fucking world kept trying to kill me?

I said nothing.

"Well, we found out about your bounty! So the boss ordered it!" He shrugged. "It's not really anything personal, I'm not the type to hold grudges. Times are hard, you know. Every little bit helps."

"The... boss," I said, numb. The words made no sense .

The man who picked me up after I fled from the imperial palace of Xing. The one who tended my wounds, who took me in, who taught me. He never tried to make me talk about my past, or how I became a soldier of high rank so young.

Some one who accepted me and let me stay.

Betrayal ripped through me.

It would have been kinder to stick his hand through my chest and tear it out. The blood drained from my face.

I thought that I - that they were accepting me.

Oh.

My heart twinged.

Looks like I wasn't numb enough.

Eun looked at my face again, and a bit of sympathy appeared in his eyes. "Sorry. We were fond of you. I didn't want to do this. It’s only orders."

Fond-- like a pet.

Laughter spilled over my lips, like acid, burning all the way. "You’re such a fucking liar."

A pet. A mascot. A scapegoat, without a past or a future. Convenient and useful in it's time.

Not worth sticking out their neck out.

Eun gave me a small smile, identical to the one he gave when I completed a hard sword kata.

I never noticed how utterly cold his brown eyes were.

"You’re right. I volunteered." He shrugged. "I never liked you. You made Boss too soft. I thought that it’d be kinder to put you down, like the puppy you are. Instead of letting you starve somewhere."

I flinched. Eun was a blunt man, so rude that I wouldn't be surprised if people slapped him on a daily basis.

The boss ordered it. My heart twinged again.

I was so much better off alone.

"Shall we fight?" He asked, drawing his sword.

I was bleeding.

Broken.

Betrayed.

Still, there was that little ember burning, saying live live live.

In answer, I raised my own knife.

Eun smiled again. It didn’t reach his eyes. "So be it."

We fought.

Time flowed from me, lost in the parry for parry.

We broke apart. Eun touched an open cut on his face and came away bloodied. He bared his teeth in something that couldn’t be called a smile. “Always so stubborn! Why don’t you just die already?”

There was a whistle through the air. I flinched back just in time to miss losing my ear.

Eun didn't. He was too busy talking.

Mid lunge, an arrow sprouted from his throat like a flower in spring time.

We both looked at the arrow. There was a look of comical surprise on his face, his brown eyes honest the first time, and he reached up to touch it.

He collapsed before his hand could reach it. He coughed, and blood pooled in his open mouth. "Bo-boss..." he said.

Then he lay still.

I followed the path of the arrow, hazy. My head was on fire.

An old woman standing with a crossbow stood between two trees.

She came from the same direction the girl ran. Must be help. The thought was detached.

I looked at the old woman. My legs couldn't hold me, my side was on fire, and I stayed kneeling. her crossbow was already drawn to fire again. Black spots danced across my vision.

It dawned on me that he lips were moving.

I cleared my throat. "What?"

"Your knife. Drop it," She said, voice distant as the end of a tunnel.

I looked at my hand. The dagger was still clutched in my hand. I willed my hand to open, but it remained stubbornly still.

"I can't." I said, voice quiet. "My hand wont open."

The woman shifted.

I wanted to tense, sure that she would kill me now.

My body was stone.

My mind was fuzzy.

She approached, crossbow at the ready. The neither the body or I moved.

I craned my head back to look at her.

After a long moment she spoke. "How old are you, kid?"

How old...?

I frowned. I knew that, didn't I? Everything was distant. "I turned seventeen last week."

She sighed, lowering the crossbow. "You got any place to go?"

"You're not going to kill me?"

"Do you want me to kill you?"

"It would be kinder than leaving me to starve." I said. Eun’s words in my mouth.

Better a swift death, than a slow, agonizing one.

I clenched my dagger tighter.

The old woman scowled. "That wasn’t what I asked. Do you want to die?"

Glancing over my shoulder at Eun’s body, the corner of my eyes burned as much as the wound in my side. "No. I don’t want to die." I laughed. It was a humorless sound.

I don't have a place to go.

There's no one waiting for me.

Still, still, I wanted to live.

My eyes burned. I averted my face when the first tear slipped fell. I was homeless, alone, again.

The fever, the wound, the tears, it was too much. What was I supposed to do? Wait for infection to kill me this fucking backwater era? Hunt until the fever got me? I covered my face, shame sitting like knife between my ribs. All my life and this is what broke me?

I was so stupid.

Trusting a band of mercs just like that -- of course once the found out the price on my head, they'd turn me in.

A cool hand, calloused but gentle, turned my head back.

The old woman looked at me with dark eyes. "You've been through a lot, haven't you?"

The last chains holding my dignity snapped, and I leaned forward into a stranger and howled like a child. Five years of pain and death and betrayal came out in the form of tears.

I cried at the unfairness of it all.

Even after betraying me, Eun was still my teacher. The grief didn’t just go away.

The old woman held me through all of it. Her hands were rough but strong.

The strain was too much.

I gave in.

Darkness swallowed me.

Chapter Text

 

Days pass.

 

I’m burning alive.

 

The world swims in and out of focus. A worn cabin, a dirt path. Dark eyes, brows creased, mouth one thin line. A man shouting, the face of the old woman-

 

“Boss.” Eun’s last words.

 

Cold spreads from my forehead into my eyes. A shaky breath escapes me.

 

Light .

 

I flinch back. A shadow, but kind. Familiar. Blury form, shilloueted in light, dust motes dancing around it.

 

Mom.

 

Ah. My heart twists. Were her eyes the same brown as mine? Her hair? Her laugh?

 

"I miss you," I said, my tongue thick and heavy. “It hurts to remember. I'm sorry I ran off -- it wasn't anything you did."

 

A hand pressed to my feverish head. "Shhhh," It said.  

 

Another cool, wet cloth is draped over my forehead. I blink tears from my eyes, the world coming into focus for the first time. It’s so hard to think around the pain. I’m scattered, part of me in the room, a part of me left in my house, and a part of my still in the clearing; my teacher bleeding out in the snow.

 

“You’re awake. It’s about time.”

 

“Finally, awake Haneul? You sleep like a dead man.”

 

Boss. For one second, one solitary second of wild hope, it was a dream --  the forest, Eun, the betrayal. I there was a chance I could go home again.

 

“How’s your side?” The old woman from the clearing asked.

 

My stomach sank.

 

"Who- Who are you? Where am I?" I asked. I’m one big ache, head to toe. It’s worse in my side. Not safe, not safe, not safe. Not a dream.

 

Eun is dead.

 

The woman paused. “Is that your native language? I’ve never heard it.”

 

I blinked at her. The words made sense, but what - oh.

 

I dropped into English. My brain must be more scrambled then I thought. I know… words. Language.”Who are you?”

 

A satisfied smile spread over her face. "There we go. It's been three days since you collapsed. I am Duri. Call me Grandmother. Everyone does."

 

It’s a one room shack, with plain wooden walls and a thatched roof. No windows, but the door was open and the sun lit the room enough to see. Everything had the feeling of being patched and mended, from the hinges of the door to the numerous fishing poles leaning against the wall.

 

Duri? I glance at the crossbow, next to the fishing rods. Simple villagers kept away from dangerous mercenaries.

 

My head hurt. My side throbbed. I was alive. Prying might not keep it that way.

 

Something must have shown one my face, because she sighed. She laid her hand on my forehead. "Don't worry about it now. Focus on getting better, alright? What's your name?"

 

Name... Did I need to pick another one? I can't be Haneul anymore.

 

"Jeong Hui," I said at last. It wasn't new as much as old . I hoped he didn't mind I borrowed it again.

 

Sorry, Jeong.

 

Not like he can object now .

 

Duri gave me a look, but she didn't say anything.

 

"Well. Jeong-hui I’m glad you’re alright." She stood and headed for the door. "If you need anything, let me know."

 

"Wait," I said.

 

She turned back.

 

I swallowed. Shut up, you idiot.  "You don’t… want anything from me?”  Why do I do things?

 

She was quiet. The tension pulled at my wounds like taffy. "I had a son. He was your age when he died." She looked at her hands. She looked…  small. Wistful. Alone. Where was the rest of her family? "So, selfishness I suppose. It's hard enough living without knowing I left a child to die."

 

"I'm not staying."

 

Duri smiled. "I know. Rest well, Jeong-hui."

 

She left me to sleep.

 

 

 

-

 

 

I slept for my first month in the cabin. I ached everywhere, to the point it was hard to tell where injures ended and fever began. Most days, I woke and the old woman was there.

 

I grew stronger. Started walking, cleaning.

 

No sign of my sword, but I wasn’t looking as hard as I could have.

 

One day, it all changed. The old woman braided a net together in from of the small fire pit, hands sure and calloused. She was old, but her movements didn't look it. It’s hypnotic. Sure hands, building.

 

Would she teach me if I asked?

 

Hoof beats rung out over the sound of the fires.

 

The Door slammed open, and a man -- older than me, but younger than Duri stumbled into the room. The son of the headman, I learned later.

 

"Grandmother, they're back again!" He said, panting. "They sent me to find you, Mother is in fits! They took –  my sister, please!"

 

He choked off something sounded like a sob.

 

Duri was on her feet, the net forgotten. In two large strides, she crossed the room to the bow leaning against the wall. "How many, boy?"

 

He gulped. "At least a dozen, Grandmother."

 

"A dozen what?" I asked.

 

"Bandits."

 

I looked at the old woman with her crossbow. "You’re going to go up against a dozen bandits? You might die."

 

Her eyes were steady. She re-strung the bow. “May be, may not be. I'm not one to let a might stand in my way."

 

"You're a fisherman, not a fighter."

 

"I am. You're still weak so stay No one comes here. You should be fine." Duri nodded at the boy. "Let’s go."

 

They left.

 

It wasn't any of my business. I was sick. Sick of blood and of the world around me trying to force violence.

 

The room is quiet, except for the fire’s gentle hiss-crakle. The door is open.

 

Are you a coward, Jeong-hui?

 

I looked at the door.

 

My hands clenched around the futon blankets.

 

Fuck.

 

 

-

 

 

Every step was agony. My bones ached, my feet burned. I pressed a careful hand to my side. No blood. Yet.

 

Spring broke the hold of winter. Green grass and cheerful animals didn’t mask the smell of smoke, coming from the village. Moving through the forest was easy enough, despite the setbacks. Moving through the forest is second nature by now.

 

A flash of red amidst the green.

 

There was a girl on the ground- clothes torn, eyes vacant and red with tears.

 

Dead.

 

My mouth thins. Some things you don't get used to. I hesitated. Leaving her here seemed disrespectful. Wrong.

 

I close her eyes. Better luck next time, whatever your name is.

 

I follow the smoke.

 

It leads to a burning village, and to Jia. A bargain with a woman more mad then sane.

 

Death for protection.

 

The rest is history.

 

 

-

 

 

 

Years later, a bonfire is tall as I am burns merrily away. Plumes of black fill the sky, like a heavy blanket. I rolled the last bandit into the fire, stripped of clothes, weapons and money. I'd keep the best stuff for myself, and give the rest to Jia for her to use, or hand out.

 

It wasn't like the bandits needed anything, and the village wasn't so rich they could turn new stuff. No matter where it came from.

 

I stretched out my back with a satisfying crack. Shadows creeped across the ground. I scratched at the little dried flake of blood on my kimono. If I hurried, I could make it home in time to make dinner for when Grandmother arrived. It would also mean making food for Soo-won and Hak.

 

Eh...

 

A bird called in the distance. The wind tugged at the few strands fallen from my braids. I filled a makeshift bag full of stuff. Not a lot this time, so it didn't take me long. I was on my way home in the next few minutes. There were only about two dozen men, and they were poorly trained.

 

I didn’t go easy on them after what I saw. Blood on the blades, not even yet dry.

 

I shiver and glance at the fire. Winter winds cut through my kimono like a knife, but warmth meant getting closer to the pyre, the smell of burning meat. Well, hopefully it would be awhile before I was sent out on a job again. Even bandits seemed knew no one got anything done in winter and they headed to ground like cicadas.

 

What would I have to do to make them stay gone? I didn't like killing.

 

The things I liked never mattered at all.

 

I walked back to the village without being bothered, and made my way to the headman's house. The few people I met took one look at clothes, suspiciously stained, and ran.The road was empty all the way home, I made good time. The village was quiet as I passed.

 

People flinched back from me.

 

I met the eyes of one of the village housewives, a young woman about seventeen. She flinched back,  eyes darting from my hands to my clothes. She settled on the sack of things I carried on my back. Something firmed in her eyes.

 

"H-hello," She said and bowed. “Thank you for your hard work.”

 

I stared at her.

 

She flushed, and ran off before I could blink.

 

...What the hell?

 

Where was the avoidance, the other stuff? I looked around; trying to make sure I was still on the same street. It wouldn't be the first time I'd ended up in a different world. There was the sun, the moon, the sound of the livestock.

 

The street emptied a fraction slower than before.

 

...Okay.

 

Unsettled, I quickened my step through the village. There was less fear. People bowed, and didn’t run.  In contrast, I hurried. The politeness freaked me out. What changed in the past three months?

 

I reached the headman’s house. There was no one there to greet me.

 

Where’s Jia?

 

I waited for a second. What was going on? Jia should be here to greet me. I don't know how she did it, but she was always there within a few seconds of me approaching.

 

There didn't seem to be any sign of a struggle. The front remained stubbornly free of my contract holder.  A cold fear started to creep up my spine. Is she dead?

 

Jia's son, the one I never got a name for, opened the door. He had dark circles under his eyes, dark enough to be ink, held fact to his tiredness. He didn't flinch when he saw me, like normal. "Oh. I guess that’s why she told me to answer the door. What do you want?"

 

I looked behind him. The hallway remained empty. "Where's your mother?"

 

He rubbed his eye. "She's... sick."

 

I tilted my head. "In the head?"

 

He scowled, looking so much like his mother that I blinked. "She’s sick . It’s - it’s bad. Do you want to see her?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he looked horrified.

 

"Sure."

 

"Wh - What?"

 

I rolled my eyes, and barged past him.

 

He jogged with me. “I don't know if Mother is up to having visitors, Miss-"

 

"Don’t try being polite, it's giving me hives," I snapped.

 

I threw open the door of the first room I saw.

 

Incense hit my like a fist to the face. I almost gagged. It was a dark, windowless room, a single candle burning. Empty of furniture except a single chest of drawers and a futon.

 

"Ah. Murderer, you've come." Jia said. Her voice was weaker than I've ever heard it; barely a whisper.

 

What happened?

 

She couched. "I trust you've done what I asked?" She waved her skeletal hand. Her son rushed over. It took her two tries, and her son helping her to sit up.

 

I remained standing, on the edge of the doorway.

 

Jia was one of those people like a mountain. Even if she barely reached my shoulder, her presence filled a room. If she'd been born in my time, she'd have been one of those hardass who built an industry from nothing. Now, she was hollowed. The sickness took what she was and scooped out a great echoing space, to the point I almost expected her words to echo.

 

"Jia..." I said.

 

She took one look at my face and let out a bitter laugh. "Oh yes, it's as bad as it looks. I'm not long for this world."

 

Her son bit his lip, but didn't argue.

 

"Come sit," she snapped. "Have some respect."

 

Something in me relaxed. She was the same person. I slung the bag off my back and let it clatter to the floor. The incense in the room clogged my nose until my stomach heaved. It still couldn’t quite cover the smell of unwashed bodies, or puke, or blood from me.

 

A laugh rattled through her. "No sympathy for a dying woman, Murderer? Good. It's one of the few things I like about you. All the little twits coming by to give their well wishes - like it does any good.” She coughed. “That’s not what I have to say to you.The deal is finished. Upon my death you’ll be free of any obligation to this wretched village."

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Hah. The deal , murderer. You’re released.”

 

What?”

 

What the fuck?

 

“You want me to just break the terms – what makes now any different? I’ve killed bandits for three years and now you just want to let me go? What changed?”

 

“Nothing changed.”

 

“Then why? Why now ?” I still had blood drying on my hands.

 

She laughed again. “Well, spite mostly. I’m not going to hand over the reigns of such a dangerous weapon to my husband. Spite fuels half of what I do.  As for the other half – well, let’s say that you have good friends.”

 

“What the hell does that mean, you asshole?”  My head swam. The entire situation seemed surreal, like something out of a dream. I’m… just done ? I don’t have to deal with bandits unless they come after me? Where was the catch?

 

The world is distant. Fuzzy. I stand. “If this is a lie, I will kill you Jia.” I can tell my voice is static and flat. The son flinches again.

 

Jia snorts. “Have you known me to lie? “I am many things, but a liar is not one of them. I have made other arrangements to protect the village and you are no longer necessary. Leave me to my deathbed and my son.”

 

I have to tell Grandmother.

 

My feet stop, involuntarily before the doorway.

 

"Does it hurt?" My blade is sharp. She's already dying.

 

I could make it quick.

 

Our eyes meet and I look away first.

 

"You're too soft, girl." Jia said voice more gentle than I’ve ever heard. "Even like this I'm strong enough to carry my own death. I won't put it on you. It's the only thing I have left." She looks at her son. Her face goes soft, and it makes my throat tight. "One of the only things."

 

Mom.

 

Her son brings their clasped hands to his forehead. His shoulders start shaking.

 

Bile fills my mouth.

 

I turn away.

 

It's stupid to envy the dying.

 

"One more thing," Jia said.

 

"What?"

 

"Two villages over, a man asked about someone who matched your description. Scarred as you are scarred, handsome, long hair, and carrying a halberd taller than he is.  He wore a cloak with a red circle with a hand embroidered on it."

 

A chill fissures up my spine. My hand went to my dagger again, and the shadows in the room grew darker.

 

"You’re sure?" I asked.

 

She closed her eyes, unsurprised. "So it's bad then. I was afraid... Yes. The people who described him were clear."

 

I had to run.

 

The Circle of the black hand - my mercenary group found me. The boss is already here.

 

 

 

-

 

 

 

I tore out of the village with hell on my heels. I needed to pack. I needed to move.

 

If he came for me, Grandmother would try to fight.

 

Eun might have been one tough bastard, but the boss was a different story.

 

He would kill her without hesitation.

 

If I went away - he wouldn't bother her. He hated killing non-combatants. It was sloppy. Rude.

 

I skidded into the house. No lights - they weren't back yet, dammit. I started packing. Essntial stuff only, weapons, clothes, food, water. A small purse of coins. I could head for Sei - no one there knew me yet.

 

At the rate I was going, I’m going to run out of countries that I could run to.  

 

A flash of red caught my eye. I turned, heart in my throat. Already? No, I wanted to say goodby -

 

The boss isn’t there. My cloak is, dyed black and half buried under another pile of clothes. A circle of red and a black palm face out in the middle. I hesitated. Everyone in the company had to take care of their own sewing. I used to trade favors mending for training. I got good at it. I pricked my finger on the needle so many times when I made the cloak.

 

A blood price for loyalty.

 

In a split second decision, I stuffed it my sack.  I couldn't leave solid information I'd been here either.

 

The door burst open - I whirl in time to make out Soo-won's breathless face.

 

"Grandmother's collapsed!" He gasped out, eyes wide with worry.

 

The world shifted under my feet. I forgot about the boss, and the deal, and JIa. Running from the house, I nearly knocked over Hak, took Grandmother from her perch on his back and ushered her back into the house.

 

Soo-won already had a fire going, good. He rolled out the futon with his foot as I came in, Hak on my heels.

 

"Get me something cold. When did the couging start?"

 

Hak crouched beside me. "About halfway through the day. I didn't think anything was wrong until the end of the day and she collapsed." He ran a hand through his hair. "She said she was fine!"

 

I gave him a grim smile. "It’s something she would say."

 

Soo-won passed me a bowl filled with cool water. I blinked at him, and took it.

 

The silence was tense.

 

Grandmother burned like the funeral pyre. I touched her forehead a hissed. Like a bonfire.

 

Jia was coughing.

 

A plague?

 

My blood ran cold. Plague isn’t anything like battle - it’s more terrifying. You couldn't kill a fever, or trap a sickness.

 

I despise being helpless.

 

"Will she be okay?" Soo-won asked, leaning into me.

 

The touch grounded me. If she was contagious... "You and Hak need to leave. Now." I’d be fine. I was to date on my vaccinations, but these two were noble brats who lived in one of the cleanest places in the world. They'd catch it for sure, if they hadn't already.

 

I couldn't deal with it.

 

They tried to protest me shoving them out the door -- I won't take no for an answer. They were kids and I -

 

I'd seen enough of children dying to last me a lifetime.

 

Soo-won looked at me. "Why won't you let me help? i can do it - tell me what to do!"

 

He made sense. It would be smarter to let him help - he knew a lot a strange things. He had connections.

 

The boss was looking around for me. It was only a matter of time before I had to run.

 

I could leave them to take care of her and run right now.

 

Grandmother holds out her hands. "You must have had a hard time.

 

I grit my teeth. Loyalty is such a bitch. "I can't babysit you right now." I said. "You're in the way and I need to concentrate. Go. Don't come back until I call for you."

 

I close the door in their faces.

 

Leaning against the it, I breath out.

 

Time to get to work.

 

-

Chapter Text

 



-

 

I rub the grit out of my eyes. Two days and her fever still hasn't broke. How much longer can I keep this up? I stare at her face. Her forehead is a furnace to the touch.

 

I never thought that she would be so worn down. I’d fallen into that trap of thinking of Grandmother as a mountain, a fixed feature. Not a person. Not breakable.

 

"Please don't die," I said. More prayer than plea, more despair than belief.

 

Grandmother coughs. It sounds like tearing meat, like a pack of starving dogs in her lungs. Her face looks carved like something out of stone. Deep lines casting her age in sharp relief. I snatch the old wet rag off her forehead and catch the edge of the bucket, ending it tipping. The cold water soaks the bottom of my pants and feet. I stare at it, a telltale sting in my eyes.

 

I could feel something clawing at my throat, my lungs, begging me to open up and just let it out. Even I don’t know what would happen if I did. This small thing seemed to set the tone for the rest of my life. It was just a small mistake, until it was another and another, until it took over and all I could do try to keep everything balanced, and keep going.

 

"I'll be right back," I tell Grandmother. I hesitate - and no reply comes. A smile that feels like it's crumbling makes it way to my face. "Try not to die, all right?"

 

Keep going.

 

I always kept going.

 

What other options was there but forward? Who cares if a smile is fake, as long as I can pretend it real?

 

I bang my shoulder on the door, and the pain wakes me up a little. It’s like my head is stuffed full of cotton, except the cotton was made of barbed wire. Everything feels slower, heavier, more painful. Every step sends a wave of fresh agony through my protesting legs. The world swims outside, to the point that I have to keep my eyes focused on the well or lose my hard earned lunch

 

It takes me three tries to lift the bucket out of the small well in the back, an old thing more crumble than stone these days.

 

There’s snow on the ground. Why don’t I feel cold?

 

There was something important about that.

 

I fumbled at the handle, pulling the bucket up inch by inch. The pain settles from a thousand tiny swords in my head into pins and needles, which in turn becomes a sickening rocking sensation that moves the earth like ocean waves.

 

I stumble, catching myself on the edge of the well. There’s a sound like grinding, like the sound of something very unsafe giving way, and the stone under me disappears. I lurch forward like a very fragile metal filling pulled to a magnet forty feet down, and my stomach declines to come along.

 

I look down into the dark, and the world slows down. My hands scrabble at the wall for purchase. Stone bites into my palm. Pain explodes in shower of stars along the side of my head.

 

I clung to the little bit of wall, fingers straining. Training took over - or rather the body took over, and said, alright move along and get out of my way, shoving her brain out of the way. Inching my way away from the wall, without pushing too hard on the dubious things holding them together. Time stretches out like taffy, presumably just out of spite.

 

I tumble out of the well, wet and shaking from more than just the cold. The inside of my head is a furnace, with the counterpoint throb of heat where I banged it. I press my hand to it.  

 

The sting isn't enough to wake me up this time.

 

The world grows hazy, and I sleep.




-



This is a dream.

 

"You know you can't save her," Jia said. Dressed in lavish silk, brocaded purple and green, cloth of gold in her hair, her nails, her wide strange eyes. She sits down and sighs.

 

Oh, we’re doing this now, a small part of my brain that knows that this is a dream says. Smoke drifts from her pipe. It smells of sickness and something so sweet it's rotting.

 

"I can. I can do anything." I lie.

Say a thing often and it becomes true. I will reach the top. I will survive this. I don’t miss them.

 

She’s going to live.

 

She sighs, another cloud of smoke fleeing to the ceiling. "No. You're not a god, little murderer. You can't even save yourself." Her hair, at least, is the same untidy mass, half falling apart.

 

I look down at my own clothes. Fine gold and familiar, lacquered armor. My hat is slung on a chair, a beat up old relic. It was out of place in this fine room.

 

The smoke could thickened overhead, rolling. Lighting flashes appeared in it like a thunderstorm.

 

Jia shrugged. "Fair enough. I'm not the one dreaming of the dead woman. This is your head after all.”

 

With terrible surety and a sinking heart, my eyes drop to the table. My dagger is in front of me, unsheathed. I have to turn my head to fight a wave nausea. The blade glints in the light, blinding.

 

He called it Mercy, when he gave it to me. Handed it blade first. A smile with nothing happy about it, and a little shrug. Because it’s better then a slow death. Just a little joke. Ha ha.

 

I was fifteen and lost and stupid, so I took it. When I fumbled with soft hands, the blade cut deep enough to scar.

 

"It's the only mercy left in you," Jia agrees.

 

"I don't want her blood on my hands." I said.

 

How can I just leave her there to die? I know how sickness works. The fine, breezy room wavers and the world goes dark and flat - a corpse held up by spear fills my vision.

 

A man with a gut wound groans in pain -

 

A woman throws up again and again -

 

A child, like the heart of a star, burnt down to embers, just coal -

 

People were not made for suffering. In my hand is the dagger.

 

I give Mercy each time.

 

Jia scoffed. "None of that now," she says.

 

The room blurs back into view. The dagger on the table remains.

 

My hands are shaking.

 

Jia stands, crosses the room, and kneels in front of me. "Listen," she said, her hands cupping my face. Her nails are long and sharp, stinging. "Listen to me. You are not alone. Think on that."

 

"Why you ?" I ask, staring into her burning coal eyes, instead of the plaintive ‘it’s not fair’ that wanted to escape. It was never fair.  Jia was a spiteful, arrogant, bitter woman. I didn't like her, she didn't like me, but we were convenient to each other. That was the extent of our relationship. Why would my mind choose her ?

 

Her smile is just as sharp as it always is. "You know the answer to that."

 

The reason falls out of my mouth. "Because you tell me the truth."

 

"Got it in one."  She drew away. "Now, Wake up."

 

She blew a lungful of smoke in my face and it didn't burn. Instead it felt like a bucket of freezing water was dumped on my head.

 

I came to propped against something hard, head ringing, gasping for air. My eyes were like lead, but I got them open, barely.

 

"--ong, wake up! Please, wake up."

 

i blinked again. "Soo-won. What are you doing here?"

 

"Soo-won, my head is flying off," I complained.

 

He touched my forehead, and snatched it back instantly. His eyes were wide. "You're burning up! How long have you had a fever?"

 

"Am I sick again?" I said. "Grandmother will be so mad at me." She always gets mad when I worry myself sick. Where is she?

 

I sit up, electric shock running through me. How long was I lying there? Long enough for her to die? I brush past soo won into the house. I press an ear to Grandmother's chest.

 

Ba- thump.

 

Bathump.

 

My heart restarts when I hear hers.

 

"Is she alright?" Soo- won asked,  stepping into the house.

 

I blink. "Wait, Soo-won? Didn't I tell you to go back to the palace?" What the hell was he doing back here?

 

He raised both his hands. "I did! Both Hak and I went back, and I didn't even make a fuss. It's been a week, I was just worried. I wanted to check on you."

 

A week? How was that possible? I only remembered a few days in passing.

 

Soo- won leaned over me. I could hear birds calling from outside, and it was really distracting me. What  was that sound?

 

A cold hand to my face brought me around. "You're feverish," Soo won said.

 

“No I’m not.” Ridiculous. I didn’t get sick .

 

"...whatever you say, Jeong."

 

He always says my name with so much emotion . He holds it on his tongue like a precious stone, an eggshell fragile thing, and I want to tell him that it’s not precious. It’s replaceable, so stop worrying about it.

 

Even if it breaks, I can always find another one.

 

"Don't call me that, it's not really my name," I say - or I try to say. The words trip up over my tongue.  Like falling down the stairs, whoops there they go.

 

What was I talking about again?

 

"I'm going to get help." Soo-won said.

 

"I don't need any help. I'm a strong independent mercenary who don't need no company." I said. "I can take care of myself.”

 

His eyes were like the moon, set in a milk white sky. "I know you can. You don't need to. I’m your friend. Let me help."

 

All of my words were gone in the face of those eyes. I don't know what to do.

 

I was so tired.

 

With a sigh, I let my eyes close.

 

“You have good friends,” jia said.  The girl in the village, bowing but not running.

 

Oh.

 

Yeah. I get it now.

 

-



The world begins to move at an  alarming pace. I only catch glimpses of it. There's a cart rushing past -

 

Soo-won snapping and snarling in a way that I've never heard before. Then it's dark and I think I'm moving. I can't tell if it's the world shifting or just me.

 

I look over at grandmother sleeping.

 

Safe.

 

I go back to sleep.

Chapter Text





-

 

One week before.

 

Jia believed in men. To be more exact, Jia believed that they were very stupid, and prone to very stupid decisions.

 

She coughed, then studied the kid sitting across the table. The strange, pretty one that took a liking to Jeong. Jia wouldn’t live much longer, but the little document in front of her would give her a chance to settle one of her last regrets.

 

Her son was soft . Or perhaps it’s Jia that was soft. She didn’t want to put the hilt of a weapon into his hands, lest he cut himself on it. What mother wants to see her children lose their innocence?

 

This would be more ideal.

 

“Twenty skilled soldiers, permanently stationed around the village. Discreetly.” Soo-won said, his voice matter of fact. “For as long as my family holds power.”

 

That would provide a safe place for Tai-hee, and his children, and his children’s children. So long as the little prince kept his word. She looked up into his calm, clear eyes, and his placid face. Jia gave him a small, cynical smile. Yes, this would be more useful than one little mercenary, no matter how skilled. She coughed again, pressed a hand to her mouth, letting it shake her.  Copper spilled over into her palm.

 

Everything tasted of blood lately.

 

“We have a deal. The mercenary's freedom for the protection of my village.” She said, when the fit passed.

 

Jia extended her hand, still flecked in her own blood.

 

Soo-won took it, red smearing over his lily white skin. “Thank you for your understanding.” He stood, bowed, and walked to the door. It slid closed, leaving a thoughtful silence behind him.

 

When he was gone, Jia laughed. It was an ugly little thing and promised only that the one who laughed found amusement in the pain of others. She folded up the little parchment, tucked it into her robe. Thought of that child and his clear eyes. “I wonder if the girl knows what she’s getting into with that one.”

 

She smiled, and patted her guarantee.

 

Jia rather doubted it.

 

-


Jia dies on a beautiful crisp winter morning. Everyone in the village attends in funeral black, heads bowed. They knew what how much they owed her. Jia wasn’t liked but she was respected .

 

Tai-hee sits against the wall, greif bowing his head. Receiving the villagers well wishes was exhausting. He knew it would hurt; he didn't know it would be this bad. His chest was a hollow cave, and a cold settled in him that went beyond the winter air.

 

My mother is dead.

 

He still can’t say the words out loud.

 

The whole world is smaller without Jia’s long shadow.

 

Now Tai-hee was alone, and lost.

 

A mug is pressed into his hands. Tai-hee looks over, blinking

 

Su-mi gave him a look, her kind face stern. “Drink. You haven’t had anything since this morning, don’t think I didn’t notice. You need to take care of yourself.”

 

Tai-hee looked at it. Nothing stayed down, not for long. It seemed a bit unappealing. He tried to feel anything but numb, but he could only manage a pale smile. “Thank you,” he said anyway. Su-mi was always taking care of him.

 

He face softened, from stern to something softer, more tender. Su-mi leaned into him without saying anything else. Just let him know that there was someone on his side, no matter what.

 

What did he do to deserve her? Their fingers tangled together.

 

Tai-hee looked up at the sky, eyes burning. His mother always seemed ten feet tall. Proud as a mountain and twice as steady. She never cried, not even when the village was attacked all those years ago and his sister... the stab of grief was old, familiar. Almost welcome because in mourning his sister, Tai-hee was practiced. All the sharp edges worn down through careful handling.

 

Jia’s grief never passed. It honed her into something composed of sharp edges herself.

 

Would that happen to him?

 

Tai-hee didn’t want that. Shame is bitter on his tongue. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his mother happy. Her ambition left her wanting more, more, always stifled by her role as a mother and a head woman. Maybe it was weak, but he didn’t want it. He had no grand ambitions. He wanted to marry Su-min, father a pack of brats, spoil his grandchildren. Die in a noisy house, after a long life.

The village would expect him to take up the mantle of village head, like all of his family before him. He didn't have any tears left to cry. Su-min didn't complain about the death grip that he had on her hand.

 

They expect me to lead.

 

It stuck him like a thunderbolt to core, fear shrinking his spine, bowing his head until all he could do was breath. Tai-hee considered just taking Su-min and fleeing into the night, screaming. She would understand.

 

Their families had lead for as long as the village was there - it was the reason that the men put up with Jia calling all the shots. They all knew that only Jia had the mind for it. As the only one left, Tai-hee was the leader. That was the way of things, always.

 

He turns to Su-min to propose just that, but before he can get a word out, he’s interrupted.

 

There was a polite cough.They both look over. Two men stand there, in plain traveling cloaks, and sensible straw hats. “Excuse me. I was looking for someone called Jia?” the taller one said, tipping his hat back to show off an older man with a thin scar across his face. His eyes were brown, warm.

 

The hair on the back Tai-hee’s neck stood up as his nerves scream at him. Every single thing about this man said that he was harmless. Kind. Even the scar made him look good natured, instead of scary.

 

There was still a voice shouting for him to run . Run and keep running until there was a sea between this man and everything that he loved.

 

The other one scoffed. The tall man gave him a mild look, but the man reacted like he’d been struck. He smiled again. “I’m sorry, but it’s very important. Where in a bit of a hurry.”

 

“Jia is dead.” He said. Thank all the gods, that his voice doesn’t shake. “I’m her son. How can I help you?”

 

A disconcerted expression crossed the tall man's face.  His hand rested on his belt in a way that was strangely familiar. “I’m sorry to interrupt your grieving then. We’re looking for a young woman - perhaps disguised as a young man. She’s a little taller then me, with a large scar across her face. She wears her hair in a braid and a straw hat.”

 

The demon. That’s who the man reminded him of. The way he stood, the eyes, the little voice that was telling him to run.

 

It takes him a split second to decide what to do.

 

Jia’s son nods. “That does sound familiar. A little knife on her belt?”

 

The man gives him a large smile. “Ah, so you do know her! That’s a relief. My daughter ran away nearly three years ago, and I’ve been worried sick.”

 

Lie. he gives the man a small smile. “Well, I’m sorry to say that I haven't seen her recently. I think it was… oh, about four or five months ago now. She came in for some trading. My mother handled her personally. I think they chatted about bandits on the road? I think she left to the east, following the river.” He scratched his head. “Sorry, it was a while ago.”

 

“That’s a long time to remember one traveler.” The man says.  

 

Heart thundering in his chest, Tai-hee meets his eyes. “Not really. She was pretty noticeable. A lot taller then pretty much everyone here, strange hair. Obviously a fighter. Not much out here but fishers and farmers,” he said ruefully.

 

I’m insane. He’s clearly not buying it and there’s nothing in it for me.

 

If anyone asked him why he was protecting the mercenary, it would come down to this: Tai -hee wouldn’t entrust his worst enemy to this man.

 

They locked eyes. Tai-hee's head was so filled with fear that it came out the other side to pure clear headedness. I’m just some bumpkin. Just some nobody, who’s too dumb to lie to you. " I’m sorry that we couldn’t help you more. This isn’t a good time. I have to attend to my family grave," he said, with a very real sadness.

 

He hardly recognized his own voice, because for one second it seemed like Jia was alive again and talking through him.

 

Su-min glances at him, but she says nothing. Just wraps her arms around him, holding him steady in a way that he's pathetically grateful for.

 

Finally, the man smiles. “No, you’ve been very helpful. First lead in ages in fact. I’m sorry for interrupting your mourning.” With that, he gave a proper bow and left.

 

Tai-hee waited until they were completely out of sight. Then he sagged like a puppet with it’s strings cut, allowing Su-min to take all of his weight.

 

“Tai-hee? Are you alright?”

 

He sighs and manages to make his knees unlock. Where did that come from? The lies and the courage and the surety about that man. He looked at the gravestone. Jia's name, carved into in. A little deeper. A little more real than the other names.

 

He stared at it for a long moment, weathering the pain. He was alive.

 

While he lived, she would be with him.

 

His mother was dead.

 

That didn't mean she was gone.

 

"I'm not fine, right now." Tai-hee admitted. "But I will be."

 

Su-min gave him a smile. "That's all that anyone can ask for. Come and sleep, and tell me why you lied. It always helps to talk."

 

“That sounds nice.” He said, at followed her into the house.


-



Waking up is like struggling out of the well - doable, but barely. I manage to open my eyes to an unfamiliar brightly painted room with careful lanterns that give off no smoke. The shoji doors are simple, and unpainted. There are no windows. A fire burned merrily in the great fireplace on the opposite end, quite possibly the largest that I’ve ever seen. The crackled of flames tightens something in my gut. I don’t look at it too closely which is easy, because I’m laying on a futon. It's sinfully soft, but not raised up. I blink up at the ceiling, also white.

 

My limbs are strangely weightless. All the pain is still there; it just doesn’t matter anymore. Like I’m just observing my body. Someone gave me the good drugs. The thought passes through my head and sails out without a ripple. I test my motion. Not tied up, so there was that.

 

A curtain of red envelopes me. "Are you awake?”

 

My eyes cross while trying to focus. The face resolves itself into the little princess. "Yona...why are you outside the palace?"

 

She rolls her eyes in magnificent little kid disdain. "I'm not out of the palace. You're in the palace, dummy."

 

The shoji door didn't open on the far end, so much as slam. "How many times have I told you that you're not allowed in here!”

 

It takes me three full seconds to realize that I’m on my feet, with Yona behind me, my hand grasping at an empty belt. I blink. Then the pain catches up, a red hot vize around my head. I clap my hand to my head, staggering. Yona lets out a little yelp of alarm.

 

The man who barged in catches me. He’s tall, and strong enough to carry my full weight. His eyes are a dark green and annoyed. Sharp. He scowled and lowered me back onto the futon.

 

“If you ruin three days of slaving over you, I’m going to kill you myself.” He snapped. “And you, your highness, are not supposed to be here.”

 

"Soo-won told me to stay in case she woke up, so there!" She stuck her tongue out at him. "Even if Jeong is a big ugly meany!"

 

His scowl deepened. “And it seems the prince is in need of reminder of exactly who runs this sickroom.”

 

My head spun while I tried to process the language. "I… why am I in the palace? Where’s Soo-won? Is Grandmother alright?"

 

The man pinched the bridge of his nose. "Right. Honored guest, please wait a moment. Your grandmother is... not fine, but stable. I must inform Lord Soo-won that you're awake. You, stay out of trouble. Don't touch anything." he said to Yona, sounding very much like he would like to say something a bit stronger, but you can't swear at the daughter of the king.

 

I mean, you could if you wanted to, but it's probably not the smartest career move.

 

... Wow, what kind of drugs was I on?

 

I stared at the place where he was and tired to think. It was like slogging through mud.

 

Yona tired to stare a hole in the side of my face.

 

"What?"

 

She scowled, though it just looked cute on her face. "What are you to Soo-won?"

 

"...What?"

 

"He's never around anymore! He goes to visit you more than he does me - and he lives here! I can't go with him, and he takes Hak too, so there's no one for me to play with." She looked down at the ground, pouting. "What makes you so special?"

 

I sighed. "Look. I happened to have the skills that he wants."

 

Yona glared at me. "WHy you? He could pick anyone he wanted- from anywhere. You can't be that strong.It must be something else."

 

That... was a good point.

 

I blinked. Why me? I know that he wanted me to be his bodyguard because of the way I treated him - but what else? Why did he pick some random nobody? Did he even know I could fight when he first met me? I don't think he did. Plus he literally watched me wash off blood the very first time we met, which said murderer, not bodyguard.

 

My head throbbed.

 

"I," Yona said, "think that it's because he's bored."

 

"Is that so?" God, I was too sick for this. It’s been… years since I was last sick. I nearly forgot what it felt like.

 

Yona was fearless because she's never had any real danger. Proud because she was loved. Happy, and kind in her own way - it was clear that she was loved and cherished. It was difficult to believe that this haughty little kid would grow up to become Princess Yona of the dawn.

 

I rubbed my chest, trying to ease the ache.

 

"Yes." She climbed further onto the futon, draping herself over my legs. "He was bored and he wanted to make a new friend. I suppose you're not the worst person that he's ever met. Even if you're really rude."

 

I let her chatter on, because she clearly didn’t need any input from me. Eventually, in the middle of some sort of story about some kid who wanted to marry her or whatever, the door opened again.

 

The princess was inspecting my hands when Soo-won arrived, without the doctor.

 

"He was so gross, but then Hak scared him off - Soo-won!" Yoan broke off, dropped my hand. She patted her hair, but that only made the mess worse. She blushed.

 

...Oh, right. She had a crush on him of some sort? I didn't realize that it started so early.

 

Soo-won smiled at her. "You've been keeping Jeong company? Thank you Yona, that's very thoughtful of you."

 

She went as red as her hair and ducked her head. "It was nothing."

 

I snickered.

 

The princess stuck her tongue out at me.

 

What a brat.

 

Soo-won knelt down at the side of my bed. "Jeong, how are you feeling?"

 

I shrug at him. "I can't feel my legs. IT's great”

 

Soo-won hesitated, then flashed Yona a smile. "Could you give us a little privacy?"

 

Yona's smile turned into a pout. “I don’t wanna.”

 

"Please?" Soo-won said, and his eyes were like four times bigger than they normally were.

 

Yona couldn't hold back against those. She blushed like mad and ran from the room, leaving Soo-won blinking at a sudden cloud of dust.

 

I hid a smile behind my hand.

 

There was a small silence in the room. I looked up at the ceiling.

 

"I'm glad that you're alright." Soo-won said at last.

 

I looked at him. He seemed so small. "You came back without permission."

 

He blinked at me. "Um. Right." He tried for a winning smile. It faltered in the face of  my unimpressed stare, but he didn't flinch back. Instead he frowned himself.  "I did. If I didn't you would be dead. And grandmother...:” He looked at his hands, clasped gently in his lap.

 

"I want to see her," I said.

 

Soo-won opened his mouth, but I already threw off my covers, uncaring of the sloppily worn kimono. Being sweaty was my least favorite thing in the world. I needed a bath.

 

It could wait for now though.

 

Soo-won sighed. "It’s pointless to persuade you to stay in bed, isn’t it? All right. I'll take you there."



-


The halls of the palace were just as grand as they were the last time I'd been through. But there was obvious something different here. I fit even less than I already did, in my disheveled, unwashed state. The stares of the servants were obvious, prickling at my skin.

 

I didn't want to go into that room. It was like there was something awful on the other side, all teeth and hunger. My hands clenched and unclenched. I wanted to go back to the room with the walls, and the soft bed and sleep forever.

 

The two of us stood there for a long moment, not saying anything. I was pathetically grateful that he didn’t try to push me into it.

 

I don’t know why I’m so scared.

 

It was always hard.

 

Keep going.

 

I breathed out, and entered the room.


-


It was a bright room, with wide windows, and the faint sweet scent of incense that didn't cover up the smell of sickness. The tall man is there when we walk in, doing something with a mortar and pestle.

 

Grandmother is tucked under a fine, warm looking blanket with a dark border, and a red inside. Her face is peaceful.

 

I let out a shaky sigh. She looked far better then when I saw her last.

 

Except for the hacking coughs that wracked her body like tremors.

 

I sit at her bedside, not looking at the doctor. "Will she be alright?"

 

His didn’t hesitate, hands steady. He simply gave me a hard look.

 

I don’t look away.

 

He sighs. "No. The sickness has been in her lungs far too long. Months now. She's on death's doorstep. Healing her is beyond my scope. Beyond anyone's. Perhaps if she made her way here early on, I might have been able to do something." For once he sounds like nothing more than a tired man. "I can make her comfortable, and that's the most of it. I don't even know if she'll wake."

 

How many patients did you have to lose to become as jaded as he was?

 

"Thank you," I said, voice measured.

 

He took the cue, and left, carrying his tools with him.

 

My head bows when the I hear the door close. There's a sense of terrible frustration and anger bubbling inside. Why now? Why didn't she tell me?  if she died like this-- if she left me alone-- I would--

 

Survive.

 

I would survive, the way that I always have.

 

It only feels like the end of the world.  

 

I let out a ragged sigh. You can't carry that much rage, that much frustration without being slowed down. There's nothing that kills slower.

 

I have seen men die of grief.

 

Soo-won touched my shoulder. “Jeong.”

 

For the first time, I looked away from him. The emotion in his voice pulled at the foundations of self control. I could not afford to collapse here. "Thank you," I said still not looking at him. “For coming back.”

 

He was silent.

 

“I would like to be alone. Please.” I said.

 

“Yes. Of course.”

 

Safely alone, I pressed the heel of my hands into my eyes. “Goddamit,” I whispered. “God fucking dammit.”

 

I thought I was smarter than this. That eventually, I’d learn to stop getting so attached .

 

My stupid, weak heart proved me wrong.

 

I sit, and try not to feel anything at all. If I breath wrong, my heart might shatter.


-


The next time Soo-won enters the room, he looks a little worse for wear. His hair was a tornado of leaves and sticks. dirt clung to his face and expensive clothes.

 

I couldn't even find it in me to laugh at his expense.

 

He glanced at me. "Hak doesn't play fair," he said. The strangely cheerful look on his face faded when he looked at Grandmother. "Any change?"

 

Breathing like every inhale was a war, coughing herself horse and spitting up blood. "No." My voice was a croak.

 

"How long have you been here?"

 

I never left, I didn't say. Three days? Four? Time was starting to blur together. Slipping away from me with every breath. If there was any room in me from the pain and the anger bubbling just under the surface, maybe I would have felt tired. But I was used to worse on campaigns and fancy meetings. Without a fever slowing me down, I could sit for days, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

 

Soo-won sighed. "You need to rest. You're still sick. She wouldn’t appreciate you getting worse just to sit with her."

 

I ignore him.

 

Neither of us say anything further. That seems to be the pattern. We're not talkative people, I suppose. Or maybe it's just that we rarely need to talk about something to communicate.

 

It wasn't a comfortable silence - but it was a companionable one.  

 

The day passes, and then the night. I mark the day only from the lengthening of the shadows on the wall. I sat vigil and did not move. Sitting seiza on the cold stone floor, I can't feel my legs, or my heart. The doctor comes in a few more times, his green eyes unreadable when he looks at me. He doesn't try to make me move.

 

“Where did these charms come from?" Soo-won says again, breaking the silence. He looks at a neatly laid out row of colorful little hand sewn bags. He picked on up to examine it.

 

I shrug.  

 

Neither grandmother or I are religious, but it seems like some of the maids are. A few of them stop by every so often with little charms. Gifts. Blessings. They always give me a wide berth so I let them do what they want. Hopefully it's the gesture that counts, in this world. I was once an atheist, but anything was possible.

 

Still, it’s kind of them. Grandmother is a stranger, and they take the time to make sure that she’s protected in the only way they can.

 

Soo-won offers me a cheerfully wrapped package. “Dango?”

 

I take it.


-


Grandmother only wakes once.

 

One week after we arrived, she stirred and murmured. Our eyes met and I froze in place. I had no idea what to do now. I'm not even sure that I'm awake.

 

Yona, sitting on my other side, gasped. “She’s awake!”

 

That snapped me out of it. “Go get Doctor Chol,” I said.

 

She did, darting off without even arguing.

 

Grandmother wrinkled her brows. She looked at the room like a she was reading a forging language. Her eyes found mine, and the look disappeared. “In-jung?” She said.

 

I fumbled the glass of water, sending it spilling all over the tatami. She doesn’t recognize me. The thought echoed. She doesn't recognize me. In-jung was her son, twenty years dead. A sour taste spread in the back of my mouth, and I looked down.

 

“In-jung, I missed you. Come give your mother a hug. I feel like I haven't seen you in years.”

 

Inhaling, I shoved  the hurt aside. Later. Always later. “You’ve been sick, Mom.”

 

She laughed. “Oh. that does explain how awful I feel. Where’s your father, then? Off with his little dog?”

 

I laugh, and hope it sounds convincing. “Oh, no. He’s out with the nets. I had to force him to get out of the house, into the sun.” I rolled my eyes. “I said I had things under control, but you know how he is.” Grandmother told me stories of her husband and her son, when she was in a good mood.

 

She chuckled, but it was fond. “That man. What would he do without us?” then her expression changed a little. Something lucid peaking through. “In-jung -- you died. Years ago.”

 

She reached for my face, and I could no more avoid it then the sea could resist the tide. Her hand was like holding a hot coal to my face, far to high for a normal temperature. Doctor Chol needed to come quick. She was getting worse.

 

Grandmother studied me. “You’re well?”

 

I covered her hand with my own. I had to fight to get words around the tightness in my throat. “I am, Mom. Nothing hurts anymore.”

 

She sighed and with all of her breath the fight went out of her. “That’s good. That’s good. I have some news for you.” She grinned at me. She looked younger, more hopeful, even when another cough shook her down to her bones. “An addition to the family, even. I have a granddaughter now.”

 

My breath stopped.

 

What?

“I knew you’d make that face! I couldn't wait to tell you, and your father. He’s going to love her even more than I do, the silly man. She’s a warrior, and a talented one!” She beamed at me, proud as anything. Over her granddaughter.

 

Over me .

 

“She’s made such a name for herself that a prince actually came and asked for her! She’s kind as anything, even though she’s had a rough time of it. Promise me the two of you’ll get along? I couldn't bear the thought of you two fighting.” Grandmother patted my hand.

 

My breath left my lungs in one dry, wracking sob. “I promise.” I said.

 

But she wasn’t listening anymore, lost to the land of fever.

 

The doctor burst in, Yona and Soo-won a step behind them. The doctor took one look at me and shooed me out of the door, and for the first time I went. I don’t know what my face looked like, but the two royals commandeered a small room and a whole mess of blankets, and I fell asleep, curled between them.

 

Grandmother died three days later, without waking up again.

 


-

Chapter Text

The funeral comes and goes like a fist to the stomach, stealing breath, leaving me dizzy. The role of sengul, head mourner, goes to me, because she has no surviving male family members. After, it’s hazy. There was the sense of time passing, but I couldn't hear anything over the aching thud of my heart. Still alive, even now.

I just followed the tug of small hands on my own. They led me to a room with a futon that I fell into, gratefully let the darkness catch up to me. I don’t know how much time passed, but I woke up to a heavy weight by my side and in my chest. I looked over. Yona was clamped onto my arm and drooling a bit. I sat up. It was early, even the bustling servants sleeping.

I gently untangle Yona’s hand from my robes - she’s part octopus, I swear - and got out of the futon. Hak, Soo-won and Yona spent most of their time with me.

“Mph - stupid,” Yona said, curling into a little ball, her red hair the only visible thing above the covers.

A smile, rusty, flits over my face. She was a good kid.

The gray mist of morning stings my throat. The sun won’t rise for another two hours, but the moon is bright enough pack my bag by. There’s a fire burning as well, keeping the royal warm in the tangle of blankets.

Should I wake her? No, there’s no point. Talking prickled on my skin, over-sensitized from days of touch, of trying not to think at all.

I feel like my skin will vibrate off if I don’t move. I’m not used to staying in one place, where the grief can catch me. Itching climbs my limbs like ivy, blooming in my shaky heart.

Memories come back slowly. Soo-won payed for the funeral and the little garden plot in the palace. Hak sat with me, without talking, for hours on end. Yona cried without even knowing who she was mourning. Cried not for grandmother, but for me, because she was a little girl and her mother is dead and she understands loss. Even the king gave his condolences.

It was kind, but it still felt like standing in a burning house with smoke slowly smothering me. 

I hesitated, looking at the small desk and ink there. I couldn’t leave a note, because it wasn’t like they understood English. I’d have to stop one of the servants if I saw one, and give them a message.

At this hour I didn’t see a single soul. Walking through the palace like this gave the impression that the world was empty, except for me and the moon. The cold air swept away what little sleep that remained, and I felt my lungs catch. The sickness left me a little breathless still, but only in the cold. I tugged my scarf up higher.

Then I saw a little flicker of a yellow candle, and a shadow cast on a shoji door. A familiar silhouette.

I hesitated a moment. Then I crossed the little gravel court yard and gently opened the door.

Soo-won is slumped over a low table, with his head pillowed on his hands, a candle burning down to the stub. Papers littered the surface. An brush teeters on the edge of a inkwell.

I cleared my throat.

He murmurs - honestly, it sounds just like Yona - but doesn't wake, just makes sleepy protesting noises. 

That quicksilver amusement flares again. I walk into the room, stepping over the papers. I shook his shoulder, gently. “Soo-won, wake up.”

He blinked, eyes half lidded. “Oh, ‘s Jeong. Wad ya wan?”

There was a small, awkward silence. I waited for him to do something. He just stared at me, blinking.

Is Soo-won bad at waking up? “I’m leaving the palace for a bit. Got some stuff to take care of, some loose ends to tie up.”

He frowned, like he was trying to answer a difficult problem. “No.” He said, then he put his head down again, having got his message across.

“It’s… not really a question.” I said, a little amused.

“No. Don’t wanna. Jeong has to stay forever, I said so. ” The words were muffled by his arms.

I closed my eyes. Breathe. The Red Hand was looking for me and by all rights I should be halfway across the ocean by now. Instead I was still here, hesitating. Even half asleep Soo-won knew where to hit. I crouched. “Come on, kid. Let’s get you to an actual bed.”

He let himself be picked up, curling his arms around my neck in a death grip. He was light, especially for a thirteen year old. I didn’t have any trouble carrying him to the room where I left Yona, snuffing the candle as I went. The two of them curled around each other like parentheses, seeking warmth.

A tug in my gut nearly had me crawling in there with them. I rubbed my eyes, but nothing helped the weariness that settled in my bones.

Should have just left.

I could have. Just walked out and never come back. It was the smart thing to do. I was sick of betrayal and revenge and death. Death especially. That’s what waited in the plot.

This is where grandmother is buried. How could I leave? A small, petty part of me wondered if that was the reason that Soo-won pulled so many strings to have her buried here. A permanent tether.

I shook my head.

Jia said that someone in a Red Hand cloak was looking for me. Leaving the palace is paramount. The red hand was clannish. I doubted that it changed in the three years I was gone. Anyone on the outside was a target. The prince of a foreign country wouldn't even slow them down.

I tucked the blanket around Yona firmly, got up and walked out. I didn’t look back.

It’s easy to get out of the palace without being spotted. The guards are amateurs, most of them half asleep.

Someone should probably do something about that.

I reach the village just as the moon rises, and the sun turns the sky to blood.

 

 

-

 


The house where Jia once lived feels lighter without her. I wrap my hands around the cup of tea her son poured. There was a girl sitting with him, just looking at me. I didn't know her name, but there was something familiar about her all the same. I can feel her study every move that I made.

What did she see?

Probably better not to ask.

"I must confess," Jia's son said while fidgeting for with his tea, "I didn't expect you to ever show your face here again. With mother gone," he faltered, losing steam. The girl at his side took his hand.

I said nothing.

Her son looks me in the eyes and I blink. He has his mother’s eyes. They were always on the floor. He never looked at me long enough to notice.

He swallows. "I am the leader of this village now. I would give everything in me to make that not so, but we can't change the past. So, as the leader, I must order you to leave and never return. Your very presence was a danger that we can’t afford. You're unstable. That's why my mother let you go in the end. there's a crack running through you that spreads day by day." He didn't raise his voice. He didn't need to. "You are only human by the thinnest thread, and I fear for the day you finally snap. It's only out of respect for my honored Mother that I let you into this place, at this time."

My face doesn't change. Still, It takes a few moments to gather my composure. It felt like I decided to pet a housecat and accidently got clawed by a tiger.

I can't even say that he's wrong. He was there for those terrible first months when I was more animal than person. Learning how to be a person, not prey.

My grip on sanity was hard won - and still so very fragile.

I give him a smile. It's not friendly. "Jia would be proud."

The son flinched back.

The girl by his side spoke for the first time. "What is it that you've come here for, mercenary?"

She looked familiar and hearing her voice made it click. The young woman who spoke to me in the village all those months ago. Asked me, fearlessly, how I was. Thanked me. I looked at her

Unlike last time, she didn't flinch. Backbone. 

"Information. Before she died, Jia warned about people asking about me. Men in cloaks with red handed pins. I need to know more."

The son hesitated. "Why do you need to know?"

My face smoothed out, and I felt myself grow distant. Cold. "To solve a problem."

One way or another.

I could not take that kind of danger back to the palace. I wouldn't put these kids in danger, not after what they did for me. For grandmother.

This was a debt that I intended to pay. For the kindness that I was shown, I would stay far away until the danger was past. The same deal that I offered Grandmother in the beginning. One that she turned down, instead taking me in without any repayment at all.

My chest ripped with every beat of my heart. I kept my face still, allowing the thought to pass through me. There was always time to mourn later.

If there was a later.

the Two across the table looked at each other, communicating silently the way only long term couples can.

I took a drink of my tea, even though it only sat heavy in my stomach. Nothing seemed to taste right anymore.

"Five days ago, two men came into our village. They asked after you, and then they left, following the river." The girl said.

"Are you really going to go after them?" Jia's son said, voice low, serious.

I said nothing.

He looked into his cup, swallowed hard, then met my eyes. "No matter what I think of you personally, I know that those men were so much worse. After what my mother made you do, I think that I hold some sort of responsibility, even if my words seem presumptuous."

"They are presumptuous."

He swallowed again. "Even so."

I sigh. "I'll be fine. Your instincts were good. Even now, they would never once think about civilians as something to care about. Or anything more than collateral damage"

Either you were one of them, or you were nothing in the Red Hand.

Like me.

The men left, following the westward road, into the end of the horizon. The direction of the last Job Jia sent me. It was only a matter of time until their lies were found out. So I had to make myself an obstacle in the path. A distraction, and bait at the same time. When it came down to fighting I would take it as far away from people as possible.

I stand, and walk to the door after we say our goodbyes. something in me hesitates. "Would it be possible for me to pay my respects to Jia?"

He couldn't hide the flicker of shock, but he recovered quickly. "Of course. The shrine is this way."

I followed him in silence to a small shrine to the dead. There were other names on there, older. One of them was newer than the others, though. Fresh carved.

Jia.

I knelt before the altar in seiza. Carving the characters for her name on my heart, I closed my eyes and bowed. Incense mixed with the dried flowers and food for the dead.

I don't know if you can hear me, I thought, feeling only a little silly. I didn't like you and you didn't like me, but please consider this my only request I'll ever make of you. The dead don't have limits like the living - maybe there's some way that - that you could cross over to my world.

Please let my family know i'm alright, if you can.

Sometime in the past week Hak, Yona, and Soo-won made their way into my heart, more than anything else. Carrying Soo-won to his bed was automatic. Like he was my own little brother, seven years old, tired and whiny. An old pain in the back of my throat erupts back to full glory, like a volcano, and shame burns like fire.

I avoid thinking about my family because it hurts. Being surrounded by kids was normal. I have four younger siblings, ones that I was never going to see again. I wasn't’ trying to replace them but it’s easy to fall into old habits. I wasn’t going to replace them but… I’m tired of being alone.

I am so tired.

I feel worn through, frayed like a piece of cloth washed to many times.

However short that happiness was, I wanted it to be enough to carry them through the times ahead. Soo-won, killing the king. Yona, learning hardship. Hak, betrayed. I looked at the grave.

It’s only a stone.

I bow low to it, stand, and enter the house again. the look on her son’s face - Jia’s eyes in his face were softer. Kinder. Worry was a foreign emotion to her, unless it was her son. She sheltered him carefully as a person holding the last ember in a blizzard would - so that the spark of goodness that neither of us possessed could be carefully fed into a beautiful flame.

The result was a man, better than either of us would ever be.

You did good on this one, Jia.

We exchanged a few more words and I left the house. No one noticed me leaving.

 

-

 

I only stop when it gets too dark to see. Making a fire, I settle into the shelter of a bare tree. The fire is hypnotizing. Ash floats down. A chill to cold for the wind passes through me.

Nothing feels real. I look down at my hand and flex it. The muscles contract and release, the bones are strong. Calloused from years of hard labor. It can’t be mine. It’s too clean.

I’ve gone numb, cold and distant. it feels like something settled in my stomach and grew until pressed against my eyes. I couldn't watch them cremate grandmother's body, couldn’t think about it being reduced to ash. It's just an empty sack of meat. I knew what a corpse looked like.

I’ve made them before.

It made no difference.

My stomach rolls with remembered nauseated horror.

It was like there was something in me that broke, when she died. Nothing felt real. I think, if I was normal, I would be greatful for feeling only an echo of pain. As it was, I just felt hollowed out. Finally, I stood, kicked the fire out and walked. I let the moon guide me.

I don’t sleep that night.

 

-

 


A day passes before I find signs of them. I follow the tracks to a small campfire. The sun went down hours ago, but the The fire is a trap. A warm, friendly lie. I go to it anyway. My hands are steady, my head's clear. It's like looking at the world through a lens, sharpened to cut me. It could cut me all it wanted.

Pain meant nothing when I was this numb.

I step into the clearing, head high, hands empty. Hopefully this would be a peaceful resolution.

Doubtful, but possible.

There were two men sitting opposite me, sheltered from the icy wind in the hollow of a giant tree. They both looked up sharply, hands going to their belts. Like I did when startled. Except they had none of my hesitance about violence. Their cloaks fell back, and the face of the leader of the Red Hand looked back at me, his smile automatic.

My gut rolled. If I had to fight him… I wouldn’t win. The man who took me in looked the same. I don't know why it surprised me, but it did. His hair was worn unfashionably short, his face still scared, and even sitting down with a look of surprise, his presence made him look bigger. More solid.

A rare flash of surprise crossed Junjie scarred face and did something that shocked me. He smiled, a real one. "Fan!” He said, my previous name. “You’re alive. Thank god! Come here, let me a look at you," He stood, gesturing me over.

That... wasn't what I was expecting. I tilted my head, feeling my brows drawing together. I took two hesitant steps towards the fire. Outside of Junjie’s reach.

Yanlin offers me a small bowl of fragrant stew, but his eyes are sharp watching me. Why the hell was the best tracker in the red hand and the boss out here, looking for me? They didn’t need money that much. Unless something changed in the last three years. 

Junjie looked behind me and frowned. "Where is Eun?"

Blood, on the snow. My trainer gasping out his last words.

"Dead." I said.

Yanlin closed his eyes. Junjie looked down. The shadow of grief that passed over his face was real. It always was. He loved his mercenaries more than anything in the world, but Eun was the one who was with the boss the longest. One of the founding members, along with Yanlin.

"Is that so? By whose hand? I must share my grief with them."

A chill passed through me. He would slaughter that whole village, without question. Grandmother was dead - and it wouldn't matter. She took something from him, so he would repay the favor. That was the way the world worked. That was the reason that even the most powerful of nobles hesitated to take such a dangerous group out.

Junjie needed a reason to kill civilians. It just wasn’t a reason that had to make sense to anyone else.

So I met his eyes and said, "I did."

Yanlin froze, looking at me. I know why. Killing other members of the Red Hand was the highest crime in Junjie’s eyes. The punishment - death. I didn’t care, to busy trying not to throw up. Would this be enough?

Jia, this is the last favor you'll ever get from me.

"Please don't lie," Junjie said gently. The fire cast his eyes into shadow. "Eun was far above you in skill. In any straight fight you would be dead."

"In a straight fight, I would be."

We didn't break eye contact.

Finally, he closed his eyes. "I see. The palace assassins caught up.”

Yanlin let out a little sigh. "That man… he was always a bit to confident in his skills."

The world stopped.

What?

Junjie covered his face. “He could always be so arrogant. I know that. I told him to work a little harder. I understand that you feel guilty about his death, but there's no use in blaming yourself."

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. The words made individual sense, but still.

What?

Junjie sat regal in the light of the fire. Calm, gilded. A look of sorrow on his face, and under that, sympathy. "If you raised your hand to one of your trainers, it must be addressed. Please take it back. I don't want to have to punish you after just finding you. It’s a grievous loss, but at least you’re alright." He sounded so reasonable. So sure.

I looked down, and found my knife halfway out of it's sheath. Neither Junjie or Yanlin tensed. Didn't attack me.

Wait. Wait. Something was wrong.

"You kicked me out of the Red Hand." I said.

"What?"

"You sold me out to the palace bounty hunters. You kicked me out of the red hand and sent Eun to collect the body."

His brow furrowed. "Pardon me? I did no such thing."

"Eun said," I told him, carefully, feeling my way around the words like they were treacherous ground. "That you made a deal with the palace. With the princess. He took me out of town one day and stabbed me through the shoulder. He stole my sword. I ran. I ran for weeks." Cold. I was so cold. My voice got louder. "He chased me across the entire country!"

A stunned silence.

Yanlin exhaled, eyes closed. “"Eun… what have you done?"

Eun didn’t like me, but he didn’t like anyone who wasn’t Junjie.

I never thought once that he hated me enough to lie.

I...

For once, the boss looked unsure. young. "...I told him to take you out of town. Into the country for a few weeks. I knew some people who have a farm out there. A nice couple who needed some help with the harvest. There were spies around, so I couldn't do it myself."

I felt... warm.

Burning.

Rage.

Eun lied.

Eun lied.

Things clicked into place, facts that I missed. Things that were so obvious now. He hated me. Hated that the boss often spoke to me, doted on me. That I was rising in the ranks. Looking back, all the advice carried an edge of malice, all the offers of help carried scorn. The boss was all he cared about in the world.  When Junjie started trusting me with more and more things - he must have thought that he was being replaced. And then Junjie offered him the opportunity to make me disappear. Kill me and blame it on the palace bounty hunters. The reason that I had such a huge lead on him...

While I was running for my life, Eun was arranging the scene of the attack. 

If he had a grave, I would spit on it.

I don't know what expression was on my face, but the boss flinched. A full on body flinch.

"Oh shit," Yanlin said. There was a bewildered silence, filled with hurt, confusion, betrayal. All of us just letting the implications sink in.

I wasn't betrayed. Under the rage, a knot inside my chest loosened. For the first time in three years, I could breath. I could think about something that ached like a missing piece. The red had was a home - and to lose that was something that I couldn't shake. Turns out that I never lost it.

It was stolen from me.

"Oh shit," Yanlin said again, more urgently this time. His hands were hovering in the air, unsure.

"You're crying?" the boss said, stunned.

"I am?" I asked, My hand came up to touch my face and coming away wet. "Oh."

When was the last time I cried?

I was not betrayed.

Junjie hovered halfway out of his seat, more uncertain than I’ve ever seen him. Finally, his face softened, and he gathered me into a hug. "I'm so sorry. It must have been hard."

"How did you even find me?" Three years was a long time to think someone dead, after all.

"There was someone asking questions about your history around our part of town last week. I thought that maybe, maybe that meant that there was some way... I never found either of your bodies. There was only blood on the road, and your sword. You never made it to the farm I arranged. I kept an ear out, but looking with the nobles watching was out of the question. When neither of you came back -- I lost hope."

"Sorry." For doubting him, for believing the worst of him.

He sighed. "I understand. After King Renshu... such a small betrayal would seem plausible."

Yes. That was exactly it. The king picked me up off the battlefield, and made me into one of his royal guard. Not out of the goodness of his heart, but because he was a collector of broken things. The better to manipulate them with. He took the desperate, the lost, the useless, and he said give all of yourself to me, believe in me as your savior and you will never be abandoned again. All the thing that you can tell a group of abused people to make them love you.

Most of us, desperate as we were, believed him.

The things he did… I still have nightmares.

And the people around him did nothing. Because he was the king. The god. The guard obeyed him personally, I obeyed him because if I didn’t then it would mean that I was wrong. That the things I did were not just orders, but unforgivable.

He was untouchable.

That was the worst part. He was untouchable, until he wasn't anymore. All it took was a dagger to the heart.

He called the dagger he gave me Mercy.

The children in that room called it justice.

Pushing the thought away, I rubbed my aching eyes. “You knew who I was?”

He sighed. "Of course, I knew you. Everyone knows about the traitorous guard who killed King Renshu. They even know why. Not that his… tastes were a secret."

“People just didn’t want to believe-“

He pulled me to him again, and I breathed in wool, sword oil, leather. Safety. "It's alright. Shh. I know. You'll feel better when you're at home."

Yanlin patted me on the back awkwardly. "It's not that... okay, so it was bad. But it's over now, and you can come back to the Red Hand. Shen missed you. She was inconsolable when we found your sword. I'm also glad that you're alive."

That startled a watery laugh out of me. He always sounded like he was pulling teeth when he was talking about his feelings. And Shen - the older lady who oversaw the horses and gave me so much candy it was ridiculous. I hadn’t thought about her in years.

The rest of the words hit me.

I could go back to the Red Hand. I could go home, and take care of the horses with Shen, safe and away from the wars and the plot. I wouldn't even have to fight. I didn't have to stay. I didn’t have to make those choices. I wanted to run back to xing right now, as if the situation would follow, snapping at my heels. I wanted to say ‘yes, let’s go, please, I missed you’.

"I can't." I said.

And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew that they were the truth.

Yona, Hak, King Il. None of them deserved what was coming. I didn’t know if I wanted to change it, even if I could. Perhaps the most I could ask for was to make it less bad.

Soo-won… . I had to laugh. Looks like his plan to tether me to him worked. Even knowing I was being manipulated made no difference. Something in my heart steeled itself. There was no going back from this decision.

“Fan, what do you mean?” Junjie sounded confused.

No one left the Red Hand. Not voluntarily.

I paused, summoning the words. “I have a place here. I have made a place. It’s… The king asked me to bodyguard his son. He’s a brat. Too smart for his own good, but I think that I could keep him from getting to badly burnt.”

They exchanged a speaking glance.

“Are you sure?” Junjie said.

“I am.”

Yanlin sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He looked ten years older. “I suppose that you gave your word?”

“I did.”

They exchanged another look, this one rueful. Junjie ruffled my hair and I yelped, taken out of the moment.  I smacked his hand away, and tried to get my hair to lie flat. It was a lost cause. Maybe I should just cut it all off...

“What is it with you and kings? The rest of us can go for years without ever meeting a single noble, and you just trip over them.” He said. His face went soft. “I know that you can handle yourself. That doesn’t meant that we don’t worry. I can't stop you, but it wouldn't hurt to send a message sometimes. Get someone to write them. Just so that I can tell Shen that you are alive, and that it’s not my fault that you didn’t want to come back. I’ve already got to explain Eun to the group.”

I scoffed to hide the way my throat caught. “Good luck with that.”

“That can all wait,” Yanlin said, sitting back down by the fire. “First why don’t you catch us up with what happened? Tell us about your new employer.”

Heart lighter than it had been in two years, I sat with Junjie on one side and him on the other. “Where do I even start?”

-

End of the Fisherman Arc.

-

 

 

Chapter Text

 

I make my way back to the palace in the morning, nearly skipping. It was good to know that I had options now. If things didn’t go right, I could just go back to Xing; I could go back to being a member of the Red Hand. Taking the job seemed more like a choice, then a threat.

 

The town was navigated with much more skill then I used to have. Grandmother made me make this trip more than once just to give Soo-won various little treats she cooked up. My heart flinches from the thought; that was still a tender wound, barely scabbed over. Touching it wrong might lead to it reopening.

 

Instead, I turned my thoughts to the King. I had to go to him and tell him that I would accept the job.

 

I made my way past the palace guards, who were busy talking to an irate looking doctor Chol. It didn’t go well, apparently. He threw up his hands, turned on his heel, and walked off. Well. He didn’t walk so much as billow , robes and apprentices trailing behind him like a strange bridal train. He stormed past me. “--Dealing with morons! Blind as bats, and twice a brainless! It’s not like she’s hard to miss --”

 

“Yes sir,” one of the apprentices said, miserable.

 

“She had a fever so high she could barely walk; and she just left! If she’s not dead by now, I’ll kill her myself--”

 

Still ranting, he passed out of the earshot.

 

Emerging from the shadowy alcove, I whistled. Would not want to be that patient when he caught up with them. Sounded like he was on the warpath. I looked around to get my bearings, spotted a servant and shrugged mentally. Might as well. "Hey, do you know where the king is?"

 

The elderly man gave me a discreet once over. I could see the sneer in his eyes; and it was kind of impressive. "The King." He said with magnificent disdain. "Is quite busy."

 

I glanced down at my clothes. They were a little worn around the elbows, and the left leg of my pants was darned with an off color thread but they looked perfectly serviceable. "Yeah, sure. But do you know where he is? I gotta talk to him about something." Didn't they do some sort of petition or whatever.

 

A meek voice interrupted the battle of wills about to commence. "Are you- are you Lord Jeong-hui?"

 

Both of us looked at the serving girl, who squeaked and dropped her eyes and head. "P-pardon my rudeness. His lordship wanted to speak with you at the earliest convenience. If it pleases you."

 

The old man looked like someone replaced all the sugar in his lemonade with hot peppers. It was sort of funny. "You mean to say that this- this ruffian is expected by the king?"

 

the girl glanced up, met my eyes, and squeaked again. She ducked her head; said in a voice that trailed down into nothingness. "This one was- was ordered to bring her, sir, and --"

 

I waved her words away. "Never mind that." I ignored the old man's sputtering. "Take me to the king, now. Please." I added, because the girl really did look like she was going to melt into the ground or at least that she wished she could.

 

"But--"

 

"Hmm? Is there a problem?"

 

She wrung her hands. "No, your ladyship. No problem. This way please."

 

I followed her, manfully refraining from shooting a triumphant glance at the old man's lemon sucking face. Take that.

 

...Maybe I should lay down after I saw the king. My entire body was one big bruise.

 

Yeah. A nap sounded good.

 

Thoughts of a nice futon occupied my thoughts as we wound through the palace. Somewhere in the back of my head, my brain was recording the steps that we were taking; committing the path to memory. I was going to be living here. there was no time like the present to start learning.

 

"Milady!"

 

I blinked, coming out of my thoughts. "Who put this wall here?"

 

"No one. You almost walked into it."

 

"Huh. Well, whatever." I turned around. The servant stood in the middle of a fancy room, flanked by guards in shiny new breastplates. I looked over them critically. So new that the shine wasn't even worn off. I could take them single handedly without breaking a sweat. Except the one in the corner, discreetly leaning on the wall. There was a scowl on his face and his armor was polished, but his helmet was dented in a way that spoke of real battle.

 

He would be more of a challenge.

 

"P-please don't fight anyone." The servant said with hoarse voice; her  eyes were very wide when I glanced at her.

 

Did I say all that out loud?

 

"Yes."

 

I shrugged. "Must be more tired then I thought. You can go now. Thanks for your help." I scoped the room. It was... fancy, I guess? I wasn't really all that great of judging finally now. It all looked cheap and boring compared to the stuff in some of the houses at home.  Like standing in the middle of a museum. My vision briefly went fuzzy. I pushed the thought away.

 

I saw the girl looking at me, all shyness gone. "Are you alright?" she asked.

 

I waved her concern out of the air, walked over the the wall opposite the elaborate door and slid down the wall. I'd intended to lean against it, but my legs gave up halfway through, the traitors.  I ignored the

 

The guards eyed me. One of them made as if he was going to talk to me, but the servant girl stopped him with a hand on his wrist. He listened, grudgingly, but he left me alone, which is all I really wanted right now. I was going to have to find a way to repay the girl. She was top notch at serventing.

 

I might have dozed off because the next time my eyes opened, all of the guards were gone and the King was looking down at me with amused eyes.

 

"Good morning, Jeong-hui."

 

The words swam through the air and reached my tired brain. "Huh? Oh. Yeah, hi." There was something that I wanted to say... I patted at my hair, but my head wasn't actually on fire. It just felt that way.  

 

The king offered me his hand, but my traitorous legs buckled under me.

 

"Here." the king offered me his hand.

 

"Whoops," I said, sliding back to the floor. "guess I'm staying on the ground today. I had something important to say but I forgot." I felt my eyebrows knit. There was a squeak. A familiar one. I looked up and found the same servant who brought me there. Her face was pale. What-- oh right. I smoothed out my face. I was kinda scary looking, to tell the truth. "Do you remember what I wanted to say?" I asked the king. He gave of the same kind of 'I know everything before you do' look that Soo-won must have inherited. If anyone would know what I forgot, it would be him.

 

"Are you alright?"

 

When I looked up again, the smile was long gone from his face. "Fine. Just, there was something to do with body guarding?"

 

"The... body guard position for Soo-won?"

 

I snapped my fingers. I tried to, anyway. They didn't quite want to cooperate. "That's the one. I'll do it."

 

He blinked. "You want the position? Now?"

 

"Now. Now is good."

 

"Even after you refused so vehemently? I thought that you were only a fisherman."

 

There was something like that, wasn't there? "Don't tell Grandmother, but fishing is kind of ... boring? Like really boring. Not as boring as dog walking," I added loyally. "But pretty bad."

 

He looked at me. "I don't understand. What changed? Do you feel that you owe Soo-won now for the funeral, the treatment, or that you owe him anything? You don't strike me as the type to drop everything just because you feel like you owe someone. If fishing is boring, you could find somewhere else to be."

 

He was right. I knew he was right. I could go anywhere, do anything that I wanted. It was true that Soo-won helped me out. But, I never asked for it. I owed him, but not that much. I didn't let a promise get in the way of my life. If it became too much, if I wanted to disappear, I would. It was that simple.  The reason that I didn't want to go was -

 

"I don't have anywhere else to go." I said. My mouth curdled, the truth an awful taste. I wanted to snatched them out of the air. I wanted to shove them back into my head, under my tongue where I would never have to acknowledge them.

 

I could go back to the Red hands. I should have.

 

Except I would never feel safe there. Not anymore. Every second would be tainted by betrayal. Paranoia would keep me tense. Wary.  Asking myself, which one of them would give me up to the palace next time? How much would it take for Yanlin to sell me out for real? Would Junjie's favor wear out, like a cloth? And that was just the ones I knew personally - the Red Hand was a big group, almost two hundred strong. I didn't even know most of their names.  It only took one careless mouth. One slip up.

 

What was my life worth to the Red Hand?

 

Eun's grip was hard to shake off.

 

I shrugged a little. "And Grandmother is buried here."

 

The king's face was still like a mountain pool, and twice as opaque. Then he gave a kind smile. "That is true. where would you like your rooms to be? It's a little last minute, with so many dignitaries coming and going these days, but I'm sure that we can find something for you. Hmm. You'll need a personal servant as well, at least three... and a whole new wardrobe."

 

"What? Why?"

 

"Well, the bodyguard of a royal prince can't dress like a fisherman, obviously. I have to think of my poor nephews reputation. He would be seen as an easy target if his bodyguard didn't look their weight in gold. That would be considered an insult to the assassins sent our way! Nobles can be very strange like that. They don't like when it looks like they're not being taken seriously."

 

I wrinkled my nose. "That sounds like a huge pain in the ass."

 

"We all must make sacrifices for the greater good." He said solemnly. His eyes were sparkling madly.

 

"But- what's wrong with the rooms I have now?" I said desperately. In his twinkling eyes, I could see something like an avalanche. Unstoppable, terrifying, and heading straight for me. "There perfectly fine!"

 

"How could you possibly bodyguard my beloved nephew from halfway across the palace?"

 

Damn. Okay, good point.  Time to switch tracks. "Three servants is overkill, though. I don't need that much taking care of. And there's nothing wrong with my clothes! They cover me and everything."

 

"Well, perhaps three servants would be pushing it. One personal attendant, then? Wonderful. I'll send over someone in the morning. And your clothes are more patch than cloth. You have to be presentable at dignitary functions. I don't want to have to pull strings to get you inside because you look like a walking pile of rags. If you do need help choosing clothes, don't hesitate to ask Soo-won."

 

"Don't just decide on a person for me!" I argued the single point that he left open to attack. I didn't expect to win, but it was the principle of the thing.

 

He looked politely surprised. "If you have a preference, please feel free to ask. I wasn't aware that any girl had caught you eye."

 

Caught flat footed, and being barreled down by an avalanche, I grabbed onto the nearest thing. Unfortunately for the servant girl, it turned out to be her. "Her. She'll do." I jabbed a finger at the girl.

 

She went the color of old oatmeal, and her mouth opened and closed like a fish.

 

The king studied her and nodded. "Very well. She'll be stationed in rooms next to yours."

 

The girl shut her mouth. It wasn't like she could argue with the king. I was unrepentant. If I was going down, I was taking everyone with me.

 

The king gave me a sunny smile. "So glad to have you, Jeong-hui. My mind can finally be put to rest, now that someone so reliable will be protecting Soo-won. Truly, I am grateful." And he actually bowed his head, utterly sincere.

 

It was amazing how a few well placed words drained the outrage out of me, like a balloon slowly leaking air.

 

He wept out of the room, after promising to go over my wages with me later, and draw up a proper contract. then he left; a storm bowling out and leaving me buried up to my stupid neck in the snow.  Was this what talking to Soo-won would be like in a few years? My face drained of color.

 

Was it too late to run?

 

-





The servant makes no move to follow me when I leave. She’s still staring into the air, face pale. The palace seems busier than normal. Servants run around like an upturned anthill. I watched one particular woman crawl out of a very dense grove of trees in a garden, shake her head grimly at another servant, and rush off in another direction.

 

In the chaos it was easy enough to make it into my former rooms without being noticed.

 

(Seriously, who was training the guards here? I walked past four of them without getting stopped. It was stupid .)

 

I wandered around until I found a hallway that felt familiar. I recognized a particularly ugly vase. After that it was just a matter of heading down the hallway, opening doors, until I found one that had some of the clothes that I left behind. When I found it, there wasn’t any royalty in sight, only a servant folding up the futon carefully. She turned and her eyes met mine.

 

She dropped the bedding with a little shriek.

 

I flinched, but I was proud of the way that I caught myself before going for a weapon. I needed to be less itchy around servants - get used to being around them again.

 

She pressed a hand to her heart. “Milord -er, Milady Jeong-hui?”

 

I raised an eyebrow, wary. Was she going to start screaming again? “Yeah.”

 

Her face went white, and she dropped into a deep bow. “Please, forgive this one, Milo - Milad - Honored guest. This one was only startled. I meant no harm.”

 

Uh. What?

 

“That’s… fine?” I said. “Please stop bowing.” You’re making me very uncomfortable.

 

She cautiously raised her head. “Thank you. I am glad to see that you’re alright.”

 

The other eyebrow joined its fellow.

 

“… Thank you?” What the hell?

 

“Please, I must insist that you make time to go to the prince. Lord Soo-won was very specific.”

 

I looked at the half folded futon longingly. My body was catching up with me. I wanted to sleep. But I suppose I needed to tell Soo-won sooner or later.

 

“Sure. I was looking for him anyway.” I said.



-



She through the palace, into another room. It was large, with a cyclone of people swirling in and out. “Just through here, Honored Guest.”

 

The servant stopped on the outside, at the edge of the crowd. No one noticed us.

 

I looked at it. “You want me to go in there?” I couldn't keep the doubt out of my voice. It was like a well organized mosh pit, without the music. My skin crawled at the thought of having that many people around me.

 

She bowed again. “Lord Soo-won and her highness are waiting for you.”

 

I looked at it. “Well, here goes nothing.” I plunged into the fray, tripping over servants, brushing up against others, gritting my teeth against the grey encroaching on my eyes. I tried to keep my head high. Where was I going? I got into the room, past the overwhelmed looking guards posted by the entrance. I gave them a hard glance.

 

They had their spears pointing at the ground in angles, and they didn’t radiate the purpose that all guards used to make themselves bigger. The one that said ‘don’t fuck with me because I am more dangerous then you will ever be’. Sloppy.

 

Thanks to my height I could see the eye of the storm. I fought through to the only really still spot in the room. The center of the cyclone was a small low table on the opposite side of the room. Soo-won, facing away from the door, was bent over a piece of paper with subdued looking Yona on one side, leaning into him, and a scowling Hak on his other.

 

Hak looked up sharply and caught my eyes. His mouth fell open.

 

I walked over and plopped down next to Yona, grateful for the rest. My head was spinning like a top now. There were six kids instead of three. “Yo, Soo-won, what’d I miss?  The whole palace is insane today.”

 

The three kids and their doubles froze.

 

A thrill of alarm shot through me. I looked around, but there wasn't anything immediately obvious around that set them off. “What? What’s wrong?”

 

Finally Yona broke the streak and through herself at me at an alarming speed. “Jeong!”

 

I caught her, but just barely.

 

“Jeong.” Soo-won said. His hands were pressed into the table, knuckles white. Soo-won inhaled once and closed his eyes. He stayed like that, head down for several breaths.

 

Hak glanced at him, and started to inch away.  

 

“What?”  I said. No response. Hak moved again. I poked Soo-won with a foot. “Kid?”

 

Hak backpedaled from the table. “Oh boy, I’ll just go… call off the search! Yeah.” He almost ran away, pulling servants with him as he went.

 

I stared after him and then at Soo-won.

 

He was looking at me. “Are you alright?”

 

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

 

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment that something in Soo-won snapped , but the sound was clear as a bell. “I don’t know,” he said, voice growing progressively more angry. “Maybe because the last time I saw you you were almost catatonic, or the fever, or the cough, or the fact that you just lost your only family member and left without so much as a note . You can take your pick.”

 

Yona sniffled, still sitting in my lap. “You were gone ! We woke up a- and -” She broke off and buried her head in my chest.

 

I let her. It was like the words were coming from far away. Moving through heavy water. “I had some stuff to do?” The words come out as a question.

 

“WHERE WERE YOU?” Soo-won’s voice shook the rafters. The servants freeze in place like frightened deer. “We looked everywhere! All though the palace. No one knew where you went and the guards didn’t see you leave. You just disappeared. I thought you were kidnapped, or you picked a fight and died in a ditch somewhere or you just gave up and decided to… . Or Uncle --” Here he cut himself off. Took a deep breath.

 

I narrowed my eyes. “Your uncle… what?”

 

His face shuts down. Bam. Nobody home. The anger remained. “Nothing. Never mind that. Where did you go?”

 

Hak gestured frantically, herding the last of the servants out. He closed the door with a click that sounded much louder then it should be. With only the four of us in the room, Yona’s quiet sniffles seemed louder.

 

Confusion bubbled inside me. What was up with them? I don’t know what to say, so I just patted Yona on the back. Hak is watching us with hooded eyes. I bit my cheek.

 

Soo-won turned away from the table, pacing, hands opening and closing. “So that’s the way it is.”

 

I blinked. “What?” I asked. The world seemed very far away. My head hurt, and my vision was going fuzzy around the edges. Maybe I wasn’t as recovered as I thought.

 

His hair and robes swung with the force of his turn. “I thought you were gone. I thought I was going to have to find your body, that I would have to bury you next to your grandmother. Instead you just come back with another secret !” He pointed at me. “At least have the decency to lie to me.”

 

“I don’t have to do anything.” I said, scowling at him on automatic. People just expecting things from me got on my nerves. I don’t owe him anything at all. Not even an explanation.

 

“You think I don’t know that? You remind me constantly that I have no power over you. It’s not about that - I don’t care because I want to control you. I care because you’re my friend, like Hak, like Yona! I care because I want to make sure that you’re okay.”

 

‘Soo-won, you’re fourteen! You are not responsible for the shit I do, ever. I don’t need you to make sure that I’m okay. I’m an adult, and not even one of your subjects; you can’t just demand stuff from me.”

 

“That's not the point -”

 

“Oh right, my ‘secrets’. Because you’re so honest, right? You’re such a hypocrite -” I said looming over him.

 

“Like you have any right to talk-” he shouted back, looming in his own way.

 

I don’t remember moving, but we were standing barely inches from each other. It was like my head was on fire. Rage built and built and built up from my stomach, until it could reach my face. It was painting my my ears with heat and pricking at my eyes. I don’t even know why I was so angry. I wanted to smack that stupid look of hurt off his face. He had no right to act like I owed him anything but my service. I clenched my hands.

 

The fight and the Red Hand and I was stuck , and grandmother was dead.

 

Ignoring all of them, I turned on my heel and left, stumbling over nothing. I wanted a quiet, dark room. I wanted to sleep . I wanted to go home. I wanted my mom. I wanted Grandmother.

It was just… too much Everything was just too much.

 

Grandmother is gone. Mom might as well be.

 

Most of all, I wanted to be away from any and all princes before I forgot that most of the time I liked him. Before I gave into the urge to rip, to bruise.


I went to find my new room.

 

-

 

 

Chapter Text

-

 

I slept for a day, waking up only for food and medicine. After the first time I tried to leave while feverish, Doctor Chol stationed a guard outside my door. I could've got out anyway, but my head was too stuffy to do much more than sleep. Everything was a little fuzzy.

The fourth day, I woke up and felt like myself again. A little sore, a little achy, but better. Chol disagreed.

Which lead to a put upon serving girl, and a vary irritated me. I wasn't allowed to leave. I wasn't allowed to hold anything resembling a weapon. I wasn't, it seemed, allowed to bathe myself, or in fact do anything more strenuous than breathe.

"Please lie down." The servant said - whom I still thought of as Squeaky - said hopelessly. As the king promised, it was the same girl that I'd dragged down with me. Three days of keeping me in bed but a tick under her eye.

I crossed my arms. No, I was absolutely wasn't pouting. I am an adult, and I don't pout. "But I'm bored, Squeaky."

...whining however, was a different story.

She gave me a strained smile. "My name is Yumi, Jeong-dono."

She wasn't going to budge. I collapsed back down with a huff, pulling the covers up over my face. "Whatever." There was always something about standing still that drove me crazy, made me want to take out that crazy on other people.

"Please don't take out anything on me." Squeaky said.

I looked at her.

She squeaked and went back to tidying up.

That was the real reason that I was still in this room. Words spilled out of my mouth without permission. The fever was gone, but It was still messing with my brain to mouth filter. Thoughts came out without warning. Most of it was in english. Some of it wasn't.

Squeaky was fine. She had a will made of a damp paper towel. If Soo-won heard?

My ass was grass.

The bustling of another person stopped as a knock came at the door. I dragged the covers up over my head again. Only two people came to my room, other than servants. Doctor Chol already came by today

Squeaky's hesitant footsteps crossed the room and the door slid open with a hiss. "Hello your highness. Back again?" Squeaky said. "I'm sorry to say that Lady Jeong is asleep at the moment."

Bless her heart.

"Oh. Again?" Yona's poorly hidden disappointment hit me straight in the chest, even from across the room. "Are you sure that I can't visit? Even for just a second? Please?"

Squeaky's indecision was palpable. Saying no to the princess went against everything she's ever learned. Faced with Yona's teary eyes, it was likely four times worse. "I'm afraid not, my lady. Doctor Chol was very firm about it. Lady Jeong needs rest and quiet. "

I peaked out of my blanket fort and caught a glimpse of Yona scuffing her foot against the floor. Augh, guilt! She thrust something out to the servant. "Here, these are for Jeong. Dad said that flowers help people feel better. Tell her to stop being sick already, and come play with me." She sighed. " I tried to bring a sword, but dad said no. Soo-won is busy, and Hak is being boring. All he does anymore is train."

The servant too the small bouquet of flowers gently, and moved the girl back. "Thank you. I'm sure that Jeong will love them."

Yona left.

I closed my eyes and let myself feel the ache, feel the muscles pull against the bones. It was for the best. I couldn't even keep my thoughts inside my head right now. Asking around revealed that people who knew the future were considered blessed by the gods. They had a name for that here: Priests.

Priests were banned from the palace. From the capital.

I don't worship any gods. It wouldn't matter. Not to the people, not to the king, and definitely not to the law. It was also the reason that none of the kids were allowed in my room at the moment. The reason that I simply didn't tell the people involved. Two people couldn't keep a secret for long.

After three minutes of tossing, I threw off the covers and stood. I pulled the haori around me and walked over the sliding doors. They opened without sound. I inhaled the scent of fresh dirt and green things growing. Spring was approaching fast.

The servant very pointedly didn't say anything as she rearranged the latest batch of fresh flowers to the already riotous vase.

"I'm going to the garden." I said. Her judgment rolled off me.

Squeaky looked very much like she wanted to say something. Instead she sighed."Yes, my lady."

 

-

 

The room the King assigned me were large, almost the size of a small house on their own. It was richly furnished, the futon was soft as sin, and it came with an attached garden.

The garden was the only place I felt actually comfortable. Not even Doctor Chol thought to ban me from them, not even when it was bitter cold and raining. This was the garden where my grandmother was buried. All that remains is a gravestone with her name on it. Flowers sprout in bright reds and yellows; someone planted saplings behind it, and the scent of freshly turned earth still lingers.

I ignored the little wooden bench and sat on the ground in front of it.

People were… difficult.

The things they did, said, and needed left me scratching my head. I mean, I could tell when someone was manipulating me - but not why.

It's not that hard to say what I think. If everyone just said what they meant, the world would be an easier place.

Even before, I was comfortable with myself. Content to sit in a room with books; I sometimes went days without speaking more than three words. My family did their own thing and they let me do mine. I was happy. Than I came here. You learn fast or you died. Trusting people was okay, sometimes.

Needing people was dangerous.

Needing people was balancing act with a noose around my neck.

So I didn't.

Until I did.

I forgot with Grandmother.

"I don't know what to do," I confess to the stone in English. "It would be easy to need them. Even knowing what I do, knowing who they are." Proud Hak, Spoiled yona, kind but scheming Soo-won. It was like being an older sibling again. I missed being around kids.

The wind blows over and clouds drift across the sky like lazy sail boats.

I close my eyes. My stomach turned over. Was this a betrayal? Would I forget my sisters, replace them with a newer family? It was unfair to both them and Soo-won, Yona and Hak.

How old were my sisters now? How much had I missed? I spent years not thinking about them because it was pointless. Prodding at the edges of a wound didn't make it heal. Now, I found the edges mending. It wasn't a bleeding wound anymore. Their faces blurred indistinctly in my mind.

I stared at the stone. I don't know what happens when people die, and I didn't really believe in gods. But now It seemed silly now to not believe. I bowed until my head touched the ground, hands in front of me. Respect for the dead. "I could use some help, Grandmother. I'm forgetting, and it scares me."

"Oh, get up you brat! You're making me dizzy with your stupid."

I let out a ragged laugh. "Sorry," I said to the figment of my imagination. I straightened. "I know that you would hit me for being so stupid about it. I'm just… I'm not used to having people around anymore. Out of practice. I survived on my own too long to go back to being fifteen and lost. They would want me to be happy. "

Of course they would - they loved me as much as I loved them.

It doesn't make it easier.

Her memory and the grave are quiet. Somewhere overhead, a bird sings.

Was grandmother's soul something else now? Would she reincarnate as a warrior, a geisha, or even a human? I swallowed, pressing my hand to the grave. It was warm, but it was a borrowed warmth from the sunshine. The flowers reach out for it.

I only thought about this stuff when I had to. I missed the comfort of atheism. This was another world. Gods could exist.

Dragons certainly did.

"If any gods are listening, please give her a chance. Not a happy life - I know that happy is something you have to work for. Just… a better chance at peace. A place where she can get her share of rest. You can give her mine, if I have anything." I shrugged a little, staring at the smooth grey under my hand. Its rough. Real. "I've done too much, despite knowing better. Killed too many people, stole too many things, to really have a good chance at any afterlife. Reincarnation. Whatever. But her… violence was all she knew. She had no choice. I want her to have that choice."

"So. If any gods are listening, or whatever - I'd owe you a big favor."

A gust of wind bends the flowers almost in two. A shiver passes through me, right down to my bones.

Something is watching me

Getting to my feet with minimum staggering, I bow again to the grave, shoulders tight, skin crawling. I was a mouse in the eyes of a lion. It could let me go for a while, just to see what I would do.

"I'll see you tomorrow." I promised Grandmother.

One final pat to the graves stone and I went on my way.

 

-

 

A tension filled my room on the sixth day of my convalesce, like a held breath. Doctor Chol sat with his hands on my forehead. Finally he took his hands away, mouth pulled like he'd eaten something sour. "...It seems that your fever is finally gone. The worst has passed, and you can assume your duties again."

Finally. I pointed at him triumphantly. "Hah!"

"Unless you want me to break that finger I suggest that you point it elsewhere."

I coughed, putting my hands behind me. "Sorry. Am I free to go?"

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Gods and spirits save me from the warrior's natural idiocy. Yes, provided you are careful, you may go. Do not go stabbing people with anything, and do not get stabbed yourself. Consider yourself released. Go forth and get into trouble." He glared at me. "You can start with getting out my sight. I'm sick of looking at you."

Doctor chol had no patience for things that he couldn't solve. Unfortunately for him, he was born in the past and that meant most things pertaining to medicine. Though it started with catching something off grandmother, my illness mutated. Changed. It made him fret, and he got irritated when he was worried.

I saluted, already halfway across the room. "Can do, Doc. Later."

Nervous energy sparked up and down my hands, like drinking a liter of red bull despite how my body ached. I had to move. If I wasn't doing something it felt like I was wasting daylight.

The wardrobe arrived three days after the King decided i needed one. Each one was masculine in garb, which showed good taste. I've worn the female version and it's harder to fight in.

Still. The way the white overrode fit perfectly, as did the deep red inner robe. It was understated in a very rich way. I felt like a tasteful, expensive fraud. The servants bowed when I passed them in the hallway now, when before they just stared. How long exactly was he planning this?

Best not to think about it. I moved like I could outpace the sweep of silk, the hiss of the clothes.

I made my way to the training yards almost by accident. I wasn't really looking at them but the clash of blades drew me like a compass pointing north. Leaning up against a small stone wall surrounding a clearing the size of a football field, I looked over it. Training equipment littered the ground. The floor was packed dirt from so many feet moving over it. I looked over the guards practicing there, about a dozen or so.

I crossed my arms. That guard had holes in his stance the size of my fist and his feet were placed too far apart. The one over by the training dummy actually missed a swing on an inanimate object. The two in the yard sparred with enthusiasm but not much skill.

Familiar footsteps padded almost silently up behind me.

I didn't turn. "They suck. I'm embarrassed just looking at them."

Hak snickered. "You're telling me. I haven't found anyone worth challenging twice. It's kind of sad. There's some good ones though." He added with the tone of someone being generous. "Not as good as me, or even you."

I glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. "Was that a challenge?"

He gave me a winning smile with his hands tucked behind his head.

I suppressed a snort. It absolutely was. "Whatever. Where's Soo-"

Duck!

A pole split the air where my head was a moment before. Mercy was in my hand when I came up, mind focused. Hak crouched beside me, eyes sharp.

"Passable."

Hak relaxed. "What the hell, old man?"

I didn't. I kept my eyes on the old man.

Grey hair, wrinkled face. He didn't move like an old man. His steps were soundless and sure. In one large hand he held the shaft of a spear taller than I was with enviable ease. He was the type of face that came to mind when someone said stone. Until he looked at Hak and his face melted into something pouting.

"Don't call me an old man! Is that anyway to greet your beloved grandfather?"

Hak stuck his fingers in his ears and said "I'm sorry what was that, I couldn't hear over the sound of you attacking me."

"It's for your own good. You're ten times too early to look down on anyone."

The exchange was so familiar in tone that it knocked the breath from me. Terrible grief knotted my stomach.

Grandmother.

"I'm going to… go." I said. Breath out. Control. I was careful to keep my expression the same. I don't know how successful I was, because Hak sobered when he looked at me. His eyes went a little wide, and he cleared his throat. He stopped trying to bite the old man.

"Jeong-"

I didn't stay to hear the rest of it.

 

-

 

Taking up my body guarding is more awkward than I expected. In the rush of getting out of Doctor Chol's clutches, I forgot that Soo-won was still mad at me.

Unfortunately, Soo-won remembered.

I've never been so ignored by someone while standing within ten feet at all times.

My first official job takes place in a garden. Spring flowers and cherry blossoms flutter in the wind. Even the nobles look like flowers. Expensive clothes are thrown carelessly over the ground. Not a callous palm or rough edge in sight. Even the guards posted discreetly around the yard were shiny and more like trees than people. Servants, immaculate and pressed, sailed around with trays loaded with sumptuous food.

I didn't fit. Like a sour note in a perfect harmony, I stood out. I tucked my hands into the sleeves, but I couldn't hide the scars on my face and throat. The more delicate nobles drew back. I caught the word 'sorry' before it can leave my throat. Fifteen year old me would've kept her eyes on the ground, waiting for the word of the king. Knowing that she was intruding and apologizing silently for it.

I wasn't fifteen anymore.

Instead, I stared right back. I didn't owe them anything.

I scanned the group.

A flash of gold caught my eye. Soo-won's hair holds light like a halo as he weaves through the guests. Most of them were around my age. He was the only one under the age of twenty, but they didn't act like there was something odd with him being there. He fit seamlessly; like a buzzing bee among the flowers, he darted from group to group.

It was kind of inspiring.

"You're the new bodyguard?" A musical voice asked.

I blinked, drawn away from watching the dance of the politics. This was how it started, huh? I could see the nobles leaning into his presence like flowers into the sun. "That's me," I said.

It belonged to a woman around my age, backed by a blank faced man with graying hair. Her bodyguard?

The woman blinked her kohl lined eyes a few times. A lace fan that cost more than my whole new wardrobe fluttered, gold stitching catching the light almost as bright as Soo-won's hair. Her lips were ruby flashes behind it. Her attitude said 'boredom' and her dark eyes were sharp enough to cut. "Fascinating. How on earth did you get that scar? It must be quite the story."

"What, this?" I traced the one going down diagonally across my face. "I didn't duck fast enough. My lady." I should probably be polite, just to keep Soo-won or the king from getting in trouble.

The older man's mouth ticked up briefly.

The woman's eyes followed my hand. "Is that so? My name is Choi Bin-na, the hostess of this party. It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Jeong-Hui."

"The pleasure is mine, Lady Choi." I said.

There was something predatory about her. She moved in closer, somehow managing to loom, despite barely even reaching my chest.

Her fan fluttered again, catching the light."Call me Bin-na, please. You're so strong. The prince is very lucky to have someone so very strong guarding his body."

She did realized that he was fourteen, right? "Thank you."

Bin-na did that blinking thing with her eyes again. "Of course, I could offer you a new job. One with many… benefits."

I looked at the old guy again. He didn't roll his eyes, but the air around him said that he really, really wanted to.

"Uh. Thanks but no thanks." I took a discrete step back. Having her in my space was giving me some unfortunate twitchy fingers. I wanted to get my back to a wall. It felt like there were eyes all over me, and none of them were interested in helping.

"Jeong!"

Soo-won came to my rescue, bless his soul.

He smiled, but it didn't really reach his eyes. "Lady Bin-na, I'm afraid something has come up. We will have to leave you early today."

Bin-na pouted a bit. "Is that so? What a truly terrible shame. Your guard and I were just getting into some fascinating discussions."

"Were we? That's news to me," I muttered.

A small smile flickered across Soo-wons face until he remembered that he didn't like me very much at the moment. "Truly, it is a shame. My honored uncle insists upon her attending me, even in times of peace. He is overprotective, but…" He gave a delicate little shrug, as if to say 'what can I do?'

Bin-na tapped her fan on her red lips. "It is a dangerous world. Your uncle is a wise man indeed. If you must go, there is no helping it. Ah! I know. There is a moon viewing in the fortnight. You simply must attend to make it up to me. Your delightful guard is welcome as well, if you wish."

Soo-won smiled. "It would be an honor. Until then." He bowed a little, gestured for me to follow him and strode out of the party.

I trailed after him.

 

-

 

We walked in silence. "Sooo - that was weird."

He said nothing.

"It kind of sounded like she was flirting with me." I tired.

That got a twitch, but nothing more.

I gave up, and let him lead me.

Only when we were safely alone in his rooms did he speak. The dazzling smile was missing in action. He crossed his arms. "I'm still mad at you."

"Yeah, I got that." I ran a hand through my hair. I hated being the bigger person. It was never any fun. I exhaled. "Why are you so mad? You know that I can take care of myself."

"Jeong, you didn't take care of yourself. You didn't see yourself. I thought you were going to die, Jeong! For five days you didn't respond, unless it was for funeral rites. You didn't eat. You didn't sleep. You didn't move. Sometimes I had to put a mirror against your face to make sure you were breathing. I thought you were just going to… give up. Follow after her. Then I woke up, and you were gone."

A raw silence filled the room.

"Was I really that bad?" I asked quietly.

It made an awful kind of sense.

He looked at me and there was fear in his eyes that answered me. Raw terror of someone you care for in pain and not being able to do anything. For once, I couldn't see it as an act. Under all the scheming, and the faked obliviousness, he was a fourteen year old who thought that he was going to lose two friends instead of one.

Something sour fills my throat.

I forgot along the way, the reason I tolerated him at first. How happy he was whenever grandmother set aside some food for him. How he was always a little shocked when she welcomed him with open arms. Just because I knew her longer, didn't mean he didn't love her. Maybe the funeral wasn't for me. Maybe the garden grave was for him.

Someone planted flowers.

If I looked under his nails would I find dirt?

Ah, shit. I hated being an asshole by accident. It took all the fun out of it.

I pulled him into a one armed hug.

He resisted for one second, stiff and unsure.

"Sorry." I said to the top of his head. "It must have been hard. I'm - not fine. But I'm going to be okay. And so are you."

I could feel something crack, and he clung to me like a vine. A tremor shook him, a full body earthquake. Hands gripped my overcoat, and he buried his head in my chest. "She's gone, Jeong."

I rubbed soothing circles on his back, . "I know. I know. It sucks, and you're going to hurt for a long time. You're going to live through it."

You're going to live through it.

Maybe I was talking to both of us.

If my shirt ended up damper when I went in the room, I wasn't going to say anything.

 

-

 

Chapter Text

 

-

 

After Soo-won and I cleared up the misunderstanding, things moved along a bit smoother. We settled into a routine, and the palace got used to Soo-won having a second shadow that he didn't try to throw off.

A month later, the two of us were in my garden, lazing in the sun. The sweet smell growing blossoms filled the air and bees danced over blooming flowers.

"Jeong, what do you think of my uncle?" Soo-won asked one lazy day after his lessons. I was lying on my back and he was flopped over my legs like a warm blanket. I couldn't see his face but I could feel his heart, beating slow and steady.

I hummed.

"He's a good man. A good father." I said. I chewed on a blade of grass, hands behind my head. Yona napped on my chest like a boneless cat, one leg thrown over Soo-won. Hak was off somewhere with the General of the wind tribe.

Things I didn't say: bandits multiplied threefold every mile from the capital. Being raided was a fact of life for villages. The city guard was a joke. Corruption infested every level, in every town I passed through. Gangs were rampant. Jia payed precious rice for protections that should have been a fact.

No one starved in Jia's village. She made sure of that. She was meaner than a rabid dog and twice as insane, but the people got fed. They put up with her gender and her age and her pet mercenary, just for that.

It said something her people were the happiest I've met. The least afraid, the least hungry, the least dead.

It said: You can be a kind person or you can take care of your people.

King II was a good person.

He just wasn't anything else.

"I see." Soo-won said.

 

-

 

The trouble started the next morning.

"What do you mean that he's missing?" I said, voice very even. I showed up to his room like usual, and he didn't come out. He had lessons today until three, so he should have been there.

The tutor swallows. "I-I'm sorry Milord. The prince just disappears sometimes. The king is the one who told us to stand down. We can never find him."

I shut my eyes. "Fine. Go away."

Where would I go if I was a thirteen year old prince planning regicide?

Into town. Obviously.

I scowled. How was I supposed to keep him safe if he didn't take me with him? I don't really want to go into town, but I wanted him dead even less.

Did he just not trust me?

The thought stung.

I turn on my heel.

I wasn't going to let this stand. I had a prince to find and shake some sense into.

Three weeks ago, I would have had a hard time finding Soo-won in the city. The capital wasn't big by the standards of the modern world, but it was still the size of a large town.

That was a lot of ground to cover.

I narrowed it down some. He was aiming for kingship, and the only way that he could justify it to himself, revenge or not, was learning about the people that he was going to rule. What they wanted, what they needed, the complaints and rumors. The best place to learn about a city or really anything to do with them , would be the docks, the market, or the taverns. Maybe the slums (because there was always a slum), but there were dangers there that he would know that he couldn't handle. He could fight, but not on Hak's level. Not yet.

Soo-won was a quick study. He'd head to the market or the tavern's.

A mental coin flip and I decided to head towards the market.

Rumors were the lifeblood of the little old ladies who lived there, and people traded gossip along with coin. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who saw something interesting. More information passed through their heads then even the most dedicated spymaster. There was just something about a old woman in an apron with a friendly smile on her wrinkled face that translated as safe to most people.

Plus little old ladies loved Soo-won. He would take advantage of that.

I spotted a strangely large group of them concentrated in one place that looked likely.

I glanced around. Ah, there we go. The perfect vantage point to keep watch. I bounce up a stall roof, catching the edge of a window with the tips of my fingers. Swing once, and I had a foothold in on of the decorative tiles. I get to the top without even breaking a sweat.

The buildings were a lot easier to climb here then in Xing. Another thing that I'd have to keep an eye out for.

And no one ever looked up, not really. "Now to spot the little bastard."

It took a while, but I had to stifles a satisfied smile. Thank thank you author, for giving the main characters such noticeable hair.

A flash of gold made it's way through the city market. Soo-won stopped to speak to the grandmothers for a couple minutes. He broke away with an armful of sweets and a cheerful smile.

I followed over the roofs as he went along, speaking to anyone who caught his attention. A little girl, an older man who sold booze, a group of sneering teenage boys. Some of the people had me tensing, like a man with a huge tattoo and a eyepatch. Obviously a yakuza of some sort. The yakuza clapped him on the back, nearly knocking him off his feet. Soo-won laughed, said something, and handed the man one of the treats.

It's fascinating watching him blend into the crowd, until he was just another cheerful merchant's kid looking to spend pocket money.

I waited until he split off into an ally that I could swing down into without attracting attention. I land with a thump.

The prince whirled around.

"Soo-won," I said, arms crossed. "What a surprise to find you here. Outside the palace, with no bodyguard."

He relaxed. "Jeong! I thought that you didn't like going outside the palace."

"I don't. You know what I like even less? Having to go into the city to find my charge. " I said. "Why didn't you just tell me? I would have come." It would be annoying, but I was a professional. My preferences did not enter into the equation.

Do you not trust me?

He said nothing.

I shifted. It was fine if he didn't trust me. I wasn't chatty about my past, so it was natural to have reservations. "If you a have any sort of complaints about my work, you just have to say. I can still guard you from further away." I said. It would be harder - but doable. "Or… if you want to fire me, I wouldn't hold a grudge-"

"No!"

I blinked at him.

He shifted this time, red faced. He mumbled something.

What. "Say again?"

"I thought that you wanted to take a break."

"What."

"You're never off the job. I'm glad that you're around, but you don't do anything but follow me around. You never do anything for fun anymore. So I thought that I'd get out of the way for a while." He admitted, nearly shrinking into himself. "Sorry."

I don't know what to do with this information. "What would I even do with spare time?" I asked. All I did was hang out with him Yona and Hak. And sparring.

"I don't know - make friends? Train? Make fun of the guards training? I wouldn't just get rid of you, Jeong. You're my friend. I just thought that you would like some time off. I know you don't like people and I know that you don't like the city. That's all that it was."

Unwillingly, something inside me relaxed. Just Soo-won being his usual oblivious self, and forgetting to notice that his life was literally my job.

I shifted and scuffed up his hair. "Don't look so worried, kid. I get where you're coming from, and it was nice of you. Just tell me next time and I'll go with you. I was worried. Well, I was annoyed but that's details. I don't even have to come along when you're just going into town. I only need to be within shouting distance. If you know that you're going to go somewhere you need backup, you'll tell me. Got it?"

Soo-won relaxed and smiled. "Sure! Now there's some stuff I want to check on, so lets go to the FIfth Star. That's a tavern. I heard that someone has some information on all the immigrants coming from out of Xing right now."

From Xing? Why?

I shake my head, and follow him into the crowd.

 

-

 

The two of us go into the city a week later. Soo-won wanted to learn more about the situation in Xing, but I had a goal in mind.

I needed a present.

Yona's birthday was in two weeks and the palace was kicking it into high gear. "Soo-won, I need to go do some stuff. Meet you at the fountain in the west market at noon?"

He narrowed his eyes at me. "...What are you up to?"

I gave him a winning smile and messed up his hair. "Don't you worry about it. You know this city better than I do, yeah? Just don't piss off anyone that you can't kill."

I took off before he had a chance to object. He wasn't the only one who could blend into the crowd. The problem was that Soo-won's birthday was months ago. I didn't want him to see what I was getting him.

What do you get a prince who has everything?

Hopefully I would find inspiration in the market.

I wandered among the stalls for an hour without anything catching my eye.

I glanced around, and found a small clearing farming around one particular stall. I drifted over. People murmured around a little girl crying on the ground, bawling fat tears while the lady running it stared helplessly around. "There there?" She said.

The girl just cried harder. It was hard to make out through the sobbing but I heard her say something in Xingease. " Where in my mama? Papa?'"

Two shopkeepers exchanged a helpless look.

I hesitated. Did I want to be involved? Then I looked at the kid's miserable face and sighed. Fine. Clearly no one in the growing crowd spoke the language. I crouched, hands where she could see with them.

"What's wrong?" I asked the girl.

The sound of her language shocked her out of her tears.

I heard the shopkeeper let out a relieved sigh. "Is this your child?"

"No."

"O-oh."

"Ain't you one of the prince's guards?" Someone asked. 'You got the badge."

The rest of the crowd visibly brightened.

Just how many of these people had Soo-won spoken too personally?

"Yeah." I said.

"I don't know where her parents are." The woman said, wring her hands.

A man nodded. "I don't think that I've seen her around either. She just came out of nowhere and started crying."

The kid started hiccuping and making little distressed sounds that visibly tugged at the heartstrings of the people around her. She was about five years old and tiny. Her hair was lovingly braided and she was her clothes were worn, but patched firmly.

"Hey" I said, crouching beside the girl. Trying to make my voice softer, less menacing. I don't know if it worked, or if the sound of her own language calmed her down.

The girl looked at me wide eyes. "You talk like a noble." She said. "Are you a prince?"

That wasn't really a surprise. I learned the language at the feet of a king, through court and judgments. "What's your name?" I asked, instead of answering that.

The girl sniffed. "Da-xia. My name is Da-xia."

"Long summer? That's a pretty name. Where's your mom, Da-xia?"

She sniffed again. "I- I don't know. I found a beetle, but it flew away an-and I followed it and I got lost!" She started sniffling again, fat tears threatening to fall again. "I want my mom!"

"Hey now. You're a big girl, and crying's not going to help. Do you know where you live?" I asked. That would make this much easier.

"Th-the craft district. Over by the south wall."

I gave her a careful smile. Scaring her into crying again was the last thing that I wanted. She sniffed a bit, but didn't protest when I picked her up. "She's fine, just lost." I told the shopkeeper in her language. "Which way to the Craft district?"

Visibly relieved that the crying was over, the woman gave me directions out the rest of the way and a small bag of dried apples for the girl. I tossed her a coin for her help and went on my way.

Anytime Da-xia started crying, I distracted her with asking about something that she liked more than anything else - bugs. Soon she was chattering about the collection that she had, and which were her favorites (cicadas, stag beetles, spiders of all kinds) and her least favorite (cockroach because 'they skitter in a really gross way').

She helped me find my way by pointing out landmarks and interesting places she passed in her chase after the beetle. She cheered up the closer we went, until she pointed at one of the houses in a little row. "That's dad's shop!" She said. It wasn't as poor as her clothes would suggest, but it was pretty worn down. There was a little shop on the side, with a small sign over it. "Ling's Carvings." I said.

"Dad's the best!"

I entered the shop.

There was a man and a woman behind the small counter, talking quietly but franticly.

The woman was had long hair worn in a complicated braid held up by pins. Mid forties probably, and wearing clothing in the Xing style. "- last time I saw her she was going out back. Are you sure-"

"Yes, I haven't seen her anywhere. Searched the place from top to bottom. I don't know where she could have gotten to-"

"Mom!" The little girl shouted (right in my ear, ow) waving.

The pair of them whipped their heads around at the same time.

The woman almost teleported to my side. "Da-xia! Where were you?" She took the girl from my unresisting arms and started patting her down. "Are you alright? Did anything happen?"

The little girl endured it, all traces of tears gone. "I got lost! There was a huge beetle, like the size of my palm. It was so cool! I didn't catching it though. Big Sister brought me back home. She talks like a noble, but she's really nice and not snobby so I don't think she is one."

The man gave me a wary look.

I raised my eyebrow back. "Nice to meet you." I said.

He blinked. "You really do sound like a noble. Where did you learn, if I may ask?"

Oh boy. Time to lie! "Worked as a guard around that area for a while. Kind of picked it up there. Sorry for bothering you."

"No, no. I'm sorry, I was only surprised. Thank you for bringing Da-xia back safely. It's more than most people would have done."

I shrugged again. "It was no trouble."

A small silence filled the room. I had no idea what to do now. I mean, I was done here; but it felt… impolite or something to leave without acknowledging. Grasping around for a topic, I finally registered the contents of the shop.

Carvings, in metal, in gold, in wood, littered every available surface. My eye traced the intricate spiral on one bracelet. "You're a carver?"

He startled and coughed. "Yes! I sell all sorts of things, all with personalized messages if you wish it. In fact, out of gratitude for your help with Da-xia, would you like to pick something out? Half price for today." He got more confident as he went along, obviously settling into a customer-is-here-to buy voice, his feet on firmer ground than dealing with the random mercenary that brought his daughter home.

"Sure," I said. I was looking for gifts after all.

He showed me some pieces. I hesitated. "How are things back in Xing? I haven't been back in years."

The man sighed. "With the civil war going on? Not good at all. We left before the fighting really started... but it was bad enough that we had to leave in the first place. I don't know who won the throne in the end."

The woman nodded, holding Da-xia tighter to her chest. The kid squirmed, but seemed content to be held. "We had to leave. I still don't know if it was the right choice. No one buys from foreigners, and I do not speak the language as well. Times were hard in Xing, but they are hard everywhere these days." She rubbed slow circles on her daughter's back. "There is less outright violence here - but the corruption? None of this would have stood under tour old king. He never would have allowed it."

There was a terrible suspicion rising in the back of my head. "I guess I'm glad that I got out when i did. It must have been hard to get into the country."

They both shifted. "Hard. Yes."

Oh? Illegal immigrants? I gave them a look, then shrugged. It wasn't like I crossed any border legally, so whatever.

They visibly relaxed when I gave no reaction.

"The old king died? How did that happen? I heard he was an old warhawk." I asked, like I didn't know, turning a large gold hoop earring over in my hand. Trying to feign indifference. Marvelous craftsmanship. Clearly this guy was good.

The king was a skilled warrior - but not even the best armor will stop a dagger through the eye.

"It was assasination. One of the guards killed him while he slept, the honorless dog." The man said with scorn.

How much scorn would you have, if I told you what he was sleeping beside? The king was so fond of children. How your pretty daughter would been plucked up - how in a few years, your precious king would stop being interested in her? Too old for him. What would you have done, when you found out what he did to the ones he tired of?

All those graves, each a child burned alive. More than twenty. More than thirty.

What would you have done, when that child begged for mercy?

I kept my face pleasant. Open. I pull the monster back where it belongs. This man did nothing and knows nothing, but that is no reason to let that poison him. "I don't think I've ever seen such fine details. How do you not have more customers?"

The man stood a bit straighter. "Truly, thank you. I was a master craftsman in Xing. Even the King's daughter praised my work." He sighed again. His wife patted him on the arm sympathetically. "Here I have no connections, no name, no real friends. It's not easy to get the nobles to buy when all of them stay in the palace, when I am down here. No one else has the money to afford my work, so I am reduced to the selling at a fraction of the value, and even than I have barely enough to afford new materials."

I hummed. "I have a birthday party coming up and I need some sort of gift. She's a noble. I have no real idea what a little girl would want, but she does like shiny things." I admitted.

I see him him register my expensive clothes for the first time in the whole conversation, and he stands straighter. His voice and language get more formal and respectful instantly.

"Of course, honored customer. Let me show you my wares. How old is the lady in question? What does she like?"

"She's just turning eleven this year. She's a bit spoiled. Something that glitters maybe? It should be expensive looking. Her eyes are purple and her hair is bright red, so something that fits her coloring would be for the best. '"

"Of course! I have many pieces that would please even the pickiest of nobility."

He shows me his wares and eventually I settle on a pair of earrings and a matching hair clip. There were dragons carved in painstaking detail on them. I hid a smile behind my hand. Yona would be pleased with how 'grown up' they looked. Fine engravings shimmered with inlaid amethyst, gold shone and graceful curves made up the tail of the dragon.

He wasn't kidding. His work was a cut above everything that I've seen so far. Craftsmanship of this kind was rare.

"Will that be all?" The man said after wrapping up the little gifts. He looked pleased. "We have many other things for sale. Bracelets and hairpins and such."

I was about to decline when the glint of gold caught my eye. "That one please." I said, pointing. "I'll take that one as well. Please wrap it up separately."

The man did, and he placed the parcels on the table. "Thank you for your patronage."

"No problem. I'll be sure to spread the word about this place. I'm sure the princess will love her gifts."

"You are too kin-Princess? The Princess?" He said.

I waved at him on the way out.

"Hey wait-"

I left without much fanfare. The sun was high and I was late. I tucked the packages into my robes, and smiled. My purse was lighter by far when I left the place, but it was a good trade.

I patted the gifts with satisfaction. That was one worry out of the way.

 

-

 

Yona's party was a sumptuous affair that took place in one of the outdoor gardens to take advantage of the unusually nice weather. Musicians played, tumblers tumbled, and the food smelled divine. Young nobles flitted around, playing with the pack of hounds one noble had gifted. Yona stood out among them like a flame, red hair with the glint of jewels.

She liked them so much that she took out all her old jewelry right then and there and put them on. She twirled for the appreciative audience and hugged me hard around the waist.

Then she went of the off to play with one of the envious looking girls.

I grinned a little. What a cutie.

"That truly is marvelous work. Where did you find such a craftsman?" Bin-na asked, her ever present fan moving lazily.

I shrugged. "A place up in the craft district. Nice Xingease couple there, I helped them out a bit so they gave me a discount. I can give you directions if you're interested. They're expensive but worth it. "

She smiled like the thought of something being expensive was hilarious. "I'm sure that it is within my means." She closed her fan with a snap. "I think I shall take a look personally. It would be good to get out of the palace for once."

I gave her the address, and she left in a cloud of perfume. Drifting lazily over to a group of noble women who parted like the red sea, eager to fawn on Bin-na. Apparently that lazy noblewoman was a Big Deal. On of the richest woman in the kingdom, so well-bred that she was a head above even the royal family.

I shook my head. The way of the nobles area strange.

After the party, Soo-won and I walked back to the hallways that lead to our rooms. Technically the whole wing belonged to him. In reality, he used one room regularly, and I had the suite next to it, with a conjoining doors joining the bedrooms for security reasons.

There were guards around, but I wouldn't trust them to protect a piece of cake from Yona, much less Soo-won from an assassin.

"Here," I said, tossing him the package from the shop. "Happy belated birthday."

Soo-won smiled. "That was months ago, Jeong."

"Well, I didn't really care about you then."

"Ouch."

I shrugged. It was the truth, and I wasn't going to apologize for it.

A smile tugged at his mouth. "Does that mean you care about me now? That's almost sweet."

"Just open your present, Soo-won."

"Fine, fine -" He inhaled. Taking the small gold ring in hand, he raised it up. It gleamed in the candle light. "Oh."

It was a hair binder, but it looked more like a work of art. It looked like a simple hair ornament at first glance, but the closer you looked the more detailed it became. It was a series of countless rings, all gold in slightly different shades, each paper thin and stacked inside so the subtle differences lead to one beautiful whole. It was the story of some goddess or another hiding in a cave, and being persuaded to come out and be the sun again. An old Xingease fable.

It suited him. 

"Your hair has been getting long," I said after the pause grew too long.

He looked at me. "It's beautiful." 

I don't understand the look on his face. 

"I can't actually tell if you like it." I said. "If you don't, I can get something else."

Soo-won pulled his hand away like I'd tried to take it from him. "No, I do like it." Finally, his smile returned. "I was just thinking that I needed to something to keep my hair out of the way. Thank you again, Jeong." 

I cleared my throat. "Oh. Well, you're welcome I guess." I reach out and mess up his hair. "Night, brat."

He gave me a smile that melted his eyes into something achingly fond. "Good night Jeong."

 

-

 

Chapter Text

-

The four of us settle into a routine as summer comes like a tsunami of heat and humidity. The palace stills as nobles and their retinues trickle out in favor of more tolerable climates. Only the cicadas have enough energy to cry out, and even then they sound plaintive. Like they too are complaining about the heat.

I stare into a sky so blue it feels artificial, like something in one of Yona’s drawings, trying to breath through the humidity. I could feel the tell tale throb of a migraine building up. “I want to die.”

"Uhg." Hak agreed, face down in the dirt.

In this kind of heat, training became synonymous with hell. Both of us were sweaty and disgusting and exhausted. Lifting a dagger felt like I was lifting a iron pillar.

We trained anyway. It was part of the job.

A bead of sweat dripped into my eye. Sometimes I hated being professional.

I wore simple cloth pants and not much else. I would have lost my binding if it wouldn’t have just left me bouncing everywhere. Hak just let his own shirt fall to the ground.

My skin was a map of old scars - a jagged slash wound across my left bicep, a small set of knife cuts on one side of my chest, and the huge ugly one across my face. The delicate nobles would’ve been scandalized, but who the hell cared about them? The king was the only one with the power to fire me,

None of the guards were good enough to present even a decent spar. In fact, I could have taken most of them with only two years of training. Hak had the instincts to almost be good enough, but he lacked the experience to be a threat. Time and training would eventually make him more of a challenge, but right now he lost nine times out of ten.

Which reminded me.

"Hak, who trained you?" I asked, nudging him with my foot. "It wasn’t any of the palace instructors, I know that much."

"Gramps did." Hak said, with his voice muffled by the dirt. "Clans have better training. They send soldiers when the king needs ‘em, but most of them stay on their lands. They keep the borders safe, but all of the guards here are peasants -conscripts- with no training."

Huh. "Weird."

The two of us laid there until the noonday sun drove us back into the room where Yona and Soo-won took their lessons.

I thought that the two of them would have different tutors (you know, being royalty and privileged like that) but apparently they snuck off to find each other so often the King just shoved them into the same room out of exasperation. The two of them were seated at a low table set at the back of the room, bent over books like good little students. A desk of fine wood sat in front of a overly tidy book shelf almost buckling under the weight of all the scrolls on it at the front of the room.

"I'm quitting," I tell Soo-won when I collapsed next to him, melting into the blessed shade. "I like you but this is cruel and unusual punishment."

"That’s nice." The heartless brat said, not even looking up as he flipped a page.

I gave him a poisonous look, but my heart wasn’t in it. He was dressed for the weather in cotton and silk. How could he act like this wasn’t hell? I was drowning in my own sweat. I was a winter person at heart. I ran hot. The cold thawed out my brain, let me think clearer and calmer. The heat made me want to die. My skin was almost feverish. The painted shoji doors were thrown open to catch whatever meager breeze passed through, but it wasn’t enough.

"It's not even that hot." Yona wrinkled her nose and looked up. “Gross, you both stink. Go bathe or something.”

Hak and I shared a look of pure understanding. Stupid southerners. Hak flopped over on Yona in revenge, getting dirt and sweat all over her nice white clothes. Yona, caught off guard, yelped and fell over under him.

I gave him a thumbs up.

“Get off me, you stupid servant!”

“Did you hear something, Jeong?” Hak asked, while studying his nails.

I nodded, resting my head in my arms. “It’s all those cicadas. They’re pretty loud for such small bugs.”

Yona let out an unladylike like growl. “Who are calling a bug, just because you’re a giant-”

“What is going on here-- What are you wearing?" A nasal voice said, appalled.

I rolled my eyes. It wasn't even a conscious thing - just a reflex by now. "Not much." I said, turning my eye to make the scandalized face of the man standing over me.

“Oh great,” Hak said, rolling off Yona.

Soo-won’s personal tutor was one of the people who were against my very presence in the palace. He had a handsome if pinched looking face with dark hair tied back in the proper, tidy, fashion. A clerk who raised up to becoming a tutor at the young age of thirty; he was a noble who thought common was a dirty word, foreigners were godless heathens, and royalty were special people chosen by divine will. Very ‘rah rah kings can do no wrong’. He wanted everything in it’s place. Neat. Tidy. Familiar.

Naturally, he despised me. As a personal employee of the prince, I outranked him by a stupid amount. He couldn't order me around and, thankfully for his continued health, he didn’t try.

His face went tomato red under his stupid hat. It looked like he took an empty french fry box, painted it black and put it on his head. It was hard to take him seriously when all I wanted to do was give him my order. "You are indecent! In front of the prince and the princess, no less. You are a servant of the noble blood and you should attempt to act like it."

Did I really want to argue about this? On one hand: It was hot as balls, but I could put on a shirt without dying. Maybe. On the other: that meant that I would have to live with doing something just because he said so.

Dilemma.

He looked down his nose at me. "I suppose I should expect no less from a barbarian peasant. I really don’t know what his majesty - may he live forever- was thinking."

Spite it was! I rolled up to my full height in a stretch that pulled all of my ugly scars tight. Then I leaned over him with a friendly smile I didn’t feel. "Sorry. I didn't quite catch that. Cicadas are pretty loud today."

His eyes went wide and flicked to the scar across my face. He had to lean back to do it, because I was taller then him by a foot at the least. I could break his body over my knee without breaking a sweat. His eyes darted down to my hands. I could tear him apart. I could tear his guards apart. Noble blood looked the same as any other when it was out of the body.

What if I showed him?

He swallowed hard. "Nothing." He said, through grit teeth. The teacher spun and walked away, back stiff.

I let a slouch take over and yawned, point made. It really was too hot to care about power plays. I sat cross legged by Soo-won, back against the wall. He hadn't looked up at all, but like that mattered. Soo-won had eyes where the rest of us kept common sense.

"You shouldn't tease like that, Jeong." He murmured.

See? Kid's a freak.

I tilted my head to one side in a half-assed shrug, leaning against the table with my head in my arms. "He ain't the boss of me." I said, at a normal tone. The teacher went a little stiff over where he was helping Yona up, scolding Hak all the while. She stuck her tongue out at Hak behind his back.

"But I am," Soo-won said.

"You gonna order me around, your highness?" My voice was mild as milk and twice as opaque. I don’t do blind loyalty.

"I am your boss." His voice was dry, but there was something in the tone that I couldn't quite read. A question. He was still studying the scroll, but he’d stopped turning pages. The moment stretched and it was like the rest of the room was far away.

Am I your boss, Jeong-hui?

Can I trust you?

I heard the offer of something under the words. I just had no idea what.

Such a freak.

But the thought was fond. I really did like him, twisty ways and all. I was here because it’s where grandmother was buried. Soo-won knew that. He wasn’t questioning my professionalism. I would do my damn job, no matter what Soo-won said. So it became a question of alliance: For, or against.

I don’t know.

One day this happy family will shatter, and it will be at his hands. Yona will be an orphan, Hak betrayed. One day, Soo-won will have done all he can to prepare for his revenge.

I gave him a smile that was all teeth. "Well, I guess we’ll find out."

Soo-won glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. He smiled back. "I suppose we will."

Looking back --I think that may have been when things started to go wrong.

-

True winter arrived with the sound of Yona’s voice. "It's snowing!" She shouted in my ear.

My room was still dark. Squeaky awoke with a sound living up to her name. I groaned, pulling the the cover over my head. My eyes felt like iron weights, and opposing them was a battle of wills.

Yona pulled the blanket off with a hard yank.

I didn't even go for my daggers anymore. I was used to this after two years of it. "Yona, what time is it?"

She stamps her foot impatiently, looking ungodly awake for this hour of the morning. Hak leaned against the door of the room, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes. "Ugh, who cares! You’re so old. It's snowing, jeong! The first snow of the season. Stop being such an old person and get up!"

I yawn so hard my jaw cracks. "No. Sleep."

The princess kicked me - not gently- in the side. "Up! Daddy said I can't go out without you and Hak, so you're coming."

Hak gave a deep sigh, from across the room. "The princess is a tyrant. His majesty will be so upset."

"Shut up, servant!"

They weren't going to leave, were they? I groaned into my pillow. "Ugh, fine. I'm getting up. Go get Soo-won or whatever."

The four of us gather in the hall off one of the smaller courtyards. There's walls around it and a skeletal tree as a centerpiece, bare branches bending under snow. The rising sun painted the world rosy, almost a match for Yona's hair. Clouds and snow reflect each other like mirrors, and it feels like the only thing separating the is the small wall around the courtyard. The kids are bundled up so fat it's like looking at little woolen balls rather than people. The only difference I can see is the hair. I make do with an extra overcoat and a scarf.

"It's so pretty," Yona breathed.

Soo-won lets out a laugh and bounds into the snow face first.

It's a migraine free day, something that is becoming rarer and rarer. I watch instead of joining in. The royal nobles romp with amusement. I don't think I've ever had that much energy. Hak and I stand off to one side, getting our revenge by wearing the least amount of warm clothes possible.

Hak shifts, restless. He’s almost as tall as I am, but sixteen and awkward with it. He still hits his head on doorways sometimes.

I roll my eyes. "Go. I can stand watch." Honestly, having the two of us together was overkill.

"Alright!" With a laugh Hak leaped over, sending Yona's snowman crashing down. Yona immediately started yelling and pelting him with snow balls. Soo-won dumped an armful of snow on top of him. Hak looked like he was having fun being the center of attention.

I let them play, watching the surroundings with half an eye. Drifting like a balloon. I was born in a small town in America. Most of the time it seemed like a only two seasons we had were winter and road work. The familiar sting of nostalgia is softened by the watching the three of them romp until the snow no longer looks like a sea, but a battle ground.

A prescience picked at the back of my neck. My instincts twang like an out of tune guitar string. Something is wrong.

I stepped out into the snow, ready to call them in. It saved my life. White hot pain blossoms in my shoulder and I hiss. A knife is embedded into the wood support next to me, wet with my blood. Where my throat was two seconds ago.That’ll be a new scar for the collection.

“Hak!” I roared, twisting to meet an incoming blade. They were good - almost faster than thought. Years of training saved my life as I moved more on instinct, moving into a roll. I come up behind them. My arms wrap around and warmth sprays over my hand, Mercy buried up to the hilt in the assassin's stomach. With the other hand I grab Hak’s polearm whip it behind me.

I felt it hit and heard someone wheeze out air.

The assassin stumbles, and I take all of their weight on the blade. I jerk it up and unpleasant things spill out of their body. They collapse into the snow.

Now for the other five, staring at their dead compatriot. It only takes a few seconds to kill a man.

The assassins are between me and the kids. They realize it at the same moment I do. It’s like watching them unravel in slow motion. I see two unfreeze and turn, already sprinting for their targets.

Unacceptable.

My hand whips out and the tallest one sprouts a dagger in the back of their leg and stumbles. The other takes a rock to the back of the head but doesn't fall. I’m on the downed one in and instant.

The try to buck me off, but I already have Mercy in my hand. I pull back their head and cut their throat.

I jump into the fray - Hak is holding his own, but there are three of them, and they have blades and he doesn’t.

“Hak!” I shouted, throwing pole arm.

He snatched it out of the air, and brought it down with a crack on the head of his unprepared opponent.

I kick the sai out of the last one's hand.

They - a man, his face covered -- spin into a flurry of kicks.

A familiar flurry.

Head - shoulder - throat - I block them all, and wait for -- there!

I rake my blade across his face, and one of his eyes is gone.

He reels back, but keeps his footing. A look passes over his face and he turns to flee.

Nope! I bring him down with a hook to the legs.

He lands hard on his back.

And just like that the combat is over. I plant my foot on his throat. ‘What’s Xing doing sending out assassins?” I asked in Xingease. I used his own sai to turn over his broken hand. There was the tattoo I expected. An outline of an eye with the character for ‘King’ and ‘possession’. “And a King’s eye as well.”

The man went still. “How do you know that name?”

The old king was paranoid about being usurped, the way all kings are. So he kept not one, but two guards. Body and eyes. I was part of the body, the visible ones. We protected the king from obvious threats. The eyes protected him through watching. Anyone who wanted to kill the King had to get through his second, secret lair of protection. The most loyal, the most vicious, the most ruthless were raised to the King’s eyes. They were the reason that I left Xing in the first place. Spies and assassins to the last man and woman. They bleed loyalty. They kept his secrets. They foiled countless attempts on his life.

Until me.

"You…I know you. You killed my lord-- You started the riots. The regicide."

“Your lord was a pig and a monster. A mad dog that deserved to be put down.” I said. “Will you surrender?”

“I will kill you.” He said with certainty. It wasn’t a threat. It was a promise. A terrible light filled his eyes. “You will die, and I will cut you to pieces before you do --”

He cut off with a choke, Mercy buried in his throat. The silence is abrupt and complete, except for the sound of the roar in my ears.

“Not today.” I said to the corpse.

“Jeong,” Soo-won said.

I froze. How long had he been standing there?

Did he hear...

We were speaking in Xingease. Did he speak it? I wouldn’t put it past him. My head felt heavy with fatigue. Hak stood at the other end of the courtyard, Yona was behind him with her head buried in his back.

The snow was red again.

Think about it later.

I gesture to Hak to bring up the group. He does. "Stay behind me," I told them, I told him. Everything was still sharp and jagged. “I will protect you.”

Did you hear?

We made it back into the palace without any more assassins.

“Get me the king,” I ordered one of the startled servants.

Soo-won met my eyes. His hands and voice were steady. He shifted and blocked Yona's line of sight. "Jeong, you're hurt."

I looked down at my shoulder. Oh. Right. “And doctor Chol.” I said. A wave of dizziness passed had me swaying on my feet. What? I hadn’t lost that much blood. “I think I’ve been poisoned.” I said thoughtfully. A numbness spread out from the cut, up into my face making the words leave my tongue like a clumsy person tripping down stairs.

“Jeong? Jeong, stay awake --”

“Now, see that’s the opposite of what I told you to do.” I tired to say. The words wouldn’t come out. My mouth was heavy. My body was an anchor. My mind was fuzzy.

I found myself on my knees.

The last thing I saw before the darkness was Soo-won’s eyes.

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Shadows feel long across Jeong's sleeping face. She always looked more peaceful when asleep. Happier. Things always seemed more bloodless wherever she went.

Hak could barely look at her. It was unnerving. Jeong was proud and rude and irritated and strong. Strong most of all. She wasn't peaceful. She wasn't still. She should be lounging around in one of the gardens, or standing behind Soo-won rolling her eyes. She should be shrugging off worry and her injuries the way she always did.

Jeong was like a mountain to Hak. A goal and a challenge all rolled into one. Solid. She was stronger than anyone else - except Gramps, but he didn't count. No one was stronger than Gramps. Jeong was someone he could spar with. Soo-won was - he was royalty. Hak couldn't seriously raise a hand to him.

Her chest, swathed in white bandages, was barely rising. Soo-won knelt beside her, fingers on her wrist. He glanced at Hak and gave him a weak smile. He had dark shadows under his eyes.

Hak leaned against the doorway. He felt the way Soo-won looked; tired and on edge. "You should get some sleep." He said.

Soo-won hummed. "In a few."

Investigation lead to a hole in the patrol routes of the guards. A missed rooftop access point, and a simple lapse in attention lead to one of Hak's only friends nearly dying. A single mistake and Jeong got hurt.

Suddenly the palace guard's incompetence wasn't so funny.

Hak didn't know what to say to Soo-won, didn't call out his lie. If Yona got hurt, Hak would be pacing like a caged tiger. Itching at the bit to find the culprit. Soo-won was different, but Hak didn't know how he could stand it.

Yona could be attacked right now. And I'm not with her.

The thought was ridiculous. Four guards were stationed at her door, and two more to each of the side ones and the windows. It should be enough.

And yet.

He grit his teeth and left the sick room with a nod to his prince. He had Yona to look out for. Jeong would understand.

It's would be a relief when she woke up.

And she would wake up.

Jeong was going to get an earful for making the royals worry.

Nothing would happen to any of them under his watch. If the palace guard wasn't good enough, he would make them better.

Hak would go all the way to the top if he had to. The conviction settled in him like a second spine. Despite how tired he was, he stood straighter. Helplessness left him confused and angry, spinning without a place to go. A plan helped.

The captain of the guard would be a good goal.

 

-

 

Lady Bin-na, wealthiest woman in the whole of Kouka, tried to summon the will to get up and do something. Anything. Everyday was the same boring routine and she was tired of it all; but routine was a powerful thing. She eventually let the servants pretty her up like the a doll.

One maid bowed. "His lordship is out, My lady." Like she had for the last few months.

Her mouth twisted out of it's normal look of half amused contempt into something less fake, less happy. Bin-na waved the girl away. "Never mind that. What needs to be seen to?"

One of the clerks brought her some of her husband's paperwork. It wasn't like he was going to do it.

Bin-na ignored the heavy oaken desk in favor of lounging on decadent couch, flipping through report after report. It was giving a little around the middle. "This couch needs to be replaced," She said, not looking up from the paper.

"Yes, lady." Her bodyguard said from his position behind her.

Bin-na glanced over the petition for a loan - some sort of peasant bakery, likely to be shut down in a year or less, not worth considering - and threw the paper away in disgust. "No. It would be shut down in month."

One of the interchangeable clerks bowed and scurried off with the paper.

The bodyguard didn't react. Well, he never did. the man was like a block of wood, or the ground. There, but you didn't expect it to start talking to you. Bin-na was used to that. She forgot he was there sometimes.

She looked down at the paperwork. Some days a weight settled at the base of her throat and into her lungs. It became a chore to breath, a curse to think. Time stretched out like taffy she once saw at a festival.

Everything felt so slow. Trapped.

She collapsed back against the couch. Perhaps she could have the ceiling repainted, redecorate the mansion? The fresco of intricate dragons and waterlilies was getting dull. It was nearly two months old. There wasn't any point in keeping it around any longer.

...Perhaps another party?

A shudder traveled up her spine. No, if she had to deal with the twittering sycophants again she would have to order her bodyguard to kill some time just on principle.

There was a timid knock on the door.

Bin-na waved one of the clerks over.

The bodyguard glanced at her, but she continued to stare up at the ceiling. He placed himself in front of her.

A maid tumbled in, out of breath, and gave a hasty bow. "One thousand pardons, my lady, but the prince is on his way over!"

Bin-na bolted upright. "The prince? Now?"

"Yes, my lady!"

"How long do I have?"

"I ran here, my lady - perhaps forty minutes."

That was barely enough time to prepare to receive royalty and get herself presentable. "Prepare the red room - and ginseng tea." That was the prince's favorite. "Run to the cooks and warn them - and make sure my personal maid is waiting for me! Hurry, quickly!"

What on earth would bring Lord Soo-won to her manor at this early an hour? And with so little warning? He always struck her as a polite young man, not like his hellion of a cousin. This was out of character.

Her servant's usher the prince in, before bowing low and leaving the two of them alone.

"To what do I owe this pleasure, My lord?" Bin-na asks, genuinely curious. The young man hadn't brought any retinue. A knot loosened in her at the lack of guards. "It's early for visiting."

"I'm sorry for coming on such short notice." Soo-won bows a bit and slides a scroll across the table to her. "I was wondering if you could look something over for me? It's a work in progress, and I would love some professional expertise."

She looks at the scroll for a long moment, fluttering her fan. "I'm afraid that I don't know much about businesses, or the like. My husband does the most of the accounts and he's away on business right now."

His smile gets even more mild. "Of course he is," He said, a little too brightly. "How silly of me! I could wait for him, if you prefer it? I don't know much about the way of these things, I'm afraid. It's only about opening up a bit of trade with Xing once they get their little war squared away. Once my honored uncle has un-banned trade with them, of course." He gave a sheepish little laugh.

Bin-na was suddenly acutely conscious of the many scrolls spread out across the table in her husband's study. He mouth goes dry. Did he know? How could he? No one would deal with a woman. Everyone knew that she had no interests except holding the latest lavish party. Her husband was a good man, who worked hard to support his frivolous wife.

She'd worked hard to make it that way. Bin-na couldn't stand the looks of pity she'd get if the ladies knew that truth.

What was in the folder? She smiled behind her fan, kept her voice relaxed. "I'd be happy to take a look at it, if you don't mind my armature opinions. I do know a small amount about business. It comes from being around such a lot of merchant type men."

"That's very kind! Thank you for humoring me."

Bin-na opened the scroll while hiding the tension coiling in her heart. 'Illegals sales of weapons ... suspected... treason... alliance with Xing, assassins… Choi Bin-na, using her husbands connections'.

She glanced sharply at the prince before she could stop herself. Assassins? She hadn't… but would it matter? It was a neat solution. No one would object. Feeling numb, she looked at the scroll again and felt her heart drop into her throat.

He continued smiling, his blue eyes vacant and trusting.

"This is all very interesting, but I'm afraid I don't understand," Bin-na said, voice soft and demure, proper ladylike folding of her shaking hands. "What does all of this have to do with me? It's hardly the time for such things. It's quite improper."

When she was a girl they brought a traitor to court and killed him by piling stones on top of him one by one, until he was crushed under the weight. Just one of these would see her executed, her lands seized and her husband disgraced. She would lose everything. Each one of these was a stone and the prince would bury her under it.

Unless he disappeared.

Bin-na tapped her fan and her bodyguard fell into place behind the young prince. His sword cleared the scabbard without making a sound. She could do it. He brought no guards. His own bodyguard was comatose.

Soo-won laughed again and it was such a bright sound in such a tense moment that she nearly flinched. "Well of course, I couldn't present this to my noble uncle without the proper evidence. It's only hearsay for now."

The implication hung in the air.

Bin-na stared at him with a clam face, but inside there was only horrified fascination.

Blackmail.

The pretty, polite, naive prince was offering her an ultimatum.

It would be difficult - nearly impossible- to hide the death of a prince, much less one that visited you just before he died. He knew that. He would be counting on that. But... he came prepared. If he was smart enough to find all this, then why would he come here alone?

"This isn't the only copy." She said, dropping the mask for moment. It would be easy to leave instructions to run the copy to the king. Bin-na exhaled. "How long do I have to decide?"

Soo-won folded his hands neatly on top of each other. "I would say about another twenty minutes. My uncle has been very upset. Assassins, likely from Xing, attacked us yesterday. I'm sure you've heard all about it." He looked at her through his lashes. "Oh, my apologies, you ladyship. I'm sure that talk of such ugly things would only hurt your delicate sensibilities."

Finally, she saw the whole plan in all it's ugly glory. Let's say there was a noble who decided to make a little money on the side. Boredom. Pride. Helpless frustration. Whatever you want to call it. Let's say this noble had ties to an unstable country and access to the palace. Everyone knew Bin-na nearly lived in the palace during the season. She was the biggest name. The Choi coffers were fat with coin, the name fat with influence.

Let's say someone was planning a coup. That person would want all of that power, all that prestige on their own side.

Soo-won did was Bin-na would have done.

Set it up so they had no choice.

It would fall apart if she could find out who hired the assassins. He would know that. Unless he was so confident no one would ever believe her about it.

She looked into his blue eyes and knew. Breathless with horrified admiration, stared at the ruthless demon she once considered a nice young man.

There one person that no one would suspect.

Bin-na saw the way the he looked his foreign bodyguard. No one would believe him willing to hurt her. His uncle certainly wouldn't.

Bin-na was trapped.

"I understand," She said hoarsely. "I think that the Choi family will put its full support behind this plan."

He all but bounced in his seat. "Really? It's wonderful to hear that! I'm glad that it could be resolved easily."

They spoke for a few, surreal minutes about gossip at the palace, none of which Bin-na could remember fully. What she does remember is asking a question just as he was leaving, horses reins in hand. "Isn't your bodyguard still in with the healers?"

A split second flash of something crossed the princes face, cracking the pleasant mask - regret? Pain? Amusement? Bin-na couldn't tell. It was gone to fast.

He gave a solemn nod. "Jeong takes her duties very seriously."

"A good person." A minor miracle with what Bin-na knew of the bodyguards past, pieced together from the kindly gossip of a rather nice Xingease carver and flashes of insight. "She seems to like your uncle very much. I rather think that she would choose to save him if it came down to it."

The prince turned to look at her with a warm smile and eyes like ice. "Well, I would agree with you. I have my own plans for her."

The topic was obviously closed. Bin-na saw the prince off and returned to the study, where she collapse on like a puppet with the strings cut.

Her bodyguard catches her with one arm and she has never been so in need of his support. "I can still take care of him," he murmurs.

She rests her head on his chest for one second. Just breathing in safety. Comfort. "No." She said, stepping away. "It's too late for that now."

Gods above, she wished she could go back to being bored.

 

-

 

I know I'm dreaming from the smell, or rather the lack of one. I'm standing in a large empty space and there's a pressure pushing down on me, like a building storm. There's no way to describe it but desolate. I don't know how I knew but I did. Nothing lived here. It was blinding white void, everywhere but the pillar of black rock I stood on. It goes down, further than I can see.

I'm look down and freeze. I know these clothes. I'd never forget them. The jeans, jacket and t shirt that I lost - years ago. Even if they survived the first few months there's no way they would fit me now. It synthetic fabric almost feels - unnatural. Wrong.

The artificial wind picks up and I catch the flutter of cloth at the edge of my vision. I look up. There's a man standing in the nothingness in front of me. His mouth moves but all that comes out is a terrible storm of noise. A voice but not a voice.

A sense of dread fills me.

"I can't hear you," I scream over the static even though I can't hear my own voice. I taste ozone on my tongue, thick enough to choke. It's whipped away in the storm of noise, like a feather in a hurricane.

His face shifts to Jia, a wicked smile in place, then to Grandmother with tears running down her face, then to the boss his smile and manners gone; he strides over to me, face changing with every step, everyone of them someone I knew - everyone of them dead. All the while, his mouth is moving.

I step back, forgetting for a moment about the edge.

My foot meets air.

I fall backwards, but all I can do is look up at the man that isn't a man.

Soo-won's face looks back at me and I can hear him for the first time.

You don't belong here.

I gasp at the sting of waking up; my heart sounds like war. Hooves thundering, breath gasping, steel flashing. Everything hurts, not like broken bones but like there was something that I was missing on the inside. I struggle to sit up, but my left arm buckles under the weight and I fall back.

Someone is talking. The words sound small after the dream, and it takes me a while to understand them.

"-Jeong. It's okay. It's okay." Soo-won said, pressing me down into the bed with one hand.

Weak as a baby, I can't move. I'm drenched in sweat and my mouth feels like a desert after a drought. "Where's Yona?" I ask, the first thing that my tired brain can think of. "She's usually the first one in."

Soo-won paused for a fraction of a second. "Yona is confined to her rooms for the time being while the incident is investigated."

"Oh. Right." The assassins. The King almost lost his daughter, and she had to be shaken. Yona was sheltered in every sense of the word. Hak would be with her. Soo-won was here. That seemed right for some reason. My head felt fuzzy and tired.

Soo-won met my eyes with a hard look of his own. "Do not leave the bed."

I paused, about to do just that. "Do you read minds?"

"You are not subtle, Jeong."

Still he helped me sit up and let me have a small cup of water. There were no bendy straws in whatever time period it was. The thought made me a little sad. Just one more thing that I'd have to miss now.

I sniffed. "I'm subtle as hell."

He rolled his eyes."If you say so." His smile seems different. More subdued.

"Soo-won, what's wrong?"

Soo-won closes his eyes. The he open his eyes and stares at me evenly. "What did the assassin mean when he called you a traitor?"

I flinch and water spills over my cup. I don't bother cleaning it up. He hadn't forgotten. "I didn't know you spoke Xingease." I said, trying for lighthearted and falling flat. I clenched my fists. I… didn't want to do this.

"Jeong. Please."

I flinch again. Words did not describe how much I didn't want to talk about this. But if the assassins were after me, if the rumor somehow spread. They deserved to know.

Soo-won deserved to know.

"I... Before I came to Kouka," I said, stumbling over the words. I don't want to talk about it. "I was a member of the royal guard in Xing. The king took an interest in me."

I can still remember the day I met the King for the first time.

Three days straight of battle with a nation along the border - I don't remember which kingdom we fought and it hardly mattered. People all looked the same when their insides were on the outsides. I was listing to one side, propped up by my sword and the fact that if I fell I would have to clean my armor and I did not have the energy for that.

There were bodies on the field; I recognized some. Here was a baker who missed his wife , here a man who made off color jokes with a spear in his throat, there was a second son who became a soldier for glory. He smelled of blood and less pleasant things. Two years older than me, but all I could muster up at the sight of his still terrified face was a burst of utter resignation. In them I saw the future and it was coming closer every day. This battle was won. There would be another. There was always another.

I would have left, if I had the energy. I would have wept if I had the will. As it was, I closed his eyes with a steady hand and sliced off a piece of his hair with my sword. That would go to his family, if I could find a soldier or merchant going that way. Tradition. You can't take the body, but you do what you can.

The sound of hooves brought me back to reality. I looked up to see a man on horseback rapidly approaching. Our colors, and heading right at me. I looked at death approaching and felt only apathy. He would have to go around or through. I wasn't getting up.

He pulled up just short of me, horse rearing and just missing my head. "Who goes?" the man demanded, his dark hair a proud flag. He was a handsome man in his late thirties, with a generous mouth and sharp eyes. His clothes weren't clean but even under the mud I could see the glitz and finery. There was dried blood on his face and his horse's hooves.

At the time I didn't know who he was. I thought he was just another general. It took me a few seconds to understand the words. My Xingease was shaky. No one cared that I was foreign, as long as I followed orders. I was working one it anyway, because only understanding half of what anyone said was annoying. But his answer was to clear and fast to understand it much. "Jeong. Jeong-hui." I said, finally using it without hesitation.

There was nothing that I could do about it.

"You? You are Jeong-hui, the one that my generals have been raving about? You don't look like much." He looked down at me in a way that made me very conscious of the blood on my armor.

I shook off the feeling. Even at fifteen I knew that there were people out there who would judge you no matter what you wore. It wasn't uncommon in the future. The one thing this place had in common with it. Figures it be a bad one. Bet he didn't know the meaning of dirt, I thought with black humor. "Sorry you think so, your lordship." I said.

He sniffed. "That's all very well, but we're late. Come." He held out his hand to me.

I stared at like it was a particularly interesting puzzle.

"Give me your hand."

I stared for a moment longer and slowly raised my hand - only partly because of the bone deep exhaustion. I yelped when the man yanked me off my feet, armor and all, and up over half his horse. I clutched at the ornate saddle for dear life.

Revising my thought, I upped him to actual General. One of the ones who thought that war should be fought. Not an intellectual exercise. Even half starved, I was pushing six feet, and with the armor I weighed more than a little. "What- whoa!"

The second I was sitting, the man spurred the horse on, heading for the battle field. I didn't get a second to question it. I clung to the man with my all of my strength, weariness chased away by alarm. I've never been on a horse before and I never wanted to again. I was already far enough from the ground normally, I didn't need this extra height!

That's how we met for the first time. King Bai, the man who I would devote myself to for two years. 

The man I would kill.

 

-

 

Chapter Text



-



I think the thing I remember most from those days is red. Not blood red, or dark red, or Yona’s hair red -- but red , bright and poisonous. Red pillars inlaid with jade and gold, holding up roofs that touched the sky. Red flowers in the gardens. Red like the King’s eyes.

 

Awe inspiring.

 

The king's throne, red gold and jade, paled in his presence. He was a different man than the man on the fine war horse. Beard trimmed, hair swept up, clean hands and nails. He wore no crown. He didn’t need one.

 

King Bai is a sunburst. Looking at him left dark spots on my vision.

 

I looked down at my own hands, blinking. They look strange without a weapon. Clean. Mud, dirt and blood were gone. I was just some kid again; the callouses are the only thing that sets now apart from then.

 

The king seemed content to ignore me kneeling in favor of some documents that a fussy clerk had delivered to him. “We will see his lordship tomorrow - after we have had time to think about it. There has been more pressing things to look after, like war . We are most displeased the that he has persisted in this matter.”

 

The clerk bowed and swept past me like I didn’t exist. I knew the moment the king turned his eyes on me, scalp prickling. The room smelled of wisteria and jasmine; it was almost enough to make me gag. Too sweet after all the copper. To heavy after clean air in the open fields.

 

“We are pleased to know that you have some manners, boy. Peasants so rarely do, we find.”

 

I bow lower, keeping my head down and don’t bother to correct him. It’s easy to be quiet when every breath takes effort, every beat of my heart feels sluggish, and my eyelids weigh more than my armor. “I am pleased to have pleased your Majesty.” I barely even stumble over the words this time.

 

“As it should be. Do you know why we have summoned you?”

 

“No, your majesty.”

 

A swish of fine fabric and his fine shoes - gold and red - appeared in my vision. I kept my hands still against the urge to go for a weapon. “We have heard from our generals of your skill and tenacity. You held the battle of the pass with only yourself and two others. The rest of the cowards broke and ran. This speaks of braver, of honor. This is something that we value highly.”

 

I could have told him the truth of it. I could have spoken about the pass, narrow enough that some of the men had to enter sideways, between two of the mountains that make it impossible to invade from the east. I could have told him about waking up and finding men had lost hands to bitter frost. I could have said something about hunger being the only constant, until it was just a fact of life and we burned the bodies of the dead because fresh meat was fresh meat, and none of us was willing to slip that low yet. How the world was turned down to the hack of the blade, the snow and rock made slippery with blood.

 

There was no bravery in the pass. If we ran, the enemy would have taken us down like rabbits in a den of starving foxes. Dead if I ran. Dead if I stayed.

 

I chose to fight.

 

Honor never entered into the equation.

 

I could have said something, but the words wouldn’t come out. “Thank you, your majesty.”

 

“And so, in our wisdom, we have decided that you are worthy of our service. Though you are foreign and not of the blood, you are honored this day. It is rare that one of the peasant class is selected despite your inferior breeding. Come.”

 

Worthy of our services. The words reverberated against my heart like a chapel bell.

 

That was not - not normal. Peasants didn’t work in the palace, except as the most basic of serving staff. Even the maids were nobility.

 

The king loomed over me, looking down like a dispassionate god. He was measuring me up and my life was in the balance if I was found wanting. I found myself sitting up straighter, exhaustion forgotten in front of those eyes. He gestured and one of the many silent servants materialized and presented him with a black lacquered wooden box.

 

The king reached into it and plucked out a dagger.

 

A year of fight taught me a lot about what a good blade could do. And that was more than a good blade. The blade rippled with the tell tale marks of damascus steel, the size of my forearm and hands. Tassels carved with characters I couldn’t read dangled from the pommel by red cords.

 

“Give us your hand,” The king said, drawing the blade. It glinted, water-like.

 

Jeong-hui - the real Jeong -wanted nothing more than to serve the King. So, I suppose, that must be my dream as well.

I gave him my hand and he drew the blade deep across it. Ruby red drips across his hands, and mine. I stare at the blood pooling in my palm, and I know that I’ll carry this scar the rest of my life.

 

The king offers me the knife, blade first. “With this Jeong-hui, soldier, has died. From the ashes rises Jeong-hui, a hand of the king. This blade has tasted your blood - from this moment on it belongs to no other, and none other may use it save us. Your blood and body belong to us, to our country. You have spilled blood in our name and vanquished our foes tirelessly but still there is much left to do.”

 

I take the blade in steady hands. "I am honored, your majesty."

 

"Yes. You are." He turns, hair a flag behind him. “Li! Fa!”

 

A man standing in the back, behind the throne broke off from the shadows. He was tall - almost taller than I was, built like a mountain with a full mouth and dark intelligent eyes. Another moved from behind a pillar, dressed in dark cloth that didn't whisper when they moved. Gender and age were obscured by the cloth mask pulled up over their nose. Their eyes took everything in.

 

They knelt before the king, and the larger one still came up to the king's chest. His hands were calloused, not like King Bai's, but like mine. A fighter. The other wore gloves and moved like they were liquid - not so much muscle as liquid. "Yes, my lord."

 

"We have another member of your guard, recommended by the generals. The king's hand we suspect. Observe and make your own judgements in his placement. And do something about his accent. We will not have a bumpkin in our presence."

 

Eyes passed over me again and I felt weighed. Measured. I don't look away this time. The dagger is heavy, like a promise.

 

The tall man bowed again, forehead to the floor. "Of course, My lord. I will oversee their induction and training, personally." He rose to his feet, and beckoned me away.

 

“See that you do. Dismissed.”

 

I rose and bowed to the king, loose hair framing my face like a curtain of safety. The large man turned and went. I followed, and the other followed behind.  

 

We passed out of the king’s shadow, and the throne room.

 

-



The giant sighed and ran a hand through his short brown hair. Outside the presence of their master - our master now, I guess - both of them relaxed. "So, what family are you from?"

 

I hesitated. “Don’t have one. Sorry.”

 

He crossed his arm and looked at me.

 

I realized I was clutching the dagger in both hands like shield in front of me. The black wood sheath was reassuringly solid. The moment stretched on.

 

I jumped when the other person laughed. "You’re either brave or foolish. Either way you’ll fit in. I am Fa." They said. Even their voice was genderless, not high and not low. Raspy, like the skin of a snake. They gently place a hand on the giant's arm. “Stop trying to intimidate the poor dear, and introduce yourself. Our lord would not be pleased to know that you’re doubting his selection.”

 

He let out an explosive sigh. “I’m Li. Captain of the King’s Hands. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 

Fa somehow smiled with only their eyes. I didn’t know that happened outside of mangas. “There, there. Was that so hard.”

 

Li glowered at them, but didn’t shake their arm off. “Quiet, sneak.”

 

"Jeong-hui. I don't know what’s going on." I broke in.

 

"Did our lord tell you anything?"

 

"I'm supposed to be in some sort of guard?" The words were faint, like I was remembering them from years ago instead of minutes.

 

Fa's eyes crinkled again. "That's something you'll have to get used to as things go on. Our master is not one for explaining his actions.”

 

“Truer words.” Li snorted. “The guard - which you're now a part of - answer only to the king. We protect him, with our lives if necessary, we answer his needs and carry out his orders. We are seen as living extensions of his will in the country." Li tapped the symbol painted on his armor, over his heart. It was a stylized black flower, circled by two rings of red and gold, all on a white background.

 

I looked at Fa, and their soundless clothes. No crest.

 

They did the eye crinkle again. Their eyes were are very striking dark blue up close. “Any questions?”

 

I looked him over again. Dark grey and black, mask, cloth shoes. No crest.

 

Goddamned ninjas were a thing apparently.  

 

“No. I’m good.” I said instead.

 

They blinked.

 

Was there something I was supposed to be asking? I shrugged the question off. “Is there any particular duty we have to do?”

 

Li looked at me for a little too long again, face unreadable. I tried not to tense. Fa seemed more amused than anything.

 

Li laughed. “Ah, our lord has an eye for the strange ones. Let’s get you settled in the barracks and get your hand looked at. You’re bleeding all over the place. The servants hate that. I can answer any questions that you have along the way.”

 

He guided me away with a sure hand, and I tried not to tense under it. He wasn’t going to hurt me. Probably.

 

Fa followed behind, like a second shadow. I could feel their eyes on me.  



-

 

"I was happy," I admit to Soo-won. “Happy to have a home again. A place where I was welcomed. The Hand’s of the king were respected. Mothers would tell their children to go to one of us if something bad happened. Sons and daughters looked up to us.”

 

I don’t think I understood how much I lost, until I had a chance to slow down and think on it. I gained a home again and the old one became a bleeding wound, instead of a poisoned one. Fa and Li held me up when I felt like crumbling.

 

“He was a good king. No one… I was accepted, for the first time in a year. He kept the peace. King Bai gave me everything. How do you not look up to someone like that?" I looked down at my hands. My good, clean hands. The scar runs thick across my left palm.

 

Bile fills my mouth. "I was such a stupid kid. He gave me somewhere to belong, a community and in return I ignored his flaws, until I couldn’t look away anymore. I forgot that everything has a price. One I - I paid." I inhaled against the familiar heavy shame.

 

Soo-won said nothing. I could ignore the  shame and horror lapping at my heart, if I spoke to an empty room. I didn't look at him, because if I did, my nerve would vanish like a sandcastle in a wave.

 

"One of his advisors was found guilty of high treason. Stealing from the royal coffers," I said. Clinically. Precisely.

 

Soo-won inhaled sharply.

 

Yeah. Treachery was a crime that only nobles could commit, in Xing. No one can run a kingdom alone. Abusing your position was an automatic execution. The punishment is a slow death, in a bronze cylinder, tall as I was and twice as wide. The cylinder was filled with charcoal and burned until it glowed. Then the offender was bound to it until they died.

 

It’s an ugly death.

 

"The advisor ran." I said. "Left his son, his wife, his daughter. The shame of the father is the shame of the son. One lord is the same as another, in the eyes of the law. His son was the same age as Yona . I spoke out. What else could I do?”

 

-




I stared at the boy, and then at the bronze pillar. I could feel the heat from behind the throne. “Li, stop this! He’s a child, barely older than the princess.” I hissed. He was the captain. The king would listen to him.

 

Li’s face flickered, but he said nothing. He didn't even look at me. Just kept his eyes forward.

 

I stared at him, lost for words. “Please, Li.”

 

“Peace, Jeong.” Fa whispered, their hands gripping my shoulder. “It is not our place to second guess the king. Let it happen. It is just.”

 

The two members of the hand took the boy roughly by the arm. I could see his lower lip trembling, but he didn’t try to fight it.

 

I looked at burning pillar, and the king. He wouldn’t allow this. He was just . He valued honor.

 

His red eyes were impassive. Flame that burned nothing, warmed nothing, and cared for nothing.

 

My loyalty was cast iron, my loyalty was steel, my loyalty was granite. I stood upon it like it was solid ground and in the center was the figure of the king. A hairline fracture radiated out from his feet. It was thinner than a single strand of hair. It all came from that first question.

 

Would my lord kill an innocent child because of j ustice ?

 

Yes.

 

My feet were moving before I could stop them. "My lord, mercy!"

 

The room went still. I swallowed and kept my position in front of the king, kneeling. Eyes on the ground. My heart is thunder, my spine a metal rod in a storm. I'm waiting for the lightning to strike.

 

“Jeong.” Fa’s horrified whisper was loud in the science.

 

I swallowed again. I don’t dare look up. I’m an idiot. "Please, my lord. He's only a boy and knew nothing of the treachery of his father. There's no need -"

 

"Be silent."

 

I flinced. My eyes stay on the ground, on the white polished floor, on my white knuckled hands. "Perhaps a - hostage for good behavior, or a monetary punishment, My lord - Just not this..."

 

The whisper of silk is my only warning - just enough to brace myself.

 

A blade catches me across the face. It rips through flesh and all I know is pain, and the burn of shame. I hear his steady footsteps walking away, discarding me like so much garbage.

 

At least he missed my eye, I think inanely.

 

Outwardly I bow lower. The image of the child, wrapped in finery is burned into my mind, silhouetted against the bronze pillar. If it were my siblings - begging is the least of what I would do. "Please, my lord. He is only a few years older than your own daughter. It would shame you to have a child’s blood upon your hands. Have mercy."

 

Please.

 

The sound of footsteps paused for one long moment. "You have overstepped , guardsman. The hand does not command the head." There was another moment. "But we respect your courage, and we know you speak thus out of love of us and our honor, and so we allow you your life. Even fools are right sometimes. There is no honor in tormenting a child. Tell me, boy, has your father contacted your family?"

 

The boy's answer was a whisper. "N-no, your majesty."

 

"Hmm. you have a sister. She is thirteen this year, is she not? A little old... but we know my daughter would enjoy a new playmate. Fa."

 

"Yes, my lord." Their voice was serene, but I could hear a faint tremble underneath it.

 

"Have her and her mother escorted to the palace as a hostage for good behavior ." The words were stressed mockingly. I don't react, or look up. My blood feels cold, dripping down my face. "Have this one taken to the guest room - the one in the west wing."

 

"Yes, my lord."

 

"Li, take Jeong with you. Some re-training may be required before they are ready for polite society."

 

I change a look out of the corner of my eye. Li bows deeply. "My deepest apologies, your majesty. I will beat the manners into her myself."

 

"See that you do. Dismissed." He turns, obviously. Li drags me out of the room, stumbling and half blind for the blood in my eyes. I don’t miss Fa gently guiding the boy out, blue eyes cold.

 

“You’re very lucky he felt merciful,” Li hissed. “I would have killed you for the disrespect.”

 

And you would have let him kill a child .

 

I say nothing.

 

Li grips me so hard that I can feel the bruises forming under his calloused hands. “Jeong. Please, think before you do things. Fa worries about you, and the king will only indulge your shows of bravery for so long. He is king , Jeong! It is his right! Don’t throw your honor away for your bleeding heart.”

 

I look down, and feel my face heat. I press a hand to my chest, like that would hide it. All the time I’ve steeled it in battle are not enough for this brutal world. “I’m sorry, Li.” I lie. “I’ll try to do better.”

 

He sighs and lets the moment pass. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth. Come. Your punishment for speaking out of turn is thirty lashes, and a weeks rations. This won’t be pleasant.”

 

Thirty lashes. I swallow, mouth dry as a desert. “I’m ready.”

I leave bloody footprints after it’s done, but I don’t pass out until the healers tend to me. When I wake up, my dagger is laying on the bedside table. I feel a rush of relief that nearly lets loose tears. I was still welcome among the guard. It was physical proof.

 

Than I noticed the tassels were different. They were wrapped around the pommel, a deep blue rather than the red. The disk itself was an hexagon now, and the characters are different. I still can’t read them.  Learning was difficult when my days were so full of other, more important things.

 

I asked one of the healers when they came to check up on me.

 

“It says mercy.” He said, impatiently tugging his overcoat out of my hands. Than he was gone, before I could ask any questions.

 

I stared down at the dagger. It gleamed in the light.

 

You, too, have been given mercy. Don’t waste it.

 

I kissed the carving, a sting at the corner of my eyes.

 

Message received, my king.



-



The advisor’s family is summoned to court. I watch them from my position in the shadow of the throne.

 

The girl is a copy of her mother, made small and less composed. Sweet and painted as a peach, with soft grey hair and green eyes. Her eyes are red rimmed, her mouth hides a tremble. Her mother’s doesn’t so much as twitch.The two kneel before the king on his throne in two day old clothes. They keep their heads down.

 

The king tapped his lacquered nails on the arm of his throne, each click sounding like the beat of a war drum. "We are most displeased with your husband, Lady Zhou. Zhou Enlai has dishonored our kingdom. He has betrayed our country with his greed, left us and our people vulnerable, but we are merciful . We have ruled that ignorance is your family’s crime, not treachery. We have taken your son into our custody, as the heir of the Zouh. Perhaps in the years to  come he will serve well enough to remove the stain from the Zhou name."

 

The woman’s head jerked, like she was going to look up and stopped at the last second. "He is alive? Truly, heaven knows none more merciful nor wise as you, my king. My son is a bright boy who loves the empire. I know he will serve you well."

 

A pleased murmur went through the crowd.

 

The king stood. "Indeed. Zhou Wen, come here."

 

Both mother and daughter froze. The girl looked at her mother, panic in her eyes. Lady  Zhou's mouth went tight, but she nodded.

 

The girl stood. There was a breath of hesitation in her action. The she stood when her mother nudged her hard. She took delicate steps, stopping at the proper distance of a court woman, eyes respectfully lowered. Polite. She bowed in the most formal fashion, graceful as Fa.

 

Good. The king liked manners.

 

"Well mannered as well as beautiful. You have raised a jewel, Lady Zhou, even with your husband’s unfortunate influence."

 

"Your words are kind to this unworthy one, my lord."

 

He took the girl's face and tipped it up, gently with one nail. "How old are you, young lady Wen?"

 

I could see her swallow from my place in the shadows of the throne. "T-thirteen, if it pleases you, your majesty."

 

Three years younger than me.

 

"It does please me. How are you with flower arrangement? Calligraphy? The womanly arts?"

 

Wen dropped her eyes. "I am passable, my lord, though it may be boasting to say so."

 

The King hummed. "Modest as well. Our daughter is in need of such an example. We have no wife, but the princess yearns for feminine grace that ourself and our guards are ill equipped to give her. Lady Zhou, we would have your daughter as a companion and caretaker for our own."

 

The lady forgot herself enough that she did look up this time, meeting the king's eyes. I saw the moment she realized what was going on. Her daughter and her son would be taken. This was the will of the king, and she had no say in it. Not after her husband’s crime.

 

I had to admire Lady Zouh. She didn’t give up.

 

She bowed until her forehead touched the marble floor. "It would be far too much for one family to be shown such honor, your majesty. Wen is a good girl, but she is far from polished enough to attend at the courts. If your daughter was shamed by my girls ignorance, then it would hurt my heart greatly."

 

The king’s face didn’t change. “We have spoken on this matter. She will receive the best education, the best protection and the best connections that a lady could wish for.”

 

The king’s tone was foreboding. Lady Zhou bowed again, defeat in every line of her body. "Of course, your majesty. Your will is absolute."

 

I wonder, even years later, if she knew what would happen. If she somehow knew what King Bai really was.

 

"If I may be given a little time with my daughter, your majesty? To say goodbye."

 

The king waved a hand. "We will allow it. Dismissed.”

 

Wen bowed away from the throne, not looking up until her mother caught her in a crushing hug.

 

That was the last time I saw the lady Zhou - her arms wrapped around her daughter like that was enough to protect her from the world.

 

-



Peace lasted for three months. I trained my way back into the king's good graces. Fa was gone more and they looked tired when they were there.

 

Li didn't look worried, so I tried not to. I didn’t dare ask any more about it. The captain was still angry about my disrespect.

 

I was put on guard rotation with the princess and her new friend. Like the King thought, her highness adored Lady Wen Zhou. Every other word out of her mouth was about her newest playmate, always blabbing on to her father or her nannies.

 

I sighed in relief. The princess was the only one who the King loved. Maybe even more than the kingdom. If she loved something or someone, it was off limits to everyone else on pain of the King's displeasure. I never spoke to Wen, despite the many hours spent patiently guarding them during tea times and lessons.

 

It was not a guards place. The sting of my face reminded me of that everytime I smiled.

One day things changed. The king called for Lady Zouh.

 

-

 

We went through the halls and neither of us payed any attention to the whispers that followed us en route. I took my cues from her and ignored the world. They were inconsequential to use. None of them would dare inconvenience a member of the guard on business, and the girl was under the  king’s protection, and therefore untouchable. The journey seemed quiet. Awkward.



“How long have you worked in the guard?” Lady Wen has a voice just as soft as the rest of her.

 

I keep my hands behind my back and my eyes forward. “One year, Lady Wen.”

 

She looked down at her hands. “How do you find the work? I have heard that our King is an exemplary employer.”

 

That I could agree with. “My lord picked me up when I had nowhere else to go.”

 

“You’re a foreigner?” Her eyes looked me up and down, taking in my height, my strange round eyes and my more prominent nose.

 

I stare ahead and don’t look at her. “Yes. I had no one else when I arrived.”

 

“Do you have any advice? For dealing with the King?” She blurted then squeaked and ducked her head, wringing her hands and creasing her face. “I’m terribly sorry. That was so rude -”

 

I couldn’t help being sympathetic. Even for the guard, the King was intimidating, and we’ve had more practice. “He’s a strict man.” I said while still looking ahead. “Be respectful. If he asks you a question be as honest as you can without being rude. Do not interrupt him.”

 

I see the surprise cross her face out of the corner of my eye. “Right. Is there anything else?”

 

“Mention his daughter if you can do it. He loves the girl and he’s always happy to hear about what’s she’s doing. Don’t say anything that could be considered a threat to her, or you’ll be executed. If you are served a meal, eat quickly but with the best manners you can muster. Don’t try to make small talk.”

 

I could see her throat work, her eyes suspiciously shiny. “Thank you. You’ve been kinder in five minutes then the whole palace staff has been for weeks.”

 

I felt my cheeks go hot and looked down at the floor. Praise was hard to come by in the past few years. I’d become accustomed to being rewarded with more work when I did well. “It’s no trouble, Lady Wen.”

 

“Trouble or not, it means something to me.”

 

I spotted a familiar figure ahead dressed in dark grey and blue, their face covered.

 

Oh, thank god .

 

Please take me out of this hell. Social skills were never my forte. I ducked into a bow, without saying anything.

 

“Fa! I haven’t seen you in weeks.” I said, a bit too loudly to be polite.

 

They were standing oddly stiff in one of the pillars shadows. The figure stilled. “…Jeong.”

 

My heart sank when all they offered me was a stare. “Fa? Is there something wrong? Are - are you still angry with me?”

 

Fa jolted like I’d punched them. “No! No, pardon my manners. I’ve been a little tired lately. I wasn’t expecting the King to - I wasn’t expecting you.”

 

I swallowed. “His Majesty is still not pleased with me, but he has seen fit to give me another chance.”

 

Fa’s uncovered eyes flickered from my face - still scared, still raw - down to the dagger at my waist. I realized that my hand was already there, toying with the small wood disk. They gave an closed eye smile that still somehow didn’t seem happy at all. “That’s good. He was always fond of you. Lady Wen, the king is waiting for you.”

 

I’d almost forgotten the girl. Hurriedly, I bowed to her. “Sorry, my lady. This is Fa, one of his majesty’s captains. He will take care of you.”

 

She bowed, the epitome of grace. “I will be in you care, sir.”

 

Fa looked down at the girl and something like pain lived in their eyes, breathed with their breath. It was gone before I could say anything, so fast I almost imagined it. He stepped past me - and iron filled my nose.They glanced at me and hesitated. Then their eyes crinkled. "Be safe, Jeong."

 

The two of them were gone before I could say anything.

 

My heart sank like a stone to the bottom of a mountain lake. Cold. Dark. Inevitable. I was filled with an awful certainty. Watching the two of them disappear into the chamber I was left with the feeling that something was ending.


-

Chapter Text

And it came after two more weeks. The king was pleased with Lady Wen, because he called her back four more times over the next month. She grew quieter and quieter with each meeting, like a flower strangled by weeds. Even the princess couldn’t draw a smile out of Wen, though she tried her best. Most of Wen’s time was spent looking out into the courtyards and not eating or sleeping. Makeup couldn’t hide the bruises under her eyes.

It was painful to watch.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, careful to keep my voice quiet.

Lady Wen drew back from her thoughts with a visible effort, just to summon up a smile for me. It’s a pale mockery, fake as a counterfeit coin. “Nothing, Jeong.”

“It’s not nothing.”

Her smile dropped. “I — of course. I didn’t mean to lie. I suppose that I miss my mother more than I thought I would. And my brother. The king will not tell me of him, only that I have to wait longer and… behave. He says that I must perform my duties.” Her voice spat the last word as if it was a rotten apple in her mouth.

I frowned. “I didn’t know you had such trouble with the princess.”

Wen blinked, her scowl slipping into something more familiar. “Oh- oh. No, The princess is a lovely girl. That is not — no. The princess is perhaps the one here thing I genuinely like. It is not that.” She was quiet again, for such a long time that I thought that she went back to whatever grim world she had in her head. She looked at me and sighed. Her smile was more real, more sincere this time.“You are a good person, Jeong-hui. An honorable one. Don’t let anything - anyone - change that. Your lord is lucky to have you.”

The sinking feeling was back again. “Thank you, your ladyship”

Wen’s smile fades. “I think that I’m unwell. Please inform the Princess that I’ll be in my chambers if she needs me.”

-

“Will she be alright, guardsman?” The princess asked, hands twisted tighter in a worried knot. She was far too wise for a girl of seven, far to mature. Today, for the first time, Wen turned her away at the door.

I knelt when she spoke to me and kept my eyes on the ground. She was far too high stature for me to even consider calling by name. No one did, except for the king and some of the highest lords. I don’t smile, because I healed fast, but the wound the King gave me was deep; it pulled at my lips in an odd way. I try not to frighten children when I can help it. “I don’t know princess.”

“Lady Hu says that homesickness can fell even the strongest of warriors.” She glances at Wen’s door and her mouth goes tight. She’s never been out of the palace before. I don’t know if she understands homesickness. “Do you feel homesick?”

Truly she was her father’s daughter. My face was impassive most of the time, but she saw through me. Her words struck me harder than any physical blow and I was left reeling, staring down at my hands. I tell her the truth, because lying to your lord or lady was punishable by death. “I do, your highness.”

Everyday.

“Why don’t you go home then? Don’t you miss your family?”

“It’s too far.” I can’t get there from here.

I ignore the family question. Some wounds were too raw to touch.

She glanced at the door. “Lady Wen often speaks of her brother. Father wouldn’t tell me when I asked. Would news of her brother help?”

For one second she’s my little sister, awkward about trying to cheer one of her friends up. Agony — I push it away. This is not the time for that. It was never the time for that.

“That’s a very kind thought.” I said instead, when my jaw unlocks. “It might help.”

The princess blushed and looked down. “Father wouldn’t approve if I keep asking. He already said to leave it.”

I gave her a smile — wow that was the fastest drain of blood I’ve ever seen. Her eyes were very wide. I dropped the smile, feeling the new scar tissue pull at my mouth.”I won’t tell your father if you don’t.” I said.

“Will you find out for me?” The king’s red eyes stared back at me.

I could recognize an order where it’s implied. I bow with my hands folded each other, in the proper style of a solider to their superior officer. “Of course.”

“Thank you, guardsman.”

-

The king sent them off to the red room. I’ve been all over the palace, but the thing is — it’s the size of a small town. You can do nothing but explore for a year still get turned around. There are servants whose job is to make sure any diplomats we have don’t get lost.(Or go somewhere they shouldn’t be - but mostly get lost.) It’s built like that, on purpose.

I haven’t seen a lot of it. My patrol routes are set for the upper levels — with the royals — and the gardens. The problem was I have no idea where the red room. It was pretty solitary. None of the staff had been gossiping about it — which meant the boy was being held in the king’s household or outside the palace.

All the king's servants have their tongues removed. The only ones who don’t are the princess’s ladies in waiting and the King’s guard.

They wouldn’t be any help, because I didn’t know their form of sign language.

I have to go straight to the hub of information. “Fa!” I called out, spotting the back of their clothed head Fa’s job was information gathering for the King. They would know where the boy was. They knew most things.

The turned around and smiled, not looking surprised to see me. They never did. I suspected some sort of ninja power.

I frowned when I got close enough to really see them. “Are you alright? You look tired.” They didn’t have much skin showing but the skin but it was tight around their eyes and their posture was rigid, in a way that reminded me of me when I was on campaign and only threat of death was keeping me upright.

Fa shrugged. “The king has been… in a mood lately. He had to cut his visit to the princess short due to some sort of crises at the border.”

I winced. “That — yeah. That would do it.” No wonder she seemed so disappointed yesterday. She would never do anything so crass as complain, but that didn’t stop the king from being upset about it. “The princess was talking about wanting a pony of her own.” If the king wanted to make up for it.

“I’ll suggest it. Gods know that I won’t survive much longer at the pace he’s keeping.” The tone was joking, but their was something underneath it. It sounded like — pain. “Anyway. What did you want, Jeong? I can’t stay long.”

I went along with the subject change. I could think about it later.“You know where Lady Zhou’s brother is being kept, right?” I ask.

They look at me. “I do. Why do you ask, Jeong?”

I rubbed my arm and and gave him a sheepish look. “The princess is trying to cheer up Lady Wen. The king told the princess she was in charge of Wen, and she takes it very seriously.”

“That’s sweet of her.” None of what they felt showed on their face.

“I know. So, can you tell me?”

Fa looked down at the ground, before shaking their head. “I can’t. The king ordered no contact, and he was very — firm about it.” They pressed their hands to their side.

I frowned. “You sure you’re alright?”

They drop their hand like it was touching something hot. “Oh. Yes, I’m fine, thank you. I have to go. I’m sorry that I can’t help you.”

“Okay then.” Rubbing a hand through my loose hair, I sigh. That was my best lead — I didn’t know any of the other people in Fa’s division, and the king’s hand wasn’t really involved in the secretive stuff. How was I going to break it to the princess?

“I will be very focused on this task, of course.” Fa continued like they hadn’t heard me. They turned. “If someone were to follow me, then I don’t think I’ll be in any shape to stop them.”

“That would be a shame. Who would do such a dastardly thing?” I agree, hiding a smile. “Thank you, Fa.”

Fa said quietly. “Don’t thank me, yet.”

-


I followed Fa on a winding path, down and down and down some more. Fa moves like a ghost, and I mimic him without thought. The air grows stale and cold, the decorations get less lavish until there’s no ornamentation at all. Rich tapestries give way to unadorned stone walls. Rough carving instead of the delicate craftsmanship. My heart was the loudest thing around, thumping like my own personal drum track, trying to keep my attention on Fa. If I lost him down here, I don’t know if I could get out again. The walls closed in one me. I wasn’t built for halls like theses. I barely had two inches of clearance from the ceiling.

Hallways branched off every time we reached a crossroads.There was a chill in the air, and the halls were only lit by smoky torches. My fingers tightened around my dagger, the longer we walked. Endless tunnels of stone and dark. Fa walked with confidence. They looked more at home in the dark and their soft gray clothes left me looking at a silhouet, not a person. They looked colder, harder the further we went.

Where are we going? The words refuse to come out. It'’s like my mouth is paralyzed. Is this where I die? But it’s useless. Fa isn’t a fighter. I could defeat them with one hand tied behind my back. If the king wanted me dead, all he had to do was order me to die.

We turned down one hallway and I knew that we’d reached our destination. The torches were lit, and illuminated a heavy door. It was unpainted and solid like a great oak. Forbidding. Cold. It was the only door in the hallway.

I couldn’t see their face as they unlocked it, but the set of their shoulders was unhappy. “You can still go back.” Fa said, not looking at me.

Whatever was at the end of this journey, I wasn’t going to like it.

“Open the door.” I said. My voice felt loud. Wrong for this dark place, this empty tomb. Too late to turn back now.

“As you say.” Fa said, eyes forward. Shoulders tight. The lock clicked open like a funeral bell.

-

The smell hits me like pommel to the head. It was the smell of rotting meat, of dead bodies left too long in the sun. It was a flashback to steel in the war, to cutting into the enemy and having guts spill out. The room is tall, and long. A rectangle set into the mountain. There was one long hallway splitting it neatly in half, and a dozen doors on either side.

A prison?

"Why are we here?" I asked, and that was a mistake. The smell coated the my mouth, until all I could taste was rot.

Fa said nothing. Did nothing. They held open the heavy door in clear invitation.

“Fa.” I stared at the room beyond the doorway. “Where is the Lady Wen’s brother?”

Please.

Please, let me be wrong. Let this be a tasteless joke.

"I can take you back. It would be like you were never here." Fa said, the north wind in their voice.

The offer appealed to me. I could go back, tell the princess that it was a mission failure. The most they would do was whip me. Whatever was in the room would get me into so much more trouble. “Why did you bring me here in the first place?”

Fa met my eyes for the first time and I realized for the first time that their hands were shaking. They pressed against their face again, like it hurt. “Desperation.” They said. “I can’t - I can’t help them.”

I closed my eyes. Fa needed my help — Fa was terrified — and didn’t know how to ask. Just like that, I knew I was going into that room. It was in the oaths I swore. To uphold the law of the king. To protect the lowborn. To conduct myself with grace, and dignity, and most of all, with honor.

I swallowed back the bile in my throat and stepped into the room.

I promised.

-

My stomach bottoms out like a car on a snowy mountain road; nothing but frantic circles and and inevitable drop.

The man could be called alive -- in the barest sense of the word. I could see his chest moving up and down. All the fingers on his left hand were gone. Most of his skin was just gone — red muscle and yellow-white bones left out for the world to see. What wasn't covered in meticulous wounds was scarred to the point of being unrecognizable. Chains held him up like some sort of demented wall painting. The body stirred with life at the sound of the door opening.

It looked up and — Zhou Wen's eyes stared back at me from the face of a corpse. One of them was gone; just an empty hole in the middle of his face.

I knew him. I thought Wen looked like her mother, but there was her cheekbones under the heavy scarring. There Her father. How long had he been here?

"Our king is very wise." I heard Fa move to my side, but I couldn't take my eyes away from the skinless man. “Wise to the ways of the cowards and traitors. We found him and brought him back the very first week.”

Two months. How is he alive?

I’m going to be sick.

I stumbled to a corned and heaved out my breakfast.

I leaned against the wall and shut my eyes. It didn’t help. The terrible sight of Wen’s eyes in that ruined face would stay with me to the end of my days. Being a solider attracts all sorts. Rapists. Looters. Sociopaths. But this — I didn’t have the words for this. It was evil. It was wrong.

It was human is a very terrible way.

I swallowed twice before I could speak. "Fa. Who…?" Words failed me.

"I am not permitted to say."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" I said, jabbing my finger at this adviser. He didn't even flinch. Nobody was home. "Fa, this is insane. He's a traitor but this is — " My stomach roiled again.

Fa shook their head. "I can’t."

“Fa —”

They lowered their hood for the first time. I stared. “I can’t. Jeong.” It looked like a mask. The skin was half melted on one side and nothing but scar tissue on the other. Their nose was gone. It was like someone took a chisel to their face and carved.

I look at their face and something inside me shatters. I know. I know that only the king could do this. The law and the order of the kingdom. Fa has served the king from when they were both children.

He was the king.

I owed him my breath and my life and my training. The only honor was in serving him. His right was absolute, his will was unquestioned.

The pillar of the king that stood in my heart cracked and I wanted to weep.

"How do I tell the princess this?" I demanded, speaking more to myself the to anyone in the room. Your father is a monster, and a tyrant. A monster.

I can’t.

“I can’t.” I said. “I can’t do it— “

A high whine of pain cut me off and there was a rattle of chains. I looked at Fa. They turned away, but I saw the shame on their ruined mess of a face. Then I looked to Lord Zhou my heart a heavy slow countdown in my chest. He was sitting up, shifting in his chains. It was the first sign of life that I'd seen.

I followed his empty gaze to the furthest corner of the room. A little cage sat there, one I’d been too preoccupied to notice before. Too horrified. It was the kind that you might keep a bird in, if a large one. Inside it was a pile of meat, writhing with maggots and flies. 


I stared at it. It was the source of the noise but…  

Then the meat moved.

I recoiled when a pair of empty sockets opened, and the mouth opened and the emptiness of it looked like a black hole. It’s ears were gone. It moaned something unintelligible. It was small, oddly unfinished looking. I realized why. Both arms and legs were gone. It was the size of a child, if the child was missing all of it skin and oozing everywhere.

“Shh, shh,” Lord Zhou whispered.  

Found him, I thought.      

Cold stone, still sticky with blood. Rough and solid under my hand. My head spun. There was a roaring in my ears. I held onto the world like it was trying to throw me. My scar burned and I clutched at my face. He could. He would. He had.

In the part of my brain that wasn’t occupied with throwing up, rage built like a personal bonfire.The next few minutes were fuzzy, tainted by the smell of rotting meat. It felt like grief. It felt like breaking.   

This was —  

Monstrous.

Quietly, I let go of the hope that I held onto, before it shattered in my hands. Clutching something that sharp always promised blood.

I felt wounded.  

Fa dropped to their knees beside me. "You have to breath, Jeong!"

Betrayal is the taste of copper in the air. the room was so full of it that it was a wonder the air itself wasn't red, li ke the king’s eyes. I scrabbled at the ground, gasping. No tears came.

Uphold the king’s will. Conduct myself with honor.

I couldn’t do both.

 

When I can breath again, the first thing I do is grab Fa's collar and drag them in. "Why didn't you do anything?" I snarl in their face. "You knew! And you did nothing ."

"When I was born they put my crib next to his,” They say, barely above a whisper. “All of my life was spent loving him. He could do no wrong. Any punishments was because I was too slow or stupid for his tastes.” And oh the agony in their voice, the truth in their eyes. “He used to sneak me sweets after hard days of training. He gave me Li . If he’d done it to me, I could have forgiven it. It wasn't supposed to be like this.”

Up close, I recognize the blade marks on their ruined face. Like a reading a book in reverse, the technique goes from sloppy to skillful, years of abuse written with a knife.

 

I let Fa drop; I can’t bear touching them any longer. My skin crawls.There’s blood on the floor and blood on my hands, on their clothes where my hands touched it. How much of it belonged to a child?

My stomach flips again. This was one line that I never crossed. I’ve killed my own squadmates for less.


They knew and did nothing.

 

All this time, and they did nothing .


They didn’t try to get up. It may have been the only thing that saved them from my blade. "I only brought you here because — I think he grows tired of me. He let's you get away with things only I could in our youth. Even Li wouldn’t get away with opposing him with just lashes. After I am... gone, you will be his new shadow. I thought that you should know now, because I like you. While I can still ease you into it." They look nothing like themselves, hunched on the floor. Where is the grace, the sly smile?

"No." I shaped the word, let it build up inside me like armor around my heart. Unshakable, like the roots of a mountain. Word and prayer all in one exhale.

 

I’ve killed for less.  

"I know that it’s unpleasant, but — "

My legs are shaky, but they hold me up. I steady myself against the wall. "I said no. That's not — that's not what I want."

 

Fa stared up at me like I’d spoken in tongues. "What does that have to do with anything? He’s the king."  

 

"I know." I said.

 

And I'd forgotten: a king is not a god.

 

Bai is a man.

 

A fire filled my heart, spreading out. Fear fueled it, rage fed it. Only my heart and mind and a conviction was left, like the night before a desperate fight.

 

I was emptied out, I was gone.

 

I’ve killed for less.

 

"We have to get them out of here." I said, standing over them.

 

"We can’t. The cuffs are welded." Fa said quietly. They were never going to take them off.

 

A clinking of chains drew my eyes to Lord Zhou. He was staring at me, standing on shaky legs, mutilated hands braced against the wall. He saw me looking and gestured me over.

 

My eyes stay dry when I approach him. The smell is almost overwhelming up close, and I know that I won’t eat meat for a long time after this.  

 

Do not flinch.

 

"Don’t worry. I'll get you out," I said. "Don't try to talk, please." Reaching out, I traced the outside of the manacles.

 

They were tight. I couldn’t get a finger in between them and his skin.

 

Do not cry.

 

“I will get you out.” I promised.

 

He shuddered away from my hands, my words, my touch. Another whine escapes him and I realise that his tongue was gone too. He couldn’t even comfort his son. His remaining eye — his daughter's eye — is barely open. He meets my gaze.

 

They aren't empty anymore. There’s a terrible light behind them. He gestured again, more urgently this time, down to my waist.

 

I followed his gaze down to my dagger; to the little disk of wood.

 

Mercy.

 

No. I almost said, out of horrified reflex. No, I can't.

 

He straightened, painfully slow, chains clinking, and held my gaze. The man he must have been shone through his face. I could believe this was the face of a lord. He lifted his shaking arm and pointed his stump at the cage, than he looked at my dagger again.

 

The message was clear.

 

You can, and you will.

 

How long could a child survive without skin, limbs, eyes?

 

If I was at home, it might have been possible.

 

If only I was home.

 

"How long do I have before the King comes back?" I said. My voice was flat and hard to my own ears.

 

"If you're lucky? Two hours. Our lord enjoys taking out his stress on his little projects."

 

"Is that what happened to you?"

 

They don't react. "We don’t have much time."

 

"I understand," I said, barely getting the words out around the lump in my throat. No time to cut through thick iron chains. No time to bury bodies.

 

I unsheathed my gift. Mercy. “Your daughter will be safe.”

 

Lord Zhou smiled for the first time. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

 

He closes his eyes when the blade comes down.



-



There’s fresh blood on the floor. Soon enough it would dry, because there was almost none left in them.  I made it quick. I pressed my hands together, blood on each of them and I prayed for the dead, and for the oath I was going to break.

 

Fa shifted behind me. "What now?"

 

Age pressed down on my shoulders. It seemed impossible that I just turned sixteen. Surely, ten years had passed since I entered this room.

 

I was tired.

 

Weary, numb rage is the only thing keeping me going.

 

Fa’s exhale was loud in the absence of pained moans. “Our lord… he won’t forgive this, Jeong. Not even for you.”  The warning note in their voice was loud and clear.

 

My face tightened into a smile of it's own violation. It felt like nothing but a vicious mockery, like my heart was washed out. I was tainted . If a god offered me a way home right then, I would’ve turned away.

 

How could I face my family, with hands like these?

 

"That won't be a problem." I say.

 

Before we leave, I cut off some hair from each of them and rip of clean part of my outer robe. Careful, careful. I fold them separately into the cloth and tuck it into next to my heart. I could at least give the Zhous something to bury.

 

I close my eyes, remembering that field where this started. Phantom armor settles heavy on my frame. Soldiers and lords, both dead. Both mourned.

 

The more things change.

 

“Let’s go.” I said.

 

Leave the corpses there, let them rot.

 

They were just meat now.




-



Lady Wen’s maids take one look at me and pale. I glance down at myself. Mud. Blood. It’s probably on my face too.  “Go away.” I tell them.

 

I don’t want Wen to have to do this in front of an audience.

 

They do.

 

I walk into the lady’s quarters with Fa trailing me like a second shadow. We don’t talk.

 

Wen doesn't look up when we enter her inner rooms. She has her head buried in her hands, and she’s wearing a thin silk nightdress that emphasises her fragile shoulders. She looks her age for once. “I said that I wanted no visitors -- oh. Guardsman Jeong. ”

 

She hastily ties up her loose robes, but it’s too late. There are bruises on her delicate arms. Handprints, dark enough to show through thin silk. Her eyes are wide. “This is highly improper, Guardsman -”

 

"Who,”  I said, and it comes out low. Dangerous. “Did this ."

 

Wen flinched down, hiding her hollow eyes. Her hands tugged her gaping robe shut hiding teeth marks from my view. "No one, my lord protector."

 

"This is not nothing." I said. I feel cold. "Anyone harming you is my enemy. I am your protector. Who dares .  Speak and I will end them. They will never touch you again."

 

She flinched back, but she met my eyes. “You would not believe me.” Her smile was a bitter thing. “No one would.”

 

I've killed for less.

 

A terrible thought spread like ink in pure water.

 

Who would dare break the king's protection?

 

"The King." It was barely a breath, horrified and foul tasting. Surely not.

 

The lady jerked and her terrified eyes met my own. “How -”

 

Bile rose in my throat. If I had anything left to lose, it would have come up.

 

Wen was only a few years older than his daughter. Three years younger than me.  

 

"My brother-" Lady Wen choked it off. "He said if I didn't, if I said anything - he would punish my brother. It was what was owed to the empire. He said - he said it wouldn’t hurt." The tears fell from her eyes and she crumbled.

 

The world was spinning.

 

(How could he? How could anyone? )

 

“I believe you,” I said. Calm. “I believe you, Lady Wen.”

 

The girl sobbed. “Why? I thought - you love the king.”

 

Reaching into my pocket, I stepped forward.

 

She flinched.

 

I froze.

 

Neither of us said anything. Than I took two precise steps back, so I wouldn't loom over her. I went to my knees, and bowed in the full formal style. “Lady Wen of the house of Zhou,” I said, still bowed. I drew out the carefully wrapped hair out and held it in upraised hands, like a supplicant to a god. “Your father and brother have passed from the world. Long live the master of the house of Zhou.”

 

With her father and his heir dead, she was the eldest of their blood.

 

“...No.” She whispered. “No, no that can’t be. The king said -”

 

“I know.”

 

I waited until her shaking hands took the hair. ThenI rose, still keeping my eyes of the floor.

 

Cloth rustled as she unfolded it. Wen made a tiny hurt sound. “He said if I behaved… he said.

 

“He lied.” I said.  

 

Wen couldn’t take her eyes off her clenched hands. When she tore her eyes away, a fire lived in them. The girl was gone, burned up it it. Revenge breathed with her body. Revenge cried with her tears. Revenge spoke with her voice. “King Bai will never pay for this. He is the king, and no one will do anything. I am powerless before his power. What have I done, to deserve this?”

 

I swallowed and did the hardest thing I knew. I told the truth. "Nothing. You have done nothing at all.”

 

“Than why?”

 

The agony in that question.

 

The why, my heart cried out with her.

 

“Because the world is unfair. Bad things happen to good people. Monsters breath. Monsters smile. Monsters say ‘I am king’ and no one says anything, because often, that's all it takes.” My voice is like a tightrope. One wrong move and it shatters on the ground below. “Because you can never go back. Please don’t make your mother cry.” I said.

 

I can never go back.

 

But her? She had family waiting for her.  

 

Wen stares at me, but at least the fire in her is doused; only embers remained. “What am I going to do now?”

 

“You’re going to go find the princess. She’ll need freinds around her in the coming days.”

 

Wen froze. “And you? What will you do, Jeong?”

 

I stand, rising to my full height. Let the cold settle into my heart, my mind, my eyes. “The only thing I’m good at.” My hand rested on Mercy.




-



The cold lasts through the walk to the chambers and I clung to it with desperate strength. It kept back the betrayal, the pain. The shame.




How long could my heart hold out, when all I wanted to do was weep?

 

This time, Fa walked at my side.

 

I allowed it. In the cold, I knew that it might be their failure , but it was not their fault . They didn’t ask to be brainwashed and abused from birth. They were the symptom of the rot, not the source. Still, I was glad they didn't try to touch me. I would have taken off their hands if they did.

 

At this time of night, King Bai would be wrapping up the last of the days business in his office. We stood outside the door not speaking.

 

You can't change a king.

 

You can only kill one.

 

"Let's get this over with," I said, and slid the door open.

 

The king was standing next the shelf of scrolls in the back, face in a rare moment of faint contemplation. His hair and eyes shone in the polished mirrored lamps. Li stood relaxed but bored at his side.

 

He tilted his head. “Jeong. Fa. Haven’t seen either of you around today.”

 

“My, my. Our Jeong slacking off? That sounds very strange.” Bais said, still not looking up. Still the corner of his smile turned up. He was in a rare good mood.

 

It was almost reflex to relax, to smile back and make a joke. This was one of your favorite sides to the king. Pride always filled my heart when I coaxed a flicker of a smile out of him.

 

Now, I let it wash over me like a wave. Hold onto that ice in my heart. “You have lied to me, King Bai.” I said quietly.

 

Instantly, three sets of eyes snapped to me.

 

I meet the king's eyes, without bowing, without backing down. I let the ice show.

 

“Jeong! Show some respect,” Li hissed. “Fa, shut ‘em up!”

 

Fa did nothing.

 

“Interesting.” Bai let the scroll snap shut. “You have never made such accusations before, Jeong. What has changed?”

 

I unfolded my hands from my sleeves and placed the key to that hell hole with a soft click on the table. Such a small item.

 

The king glanced at it, without any apparent reaction. “Ah.”

 

I met his eyes again.

 

“What? What is that?” Li said. “My lord. Sorry.”

 

I ignore him and I draw my knife. “Before I kill you, Do you have anything to say? Anything at all?”

 

Blade left sheath and Li stepped in front of the king. His mouth was turned down. “I don’t understand what’s going on, but you know I can't let you do that.”

 

“Fa,” I said.   “Take off your mask.”

 

Li frowned. “Their scars? I already know about those.”

 

“Do you? Do you know where they came from? Do you know who’s hand carved them open? Did you ever ask? I don’t think you did. Get out of my way, Li.” I would go through him if I had to.

 

I have killed for less.

 

“Li, she has obviously gone mad. Please take her down as gently as possible. We will have the physician look at her in the morning.” The king said. “Fa, we are very displeased with the Zhou’s demise. You have much to answer for. Assist Li.”

 

Fa’s eyes fell to their feet. “My lord.” They said.

 

I tensed. I could take Li or Fa, but not both at once.

 

Fa didn’t move.

 

“Fa?” Li said, taking one step forward.

 

Their throat bobbed once and they raised their eyes. “My deepest regrets, your majesty. I will not be able to follow those orders.”

 

I exhaled.

 

Li faltered. “Is… is what Jeong said right? Fa?”

 

Fa gave a painful looking smile. “My services were unsatisfactory.”

 

Slowly, Li turned to king who just seemed bored and a little irritated. He must have seen something because Li’s sword clattered the ground.

 

I kick it away, then twist and grab the guard captain by the arm, throwing him out of the way. He hits the ground, but not before Fa pins him with terrible efficiency.

 

Then there is nothing between me and the King. I lunge. “Do you have any last words?”

 

"We are king and lord," Bai said. His head was held high, his arms perfectly relaxed with a dagger at his throat. “We do not explain our actions to our servants. His red eyes are confident, and a little puzzled.

 

My heart sinks. "Do you even understand what you've done?" I ask. No poison, no hate, no madness. Just a very calm, confused man - like one of his things suddenly spoke to him about morals. "It's wrong. You can- can't just torture people like that. People aren’t things.Okay?"

 

"They belong to us. Are we not King?"

 

"Yes, but -"

 

"Is not our will and order the law? Are we not chosen of heaven, set apart from all others, born to rule? Are our subjects not our possessions? Why then should we not use them as we see fit? It is an honor."

 

I said nothing. Nothing could be said. Horror took my throat, nausea my tongue. Ice cracked and shattered, leaving despair behind.

 

He didn't understand.

 

He would never understand.

 

"The hand does not harm the master, Jeong. Put down your knife. You dishonor me." His hair is loose around his achily familiar face. His eyes are a brilliant red. Crickets sang in the gardens.

 

Down, far away in the kitchens I could smell something sweet baking.

 

My hand drops a centimeter. My brain was screaming at me, in my own voice: Dishonor, the death toll. You do not harm the king. You exist to serve him, this is the proper way of things, this is right --

 

Your hand falls down anyway and Fa makes a low, despairing sound.

 

He smiles a bit, a real true one. there was never any doubt in his eyes that I would obey him. "Our jeong is strong willed and honorable. We always knew that you would go far, perhaps even surpass Li with time, but this has exceeded even our predictions. Well done. There will be punishment, of course - You have broken my possessions. Otherwise you would learn. After Fa has been dealt with." Gently, he placed his hand on my cheek. His nails were cold and sharp. They didn't dig in, but it was a possibility. A dagger hanging over my head. More deadly than a knife to my throat. All that power is such delicate hands

 

The king tsked, eyes soft. "Stop your tears, Jeong. This is a happy day."

 

My eyes burned and my chest was heaving. My face felt wet. How long had I been crying?

 

Because my king ordered it, I summoned up a smile. "Thank you, your majesty. i will always be grateful for what you have done for me."

 

Then I slid Mercy neatly into his ribs.

 

There was the sound of something breaking. Cold calm spreads fast as frost from the place where my loyalty's shards cut into me.

 

He stares at me. “I am king. I am your king.”

 

“You are.” I agreed.

 

He looks at the dagger sticking out of his chest with an almost childlike look of confusion. His hand tugs and blood fountains out. He staggers, and I don’t catch him. I let him fall. The king’s chest goes still. His glassy eyes stare up at the ceiling.

 

I stoop for my dagger. Studying it, I snapped the little tassel off the end and let it drop. Than I clean the blood off what I can. You don’t sheath a blade wet. It’s disrespectful.

 

Li cried out, agony in his voice. “My lord! I’ll kill you, you bastard - how could you.”

 

I turned.

 

Fa said nothing at all. Neither did they look away from the pool of red blood spreading across the white stone floor, soaking through the soft carpet. Their scars pulled awkwardly to one side. I couldn’t read their expression.

 

Never have I felt so alien. So alone.

 

That was the worst part.

 

He was untouchable, until he wasn't anymore.

 

All it took was a dagger to the heart.

 

Strange. The blood of his king is just as warm as any blood I've felt. I still feel cold.

 

“I’m leaving.” I said. A guard who raised a hand to their sworn lord was worse than trash. No one would hire me, and no one would ever trust me again. The princess would have to kill me.

 

I’m getting sick of dealing with royalty anyway.

 

I fled the palace just ahead of the assassins.

 

Fa wasn’t one of them. I don’t know what happened to them.

 

I found the red hand, and the rest is history.

 

-



Looking down at the Jeong’s sleeping face, Soo-won let a hope collapse into rubble. He pressed his palms against his closed eyes until stars showed up. Hope he didn't even know he held until now. That there was some way to incorporate Jeong into his long term plan. The longer he knew them, the more he hoped.

 

Soo-won was selfish, and he wanted to keep them forever.

 

He'd looked . Turned the plan backwards and inside out looking for a single way Jeong would approve of a coup. Nothing and more nothing. Blackmail would disgust Jeong. Lying would be found out. King Il wasn’t some sort of monster, like their king was.

 

They thought he was a good man.

 

Soo-won could get them to do it. All he had to do was completely destroy any trust they gave him.

 

Jeong who was good , Jeong who spoiled Yona and Hak, Jeong who has already killed one king.

 

Soo-won was selfish.

 

He wanted to keep them.

 

The prince sighed and found his hands clutching his hair, bound with Jeong’s gift.

 

Determination steadied his hands.

 

He pulled the cover up on jeong, stood, and left. He had some planning to do.

 

There was time.

 

There had to be.


-

Chapter Text

 

-


I leaned against the wall looking out into the garden, enjoying the sunlight. Soo-won was kneeling in the dirt looking at what looked like a bug, with Yona standing and backing away from the oblivious prince. The ladies around them reacted by running away.

 

Hang in there, Yona.

 

Hak shaded his eyes. “What are they doing now? Why keep going outside now -- the attack was only three weeks ago. Soo-won makes life so difficult.”

 

“If you want to play, go play.” I said, eyes closed, hands behind my head. Keeping watch wasn’t hard. No more assassins showed up; the nobles dared to emerge into the gardens again, like wary foxes coming out their dens

 

I cracked open an eye. He was staring at me. “What?”

 

“You’re happier.”

 

I blinked. “Am I?”

 

“Yeah. I don’t know what it is, but I think you should keep it up. It makes Yona sad when you go into your head. ”

 

I blink. He sounded so serious.

 

“You stop talking and get this look on your face. You - disappear. Gramps is the same way, when he thinks about the past.” Hak slumped next to me and pulled up a handful of grass. “Soo-won gets quiet when you do.”

 

I stared up into the blue sky. The wind tugged green leaves and flower petals into a dance. “Sorry.”

 

Hak shakes his body like a dog shedding water. “You don’t need to apologise. Like I said, you haven't been doing as often lately. Keep it up. No one likes seeing you like that; especially Lord Soo-won.” Hak glanced over at the two royals still keeling in the dirt, and made a face. “What a moron. If she doesn’t like the bugs she should just say so.”

 

I shrugged. “All kids in love are stupid. It’s a requirement.”  

 

Hak kept looking at them. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

 

The conversation stalls there.

 

Honor is the lifeblood of the Kouka culture, the same as Xing. Soo-won would have had the right to kill me. Turn me over for an alliance with Xing.  a guard on that the y knew turned on their last lord, who -- by their standards had lost all claim on honor?

 

I’m owed nothing.

 

King Il would have.

 

Anything was sacrificed in the name of peace.

 

Like he heard my thoughts, Soo-won turned, eyes searching. His eyes met mine and his face lit up. He waved me over, palms covered in mud. “Jeong, come look at this!” He shouted, hands cupped over his mouth. Getting dirt all over his face.

 

A single word and Soo-won could have his uncle's favor.

 

It was like exhaling, breaking through to the top of the water after years of holding my breath.

 

Safety.

 

I smile back.

 

-


Soo-won’s study is only quiet in the early mornings. Maids, public officials, and messengers are all busy elsewhere, giving Soo-won a much needed break. I flipped through a book while he went over paperwork. The characters still escaped me, but the art was beautiful.

 

“Jeong, why don’t you go back home?” Soo-won asked, idly twirling a pen in his fingers. It flashes in the light. “You miss it.”

 

Recently, he’s been asking me tentative questions. Nothing big or too personal. Just -- little things. Small stories about my home, or my life in Xing. About the Red hand and Grandmother.

 

It’s the most personal question that he’s asked me. "Can’t. It’s too far. It’d take… years."

 

It wasn’t a lie.

 

Maybe time would bring back the world I knew. Maybe I could get there the long way. By then, I’d be dead, and my body would be dust.

 

It’s too far .

 

Soo-won taps his pen against the desk. He’s eighteen next month and it shows. The baby fat has melted off, leaving a sweet faced young man. Teenage girls have started following him with bright eyes and red faces. “If you could go home, would you?”

 

My words get stuck when I look at Soo-won, because I hear what he’s asking.

 

Would you leave me behind?

 

After one long moment, I shrug with a nonchalance that I don’t feel. “It’s moot point. I can’t go back.”

 

I rub my arms, to chase away the sudden chill.

 

If you could go home, would you?

 

Soo-won leans his head on his hands, watching me with half lidded eyes. The moment stretches but I meet his eyes without flinching. Finally he smiles. “I don't know what brought you here, but I’m glad it did.”  

 

Me too.

 

The thought skipped across my mind like a stone, there and gone again.

 

I meant it.

 

I was glad that I was here, that I got to meet Hak and Yona and Grandmother. Even Jia, and the Red Hand, and the King’s guard.

 

My heart contracts.

 

I smile, and it’s only a little wry. “You’re a flatterer.”


-


The king summoned Soo-won and I his study. Well, Soo-won was summoned, but I tagged along anyway.

 

The king gave me an amused glance. “Jeong. A pleasure.”

 

I shrugged unapologetically. Following him around was what I got payed for.

 

The fact that Soo-won got a little tense whenever he spoke to his uncle had nothing to do with it.

 

Soo-won smiled. "She is very stubborn. Uncle, you wanted to speak to me?"

 

I settled at the table and poured the two and myself some tea.

 

"Thank you, Jeong. Nephew,we must speak of something that has been put off for far too long." The king actually shed his happy go lucky facade.

 

Soo-won’s reaction was almost invisible. "What might that be, Uncle?" To anyone else, his face would be pleasantly neutral if a little air headed. To me, his shoulders were set and tense.

 

Was I going to have to fight our way out of here?

 

The king paused. Then he sighed. "I am sorry, my boy. There's no delicate way to put this. Are there any girls that you've had your eye on?"

 

I blinked. Than blinked again.

 

Soo-won’s eyes went wide, which was a jaw drop for anyone else. "W- what?"

 

"You're almost eighteen, Soo-won. It's far past time for you to make a proper match. You can't run around with Hak, Yona and Jeong for the rest of your life. I've been refusing the nobility out of respect for your right to choose, but I can't put it off forever. So is there anyone that you have in mind?"

 

"Um -- I haven't --"

I've never seen Soo-won flustered before. His face goes red and his hands flail like he doesn't know what to do with them.

 

I’m in no state to appreciate it. The amusement bubbles up in me is far outweighed by the sheer confusion that fills me.

 

Soo-won?

 

Engaged?

 

Does not compute.

 

I can still picture him getting into a scuffle with Hak, or coming to Grandmother's house covered in mud and showing off his latest weird trinket, or a fish he caught. He used to tie up the sleeves of his robes to imitate mine.

 

I realized that I'm staring into space by now. But what a weird thing to think about. A part of me, deep in the back of mind is still deeply unsettled.  I tune back into the  conversation.

 

"-- And I’m far too busy now to take a wife. It would be unfair to her." Soo-won said.

 

The king rubbed his chin. “You make an excellent point. Families are a full time commitment. Very well. A year shouldn’t be a problem, but I can promise nothing beyond that. You should begin thinking of the match you wish to make. Your feelings on the matter will always be considered."

 

Soo-won's shoulders relaxed down, and he smiled. "Thank you uncle. I'll start preparing a list immediately."

 

King Il smiled as well, before a deep sadness flashed across his face. "Do not thing me uncaring, Nephew. Your father wished to see you happy, and I wish to fulfill his dream. I want only what is best for you."

 

Soo-won bowed. "You are very kind, uncle."

 

His hands are white knuckled his his lap, where only I can see them.

 

I look at soo won now, trying to understand. Sitting calmly, slender fingers wrapped around his cup, clear eyes sharp and intelligent, hair that looked like fine strands of gold in the sunlight.

 

Oh.

 

He's an adult.

 

THe thought hits me like a freight train. He's older then I was when I killed my first man. He's older than my little brother. If I was in the other world, he'd graduating from high school and - he’d be considered legal. Able to make his own decisions.

 

Here, he's practical an old maid.

 

“Soo-won’s getting married?” I realized that I asked the words out loud.



"Thank you uncle, Goodbye," Soo-won said, manically cheerful, drowning me out. He drags me out of my seat, keeps me between him and the king, and shoves me out the door. "Go go go, before he changes his mind!"

 

When I wasn't looking, Soo-won grew. He's still shorter then me, but not by much.

 

And the king wanted him to get married. Engaged. Whatever.

 

Soo-won dragged me down the hallways; none of the servants looked up anymore, used to seeing me being towed around by Yona, Soo-won, and Hak.

 

"Married. Married." I said. “ You?

 

He frowned. “What’s wrong with me?”

 

I pause.

 

Well. Nothing really. Soo-won’s a prince, he’s smart, and he’s got the face of a angel. I’m already used to driving off admirers - men and women - at parties.

 

“You’re like, twelve. ” The complaint summed up my feelings nicely.  

 

“What? I’m eighteen , Jeong. Did Yona finally hit you too hard?”

 

Culture clash strikes again. I shake my head. “Never Mind. What’s going on with the marriage thing?”

 

Soo-won groans. "Please stop mentioning that. I don’t want to think about it."

 

“Hak,” I said. “Is going to laugh forever.

 

Soo-won blanches. “Do not tell him. Don’t tell Yona. Don’t tell anyone.”

 

Don’t tell anyone anything, huh? A very Soo-won attitude. “Weeelll. I might not if you make it worth my while.”

 

That got me a set of narrowed eyes. “What do you want?”

 

Score. “You help me pick out Yona’s present, and you help pay for it.”

 

“That’s it?” He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, looking up at me from under his lashes. “Are you sure that’s all you want?”

 

I felt like a wolf in a trap.

 

Danger.

 

Abort, abort, abort!

 

I gave a nonchalant shrug. “Well, Yona can’t reject my present when I tell her that you helped me pick it out.”

 

Soo-won waited for a moment, and every second was torture. Finally, the strange look in his eyes left and he smiled in that familiar cheerful airhead and hooked his arm around mine. “Is that all? I suppose this has nothing to do with the frequent trips down to that jeweler from Xing. What’s the catch?”

 

A bead of sweat rolled down my spine. It felt like I just got out of a very dangerous moment by the skin of my teeth. “Nothing at all.” I said. The jeweler did good work, but it was expensive as hell.

 

Soo-won rolled his eyes. “This is going to drain my purse, isn’t it?”

 

I coughed. “No, not at all.”

 

He sighed. “You’re a terrible liar, my friend. The things I put up with in the name of competent service. I could have had a bodyguard who didn’t extort me. I could have had one that listened .”

 

I laughed. “Sounds boring. You’re lucky to have me.”

 

I went on walking for three more paces, before realizing that he had fallen behind. I turned to look at him.

 

The prince had stopped in the middle of the hallway, staring off into space with a thoughtful look on his face. It was like he just froze mid stride. He met my eyes.

 

“Soo-won?”

 

He blinked and the look was replaced with a smile. He caught up to me and tucked his arms around mine, like he was one of the court ladies. “I am lucky to have you.” He said.

 

The honesty in his voice sent heat through my chest and cheeks. “Ugh, stop it. You’re getting all mushy on me.”

 

He just smiled and shook his head.

 

We walked in content silence.


-


Yona's fifteenth birthday arrives like an avalanche. The party preparations take over the palace for a good month - nobles are invited, servants are scurrying around, dignitaries are appeased, and the gifts come flowing in.

 

Panic fills my lungs like water. Like blood.

 

One more year.

 

Some things have faded over time, but the coup is burned into memory like a red hot brand. Soo-won and Yona, Yona and the dragons…

 

I don’t know what to do.

 

King Il is a good man, doing his best.

 

It wasn’t enough.

 

When we go out into the city, the poor and the starving are higher than I can count, and it’s getting worse. The jeweler told me in hushed whispers that only the commissions from the nobles are keeping the shop in business. The market has no fresh foods because bandits run rampant in the country; they take what they want and leave nothing for the farmers. Merchants are scarce and scared. Slavery is rampant.

 

The air hums with tension that I recognize after I killed the king. Discontent.

 

A riot is brewing.

 

One more year.

 

Shaking my head, I grinned down at Yona from over my shoulder. "Having fun?"

The princess glared at me, her hair a frazzled mess. She's been dodging one of her more persistent suitors all night -- the second son of the fire tribe. It's a hilarious game of cat and mouse; I’ve been designated a safe zone.

 

"Quiet! He's coming this way."

I keep grinning.

The little noble peaks into the doorway.

 

I raised an eyebrow at him.

 

His face drains of blood and he shuts the door with a yelp.

I may have had a little talk with him about how no means no.

Yona peaks out. "Is he gone?"

"Yeah. Probably gone to whine to his father about me some more." There were some unfortunate correlations to Draco Malfoy. The last time he tried it, his father tried to ream me out for disrespect , right in front of the king and the whole household. He tried to get me fired . No one took him seriously. The king outright dismissed him and Soo-won's shoulders shook with mirth the entire time.

 

Yona makes a face. "He's so annoying. Look at this abomination he got me for my birthday."  She pulled out a hairpin from her robes.

 

“It’s… shiny.” I said. That might be the only polite thing I could have said about it. Were those… dragons? Or they might be malformed fish. Poor craftsmanship. The eyes were emeralds the size of my pinky, in a shade that would definitely clash magnificently with Yona’s hair.

 

“It’s tasteless. Gaudy! I’d be shamed out of court if anyone saw me wearing this!”

 

I snickered.

 

“Why does he think that I’ll marry him? He’s not my type . He’s not -- ” She broke off and went red. He’s not Soo-won. Yona barreled on. “Everything I say to him gets ignored!”

 

I shrug. "Boys listen to violence when they don’t listen to words.”

 

“What is that supposed to mean?”

 

“Kick him in the dick."

 

She snorted a surprised laugh, then glared at me. "Stop being funny; we're supposed to be rivals!"

 

A few months ago, after the assassination attempt, Yona got it into her head that I was a rival ‘ as a woman ’, whatever that means. I was still recovering when she wouldn’t shut up about it and eventually I just nodded and smiled.

 

“And yet you still use me to scare off your suitors.” I pointed out, folding my hands into my sleeves

 

Her eyes darted to the door like the very mention would bring him back. “That’s different. Protecting me is your job, after all.”

 

“Soo-won is my job. Hak is your minder.”

 

Yona sniffs. “Details.”

 

I roll my eyes. "Sure, sure. Don't you have a party to get ready for?"

 

The princess’s nose rose even higher in the air. "A royal is never late. Everyone else is simply early. Not that you'd know anything about that ."

 

Aww, look at her trying to be all high and mighty. I scuff up her hair. "That's me. Shameless."

 

"Jeong! My hair is awful enough without your help, stop it."



-

I laugh and send her off.

 

-

 

Yona’s  party is lavish, even by Kouka standards. Wine flows like river water, the food is art, and Yona is at the center of it all, glowing in the attention. Gifts are piled high on tables, taller than me, and the amount of gold on display would have paid for food for a small town for three years. I swirled the sake cup some servant pressed on me. The party was loud. I stayed to the side, because a bubble of quiet still followed me around after all these years. Servants didn't stare anymore -- but I was too different, to other, to intimidating for the Nobles to handle. The fact that they saw me as a commoner ‘above my station’ didn't help.

 

I should be more worried.

 

Except I don't care .

 

Their vanities, their petty little shows of powers, their shifting politics -- it was just noise. It slid by me, and they can tell. It might be suicidal. It was definitely stupid. Casual attitudes were not made for the royal court. It's full of people who cared about respect, whether it’s owed or not. Apathy was the main emotion that I felt for this glittering party.

 

No wonder Yona is so naive.

 

When your life looks like this, it’s hard to believe that people are starving to death just outside the palace walls. Who would bother a fifteen year old girl with that kind of knowledge? Princess or not, the rest of the world might as well not exist.

 

"Jeong. Why aren’t you enjoying yourself?"

 

I glance down. Think of the devil and she will appear.

 

Like my thought summoned her, Yona -- resplendent in green and brown robes -- frowned at me. "What's wrong? You're not allowed to be sad on my birthday."

 

Fifteen years old.

 

It seems so young. Too young to be considered mature in any way.

 

I was younger then that when I killed my first man.

 

I shrugged. "Just thinking."

 

Yona will never have to go through that.

 

Never.

 

She shifts and waves at someone over my behind me. “I’ll be right there!”  Then she crosses her arms. “You got me a present, right?”

 

I could feel the melancholy melting away. Yona really was a good kid, if a spoiled one. “What happened to being rivals? I don’t think rivals are allowed to demand presents from each other.”

 

She sniffs. “It is my birthday. I’m mature enough to put it aside for one day.”

 

“Is that so?” I said, mock serious. “How generous of you, my princess.”

 

“It is generous, isn’t it? I’m quite impressed with my willingness to compromise.”

 

Yona looked so pleased with herself that I can’t resist messing up her hair.

 

“Jeong!” She shrieks, and now it’s like she’s ten years old again and whining about some trinket her father gave her.

 

One more year. 

 

"Of course I got you a present."  I said, rolling my eyes. I reached into my robes and pulled out the package. I handed it to her. "Here."

 

She lit up like the sun. "Really? Gimme!"

 

I hold it up above my head. "Nu-uh. Where's my hug?" 

 

She pouts at me. "I'm a grown up now. I can't go around hugging the servants. People will talk!"

 

"Well, I guess mature young women don't want their birthday gifts."  I slowly put the box back into my sleeve. "What a shame. Soo-won helped me pick it out this year too."

 

"Soo-won did --  he did? Really?" Yona glances around, then wraps her arms around my waist. The hug lasts fore all of two seconds before she lets go. I let her snatch the box out of my hands and hold it to her chest. "Thank you, Jeong!"

 

"Sure," I said to her already retreating back. I shake my head and go back to find somewhere else. The party was a little to crowded for me. 

 

-

 

 

-




My solitude lasted for five minutes before Soo-won materialized out of thin air.

 

"Jeong, please save me." Soo-won is a blur of hair and scent of cedar. "There are so many girls here, and they keep looking at me like I'm a piece of meat or something." He tucks himself behind me, much the way Yona had when hiding from her suitor, leaning hard into my back.

 

I take a sip of my drink, face straight.

 

"It's not funny. "

 

It totally was. "I didn't say anything."

 

He scoffed. "I can hear you thinking it.”

 

"Don’t you want to sort through them for potential wives?"

 

Soo-won's hand clenches in my robes, probably ruining it forever. I can feel his forehead press into my back. “You’re mocking me.”

 

I glance over my shoulder. His head is tilted down, face hidden. “Always.” I promised.


Soo-won is quite long enough that I go back to my drink. "Jeong, do you think that I should pick a wife?" His hands finds the center of my back and it feels like a brand.

 

My throat is paralyzed. Quiet spreads out like a the shock-wave of a bomb, and the epicenter is his hand on my back. It's a massacre, and my words are casualties. The party is distant, like the sound of the sea. I stare ahead blindly, and all I can hear is his breath, my heart.

 

The party goes on, the people ignoring us. Even the servants.

 

Do I want them to interrupt, or not?

 

I can't answer him.

 



A loud laugh breaks the bubble around us. His hand leaves my back after a lingering moment. "Well, it's too early to decide now. Here, you look like you need it." He handed me another glass, full of sake instead of the water in my own.

 

My breath returns, and I take it on autopilot. My words are still gone and my heart is still loud.

 

Soo-won flashes me a smile and leaves.

 

Crack!

 

I looked down at the shattered cup in my hand. At Soo-won's pristine one in my other.

 

A hand print burns between my shoulder blades.

 

Fuck it.

 

I downed the sake.



-


Spinning, spinning, spinning. I wish I left my stomach back in Xing with my honor. It wouldn't be trying to punch me in the throat then! It did a another back-flip at the thought. I groaned, then recoiled as the smell of sake on my breath hit the air.


What was in that drink?


Bleh.


I stumbled my way through the halls, somehow acquiring a another bottle of sake and a two dishes. I make my way to the garden without remembering how. Then I smile and sit by the gravestone, familiar to me as my own hands. "Grandmother, I am drunk." I said cheerfully. “It's been way too long since I visited last, but you blame the brat for that. Well. He's not really a brat anymore. Did you know the Soo-won is almost as tall as I am now? And Hak is the same height. It's weird to not have to bend down to talk to someone. Nice, but weird." I laugh.


I don't know how long i stayed there, making conversation with the dead. It might have been hours, it might have been days, It might have been a few minutes. I realized I was humming and laughed again, but there’s nothing happy about it this time.



"Sorry. It’s an old song from america. Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above,  I'd miss all the places and people I love. So although I may like it for one afternoon, I don't want to live on the moon. ” I looked down at my hands. "Can you keep a secret, Grandmother?  When I say home , I don't know if I mean the other world… or here."


When I first came to Kouka it was like the moon. Nothing was familiar and I was alone, suffocating slowly while the rest of the world ignored me. Like looking down on my earth from far away, until it was nothing but a delusion of f something I used to know.


And now? Family, friends - I can't remember their faces. The taste and smell of greasy fast food. The love of dance, the internet the airplanes and books and traveling. Chocolate is barely a memory.


I know they existed.


They must have.


But I can't be sure. If something no longer exists outside of your head, is it still real? Or is it just some hallucination.


Sometimes I'm afraid that I'll find out.


“Can I even go back?" I asked her, the gods, whoever is listening. "Can I go home? Like this, knowing what I know, doing what I’ve done? Watching the fictional characters grow up, breathing, existing? It would hurt to leave them now.”


Grandmother, I think It would kill me.


I leaned against the grave, knees tucked under me, head on the smoothed stone, and poured it another drink. "Wish you were here. I said. "Things were simpler in the village. All I had to do was survive."


Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above

I would miss all the faces of the people I love

So although I may go I'll be coming home soon

Cause I don't want to live on the moon


“No, I don’t want to live on the moon.” I said.


-


Later, I was stumbling around in a warm haze. It was like the whole world decided to rock like a boat on the ocean and I was trying to keep my balance. It was like a game. A concussion without the pain!


"Jeong?" Hak's voice said from way up. 


I squinted, eyes heavy. "You're taller than me. Why are you taller than me?"


"That's because you're on the floor."


I pondered that. "That would explain it."


Hak snorted. "What's that smell? Did someone spill sake in here?" Hak shifted the sake cup with one toe. "Are you - are you drunk?"

 

"Bitch, I might be." I said cheerfully.

 

"Why?"

 

The question rattled around in my brain like a marble in an empty tin can. Why was I drunk?


"I have no idea." I said at last.



Hak sighed. "In a language I can understand please."


I ignored him. What did he know? English was a beautiful, stupid language.


Hak stares at me. I squint at him. "You don't drink."


"That’s what I said to my body, but It still insists on falling over. I don’t think it believes me." I said cheerfully. “You might have better luck.”


His face got closer to mine. "You don't drink."


When you drink, you die.



Shut up. I told the little voice. Hak’s right there. I’m safe.


“Guess there’s a first for everything.” I said. I got drunk once, in the first year. Lost my best sword and my boots to thieves. Frost bite almost took my feet and my older sword broke down in the middle of a battle. I stopped drinking after that.


I dragged my thoughts back on track. "But here's safe, now."


Hak dragged me to my feet with little effort. "Yeah, you’re safe. Let’s get you to bed. It’s not my job to keep you out of trouble."



" English is a language, you -- you past time barbarian. "


"Still can't understand you." He offered me a hand and hauled me to my feet.  "How much did you drink?"


"I don't drink." I said. Drinking got you killed on the front lines. Sometimes the opponent did it, sometimes sheer stupidity, sometimes the alcohol itself. I never touched the stuff, because I wanted to live. Even when I was a miserable, sniveling mess, I wanted to live.


"Sure, sure." Hak said. "you're totally not drunk and dead on your feet. Totally not drunk."


Ugh, words. "Don't make fun of me - whoa." I tripped on the dastardly floor and a pair of arms caught me around the middle.


Hak hauled me up and I realized that he was almost as tall as I was now. What happened to the little kid who barely reached my chest? He was such a murderous little brat -and now he was almost as tall as me! Strong enough to lift me up and I am not a small person. 


My eyes began to sting.


"Whoa, what? Why are you crying? Jeong?"


I couldn't help the laugh that escaped. Hak sounded so panicked and worried. Oh man, he was such a good kid. They were such good kids, even if they weren't really kids anymore. I placed my hands on either side of his head and planted a kiss in the middle of his forehead. "Don't ever change, Hak." I said over the wave fond dizziness. "Yona and Soo-won are going to need you."


Hak paused for a second, just staring into my eyes. We were forehead to forehead. Then, he smiled. "I know. Don't worry. No one is going to hurt them while you and I are around." Then he brought my arm over his shoulder. "Should've known that you'd be a sentimental drunk. Come on, let's go pour you into bed. Let Soo-won deal with you in the morning."


I tired to fix that smile into my heart -- that whole day. Despite what it brought, despite the pain that came, I would hold that moment as one of the last truly happy memories that I had.


-



Cold woke me to the dark. I woke clutching my head. It was a deep ache, like being bunched in a healing wound. "Oh my god. I'm never drinking again. Ow. Ow."


A heavy blanket of darkness smothered the room. I fumbled for a flint and sparked up a candle. The flame was a hot poker in my eyes. I doused it with a sharp cry of pain.


I froze.


Nothing happened. "Soo-won?" I whispered.


More nothing. Soo-won was a light sleeper. I can't count how many times I've woken him up by walking past his door at night. He would have heard that, even through a wall.


Unless he wasn’t there.


He could still be at the party. He could still be dodging those girls. He could be anywhere but the kings room.


My heart sunk and sunk and sunk.


Yona's birthday.


I fumbled for Mercy and and hit only air.


I stare down at my empty hand for one second.


Fuck. I must have lost it while drunk.


I take the time to throw on some clothes, and my sandals.


One more year.


Please, let me be wrong.


-

I move through the night like a shadow, letting it swallow me. The guards are better trained with Hak in charge, so I have to move too slowly.


If I was wrong...


I really wanted to be wrong.


The smell of copper filled the king's room.


I swallow past the bile filling my throat.


Too late.


The only light in the room gilded King Il's sightless eyes, staring up at the ceiling, an expression of peace on his face.


A flash of gold and steel draws my attention from the other side of the room.


Soo-won was cleaning a blade. His face was cold. Foreign. "Jeong, I suppose it was always going to turn out this way."


My mouth is dry. "Soo-won, what have you done?"


He swept out his sleeve in one gesture of supreme dismissal. "Removed a thorn in my side."


“He was a good man.”


“King Il was a coward and a liar. Worse than that, he was a hypocrite as well. A peaceful man who killed his own brother to gain the throne.”


"He loved you."

 

Soo-won gives an empty smile. It doesn't reach his eyes. "You of all people should know how much the love of a king is worth."


"You've orphaned Yona for revenge? And you call him selfish?" For the first time I see a flicker of emotion - there and gone, too fast for me to follow. "Listen to me. Listen. It doesn't have to be like this. You can -" 


"Do what? Admit my crimes? Apologize? You're too naive." Soo-won steps forward over the body of his uncle like it's trash. he moves close to me, and I can't look away. My feet are rooted in place. My heartbeat is so, so quiet.


"Why did't you tell me?" I asked. Looking down at this boy, this man, I no longer recognize. 


"You're soft, Jeong." It's the certainty in his voice that sends the chill down my spine.


He pulls something out from his sleeve.


The light is bad, but I would know that sheath in the dark, blind, deaf and dumb. My hand goes to my waist. Empty air. 


No.


Mercy is bloody in Soo-won's hands.


The center of my back burns where he touched it at the party. It seems like days ago, instead of hours.


"What have you done?" I ask again, but I already know.


"Nothing at all." He unsheathes the dagger. "You, on the other hand..."


Drops it in the pool of blood spreading from his uncle.


"Congratulations, Jeong. You have killed your second King."


-


Chapter Text

-

 

The Bodyguard and the Princess

 

-

 

My heart is a war drum in my ears, loud and pumping. King Il’s blood spread out like a sullen ocean wave, cresting on my sandals. Soo-won’s face that of a stranger. Someone carved from stone and ice, someone that I don’t know and never have. A polite fiction. A pretty lie.

 

I knew what he was like.

 

Stupid.

 

I glance down, at the spreading puddle of red.

 

Who would believe me?

 

The thought shakes me like a building in an earthquake.

 

No one.

 

I use my full weight, lunging from my bent over position, pushing the blade through his body and pinning him to the wall with body and blade.

 

He inhales sharply, cutting off a cry of pain.

 

The sound cuts .

 

Soo-won will not come out of this untouched.

 

His nails bite into my arm.  

 

The mercenary against the prince, in a world where blood is the only thing that matters. Shaking off the pain I grit my teeth and twist the knife, driving it in with both hands.

 

Blood spills.

 

Wound for wound.

 

I feel nothing but cold rage . Like standing over a black pit and it's ice all the way down, creeping up over my feet and legs. If is stop moving, start thinking -- I’ll freeze.

 

The two of us are locked together in a parody of an embrace. His body strains against mine, and it’s familiar. How many times have I carried him to bed after a long night? How many times have we fallen asleep on together outside on the grass, with Yona and Hak by our side?

 

The points where we press together feel white hot, where the rest of me is ice and getting colder.

 

I yank my dagger out of his shoulder with a wet meaty sound, grabbing his hair hand pulling back his head. I bring the blade down towards his pale throat --

 

My hand won’t move.

 

In my head, I see younger Soo-won playing by the river, copying the nets I make and laughing when he ties his hands together. A tremor runs down my arm.

 

Do it!

 

I can’t --

 

The door slides open before I can get anything out of my mouth.  I glance at the doorway sharply. It’s partway open, and a slightly tipsy looking head of red hair came into view, watching her feet like they were going to slide away if she didn’t.

 

" No ." For the first time, Soo-won’s voice sounds like the boy I know. The horror in it matches the sinking of my own stomach. “Yona, don’t --”

 

It’s too late.

 

Yona looks up. “Soo-won! I was looking for you. Did you come to say goodnight too?” She slides open the door fully and looks down. The princess’s smile slides off her face like a priceless porcelain vase being smashed beyond repair. One shaky step is all she can manage before her legs give out. “F- father?”

 

Soo-won hooks an ankle around mine and shoves at the same time.

 

My footing slips on the slick floor and I stumble back.

 

Soo-won clutches his shoulder and looks at me with hard blue eyes. His mouth is set and he puts himself in between me and Yona. Red stains his hands. “Don’t come any closer. Yona, stay back!”

 

Does he really think I’d hurt her? I step forward and Yona --

 

Yona flinches, looking up with terrified eyes.

 

Something inside broke .

 

Pain explodes in my shoulder. I stagger back, hand flying up to the shaft of the spear.

 

Hak looks - devastated. His hand is still outstretched in a throw. "Jeong - what the hell are you doing ?"

 

There are guards pouring into the room behind him.

 

This must be a nightmare. Soo-won wouldn’t…

 

I stare at Hak. “I didn’t --”

 

“She killed the king,” Soo-won said.

 

No. I’m just waking up from a dream.

 

Yona is still shaking, still on the floor, clutching Soo-won’s robe to her chest, and Soo-won - won't look me in the eye.

 

My shoulder throbs and I can feel the blood leak pumping out of the wound. I almost forgotten this type of pain, this mindset. The ice finally made it to my heart, leaving only numbness. I feel blood dripping down my arm and the spear still lodged there.

 

“Well, it was fun while it lasted. Soo-won,” Standing to my full height, I look at him and smile. My breath should come out mist, I feel so cold. “It would have been better if we never met.”

 

Something flickers across his face to fast for me to catch. “Jeong --”

 

I rip the spear from my shoulder, spin it blade first and throw it right at Yona’s head.

 

Hak and Soo-won both lunge for her with shouts of alarm.

 

I head the opposite direction. One guard gets a cut arm, another a dagger through a grasping hand. I crash through the paper doors, ignoring the jolt of agony, and hit the ground running.

 

"Guards, after her!" Soo-won's voice snaps behind me.

 

I don’t look back.

 

-

 

Even with half an arm and losing blood outrunning the palace guards is child's play. I still only make it to the edge of palace before I’m caught.

 

My neck prickles and I throw myself down into a roll. It saves my life, but not the sash holding my robe together. Another blow falls at my head and I twist on my knees to block it. On impact the dagger rattles ominously.

 

How many more can blows like that can it take?

 

Not many.

 

Hiding the thought away I bare my teeth at Hak. “Well, this is familiar.”

 

“Shut the fuck up, traitor.” Hak growled, straining against me. “I’m going to kill you.”

 

He clashed against my blade and knocked it back. He lunged into a  whirlwind of blows, each faster than the one before.

 

A cloud of dust raises over the field and the world becomes the clash of the blade, the blur of battle. There’s no time to think, to speak. Hak is coming at me with the intent to kill. The sheer edge of the cliff Kouka castle is built on is just feet away. A single misstep means death.

 

We circle each other like animals, looking for any sign of weakness. The roar of the waterfall covers our heavy breaths.

 

I can't win this fight.

 

I’m better than Hak most days, but right now… how much blood have I lost already? I lower my blade. “I didn’t do it, Hak.”

 

He tenses. “Don’t lie to me, Jeong. You attacked Soo-won! You attacked Yona. Yona !”

 

“If I wanted her dead, I would have killed her.” I said. Like I couldn’t have made a throw fatal from that close.

 

“And I suppose Soo-won’s wound is fake too, right? That’s not his blood on your blade?” He snarled, gesturing with his spear. “Don’t screw with me! You swore to protect him.”

 

I got into his face, so angry I could barely breath. “Contracts go both way, Hak! He broke it first --”

 

“What the hell are your talking about?” Hak shouted.

 

“Maybe if you listened to me instead of throwing a tantrum like a child --”

 

The sound of creaking wood fills the air.

 

One arrow lodges in my side, another in my right leg, and one whistles past my face so close the there's a brush of feathers under my left eye. I stagger back, breath knocked out of me.

 

Hak glances back over his shoulder with wide eyes, started out of his rage. Reinforcements have arrived in for of twelve guards with longbows. "What?"

 

Am I going to die here?

 

The thought is calm. I could barely hold Hak off before.

 

We’re standing in a semi circle of archers. I take a step back -- and my foot finds only empty air.

 

The world slows down, the petals in the air almost freezing. I see the straining of arms, the arrows being knocked. I can’t tell if the roaring in my ears is the waterfall or my heart.

 

A hand grasps the front of my robe, jerking me to a stop and I look up.

 

Hak's . “Hold on, Jeong.” He starts reeling me in.

 

Behind him the archers pull back their bows again. Waiting.

 

The second he’s out of the way -- they’ll fire.  

 

The river roared, familiar as a kiss. The moon is high, the wind is gentle. The cherry blossoms are bloody in the light of sunrise. Everything is painted gold and red in the morning light. To my back is a large drop into a dangerous river.

 

Well, this is familiar.

 

My eyes feel heavy. I raise my working hand and ruffle Hak’s hair. “It was a good dream, while it lasted.”  

 

Then I twist, and my robe slides off. Hak is left with a handful of my ruined clothes and I plummet like a stone.

 

Hak shouts but I can’t hear him over the river. He grows smaller and smaller, reaching out for something that’s already over.

 

It’s easiest thing I've ever done.

 

I hit the water and feel nothing at all.

 

-


Rain falls down in gentle pitter patters against the veranda roof. Birds jump through the trees, chattering and looking for fresh nuts. Yona looked out the window without really seeing anything. Everything was fuzzy, distance and out of focus. Like the past few weeks were a dream. She registered distantly that people visited, but it seemed so unimportant. Colorless compared to the red in her head.

In her hair.

The aimor was bare of mirror, after she shattered it.

Her stomach roiled just thinking about it.

Time passes. Servants come and go, leaving meals Yona doesn't eat.

 

This is not real.

 

Yona wanted to feel her father's arm around her, to see Je-- her mind flinched away from the name.

 

Surely father was just busy. He was working to hard again, fussing and running things. The country needed a ruler.

 

He’d come visit as soon as he had time.


Yona looked at the little bluejay that hopped curiously to the window, in search of seeds. Soo-won looked tired whenever he came to visit her. Hollow. His smiles were rare and distant, never as bright, never as open. He’d taken Je -- he’d taken that death badly.


The bird took off in a panic of wings and feathers.

"Princess, you're hurting yourself." A familiar voice broke through the haze, hands grasping her wrist in a shockingly warm shackle.

Yona looked down at her hands. Carefully unfolding her hands, nails painted red to match the crescent wounds.  Red like her hair. Red like the room of her father's study. Red like a dagger in Je-- Jeong's hands.

"Hak," Yona said, voice hoarse. Her wrist in his hand. "Father is really dead, isn't he?"

He was silent for a long moment. Too long.

Yona closed her eyes, reaching desperately for that numbness, but it was too late. She was falling into that memory again, worse then ever. The room was dark, but not dark enough to hide the slick patch of blood on the floor glistening in the open window like a lamp oil spill. Footprints running through it. A sick weight in her stomach, and even now she doesn't understand. Soo-won barely holding himself up in front of her. The heartbreak in his voice.

Jeong, what have you done?

Yona turned her eyes to Hak for the first time. "Jeong. Jeong killed him." She told him softly. The numbness a last, perilous rope across the fissure running across her soul. Yona was terrified to fall. Nothing but grief and sick hate waited at the bottom, she could feel it. If she fell she would be lost.

 

"She walked through his blood, Hak." Words spilled from her lips like tsunami, and she's almost feverish with agony. "Like it was nothing! I don't understand, I thought she loved us. Why?"

That question beat in her throat like a heart. Why? Why? Why?

 

How could she?

 

Yona had no one to ask now.

Hak -- choked. Made a noise of pain that she’d never heard before.

Yona looked up, startled out of her grief for one precious second.

His face was twisted with grief, and Yona’s heart seized. She knew that expression. Yona moved on instinct and pulled Hak into her arms, hugging him to her. He wasn't shaking, but Yona thought that might be better then this agonizing silence.

However bad this was for her,  Hak -- Hak respected her father, but he loved Jeong. They were two of a kind. A brother and sister with the only blood between them shed on the battlefield.  Yona lost her father. Hak lost a sister.

Soo-won...

Soo-won lost something terrible. It was in the way he barely slept, didn't eat unless prompted, when he turned with a smile to talk to someone standing behind him, and the look on his face when there was nothing there.

 

Like father, after mother died.

 

Hak doesn’t try to pull away. "She was right there and I- I couldn’t catch her. I let her jump. I’m sorry. I so sorry .”

 

Hak’s grip was tight enough to bruise, and Yona was glad. The pain centered her. "You did everything you could, Hak."

 

“No I didn’t, I couldn’t--”

 

“Don’t argue with me.” Yona said sharply, jerking his head up to meet her eyes. “I know you, and you would have done everything in your power to help her. To help f-father if you were there. It’s not your fault . Do you understand me?”  

“...yes.” Hak closed his eyes and leaned into her hands. “I understand.”

Yona swallowed. "I need you here, Hak. I can’t… I can’t do this by myself."

 

He went still.

 

Yona can’t be like Soo-won, constantly looking for a shadow and finding nothing.

 

… lonely.

 

Yona’s heart sunk at the very thought. She looked at her hands again. Delicate. Weak.

 

Sorry, father.

"I'm going to learn to fight." A part of her flinched from it - the good girl that loved her father and thought him right above all others was shrieking at her. If she knew how to fight, she could protect Hak and Soo-won herself.  

 

Bad people don't stop because a law forbids it. If the king wasn't safe under the law, neither was she.

(...Where did she first hear those words? It was a long time ago.)

Hak, already on his knees, puts one hand over his heart, bows his head. "Of course, your majesty. Your wish is my command."

A part of her breathed out in relief in not having to fight the one person who could truly persuade her otherwise. With Hak on her side, Soo-won would be much easier to convince. But that was a problem for tomorrow. She stood, and wiped her bloodied hand on her dress.  "Come on, Hak. We have work to do"

 

 

-

 

 

Yona wasn’t wrong. So much effort had to be put into the daily ruling of a country that her head spun. It’s only because Soo-won is there that the country doesn't break apart the first week. Yona never loved Soo-won more than when he stepped in without being asked. He was a good advisor -- but then, Yona always knew that he would be.  

 

With him handling the big things, Yona could focus on the real problems - namely the fact that she knows nothing about running a kingdom. It's a rude awakening.

 

Father didn’t teach her any of this.

 

He wanted her to live a carefree life. Yona doesn’t feel carefree. Yona feels like she’s going to be crushed under a mountain of duty .

 

Time passes so quickly that the funeral sneaks up on her like a mountain lion, leaving her mauled and hurting. It’s quick -- Yona’s father didn’t want anything elaborate. She doesn't really hear the people offering their condolences. Her vision is too blurred to make out individual faces.

 

Only Soo-won’s steady hand on her shoulder keeps her back straight, her eyes dry.

 

“Your majesty,” Lady Bin-na bowed deeply. Both her and her bodyguard are dressed in rich black clothes. “I am truly sorry for your loss. I couldn’t believe it when they told me what happened. It just… came out of nowhere.”

 

Soo-won’s hand tightened painfully for one second.

 

Yona flinched and glanced at him.

 

Nothing showed on his face except for slightly somber smile. “Thank you for your kind words, Lady Bin-na. I am ashamed to say that I don’t have your judgment of character. How long have you had your own bodyguard?”

 

She doesn’t look over her shoulder, but her face goes a little tight. “Fourteen years, my prince.’

 

“You must cherish such devoted service. That kind of loyalty is so hard to find.”

 

The woman’s smile doesn't reach her eyes. The bodyguard hasn’t moved at all. “Yes. I am very lucky.” She bows again, hair a curtain covering her face. “Your Majesty. My prince.”

 

“Lady Bin-na.” Soo-won said.

 

Yona frowns and watches her walk away.

 

 

-

 

 

Receiving audiences is the most tiring part of the day, by far. Everyone from commoners to nobles has the right to make their petitions known. Yona, though she’s still not crowned yet, sits on her father's throne. The hall is large and private, with lots drawn outside to giver everyone an appointment. It’s fair that way.

 

She feels like a little girl playing dress up. Surely everyone knows that she has no idea what she’s doing. At least that was the last one for toda--

 

The doors open again before she can finish that thought.  

 

Hak steps in front her of her. “Who comes?”

 

Soo-won, sitting to Yona’s left in the advisor's hair makes a surprised sound.

 

Yona sends him a questioning glance and he shakes his head minutely.

 

Three people stand at the end of the isle, a girl about Yona’s age, a giant of a man, and a figure that she can’t tell the gender or age of. All of them are dressed in fine clothes in shades of red and gold.  

 

They approach the throne and the large man down to one knee and bows, hand over heart. "Empress Myeongseong of Xing, greets Queen Yona of Kouka. This one is General Li of the guard."

 

The one with the mask bowed as well, graceful as a water. “This one is Fa, if it pleases your Majesty.”

 

The silence stretches on. Yona glances at Soo-won out of the corner of her eye.

 

Soo-won is staring at the two, almost like he recognizes them. Even without seeing his face, Yona can tell that Soo-won's smile is fake as it is bright. "Yona, Empress of Kouka, first of her name welcomes Empress Myeongseong, gracious as she is beautiful. I am Soo-won, first prince and advisor to the throne. This is Hak, captain of the royal guard and her majesty's bodyguard."

 

The large man takes that as permission to rise. “Our apologies for our tardiness. We were delayed on the road.”

 

“It is very short notice.” Soo-won said.

 

The man shrugged. “Bandits. They’re not a problem anymore.”

 

The girl on the plaquin finally speaks. "We are most grateful for your forgiveness. We intended to attend your honored fathers funeral. It seems we are too late."

 

Yona finds herself pinned by a pair of red eyes - eyes the color of Yona’s hair. She swallows back the nausea. Yona looked down at her feet, eyes burning.

 

It’s only a color.

 

“That’s not the only reason.” Soo-won says. His hands are folded behind his back.  

 

The two men go still.

 

Hak shifts casualty. His fingers drum idly on his spear.

 

The empress’s smile is the bare tilt of her lips. “Yes. Our deepest sympathies to your loss. Your father was killed by one of your guards." It’s not a question.

 

Yona meets those red eyes. “Yes.” Her voice comes out steady.

 

There was another long silence. "Was the guard a tall woman with large scars over their face? Long brown hair, brown eyes?"

 

Hak went taught as a bow string behind Yona, but she couldn’t look away from her eyes. "Yes."

 

The woman leaned in. “Do you have her in custody?”

 

This time Hak breaks the silence. “Jeong is dead.”

 

The two guards flinch, but the empress doesn’t react. “Do you have the body?”

 

Soo-won’s smile flickers fast enough that no one else would have noticed.

 

“No.” Yoan said, abruptly done with this red eyed girl. “And I find your manners quiet lacking, Empress Myeongseong of Xing. Do you often interrogate the mourners at funerals?”

 

The girl draws herself up. “We are--”

 

“-- Not the ruler here. I am.” Yona said. “You are here without invitation, Empress Myeongseong. Kouka has no treaty with Xing.”

 

Yona and Myeongseong lock eyes. The room is deathly still.

 

Footprints through blood.

 

Yona ignores the nausea.

 

The empress looks away first. She don't look as proud, as tall. Instead she just looks tired. "My apologies, Queen Yona. Jeong served as my guard when I was younger.”

 

A cold sensation spread through Yona’s stomach. “Jeong did?”

 

“ It's been seven years and this is the first lead I've had." The empress sighs. "My father was the first king Jeong killed.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 - 

 

-

 

Soo-won's study shrunk sometime in the last month. The once warm cedar walls are unfamiliar, unwelcoming and closing in. Soo-won still enters every day, swims through papers and fights through mountains of scrolls. Informants reports on a drug circulating through the Port Cities that needed to be looked over.

He rubbed his eyes. Port Awa… that was going to have to be solved personally.

The door slid open and he sat up, Myeongseong walked into the room like she owned it, studying the shelves with red eyes, her black silk hair worn unfashionably loose and falling over her shoulder. Neither of her guards accompany her. "So this is where you disappear to every day?"

Soo-won folded the document, slid it down into the middle of a completed pile of scrolls. Soo-won doesn't stand up. "Your highness. I'm afraid that I'm quite busy."

Myeongseong tilted her head. "I can see that. Why is Yona not doing this?"

His smile is false as it is bright. "Her Majesty is working very hard. Much needs her personal attention. I'm glad to help her in any way she needs."

"She wasn't raised to this, was she?" The empress's folded her arms. "My father always said your king was a soft touch. To afraid of his own rule, of war. My training began when I turned five. It was hard, but it pulled me through the war."

No. Yona had no training, and in this one thing Soo-won could understand his uncle. Even approve. King Il loved her above the entire kingdom. A good trait in a father. A terrible one in a king.

Yona was the best thing King Il ever created.

Soo-won's face stayed impassive. "That's very interesting. Did you need something, your highness?"

"You may call me by name."

Soo-won reached for another scroll. "That would be improper, your Highness."

"She was wrong, you know. Yona." Myeongseong said.

His hand froze mid reach. Soo-won glanced at her with a polite smile. "About what?"

"I was invited. King Il wished to discuss a treaty for our countries, after her birthday festivities were over. We have the silk and the spices that Kouka needs."

"I see." Soo-won leaned back in his chair. That sounded like Uncle Il. "And what would you get out of the deal?"

She studied a map hanging on the far wall. The land of Kouka laid out, bare and open. "Trade deals. A treaty of nonaggression. The people are sick of war." Myeongseong turned back. Met his gaze. "A consort."

Soo-won kept his smile polite and puzzled. "A... consort."

His shoulder throbbed.

"The hand of the first prince of the country. Proof of sincerity and proof of good faith. We would join our families together. I'm beginning to think it a more generous offer then I knew, if he was willing to part with someone like you for a treaty." Myeongseong studied his face. "He didn't tell you?"

Soo-won opened his mouth - and then closed it.

King Il had brought it up before... before. That meeting in the drawing room, he asked about Soo-won's prospects.

He wanted to marry Soo-won off.

Did King Il suspect something, even then?

It would be an easy way to get rid of Soo-won without violence.

Jeong wouldn't have been able to follow him to Xing, not after killing the king, leaving Soo-won without allies in a foreign land -

Jeong is gone.

The reminder is like being stabbed again.

"Do you still wish it?" Soo-won inquired, voice neutral.

Myeongseong leaned against the desk. Her hair carried the scent of jasmine and clean water. "I came all this way to meet you, and I think that for once the trip was not a waste. It would be an advantage."

No.

Soo-won carefully didn't move, clenching his teeth around the instant refusal.

Myeongseong must have seen it on his face anyway. She sighed. "I wouldn't ask love of you, Soo-won. We would be partners in ruling and nothing more. Anyone you wished to pursue would be yours. I care not if you take on one mistress or thrity." The empress said, quiet. "Even I have someone I…"

Soo-won closed his eyes. Like always, their face was clear in his mind. That half smile, that long braided hair. That whirling blade, that grace. Sure and calloused hands on his shoulders, like a brand.

Jeong, who was kind.

Jeong, who was strong.

Jeong, who was - who was.

When he was young, Jeong was a giant in his mind. Proud and strange and strong and sad. So very, very sad. The thought that their body washed up somewhere in the river just - didn't make sense. He can't picture it in his mind. Jeong, with empty eyes and blue lips, no smile, no laugh.

No anything, anymore.

His mind rebelled. His gut heaved.

Nothing showed on his face.

They were never meant to die.

(He sent men down to the river, searching for something he never wanted to see. Soo-won wanted something to bury beside Grandmother, in the garden. Something to mourn.

There was no body.)

"I'm afraid that my loyalty will always be with my cousin. Yona is young and untried, and in need of my guidance for a while longer." Soo-won said. His voice was empty even to his ears.

He's no longer a child; he knows no happy ending waits for him after what he's done. Jeong was only a person, in the end.

It would have been better if we never met.

Myeongseong's face was a cold, detached mask. Familiar. Soo-won recognizes it - pretty and polite and empty. The face of someone just like him. "We have time. Perhaps as we work together on the treaty, you'll come to see the benefits as I do. I can wait a few years." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and walked to the door. She glanced back over her shoulder. "A union between us wouldn't just benefit only us and I have become fond of Yona. She would be a welcome addition to my family."

The door closed.

The deal had only advantages. Myeongseong's wore power like a halo, despite her age, in a way that Soo-won wanted for Yona. She reunited a civil war that lasted almost five years, and saved her country for invaders at the same time. From what he had seen, having her on his side would make keeping the country his father loved safe so much easier. He had no reason to say no.

But.

Soo-won looked down, hair covering his expression. He touched his heart in a single moment of weakness. Felt the shape of them, living in it.

There was no body.

 

-

 

Even in spring, winter lives in the river; water from the mountains melts and brings the cold with it.

I can't feel my hands, my face, my lungs. I gasp for air whenever I make it to the surface, chocking on water, and pain spiders from my side with every inhale, until it goes numb.

I have to get out of the water, or I'll die

I glimpse a log, half rotted and twice as big around as a truck. My hands are numb, but I manage to maneuver myself enough to get in the range of the log.

Blood swirls around me like a ribbon in the breeze.

I catch the log, wedging my blade in with one desperate lunge. The dagger snaps off it's hilt with a quiet, resigned noise. I'm left with a sliver of blade, a hilt and no purchase on the log at all. I don't even have time to take a breath before I'm swept under and onward. Water goes over my head in seconds. The rapids dash me up against a cliff face, and I'm moving too fast to land right.

Even underwater, I can hear the dull snap of my arm breaking.

I choke on cry of pain.

My right hand goes numb and I pull it to my chest.

So use the left then.

I rip the arrow out of my side and stab it blindly. The point catches, and It's just enough to stop me from being tossed around. The water is murky with mud from the bed. Still, a bit of morning sunlight comes from the underside of my feet.

Carefully, I twist up, trying to move without jostling my arm or my side or my leg. The sun is high in the sky by the time I make it out of the river, breath gone, wet and exhausted.

My hands won't stop shaking.

I collapsed three times before I made it up the river banks, inch by painstaking inch. The sun is bright but I can't stop shivering. Once on dry ground, I roll over and press a hand to my side, still bleeding sluggishly.

Too exhausted to feel anything, I contemplate what a terrible shot whoever did it was. It didn't hit anything vital, the only reason that I'm not already dead.

Bandages.

Right. Have to clean and bandage wounds.

Which means I have to go down the bank of the river again.

Which means I'll have to climb out.

I… can't. I won't make it out again, I -

I shake my head, hard. Let my breathing slow.

I can't means nothing.

I have to, and so I do.

I scrub my hands in the water, until they're red and raw and clean. Trying to get rid the feeling of Soo-won's blood.

It doesn't work.

Blue sky is barely visible through the thick canopy, but it's enough to keep track of the sun. Darkness has set in by the time I have a makeshift camp set up - a pathetic hollow in one of the great trees, curled up tight as I could bear. My broken arm and the spear wound in my shoulder are the only truly serious wounds. I set up a little fire out of dead, dry branches. My hands tremble when I try to light it. Red sparks, hungry, devour the grass and sticks and flame blooms. I lean in as close as I dare, shivers racking my body.

I'm still freezing.

I need food, and medicine. The rivers are cleaner then in my time, but I can't be too careful. Infection is a real problem.

I think of moving. Standing and finding another path, to another village I'll have to borrow and steal from.

Grandmother won't be in it.

I close my eyes. Try to keep my breathing even.

Tomorrow, I'll be strong. Right now…

I just want to sleep.

 

-

 

Step after step, I make my way down the road. Keeping away from the towns, the people. Soo-won would be looking for me. Moving as fast as I could. Staying out of view.

Old habits are hard to break.

Fever joins me on my second day out of the river, and travels by my side like a dog that I can't get rid of. Even the freezing night seems too hot, too present. The place where Hak stabbed me is the hottest of all. It's like having a second heart made of coal in my shoulder and it throbs in time with my disjoined thoughts. I lose time.

Slowly, I stop caring.

I found thick oak branch and strip it down till I had a staff. I follow it until it breaks from the river, turns into a well worn path. The road is more of a suggestion than anything. I don't know how far I am from the castle, or how far the news has spread. Going to town is dangerous, but I don't have a choice. My wounds throb with the tell-tale burn of infection.

Thinking gets harder the further I walk, each limping step agony. My side burns. My leg drips through the remains of my silk shirt. My breathing goes harsh. Ragged. Thinking got harder and harder. The world became a watercolor painting with the colors running - blurred and soft and strange.

Time becomes more of a suggestion than a fact. I blink and the sun disappeared, I exhale and rain slicks down my hair, coming loose from its braid. Through it all, I keep walking even though I no longer remember why.

I… I'm supposed to be protecting someone?

Jia sent me… out?

Where is Grandmother?

The thought keeps me going. If I was lost, she'd be out looking, no matter how dangerous it got.

My head feels hot, but the wind was the sort of cold that bites. I watch my feet, watch the forest disappear into a well worn, slightly run down road.

Noise washes over me.

I frown and look up.

Three tall, armored men, facing away from me, and one small head of blond hair almost hidden behind them.

Mismatched armor, weapons sharp but old, looming over the kid with a leer on their faces. One of them has an arm curled around his shoulder possessively. The kid laughs, but I can hear the uncomfortable edge to it.

Bandits.

For one single moment, I watch while leaning into the old branch serving as my staff.

I don't want to fight. I am tired, weary in ways that have nothing to do with pain. Heartsick.

"-A pretty thing like you -"

"-No, thank you. I'm busy -"

I sigh, head throbbing. Jia wouldn't accept something like being injured as an excuse for not doing my job - so I do my job.

The oak staff cracks against the biggest ones head without warning.

He goes down like a sack of stones and he doesn't get back up.

I stumbled with the momentum, head spinning, giving the other two time to react.

The mustached one rushed me.

I steped back - and my leg folds like a paper fan.

Impact.

My head cracks against the ground, and his full weight pressed down on my broken arm, sending starburst of pain across my vision.

A short scream catches in my throat.

He snarled and pulled out a very illegal dagger - though it's more of a short sword, the length of my forearm and better maintained than everything else on him. The wicked curve glinted in the sun as he pulled it back.

I flip the staff around and bring it between him and my throat.

His eyes go wide when I start forcing his blade away, one handed muscles straining.

"Are you even human?" He demanded.

MOVE.

I flinched, and a armored foot comes down heavily in the space where my head was.

"Tch!" The other bandit brings his foot down again, fast as a whip.

This time I roll, the road gravel digging into old wounds. The bandit on top of me shouted in alarm, now underneath me. I drove an elbow into his stomach and he wheezed.

Another elbow and he choked, hands going to his throat.

I take the knife, plant the staff in the ground and puled myself up, head throbbing, body aching. The whole worl s and it's all I can to do to stay standing. My head feels stuffed with feathers.

I reel when a fist connects my face, sending the birds in my head into panicked flight.

Even if my head feels like it's on fire, I stay on my feet.

Hak would make fun of me forever-

The thought is gone before it I can catch it.

I duck under another punch, swing my staff and it connects with a the crack of bone. The bandit drops.

A tense moment passes, but none of them get to their feet. Even the choking bandit is quiet.

I let out a breath. Turn to face tiny Soo-won.

The kid stares at me, then the three bandits on the ground still knocked out. The strange gold coin hanging from his orange head scarf glints in the light. He grins. There's something sharp in his eyes. "Hello, lady!"

"You're not Soo-won." My mouth is dry as dead wood. The words are mumbled. I lean against my staff.

He steps closer, peering up into my face. The smile fades into something more confused. "You… you feel strange. Are you a spirit?"

I blink slowly. His voice wavered, pitching in and out like I was hearing it underwater. "You're not... Soo-won." I repeated.

Oh. That's right.

The king is dead. Jia is dead. Grandmother is dead.

Soo-won...betrayed me.

I sink to my knees, and press my forehead into the staff, grounding myself in the rough bark. Close my eyes. Reach inside for some shred of willpower, some reason to stand up and walk, keep moving.

Nothing comes to mind. I could stay here. Grow roots.

There's a crack running through you.

Jia's son, speaking truths I don't want to hear. Just like his mother.

My heart is dust. My heart is ash.

My heart is a soft, wet thing, collecting wounds and I don't want it.

I feel shattered.

Something warm presses onto my face and I open my eyes.

The kid is staring at me with worry in his eyes. Our faces are on the same level. His mouth moves, but I can't hear it over my ringing ears.

Weary, I let him poke at my face, touching my forhead - then he pulled his hand back like I burned him. Each breath feels like fighting a loosing battle.

It's just… too much.

The last thing I feel is a pair of arms catching me. Then nothing at all.

 

-

 

I wake from the dark with grief on my tongue and the impression of someone moving nearby.

There's a roof. The room it belongs to is small, barely tall enough for me to stand in, and even then, my head would have brushed the ceiling. Four walls, made of unfamiliar stone and wood. A small fire place in one corner, close to 's a boy sitting next to it, his back to me. Blond hair with a hint of red to it, maybe sixteen and pretty enough to be a girl. He turns, carefully balancing a kettle and a clay jar in one hand , a roll of cloth in the other.

The kid meets my eyes and flinches, losing his grip on the jar and the kettle. "Ah!"

It's instinct to snatch them out of the air. I don't have enough have hands, so the kettle comes down and I catch it on my forearm. The jar thumps into my hand. It smells sharp, like mint. Medicine?

I stare. The boy is familiar in a terrible, heart sinking way and I don't even have the energy to be surprised.

Of course I end up here.

I couldn't just be done.

He blinks again.

Then he puts his hands on his hips. "Two cracked ribs," He said. "Fever, critical blood loss, dislocated shoulder, arrow wound to the side and left leg, a concussion, one broken arm, and a truly stupid number of scratches and scrapes. What the hell have you been doing with your life?"

The words pass by rapid fire. It's my turn to blink at this boy who wouldn't ever come up to my chest if I was standing, scolding me like I was the ridiculous one in this situation.

"Well?" He demanded.

Carefully, I set the kettle and jar down on the crude tatami floor.

No. I'm not doing this.

I don't know how I got here, but I refuse to stay. I rise to my feet like a puppet pulled up by an invisible hand. The clothes I'm dressed in - rough cloth, un-dyed and unrefined - barely reach my ankles or my forearms, but they're more intact than what I had. My body feels like I've been run over by a bus. My left knee wobbled once, but it stayed steady through my first step, and my second, and by my third I can keep going, moving on momentum and willpower.

I can't stay any longer. I can't give any more.

There's nothing left.

"What the- where do you think you're going?" The kid planted himself in front of me. "You're in no shape to be walking around - hey!"

I picked him up with my good arm and set him out of the way without once acknowledging that he existed.

"Rude!"

I'm already out the door. My normal speed is cut in half, and I feel like I've been run through a trash compactor. Bruise upon bruise upon bruise.

Footsteps follow me down the road. "What the hell are you doing?" He demands.

I ignore him again, focusing on my footing. If I fall, I won't be getting back up.

Everything hurts.

"You're going to open your stitches!"

When that failed to get a response, he made a disgusted noise and threw his hands up into the air. "Where are you even going? You're going to fall over and die, or get an infection , or somehow make your way to the bottom of the sea or get killed by bandits - oof."

He walks right into me and I rock forward, swaying with the impact. I try to breath through the sudden burst of pain. His words rattle around in my head like a bag of marbles falling down a set of stairs.

Where am I even going?

...I don't know.

Killed your second king, killed your second king, killed your -

I sink down to my knees, my hands pressed to to my side. For the first time since this whole nightmare started, I have the chance to slow down. To think.

It sinks in - I don't have anywhere to go.

These are the facts: The king is dead.

I should have stayed. Plead my case. Hak might have listened to me. Maybe. No chance of that now. Not after going after Yona, even if I knew she'd be safe. I attacked, too furious, to hurt, to do anything else. I'll have to run again. Another country at least.

(Did I even have the right? I saw it was coming and I did nothing.

How could I look Yona in the face, knowing that?)

I… can't go back anymore.

The thought is distant, like fish in a still pond, moving under the water without a single ripple on the surface. Like something too big, too awful, too sharp to look at head on. I am sick to death of running. Maybe I'll just build a house, out in the deep forests where no one goes. Live with the birds and the animals. Plant a garden. Watch it grow.

I'd never have to speak again.

A small hand touches my shoulder, and I only now realize how hot I feel. It's like ice on my feverish skin. Like waking up.

The kid crouched next to me, all of his bluster replaced by concern. "Are you okay?"

I don't have the words, so I said nothing at all.

"Let's go back to the house. Let me help you." He said, voice quiet. He holds out his hand. An offer. A plea. "Please."

I put my hand in his and let him help me up. We hobble back to the house together.

There's nowhere else to go.

 

-

 

It's dark when I wake this time. A cold, wet rag is folded up over my forehead and water trickles down the side of my face. I'm back in the small room, laying down on the same thin pallet.

"Hello there, stranger. Yoon said you were quite stubborn about treatment. You gave him quite the scare." A low, calm voice said, and a face leaned into my vision. It was a calm one with hair falling into his eye. He took the cloth from my head and replaced it with another, colder one. "If Yoon were less talented or skilled I would have called it a miracle you survived at all."

Yoon…

Oh. The kid.

The man gave me a gentle smile. "Do you have a name, stranger?"

Such a simple question.

One I don't know the answer too.

"Baram." I croak, finally. A name I used for a brief time as a soldier, before the original Jeong died and I took his name. It feels odd the moment it falls off my lips, like an old sweater that doesn't fit quite right.

I've been Jeong for so long that anything else seems strange.

I pull myself to a sitting position, though my arms feel like wet cloth.

The man doesn't call me out on the lie. Instead he hands me a rough clay cup full of water. "My name is Ik-soo and I hear the voice of god." His eyes pierced right through me, behind his blond hair. "But you already knew that. Just like I know that you do not belong in this world."

"I don't know what you mean." My voice sounds unconvincing, even to me. Weak. Afraid.

Ik-soo held my gaze. "Ten years ago, the whole world tore open. I felt it all the way from the palace. All of the priests felt it - something not of this world, something that never should have been appeared out of a distortion. Some of them tried to divine it with help from the gods, and they could tell them nothing. The gods could see nothing, had no influence on this strange being. The priests are all gone now, and the feeling faded as fast as it came. I couldn't find it on my own." He bowed his head, apology in every line. "I'm sorry. I would have looked harder if I knew you were just a child. It must have been hard."

It's like a damn breaks inside my head.

He knows.

Someone else knows, for the first time.

I'm not alone.

My body curls in on itself and I have to hide my face, eyes burning, something thick caught in my throat. I feel exposed. Like he's pulled back my skin, my bones, to take a look at the soul behind it all.

Ten years of carrying a secret will hurt anyone.

The priest rests a hand on my shoulder and it's like the last thread of a rope holding me together frays and snaps. I can't stop a choked sob this time, one that shakes my whole body. Tears burn out of my eyes and I wail like misery is all I've ever known. I felt like a child again. Like being fifteen and so far away from home that it was almost funny, but this time there's a soft place to land. It's ugly and messy. Snot and tears and gasping, no shame - too far beyond it to care, I let myself really cry for the first time in ten years.

It's like exhaling after a lifetime of holding my breath. A weight I didn't know I carried lifted. I don't know how long I cried for, in that room with Ik-soo's compassionate murmurs in my ears.

It like taking a steel wool brush to my insides - invasive and painful, but it left me cleaner than before.

The priest said, hands folded neatly on his lap. "Do you wish to return home?"

For one long second, I'm too exhausted to understand.

Send me... home?

"That's impossible." I said. My voice was thick with tears.

"It's not." The priests asked. No judgment.

"I can't. I can't. You think I haven't tired?" I demanded, to tired to be angry.

He tilted his head like he was listening to something far away. "Humans are adaptable. You were never meant come to this world, but you adapted to it. The bones in your body and the blood in your veins, your heart, your mind - all of it converted with every word you spoke. Without a piece of your world, untainted by this one, you would never be able to find your way home. And I think a part of you knew that." Then he smiled. " You, Baram, have the only true secret in this world, something no one - living or dead - has ever known; even the gods have no right to it and it serves as a connection to your home. Your name."

I stare at him. "I don't understand."

"I think you do." The priest said, voice quiet.

"I don't- that's impossible."

"Will you tell me your true name?"

I open my mouth - and then close it when nothing comes out. My name sat on my tongue like a round, hard stone. The very thought of giving up my name filled me with dread, makes my hands itch for a weapon. Like I would be losing something I can't get back. Something precious and small.

I've never told anyone my name. Not King Bai, not the fist jeong, not Soo-won. Not even Grandmother.

Why?

He gives me a small smile. "See?"

"How." I said through clenched teeth. "How can you send me home?"

"Gather the dragons." Ik-soo said."Reunite them with their king. King Hiryuu became human, but he was still one of them. The dragons have been lost for so long and the gods weep for their brothers children." He sighs, pressing his hands together like a prayer. "Do this, and the gods will force the path to your world back open."

That's it?

"They could have sent me home at any time. But they didn't. Now that they want something, they make the offer."

Ik-soo hesitated. "Yes. Your very existence defied their will, so long as your name remained unheard. The gods may not kill humans."

The smile that spreads over my face feels sharp, bitter. "But they don't have to help them either."

Every prayer, every moment of desperation, every drop of blood - ignored.

He bows his head for a moment, presenting me with the vulnerable nape of his neck. "Yes. I'm sorry."

There are many ways to kill a man.

I could do it, even sick, even blind.

My hands stay on the futon.

It's not a surprise.

I already knew there were no gods on my side.

"I go against the gods you serve. Why are you helping me?" I asked. He was a priest, and he only had to deliver their message. No need to comfort the outsider his gods hated.

His mouth pulled into a confused frown. "How could I not help someone who cried as you did?"

It could be a lie. His gods could eventually tire of my presence, and decide to strike me down.

Ever since I fell into this world, my only thought had been survival.

Well, here I was.

Surviving.

Maybe it was time to try something different.

My mind was clear for the first time in ten years and there was an end in sight.

"I'll do it." I said.

I can go home.

-

 

 

Chapter Text

-

 

Three weeks pass before my arm will move -- not without pain, but still. Moving.

 

I clench and unclench my fist.

 

Time to get going.

 

The good doctor doesn’t take it well.

 

Yoon stared at me. Even kneeling on the floor, I’m still as tall as he is. "I’m sorry ?” He said. “You can barely walk across the room, let alone the country!”

 

I shrugged, felt the motion pull at my wounded shoulder. Sure it was tender, but I wasn’t bleeding and I had no problem standing upright.

 

Good enough.

 

Yoon pinched the bridge of his nose. “Gods, save me from idiotic patients. Or give me some patience. What, exactly, is important enough do something this stupid ?”

 

I glanced at Ik-soo -- who was also staring at me with wide eyes. Why were they so surprised? I was never going to stay forever. “I have to find some people.”

 

“B-but, so soon?” The priest said. “You can’t wait until the end of the season? You’d be recovered by then --”

 

I didn’t look up from my pack. “No.”

 

“Please, Baram. It’s only a few more weeks. I'll feel better if you're fully healed before going out.”

 

I stood, brushed off my knees, and heaved the backpack over my shoulder. It’s light. Most of my things are gone anyway. Still at the palace. I know the vague location of the dragons, but how long would it take for Soo --

 

My heart hissed, a wounded animal. I grit my teeth, forced myself through the thought.

 

Soo-won would find me. It was a fact, like the sunrise. He wasn't the type to leave a stray thread unsnapped.

 

“I want to go home.” I said, quiet.

 

Ik-soo's face fell. “I see.”

 

Yoon eyes narrowed. “What? What are you talking about?”

 

I glanced at Yoon. “It has nothing to do with you.”

Yoon flinched. Then his shoulders drew back, proud. “Ik-soo?”

 

The priest squirmed. “It's not really my place to say.”

 

Yoon inhaled sharply. “Fine. Fine . Go ahead and get yourself killed. See if I care! Don't bother to come back here when you inevitably get hurt!”

 

“I won’t.” I promised.

 

Yoon turned his back to us and slammed down a clay pot so hard it cracked. He didn't turn around, but his shoulders were tight and angry.

 

I hesitated by the door -- words turned over in my mind. Should I apologise? What would I even say?

 

I’m sorry -- I can’t stay. It’s too much like the palace. You remind me of Yona and Hak. You’re a good kid and I can’t get attached again.

 

I won’t survive it.

 

Three times burned, and I’ve finally learned my lesson. In the end, I don’t say anything. Better to let the break be clean.

 

I already know what I need to do.

 

So I leave, with a nod to the priest, words still trapped inside my head.

 

-

 

I’d barely been walking for a day, and my body ached . It was like being fifteen again and so out of shape one little march felt like death. My bones ached. My side ached.

 

I exhaled through the pain. This was my third break this morning, and I was getting fed up with my body’s recovery time. It was a small clearing, off the main road. I could hear a brook rushing somewhere. I settled on the ground, leaning against a large boulder.  

 

Hey gods, If you’re listening.

 

Fuck you.

 

The thought was bitter and irreverent, but what were they going to do, smite me?

 

If they could touch me, they would have killed me a long time ago. The priest was very clear on how much they hated outsiders.

 

I let out a grunt and flopped back, the dry grass tickling my exposed ankles. The sky was clear enough. Didn’t look like rain was in the forecast for a while. I should eat something, but the thought of plain bread and cheese twisted my stomach into knots.  

 

With a sigh, I covered my eyes. The details of the plot are long gone, even if they hadn’t changed by being a year advanced. The blue dragon would be in the same place, but I had no idea about the rest of them. I don’t even remember their names.

 

The task was like a mountain. Not only was I not halfway up, I wasn’t even at the foot yet. I wanted to give up now, when I still had the energy to find someplace to live quietly. When I was fourteen my dad built me a treehouse in the old oak in our backyard. It was big and tall and finely carved, because my dad built houses for a living.

 

"Only the best for my girl," He said, our smiles mirrored. I got my height from my mom, but I looked like him.

 

Of course, at fourteen I was way too cool for baby things like tree houses and secret hideouts. I turned up my nose and scoffed. He only laughed when he found the bookshelves overflowing with my little pot plants the next week.

 

I ground my hands into my eyes. They stayed dry, because I was all out of tears.

 

The birds sung as the day wore on. Small sounds that slowly started again, the longer I stayed down. I wasn’t sleeping. Just… focusing on breathing. Trying to clear my mind of any stray thoughts. Like how old my younger sisters would be if - when I got back. Would my mother’s hair be grey? Would my father need a cane?

 

Every single doubt was shoved down, away from my heart.

 

It was starting to sink in: I could find out. For the first time, I had a chance to know.

 

I breathed out.

 

There were no other options. No other choices.

 

Even if I had to go through Soo-won, I was going home.

 

I needed a plan. The dragons would leave rumors of some kind, so maybe the local criminals would know where to find them. If that failed, I could go after some bandits and --

 

“Baram!”

 

A blurr of involuntary speed and I was on my feet, crouched low, hand grasping for Mercy.

 

No, I lost it --

 

My other dagger snapped, gonna have to bare fist it --

 

Wait. I knew that voice.

 

I whipped around. “ Yoon ?”

 

The boy folded his arms, and looked me up and down. "I'm impressed that you're still standing. And by impressed I mean not impressed at all, because you're an idiot who should be resting." Grass crackled under his sandaled feet. He tugged my tattered over coat. “Take off your robes, I want to look over you.”

 

I stared at him. “What the fuck,” I said. “Are you doing here? Go home!”

 

Yoon sniffed. “No.”

 

“What about Ik-soo? You’re just going to leave him alone?”

 

“Ik-soo is a grown man! He can take… care of himself.” Yoon lost confidence halfway through his sentence. He glanced over his shoulder, then shook his head, set his heels and his jaw. “You need me more, right now. He’s the one who said I should go anyway.”

 

“Kid, I don’t need you to babysit me. Go home.”

 

He gives me a mulish look. “No way. You’re going to get yourself killed at this rate. Let me guess your next plan of action; find some bandits and beat them up for information, despite your injuries.”

 

I ignore that, because I can’t really argue. “You’re a liability! You can't even hold a dagger right, how the hell -- ”

 

“So you do plan on fighting! I knew it --”

 

“That’s not the point. The world's a dangerous place, and you can’t -”

 

“So protect me then!”

 

The words ring out in the clearing. I don’t know what my expression looked like, but Yoon’s eyes went wide and he took one step forward, like he could catch me. “...Baram?”

 

The princess looked up with her father’s red eyes. “Jeong?”

 

Grandmother smacked me across the head.

 

Hak, Yona, Soo-won, laughing over something in the garden.

 

“No. I can’t protect anyone.” My hands felt sticky with blood. The irritation is replaced by cold. “I’m not going to stop you, but your safety is in your own hands.”

 

All I’ve ever been good for is killing.

 

And I’m not making any more promises.

 

Yoon stares for one second. He nodded once, sharp. “That’s fine. I’m a pretty-boy genius. I can do anything I put my mind to.”

 

I can’t smile, but I sort of want to.

 

No fear in that boy.

 

Yoon poked my stomach. “Off. I still need to bandage you up.”

 

-

 

Turns out that I did, in fact rip my stitches. Just a few, but to listen to Yoon it was like I’d run a marathon on a broken foot.

 

“Sit. Stay .” He ordered, pointing at the ground. “I saw some herbs I need back on the road. Don’t do anything stupid.”

 

What am I, a dog?

 

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Mother.”

 

He scowled, but went.

 

I kept an ear out for any trouble. Crack went the kid stomping away, the water rushed somewhere out of view, the birds…

 

...the birds were quiet.

 

Casually, I got to my feet while brushing the dirt and grass off my legs. I stretched my arms with a yawn.

 

There.

 

A flash of orange, between a gap of foliage. Opposite from they way Yoon had gone.   

 

I scratched my head. There wasn’t any hostile intent, but… I glanced over my shoulder.

 

Better safe than sorry.

 

My  leg strikes out without warning, striking the trunk with a thunderous crack. The branches tremble and the birds take into panicked flight.

 

“Woaaaaah -- eh?” The boy opened one eye. Looked at me. Looked at his dangling feet. Back up at me, and the vice hold I had on his collar. “Oh. Hello!”

 

"You’ve been following us." I said.

 

Why does he seem so familiar? The blonde hair, the hair ornaments, his blue eyes.

 

The boy blinked, and a huge smile spread over his face like a flash fire. ““Yup!”

 

I raise an eyebrow.

 

He continues to beam.

 

Why ?”

 

"Zeno was just curious!" The smile still hasn't faltered. In fact, it's grown by leaps and bounds. "Zeno is the one who brought you to the pretty boy!"

 

I blink. "What?"  

 

Yoon returns to the clearing. In his hands is a squirming bundle, in the other a bundle of firewood. "I caught some fish, so that's what we're having. If you complain, you go hungry -- you !"

 

Zeno waved. "Hello, pretty boy!"

 

“You’re the one who dumped Baram on my step and ran away!”

 

Zeno laughed like he didn't have a care in the world. "Well, Zeno isn't a doctor and the scary lady was bleeding out!"

 

...did he have to sound so cheerful when saying that?

 

Well. At least he wasn’t lying about it. I snorted and let go of his collar,

 

He fell with an ungraceful flail of his arms -- but he landed on his feet.

 

Trained in at least some methods of fighting.

 

No wonder he seemed familiar. It was scattered, fever eaten holes through the memory. There were… bandits? And something about yellow hair?

 

A loud gurgle interrupted my thoughts.

 

I glanced down (and down and down -- man he was tiny ) to find Xeno staring at the fish Yoon was carrying.

 

Yoon made eye contact with me.

 

I rolled my eyes and shrugged. Zeno didn’t read as dangerous -- there was something itching in the back of my mind, but not because the kid was hiding ill intentions. It was just the sensation that I was forgetting something important.

 

The doctor sniffed. “If you want to join us for dinner, we need some firewood.”

 

I should protest. Time pressed down on my shoulders like a pair of heavy hands. 

 

I didn't. 

 

But... I was so tired

 

-

 

“What is the scary lady looking for?” Xeno asked.

 

Yoon wrinkled his nose. “Close your mouth when you chew.”

 

“Mother Yoon,” I murmured under my breath.

 

Zeno snickered, mouth still open.

 

“What was that, Baram? You said you don’t want seconds?” Yoon gave me a sweet smile, hands pulling back my wooden bowl. “If you insist --”

 

“Ah, no!” I made grabby hands. “I want it, I want it!”

 

Pride could hang. His cooking was better than the palace chefs; it was one of the reasons that I let him come within the first place. The thought of going back to eating plain rations and my own passable-but-not-great cooking was depressing.

 

“That’s what I thought.”

 

“I’d like to know that too. Ik-soo wouldn’t say anything, not even after I told him that I wouldn’t make any manju for him.”

 

I paused and the mirth drained out of me. My face went blank.

 

The four dragons of king Hiryuu were considered a fairy tale. The whole country knew about them. The whole country also knew that they were only myths. Not even worth thinking about, not like the gods or the various spirits they worshiped.

 

I studied Yoon, sitting across the fire from me.

 

He met my eyes with clear, determined ones.

 

Finally, I shrugged. “The Four Dragons.”

 

Zeno paused from shoving food into his mouth. There were grains of rice and fish all over his face. “The myths?”

 

Yoon frowned, picked up the wooden cup sitting by his side. “That’s who you need to find?”

 

“I made a deal.”

 

“With who?”

 

I could feel the smile spread across my face, etching into my face like dripping acid. “The Gods.”

 

A strange silence fell over the clearing.


Yoon opened his mouth -- I could see the scorn on his face, the tip of his tongue. Nothing came out. He frowned thoughtfully instead, crossed his arms and stared into the fire.

 

“What do you want with the dragons?” Zeno’s voice held only curiosity.

 

The hairs on the back of my neck rose anyway.

 

Pressure colored the air, like a mountain gaining consciousness.  Like something old and very powerful had woken up and all of it’s attention was on me.

 

I met Zeno’s eyes without flinching. “Nothing.”

 

He tugged on the gold coin on his bandana. “Oh?”

 

“The gods have given me the task of finding them, and bringing them to the reincarnation of King Hiryuu.”

 

Zeno tilted his head. “What do you get out of this?”

 

Mom. Dad. Three little sisters.

 

A world, returned to me.

 

A place where I would never have to kill again.

 

The fire blurred and my chest ached.  “I get to go home.” I  leaned my elbows on my knees and looked up the meet Zeno’s eyes again. “That’s all I want.”

 

Zeno studied me for a quiet minute. Crickets sang in the forest. Something jumped from branch to branch.

 

Finally, he gave me a soft smile -- one that lit up his whole face with kindness. Sympathy. And under that, a quiet consideration. “I believe you.”

 

And just like that, the pressure was gone.

 

Yoon looked up from the fire with eyes that reflected the heat in it. “If this is Ik-soo’s idea of a joke -- if he’s lying to you -- I’m going to kill him.”

 

He was deadly serious.

 

I blinked.  “...why?”

 

Yoon gave me a look -- like I was being unbearably stupid, and he was tired of dealing with it. “Nevermind.”

 

I glanced at Zeno -- who was also giveing me a look. A different, speculative look.  

 

“What?”

 

He nodded to himself, like he reached a decision. “Zeno is the yellow dragon.”

 

It takes a second for the words to register.

 

Then something clicks in the back of my brain, like having the final piece of a puzzle I forgot. Zeno, the first and only yellow dragon, who used to be a priest. Green headband, yellow hair, gold coin glinting by his face.

 

The yellow dragon, just like that.

 

...yeah, right.

 

I was never that lucky. I narrow my eyes at him. "Prove it."

 

All I had to go by were memories of a manga, nearly ten years gone now. Not enough to say for sure what he looked like.

 

Zeno clapped his hands together. "Sure!"

 

A pattern of scales crept up his face, starting from his neck and swallowing up his face. "How about this?"

 

I took his chin and tipped his head. The scales glittered in the light.

 

No wonder his name sounded so familiar.

 

"Fine. Okay. That’s a little… convenient, but I’ll take what I can get." I released him, watched the scales recede back into his skin. “So, what the fuck are you doing here ? Did the gods…?”

 

Zeno tapped his chopsticks against the wooden bowl. Tock. Tock. "Zeno used to be a priest, but the gods don’t speak to him anymore. Still, Zeno could feel you. You're here, but not really here -- like missing a tooth! It was interesting so Zeno wanted to see!"

 

That's right -- Zeno used to be a priest, before the dragons.

 

The yellow dragon's voice is calm. Eyes clear. Face serene. It's like he'd gained twenty years in the space of a second. He absently pulled up a handful of grass. "Zeno isn’t good at fighting. Zeno was going to run away, like he always does, but  there you were. Sooo tall , taller than anyone else. Baram helped Zeno, even half dead." He looked at the grass. Tilted his hand and let it fall down. Than he looked up and smiled like the sun coming out; he laughed and the old, wise man was gone, replaced by a carefree kid. "Jeong was heavy! Zeno thought he was going to die . He's glad he didn't give up, though. Zeno is glad that you lived."

 

Why?

 

I ignored the small, bitter voice and stirred the fire. "We have a long day a head of us. I'll take the first watch." 

 

-

 

Zeno was a cheerful traveling companion, and fit seamlessly into our little group. Having two people to nag ment Yoon was twice as happy. It also made him less uptight about my health. It was a relief to finally get some time to myself, to meditate. Or fail to meditate.

 

Every time I tried now, I could see blood smearing Soo-won’s pale face. Red on white.

 

We crept, slowly, down the road. Normally, I would have complained about how often Yoon made us take a break.

 

Normally, I don't have to rest. Normally, I can walk for more than half a day without being winded. Normally I can braid my own hair.

 

Now I have to grit my teeth and bow to the will of my doctor. Contrary to what Yoon thought, I hated my weakness. I couldn’t wait to have my full range of motion back.

 

I adjusted the scarf over my hair. It was an old, faded black that I had Yoon pick up a couple days ago. I can't do anything about my height, or my scars -- I don’t even have my straw hat.

 

I sighed internally. Just do the best you can with what you have.

 

"What direction next?" I ask Zeno.

 

Yoon is still in the small village, bartering with the fishwives for supplies. He was the best at it. Most of them took one look at his pretty boy face and drop their prices instantly. Having me around tended to make the villagers wary. I don’t know why Zeno was hanging back. He liked getting the grannies to give him treats.

 

Zeno tilts his head like he's listening to something far away. Sensing his brothers, apparently. Then he points down the path. "That way! There's a port town called Awa close by. Maybe we can pick up some more information there."

 

It's as good a plan as any.

 

I shrug - and flinch.

 

Ow, fuck.

 

I keep forgetting about my shoulder, until I move it wrong.

 

"Does it hurt?"

 

Yellow hair fills my vision.

 

Darkness, except for the moon outside. Blood in my mouth, on his robes, on the floor; bring the knife down --  

 

Can't hurt him, I promised --

 

My body recoiled -- it's so violent and unexpected that I can only watch myself react from the outside. I stared at Zeno with my knee pressed into his stomach, his arms pinned above his head.

 

He stayed very still.

 

My heart was so loud I couldn't hear my breath.

 

Soo-won's face is burned into the back of my eyes.

 

The only thing that saves Zeno is that I haven't picked up a dagger yet.

 

I let him go like he's a hot coal.

 

Air.

 

I needed air.

 

"Do- don't startle me like that." I said.

 

"Got it." Zeno said. His smile is still there, but his eyes are sharp. It feels like I'm being dissected. A bug under glass.

 

I turn away, hands folded in my robes.

 

If I couldn’t see them, it meant they weren't shaking.

 

-

 

We still made acceptable time to Port Awa, but it was dark when we arrived. Light came from guttering torches and the half moon hanging like a painting in the sky.

 

I notice the smell first - rotting food, human waste, unwashed sweat. After the clean countryside, and Yoon's fanatically disinfected cottage, I have to duck my head into my scarf.

 

Yoon passed over a bag of hearbs so sharp my eyes wattered. It was better than the organic steanch that filled the streets, so I tucked it into my scarf.

 

One thing that I didn't miss about cities was the smell.

 

The few people out at this time of night were… stange. Smiling, but strained. The few who wern’t smiling looked like zombies. Pale, like they’d never seen the sun before with a grey undertone to their skins. The moon washed them out even furhter.

 

Yoon pulled close to me, jaw tight. He scanned the stragglers. “I don’t like this.”

 

I flicked my eyes down but said nothing.

 

He pressed even closer to my side when a shuffling man passed too close. He had dark hair and pupils so wide they drowned out the rest of his face. The moonlight glinted off them as gazed off into the middle distance. I don’t think he blinked once. He was muttering something too low to hear under his breath.

 

“He looks sick .” Yoon whispered. “Has there been a plague outbreak?”

 

Zeno took my other side. “Oooh, scary! Protect me, pretty boy!”

 

He went from tense to offended in a split second. “Excuse me? I am a doctor , not a bodyguard. In fact, you should be protecting me. Violence is beneath me.”

 

“But it’s good enough for me?” I said.

 

Zeno patted me on the arm. “It’s okay, Baram. Zeno doesn’t think Baram is a meathead.”

 

Yoon sniffed. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re a muscle head who’s too stubborn to die. I need to survive if you want to.”

 

Fair enough.

 

A thunderous crash shattered the quiet night.

 

Zeno bumped into my side, hard.

 

I blinked.  Zeno had stepped the slightest bit forward -- putting his body in front of Yoon’s like a shield.

 

And so had I.

 

I moved a step away from the yellow dragon with a deep breath.

 

Old habits die hard.

 

Nothing jumped out at us. The source of the noise was obvious. The zombie man was lying face down in a pile of former wooden crates. Now they were reduced to splinters. His hands were convulsing, scrapping at the dirt road until they were wet with blood. Though it all, he kept muttering without once changing tone.

 

“I have to help him --” Yoon said.

 

I grabbed his collar. “No.”

 

Yoon glared at me over his shoulder. “What do you mean no? He needs my help, look at him!”

 

I glanced at the man again. He was hollowed out from hunger, lank and unhealthy. Except he’d shattered those crates without making the slightest sound of pain -- or even noticing. If he got violent while Yoon was treating him, I don’t know if I would be fast enough to stop him before the doctor was seriously hurt.

 

He stopped clawing the ground in  favor of rolling over and staring up at the moon. His eyes caught the light until they were tiny moons, reflecting nothing.

 

“He’s not sick.” I said. “He’s drugged.”

 

Yoon stopped trying to twist out of my grasp. “Drugged?”

 

My mouth turns down. “I’ve seen it before. Something soldiers use to stay awake.”

 

Zeno chewed on his lip. “What happened? Zeno didn’t notice anything like this before. He was just here three months ago.”

 

A month ago, I was a royal bodyguard and the King was still alive.

 

“Shit happens.” I said. “Let’s go.”

 

Neither of them argued this time.

 

Zeno led us to a shabby, run down in with no name on the outside.

 

"This is the cheapest place." Zeno said cheerfully. "The lady running it is weak to pretty people, so Yoon should do the talking."

 

Yoon gave a pleased nod. "I was going to do the talking anyway. It's not like I can let either of you do it."

 

"What's wrong with me?" I asked.

 

Both of them turned to stare at me.

 

I scowled at them.

 

What?

 

“Baram's face scares babies.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

My eyebrow twitched. “Brats.”

 

So Yoon went to secure us a room, sweet talking the woman in charge while I loomed behind him like some sort of bodyguard. Zeno wandered around the nearly empty common room, poking things and charming the waitresses into giving him sweets.

 

The owner was a sweet, round faced mother in her late fifties. Her smile was bright and cheerful -- but underneath her professional smile, there was something off. Strained.

 

Yoon glanced at me. "There’s only one room available."

 

I gave him a blank stare. Yes, I heard. I was standing behind you the whole time. “And?”

 

Yoon gave Zeno (who was … juggling for a group of kids?) a pointed look. "You don't seen anything wrong with sharing a room with us?"

 

“Not really.”

 

Yoon traded a speaking glance with the innkeeper. “You see what I have to put up with?”

 

“It must be so difficult dear,” She said, patting his hand.

 

I elected to ignore them in favor of watching Zeno put on a one man show in the common room.

 

We got the room. Yoon and I dumped our stuff into the corner - not the important stuff, but things we wouldn’t care about losing.

 

“I’m going to find a place to bathe.” Yoon said.

 

“Zeno will go too!” Zeno bounced up from the only bed in the room, landed on his feet and hooked an arm around Yoon’s shoulders.


I flicked my eyes to Zeno and back to Yoon and shrugged. Zeno would protect the doctor if something happened --

 

-- and I was doing the bodyguard thing again. Yoon’s safety wasn’t my problem.

 

I folded my hands into my sleeves. “You have fun with that.”  

 

Yoon looked over his shoulder. "You're not coming?"

 

I shrugged, already walking in the opposite direction. "I have some stuff to get."

 

Zeno tilted his head. "You have to go now? Everything is closed."

 

"Not everything." I said.

 

The red light district is always open.

 

“Don’t get into any fights!” Yoon called after me.

 

I waved my hand without looking at them. “Yeah, yeah.”

 

-

 

Red light districts are easy to find -- all I have to do is follow my nose. The perfume and incense and alcohol colors the air with an amber haze of luxury.

 

I picked a brothel at random and went in. Madame Crane’s House of Pleasure wa a well to do brothel with rich blue paint on the outside and a large, open windows showing off a guilded pallor full of people. The walls are covered in tasteful scrolls.

 

I ducked through into the entrance, my head barely an inch from brushing the ceiling. The hallway behind it was just as rich as the rest of it. A sweet smelling incense lingered in the air. The tatami were in perfect condition. Rooms with sliding doors lined the hall. One of them stood open, revealing a full party of customers. One of the well dressed men reclining in the company of two beautiful women took one look at me and went white. His hands said bureaucrats. His face said coward. Lucky for him, I wasn't interested in trouble.

 

There was something about the room bothering me. Something missing .

 

The guards. Where were the guards?

 

I scanned the room again. No one even came to take my staff. 

 

I’ve been in a handful of brothels before. They were bastions of information, because not many men are capable of keeping their mouths shut. Even the most miserable places had guards to deal with rowdy customers. It was an unspoken law that the brothel had the right to kick you out if you were causing trouble, no matter what your rank was.

 

My spine prickled.

 

Maybe I should find a different place -- there was something off about this one.

 

Before I could move, one of the women broke off from the group with the open door - and glided into a very impressive looking bow. Her mass of black hair was swept back into a complicated bun. Her face was flawlessly made up and she looked five to ten years older than me. "Welcome, my lord. How may this one serve you today?"  Her voice fit her; smoke and a hint of something laughing. Inviting me to share the joke with her.

 

I hesitated. "I am in need of assistance with acquiring some... delicate things."

 

People notice a six foot five, scarred, armed person going into a ladies makeup store. People who look like me -- mercenaries, guards, soldiers -- they're a dime a dozen in the red light district.

 

The woman's eyes go knowing. "This one sees. If you will follow this one, honored guest?"

 

It was a bad idea. It was absolutely a dumb idea and Yoon would kill me for being stupid.

 

I let her lead me anyway. There was something going on here, and I was curious.

 

-

 

The woman - Jang-mi, one of the madames, as she introduced herself -- led me to a small room with plain furnishings. We passed through the back quarters of the brothel, ignoring the sounds and smell of sex. The incense hung in the air in an almost visible cloud -- much more potent than the front parlor.

 

We kneel at a small, minimally carved table, with her across from me.

 

She sets out a plain looking tea set, and begins to prepare it just as gracefully as she does everything else.

 

I wait for her to speak, hands folded into opposite sleeves.

 

A braiser burns behind a small screen in the corner of the room. The source of the incense.

 

I carefully breath into my scarf, into the sharp smelling herbs that Yoon gave me. It’s almost overwhelmingly sweet.

 

“It’s not uncommon for a soldier such as yourself to come for our… particular brand of soothing.” Jang-mi said, placing a cup in front of me.

 

“A mercenary.” I corrected her. “I haven’t been a soldier in years.”

 

She glances up at me from under her thick eyelashes. “Truly? You are so very young, my lord…”

 

“Feng. Feng Wei.” I said without blinking. I didn’t want this woman to have my name. Either of them.  

 

Jang-mi ducked her head as if in shyness. “You must think me bold, to have called you back here alone. This one could not help herself, my lord Feng. This one knew that you must tell such interesting stories. Would this one be privileged enough to hear them?”

 

...one of Soo-won’s many ‘friends’? Possible. I followed him around most places, and I knew that his circle of spies ran far and wide.

 

“I think we should get to business.” I said, tone bland as hers was inviting.

 

She paused. “Your lordship is very generous for listening to this one prattle on. This one apologies for this one’s manners.” From one sleeve, she withdraws a beautifully embroidered bag. One she handles without letting it touch her skin.

 

Ah.

 

Jang-mi pushes it across the table towards me, still careful not to touch it with her bare hands. “This one is pleased to say that Madame’s House produces only the finest product. The cost is two hundred Ling. This one could give you a discount, my lord." She looked through her long  dark eyelashes at me. "If you wished to entertain this one a little longer."

 

Two hundred ling ?

 

That was more than I made in six months as a bodyguard for the prince.

 

Wait. Was that a proposition?

 

A smile curled on her red lips, and her eyes follow the line of my hands up to my eyes, and okay. That was absolutely a proposition.

 

Even I can recognize flirting when it’s shouted into my face like that.

 

Jang-mi hid her face behind one demure sleeve, the picture of grace. "It's not often this one meets people as polite as yourself. It makes a refreshing change."

 

The thing is. I’m not a virgin exactly. I’ve had sex friends in the army, where it was just another way of blowing off steam. It’s been… years since I had the time or the energy to just find someone attractive.

 

Jang-mi smiled and my mouth went dry. I couldn't move when she moved around the table, rested one slender hand on my shoulder.

 

“This one… admires strength.” She whispered. Her hair smelt like lilly and cinnamon. Her body radiated heat like a fire, and I felt like I was burning.

 

I moved with her, let her push me down.

 

Heat.

 

Heat pooling in my stomach, and lower still. Heat draining my mouth of moisture. Heat building up in my face.

 

It was so hard to think. To see anything but the dark curtain of hair. The dark eyes. The red mouth.  

 

...wrong.

 

It was a small voice. Like a candle in the overwhelming dark. A single sea breeze in the overwhelming heat of the desert. I wanted to lean into the warmth, into Jang-mi’s clever hands. It felt… nice.

 

My stomach twisted, like it’d eaten something unpleasant.  

 

The hair was too long, far too dark. The skin too flawless. The mouth on my mine, too red, too sure. Unfamiliar.

 

A handprint branded in the small of my back.

 

A laughing voice.

 

It was like someone dumped a bucket of ice water down my back. I jabbed myself in the side, right in stitches. Pain sings up my nerves and I’m back in control of my body.  Aware of the positions we ended up in.

 

Jang-mi was straddling my hips. Her kimono was gone, my robe gaped open revealing all of the scars. Her hands traced them revrently. Her hair draped over her shoulder, tickling my bare skin.

 

I pressed my hand to her shoulder, effortlessly holding her off.

 

She stilled.

 

“No.” I said.

 

She met my eyes.

 

I pushed myself back up -- and found myself curled up around her soft body as she refused to move.

 

She leaned forward, until our fronts were pressed together skin on skin. Her breath ghosted over my neck. “No?”

 

I swallowed and it tasted bitter.  

 

My back burned .

 

“No.”  I said again, firm.

 

It was a small eternity before she slipped off my lap. Her hair slides across my skin like silk, and I shivered.

 

“Such a pity. This one hasn't met someone like you in a long, long time.” Jang-mi said, leaning against the table without a thought for her naked body.  Her eyes follow the scars, the movement of my stomach as I sit up fully. When she meets mine, they’re full of want . “We only serve that petty governor's toadies now. Soft men. In more ways than one.”

 

I feel my mouth move into a smile. Somehow I felt… lighter. More settled for the first time in a long while.

 

Jang-mi leaned back across the table in a large stretch. “You may take the bag, for allowing this one a most -- delectable taste. Though this one doubts that your lordship is the type to need it.”

 

I push to my feet, pick up her kimono and drape it around her shoulders. I leave the bag on the table. “You’re welcome.”

 

The madame blinked. Her lips curled into a wry smile and she pulled the robes closed.  “My lord was raised with some manners, I see.”

 

Serving two different royal families will do that to you.

 

I pull my robes closed, and pass by her.

 

Jang-mi caught my wrist. “Leaving without a goodbye kiss, Mr. Mercenary?” Her eyes were trying to communicate something.

 

“We can’t have that,” I agreed. I leaned down and let her press her mouth to my cheek.

 

She brushed my loose hair back behind my ear. “Be careful, Mr. Mercenary. It’s a dangerous world out there.” Her voice was barely a breath.

 

I glance at the screened off corner, at the incense still burning, and then the tea cooling at the table. I pull back and raise an eyebrow at her.

 

Jang-mi smiles demurely.

 

Ah.

 

I bowed, graceful as any prince. "Madame Jang-mi is very kind."

 

She laughed and waved me off. "Manners, indeed. Have a good day, Mr. Mercenary. If your mind should change, this one will always be here."

 

The common room is just as loud and boisterous when I pass through it -- but now I can tell there's something off about the customers and the prostitutes both. Under the flowers and the wine, I can sense the strain. The smell of desperation colors every move.

 

The difference?

 

I hear the scuff of people behind.

 

Now I know where the guards are.

 

I spotted them out of the corner of my eye. A small group of men, poorly trying to pretend they weren't following me.

 

I sighed and ran a hand through my loose hair. “Yoon is going to be furious.”

 

The guards followed me until I backed into a conveniently deserted corridor. They were well outfitted -- almost dressed in uniforms.

 

I turned, leaning on my staff. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

 

Clearly they were expecting something different. The two in front stepped forward. The arrogant tilt of their head said they were in charge. The stance they took said amatures.

 

“You have a lot of nerve coming here with a weapon.” Thug one said. His hair was shorn close to his head, and he had a nasty scar on face.

 

Thug two crossed his arms and looked down his broken nose at me. Impressive, considering I had at least a foot on him. “We don’t take kindly to rule breakers in this town.”

 

“...what weapon?” I asked. My staff?

 

Shorty sneered and pulled out a dagger. “This one, moron.”

 

He threw the dagger at my head.

 

I moved my staff over an inch.

 

The blade sank into the wood, but didn’t go all the way through. Good aim, poor power.

 

I took the dagger and hefted it in my hand. Balance wasn’t complete shit.

 

“Am I being framed?” I asked.

 

Shorty’s mouth dropped open. “W-what?”

 

Yeah. I was being framed.

 

I held up the dagger. “I’m keeping this.” 

 

Scar snarled. “Get him!”

 

I twirled my new dagger over my hand. It felt good to have one after so long feeling naked without it. I leaned my staff up against the wall.

 

The first three thugs are stupid -- they body rush me, no finesse, no training.

 

I duck under the first  punch, bring up my hands and clap them over his ears. He goes down like a sack of bricks.  I whirl and kick out, catching one in the face. His nose breaks with a crunch of bone. I stick my new dagger in the thirds arm and carve .

 

The guards still standing stare at me.

 

I wipe the blood off my new dagger. It really needed some care before it’d be considered acceptable.

 

I look up. “Next.”

 

“You asshole!”

 

Scar charges, and the rest of them follow after a heartbeat’s hesitation.

 

The alley becomes a whirl of blows.

 

I manage, but there are five of them and not enough room to maneuver. One of them lands a lucky punch to my shoulder eventually.

 

A white burst of pain knocks the breath out of me.

 

Shorty lands another kick to my stomach, sending me staggering into the wall.  

 

“Well. This wasn't what I was expecting to find when I heard that the city officials were causing trouble again.”

 

I blinked.

 

Shorty looked at me.

 

I shook my head. 

 

It wasn't me. 

 

He shook his head too. 

 

We both looked up at the same time.

 

There was a man sitting on the balcony above us, one long leg crossed primly over the other. He leaned forward with a small smile on his face, head resting on his fist. The light caught his face. His hair...

 

His hair was green.

Chapter Text


Chapter 21. The Fugitive and the Pirate

 

The green-haired man jumped - almost floated - down to the ground. The cocky smile, the folded arms, light shining on his face. It was like having a sense of deja vu for someone I know I've never met before.

 

Both the guards and I stared at him, for very different reasons.

 

"You're the green dragon." I said.

 

The smile dropped off his face like a valuable vase and shattered all over the floor. "How did you - er. Dragon? Green? I'm afraid that I don't know what you mean."

 

"Your hair is green. Did you just - decide to dye it one day? Is it fake?" I asked.

 

He made an offended sound. "First of all, how dare you -" he stepped out of the path of one of the guards, and sent the man stumbling into a trash can a few feet away. " And second of all, everything on me is one hundred percent natural ."

 

"Stop fucking ignoring us!" One of the guards snapped.

 

Without looking, I reversed my hold on my staff and brought it back with a sharp jab.

 

The guard slumped, wheezing and clutching between his legs.

 

The green dragon cringed. "Oh, ouch. You don't pull your punches, do you?"

 

I shrugged.

 

The remaining men lunged at me with a snarl - And with that, the time for talk was over. The alley became a whirl of motion. We managed to take them down between us, but not quietly. The noise attracted attention.

 

"Over here!" A voice called, from the mouth of the alley. There was the sound of many, many feet over the cobble, armor clanking and swords being unsheathed. The mouth of the alley filled with yet more men, all heavy and mean looking.

 

Of course. "Guards are like cockroaches. There's never just one."

 

It wasn't like I couldn't handle them, but it did get annoying.

 

He laughed. Apparently the violence restored his good mood. "It does feel that way sometimes, doesn't it?"

 

I glanced at him. "You take the ones on the left, I take the ones on the right?"

 

"Fun as that sounds, I have a better idea. Shall we?" He held his arm out for me, like I was some sort of princess.

 

I looked back at the mouth of the alley. I could take them - but not without popping my stitches. Yoon would never let me hear the end of it.

 

I took his arm with an internal shrug. It was the lesser of two evils.

 

The green dragon gave me a wicked grin. "Going up." Then he pulled me in, wrapped an arm around my waist, and jumped.

 

The ground disappeared.

 

My good hand clenched on the green fabric of his over robe. My stomach dropped out of my body. The world grew smaller and smaller - we went up and then further still, until the sky loomed overhead like a tapestry I could touch if I just stretched a little further.

 

Then we were falling, wind curling around us with the force of a typhoon, buffeting my clothes, shaking my hair loose almost instantly. Wind bit into my face, stinging my eyes. It was a roller coaster,

only the belt was a strong hand wrapped around my waist.

 

My mouth curled up.

 

Before, I was fond of roller coasters - and even that didn't compare to the breathless feeling of absolute free fall.

 

We were flying , just ahead of the snap of bowstrings.

 

He saw the look on my face and laughed, and the sound was pure joy.

 

-

 

He jumped again, bouncing off someone's roof without leaving so much as a footprint in the grime. It took us less than three minutes to lose the few guards who managed to follow us, and by then we were across town. I could smell brine and hear the creak of old ships on the water as we passed the docks - and then beyond it, bounding of ships like stepping stones, open water under us more often than not.

 

Finally, there were no more ships; there was only a heavy fog.

 

"This is our stop," He shouted over the wind, grin on his face. "Brace yourself!"

 

A huge shadow appeared out of the fog - a ship.

 

He landed like he's never even heard of the concept of gravity before, like it's something that happened to other people. His green hair fell over my shoulders, tangling with my own. He sets us down on top of a small platform high in the air - the crow's nest.

 

I let go of him the second we touch to onto wood and frown. "Why'd you bring me here?"

 

Ships are one thing that I've never had to face in battle. Most of Xing's enemy were landlocked. The pirates of port Awa's ship is large. Probably. I don't actually know anything about ships. It's full of people, all of them looking up at us and but I cann't make out the gossip of the crowd.

 

He smiled. "You're strong."

 

I glanced at him. "What does that have to do with anything?"

 

He only shrugged and held out his arm again in a silent offer.

 

I glanced down at the deck. I could make the jump, sure, but there was still a part of me that screamed 'no way, you'll break your fucking legs, you moron' that I couldn't get rid of. I take his hand.

 

One stomach dropping moment later, he sets us both down on the deck. The landing doesn't even send twinge of pain up my leg. From down here, the crew of the ship is easier to see. Most of them are older men, rough and scarred, with smiling eyes. They only seemed curious, not hostile or even worried. Friendly for a bunch of pirates. The only odd one out was the slight figure lounging at the helm. She was an older woman, silver hair trailing down over her shoulder and an elegant looking pipe at her mouth.

 

She blew out a long puff of smoke. "So nice of you to finally turn up, brat. And with company ."

 

The breath is knocked out of me so fast, I feel dizzy.

 

Grandmother.

 

The woman looks nothing like her, but the tone is so familiar I want to die. It's rough and exasperated and, under all that, was a dizzying amount of affection. I should say something, but my tongue felt like stone. I should present my case, because she's clearly the one in charge, but all I can think about is how much I hurt; like being kicked in a still healing wound. Like being speared through the chest. It dragged something I didn't want to think about to the surface.

 

I will never visit her grave again.

 

I can't think about that.

 

I can't .

 

Her sharp grey eyes fall on me like a mountain. "Introduce your friend, brat."

 

"Well," The Green Dragon said, stepping forward with a grand sweeping gesture of a bow. It puts him in front of me, draws her attention. "This vision of loveliness and prospective crew member is ..." He paused, then turned to me, face sheepish. "I don't think we ever introduced ourselves."

 

I crushed the grief down. Let cold spread over me. The past is gone, over and done with.

 

Keep moving.

 

"We didn't." I kept my attention on the captain. She's the one I need to convince.

 

He bowed with a flourish and a flirtatious grin. "Jae-ha, at your service. Charmed to meet you."

 

"Baram." I said to the captain, ignoring him.

 

She was the bigger threat.

 

Jae-ha seemed like the honorable type; he wouldn't stab me in the back with a smile.

 

I had a feeling that the old woman was smarter than that.

 

She hummed, studying me. "A crew member? Impulsive as usual, brat."

 

Jae-ha rolled his eyes, but he still turned towards her like a flower towards the sun. "You're the one

who said that we needed more people. I'm just trying -"

 

"I don't want to join." I said. There's no point in being indirect.

 

Jae-ha squawked.

 

She leaned back in her chair. Took a long pull of her pipe. "Is that so?"

 

"I only want him." I said, jerking my head at the green dragon. "In exchange, I'll take care of

your Governor problem."

 

Jae-ha laughed. "I'm flattered."

 

Her face didn't change, but my nerves screamed at me. Danger! "I don't trade in people, child."

 

Oh.

 

I wave my hand. "No, not like that. I only need to borrow him."

 

She blew out a smoke ring, and the abrupt sense of heavy intent was gone. "Hmm. For what?"

 

"There's someone he needs to meet. Then he can stay or go, I don't care which." The gods may have

said that I need to deliver the dragons to Yona, but they never said I had to make them stay .

 

"You're talking about - that person. King Hiryuu."

 

I turned to look at the green dragon, who finally stopped smiling. His amused look vanished, replaced

by the wariness of a wild animal presented with a cage.

 

I exhaled, calm, ready, no matter what move he makes. "Yes."

 

"I won't. I belong to no one but myself." He said. "I'll never go back to being trapped ."

 

I tilted my head. "Were you not listening? I don't care what you do. I don't even care if you stay for more than five minutes. I only care that you meet her."

 

Yona could do the convincing all on her own.

 

Jae-ha hesitated. "Her? A girl?"

 

That's what gets his attention?

 

I rolled my eyes. "Yes. Her . She's -" Proud and spoiled and so kind it breaks my heart; Filled with so much potential ; A flame that kept me warm through one of the worst times in my life. My beloved little sister.

 

My enemy .

 

" - she's something else." I said, voice quiet.

 

Jae-ha must have seen something on my face, because his eyes narrowed. "Than why are you here,

and not with her?"

 

I felt my mask break for a split second and I turned away, looked out into the water. Tried to keep the words behind my teeth.

 

Words like ' If I had my way, I would be and I never wanted to leave and I'm so tired of running and Why didn't he just tell me -

 

I exhaled.

 

Later.

 

Always later.

 

Jae-ha didn't know and he was right to be suspicious.

 

But I didn't owe him anything, much less my life story.

 

When I had my temper back under control, I looked back at the captain. "Do we have a deal?"

 

She studied me, smoke drifting up. Her eyes were unreadable in the lantern light. "I don't even know what you can do, child."

 

"What do you want to see?"

 

She smiled. "A match between you and Jae-ha. You win and you take him with you after the governor is dead. You lose, and become crew."

 

"Excuse me?" Jae-ha sounded offended. Neither the captain or I looked at him. "I'm not a piece of

meat -"

 

"Deal." I said.

 

The old woman's smile was satisfied. "Done and done."

 

Jae-ha looked at his captain, then at me. "I'm not doing it."

 

I shrugged. If he wanted to give up now, that just made it easier on me. "Is that a forfeit?"

 

"No, it's a 'I think this is stupid and refuse to participate.'"

 

"Tell it to your captain."

 

The old woman smirked. "If you refuse, it's a forfeit."

 

Jae-ha spluttered. " Captain -"

 

"You gonna argue all day, boyo?"

 

He sighed. "I'm not getting out of this, am I?"

 

The old woman's smirk deepened.

 

"Let's get this over with." I said. Being in her presence was… difficult.

 

-

 

The burning coal on the end of her pipe was a firefly in the dim light. She waved her hand, regal as a king, and the coal danced in the night. "Clear the deck!"

 

It only takes about three minutes. Barrels are rolled, ropes are coiled, people shuffled out of the way.

 

Underneath the well oiled machine of the crew working in tandem is a hint of something more lively.

 

No matter what age I live in, everyone loves entertainment.

 

Jae-ha and I end up in a clear circle about fifteen feet wide. I hefted the pole in my hands, gave it a couple swings and made sure I had enough room. I had a feeling that the captain would object to one of her crew members being accidentally brained in the middle of a fight.

 

I meet Jae-ha's eyes and he gives me a rueful smile.

 

"Sorry about her."

 

I shrug.

 

The captain stands up fully, all traces of her smile gone. Her eyes are dark and serious. Assessing.

 

My skin crawled .

 

She wasn't a woman that missed much. I had a staff, not my knife. Would it matter? Would she recognize my fighting style? Would she know Baram, mercenary, and Jeong, king-killer, were the same person?

 

Too late for regrets now.

 

"Ready?" It wasn't really a question, I ignore it in favor of keeping my eyes on Jae-ha.

 

He hasn't stopped smiling, but his eyes are dark and focused.

 

The old woman brings her hand down, the coal cutting through the night like a knife. "Begin!"

 

Jae-ha blasts off the deck, taking to the air like it belongs to him. His smile gleams white in the dark. I have vivid flashbacks of watching Alice in Wonderland.

 

I wait. No matter how light he seems, what goes up

 

Jae-ha pushed off the mast and spun, sheer momentum turning him into a human bullet.

 

- Must come down.

 

I step back, staff held loosely in one hand, the other tapping on my leg. The vicious attack misses, slams down into the deck with punishing force. The sound of splintering wood is far away.

 

Behind us, beyond the calm quiet beat of my heart, I hear someone shout: "You brat, don't put holes in my ship!"

 

Neither of us is paying her any attention.

 

Jae-ha, glanced up the few inches between us through his long lashes, a small smile on his lips. He's standing close enough that his heart is a drum on the inside of his throat, so close I can almost taste his pulse. It beats perfectly in time with my own: neither fast, nor slow.

 

Calm.

 

His eyes, his shoulders, the splintered, heavy wood under his feet, they all ask the same question.

 

Scared yet?

 

Not quite.

 

I flipped the staff over the back of my hand and arc it at his head.

 

His eyes go wide and he bends backward to let it whiff through the air where his head would be.

 

I've been dealing with fights nearly as long as I've been in this world. Not much phases me anymore.

 

I follow up with a flurry of blows at his head -- to the point where I can feel my shoulder twinge with pain.

 

Need to finish this fast.

 

If I don't, he might actually beat me.

 

Time always shifts when I'm fighting, becomes something that stretched to a crawl. I sank into myself and all my emotions sank with me; they disappeared further down, leaving me with only quiet.

 

Nothing mattered, except the next moment.

 

A lull in the fight came; we're locked in parody of an embrace.

 

Jae-ha, mouth in a smile, eyes unfathomable. "I do love a strong woman," The green dragon said, straining against my staff.

 

I can feel my mouth twitch. He really was a shameless flirt.

 

I shove him away. "Not a woman."

 

Best cut that off at the root.

 

"A strong person," He agrees without hesitation.

 

He's good. Maybe as strong as Hak, even. On a good day, I could take him without breaking a sweat.

 

Now?

 

Something warm and wet spread over my side. I kept the grimace off my face. Popped my stitches.

 

Again.

 

Yoon was going to freak out. Again.

 

I was never going to hear the end of it.

 

Enough.

 

Finish this.

 

I lunged forward, ducking under the long sweep of his leg and barreled into his chest and knock him

off balance.

 

We both hit the deck with a bone rattling thump.

 

I pin his arms above his head with one hand.

 

He jerked once - and then stilled.

 

My other hand is somewhere more… delicate.

 

I leaned in closer, teeth bared. "Yield."

 

A shiver traveled up his body. The green dragon cleared his throat. "I...I yield."

 

I press down on him for a moment longer, just so he wouldn't kick me. He remained motionless. I stood up with darkness eating at the corner of my eyes. My mouth tasted like copper. The green dragon hit like a truck.

 

He stayed on the ground, staring up at the sky. His face was the color of Yona's hair. "You play dirty."

 

I don't look down. "If you're going to hand opponents your weak point, don't be surprised when they

take advantage of it."

 

Fair is for people who want to die in battle.

 

Laughter distracted me.

 

I glanced up at the head of the ship to find the captain nearly collapsed with mirth. Half the crew looked scandalized, the other interested. All of them looked entertained.

 

I ignored them. Shame is for other people.

 

"Do we have a deal?" I asked the captain.

 

She snickered. "That's the funniest end to a fight I've ever seen. Very well. Deal's' a deal, kid. Welcome to the crew, at least for now."

 

"I won't be here long." I said.

 

The old woman gave me a once over, her smile fading. "You better get that wound looked at, Kid. We can discuss it when you're recovered."

 

The green dragon blinked. “Wound?”

 

"Ah! Found them!" A familiar, cheerful voice called out.

 

Jae-ha flinched.

 

"Good for you." A grumpy voice said from over the side.

 

Zeno cheerfully ignored that, perched on the railing like a large, happy seagull. There was no evidence of how he got up the boat. "Zeno knew that Baram would find one of Zeno's brothers! Because they're a trouble magnet!"

 

I looked at him and sighed. For some reason I wasn't even surprised. I got up and looked over the side of the ship.

 

Yoon glowered up at me. "I hate you."

 

I rolled my eyes and offered him a hand up, pulling him over the side of the ship. He's light. "What are you even doing here?"

 

I can almost see the veins standing out in Yoon's forehead. "What am I doing here? What are you doing here?" He hissed. "We had to go to the red light district to find you - and you weren't even there! People were talking about a bunch of guards! Fighting in your state - of all the stupid - Come here!" He jabbed his finger at the ground, ignoring the stars from the crew. "Sit!"

 

I do.

 

Zeno laughed. "Pretty boy is angry."

 

"The doctor is angry!" Yoon jerked the bag of medical supplies off his back. "Of all the stupid things, this is just... the dumbest. Lift up your shirt, you imbecile."

 

I roll my eyes again, but do as he says. It’s not worth a fight.

 

The entire ship inhaled.

 

"It's not that bad." I said.

 

Green whistled. "How are you even walking around?"

 

Yoon went into doctor mode. His complaints never stopped, but it all went sub-vocal in the end, bitching under his breath.

 

I looked up at the sky, careful to not look at the needle going in and out of my skin. I've never liked getting stitches. It goes against my training to let people stick me with pointy bits of metal.

 

If I started dodging Yoon, I'd never hear the end of it.

 

Jae-ha leaned over my shoulder. "You don't like needles?"

 

Too close.

 

Shut up.

 

It's never safe to have anyone behind you. Just look at what happened with Soo-won -

 

Shut. Up .

 

I relaxed my hands. Yoon was fine, because Yoon was safe. He didn't have the skill or the personality to hurt me. At his worst, he was a stern housewife.

 

The green dragon was a different story.

 

Jae-ha paused, and then moved back, just far enough that my brain relaxed.

 

I glanced at him and he gave me a small rueful smile. Neither of us mentioned it again.

 

"You got a raw deal. The governor is paranoid, and rich." Green Dragon said with a low voice. "He's been stuck in his mansion, surrounded by guards for the past month. The defenses are insane. I can barely scope it out from above without getting caught."

 

Yeah, well. I'm not really planning a stealth mission.

 

It's more of a 'burn it down and let the gods sort it out’ situation.

 

(Those assholes deserved some work anyway.)

 

"I can do it." I said with a shrug.

 

"You'd die."

 

Yoon glanced up sharply. "What are you doing?"

 

"I can do it." I said again.

 

"Good." The captain's voice reached us before her shadow did. My hand tensed up and Yoon looks from me to her, and his mouth goes thin. Her long coat fluttered in the wind, and fog curled around her shoulders. For once, she looked her age. The lackadaisical woman from before vanished like smoke. "We can't wait."

 

Jae-ha frowned. "Captain, they're injured -"

 

"I know. But our contact just sent word. There's a shipment going out tomorrow night. Over one hundred girls."

 

Jae-ha's mouth shut with a click. He ran a hand through his hair. "And once the girls get sold, it's too late to save them."

 

The old woman's smile was mirthless. "Exactly. If you're going, it needs to be before the sale. I don't want to lose any more people."

 

Yoon's mouth was a thin line, but his touch is sure. Gentle. "Why am I not liking how this sounds?"

 

"Probably because Baram is going to do something stupid again. Like attacking a governor's mansion to save a group of girls from a slaving ring." Zeno said, voice cheerful.

 

I looked at him. How did he know that?

 

He gives me an unreadable smile. "People like to tell Zeno things! It's one of Zeno's superpowers."

 

I studied him - and then shrug. I know from the manga Zeno wouldn't help out scum like the governor. He was a good person.

 

The captain leaned over him, placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Is that so? Why don't you tell granny all about it, hmm?"

 

Zeno yelped like a puppy and shrank back. It was no use. The captain's grip was iron when she dragged him off.

 

He looked at me with wide, pleading eyes.

 

I raised my eyebrow. If he wanted to spout off information he really shouldn't know, it wasn't my problem if he got in trouble.

 

The captain glanced over her shoulder. "You brats come along to. We have some things to go over."

 

-

 

Inside the palace training yard, the sound of clashing swords filled the air - and then three people hitting the ground.

 

Hak let out a deep breath, almost a sigh. "Again." He said.

 

The men on the ground exchanged a glance, eyes full of despair. "Commander-"

 

"Again."

 

They came at him again.

 

These three were some of the best he'd ever trained. Fast, skilled, clever.

 

Not nearly enough.

 

Hak disarmed one with a punishing blow to the hand. The other lost his footing to a well placed kick.  The third choked and fell to a windpipe strike.

 

It was over before it started. The three guards returned to the ground.

 

A wave of frustration crashed down on Hak. Why couldn't they be better? Faster, stronger, smarter! How was Hak supposed to improve when he possessed no one to go up against?

 

Jeong could have -

 

Hak let out a deep, slow breath. Swallowing the irritation, the words that wanted to escape, the grief. The guards were coated in sweat. They'd been at it before the sun rose, and it was noon.

 

A commander can't take out their inadequacies on his men.

 

It's Hak's own fault for not training them properly.

 

"That's enough for today." He said. "Dismissed."

 

The guard on the floor visibly brightened. "Yes sir!"

 

Hak waited until they were gone, before he turned and threw his spear. It embed itself in the wall. "It's not nice to spy." He said.

 

A moment of silence, and then a figure detached itself from a long shadow two feet from the spear. "My deepest apologies, Commander."

 

Two feet off. Hak needed to work on his aim. "You're one of the empresses guards. Fa?"

 

He - she - bowed, graceful as moving water. Familiar enough to make Hak hesitate. "Yes, commander Hak. Fa, of the king's hand. I am at your service."

 

Hak studied the way the other guard moved, trying to figure out why it looked so familiar. Something about the way they moved was... strange. An echo. The way they walked, soundless and sure. The movement of fingers through the air, quick and contained. No wasted time.

 

"You trained Jeong." The words left his mouth before he can think about it.

 

Fa froze, mid bow. They don't look up but Hak can see the way their shoulders go tense. "Yes. This one polished the blade that turned on it's master, to their eternal shame."

 

Somehow, the words seemed... rehearsed. Empty.

 

Fa rose fully from their bow, and fixed their dark eyes on Hak. It was like being dissected by something far bigger and more dangerous then he was.

 

This, too, was familiar. Hak will always remember being twelve and staring into Jeong’s face, knowing - for the first time - that this wasn't a battle he was going to win. One exchange of blows is all it took to know she was above his skill.

 

Leave it to Soo-won to find the dangerous ones.

 

Hak bared his teeth. He wasn't twelve years old anymore. He could take Jeong in a equal fight, and this quiet guard didn’t scare him.

 

Fa finally smiled - with their eyes, somehow. Weird.

 

Hak tilted his head. "You wanna spar?"

 

Fa eye-smiled again. "A wonderful idea."

 

Jeong's teacher. This wouldn't be an easy fight.

 

Hak smiled.

 

Fa bowed. "Please take care of me."

 

Hak didn't bother with the pleasantries, and rocketed out, spear drawn. It wasn't a slow blow and Hak had just enough time to watch Fa's eyes go wide. Shit, that may have been too much to start with -

 

Clang!

 

Fa stood braced, with a dagger in each hand, steel glinting in the light. Hak’s spear caught on the cross guard.

 

They somehow conveyed a smile, even with everything but their eyes covered. "You're quite skilled."

 

Hak bared his teeth. "I could say the same thing."

 

Blow after blow, Hak followed them across the grounds.

 

If it wasn't for years of experience with Jeong, Hak would have lost.

 

He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt. The first time he's broken a sweat in... months.

 

Hak's heart twinged. Not since Jeong died.

 

"You knew Jeong." He said, looking up at the sky. Blue and clear, fat clouds rolling like marbles across it.

 

He senses Fa's eyes landing on him.

 

"Yes." They said, quietly.

 

"What was she like?"

 

Because Hak was beginning to think that he didn't really know. How could someone who messed up Yona's hair, who threw Soo-won over her shoulder when he didn't listen to her, who played countless hours of stupid training games with Hak, just... turn bad? How could he misjudge someone that much?

He can't talk about this with Yona. She disappeared into her head at the mention of Jeong's name, bit her nails until she bled. What if Hak can't get her back next time?

 

As for Soo-won...

 

He’s not that cruel. He still looks like half his soul is gone, under the smiles and the charm. Still

 

Hak looks at Fa. "I... I want to understand."

 

He doesn't know what kind of look is on his face, but it made Fa flinch back. They look down and think, then they sigh and patted the ground beside him. "Sit."

 

Hak does. He set his spear on top of his legs, and traced the woodwork in it.

 

"I can't tell you everything." Fa said. "I can't even tell you most of it. It'd be more than my heads worth, and the princess doesn't need an excuse to kill me. But. I can tell you about Jeong, before they were forced into a choice they couldn’t take back. No." They looked down. “Before I forced it on them.”

 

Hak said nothing.

 

Fa sighed. “The first time I met Jeong, they were sixteen years old and just back from a war..."


-

 

 

General Joo-Doh pinched the bridge of his nose. "Your high - Young Master , if you keep stopping to talk to every stall owner we meet it'll take three weeks to reach Port Awa instead of three hours."

 

Soo-won adjusted his hood with a sheepish expression. It's rougher than he's used to, but still the quality of the rich merchant's son he's pretending to be. "Sorry, sorry."

 

The old man manning the grilled meat stall patted his hand consolingly. He had maybe three teeth, but his smile was good natured enough that no one would care. "Don't you worry, sonny. It's natural for kids to lose focus every now and then. You'll settle down before long, when you find the right lady. Take my Ae-ra, for example -"

 

Soo-won listens to the old shopkeeper talk for the next hour about his wife, deceased for ten years, like she was still waiting back at his house with his children, making dinner and ready to scold him if he made her wait. She always waited though. The affection was clear, but the pain was long faded. He told stories that had Soo-won laughing like he hadn't in months.

 

The old man pressed a skewer of meat into Soo-won's hand without listening to his protests, and shooed them away down the road.

 

Soo-won was still smiling when they approached their destination nearly an hour later. It was a good idea to investigate, to get out of the palace.

 

Away from the ghosts that lived in it.

 

Footsteps behind him, and Soo-won's heart leapt into his throat. He glanced over his shoulder - to find General Joo-doh looking back at him. Soo-won gave him a smile and turned back. The smile faded.

 

Hak wouldn't let Soo-won leave without a bodyguard. The road was treacherous. Bandits and wild animals lurked in the forest along the path. Soo-won was working on it, but for now it was to dangerous to go alone.

 

That didn't mean that the prince was happy about it. It felt like pouring salt in a wound, one he'd rather forget. There wasn't anything wrong with the general. He was a hard worker prone to serious conversation and always did his best. It wasn't his fault.

 

He just… wasn't the right person.

 

Soo-won watched the ground fade away under his feet. Perhaps one day the name wouldn't hurt so much to think. Perhaps, one day Soo-won would forget the way they always spoke as if they knew a joke no one else did, their long hair, their calloused hands, their shadow at his back. How safe he felt in their presence. Maybe he'd become like the old shopkeeper and think about them, their memory, as something precious, something so good it had to be shared.

 

"No," he said to himself. "I don't think so."

 

He didn't have the right.

 

"My lord?"

 

Soo-won shook himself out of the thought, smile coming up automatically. "Just a thought, General. Nothing to concern yourself with."

 

Joo-doh nodded, and dropped the subject. "We're here."

 

The buildings of port Awa loomed above the treeline. Even from here, Soo-won could see the disrepair. His mouth pressed into a thin line. They went through the unmanned gates. Inside, the town was even worse than Soo-won thought it would be. None of the people would look at him, most of them even flinching back from his better than average clothes.

 

Soo-won's smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. Perhaps he should pay a visit to the governor's house and have a few words with him, about power and exactly who granted it to him.

 

The more he saw of the town, the colder his eyes got.

 

This place, a town?

 

It wasn't even a slum.

 

“What happened here?” Joo-doh said. “It wasn’t like this the last time I came through.”

 

Soo-won snapped the wooden skewer in half and tossed it away. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”

 

Yes. Soo-won would be paying the governor a visit, after all. Tomorrow night he and General Joo-doh would grace his house with their presence.


-

Chapter Text


Governor Yang Kum-Ji lived in the biggest house in town, to no one's surprise. Tall walls surrounded the compound, made of a type of stone that glittered when the light hit it just right. It should have been just a nice house, but the rest of the street is… empty.

Quiet, like one wrong footstep, one loud voice would wake a beast no one could handle. The grounds are littered with guards. there's almost more guards then flowers.

"You weren't kidding." I said. "This place is dead."

Jae-ha laughed, but there was no happiness in it. "The last time someone tried to approach the house without permission, he had them beaten fifty times with a metal rod. He didn't survive. People know better now." His hands opened and closed, like he could already feel the Governor's neck in them.

I pulled my scarf up further. Contrary to his nervous energy, I was crouched on the ledge next to him, completely still. The governor would die today. Fact. Not a wish. The thought felt as solid as the wall beneath my feet. I was more skilled then any guard he could have hired. It was better to be calm and not risk making a mistake.

"Let's go." I said, and dropped down in the garden. I landed with a thump and a jolt of dull pain surged up my leg. I grimaced. Gonna have to be careful not to reopen my wounds, or Yoon really would kill me.

Silence.

I glanced over my shoulder at Jea-ha, still perched on a bit of masonry that seemed far too fragile to hold his weight; his smile was nowhere to be seen. Dark eyes watched the glowing windows of the mansion. Gone was the shameless flirt, the easy confidence, and it left behind a dangerous man facing a person he hated.

"Jae-ha." I said. "Focus."

This was going to be hard enough without dragging along his grudge. I didn't care about his personal agenda; I just needed himpresent.

Jae-ha blinked and looked down at me. He leaned his head against one long leg and gave a brilliant smile. "I have no idea what you mean. I'm always focused around you. It must be your natural charisma - I don't want to miss a thing."

...He'd be fine.

I roll my eyes. "Then get down here before you get spotted."

With a low, amused sound, he does - right on top of me. He lands with no sound, barely an inch away.

Too close!

I caught myself before I took a swing.

It was fine.

Jae-ha wasn't going to attack me - not without at least killing the governor first.

I could feel the heat radiating from his body, smell the sea in his hair. Moonlight outlined his shape, but left his face completely shadowed, except for the faint white of his smile. He folded his hands in his sleeves with a small flourish and a bow. "After you, my dear."

I looked away, out at the garden and tired not to let my unease show.

"Let's go." I said.

He followed me.

We creeped through the garden with silent feet, from shadow to shadow, pausing to let the guards pass by without seeing us. It's slow going; the guards are punctual, professional. Whatever his personal flaws, the governor knew how to pick his personnel.

The first obstacle was immediate. The back door of the house was guarded by six men, all mean and sober.

I gestured at the large wood doors, ornate and heavy looking, lit by enormous sconces. No way to sneak through. It was too well lit. standing in our way. "We need to find another way in."

It's only the two of us. He could keep up with me, sure - but we couldn't take the guards out, not quietly.

He tilted his head, studying the guards. "I… have an idea."

My heart sunk at the smile on his face. "What?"

He grinned.


"This is stupid." I grumbled. I found myself standing too close to him once again, arms wrapped around his neck, his arms around my waist.

He laughed. "It's more fun this way."

I don't have a chance to reply. He takes one step off the ledge, and drags us both into a fifteen foot leap. My stomach doesn't even have time to leave my body before he bounds upward again.

A startled shout rang out underneath us, but I'm too busy watching the building get nearer.

That window's getting really close -

"Brace yourself!" Jae-ha's voice is the only warning I have.

Shit.

I bury my face in Jae-ha's shoulder just in time for impact.

The sound of breaking glass marks our grand entrance. We hit the floor in a tangle of limbs and rolled until we hit the wall, him on top of me.

I stared up at the ceiling. "This was supposed to be a stealth mission."

He laughed into my ear, breathlessly. "I got us in, didn't I? Also, ow."

...Fair enough.

"Are you just going to lay on top of me all day?"

"I might. Normally I like my partners small, but I might make an exception for you. All these muscles are surprisingly comfortable." He grinned at me.

I roll my eyes and dump him off me, looking around to get an look of the room. The first thing that I saw was beauty, even more decadent then the garden outside. It was dripping with luxury. Gold candlestick holders, gold ink, gold threads in the tapestries on the wall . We'd crashed into some sort of study and scrolls lined them, six inches deep. Bet they were written with gold ink.

Jae-ha pulled himself to his feet and looked around. His mouth went tight. "So this is how the other half lives. While the rest of us, his people, are starving-"

"This isn't the time." I got to my feet. "They know we're here now. We need to go."

The sound of footsteps, a thunderous roar, filled the space behind the door. Jae-ha and I looked at it, the at each other.

He exhales and his smile slides back into place. "After you, my dear."

Yeah. Might as well get it done with now.

I cross the to the door and stood beside it, staff at the ready. Within three seconds it burst open and three guards spilled in - and down, when I swept my staff under their feet.

They don't have time to cry out because Jae-ha was there with a vicious kick to the head for each of them. This continues for a full minute until there are nearly twenty men sprawled out on the floor. None of them are moving.

I leave behind Jae-ha, without checking.

If they died…

...Well. It wasn't my problem.

Outside the room is just as expensive as inside. We're in a large hallway made of marble and onyx, rather then a normal sort of wood.

This was closer to the imperial palace then a governor's house.

"Disgusting." Jae-ha's voice was ice cold.

Not that I could blame him. It really was like a different world. Outside, people were starving and in here, the floors were gilded. Even one of the door paintings would be enough to feed a family of five for half a year.

I sighed.

Power corrupts.

That was one thing I missed about Xing. Under the eyes of King Bai, everyone did their jobs and did them well. He had zero tolerance for officials who indulged in petty greed, and everyone knew it. His punishments were always… inventive. And cruel.

I smile, though nothing about it was funny.

Everyone was subject to the law, except for himself.

We make our way down the hall with silent footsteps. The guards come down like an avalanche, thick and fast. they travel in groups of four, one pair of eyes for every direction. I have to give the governor his props - he hired quality, not quantity. I recognized some of the emblems. The Spider Gang's green and black, the Jester Squad dark yellow, Lin-ah Shi's group in blue - all of them big name players who do excellent work.

No one from the Red Hand, though. They don't operate out of Xing on this scale.

The captain wasn't kidding when she said "paranoid". The guards were endless as water from the ocean. For every one we put down, three more popped up.

I wiped the sweat off my forehead. Sure, they weren't good as me or Jae-ha, but there was something to be said for sheer numbers. It was like a mob rush in a video game, except for the smell of copper in the air, and the red smeared on my hands. I grimaced. It was already starting to dry into a sticky shell over my skin.

There wasn't any time to clean up.

I tensed at the sound of more footsteps.

I motion to Jae-ha, who nods and drops a coin on the ground. The three guards turn as one, and I catch all three of them in the throat with my staff.

Jae-ha catches two before they can hit the ground, but the last one slips from his hands and crashes to the floor with a earth shaking clatter of metal.

The two of us go tense, listening.

Two heartbeats pass, but no reinforcements come.

I sigh and brush some loose hair back out of my face. "We can't keep going like this. We need more information."

"I know. But where would we get it? Hired blades like this won't know anything. The old bastard's too paranoid."

I nudged one of the guards. He was tall, and broad.

Hm.

"I have an idea." I said.

It was Jae-ha's turn to blanch.


"This is never going to work." Jae-ha hissed as we walked down the long hallway. He's wearing the dark blue of a Lin-ah Shi, green hair tucked up into a helmet. He tugs at the straps on the armor. It doesn't quite fit - he's not broad enough. He looks like a kid trying to wear his father's clothes. Or a rookie mercenary.

My eyes remained ahead. "Not with that attitude." I said under my breath.

He glares at me, but by then we're on the two stone faced guards by an ornate door.

"New info 'bout the intruders." I said, perfectly at ease. With the scar on my face, build and general attitude, the guards merely glanced at the patch on my shoulder and nodded.

"What." The man on the right voice is flat.

"Gotta get into to see the boss."

"No entrance."

I roll my eyes. "I fucking know that, but you tell the assholes in charge of my squad that."

Sympathy flickers across the man's eyes. Every merc's had to deal with unreasonable commanders. He glanced at his partner.

He grimaced. "He ain't here. Sorry."

Jea-ha shifted behind me, but I only gave a resigned nod. "Yeah, I had to try. Sorry about this."

"About what?"

I socked him in the gut and he bent doubble with a wheeze.

I grabbed his face and pulled him into my knee - and felt his nose give with a crunch. he lets out a gunt of pain. I bring my hand down on the back of his neck. He goes still, slumped to the ground.

The other guard has no time as Jae-ha flashed forward, one hand slapped over the guards mouth. The force of the blow sent man's head back into the door with a crack.

I wince. "We're trying to be stealthy here."

Jae-ha makes a face. "Do we have to?"

"We already did the 'let everyone know where we are' strategy. It doesn't work."

"Pfft. Second time's the charm.

I heave the guard onto my shoulder. He's heavy with all the armour. "Grab the other one, will you?"

Silence.

I looked over my shoulder to find Jae-ha staring at me with half-lidded eyes. I raise an eyebrow and he clears his throat.

"You're very - strong."

I stare at him.

He coughs and pulls the other merc over his shoulder. "Never mind that. Let's go do an interrogation!"

...Okay?


The man was very cooperative when he found out that we had no intention of hurting his partner. Turns out treating the people you hire like shit, no matter how professional they are, only leads to resentment.

Shocking.

"It's the third room on the second floor." He said, hands bound behind his back. He leaned forward, casaly putting himself in front of his still unconscious friend, the one who's nose I broke. His shoulders were tense.

"He's still alive." I said.

The merc paused, then nodded. "Yes. Thank you."

"It's not you we have problems with." Jae-ha drawled. "But that can always change."

I tap my staff. "Why are you so eager to tell us? A merc's loyalty is to the money. Anyone who can't uphold that doesn't make it far in this business."

The man gave me a look. "You were a merc. What band?"

I think about lying - then I shrug. "The Red Hand. From Xing."

He blinks. "That's big league stuff.

I ignore Jae-ha's interest gaze. "Answer the question."

His hands clench and he looks down. "I have a daughter. She's eleven years old and if I didn't need the the band, I would have killed him myself. The things I've seen him do…" He looks up, and for one second Fa is overlaid on top of him. The picture of a person pushed beyond what they could bare. "I couldn't. I would've died in the attempt. You got lucky; there's some sort of noble visiting that had the whole compound in an uproar. The governor set away two thirds of the guards just yesterday because of it."

Two-thirds? There must be over one hundred guards in the mansion right now.

Jae-ha and I exchange a glance.

Yikes.

"Thank you for your cooperation." I said. "Stay here and we won't have to kill you."

He nodded once. "I have no desire to help him."

Good enough.

We left the small room, leaving the two mercs tied up.

Jae-ha lets out a long sigh. "We're almost done."

I knew that feeling. The sweet rush of relief at someone who hurt you, who could hurt you more,being fucking gone. It's like falling off a cliff. Like a heavy weight being lifted from you.

Like being safe.

I nudged him with my shoulder. "Not done yet."

He looks over at me and gives a rueful sigh. "No. Not yet."


The rest of the mercenaries don't look twice at us. Our disguises hold up all the way to the top floor. With Jae-ha acting as the rookie to my vet, not a single merc suspects anything.

...This is why you don't hire multiple companies, not at these numbers. There's no way everyone is going to know everybody else.

We take out the guards surrounding the door - all twelve of them.

Going into the room almost blinded me. Lamps turned it to day time, and the positive horde of treasures only amplified the light.

"Oh my. That is a lot of gold." He flicked a small, shiny egg with his fingernails and a pure sweet sound rung out. "Genuine as well."

I glanced around with disinterest. I've lived in two palaces, the army, a mercenary camp, and a fishing hut. A place was just a place, and money was useless in the face of cold steel.

Well. Yoon might disagree with me.

"Hurry up." I said. "They know we're here."

He gives the gold a loving glance. "Don't worry baby, I'll be coming back for you." He strokes the side of the jade lamp observantly, like it was a beautiful woman. The tone in his voice was more appropriate in a bedroom rather than in assassination.

I take a step away. Why was everyone I met so fucking weird?

"After you." I said.

He gave me a bright smile - and delivered a vicious kick that sent the screen flying across the room. It clattered against the far wall and fell down, accompanied by the shriek of a young girl.

The scent of sake hung in the air like a physical thing. It's a large room. The opposite side is made up of paper doors, decorated with paintings of a forest, so life-like it looks like we've just stepped into one.

The only male in the room stood up, bristling. "Who dares?"

Jae-ha raises his hand. "That was me. Hi!"

One of the 'women' looks barely fourteen. Her eyes are obviously red, even under the makeup, and the gold around her neck and wrists looks like a collar and manacles. She wore a beautiful sheer outer robe and not much else. Red marks littered her body, visible through the thin fabric.

If I wasn't already here to kill him, he'd be dead anyway.

I breathe out. Let the cold surface, pull the scarf up a bit more so it covers my mouth. Don't want to scare the kid more then I have to.

One of the older ones, long dark hair and dead looking eyes, takes a glance at us and pulls the girl behind her. Shielding her from what's about to happen.

I meet her eyes and give her a small nod.

She blinks.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" The Governor demanded. There's no fear in his voice. The arrogance of someone who thinks money is all the protection he'll ever need. He was in for a rude awakening. "I'll see you hung for this insult. Guards!"

Jea-ha put a friendly arm around my shoulders. "Looks like someone's a little behind in information."

I shrug him off without looking. "Shut up. We didn't come here to talk."

The guards continued to be absent.

The Governor's eyes darted from the door to me to Jae-he, back to me again; his face went whiter and whiter with every moment. "What do you want? Money? Power? Women? Whatever you want, I can get it for you. Whatever you're being paid, I can triple it. There's no need to make this violent."

A girl, younger then Yona, with red eyes and shaking hands.

"We disagree." I said, politely.

He looked at me and blinked. Recognition dawned on his face. "L-lord Jeong? Did his highness send you ahead?"

Fuck.

I don't know why I didn't think about this before. He's a Governor - he's obviously been to the palace at least once, he's probably been to parties I've guarded.

Jae-he's attention snapped to me like a magnet to true north. "Lord Jeong?" He echoed.

I don't look at him. I buried a blade into his throat, before anymore of his poison could spill out into the room.

It turns quiet, except for the heavy, scared breathing of the women.

I run a hand through my hair, ignoring the blood in it. Well, what's done is done.

I looked at Jae-he. "The deal's done."

He crossed his arms. Looking me over with unreadable eyes. "That it is, my dear."

"Great." I looked at the women.

Three pairs of frightened eyes looked up at me. All except for the dark, dead-eyed one. Her gaze never left the corpse of the Governor. A smile spread on her face.

"E-excuse me, what are you going to do with us?" One of the girls asked. Her hands were shaking.

Of the three in the room, she was the oldest looking. Nearly 20, with long dark hair and a sweet mouth. Whatever her age, her eyes burned as she stood in front of the two behind her. If she had to kill us both to keep them safe, she would. Both of them had light brown hair and gray eyes, and their faces were near identical. Twins probably. Or at least sisters.

"We don't want anything." I said. "You can go whenever you want."

"You're just going to leave? You don't want anything for helping us?"

Jae-ha smiled. "Helping a pretty lady is it's own reward."

I rolled my eyes and left him to charming them, stepping back into the shadows. I made them nervous. The older woman was already relaxing. Jae-ha was good at being harmless; just a silly, flirtatious man who loved talking to women.

The youngest one kept trying to pull down her slip down over her thighs, but it was a lost cause. There just wasn't that much fabric.

I sighed, and shrugged off my outer robe and tossed it to her. It was borrowed from the priest, but I don't think he'd mind.

Jae-ha made a noise that sounded like 'muscles', but only cleared his throat when I looked at him.

The girl looks from the fabric clutched in her hands, then back to me, then to the robe again. Her face breaks. "Thank you." She whispered.

I waved her thanks away. It was too small for me anyway.

"Get out of here." I said.

They did, pulling the dark haired woman still staring at the corpse behind them.

Then I took down a tapestry and started piling gold into it. Yoon'd kill me if I didn't come back with something. He was always complaining about money like a housewife.

It wasn't like I had a job now.

Jae-he's smacked his fist into his open palm. "Oh, good idea."

While we worked, the governor's words echoed in the back of my head.

"Did his highness send you ahead?"

"Did his highness send you -"

Send you ahead.

I feel the blood drain from my face and drop a gold plated cup. "We need to leave. Now."

I pulled him away from the gold by his wrist, ignoring his protests.

Too late.

Footsteps, familiar as my own heart, walked down the hall. The brush of silk against the floor.

"Ah. They beat us to it, General." Soo-won said. Soo-won's voice sounded like being punched in the stomach and pulled apart at the same time. "Looks like he's already - "

Silence.

Eyes on my back.

"J-jeong?"

I can't breathe.

My limbs are stone, my heart is ice. My back is turned away from the door, but it doesn't matter. I know the exact look of cheerful interest on his face.

Jae-ha glances at me and his eyebrows draw down.

Slowly, I turn.

Gold hair, shining in the lamps. Fair skin, dark shadows under his eyes. He's thinner. He's always been beautiful, but now instead of beauty there's a strange fragility to him, like a porcelain vase, about to shatter against the floor.

The sound of his voice was a knife, and I felt eighteen again, looking down at a little noble's brat pretending to be a commoner.

The Green dragon looked between us. "Care to share with the class, my dear?"

I can't look at him. It feels like years have passed since I've seen Soo-won, instead of months. I was a person lost in the desert coming across a poisoned oasis. No matter how much it hurt, I couldn't stop drinking.

I wanted to tear him apart.

I wanted to tuck him away, somewhere safe where no one could ever hurt him again.

My heart is a drum beat, trying to escape my chest

There's a man standing with dark hair behind him, almost as tall as me. I vaguely recognized him as the general for the Sky tribe.

That place is mine -

No. Not anymore.

He takes one step forward and pushes the prince behind him.

The room freezes.

Soo-won's eyes are wide enough to swallow me whole.

I can't breathe, I can't move, I can't -

Jae-ha can. He takes one look at Soo-won and the big, burly man and jerked me to his side, one arm around my waist. "Excuse them, they're shy." He said with a cheerful smile.

The shock breaks, ice cracking inside, world cracking outside.

"Go." I whisper in Jae-ha's ear.

He gives the two of them a cheerful smile. "Nice to meet you!"

"Wait!" Soo-won cries out.

Then we're gone, crashing through the screens again, up, out, through a window.

Open air. The sea, below us, the color of Soo-won's eyes.

I clutch Jae-ha's jacket and try to breath.

The sun rose over the town.


 

Chapter Text

 


The moment my feet touched down on the ship, I let go of Jae-ha. The deck is quiet and the smell of blood hung in the air like a physical thing. When Jae-ha and I attacked the manor, the rest of them went after the cargo ships the girls were being transferred in. No signs of fighting on the deck, so they must have been successful. Groups of people talked quietly.

The largest group of people parted and a familiar head of strawberry blonde hair turned.

"Yoon." I said.

"Baram!" Yoon looked up from the blushing pirate he was bandaging up. "You're back - and you lost your coat again."

Zeno was sitting on a railing next to them, trying to balance an apple on top of his nose. He looked at me and the apple dropped from his fingers. "Did something happen?" Zeno asked.

"Pack your things." I said. "We need to leave."

Zeno met my eyes, the normal smile nowhere to be seen. He doesn't argue, just smiled and clapped Yoon on the back. "Well, you heard 'em. Looks like were back on the road!"

"We just got here yesterday!"

I ignored him again, looking at Zeno. "Get his stuff."

Zeno gave me a cheerful, dorky looking salute. "Yes sir!"

I head to the front of the deck. I don't know why Jae-ha was still quiet, without any of the questions I expected, but I didn't have time to care.

Soo-won was in town.

We needed to be gone, yesterday.

Captain Gi-Gan was sitting in the same throne like chair in the same languid sprawl, but there was something infinitely more tired about her today. Smoke curled up from her mouth like an old dragon.

"The deal is done." I said.

I watch her eyes flicker over to Jae-ha - still quiet behind me. He gives her a cheerful smile. "He's dead."

Her eyes close, and her entire body slumps. "Finally."

I don't have time for this. He'll be behind us at any moment and I -

- I don't know if I can stand to feel his blood on my hands again.

"We're leaving. My end of the bargain is done."

She slowly sat up. "So it is. Jae-ha."

He stepped forward.

She stood, moved like the old woman she was for the first time. She put her hands on each of his cheek and pulled him down enough to touch her forehead to his. "You'll be fine." She said, voice barely loud enough for me to here. "If you don't want to go - "

"It's fine, captain." Jae-ha was equally quiet and his hands covered hers. "They're… interesting, but not - bad. Or bad looking."

Gi-Gan smiled and let him go. "Shameless. Get out of here, you lech." She looked at me with her hands on her hips. "Take care of him, hmm? He's an idiot and a child, but that only means he needs more attention than others."

Grandmother.

I bowed my head slightly. "I'll try."

The words felt like a band of iron around my throat. Of course I would. Until they were in Yona's hands, the dragons were my responsibility.

Gi-Gan patted my cheek, like I was a child. "Take what you need from the supplies. Lord knows I need to compensate you for my brats behavior in advance."

"Rude!" Jae-ha exclaimed. "Rude and untrue! I am a paragon of virtue. A model of restraint! I am -"

"Full of shit." The captain's face was dry. "You're a menace is what you are."

I touched my cheek, eyes stinging. The words were an echo; a play I could recite in my sleep, but I've never been on the outside of the argument before.

Turning on my heel, I leave them to their goodbyes.

Envy trailed after my footsteps.


Jea-ha continued to follow after me under the deck to the small room where our stuff was kept. Yoon and Zeno already packed up their stuff, but my spare things were still resting against the wall. Food came first - Yoon would kill me if I didn't take the captain up on her offer.

The green dragon watched me move around the room, pulling together enough supplies for a week for four people.

The questions never came.

Five minutes of this was enough for my stretched nerves. I looked him in the eye. "You got something to say?"

Jae-ha smiled. "Nothing much, Jeong."

I didn't flinch, but only because I expected it. The sound of that name out of his mouth felt like being speared through the heart.

I snorted and heaved the bag over my shoulder.

"Were you ever going to explain that exchange? Who was he? A relative? A Friend?" He paused. "No, perhaps not. A former lover?"

I exhaled, kept my face blank and brushed past him without answering.

It didn't bother him. He only fell back to my side, like it was natural. The ship corridor is deserted - most of the crew was topside, saying goodbye to Yoon. He had that effect on people, sharp tongue and all.

"Nothing?" Jae-ha sounded more amused than anything. "Perhaps if I tell that lovely little doctor of yours that you've lied to him? Or the chirpy yellow one?"

I stopped and looked at him. "Are you trying to blackmail me."

He gave me a blinding smile, hands folded into his sleeves. "Well, I wouldn't say that."

I nodded to myself. "Right."

And then I slammed one hand into the side of the ship beside his head - the wood gave with an ugly crunch.

Jae-ha froze.

I leaned in, bare inches from his face, arms bracketing his head, using the full two inches I had on him to their utmost. I drilled into his gaze.

"Don't," I said, voice quiet. "Try that again. This is your only warning."

This wasn't a partnership. I didn't owe him anything. I could easily force him to fulfill the bargain by drugging and dumping him somewhere until I had the rest of the dragons gathered. I promised he would be safe, but that was a broad category.

I wouldn't keep a bared knife at my back.

Jae-ha's eyes glittered in the lamp light, dark green and bottomless as he looked up at me through his eyelashes. A small smile stayed on his face. "Understood." He said, voice low with a thread of something that sounded like heat.

"Good." I pulled my fist from the wall.

Jae-ha looked at the hole and raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you're not the supernatural one?"

I rolled my eyes and walked away, leaving him to follow me or not.

He did.


The road to the next dragon is a long one, nearly a week and a half of relentless travel. We avoided towns we could, and I drew my scarf around my face and wore my hair unbound when we couldn't. I could always feel Jae-ha's eyes on me when I did.

He didn't trust me either, apparently. I didn't blame him.

Jea-ha slipped into the group with a sly smile, like he'd always been there. He flirted outrageously with Yoon and endured Zeno's chatter with a smile. He hunted birds with his kunai and showed off outrageously, doing flips and tricks in the air. Zeno always applauded, while Yoon rolled his eyes.

I watched it all from the outside, pulling myself from the day to day routine slowly. Only now did I realize how attached I'd grown. Let the cold spread out day by day, until I woke up feeling like I should be breathing frost.

The mission was the most important.

Find the dragons.

Go home.

Anything else could be done without.

Night came early, and I drew the second watch. The small fire cracked, but I was outside of it's ring of light. Yoon was deep asleep, curled up against Jae-ha's side with Zeno flopped across them, boneless as a cat. The nights still cold enough that another body was welcome insulation.

The only sound was the soft scrape of my knife moving over my staff.

Carving felt clumsy, but after ten years with no practice, I wasn't surprised. There wasn't much time for hobbies when I was in the army. Or the palace. Or the red hand, or guarding Soo-won -

- well. This was the first time in a while.

My father taught me, from when I was old enough to hold a knife in my chubby baby hand and not cut myself. I… suppose that I've always been more comfortable with knives. Carving wood and carving people.

Not much of a difference.

The moon rose up, casting the flowers and waves making their way up my staff in silver light. Dark was a physical thing, heavy without the net of light pollution to keep off our shoulders. It was no wonder that people were more superstitious in this time. Gods and monsters walked the land in this kind of place.

A yawn broke the quiet.

I glanced at the pile of sleeping kids.

(And they were Kids. Even Jea-ha. Even Zeno.)

Zeno sat up and rubbed his eyes, noticed me looking and gave me a sleepy smile. The moon was nearly halfway across the sky. Time for third watch.

After carefully moving out of the pile, Zeno sat down cross legged with the fire to his back, leaving his face in shadow. Light glinted off the metal coin dangling from his bandanna, bounced back to give his eyes a strange glow in the dark.

I met his eyes. Considered him as he considered me, with his childish charm nowhere to be seen.

The people of this land would have worshiped him, if he only stayed in the capital. He could have been a god, been immortal in the castle.

Instead, he wandered. Watched lives begin and end and begin again. In the world, but not of it.

His smile was warm. "That's pretty. Zeno didn't know that you could carve."

The wind shook the trees and a rain of leaves drifted with down, some landing with bright flares in the fire. I gave him a low hum, but said nothing.

Zeno didn't let my lack of response bother him. "Baram is quiet lately."

I shrugged.

"It makes our pretty doctor sad when Baram won't talk to him."

I paused. "He'll get over it."

He might even thank me, when the truth comes out. I couldn't put a target on the kids' back after all he and the priest did for me. It'd be... cruel to let him think of me as a friend, when I was doing my best to never see him, or anyone from this land, ever again.

"Will he?" Zeno looked up at the stars. "The pretty doctor is very kind. I think that if anything happens to you, he'd be sad, no matter how you treated him."

My hands clenched on the staff.

The problem was, underneath the scorn and prickliness, Yoon was kind. Easy to like.

I was still too soft. Still, after all these years, too willing to forget the past and keep making the same mistakes. Picking a place and forgetting that I wasn't home, wasn't somewhere safe. I've always been a little slow, a little stupid. It took me a while to see patterns.

King Bai. The Red Hand. Grandmother. Soo-won.

And Yoon, Zeno, Jae-ha? They fit it. I wanted, with everything in me, to like them. They were funny. When they squabbled over stupid things like who got the last of the blackberries Yoon picked, it was like being inside the palace again. Like looking at my siblings.

Dangerous.

Even I learned, eventually.

"You used to be a priest." I said.

Zeno was quiet for a long moment. "Yes. A long, long time ago."

"Then you know that I don't belong here. Everyone I love, everyone who loves me is so far away, I can't even remember their faces. Do you have any idea what that's like?"

I looked up at the alien sky. "I'm... alone."

Once upon a time there was a room, with a red head girl and a tall boy fighting. A place where gold hair and warm hands waited for me with a smile.

I shook my head, brushed off the thought as much as I could. It was acid on my skin, my battered heart.

The past should stay there.

"...Yes. I know."

Yeah. Canon was a vague, fuzzy concept, but some of it I remembered. Some of it, like the history of the person sitting across from me, was too sad to forget. The yellow dragon was old, and he'd lost everything more than once.

If any one understood, he would.

"So there's no point in getting close to anyone." I looked down at my staff, rubbed my face. "I just want to go home."

The chances of me leaving them - either through the same way I got here or being hunted down like an animal - was one hundred percent. It wasn't fair; it wasn't pretty.

"You don't trust us." Zeno said. It's not accusatory - it's only a statement of fact.

I kept the bitter smile off my face, looked down at my hands, at the long shadow Zeno cast over my legs.

Trust?

"Can you swear if your King Hiryuu called on you to hunt me down, that you would let me go?"

His body froze in the light of the fire, face melting into the night - but it didn't matter. I could read the answer in his body, in the way his hands curled into claws.

"Will she?" Xeno's voice is almost lost in the whisper of the wind.

Will she?

I didn't know.

In the manga, Yona put aside her revenge in the name of her country - but she went through trial after trial, lived with the ugly truth: her father was a terrible king. The country was dying in the name of his peace.

And still, she could... not forgive, but put it behind her because Soo-won was someone she loved once, and he was right.

The worst part of all of this.

Soo-won was right.

For his position, for his country, he did the only thing he could. Soo-won hated useless sacrifice, and he loved Yona and Hak. In exchange for his country and his family, all he had to do was... kill the man who murdered his father. Blame it on me.

Bodyguards are replaceable.

Now, Yona was in the castle, and I was out here in the midst of her dragons. There was no childhood crush, no bond staying her hatred. I wasn't in cannon anymore. Yona was a living, breathing person and people can change.

Why would she let me live?

Love?

Blood under my nails. Mercy in my hands.

No. Love wasn't enough.

Yona - the person these dragons were born for - may want me dead. Loving her was in their blood. Their bones sang with her name, and nothing would come before her happiness.

Yona deserved every bit of their devotion.

I couldn't blame them for that.

But.

Even I had to learn, eventually.

I brushed of the wood shavings as I stood. "Goodnight, Zeno." My voice sounds weary even to myself.

The hand that catches my wrist stops me in my tracks.

Zeno looked up with a serious light in his eyes. "I can't promise that I won't attack. But, Zeno thinks that Barram will always be our friend. No matter what." In the end, he smiled and let go of my wrist. "Sleep well, Baram. We've got a long day ahead of us."

I sighed. "Thanks."

I headed off to sleep - away from the fire.


Yona sighed and rubbed her aching eyes. Candle light flickered in the silver mirrored lamps lining the wall of the royal study, a room Yona could map with her eyes closed, and dreamt about at night. The sheer amount of reports she'd read was mind bending. The amount of signatures she needed to sign sent her hands into cramps.

It wasn't the dancing candle light or the hours spent pouring over reports making her head ache today, though they certainly didn't help.

No, today it was the contents of the reports themselves, because according to them - Kouka was sending bribes to countries far, far smaller than it. In the hopes of peace.

It wasn't even that - the amount of bribes was equivalent to half - half - the yearly taxes of the whole country.

It was a nightmare.

No one was getting paid, except the nobles who owned their own land. The craftsmen in the palace, the merchants, the people who repaired the roads, the army - none of them were being paid. Not enough. Not nearly enough.

But - she'd done the math, over and over again. She took the scrolls over to Soo-won; she watched his face become blanker with every line of numbers.

He agreed with her, and he was the smartest person she knew.

Kouka was nearly bankrupt.

She rubbed her temples.

How did this happen?

The brush in Yona's hand creaked in her grip, but Yona's narrowed eyes were on the army of numbers eating up the yearly taxes.

How could her father allow this?

The wave of grief she always felt went thinking about him swelled up, but it was crushed under the sheer mountain she was trying to fix.

A plate of food appeared in her line of sight, covering the scroll.

Yona blinked and looked up.

Hak's face was unimpressed. "A little bird told me that someone stupid hasn't eaten all day."

She scowled at him. "Who're you calling stupid -"

- growl.

Yona's face burned. She covered her stomach.

Hak raised a mocking eyebrow. "What was that?"

"Shut up." The food did smell good, though. Yona pulled it towards her, too tired to bother with manners. She was starving and he brought her favorites. At least Hak had some use, outside of being utterly obnoxious.

Maybe.

He leaned against the desk, arms on her head, and looked over the scrolls. "That's a... lot of numbers. Are you sure that you've got the right scrolls?"

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Yona said around a mouthful of rice, tilting her head without dislodging his arms.

He grinned down at her. "A little brat like you has no idea how to read these."

Jerk.

Yona a moved her head and he slid forward, off balance.

He scowled at her.

Yona ignored him in favor of finishing her fried rice.

How much did this meal cost?

Yona stared down at the rice, the simple side dishes, the lacquered wood box it came it. It was plain, by the standards of the palace , but the box alone could be sold off and feed a family of three for a year.

Her people were starving.

Appetite gone, Yona put the box aside. This problem needed to be fixed, now.

A large, warm hand captured her own before she could. Hak looked at her. "It's been hours, your Highness. You're not immortal. You need to rest."

Yona shook her head. "I will rest, after I get this done."

"Nope." He dragged back her chair - then the world tilted and blurred and Yona blinked from her place on his shoulder, looking down his broad back.

"Bed time!" Hak carried her past the door before she could protest.

The tips of her ears grew hot. "Put me down this instant you - you gorilla! Is this how you treat the ruler of the country? You're fired!"

"Uh-huh." Hak slid open the door of her room with his feet, because his hands were full keeping her flailing limbs from clocking him in the head. He dumped her on the futon like a sack of rice, leaving her looking up at the familiar ceiling.

Cherry wood and soft silk sheets.

Yona felt that level of vertigo again - how much did the rug in this room cost? The decorations? The clothing?

How much of it was paid for out of the pocket of the people?

A sour taste filled Yona's mouth. She buried her head in the familiar sheets, breathing in the scent of rosemary - carefully cut from the garden on her father's orders.

She missed him. So much so that she thought she might be missing a limb, rather than a whole person. It hurt to think of him - being forced to think poorly of him was agony. If she never left this bed, she'd never have to deal with the ugly truth.

King Il, kind and stern and silly and loving, was a good man.

And that was all.

Yona made a low, wounded noise in the back of her throat, curled up tighter in the bed. For a split second a familiar roaring filled her ears, and she hated Jeong, a painful, visceral gut wound bleeding out. If Jeong didn't exist, Yona's father would be alive. Yona would still be in her little bubble of safety.

One of the jobs of the king - queen - was to open court once a week, to allow even the lowest of the low access to justice. And they did - they asked with hollow eyes and cheeks, heads bowed and clothes she wouldn't use as rags treated like court finery. They spoke of famine and bandits and - and Yona didn't know any of it. Her father never said. Never did anything about it, as far as she could see.

He just took the taxes and lived off them. Like it was his right. Like it was owed.

The king belonged to the people. Not the other way around.

Yona clenched her jaw.

She couldn't turn her back on truth, just because it hurt.

The bed dipped on her side, and Hak's large hand brushed the hair out of her face. "What's wrong?"

She opened her mouth and - nothing came out. She looked down.

Saying the words, giving them physical form, letting that terrible suspicion out into the light would make it... real.

Yona would have to grieve a father, and accept that a poor king was stopped from dissolving a country simply because he was afraid to fight. To shed the blood of the citizens, have violence on his name. He wasn't weak.

He was a coward.

When the tributes stopped - and they would, of course they would - their will be war.

And all that blood will be on Yona's name instead.

Yona can't stop the little exhale, tasting Hak's metal and oil smell on the air. She closed her hands and new callouses catch on the soft sheets. Three months and she still can't have him out of her sight more than a couple hours.

"I should have sent you with soo-won." Yona said.

She should have. Soo-won was - he was different, since Jeong fell. Quiet. He kept to himself, not exactly avoiding her, but not seeking her out either. He was smarter than Yona. There was no way he hadn't thought about this. Was this what he felt? Love warring with knowledge?

Miserable and relieved, and hating yourself for being relieved.

Hak paused, and his shoulders slumped a bit. "This again? My place is here. With you."

Yona looked at him, her red hair a curtain around her. "I know that. But he's... he's not at his best."

Hak gave her an unimpressed look and flicked her forehead. "Soo-won isn't at his best, but you are? Don't make me laugh. If he was here, he'd disagree too. You need me more, and more importantly, Soo-won is way, way more competent than you. He can take care of himself."

Yona scowled at him. "One day I'm really going to fire you and it'll be your own fault."

Hak grinned at her. "Sure, sure."

She scowled back, but couldn't stop the little thread of relief that wound its way around her heart. Yona still had nightmares about finding that Hak was lying over her father in the study, loyal to death. She always woke up with aching, red rimmed eyes and a terrible fear that one day Hak would leave her too. A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.

She glanced at Hak. A message, this late at night?

He pushed off the bed, gestured for her to stay put and slid open the door a hair, careful to keep is body out of stabbing range. "What do you want?"

Yona couldn't see past Hak, but she could hear the slightly nervous voice of a girl. "Apologies my lord, but His Highness Soo-won has returned. He asks Her Majesty, may she live forever, grant him an audience."

Yona blinked. Soo-won was back already? Port awa was nearly a week and a half away by foot, and he'd only left two weeks ago. She hadn't expected to see him for another two at least.

She got up and went to the door. "Did he say what it was about?

The servant, still in impeccable dress even at this late hour, knelt and bowed deeply. "Replying to her majesty, Lord Soo-won only said that it required urgent attention. He awaits you in the red meeting room, at your earliest convenience."

Yona and Hak exchanged glances. "Tell him I - We are on our way."

The servant bowed again and ran off.


As the Queen of the country, Yona couldn't be seen doing anything so mundane as running, so it took her twenty minutes to get to the red room with Hak behind her every step of the way.

The red room lived up to its name - all of the furniture and decorations and even the flowers on the table center were a dark shade of wine red.

She entered and stopped dead. A splash of yellow hair, spread out on one of the low couches surrounding the oak wood table. Pale skin became porcelain against the red of the low couch. He was sprawled out on his back, pale blue robes in disarray - revealing a slice of his collar bones and his smooth white neck. His right hand was covering his eyes.

Yona swallowed and fought down a blush. Sometimes it just hit her how otherworldly he looks.

He sat up when he heard the door open -and all of his beauty flew out of Yona's head in face of how tired he looked.

He dredged up a tired smile, but it clearly didn't reach his eyes. "Yona, Hak. I'm sorry to wake you, but this couldn't wait."

Yona rushed to kneel at his side, Hak half a step behind her. "Soo-won, what happened?" She took his hand in her own - and felt the minor tremor that ran up them. Her heart sank.

"Who do I have to kill?" Hak settled into his other side, utterly serious.

The smile crumpled like a flower pelted with hail, and he leaned into Hak's side. He covered his eyes again, looked up, like the words he needed were hovering just out of reach.

Yona's hand creaked under his grip, but she didn't protest.

With a shuddering exhale, Soo-won looked down and met her eyes. "Jeong is alive."

Yona forgot about her hand. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the odd ringing in them. Surely she hadn't heard that. It didn't make any sense. Hak said something, but all she could hear was the beat of her heart. All she could taste was copper, coating the back of her throat. Her father's body was seared into the back of her eyelids.

The world wavered. If it was anyone else, any of her generals, any citizen, even Hak - she wouldn't have believed them.

But Soo-won looked like every word out of his mouth was a dagger.

He wouldn't lie. Not about this. Not about Jeong.

Jeong was alive.

Alive.


The moon rose over the walls of the castle, white moonlight bleaching the courtyard of color, of warmth. A pair of steady footsteps crunched over the gravel. The figure moved from shadow to shadow, and no one watching could see more than a slender figure, a flash of dark clothing. They approached a room and knelt before sliding open the screen door without a whisper.

Empress Myeongseong's dark hair fell in a loose tumble around her shoulder, freed of the severe knots she kept in the morning. Her back was turned from the door. "Fa. You're early."

Already awake.

A bad night, then.

Fa pressed their forehead into the wood floor. If there was another figure in the bed, it was not their place to comment. Fa was merely a tool, and had no right to opinions on the hand that wielded them. "Our contact has sent word. His lordship Soo-won has returned to the palace."

There was a whisper of silk and Fa fought off a wave of nauseated terror when they her eyes landed on them. It was familiar as a caress.

Every day that passed showed the streangth of her blood.

Ten years after Fa's lord died and they still can't look his daughter in the eye, like meeting them would make him rise up from the grave. Terror and longing filled them at the thought, and it was like dying. Like being torn in two pieces.

Like watching a monster die and still loving them.

"You didn't disturb me for that." Myeongseong said.

Say nothing!

The thought shocked them into stillness with it's violence. They pressed their forehead even lower. The scars on their face ached.

Red eyes. A calm smile.

The smell of meat, burning.

"You belong to us. It is your honor to be marked as we wish."

Agony.

"Yes. Yes, an honor, your majesty."

Blood, red as his eyes, and the look of grief on their only student's face when they did what Fa could not. When they understood. The slump of both their shoulders.

Red eyes Lifeless and brown eyes hopeless, a matched set.

Haven't they hurt their student enough?

Fa stared at the taitami. Regret coated the back of their throat and it tasted like copper. They'd done many terrible things in the name of loyalty.

What was one more?

"No, your majesty. He brought news."

"News?"

Forgive me, they thought - but there was no telling who the thought was directed at. The student they hurt? The Master they betrayed? The little girl who was forced to rule, far too early?

"About - about the traitor." They said.

And just like that, all of Myeongseong's attention focused on them, like a knife to their throat.

A flurry of fists against Fa's chest, too weak to hurt. A wild look of grief in beloved red eyes. Tears running down a young, terrified face.

"You're lying! Jeong would never - "

"Tell me." She said.

They closed their eyes.

Fa was loyal.

Forgive me, Jeong.


 

Chapter Text

It's not like we have a map to the other dragons - directions consisted of Zeno, or Jae-ha now, pointing in a random direction and heading that way.

Sometimes it worked.

Sometimes it didn't.

(There was that one incident with a cliff that we don't talk about. It ended with Yoon being given three pounds of rice, four female cows and a marrige certificate.

We stopped letting Zeno lead after that. It was just… better in the long run.)

Despite this, we make it to the village the next morning.

I don't see the village until we're on top of it. Mist hung permanently over our heads, and my breath came out in white clouds. The air was thin up here, and cold.

The village of the blue dragon was a run down, miserable place. Dilapidated buildings, emaciated people, the smell of filth in the air. It's pressed up against the cliffs like a wounded animal - and built into the rock in some places. Rugs hung from little more than caves. The people were all bared teeth and snarls. Not a single one of them smiled at us.

It's times like these I realize exactly how skilled a head woman Jia was, for all her flaws. Her village wasn't rich, but no one starved either.

Jia wouldn't allow it.

Most of the villages we passed through weren't so lucky.

We reached the center of the village before anyone gathered the courage to aproach us.

"What do you want?" The man who stood in front of Yoon was a little better dressed than the rest of the villagers. He was heavy with craftsman muscles and he had a patchy, greying beard hiding yellow, broken teeth.

I was waiting in the back of the group.

A system for dealing with people popped up naturally over the weeks Jae-ha traveled with us. Yoon dealt with men, Jae-ha with women, and Zeno was brought out for the elderly.

Me?

I was only used when persuasion failed and intimidation was the way forward.

True to form, Yoon stepped to the front of the group. "Sorry to disturb you. We were traveling and heard about your village. I was hoping to stay a while. I'm a doctor so I can provide treatment in payment."

The man hesitated. "A doctor?"

Zeno crossed his arms behind his head. "Pretty boy is the best doctor ever!"

Yoon sniffed, but couldn't hide his pleased blush. "Of course I am! I'm a pretty boy genius."

"...You find your own food. We don't have none to spare. You treat people. You leave in the morning."

"That's fine." Yoon said.

The man jerked his head towards the cliff. "This way."

The villagers just kept getting creepier the further in we went. Some of them wore masks, painted dull colors.

"What's with the masks?" Yoon asked the man leading us. He still hadn't given us a name.

He glanced over. "I suppose it does seem strange to outsiders. The unmarried people around here rarely show their bare faces."

...A mask.

Now there's an idea.

My face being… what it was, I needed a way to go into town. A cloth one would work pretty well, but I could carve on in the meantime.

"Fascinating." Jae-ha folded his hands in his sleeves. He was standing towards the front of the group, carefully between Yoon and the man. Zeno was behind them looking at the village with curious eyes. "We heard that there was a monster in the cliffs around here?"

The man paused, looked at us, and sighed. "Shi, got some people for ya!" He called out over his shoulder.

I blinked.

A man with a face like broken glass melted out of the dark. His clothes were tattered, and he walked with a slight limp. "I thought ye might."

I caught Jae-ha's eye, and he glanced at the man, then back and me and nodded.

Something was up.

I didn't hear him coming.

"What." Shi said.

Yoon wrinkled his nose. "Do you ever clean your mouth? I'm surprised you have any teeth left."

The man scowled at him. "What's it to you?"

Our guide rolled his eyes. "Enough. They want to see the monster."

He's not quiet. A hush spreads over the village, and all of the people present stop and look at us. I met their eyes impassive.

God, this village is creepy. I'm getting some serious children of the corn vibes here.

(Name scowled at spat, barely missing Zeno's feet. "I can take one of you, for a price. But only one. Small groups don't attract the things attention, and I don't want anything to do with it."

"I'm only going to say this once." The other man crossed his arms. "Those that go out don't come back. If you wanna, go. Don't blame us if you don't come back." with that he tugs a pair of old leather gloves from his belt and shoves them on. He leaves behind the smell of smoke and an grim silence.

I looked at the heavy flask at his side, and the calloused hands. Not a craftsman, fisherman, or farmer.

Ah.

I pull Zeno aside. "The blue dragon's not in the village, is he."

Zeno tilted his head, like he heard something far away. Finally, he shakes his head. "Zeno's brother is waaay back there!" He points toward the mountain.

The monster's lair.

I sigh. Yeah. That was about what I expected. "I'll go, then." I stepped out of the shadow.

The man's face went the color of old milk. "O-oh."

"Baram, stop scaring him!" Yoon ordered.

"...I'm just standing here." I said.

Jae-ha stifled a laugh. "Looming, you mean."

I opened my mouth - and snapped it shut with an uncomfortable shrug. I looked away from Jae-ha, to the villager. "Show me."

Can't get attached.

"Absolutely not." Yoon poked my chest with his fingers. "You're. Still. Injured. Let Jae-ha do something useful for once."

"Hey." Jae-ha pouted. "I do plenty of stuff."

"Besides flirting with every woman with a pulse?"

"Well, sometimes I drink."

Zeno nods seriously. "That's true. He does drink a lot."

I shrug. "I'll be fine." I gestured to the man with the fake limp. "Lets go."

The man looked me over. His eyes found the edge of white bandages under my sleeveless shirt - I still haven't found another over robe in my size, and we don't exactly stay places long enough to have one made.

His shoulders relax a fraction. "This way, then."

"Baram!"

I sighed and looked back. "This isn't a discussion. Stay here. Find a place to sleep Jae-ha and Zeno will protect you. You'll be fine."

Besides, who else could go? Zeno and Jae-ha would be able to feel him out, but it worked the opposite direction as well. The blue dragon wasn't here- because he didn't want to be. From what little I remember of the manga, he was skittish around people. They might just scare him away. Yoon could go, but that would leave him alone with people from this village.

Over my dead body.

Yoon's face - crumpled a little. "It's not me I'm worried about, you idiot."

I paused, half turned away.

Than I shook my head and continued on without looking back.

Their eyes stayed with me for longer than I want to admit.


The man led me through the village, and out of it, through the forest and up, along a small, nearly invisible trail on the cliff wall. Another hour later, we came to a stop on a wider ledge, nearly six feet in length. It was far up the wall, so far I could look down at the village below.

...Jae-ha's hair really stands out. I could see him, surrounded by smaller people. Women, from the way he flitted between them like a hummingbird to flowers.

Shi looked into the cave entrance. It was clearly man made, with wooden support beams. I was going to have to stoop to fit.

I looked at him. "It looks like it's going to collapse."

He sneered. "What, scared? It's not even earthquake season."

I stared at him with cold eyes until he took a step back.

Yoon could poke at me all he wanted - he'd saved my life enough to earn it.

This man was a stranger and his life meant nothing to me.

He cleared his throat and glanced at my bandaged arms again. "R-right. The monster doesn't leave the cave." He picked up a slightly dirty metal lantern and lit it. "We have to go in - I'll only lead you halfway to the lair. It's a mean beast and I want nothing to do with it."

I followed him in.

The first thing I noticed were the skeletons - and the bodies, half rotting. The buzzing of flies filled the air. It tasted foul, sticky on the inside of my mouth.

How nostalgic.

My tiny smile was devoid of humor.

One, two, three, fifteen, sixteen - the corpses didn't run out. There was always another one around the bend. He led me along winding path, with his lantern floating along as the only point of orientation.

He stopped and looked over his shoulder at me. "If you change your mind, we can always go back."

I shrug. "Continue."

He looked at the skeleton at my feet. "...If you're sure."

I followed his gaze. The skull is nearly shattered

I stifled a snort.

Of course I know how to tell how a person died - I've killed more people than I care to remember.

Each of them were clubbed on the head by something - like say a very heavy flask, or a wooden club.

Shf.

Cloth on stone behind me.

I whirl around and -

Crack!

- catch a club with my staff.

The same man with the patchy beard snarled at me.

I bared my teeth right back.

Seriously. I hate being right sometimes.

village of bandits.

Spread the rumor of a monster in the hills. Post a reward.

Wait for the victims to come to you.

I was betting that whoever than couldn't kill, they really did push into the blue dragon's path.

No wonder it took so long to get up to the cave - they were preparing a trap for me, and gathering the five men behind him. All of them were dirty, hard men with scars and rough weapons. No edges though - even now, King Il's decree was in effect. Metal weapons was surprisingly hard to come by. All of the weapon smiths were in the army or out of the country, leaving only normal metal smiths who repaired horseshoes and made silverware behind.

It was the main reason I was still using the staff.

Mercy was a one of a kind dagger - perfectly balanced Damascus steel and everything I've run into so far wasn't worth looking at twice.

I kicked patchy-beard so hard he lifted off the ground and crashed into the wall.

Dust trickled down.

He hit the ground with thud and curls around his middle, gasping. Four thugs left, staring at me with wide eyes.

I twirled the staff in one hand. "Next."

My guide lunges at me, no sign of his limp. "You bastard!"

It's like he's moving in slow motion. I flip the staff to grip the end and swung it in a large, fast arc.

He can't stop in time - he runs right into my swing.

Crack!

His nose gives under the wood with a sound like something inside a cloth bag smashing. He takes a few more steps out of momentum - and drops.

I exhale. A faint ache radiates up my arm; Yoon had a point. I was still injured. It wasn't as bad as he made it out to be, but it was annoying. I rotated my shoulder.

Still. Wasn't like I needed to be one hundred percent to take out these assholes. They were little more than farmers with blunt weapons. No training. No skill.

One guy on the ground, gasping and holding his stomach and wheezing.

One guy getting to his feet.

Three thugs unharmed.

Confined quarters; my head is still brushing the ceiling. I was using a staff - not the best close quarters weapon.

...I've faced worse odds.

The three a little smarter - they charged me together.

The narrow tunnel didn't offer much wiggle room, but - I've fought in worse conditions. Fa was a bastard of a teacher, and Eun wasn't much better.

I twisted sideways and let two of them pass me, their own momentum making it impossible to stop. The third ran directly into the end of my staff. Or - he would have if I hadn't caught it on the far wall. I only had a split second to react, but I managed to ram the staff forward in time to catch him.

I could hear the sound of the air rushing out of his lungs - and under that, something else.

Wind, howling.

I glanced at the downed man and my guide, already getting on his feet.

Yeah. This wasn't working.

The lantern was lying on its side, the light guttering.

Just because I can fight in a small hallway, doesn't mean I wanna,you know?

I hooked the lamp's handle with my foot, tossed it up to the end of my staff and took off running.

"Hey! You bastard, get back here -"

The sound of feet behind me.

I ignored them in favor of following the wind - out, into a natural cave. My head didn't brush the roof.

Perfect
.

I dropped the lantern and whirled to face the thugs.

All four of them stood there, glaring at me.

But not a single one of them stepped forward. Instead they stayed at the edge of light the lantern cast, looking around furtively.

I raised an eyebrow at them. "What, scared?"

Shi and glared at me. "Shut the fuck up." Although his nose was totally broken and it sounded more like 'you jut the buck up'.

The one standing beside him punched him in the arm. "Be quiet! What if the monster shows-"

Tnk.

The sound of a bell in the dark. Soft, nearly soundless boots on stone. The smell of the sea.

"Oh fuck." The guide whispered, staring over my shoulder. "Oh shit."

I kept my eyes forward. Whatever was behind me scared these guys, but until it attacked it wasn't my problem.

"You guys wanna keep going?" I kept my stance low and my voice even.

Tnk.

Their nerve broke. As one, they turned and sprinted back into the dark, running like their lives depended on it - so fast I didn't even have time to blink.

I was left alone in the flickering light.

Tnk.

A pause.

I straightened up and turned.

A half-mask stared at me out of the darkness, a wild ruff of fur behind it. Dark clothes. Sword handle behind his back.

The blue dragon.

A dark pair of eyes poped out of the ruff of fur on his head.

I blinked.

And a... squirrel?

...Probably. I wasn't great with animals. The most I could tell was dog and not-dog. I was pretty sure it wasn't a dog though.

The two of us stared for a long beat of silence.

I could see why the villagers talked about him like a monster. The way he moved was... odd. Still. Something almost inhuman. His mouth was flat.

I was betting, that between the two of us, though, I was the better monster.

"...Hey." I said. "You're the blue dragon, right?"

He jumped like I threw a stone at his head. In a heartbeat, he whirled and vanished into the dark.

"Wait, wait- and you're gone. Shit." I scratched my head and looked around. "Is my face really that scary?"

So. I was underground. In the middle of a maze of tunnels and caves, and my only source of light was guttering on the floor, because apparently bandit villagers were too cheap to fill a lamp with oil all the way.

I sighed.

Must be monday.


My outer shirt was sacrificed to the light. I wrapped it around my staff, and used the last of the oil and the flame to create a makeshift torch. Of course, this left me in a thin undershirt and bandages. The cold and damp crawled into my bones like they lived there.

I tried to find my way down the same tunnel the bandits came through, and immediately got hopelessly lost. I passed countless corpses, mentally marking them in my map. I could loop around and get some more shirts to burn if I had to.

I kinda didn't want to touch them. Who knows what sort of diseases they were carrying?

If I got an infection Yoon was going to be pissed.

I don't know how long I wandered - the scenery stayed the same. Cold. Dank. Full of bats. Slowly getting darker as my makeshift torch burned lower. The only sound beyond the dripping water was my own breath, echoing off the walls, until it was a chorus breathing slightly out of sync with me. A wave crashing over the cave.

It was quiet.

Countless times I caught myself turning, expecting to catch a sly smile out of the corner of my eyes. A head of blonde hair. The smell of food cooking.

I closed my eyes.

Still soweak.

Half a day alone with myself and I felt off balance. Too light, without someone hanging off my arm, or treating me like a pack mule, or leaning against me trying to flirt.

The worst part was how easy it was to forget. To look at them and feel nothing but affection or exasperation. To believe that the days I walked under the palace roof was just a dream.

Than I closed my eyes - and all I could see was Soo-won's blood. Yona's terrified eyes. Hak's hand, reaching out.

And I was back on earth.

Alone.

I shook my head like trying to clear it.

"This is stupid. I can't find your king his dragons if I die in a cave!" I gestured at the dark around me. Were the gods listening? Probably not! It made me feel better anyway.

I kicked loose stalactite, and it rolled to a ledge and bounced off.

... and nothing.

I didn't hear it hit the ground. Cautiously, I looked over the ledge.

Darkness.

I lowered the torch down. Still nothing.

Ten seconds later, I heard something hit the ground.

Something stone.

I straightened up and took a careful step back. Then another. Just to be safe. I don't know how thick the stone beneath my feet was right now. A cold chill crawled up my spine - and I shook my head again. There wasn't any point in being scared now.

I was here.

It was holding.

That was all that I needed to know.

And now my head hurt. I tucked the staff into the crook of my arm, and pulled the tie holding my hair loose.

The way I walked just had to be a dead end. I'd have to backtrack and find a different path to take.

Tnk .

I whirled, staff in hand, hair flying loose around me. Sound echoed oddly off the stone walls; it was hard to pinpoint the source of the noise.

Tnk.

There.

A darker shade of black beside a stone arch. The mask caught in the light. Horns. Fur. No eyeholes.

I met the blank white of the mask, staff still at the ready. How long was he following me?

...I didn't know.

"...Ao?" The mask asked.

The heartbreak in that voice. It was enough to send a jolt of pain down my spine. I remember speaking in that voice. The knowledge the something you love will never return again, and nothing will ever be the same. The voice of grief.

The blue dragon took one step forward, hands clenched. "Are...you...?"

I stared at him, stance still low. Ready. "Am I what?"

The blue dragon flinched. "You're... not... Ao."

...Why did that name sound familiar?

It didn't seem like he was going to attack, so I slowly straightened. "My name is Barram. And you're the blue dragon."

His hand went to the sword on his back. "...what...do you...want?"

"I want to take you out of here."

"...why…"

"There are some people you need to - whoa!"

The blue dragon blurred forward, sword singing from the sheath on his back.

I put the staff between cold steel and my throat just in time. "What the hell."

"People... who desire the power… of the dragon... must... die."

"Desire the power? What are you talking ab- shit!" I ducked under another swing, this time aimed at my throat.

I slid to the side.

The blue dragon rushed after me, and I could only defend.

I wanted him to come with me, and injuring someone wasn't a great tactic for that. Plus my staff was on fire. The light flickered wildly with each swing. Every time I blocked his sword the flame threatened to go out completely.

I couldn't hit him with it, not without burning him.

He swiped again, and I ducked back.

Crack!

The staff caught one of the horns on his mask. It flew across the cave, out of the pool of light.

Gold eyes. Slit pupils. Even someone like me could tell they were beautiful.

But it wasn't his eyes that caught my attention - it was the roundness of his face.

How old is he?

My heart sank.

Why did I always end up having to hurt kids?

Just because he lost the mask, didn't make his attacks slow. He came for me again.

I have to end this.

I stopped holding back. The kid was good, but I was faster, more experienced, and had a longer reach.

He didn[t

My staff found his stomach and he doubled over with a wheeze.

"Are you ready to give up?" I asked him.

He glared up at me - and started too grow.

I stared into blue eyes - and something titanic stared back.

It was like a shadow, darker than the lightness cave, swallowing my light and the boy in front of me entirely. It expanded in my vision, towering, yellow eyes looking down.

It was big.

And it was hungry.

And my arm was the first meal. Dark like teeth chewed it from my body -

I stagger backwards.

My feet find empty air. My stomach lurches.

The pit!


"This village is so creepy." Yoon said.

Jae-ha laughed, and there was something sharp in it. "I can't argue with you."

Yoon, Jae-ha, and Zeno were in an empty cave with a faded blue cloth over the mouth. After the village elders got tired of Jae-ha being himself, the group was banished here. Politely.

They went. It didn't matter. Yoon shivered under the villagers unseen eyes. They crawled along his skin like spiders, and he shrank closer to Jae-ha. For once, the green dragon didn't try flirting. He just left his hand on Yoon's shoulder.

His smile was still present but Yoon could tell the difference between fake and real. He didn't like this place anymore than Yoon did.

Stupid Baram.

If they were here, the strange thread of tension would fade. Baram was strong, so strong they felt invincible.

Even Yoon, who'd put them back together, thought of them like that sometimes. It was hard to reconcile the quiet giant of a warrior with the shriveled, bleeding shell that wound up at their cottage.

"When do you think mercenary-shi will get back?" Zeno had his hands behind his head and a cheerful smile on his face.

"Why don't we ask?" Jae-ha went to the blue curtain, raised it, and called out to a passing woman wearing a mask carved with flowers. "Excuse me, miss! Can we ask you a question?"

The woman's face is covered, but Yoon can see her hesitation. She walked over slowly. "Y-yes?"

Jae-ha gave her a dazzling smile. "What's your name, my dear?"

"Seo-yeon."

"A lovely name for a lovely woman." He kissed her hand like it was the natural thing to do.

Yoon rolled his eyes. Jae-ha would be unbearable if not for one thing: he meant every word he said. He really loved women, and he really thought this girl had a beautiful name and face, despite the mask. He's always sincere, and most women can tell.

The girl looked down, the visible tips of her ears going red. "T-thank you. You had a question?"

Jae-ha pulled her closer. "One our companions went off with a man from the village, to get a look at the monster. Do you have any idea when they might be back?"

The girl flinched. "...They - they won't. I'm sorry."

Yoon felt Jae-ha go perfectly still. "What makes you say that, my dear ?"

"People who go out hunting for that monster don't come back. Never have."

Yoon clutched Jae-ha's sleeve. "What do you mean?"

The woman looked around, and whispered. "We think it eats them."

Yoon's stomach dropped.


After Jae-ha escorted the village girl out, flirting all the way it was time for dinner. Yoon stared blindly down at the ingredients, hands clenched around the small kitchen knife. He can't stop seeing Barram - not the way they are now, full of quiet strength and deep exasperation, but the way Yoon found them on his doorstep.

Wounded. Bleeding. Eyes empty, except for a exhaustion beyond exhaustion. Something that went past the physical, down past the mind. Into the soul. Into their very being.

Yoon is a genius, but even he can't save everyone. Some people are just too far gone in the body - and some just don't want too survive.

It never stopped him from trying.

It doesn't stop him from dragging Barram back.

For two and a half weeks, the stranger in his house slept and stared up at the ceiling with dead eyes. Yoon doesn't even think that Baram remembers how bad it was. How bad they got. Even after they woke and tried to leave - well. Yoon's never seen Baram smile. Still hasn't.

After that conversation with Ik-soo, Baram ducked out of the cottage and met Yoon's eyes.

Oh. He remembers thinking. There you are.

There they were.

For the first time Yoon could see a trace of life in those eyes. Baram was skilled and proud and rarely spoke, and besides their name, never told a single lie. Their eyes are brown, but deep enough that Yoon thinks about the sea.

They don't seem... real. Something beyond this world.

(Of course Yoon knew their name was a lie. He's a pretty boy genius, he's treated all sorts.

Some people prefer to keep their pasts behind them.)

Barram talked more, and despite the noble accent to their words, Yoon can't bring himself to dislike them. They work without thought, without complaint.

...Sometimes they go into their head, far away. Yoon was afraid that one day Barram might go too far, and not come back.

Yoon looked up at the mountain. His mouth goes tight. "Jae-ha. Zeno."

The two dragons looked at him.

"We're going to find them."

They wanted to push him away?

Too bad.


 

Chapter Text

The feeling crawling over my skin can't be called blood lust. I've been on too many battlefields to ever get the taste of copper from my mouth, the feeling of 'do this or die'. Whatever lived behind this kid's eyes was big. I could see a shape, a shadow of writhing black rising up to the cave ceiling.

A tiny, mean smile on the blue dragon's face. The only color on the shadow was gold.

It was like meeting my king again, the first time. Having his eyes on me. Small. A rabbit in the face of a lion, a directionless animal without home or country or a single hope.

I wasn't that kid anymore.

I grit my teeth. Ice spread down my limbs with the speed of lightning, but I managed to keep my balance. I lurched forward, got my feet on solid stone. Leaned forward into my staff.

The blue dragon's face changed, like a mask cracking and crumbling off bit by bit. He looked younger, and his mouth curled in a horrified grimace.

The pressure lessened.

He brought his hand up to his head, and I could see the start of sweat on his brow. "I...promised..."

The black beast above his head, writhed in protest, and even though it was faded, I could feel the desire to crush me in it, like an ant.

I got my feet underneath me, leaning against the staff like it's the only thing keeping me standing - because it was. I can't feel my legs. My clothes were soaked in sweat, to the point where I felt like I was in the middle of one of Fa's horrible training sessions. Cold air raised goosebumps on my skin. Fear was sour on my tongue.

The blue dragon staggered and, hands still over his eyes, groaned and fell to his knees. Then down to all fours. I could see his arms shaking from where I stood. His breath came in deep gasps. His arms give out and he crashes all the way to the ground.

I watched him, wary. The dark is quiet.

He doesn't move.

Playing dead?

Shifting the grip on my staff, I poked the blue dragon in the back.

His eyes flicked to me, but his body doesn't so much as flinch. Like he can't.

Did it... backfire?

I sigh as all the tension leaves me and lean on my staff for support. Okay. Paralyzed kid, dark cave, and my muscles felt like I fell off of a cliff. Again.

Can't leave him here where those asshole villagers can find him.

I crouched down and looked at the kid. "Can you talk?" I ask.

His eyes shutter. "...yes."

That makes this so much easier. "My name is Baram. Do you know what happened?"

His gold eyes go wide, and meet mine - then he flinched and looked at the ground. "...not supposed...to use...power. It...cuts. Both... ways."

I brush the hair out of my face. "Makes sense."

Now that the immense pressure was gone, the numbness in my hands and arms was slowly fading. The feeling was unpleasant. Waves of lightning lapped at them, like my nerves were made of pins and needles. I flexed my right hand. Looked at the kid's ice blue hair. "You really are one of the dragons."

We study each other, two wild animals trying to size up the other.

"I don't want to use your power, kid. I don't need it." I said, breaking the stare off. "I'm only taking you to someone you need to meet."

The suspicion and fear don't fade from his eyes at all.

I sighed. "I'll take you to wherever you stay, if you show me the way out of the caves." I said at last. I wasn't Yona - there wasn't an inbuilt advantage when dealing with the dragons, and I wasn't kind enough to attract them anyway. I could only try to make my way back here with the others to make the blue dragon see I was telling him the truth.

His golden eyes bored into mine. Finally, he blinked and looked down. "...okay." His voice was little more than a whisper.

"Great." I said, unenthusiastic.


I couldn't throw the kid over my shoulder like a sack of grain. He couldn't lead the way if he couldn't see anything.

Princess carry it is.

His fingers regained their feeling by then, and he had my shirt in a death grip. I felt eyes on me and I glanced down with a raised eyebrow.

He dropped his eyes instantly.

...This is getting kind of depressing. My face wasn't that scary.

Still, his silence lingered.

"Ask what you need to ask, kid." I said.

"...mask..."

"You want your mask?"

"..." He turned his head away.

I'm taking that as a yes. I picked up the mask with one hand, letting the other support the blue dragon. I put the mask back on his head, covering his eyes, and he relaxed almost instantly.

The two of us walked through the caves, with him nodding the direction we needed to go. The paralysis seemed worse on him than it did on me. His legs still couldn't hold him by the time we made it to his little cubby hole.

It was nice, for a literal hole in the ground. There was a rug with some sort of pattern on it, too faded to make out, that obviously acted as his bed. A few scattered pieces of crockery, lovingly mended. A blade cleaning kit and whetstone. A tiny fire pit with embers still burning. I lay out the blue dragon on the pallet and sit down on the opposite side of the fire and stick the end of my staff into it. It was too charred from being a torch to save. I'd have to find another one when I was out of the cave.

Light sparked and caught, painting the room with warm orange.

The awkward quiet spreads.

How do I conversation again? I've never been a social butterfly, but with the Dragons it didn't matter. They're loud enough for five people. Jae-ha is an effortless conversationalist, carries them like they weigh nothing. Yoon always has something to do, or some task for me to help with. Zeno, for all of his childishness, knows how to hold his peace.

I stared into the flickering flame, utterly exhausted. The blue dragon's eyes are on me through the mask, but I just rub my eyes and lean on my staff. It's been a long...

...life.

It's been a long life.

But somehow, the last couple of weeks have been extra hard. I'm a simple person. Watching my every move around Yoon and the dragons was exhausting. Watching whatever was coming out of my mouth. Keeping myself separate.

They don't make it easy -

The blue dragon's head snapped to the side.

"What?" I snapped, already on my feet. I looked, but there was nothing but the dark.

"...Three people coming." His voice was quiet, but I could hear the suppressed anxiety in it.

Right. He's paralyzed.

I crouched down in front of the kid and tilted his chin towards me, so I could look him in the eye. Er. The mask.

"I'll keep you safe." I said. "Alright?"

He stared at me for a long time. "...yes."

I walked to the front of the cave. The kid was paralyzed because of me. The least I could do was protect him until he could protect himself. It doesn't matter how exhausted I am right now. I stood beside the mouth of the cave, staff in a loose grip, shoulders relaxed.

And I waited.

Nothing.

I tilted my head.

Just under the crackle of the fire, the sound of light footsteps.

My hands clenched on the staff. Took one step forward and -

"-think he's over here!"

Only years of control lets me stop the staff before it takes Yoon's head off.

A beat.

"What the fuck?" I asked.

That sure was Yoon, Jae-ha, and Zeno in the middle of the dark cave, staring at me with wide eyes.

"Why the hell are you guys here?"

Yoon stepped forward, smacking away the staff with one hand, the other poking me in the chest. "You jerk! We thought you were dead and that we were going to have to come rescue you."

"What -"

"The villagers kept saying that no one comes back and..." Yoon covered his face, and choked. He leans to my chest, and I have no idea what to do with my hands.

Holy shit.

Yoon is fourteen. He's a kid. The thought hit me with the weight of a mountain behind it. He usually acts like the mom of the group, but that doesn't change the fact that this whole thing is taking place one year earlier. He was the youngest in the manga, right?

I glanced at the two dragons. A little help please?

Jae-ha gave me a small, insincere smile. "Sorry, I have to agree. We were all very worried."

I glanced at Zeno, but he's grinning at me with his hands behind his head.

Yoon's body shook with fine tremors.

"There, there?" I pat the head of hair gingerly. "I'm fine. Didn't even open any wounds or anything."

Yoon sniffed and pulled back. "You lost your shirt again."

His tone was still thick, but my shoulders relaxed. Nagging Yoon was so much easier to deal with.

I shrugged. "I needed to make a torch, because the guys who lead me down here were bandits. Then I got pretty lost. Speaking of which, how the hell are you guys here?"

Yoon's scoff is only a little watery. "Please. I'm a pretty boy genius. Like I can't remember the way out of a few caves."

"That doesn't explain how you guys found me."

"Thank Zeno for that."

I glanced at Zeno, and he grinned again. "Zeno thought that Barram would find his brother, because trouble follows them like a puppy."

I opened my mouth - and shut it. It's not like I could argue with that.

I walked over to the cave entrance. A sudden blast of wind sank its hooks into my skin on the way past and I rubbed my arms. "Let's get inside. I'm freezing."

"That's because you keep losing your clothes -"

We settled around the fire to the tune of Yoon bossing us around. He pulled out a bunch of food from who knows where , and held out his hand imperiously to Jae-ha. The green dragon dropped his pack and took out a pot without so much as a blink. Guess he became the pack mule while I was away.

"This is the blue dragon." I said, gesturing to the kid still laying on the floor. "Blue dragon, these are your brothers the Green and Yellow dragons." I pointed to Jae-ha and Zeno. "And this is Yoon. He's not supernatural at all. Probably."

"Probably?" Yoon voice was sharp.

I shrugged. I haven't ruled it out.

Zeno gives the kid a sloppy salute. "Zeno is happy to meet his brother at last!"

The not-a-dog pops it's head out the blue dragon's fur ruff. It's big eyes zoom in on Zeno.

It tilts its head.

Zeno copies its movement.

True love is born?

Yoon frowns. "What did you do to him?"

"Why is it suddenly my fault?" I asked him.

The blue dragon didn't respond, just tried shrinking down into a ball of fur and mask, like getting smaller would make the four of us go away. We barely fit into the room, and with the fire taken over by Yoon, the whole cave transformed into a gold painting of its former self and the smell of dinner floated in the air.

Jae-ha, sitting next to me, draped himself almost across my lap to get a good look at the blue dragon. One of his hands combed through my hair."Huh. The villagers were wearing masks as well. Is it some sort of tradition around here?"

The blue dragon flinched back, hands clenched. "...my eyes... are dangerous." He spoke for the first time to the other dragons.

Zeno crouched down by his head, arms around his knees. "What makes you say that?"

"Some sort of paralyzing thing." I ran a hand through my hair. It was still loose, but my hair tie disappeared somewhere in the fight. Probably dropped it in the dark. "Felt like my legs and arms were being cut off. Unpleasant."

The blue dragon flunches back into his little cave of fur. Oops.

I looked at the kid. "Kid, you don't have to blame yourself for that. It was my fault for not being clear about my intentions."

Yoon narrowed his eyes. "Did you fight with him?"

"...A little?" I raise my hands in surrender.

"Mercenary-shi didn't get paralyzed?" Zeno broke in, and for once, he sounds weirdly intent.

I glance at him. "I did. I managed to shake it off for a bit, and then the kid got a hold of himself. Then..." I gestured at the blanket burrito Jae-ha was petting idly. "...That happened. It's a double edged sword. "

Yoon snorted. "Enough of that. It's dinner time!"


I stared into the fire, mind quiet. Thinking about the world, and the place I have in it. The rest of the group was already asleep by the fire.

I'm a simple person. The only reason I survived court politics the first time was the king's favor. With Soo-won, it was more that I just didn't get involved in it. Let him thrive in his area of expertise, while I dealt with the physical stuff.

Like always, his name feels like a marble caught in my throat, like being stabbed in the back. Three months in I still can't get his eyes out of my mind.

Yoon rolled over and I looked up. The blue dragon was already assimilated into the dragon pile, with Jae-ha stealing part of his ruff for himself. It was very soft.

I brushed my hair out of my eyes, and just... watched them.

Something soft and fond, and warm filled me, like a vine growing out the cracks in a brick wall. I could cut it away.

should.

I kept my distance, and I felt myself slipping away. Quiet. Dwelling on memories of a better time.

I can't live like that. It's too hard on me, too strange.

Zeno yawned and sat up. He looked around with sleepy eyes, and met mine. He tilted his head and carefully extracted himself from the pile.

On soft feet, he came to a stop by my side. "Zeno can braid mercenary-shi's hair."

I blinked. "...Alright."

He smiles.

"Where did you learn?" I was sitting on the ground in front of him, while he sat in my former place by the fire. I can't see his face, but his hands are gentle and sure. Practiced.

"Zeno had a wife once."

"She liked to wear braids?" I said, instead of making the obvious connection. I know what grief sounds like. It doesn't matter how much time passes.

Some things don't stop hurting.

Zeno laughed. "Sometimes. She would braid my hair when she had nothing else to do, or she was bored. Zeno wanted to return the favor! So he learned. One day when his lovely wife was asleep, he woke up early and did her hair up in hundreds of tiny ones -"

I don't know how long we sat there, in the light of the fire. I kept it from going out while he does mysterious things with my hair, talking all the while.

Finally, he patted my shoulder and dropped off the rock shelf to sit next to me with a small smile on his face. "All done!"

I leaned back on the rock, hands behind my head. "I'm not good at staying detached." I said without looking at him. The ceiling is rough. No stalagmites.

Zeno laughs softly. "No. Mercenary-shi is far too kind for that."

Kind? My smile is wry. No.

Just poor self control.

"Getting close to me is a guaranteed way of getting burned. Once I get you to your king, You'll never see me again."

"Who can say what will happen in the future? Until then, you're our friend." Xeno asked.

I looked down at my hand, at the scars decorating them.

I was scared. Not of the dragons.

Of what I would do to protect them. If Yona ordered them to come for me… could I fight them?

Jae-ha was kind. Yoon was fair. Zeno, under his cheer, was tired.

Better to get as far away as I could.

But.

I've never been very smart.

Zeno smiled at me. "We can make a promise. If we have to part ways - the dragons will give you a head start. Is that alright?"

I laughed. "Yeah. It's a deal."

I stuck out a hand. He took it.

It was a promise. This partnership might not last forever, but at least I'll have warning before it dissolved this time.

That was all I could ask for.


The morning wore away, much like Yona's patience. She looked at the second son of the fire tribe and contemplates murder. It wasn't like the fire tribe lord would miss Kan Tae-Jun, right? He'd been visiting her for nearly three weeks. Her office was overflowing with flowers, wines and tacky jewelry.

Speaking of, Kan Tae-Jun offered up another finely carved wooden box, nearly dripping in riches. "I heard the princess has a fondness for rubies, so I hunted down this small trinket to give to her." Despite his words, the tilt of his head was anything but humble.

He opened the box - and Yona nearly gasped.

It's a hairpin, silver and shining, twisting to look like a spray of new plum blossoms. The red stones carved into flowers on the end glittered in the sunlight. It's by far the most beautiful thing he's ever presented her with, nearly on par with the hair pin Soo-won presented her with on her last birthday.

Before she even thinks about it, she reached out, traced a finger over it. But the awe only lasts a split second before more rational part of her comes down on it like a mountain.

How much did this single hair pin cost?

Her fingers froze.

...The citizens of fire country were starving.

Where did he get the money for this?

"Oh, such a simple think could hardly be considered a strain on the Fire Tribe." Kan Tae-Jun nose went up in the air, and Yona realized that she asked that out loud.

The reports of the last month echoed in her head. The number of dead from starvation. The number of dead, from over taxation. The number of dead from bandits.

The ruby glittered like blood.

Yona, when she was was younger, thought that the mild bursts of irritation at Hak were anger.

Comparing it the what she feels now is like comparing a firework to a burning forest.

How dare he.

The dark haired, pudgy bodyguard behind Kan Tae-Jun looked at her, his blank eyes narrowed just slightly.

Yona ignored him. Perhaps it was time to make this spoiled brat face reality.

She closed the box without a second glance at the hairpin, and leaned forward. "Are you talented with finding things, Lord Kan Tae-jun?"

He straightened with a snap. "O-of course, princess! I've been praised for my resourcefulness for as long as I can remember! In fact -"

Yoan leaned back. "Very well. I have a proposition for you - a task if you will."

He blinked. "A task? But I'm the son of -"

"Of course, if you feel like you're not up to it, I could have Hak take it instead. It's merely a small thing. I would consider it a favor for me."

"I can do it." Kan Tae-jun said, leaning forward as if to grasp her hands. Yona casually moved them to her lap. "Anything that peasant can do, I can do one hundred times better."

"Wonderful!" She gave him a smile, more teeth then anything else, then bent down and pulled a scroll out of the precarious pile on the desk. It wobbled once, but stayed standing. Yona was getting better at not causing avalanches of paper when she wanted something .

"I have just the thing here!" She handed it to Kan Tae-Jun over the desk, careful not to fall for his obvious desire to brush their hands together. "There have been reports of bandit attacks within the area of the fire tribe. I thought it would be better to have one of their rulers look into it, rather than stumble about without knowing the full situation. I know that you'll do well."

"Y-yes."

She gave him a smile she borrowed from Soo-won, flowers and sparkles included, then looked back down at her paperwork.

A beat passed. Kan Tae-Jun doesn't move.

Yona looked up again. keeping the impatience off her face with a small smile. "Yes, Lord Kan Tae-Jun?"

His face was bright red. "N-nothing! I'll get right on it! I'll start right now!" He turned in a flare of expensive fabric and scents and rushed to the door.

Yona blinked at his retreating back.

Should have tried this way earlier.

Eyes on her.

She turned to the body guard, whose eyes are dark and unreadable in his face. Kan Tae-Jun's bodyguard was familiar to her, though Yona never caught his name. She always tried to go the opposite way of the young lord.

Yona tilted her head. "Can I help you?"

After a long moment, he bowed. "It's nothing, your majesty." Then he turned and followed after Kan Tae-Jun. The same way he always has.

Watching that head of dark hair follow behind a light one, Yona's eyes burn.

She exhaled. Blinked the itching in her eyes away.

She had work to do.

Or she tried anyway. The door creaked open, somehow nervously.

Yona rubbed her forehead. "Yes, Ara? What is it?"

Her... assistant was a mousy middle age woman with perpetual dark circles under her eyes and a nervous disposition - to put it politely. If it wasn't for her exceptional talent with making paperwork disappear, Yona would have fired her a month ago. Her timidness made coaxing her a pain. Yona tired to maintain her temper at all times around the woman.

Ara flinched. "T-there's a... there's a guest, your majesty - "

"This is taking too long! Move." And with that a whirlwind with black hair burst through the door and swept up to Yona's desk. "You're Queen Yona?"

Yona blinked, face to face with a rather pretty girl who looked about one year older than her, with half her dark hair pulled back. Her face was - somehow familiar?

Yona tilted her head. "That's me."

"Good. My name is An Lili. I am the first daughter of the Water Tribe."

Another of the tribe children? Was there some sort of holiday, today? A festival that Yona missed?

"I have something to discuss with you." The girl reached over her shoulder and immediately, two ladies appeared behind her back.

Well trained.

Yona didn't have time to tense before she felt a familiar warmth behind her own back. Hak normally accompanied her through the day, but only through the shadows. Having him there seemed to raise a lot of peoples guard.

It was easier to pull off her plans when her nobles were focused on underestimating her.

Hak stepped in front of the desk. In front of the girl.

Yona sew the girl falter - for a split second. Then her mouth firms and she shoves the bundle at Hak's chest. "Then you take it to her."

Hak turned and rolled his his eyes at Yona.

Yona smiled.

He tossed the package to her - which turned out to be a bag full of scrolls. Curious, Yona opened the top one.

She stopped smiling. She reached for another one. It was the same, as was the next one, and the one after. Information from the bays of the Water Tribe.

Naidai.

That sounded familiar. Yona looked up and met An Lili's eyes.

They were like bonfires.

"Yona?" Hak asked.

She ignored him in favor of diving into the piles of paper on her desk. She pulled out the report on Water tribe that she'd yet to read. Opened it.

There.

A highly addictive drug -

Yona looked at the scrolls. Under the information on Naidai was a list of names. Easily over one hundred. Yona was betting that the rest of the scrolls had more.

The names of the dead.

"Hak." She said. "Go get Soo-won."


Hak knew from Yona's tone that the matter was urgent. He still can't make himself move any faster. The hallways around this part of the palace were devoid of people. His footsteps were loud. They echoed forward and back, making him feel like he's chasing something always out of his reach.

Or something is chasing him.

A hand, ruffling his hair. A half smile."Good job, brat. Now do it again."

Dust in the corners. Hak would be surprised if any of the servants cleaned down here since - since Jeong. They considered it bad luck to be near a traitor's rooms.

Still. There's a clear set of footprints this way.

They don't head towards Jeong's old room. They head to the garden attached to them.

And it's there Hak finds Soo-won, sitting seiza in front of an unassuming marble headstone.

Hak only knew grandmother for a year, maybe less. When she died, it hurt... but not the way it hurt Soo-won. Hurt Jeong. He still remembers seeing that mountain, that person he thought of as undefeatable, like his grandfather, grieve.

Hak doesn't know how much of jeong was a lie. But that - that cold, empty fear, that hallowed grief... no one could fake that.

The birds sang in the trees. It's a little overgrown, the small path towards the grave the only part of the garden that showed signs of repair.

Soo-won doesn't look away from the grave, or acknowledge him in any way.

Hak looked at the grave. Clean, where the rest of the garden is overgrown. Free of weeds. A fresh stick of incense, and the ashes of already used ones filling the tray.

Hak bowed his head to Grandmother's grave. Respect for the dead.

He doesn't' have to look at Soo-won's hands to know the dirt under his fingernails.

The week after - after, Soo-won disappeared for an entire day. Yona wasn't talking. Jeong's body, swallowed by the hungry river slept behind Hak's eyes. Hak searched the whole palace from top to bottom, just to have an excuse not to sleep.

He couldn't let another of his precious people die.

Not again.

He found Soo-won in the garden, his face and robe dirty. Something clutched in a death grip in his hands.

Hak stepped on a twig, the crack loud in the garden.

Soo-won jumped and hid it in the fabric of his shirt. Over his heart.

It was too late. Hak'd know that blade in his sleep.

Mercy.

He looked at Soo-won's bloodless face - and said nothing.

Jeong was gone.

It didn't matter.

Hak pulled Soo-won out of the garden, because Yona was in a place he couldn't reach, and the country needed a ruler. It was cruel. Soo-won wasn't ready. His heart was a shard of glass, and Hak asked Soo-won to bury it back into his chest.

And Soo-won did.

Now, sitting in the same garden, side by side, Hak leaned back on his arms and looked up at the sky. "So."

Soo-won was quiet.

"Jeong is alive." Hak looked at Soo-won, face devoid of smile.

Soo-won was still for a moment longer, his eyes on the grave. Then, like a mountain in a landslide, he swayed sideways, into Hak. Leaned there, his face in Hak's shoulder for a long pale hand gripped Hak's clothes. The other, the place over Soo-won's heart.

"Yes." His voice was a whisper. "Jeong is alive."

Hak's rage is a bitter thing. It rages inside his heart, choked his tongue. He looked at the grave.

He keeps you near his heart. Blade and all.

"We'll find her." Hak said. His face is still. No emotion. "No matter how long it takes."

And maybe by then, Hak will know how to solve this tangle of love and hate waging war inside of him.

Hak lets Soo-won lean on him and hopes.


 

Chapter Text

The sound of something shifting woke me from sleep. Zeno was curled across my lap, with his arms wrapped around my waist. I blinked at him, too sleepy to fully open my eyes. Sometime in the night, he'd managed to wrap my braided hair around his fist. It was long enough not to pull, but it was still annoying.

A rumble.

I paused.

There. The noise again.

I tilted my head, and pressed an ear against the rock wall behind me. The sound of footsteps on stone, and many of them.

I stretched out my foot and nudged Jae-ha, who was sleeping across from me, over the burned out fire pit.

He blinked his eyes open and looked at me. Green eyes drop to my blonde attachment and narrow a bit. Jae-ha turned over inside the dragon pile, carefully going around Yoon and the blue dragon. In the dark, his hair is closer to black than green. His eyes land on me and he tilts his head.

"Company," I mouth, gesturing with my chin to the cave opening.

His smile was white in the dark. He woke Yoon first, keeps a hand over the doctor's mouth. I see Yoon's body go tense - and then relax when he sees that it's only Jae-ha. "What?" Yoon whispered, sounding vaguely annoyed

"Some playmates. Baram and I are going out to play." Jae-ha said.

I shook my head. Jae-ha never seemed this bloodthirsty in the manga. Over the time we've fought together, he always seemed to enjoy it a little too much.

I nudge my living blanket. "Get up." I whisper.

Zeno pushed his face into my stomach with a whimper. "Too tired." He whined.

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Get up, old man." I poked him again.

"Mmph."

Jae-ha crouched down next to me with a smile that seemed sort of fake. "Yoon is going to need help with breakfast." Jae-ha said.

"...food." That gets through his sleepiness and Zeno finally let go of me with a yawn. He sat up and stretched and I shivered when the cold air hits me. Yeah, I was regretting burning my only other shirt up yesterday.

He sniffed the air. "Food?"

"Not unless I get some help." Yoon said.

Such a mom.

Zeno yawns again, so wide I'm not sure how his jaw is still intact.

"Are we going to wake - " Yoon paused. "We never got his name, did we?"

The four of us look at each other. Then down at the kid.

Oops.

"Let him sleep." I took Jae-ha's hand and let him pull me to my feet. "We can ask him when he wakes up." I glanced at the kid again, brows drawn down. Why did I have the feeling I was forgetting something?

Zeno settles into his customary place by the door - in front of the two kids of the group. The last line of defense. He waves at Jae-ha with a cheerful smile. "Have fun!"

Jae-ha slings an arm around my shoulder. "Don't worry. I always have fun watching Baram do their thing."

I rolled my eyes. He's a serial flirt, but at this point, it's just... normal. If he ever didn't flirt, I'd think that he was a pod person or something. "I'm not doing all the work."

"Not even if I say pretty please?" He bats his ridiculously long eyelashes at me.

I elbowed his side. "Not unless you're paying me."

He doesn't move away. "Well, I don't have any coin at the moment, but I can think of … other ways."

Yoon, hands on his hips, scowled. "Stop being gross and go take care of the intruders. Breakfast should be done by the time you get back."

I perked up; I was starving and Yoon's cooking was good enough to beat the palace chef's. "I want omelets."

"Porridge!" Jae-ha said. "With blueberries, like last week."

"Zeno wants meat!" Zeno chimed in.

Jae-ha made a face. "For breakfast?"

Zeno shrugged. "It might be lunchtime! We just don't know it yet."

"A mystery." I mused.

"Exactly! A mystery meal needs meat!"

"Mystery meal meat." Jea-ha said. "Sounds dirty. I like it."

"The real mystery is why I put up with any of you." Yoon said without looking up from the embers he's coaxing to flame again. "Go and get rid of the nuisances, or no one is eating."

I hold up my hands in surrender. "We're going, we're going."

Jae-ha laughed and followed me out. The curtain draws behind us, cutting off even the little spark of light from the fire. The blue dragon didn't need any lanterns and my makeshift torch was fully broken so the two of us walked in the dark. I trailed my hand along the tunnel wall. Jae-ha is a shape in the dark beside me and I can't see his face. But I don't need to, I realize. I know him.

Right here, right now, he won't attack me.

For all his powers, he's... safe.

He leans into me, a familiar weight around my side. What is about me that makes people treat me like a place to lean on? "Finally decided that you weren't going to get rid of us?" He said, voice barely a whisper in my ear.

I - let him. It makes me feel more solid, more real, when someone is there, adding their weight to mine. It felt natural.

In response to his question, I shrug. I know he can feel it. There was no point in thinking about the future, beyond what I needed to survive. That's how I've lived all these years, and it's done all right by me.

Well. I was alive, anyway.

Jae-ha tugged at my braid. "I like the new hairstyle. I can see more of your beautiful face."

I wanted to roll my eyes - but something in his voice stopped me. I looked at him, but his face was too dark to see, the light from the cave behind us now.

"You'll have to let me take a turn styling it. I learned quite a bit from the girls in town, and I don't want my skills to get rusty." He said, voice losing that strange seriousness and gives my hair another gentle tug.

I smiled to myself. "Aren't you a little old for hair pulling?"

"Oh darling, the kind of hair pulling I enjoy is adults only."

A bubble of laughter escapes before I can stop it, coming out as an ugly snort. I cover my face with my hands, but I can't stop. It takes an eternity to calm down and stand up straight. It's such a Jae-ha thing to say."You're such a flirt, holy shit." I said - but Jae-ha isn't standing by my side anymore.

I looked over my shoulder, catching the barest shade of green standing still behind me.

I tilted my head. "Jae-ha?"

The green dragons startled and cleared his throat. "I do believe that's the first time I've heard you laugh. Zeno and I were convinced you didn't know how."

I blinked. "What? I've laughed…" I tried to come up with a time in the months after - after.

The night of Yona's birthday. Her red hair in a cloud around her head, her face in her scowl threatening to break into something fonder. Chasing away her potential suitors.

"My dear," Jae-ha walked up to my side again and put his arms around my shoulder. "I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen you smile."

His voice his heavy in a way I don't understand.

He exhaled. "Baram -"

Whatever he was saying was interrupted by feet on stone, and lots of them.

"There they are." I said, inwardly relived. I was barehanded for this fight, but that would work better for a cave. I was familiar with straight up brawling, because sometimes on the battlefield, you lost a weapon and had no time to pick up another one.

He sighed. "Of course."

I glanced at him. "What?"

"Oh, nothing at all, darling. Just marviling at my own terrible timing."

...What?

I shook my head.

Dragons. Who knows what they're thinking?


The Seiryuu woke to the smell of something that made his stomach cramp with want. The mask was heavy on his face. Ao chittered in his furs, still asleep and dreaming.

Feet on stone. The low murmur of voices. People.

Too close. Inside his home.

His hand twitches -

- his sword is gone.

He breathed against the influx of panic. Intruders in his cave. He opened his eyes behind the familiar weight of his mask and Looked. The world shivered into existence.

Two people in his cave - and then the blue dragon recognized them. The boy from yesterday, Yoon, and a - another dragon. The yellow dragon, singing to himself while he helped chop vegetables.

Through his eyelids and his mask, the blue dragons staered.

...Real.

Yesterday wasn't a dream.

People... like him.

Dragons.

The Seiryuu had no choice but to believe them. Even now, the yellow dragon feels like his sword - familiar, worn. While he's here, the Seiryuu is protected. The green dragon is further away, a bright spark of fire ready to take to the air at any moment. And beyond the two here, further away, a white orb that felt... pure, like clean water and patience and sincerity.

The Seiryuu's felt them his whole life - but never like this. Never so close.

Never real.

Two people in his own home and he felt... safe. He could lie in the warmth of the fire for a few more moments, without worrying about them attacking them.

Seiryuu looked again. The tall warrior from yesterday and the green dragon were missing. Not in the cave where he left them.

He opened his eyes wider, and the world expanded. He stood above it for a dizzying moment before it adjusted like always. The cave became a pinprick of light in the dark. Outside of it, the tunnels crawled through black rock, twisting on themselves like snakes. Familiar ground is easy to cover and it's only the work of moments too find the two missing people.

In the middle of a fight, back to back, and surrounded. Outnumbered. Seiryuu's stomach dropped out. He knew those faces. Those masks.

The villagers.

Why were they in the cave, in such numbers?

Seiryuu jerked up in his seat. Ignoring the alarmed voices from the two in the cave, he springs to his feet, scooped up his sword, and ran into the dark, feet sure, bells ringing. He had to take his gaze off of the fight, just so he didn't trip over his own feet, and his heart thudded inside his chest. He needed to get there and -

He didn't know.

Who would he help? The villagers who he swore to protect, who despised him so much they hid away in the mountain? Or the green dragon, who a part of his heart loved already? Baram, The warrior who didn't raise a hand to him, even as he struck to kill?

Heart in throat, he raced on. He didn't know, and it didn't matter.

Seiryuu still had to get there and do - something.

The run takes a small eternity, and the Seiryuu wondered if the caves were stretching out just to spite him. It wouldn't be the strangest thing he'd seen down here. He turns left without losing speed, one hand on the wall to stop him from falling into the pit beneath this particular walkway. Two more turns and -

- There! That's the place he saw them last.

It was quiet. There was a low glow, and shadows moved across the wall. He couldn't tell who they belonged to.

The Seiryuu grit his teeth and sped up. He might still make it in time.

He skidded to halt just short of running face first into a solid torso, broad enough to look like a wall. The Seiryuu looked up to meet the surprised eyes of Baram.

Seiryuu waits - for the flinch, for the slow step back. For the fear. Mask or not, he'd nearly killed them, nearly unleashed the full power of his eyes on them.

Instead, the moment stretched. They... don't look away.

Baram raised an eyebrow but stayed where they were. "You need something, kid?"

Looking at Baram, Seiryuu didn't understand why he thought they resembled Ao. The height was different. Too many scars. Darker hair and eyes. Then they spoke, and the Seiryuu's throat closed up and his eyes stung and he knew.

It wasn't the voice that hurt, or the words. It was the tone. Quiet and calm and underneath that, warm. Unafraid.

Ao.

Seiryuu's heart breaks all over again.

The green dragon raised an eyebrow while leaning on Baram's shoulder. "Did something happen to Yoon and Zeno?"

Baram looked sharply at the Seiryuu.

The Seiryuu opened his mouth and nothing came out. Sometimes words feel like a grasping at wind. He looked down at his feet and shook his head. His stomach twisted.

"Okay." Baram gestured over their shoulder. "We figured that you'd want to talk to the villagers."

He looked at the terrified people on the ground. No blood. The worst injury he could see was a black eye. "...You didn't ...hurt... them."

They shrugged. "I figured you didn't want that."

The blue dragon stared at them. "Why… are you… helping me...?" He carefully picked his way through the question. He's said more in the last day than in the past three years, and it's wearing him out.

Baram blinked and glanced at the green dragon. "I'm… not?"

He stared at Baram. "Then… why…"

They scratched the back of their head. "I need you, so. Killing your villagers sounds like a bad idea?"

He… he's needed?

The words are a balm on a part of him that he didn't know was hurting. The sting of being alone faded for the first time … ever, because Ao may have loved him, but Seiryuu didn't even remember his face. The bells on the side of his mask ring, cutting into his ears like a knife.

Seiryuu stared at Baram's scarred face and it's like looking into the sun.

I'm sorry Ao. I can't stay here anymore. I… am needed.


Even under the mask, I could tell when the the kid's face crumpled like a car wrapped around a tree. For one horrifying second I thought he would cry. Thankfully he only takes a deep breath and nodded once.

I looked at Jae-ha. Did I say something wrong?

He shrugged.

The villagers cowered on the ground at the sight of the blue dragon, and it was odd to see a group of grown men trying to melt into the stone around them, trying to escape from the thin teenager. He's intimidating, but I've got at least a foot on him.

He sword isn't even drawn.

He's just a kid.

The blue dragon stepped forward. "...Why..." and that's all he gets out.

The head of the group scooted back. "Stay away, monster!" He looked at me with pleading eyes. "Don't let it kill me!"

"I don't want to turn to stone!" Someone else shouted, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back. The villagers rushed away from us in a stampede, shoving each other to get away. They left their tools and lanterns behind.

The blue dragon stood in the dark, his shoulders drawn together. He seemed unsurprising and his hand went up to pet the chipmunk hiding in his collar.

He looked... small. Barely a teenager. How many men has he already killed?

I sigh and flex my fingers. Just one more victim of his time. The way people fled at the sight of him brought me back to my own days as a soldier. Most of the others were grateful, from very, very far away. I was fifteen and so desperate to live that I turned myself into an animal. My first year in the King's service was relearning how to be a person again.

I stepped up to the kid, threw an arm around his shoulders. "Come on kid. Let's go back. Yoon should have dinner ready by now."

The boy froze at the touch and his head whipped around.

I took a step back and raised my hands up. Right; raised in a cave and isolated for years. Just because he lets the other dragons into his personal space, doesn't mean that I'm welcome. "Sorry. Won't touch you again."

His mouth opened, and then shut again. I can't read his expression under the mask.

The odd silence was broken by Jae-ha slinging an arm around each of out shoulders. "Let's go and eat. I'm starving."

I rolled my eyes. "Glutton."

"That's not all I'm hungry for."

I snickered again.


The food is done by the time we get back, with the blue dragon leading the way back. Yoon made oatmeal with blueberries, eggs, and some sort of bacon type thing.

I smirked at him.

He pointed at me. "Don't say a word!"

What a softy.

The group sat down around the fire. The cave felt even more crowded with everyone awake and at full energy. Zeno and Yoon were on either side of me, having ousted Jae-ha for some reason. He took it well and just laughed and placed himself directly across from me. The blue dragon hovered somewhere outside of our little circle.

Yoon passed out the food and the room grew quiet. It doesn't last long, so I've learned to enjoy it. Sure enough, Yoon breaks the peace.

He turned to the blue dragon, who jumped like a startled cat. "We didn't get your name yesterday."

The blue dragon shrunk back, like Yoon asked him for his firstborn child instead of his name. "I… am the …. Seiryuu?"

"Seiryuu? I don't think I've heard that word before." I looked at Zeno.

Zeno shrugged. "It's an old, old word for the blue dragon. Most people use the modern day version instead."

I blinked. Looked back at the kid. "Your name is... blue dragon?"

He shrunk into himself, and that was answer enough.

A cold silence settled around the fire.

I was forgetting something. It felt like something sharp prodding me in the back of the head. I knew something about this, something from before -

Shin-ah is like the moon.

I froze, staring down at the food in my lap.

Oh. Oh no.

Yona named him.

But she wasn't here - and I put my chopsticks down, because I was too sick to eat. If Yona wasn't here, did that mean I took something from him? A name from the person who would love him?

I could give him the name... but did I have the right to take that from her? From him? I could feel my mouth turn down.

Knowing the future - or a possible future was difficult. I could only muddle my way through it, because who else would know this problem?

Ik-soo...might.

I looked down at my food. That's right. He was a priest and that included prophecies. Knowing the future.

"How cruel! How could anyone treat a person like that?" Yoon asked.

The smell of rotting meat, the tacky feeling of blood on my hands.

I look away. My eyes landed on Jae-ha, rubbing his wrists as if they were in pain. He caught my gaze and gave a wry smile. I can't help but return it. It was good that Yoon, harsh as his life had been, was still capable of empathy.

Yoon grabbed the blue dragon's hand and stared hard into his mask, where the blue dragon's eyes would be. "It's not right. We have to give you a name - only if you want one, of course!"

And the blue dragon looked so startled that my mind makes itself up.

For someone like me, my name, my real name was all I had. I kept it like a precious gem, locked away from the rest of the world.

Yona's not here. The blue dragon - has no way of getting to him anytime soon.

"Do you want a name?"

Blue Dragon's head lifts and even behind the mask, I can tell that he's staring at me. It's almost enough to make my want to snatch the words out of the air. Put them back in my mouth.

I don't. I can't.

Every human needs a name

Finally, he gives a bare nod.

I clear my throat. It's not like it's a big deal, right? I already have his name, or what would be his name. Just because Yona's not the one who gave it to him, doesn't make it any less his.

"Shin-ah." I said.

He tilted his head. "Shin-ah."

"It means moonlight." I said, awkward.

Yoon hummed. "Shin-ah? That's a good one."

"Zeno does too!" He said.

"It's a beautiful name. If you like it, of course." Jae-ha said to the blue dragon.

"...yes." He said. Looked at me. "Thank you."

It's the strongest his voice has been.

"I am... Shin-ah. The blue dragon." He said, a bowed to the group. "It's... nice to... meet you."

"Welcome home, Shin-ah." Zeno said with a smile.


 

Chapter Text

Something sits in the back of Hak's throat. Uncertainty. He leans back against the only window in Yona's study. The sun was a warm hand on his back, but he can barely feel it. It's been days since his conversation with Fa, but the guard's words still sit with him.

"Jeong was..." Fa looked off into the trees, eyes unfocused, after their spar. They were sitting too Hak's left, one leg drawn up to their chest. "Driven, I suppose. The first time I met them they were covered in blood. Drowning in it. The King was out surveying the land, and Jeong was the only one who didn't bow. I don't know if they even remember that time. They were feral, to the point that none of the other soldiers would even go near them"

Hak blinked. "Jeong was a soldier?"

Fa smiled. "They don't seem like it, do they?"

No, not really. Jeong was disciplined, true, but it was more like watching some great beast hold herself still until the right moment. Jeong had more patience than a mountain. But Hak knows soldiers, was raised by a general.

Jeong had... a wildness to them. A confident lethality, that came from being the most dangerous thing in the room, every time. Hak would have said Mercenary if forced to choose, but a soldier? Never.

"My lord took a liking to them, though I don't know when." Fa continued. They sighed. "It was as if the two of them shared some sort of connection. The lord allowed them liberties he would have killed others for. They made him laugh. They always made him laugh."

And Hak recognized the bitter, quiet jealousy in Fa's voice. He held it close to his heart whenever Yona looked at Soo-won.

...There was no anger in Fa. If someone murdered Yona, murdered Soo-won, Hak would burn the world down in his rage. He'd only stop when he died.

A world without them wasn't worth living in.

That was what Hak was having trouble with. That kind of love didn't just - disappear. Fa wasn't angry. Not really.

Why?

"Hak, if you can't sit still, get out." Yona's voice broke through Haks' thoughts and he looked up. She was staring at him, dark circles under her annoyed eyes. Normally Hak would have thrown her back into bed by now, but the current problem was too big to interfere with.

A drug problem with nearly one thousand victims needed Yona and Soo-won's full attention, less it spread further. Hak knew that sometimes duty trumped everything else.

Hak stilled his tapping foot. "I wasn't doing anything.".

Yona gave him an unimpressed look at that, and Hak grins like her eyes don't take his breath away.

Soo-won looked up from across the table. "You've been here for hours, Hak. You should take a break." His face was less worn, but Hak was uncomfortably aware that meant nothing. Soo-won never let his weakness show.

Hak studied him. After leaving the garden and the grave behind, Soo-won returned to his normal self.

Soo-won sweated. "W-what?"

Hak shrugged. "Nothing. I can handle being cooped up in a room for a couple of hours. I don't need a break."

"If you sit still, you can stay." Yona said. "We have to get this done and you're distracting me."

Hak smirked at her. "I bet you're just slowing Soo-won down."

Soo-won blinked. "No -"

"I am not!" Yona bounded out of her chair and leaned into Hak's face. Still the firecracker. "I am helping! Unlike someone I can name."

Hak sticks his tongue out her. "That's what you think."

Soo-won laughed. "Hak, stop teasing her. You know that I value all of Yona's hard work."

Yona goes sunset red, and instantly transformed into the well-behaved young princess she imagined that Soo-won was interested in. Considering the last person Soo-won showed even the slightest amount of interest in, Yona was exactly the opposite of his type. Two feet too short, un-scarred, too pale - Hak cut off the thought before his smile sliped.

Hak rolled his eyes. The room sank back into quiet when the two of them regained their concentration.

Soo-won brushed a strand of hair behind his ear. "Here - look at this and tell me what you think."

Yona took the scroll, unrolled it and began to frown. "The list of names? Didn't Lili provide it already?"

"This is what I found on my own. I want to cross check them."

Hak sat back down on the window sill, back against the cool glass, his spear settled across his crossed legs. He put his head on his fist and just - watched. Yona and Soo-won worked together like a well oiled machine. One head of red hair draped over thin shoulders mixed with blonde, the two of them were sitting so close together their hair mixed.

Jealousy is a flavor Hak knows by heart. It sits on his shoulder every night, claws at him when Yona looks at Soo-won with her heart in her eyes. Even the worst pain becomes background noise after a long time. Hak ignored it with ease, instead enjoying the nearly identical look of concentration in both their eyes.

The two of them, together were... beautiful.

Even so, Hak can't ignore the nagging thought: something is missing. Someone should be sitting by him, with a whetstone in one hand and a cloth in the other. He can feel Jeong's absence like a wound. The three of them list, like a table without a fourth leg.

Why would she kill the king?

He gritted his teeth.

Jeong was gone, out in the country doing who knows what, instead of here, where she should be -

Hak stands up so abruptly Yona and Soo-won look at him. He waves at them. "I'm going to get some air."

Yona nodded, mind already back on her problem. "Bring back some snacks. I'm starving."

"Sure, sure." Hak said. He glanced at Soo-won.

"See you later." Soo-won says with a smile.

"Sure."


The servants bustle past in colorful waves, bowing to Hak on their way. He keeps to the sides, enjoying the bustle of a busy castle. Five months and the castle is finally back to it's normal self. The servants are... less afraid. Less worried.

Hak folded his arms and walked down the hallway, feet clicking on the marble floor. It was good to be out of the study for once. Yona never seemed to leave it - even going so far as to bring her meals in. Hak tried to keep her from overwork but it was a hopeless case.

A flash of red in the corner of his eyes. He turned.

"General." Choi Bin-na said. Her voice was surprised, even if none of her emotions showed on her face. Bin-na was a lady of the blood through and through. All of her movements were graceful and sure. "I did not expect to find you outside of the Queens sight."

Hak raised an eyebrow.

Bin-na smiled. "I only mean that it is hard to let go of protection after a difficult event." She touched her own stoic bodyguards shoulder. "Without my own servant, I fear that I would have trouble leaving the house."

The bodyguard was an old man, probably only a few years younger than Mundock. Still, his back was straight. Hak knew him by sight, but the man prefered to keep his silence and never spoke to anyone but his mistress.

Hak didn't bother to talk to him. "General Joo-doh is with her, and Lord Soo-won. She'll be fine for an hour."

"Of course." She hesitated. "Lord Soo-won is... feeling better?"

Hak looked at her, but her dark eyes were clear. Unreadable. "He's fine." Hak shrugged. "Overworked, but who isn't these days?"

"That is true. After the death of his Majesty, I feared that Lord Soo-won would be too devastated to support her Majesty. I'm glad that she has such a reliable cousin." Lady Bin-na sighed, her sleeves swaying in the wind. "I never thought such a thing would happen. The betrayer hid herself so well. It was a shock."

"It was." Hak can't help the way his voice goes tight.

The lady glances off into the distance. Her eyes look far away, and her pale, soft hands curl into blood red sleeves. The rest of the palace is just starting to get over the death of the king and the mourning clothes were put away in favor of color, and Lady Bin-na was no exception. Her black hair looked like a spill of ink against her flame colored silk outer robe. Her lips and nails were painted the same shade.

She sighed again and looked at Hak. "I never believed Jeong to be capable of such a thing. They were far too good natured. I often wished to partake in sake with them, but they were far too dedicated to their work." The look she gave Hak was full of sympathy.

Hak smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. The phantom whiff of sake filled his nose, and Jeong's low laughter filled the air. The night before they killed the king, Jeong was drunker than he'd ever seen her. He remembered supporting her back to her room, and the way they had trouble speaking.

...Which was strange. Hak could count on one hand the time he'd seen her even touch sake before. The night of the party was the only time he'd ever seen her need help walking, let alone in tears.

"Yona and Soo-won are going to need you."

Were they planning on killing King Il even then?

"- General?"

Hak blinked and looked up.

Lady Bin-na gave him a small smile. "I see that you have things on your mind. I too, must return to my business." She gave a slight bow. "If you'll excuse me."

Hak returned the bow, and said some words of farewell, but his mind was miles away.

Why did Jeong drink that night?

If she was going to kill the king, she had to know that she needed to be on top of her game. Jeong was, at her core, a professional.

She didn't drink, and she especially didn't drink around Yona and Soo-won. It was a point of pride for Hak that Jeong didn't mind drinking around him, even shared a cup or two ; he was considered just a little bit more adult by Jeong. Not like their respective charges.

Jeong didn't talk about herself. Not beyond the years she spent with her grandmother. Hak never thought about it, until the night where she took the life of someone precious to him.

Why then? Why kill the king?

She had countless, incredibly clear chances. The king often invited her to tea and the guards stopped coming into those in the second year of her service.

Was she… working for someone, all this time?

Hak paused and blinked. He looked around. His feet took him to the training ground where he and Jeong always used to train together. It's empty. Too close to the royal wing of the castle to be used by the common soldiers.

He sighed and rubbed his temples.

Hak needed more information. Soo-won might know, but -

His face when he looked at the grave.

-Hak can't bring himself to ask. The last thin Hak wants to do is cause him more pain. The wounds were too close to the surface. Soo-won has suffered enough.

Hak needed to find another source of information.

He paused.

In fact, there were some in the palace right now.


The wing of the castle for foreign royalty is lavish, even by palace standards. To the point that Hak feels a little shabby. Gold and cream walls, vast tapestries hang from the wall, depicting famous myths from Kouka's past; the red hair of King Hiryuu was everywhere. Hak walked the halls under the eyes of the dragon warriors, feet sure. He was meant to be here - in fact, he was meant to be anywhere he chose in the castle.

The suite housing the Xingease group was the only one in use. There were two strange looking guards standing outside it. Obviously not common soldiers, because they wore no uniform.

The elder one with the long, well maintained hair gave Hak a look that would have blistered a lesser man. "What."

"General Hak, to see Fa -" Hak paused. He never got Fa's full name. "- of the queen's guard."

The strange soldiers exchanged a look. One of them, young and blonde, laughed but his smile was as empty as his eyes were. "Fine." He shouldered open the door, giving his back to Hak in a way that was absolutely an insult.

A few moments passed.

The long haired guard continued to glare.

Hak raised an eyebrow. "Have we met before, or are all guards in Xing this... unprofessional?"

The guard bristled. "I don't want to hear that from you, thief."

Hak glared at him. "Who're you calling a thief? I've never even met you before."

He snorted and ignored Hak.

Do not kill the diplomatic envoy.

Yona would kill him, and Soo-won would let her. Teeth gritted, Hak crossed his arms and looked the other way.

The silence is strained until the kid popped back out again. His smile was still in place and Hak had to fight off the urge to punch his stupid face. The last time he'd seen something that fake was - well. he'd never seen something that fake. All nobility were professional liars; they were raised to it.

(Except Yona, who was clear sea glass. The queen kept her heart on her sleeve..

Or she used to be, anyway. She was picking up her birthright fast and Hak was both proud and worried.)

"Lady Myeongseong wants to see you!" He said, cheerfully.

The other guard whipped around. "What? Why would her majesty want to speak to this - this barbarian!"

"Hah?" Hak said. "I'm not the one insulting my hosts. Do they not have manners in Xing?"

The man sniffed. "I feel no need to be polite to thieves."

That again? "What the actual fuck are you talking about?" Hak said. "I've never even been to Xing!"

"That doesn't matter. You stole our lady's fiance-"

The boy cleared his throat, smile still present. "Her majesty is waiting."

Hak stared hard at the long haired guard, but his mouth was shut and he didn't meet Hak's eyes. His mouth was pursed.

fiance?

"Fine. I'm going." Hak shook his head. Crazy must run in the water in Xing.

The boy doesn't look back at him at all; he keeps his eyes forward, like Hak doesn't exist.

The pit of irritation in his stomach grows with every second. He's not going to start something, because he's not a child, but he really, really wants to.

Hak steps into the inner chambers and wants to freeze. He can feel eyes on the back of his neck, at least a dozen. He carefully doesn't show any reaction. Kept his eyes ahead, and his posture relaxed. Even if he can't see them, he trusts his instincts, and his instincts say the watchers aren't hostile.

For now.

Hak's shoulders are tense by the time he reaches one of the larger rooms that doubled as a study.

"I brought him, Lady Myeongseong!" The boy said, walking in the finely carved wooden door without so much as a warning.

Hak doesn't let himself hesitate, and stepps into the room with careful feet.

Books lined the shelf and papers line the floor in piles.` Myeongseong evidently planned on making her home here for quite some time. The queen herself was sitting at the dark, gilded desk, looking over a scroll. She wasn't alone. A woman Hak knows he's never seen before sat to her was maybe twenty five, with soft grey hair trailing down to her waist, loose. Beautiful, with pale skin and a long, slender neck.

The empress gives a distracted smile, but doesn't look up. "Yes, thank you Mizari. You may return to your post. Wen, can you hand me the finance accounts?"

The grey haired woman - Wen, apparently - picked up a scroll from the table and put it in the empresses hand without looking up from her own reading.

"Thank you. Excuse me General, we will be with you in a moment."

Familiar with power plays, Hak crossed his arms, the very picture of insolence. "Take your time. I got all day."

Wen's lips quirked with a demure smile, but she doesn't look up from her work.

Hak waits for another half an hour, watching the two women work together - and it's like watching Yona and Soo-won, the two of them are so in tune. Clearly they've been a team for a long time.

The empress sighs and straightens up, snapping the scroll shut. It must be a signal, because Wen stops working as well and turns to a small side table, picks up a teapot off it, pours the empress a drink and passes it over.

Myeongseong gives the woman a smile. "Thank you, Wen."

"Of course." Wen's voice is quiet, but firm.

The empress takes a sip of the tea and finally turned to Hak. "My apologies for the wait, General. I must have this done before the next courier to Xing."

"Important stuff?" Hak asked. The Empress was much more relaxed than the woman in the throne room, not using the royal we.

"No, no. Just the person I left in charge asking for my opinion on something. Much like your own queen, I ask my cousin Kouren for assistance when I am out of the country." The Empress smiled. "She even let me borrow her guards while away."

Hak glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah. They're… something."

Myeongseong sighed. "Yes, only Kouren can truly control them, but the Five Stars of Xing are well worth it."

"Out there," Hak said. "The pretty one said something."

"Yotaka?" Myeongseong seemed amused at Hak calling him the pretty one. "He'll be pleased that someone noticed his hard work. What did he say?"

Hak met the empresses eyes. "He called me a thief. Said something about a fiance?"

Myeongseong's smile vanished.

"Considering I've never met him in my life, I'm not sure where he's coming from."

Wen sighed. "We will have to discipline him. Accusing the guard of our gracious host of theft? That is simply poor taste. Our apologies, General Hak."

Hak shrugged. It was irritating, but he was more curious than anything. "I've been called worse things. I just want to know why."

Myeongseong sat back in her chair with a sigh of her own. "It's old news. Jeong - before they revealed their true nature, Jeong was the one that every warrior wished to be. They only served my father for two years, but in that, they did great deeds for the people."

Hak concealed his flinch. He wasn't expecting her to bring up Jeong so easily - but than she'd had years to come to terms with it. Would it be so easy for Hak in the future?

He hopes so. Anything would feel better than this ache.

"My father loved Jeong." The empress said. "Enough to make them one of his family. Before his death, he approached my uncle about an engagement between my cousin Kouren and Jeong. Kouren admired Jeong greatly for their deeds, and they were of similar age."

Hak blinked. Blinked again. "Excuse me? An - An engagement? With Jeong?" What the fuck?

Myeongseong nodded. "I don't know if it was ever finalized, or if my father even told Jeong about his plans. But Mizari and Yotaka are loyal to my cousin, admirably so - and she was devastated when she heard. I think they convinced themselves that Jeong wanted to stay. So they think they were… stolen away." The empress's smile is wry.

Jeong… engaged? The thought was like trying to think of the sun rising in the west. The only way Hak could picture Jeong in his mind, was standing beside Soo-won, half-smiling and listening to him talk.

Hak can understand the guards feeling's. The thought of this- this phantom fiancee filled him with a prickly outrage. They belonged with Soo-won.

Or… they did, before.

The empress shook her head. "But that's in the past. What is it that you came here for?"

Right. Hak shook off the unsettled feeling. "I was looking for Fa."

She blinked and Wen looked up. "Fa? Whatever for?"

Hak shrugged. "They're a good spar. I wanted a rematch."

The two women exchanged glances. Myeongseong turned back to Hak. "I'm afraid that Fa is the courier for this particular letter, and he's already waiting to leave at the gates. I can't delay the letter, but when they comes back, I'm sure they'll be willing."

Hak studied the two of them. They were lying. Not about Fa being busy, but about the letter.

Why?

"Alright." Hak said, turning to go. "Let me know when they get back."

More and more questions were popping up.

Myeongseong smiled. "Of course."

Wen watched Hak leave, but said nothing.

Guess he'd just have to find answers elsewhere.


Heuk-Chi watched his idiot master run around with half an eye. The empress obviously pawned this mission on him to get him out of her hair, but try telling that to the Tae-Jun. He'd already convinced himself this was a grand adventure, a quest to earn the love of the princess.

How could Heuk-Chi not know what Tae-Jun was thinking? He's watched over the idiot nearly the entirety of his own life, and all of the young master's.

He was stupid and oblivious, but not deserving of death.

Heuk-Chi folded his arms and watched Tae-Jun run around, ordering the servants in a way that only made the whole thing more chaotic. The poor palace servants were not the same ones at the fire tribe castle who knew how to ignore Tae-Jun while looking like they were following his orders.

Heuk-Chi could help out... but this was more entertaining. He watched from the doorway, quiet and out of the way. Heuk-Chi has perfected the art of not being noticed. He's plain and a little fat, and he knows that most people dismiss him out of hand just because of that.

Heuk-Chi's fine with that. It keeps him from having to do anything like hard work.

Plus, if the lord noticed how Heuk-Chi 's skills and sent him somewhere else, who would guard the Tae-Jun? He'd be dead within the week.

"No, don't put that there!" Tae-Jun said, his voice full of impatience and irritation. "We need those on top. Don't you know anything?"

"But you said -" the serving boy said, voice confused.

"Never mind! Get out, get out, I'll do it myself!"

Uh oh. That sounded like a disaster in the making. Heuk-Chi had visions of the packhorse listing to one side. The carriage full of sweets and heavy books. The inevitable forgotten necesites.

"Young master, I think you should leave the packing to more competent people."

Unlike the rest of the people in the room, Tae-Jun didn't jump. He only pointed at Heuk-Chi . "Are you calling me incompetent, you lout?"

"No not at all." Heuk-Chi said, voice bland.

"I don't believe you!"

Out of sight, out of mind. Heuk-Chi waved the servant off over Tae-Jun's shoulder, ignoring the words that never stopped flowing out of his mouth. It was a defense mechanism he'd developed after a long time of word soup. Heuk-Chi learned to not listen to the words, but to the cadence of his voice.

It was faster when he was tired, and slower when talking about his family, and his pride in them. The shining moments were always reserved for -

"... wonder in the princess - the empress will be willing to see me one last time before we go?" Tae-Jun said, right on time.

Heuk-Chi held back a grimace. It was funnier back when Tae-jun was a little kid and chasing the princess around was just his way of playing, because he never learned how to make friends like a normal child. They returned to the palace for the coronation and it stopped being funny. The kind young princess was still there, but the nietvity was gone. Like a rose growing thorns, all the more beautiful for it. Tae-jun never stood a kiddy crush melted down, turning into something solid, like iron. He was so gone on the queen it was sort of gross.

Tae-Jun never changed his mind on things he truly wanted, even if he had no chance of getting it.

The young master looked west, towards the throne room. "Should I go see her?"

Heuk-Chi watched that familiar back, turned away from him and his hands itched to take Tae-Jun shoulders' and pull him back around.

Don't look at her.

Look at me.

He kept that awful thought off his face with years of practice. Heuk-Chi was only a servant, and casual as he and his master could be sometimes, he knew his place. "Don't you want to come back a hero? Besides, she's busy. Her highness and his lordship and General Hak have holed up with someone from the water tribe. No one is allowed to interrupt."

Tae-Jun frowned. "I don't like him."

Heuk-Chi didn't have to ask. Lord Soo-won was very obviously the hearts desire of her majesty, even if that had cooled lately. "You could challenge him to a duel."

"You're supposed to be my bodyguard. Stop trying to get me killed."

"It was just a joke."

"Your sense of humor is terrible." He sighed. "I suppose I don't want to interrupt her work. It might make her mad."

Heuk-Chi shrugged, but his shoulders felt lighter. It was inevitable that Tae-jun would take a wife, have a family. But not yet. Heuk-Chi was sensible. He just… wanted a little more time.

The packing went faster now that the young master was out of everyone's way. Heuk-Chi noticed that the servants seemed to be working faster than usual. Probably trying to make sure that none of them had to deal with Tae-Jun for long.

He wasn't surprised. Heuk-Chi himself found Tae-jun little annoying sometimes.

Out in the courtyard, name looked over the troops. The fire tribe soldiers were perfectly disciplined, as they should be. Heuk-Chi had hand picked each of them not for their brains, but for their tolerance.

"I have received a quest from the empress herself," Tae-Jun said to the crowd, proud as a peacock. A ripple of murmurs ran down the line, most of them disbelieving.

Heuk-chi tuned out the rest of the speech, just because he knew it was going to be nothing but bluster. The fire tribe soldiers knew that as well. He saw more than a few of them staring vacantly into space.

"My lord Heuk-chi?" A soft, feminine voice broke into his thoughts.

He blinked and looked up. A tall figure in a full robes and a veil worn by the more modest, old fashioned women, blinked uncertainty down at him. Slender, dark haired, slightly nervous. It was hard to tell the gender in those robes, but the soft voice said female. Heuk-chi wasn't a tall man, but she had at least a foot on him.

"Yeah?" He glanced over at Tae-jun. Yup. Still going. "Can I help you with something?"

The woman hesitated, ducking her head. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I heard that your lord was to go to fire country?"

Heuk-chi sighed. Yeah, he'd ask about how she knew, but Tae-jun had been running his mouth all morning. Half the castle probably knew already. "We are." He said in resignation.

"Than, may I… if it's not too much to ask," The woman looked down at the ground. "If I could accompany you there? I can work, clean and I'm not a stranger to cleaning. It's just that the roads are dangerous for a woman alone and I don't have the coin for a guard - and I thought that someone who received a task from Herself would be more trustworthy than a merchant caravan -"

Heuk-chi held out a hand to stem the tide of words. The woman stopped talking immediately.

"You want to come with us?" He asked.

The woman looked at the ground again. "Yes."

"With a bunch of rough soldiers. Men."

She seemed to shrink down. "Yes."

"Why?"

"I need the protection on the road -"

Heuk-chi shook his head. "No. Why do you want to go?" She seemed like an extremely old fashioned woman, clothed from fingers to feet, even donning a veil. A woman like that wouldn't be caught dead in the company of soldiers.

She hesitated again. "I - I have a child. A little girl who lives with my own mother. I came to the capital to earn money for them, and I haven't been back in three years. I supposed I am just tired of being apart from my little girl. I have enough saved to live off of when I return, but not enough to hire competent protection."

It was a common story, in fire tribe country. The farmers barely made enough to live on. The father wasn't likely in the picture - dead or vanished or conscripted, which was pretty much both - and many women came to the city to work in the palace.

How… convenient.

"I'm sorry, miss. I don't think I can help you." Heuk-chi said, voice even. He wasn't a man driven by sentimentally. He also wasn't stupid. Allow a strange woman he hadn't personally vetted within stabbing distance of his charge?

No, thank you.

He's got quite enough trouble without inviting it in all on his own.

The woman's eyes watered. "I - I see. Thank you for your time, sir, I'll just get out of your way -"

"Heuk-chi, why are you making women cry?" Tae-jun's voice asked from behind.

Heuk-chi closed his eyes and sighed. Goddammit. "Nothing for your lordship to concern yourself with."

He snorts. "If you go around making women cry it reflects badly on me! You, what do you want?" He pointed imperiously at the woman, who bowed so fast she almost tipped over.

The woman started explaining and Heuk-chi sighed, internally. Tae-jun was selfish and a little bit of an idiot, but he was also much softer than his family. He'd be moved by the woman's story, and she would be coming with them.

This trip was going to be such a headache.


 

Chapter Text

After breakfast, Shin-ah leads us out of the caves with sure feet. The clean air of the mountain was so much better than the damp, stale air inside the cave. I stretch my hands out and lean into the wind.

Yoon shades his eyes from the weak morning sun. "Looks like it's okay to travel. Nice weather."

Down below, the village was quiet, all the villagers still asleep, or hiding.

Yoon glanced down and obviously dismissed it. "We're not going through the village again. I don't want them to get a good look at Shin-ah incase they try to do something stupid."

"They would." Jae-ha said, and his smile isn't nice. He was rubbing his wrists again. "They always do."

I glanced at him and looked back over the village, feeling not exactly grim - but sure. I don't want to kill anyone, but for the dragons I would. Better to not give them a chance.

Shin-ah looked down at the village. "Is it... is it really... alright for me to... leave?"

I shrugged. "We can't drag you with us, kid. This is a choice you'll have to make on your own."

Shin-ah's shoulders tightened as he looked over the village. No wonder they gave him a mask; the kid couldn't hide his expression even while wearing one. It wasn't a bad thing - but it's hard to hate something that forced you to see it as a person.

The two of us were a little behind the group, walking in silence.

After awhile, he spoke again. "I… don't hate… them."

I smiled at him. "But you don't love them either."

He ducked his head.

"That's fine, Shin-ah. It's alright if you leave them behind. You can't carry all your hurts with you - they weigh too much."

For three years, I stopped thinking about my family, my home. It never helped - just made hard things harder. Eventually I just - stopped. Call it cruelty. Call it self defense.

It kept me alive. That's all I know.

Shin-ah looked back over his shoulder. "...yes." He said after a long while.

I nudged him with my elbow. "You'll be alright, kid. Everyone has to let go of the past sometimes."

He touched the bells on his mask - and his mouth firmed. "Yes. I understand." He said.

He untied the bells and let them drop to the ground. They chimed when they rolled down, growing softer as they fell. He looked at the villaged one more time, a heartbeat that streatched out - and turned away, walked forward and left it behind him, following Yoon and his fellow dragons.

I stayed behind for a moment; even with the bells out of sight, I could still hear them ringing in my ears.

With a wry smile, I turned away.

Sometimes, I feel like a coward compared to these kids.


I'm on watch again, for the second night in a row. I'm not avoiding the group anymore. It's just... sometimes I need to think. The white dragon's village is growing closer and so is the end of this quest.

My nerves wound tighter with every single step taken forward. My heart thumped against the cage holding it back, hard enough that I was sure if I could take it out and inspect it, I'd find bruises. The only thing keeping me sane was the fact that the dragons and Yoon distracted me in the daytime. I was too busy to think.

At night all that went away. I don't know if I can call it calm, but a peace settled over me with the setting sun. A cool wave of 'I'm almost done,' kept my hand steady on the new staff I've taken to carving. I work on it with hands slowly growing more familiar. The work is easy. I don't have the tools for anything truly intricate, but I've been carving since I was a young. Plants are easy enough to replicate. Roses. Daisies, Carnations, dandelions - all of them shaped themselves under my hands.

My mind was elsewhere. Thinking about the past. The dragons were almost gathered.

Home waited.

(...If that still called to mind the king with red eyes, or three stupid kids who demanded sweets, I ignored it.

Some things you don't get back.)

The snap of the fire and the chirp of insects were the only sounds. I listened and carved, but my mind was far away. Things that I missed.

Pizza. Hot showers. Sugar.

Hands, unstained by blood.

I let out a shaky sigh.

Almost there.

The feeling of eyes on the back of my neck brought me out of my thoughts. I glanced up, across the fire to find the Blue dragon staring at me - no. Not at me, but at the staff in my hands. His legs were pulled up to his chest and he looked strangely small. Must be the missing fur. Yoon commandeered it sometime during the night.

"Never scene wood carving before?" I asked the kid.

He jumped and his masked face ducked.

Even after a week on foot with the rest of us, Shin-ah was still quiet. It's hard to break a lifetime of habit.

No one said anything. It wasn't like Jae-ha didn't disappear for hours on end when he felt too stifled, or Yoon nagged us and insisted on sleeping close together at night, or Zeno sometimes went inside his head, got sadder and older.

Wasn't like I didn't sit by the fire and carve.

All we could do was include him where we could.

After a long while, the blue dragon nodded, a bare tilt of his head. "...flowers."

"Yeah." I agreed. "Flowers. I like plants."

Shin-ah tilts his head. Obviously a question.

I shrugged, running a hand down the staff, feeding the grooves I'd made. "It reminds me of home." I was fifteen when I fell into that river and got swept away into Xing. Into war.

Before I ever was a soldier, I was a gardener. I planted my first seed with my grandmother - my blood grandmother - at seven years old. Had my own plot of land when I turned eight. In the growing season, my garden provided vegetables and fruits to the whole house, and a bunch of neighbors besides. I wasn't a social person, but everyone liked food and I made some friends that way. I never grew a lot of flowers, because even back then, I liked useful things over beautiful ones.

"...home?" Shin-ah asked.

I don't look up. "Yeah. That's why I'm getting you dragons together. If I do, I get to go home."

"Oh. Do... you have... family?" The way he says the word 'family' like it's foreign, like it fits oddly in his mouth. Like he doesn't understand the concept.

These kids, they break my heart.

My hands clench and the wood creaked. I swallow. "Yeah. Yeah, I have a family. A mom and a dad, and three younger siblings. I haven't seen them in a long time."

I was fifteen when I fell. Time passed in a blurr for the first couple of years, so I don't know how old I am now. Twenty two? Twenty five?

Ten years have gone by, at least.

Will they even recognize me?

Shin-ah brushed his fingers over Ao, sitting on his shoulder. "Can we... meet... them?"

I blinked. "huh?"

"When... we go to... your home?"

For one second I don't understand - and then a horrible moment of clarity.

He thinks the dragons are coming with me.

I don't know what to say. How do I look at this kid, all curled up by the fire with trust on his face and say: all of this is so I'll never have to see any of you again.

I can't. I summon up a smile instead; it feels fake, but it's the only thing I can do. I flip the knife in my hand and offer him the hilt across the fire.

"I can show you." I say, avoiding the question.

It's difficult to tell his emotions with the mask on, but the way his shoulders stiffen give away his shock. The moment stretches, but I don't withdraw the offer. He eventually rolls onto his feet, graceful in the strangely inhuman way he has; that all the dragons move. Will the white dragon be the same?

Shin-ah stepped around the fire until he stood by my side. He reached out - then hesitated.

I gave him half a smile. "It's okay. You can do it, if you want to learn. All it takes is practice."

Shin-ah nodded at last. He took the knife and sat down next to me, out of touching distance but much closer then he was before. Ao chartered and climbed down his arm to sit next to the fire.

I reached into my bag and took out a bit of scrap wood I tested it on. it was a soft wood, forgiving of beginner mistakes. I may not be here long, but at least I could teach him something before I went. "Alright. The first thing you need to know is ..."

Shin-ah, sitting by my side, listened.


Even I know when we get close to the white dragon's village - a fog so thick it muffled our footsteps sprang up overnight. Clearly something weird was going on; that usually meant a dragon somewhere nearby.

"How close are we?" I probbed the ground in front of me with my staff. It wasn't an idle question. I was getting tired of nearly walking off cliffs. Yoon resorted tying us together with a thick rope after the third time we nearly lost Zeno. I was in the front, Jae-ha in the back and the three younger members in the middle.

"I'd say about a few minutes away." Jae-ha's voice is strange and distorted in the fog. He sounds much further away than five feet. I can't help but look over my shoulder, even though I know it's no use.

"I wonder if White Dragon will meet us?" Zeno asked, unbothered by the fog.

"Will he even be able to find us in this mess?" Yoon's voice is exasperated. "How did this come on without any of us noticing? The weather was fine yesterday."

The feeling of eyes prickled over my neck. I said nothing. Whoever followed us was good - but not as good as Fa. Compared to Fa, everyone was an amature. I didn't need Shin-ah's whispered warning, though I gave a pat on the head in thanks anyway. The watchers didn't make any move, so I was willing to let them watch so long as they kept it that way.

"Just give me a direction." I said. "Why the hell am I first anyway? It's not like I have the super dragon sensing power."

"Well, you are the leader, my dear." Jae-ha said. "Who else would be in front?"

"And you have the longest stick!" Zeno said.

"And you have the longest stick." Jae-ha snickered.

Yoon snorted.

I don't need to see Jae-ha's face to hear the glee in his voice. I rolled my eyes. "I'm not the leader. Shut up."

Jae-ha ignored me. "All in favor of making Barram the leader say aye."

"Aye!" Zeno said.

"Aye," Yoon said.

"...aye."

"And an aye for me as well." Jae-ha said. "Looks like you're the leader now. Congratulations."

I glared over my shoulder, ignoring the fact that they couldn't see me. "I'm going to lead all of you over the edge of a cliff."

Quest? What quest? Dragons who?

Zeno laughed. "Mercenary-shi keeps saying that."

A hand tugged at my robe. I glanced behind me; Shin-ah was barely a shape in the fog.

"A village." He pointed to the left. "No...fog."

I nudged his shoulder. "Good job."

I took a step forward - and it's only years of intcits that saved me from an arrow to the throat.

"What was that?" Yoon's voice was worried.

"Someone's shooting at us." I said.

Fine. If it was like that, I was going to level the playing field. I took my staff and swung it in one wide arc.

The mist blasted away like paper in a hurricane, revealing the people surrounding us. There were twenty of them, mostly young men. The air was thick with the sound of arrows being drawn.

Jae-ha, Shin-ah, and Zeno were unsurprised, but Yoon yelped.

...I forgot to tell him. Whoops.

"That's better." I said, dropping my end of the rope.

I looked up into the trees, meeting the wide eyes of one of the older archers. He was short and had a salt and pepper mustache. "Much easier to talk face to face. I hear you have a dragon."

Yoon punched me in the shoulder. "If you could do that the whole time, why didn't you?"

I shrugged. "I wanted to know what they wanted."

Yoon punches me again. "Then tell the rest of us that!"

"Ow." I said. "Abuse."

"This is private land, and you are unwelcome." The old man's voice was surprisingly deep. "Turn back or suffer the consequences."

Jae-ha leaned against my side, one arm around my neck. "I think they're threatening us."

Obviously.

I gave the old man an unimpressed look. "We need to speak to the white dragon."

The sound of bowstrings tightening filled the woods. I didn't need to look behind to know Zeno put Yoon behind his body. Jae-ha, Shin-ah and I could take out these people, but Yoon was only a doctor. He needed protection.

"We don't know of any dragon." The old man said. His voice is steady, but I see the way his eyes flicker to Jae-ha - no. To Jae-ha's hair.

"And I'm a delicate princess." I said flatly. "Don't bullshit me, old man. I know -"

"Someone is coming." Shin-ah said.

I glanced the direction he was looking. Not even a second later, a streak of white stepped through the trees. He's young, silver haired. Pale skin, pretty face.

A murmur runs through the crowd of archers like the wind through a field of grain.

"My lord, you can't be here." The old man glared at me. I scowled back at him. What, like this was my fault? "You know you can't leave the village. It's dangerous!"

The young man didn't even look at him. He glanced around, until caught sight of Jae-ha. His blue eyes went wide. "Rokuryuu." He said. "Ouryuu. Seiryuu. I felt you coming, but what…?"

Zeno laughed. "Hello, little brother! It's nice to finally meet you."

I don't hear anything that comes after that.

The noise started from the outside in.

It's like a mountain came to life, started speaking in my ears. Like the sea gained a voice. It sounds like the roar of some great beast and it shakes through me, so loud my bones vibrate, the inside of my skull became an echo.

Brother!

I clap my hands over my ears, but it doesn't help. It's coming from somewhere deeper, somewhere I can't reach. My bones echo with it. I tasted copper on my tongue, a mouthful of pennies.

How long did it last? Seconds? Years?

When the noise subsides, I'm realize I'm down on one knee, ears still covered. Blinked the water from my eyes.

I can hear someone speaking, muffled. Gingerly, I take my hands away from ears and looked them over. No blood. It felt like there should be blood.

"Barram? Barram, what's wrong?" Yoon's hands ran over my shoulder, looking for wounds. "Did you your shoulder open again? Did you do something stupid?"

"Is... are they alright?" The White dragon sounded pretty worried. "Is that normal? Are they hurt?"

"Shut up, I'm trying to focus." Yoon snapped at him. "Barram, tell me what happened."

"You..." I look up. They crowded around me, eyes worried. "You didn't hear that, did you."

Jae-ha blinked. "Heard what?"

My heart sank. "T-that - noise. It was fucking loud."

How could anyone not hear it?

Zeno glanced at the white dragon, his normal smile replaced by a thoughtful frown. "Zeno didn't hear anything. What did it sound like?"

I open my mouth - and shut it. Like being pushed under the river and never coming up for air. Like waking up. My ears were still ringing.

"A - roar." I said at last. It's the best way I can think of to describe it, pathetic as it is.

Everyone looked at each other.

"...I didn't hear anything." Jae-ha offered me a hand up. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"...Yeah." I took his hand and pulled myself up. "Yeah, I'm fine. Anyway, you're the white dragons, yeah?"

The boy frowned. I could almost see him drawing himself up. "I am. What of it? Who are you? What do you want with my brothers?" He looked me over and narrowed his eyes. "Are you a ruffian? My grandmother warned me about people like you."

"I believe so, my lord. They were very rude as well." The old man said.

"Who's the rude one -" I said.

"Really?" The white dragon glared at me. "How could you be so rude to an elder? I don't know what they teach you out there, but we respect our elders for their wisdom here. Hmph. How could a person like you gather the dragons? It must be for some sort of nefarious purpose."

He pointed at me, the white scales catching in the sunlight. "Thank you for your service, but we can't allow people like you inside our village. Outsiders are forbidden. Our gratitude will leave you with your lives." He looked at the other dragons. "My brothers, are of course, invited in for a feast. You must tell me why you have come this far to see me."

I stared at the brat flatly. It was obvious he'd completely dismissed me from his mind in the space of a few seconds. That's never happened to me before. Impressive. I've got at least a foot and fifty pounds on him. Where did his confidence come from? His dragon blood? His followers behind him?

"Baram, you can't kill him." Yoon said. "You'd get blood all over your clothes."

"Excuse me?" The white dragon squaked. "A normal human can't defeat me."

I rubbed my forehead, trying to ease the headache. My ears still rang with the echo of that noise. I sat down right there on the ground. I didn't want to get into a fight over this. "I'm not going to fight him. He's just a dumb kid. You guys can go. Me and Yoon can sleep out here."

Jae-ha put put his hand on his chin. "Hmm. Pass!"

The white dragon blinked. "W-what?"

Jae-ha flopped down next to me, throwing an arm over my shoulder. "I'm not interested in going anywhere without Barram. Sorry. I'm sure it's a lovely village."

The white dragon stared. "Green… dragon?"

Zeno crossed his arms. "Zeno will stay too! It's no fun away from Mercenary-shi."

A hand tugged at my shirt, and I looked up to find Shin-ah hovering over my shoulder.

"...Not going."

These kids…

I looked down so no one could see the way I blinked.

All of this so I can go home.

I was going to miss them. The thought of home dug in like fish hook into my heart, pulling me on without caring what I'd be leaving behind.

It was going to hurt.

I was used to pain. I could handle it.

That's what I told myself, anyway.

"Seiryuu, Ouryuu?" The white dragon's eyes are wide. "You agree?You stand for this - this thug?"

Yoon snorted.

"Oi." I said.

He looked at me and a laugh burst out. "Sorry, sorry. I didn't expect the white dragon to be so perceptive."

"Oi."

The white dragon looked over my shoulder, blue eyes flickering over the dragons. His mouth pursed. "...Very well. We will take you into our village. For now. We will be watching you, closely."

I sighed. "Whatever."


Heuk-chi welcomes the open gates of the fire country palace the air of someone offered a glass of water in the desert. Tae-jun, for all of his traveling still acted like a spoiled brat on long trips. He hated traveling. Heuk-chi was tired from just dealing with his whining, worn thin and about to snap.

It wasn't helped by the way the woman who joined acted like a ghost. She was diligent. Did laundry and cooking and ride horses without complaining. The few soldiers that bothered her were shut down by Heuk-chi - and he made a note to himself to get them transferred now that he was home.

Tae-jun didn't need to have those sorts of people by his side as a bad influence.

"My lord, welcome back." One of the older stewards bowed to Tae-jun. "Your brother is busy in the study with your father, but wished me to tell you that there will be a family dinner tonight."

Tae-jun waved his hand. "I won't be staying long. Our queen has given me a task and I must start right away. We only came back for supplies." He sounded reluctant though.

"Perhaps one night would be fine?" Heuk-chi whispered to Tae-jun. The soldiers were looking a little ragged. It wasn't a long trip, but Tae-jun pushed them hard.

Tae-jun shot him an irritated glance. "I said we leave now -"

"You're starting to smell." Heuk-chi said, looking up at the sky.

"Y-you can just be quiet!" Tae-jun spluttered. Then he paused and raised his own arm to sniff. "...One night!"

Heuk-chi bowed. "I'll get the servants to draw a bath."

"Do that."

What a moron.

Heuk-chi keeps the fond thought off his face. When Heuk-chi let the men know and a visible sigh ran through them. They dispersed to their various bunks, with the instructions to come back in two days.

Once Tae-jun got comfortable, there was no way he would go out in only one day. Heuk-chi made sure that everyone was situated. Starting with the strange woman.

"Settling in?" He asked.

She started and looked over her shoulder. She was carrying another basket full of dirty uniforms. The other servants had already put her to work it seems. Good.

If she was busy, that meant that Heuk-chi didn't have to keep an eye on her.

"Oh, yes. Thank you for asking, my lord Heuk-chi. I will be fine."

Heuk-chi studied her. She'd been... pleasant the whole trip, but something about her raised his hackles in a way he couldn't ignore. His gut was telling him that she was up to something. Not assassination. If she meant harm to Tae-jun or his family, he'd have killed her back at the palace, peace be damned.

"We'll be staying here for two days." He said, arms folded. "Then we'll be heading towards the same area your child is."

She smiled. "Thank you for letting me know, my lord."

"You don't want to head out on your own?"

"No, sir. it's been years. A day or two more will not hurt. I am eager, but I would prefer to make it there safely."

That was a good reason.

So why didn't Heuk-chi buy it?

He studied her until she began to fidget. Finally, he nodded. "I'll leave you to your work."

She bowed as well as she could with the basket in her hands. "Have a peaceful rest, sir."

He waved her off and walked about to his quarters, arms still folded. He mused on the place. It was good to be home, even if the air was dry and dust shifted with every step. it wasn't the servants. The dust was an ever present force that even Tae-jun's father couldn't blame on the servants. They did their best, but it just piled up everywhere.

It was nice to be out of the Sky tribe land. They were far too green for him to be comfortable with. Even the air was better in Fire tribe, dry and clean, instead of wet and humid. The sky was endless without a forest blocking it.

His rooms were tidy when he stepped into them. He glanced over everything - nothing seemed to be wrong. The servants knew better than to steal. Thieves were executed... messily, by the lord's command.

Heuk-chi shakes that memory away. If you get caught, it's your own fault. He was only a servant. How could he have opinions about the lord?

The bath is waiting for him, still steaming and he takes his time. It's been a week at least, and he feels like a walking dirt pile. He's never been shy about his love of comfort. He takes the better part of an hour to wash. He just stepped out of the bathroom when a loud clatter on the other side of the wall startled him. 

Tae-jun!

He reacted before he could think - sword hand, he burst out of his room and into Tae-jun's through the door connecting them, wearing only a towel around his waist.

Heart pounding, Heuk-chi scanned the room. Where was Tae-jun? The room looked fine, but -

There, a body clothed in dark blue. Heuk-chi was across the room in the space of a heart beat. He nearly skidded to a halt in front of his lord. "What happened?" He demanded, voice low. "Are you hurt?" Tae-jun looked far too pale. Heuk-chi couldn't see any blood, but that didn't mean anything. "Stand up. We're going to the doctors."

Tae-jun blinked up at him. He was kneeling on the floor, one hand on a low overturned table. That must've been the noise. His skin was so pale, he looked on the verge of painting. His eyes were glassy, shocked.

Tae-jun wasn't responding. His brown eyes stared through Heuk-chi like he wasn't even there. "He... My father said..."

Father?

"Did something happen to Lord Soo-jin?"

"No. No. I was... I went to say hello to father, and, and he was talking to someone. He said..." Tae-jun swallowed. "Heuk-chi, my father said that he's marching on the capital. On - on Her Majesty.."

Heuk-chi's heart sank out of sight. He dropped his sword from numb fingers and he stared at Tae-jun. He wasn't lying. He loved his father. For one second Heuk-chi wanted to close his eyes and ears and just - unhear this particular truth.

Lord Soo-jin would do it. His ambition was well known, his ruthlessness obvious.

"What do you want to do?" He asked. Heuk-chi was a servant. He would do as he was ordered.

"I don't... I don't know." Tae-jun whispered. His face crumpled and he covered his eyes "How could he want to hurt her? What do I do?"

Heuk-chi had no answer.

Chapter Text

The village itself was nothing like the ragged poverty of Shin-ah's, or the reeking fear pit of Port Awa, or even the bustling of the capital. The homes of the villagers were painted in cheerful shades of white and blue, colors that mimicked the white dragon's robe. Dragons were painted everywhere, sinuous forms with lovingly rendered scales. The white dragon was most popular, but all the dragons were represented. Zeno touched a wall depicting the four dragons together, a wistful look on his face. The red dragons representing King Hiryuu was red, like the dawn.

I paused to watch him. "We'll get there." I said, looking at King Hiryuu.  

It was the same color as Yona's hair. I smiled a bit -- and froze when the voices started up again. This time it wasn't a roar, but a whisper just outside the edge of my hearing, like listening to a low radio three rooms away.

Zeno laughed softly. "Yes. Zeno is looking forward to meeting her for real. I've been alone for a long time! I missed my king and my brothers."

"Yeah. Being alone sucks." I realized I was rubbing my shoulder and dropped my arm. I shook my head. The back of my neck prickled; I turned and found the white dragon looking at me with unreadable eyes. I raised my eyebrows at him. He sniffed like an offended cat and looked away.

The group followed his lead through the village. Villagers whispered among themselves at the sight of Zeno and Jae-ha's hair. Yoon stayed close to me, with Shin-ah sticking on my other side, like he wanted to hide behind me. He wasn't used to attention -- not the positive kind, anyway. I couldn't sense any malice from the villagers, so I ignored them.

The guards from the forest however -- They walked behind us, but I could feel their suspicious looks. Mostly aimed at me, which was unfair. The dragons were looked at with awe, and Yoon... I don't know. Maybe it's because he's young and pretty. I ignored them because I wasn't here to fight. Maybe it was something about the fog, but my scars were aching -- it seemed like I was more pain than skin at this point. I kept it off my face, because I didn't want to deal with Yoon mothering me in the middle of a village filled with potential enemies.

The white dragon stopped in front of a large building with a blue roof.  It was the biggest in the village -- an actual building compared to the simpler huts we passed to get here, set into the cliff side with a set of stairs leading up the doors. The doors were tall, enough that I wouldn't have to duck to get inside which was rare.

"Our elder will hear you out." The white dragon looked me in the eyes. "I can't promise more than that."

I raised an eyebrow. "Alright." Like I cared about the judgment of some elder? I didn't belong to this village.


...What would I do if he didn't come? My chest goes tight.

I was trying not to think about it.

"This should be interesting." Jae-ha said, hands behind his head.

The white dragon stopped him with one outstretched hand across his path like a bar. The scales glittered like water in the light. "Just her."

"What? Why?" Yoon demanded.

"She’s the one bringing the dragons, yes?"

"...Yeah? So?" Jae-ha didn't look happy.

"So she is the one who must be judged."

I tilted my head. "What the hell makes you think you get to judge me?"

He blinked. "I am the white dragon."

"...Okay?" What does that have to do with anything?

The white dragon frowned. "It is my divine right to protect this village and it's people until my master comes back. Until then, I am responsible for them."

...He's serious. That's the worst part of it.

"How old are you?" I asked.

The white dragon flushed. "I am nineteen years old!"

The way he said it, all injured dignity and offence, made him seem even younger. Nineteen and responsible for a village. Because of some fucking blood, because of scales on his hand? A shadow overlayed itself over him, blonde hair, blue eyes. Too much pressure.

God, this world made me tired.

I rubbed my eyes. "Okay. Fine, whatever. Village elder, let's go."

"A-are you alright?" The white dragon's question catches me off guard -- maybe that's why I tell him the truth.

I smile without humor. "No. Not really."

He bites his lip. "P-perhaps you can take one of the others. Just to be safe."

I look at him.

His blue eyes are deep pools, clear and clean. Goddammit. He's just a kid.

"...Alright. Zeno. You’re with me. Jae-ha, Shin-ah, protect Yoon." They’d get him out if it got down to it.

Jae-ha folded his arms. “We’ll be waiting.”

I met his eyes. Stubborn. I sighed, but my shoulders loosened on their own. “Fine. Do what you want.”

He dragged his eyes down my body, a smirk on his face. “Is that permission, my dear?”

Yoon hit him on the shoulder and the white dragon stared at him with wide eyes, slowly turning dark red. The villagers watching us from a dozen feet away started whispering. I recognized that pitch. It followed Jae-ha through villages like a bad smell. I rolled my eyes.

Damn flirt. “Fuck no. Zeno.”

Zeno smiled and moved to my side, close enough that his arm pressed into mine. It was weirdly grounding.

"Alright. After you." I said.




I looked over the room as the door shut behind us. The inside was one large hall with bare rafters and a tiny old woman sitting to the left of a dark blue floor rug, woven with a large white dragon. I was sensing a theme.  

The White dragon broke from our group and knelt on the slightly raised dais the rug was placed on. A large window showed nothing but blue sky behind the white dragon’s seat.

In front of the dais there were a few floor mats set out. The white dragon gestured to them with is clawed hand. "Sit. We will hear you out. Be warned that we will end you if you are a threat to this village." The White Dragon said.


I rolled my eyes inwardly. The lordly act would be more convincing if the tips of his ears weren't red. I said nothing and knelt in seiza, formally. I lived in two palaces, I could do manners. I just didn’t bother most of the time.

The white dragon blinked.

I was taller than him, so all the dais did was put on us on the same eye level.

Zeno knelt crossbreed on my left, sitting just behind me. I could see the way White Dragon's glanced to him for one moment, a flicker of confusion in his eyes.  

"White Dragon --" I paused. "Okay, do you have an actual name? Calling you White dragon all the time is going to be a pain in the ass."

The old woman and he white dragon both blinked.

"Oh. Um. Kija. My name is Kija." He said after a moment.


"Right. Okay, Kija, I don't know what you think I'm here for. I don't care what you think I'm here for. I need to get you to your master."


The old woman snorted. "You'll have to lie better than that, child. What on earth would someone like you gain from reuniting the dragons with their king? You are no priest, even I can tell that much and outsiders don’t help us without ulterior motives."

A priest? What did that have to do with anything?

"Considering I already have the rest of the dragons, I think you need to stop pretending you know literally anything about the situation." I snapped. "Also, I wasn't talking to you, was I old woman?" Old enough to protect a village, old enough to make his own damn decisions.

Kija bristled. "Don't speak to my grandmother that way!"

A soft touch startled me out of my irritation. I looked down at Zeno and blew a breath out of my nose.

What was wrong with me?


I felt stretched out, a instrument tightened to the point just before the strings snapped.  I was sick to death of this village already. Something about it set my teeth on edge -- maybe it was the way they worshiped gods I wanted nothing to do with.  The palace had images of the dragons all over the place, but it was different. Here -- the villagers believed. I could taste it in the air, the attention of something so much bigger than myself. It made my skin crawl.

I closed my eyes and took deeps breath. Inhale. Exhale.

Center myself on the thought of home, of stillness.

If voices whisper in my ears, I ignore it. It's nothing but the wind.

When I open my eyes, I feel colder, but more present.

"Apologies, White Dragon." My language comes out more formal than usual, the crisp formal language of the palace rather than the dirt-bred fisherman. "This is a pointless conversation. You aren't going to believe me. Fine. But I don't have time to stay here and argue with you. Tell me what you want."

He swallowed. "I want you to leave the dragons here. Humans can't be trusted with that amount of power. It corrupts them. Even King Hiryuu wasn't safe."

Reasonable.

But.

"No." My voice doesn't show any emotion, still polite.

The old woman narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean no?”

I turn to Zeno, who still hasn't spoken at all. “Do you want to stay here?”

Zeno smiled, hands tucked into his sleeve. “It’s a beautiful village, but Zeno loves his brothers. The little doctor and Mercenary-shi are Zeno’s friends.They’re both good people.”

“How can you trust them? Humans killed our king and scattered us.” The white dragon asked.

I looked at Zeno. Kija wasn’t wrong, and he didn’t even know that Zeno was the only yellow dragon to ever exist. How many people has he seen pass? How many dragons has he seen killed by their own blood?

Not every village was like the white dragon’s.

Zeno laughed softly. “They did. But King Hiryuu loved humans -- and Zeno does to. There’s stories to be told and food to eat and things to do. Zeno’s brothers are with him. The little doctor will keep them alive and cook for us, and Mercenary-shi will keep us safe. Life is too short to hold grudges.”

Kija bit his lip. “And… you believe that they will bring you to our master?”

 

I could hear the longing in his voice this time. He sounded so young, so small.

“Zeno does.”

“When the first white dragon was given his divine right, the gods tasked us with protecting his blood from any who would wish to use it, good or ill.” The old woman’s tone was grave.“Through ten generations, perhaps more, we have done this. The white dragon is our pride, just like his father before him. And you wish to just take him, away from us? The gods would withdraw their protection from us.”

 

The white dragon looked -- disappointed. He wanted to believe, that much was clear.

The gods?

My shoulder twinges. But maybe she's right. maybe you just have to be special, to warrant their protection.

Unfortunately, the rest of us have to live in the world.

"What about a messenger from them?"

I turned to look a Zeno, and so did the rest of the room.

He smiled at me. "Barram received a prophecy from a priest. They are to bring the dragons to their master."

The old woman gave me a skeptical look. "You, a messenger from the gods? You look more like a thug."

"Grandmother!" Kija sounded scandalized. "You can't just say that, it's rude!"

…like you didn’t say the same thing?

I rolled my eyes at Zeno. "I'm not a messenger or whatever. I just need to get the dragons to their master, and my work is done."


Zeno only smiled, hands behind his head. "If mercenary-shi says so."

He's up to something. I give him one last suspicious look before turning back to Kija and the old woman. "Are you coming or not?"

Kija looked down at his right hand. "Is... is my master really waiting for me?" His voice is soft; filled with something like longing.

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. "Yeah. She'll love you."

Yona would. She'd treat them like her best friends and fight with them and for them, and she would never, ever betray their trust.

The truth is: if the gods didn't want to send me home, I still would have gathered the dragons. They belong with Yona, and Yona needed them. Even if she didn't know it yet.

"You've met them? W-will you tell me about them?" Kija seemed painfully hopeful.

I blinked. none of the other dragon's had asked about that. "Sure. If you're coming with us."

"I am." He glanced at his grandmother. "I'm sorry, grandmother, but I have --"

The old woman poked him with her cain. "Don't you patronize me, boy. I know the way of things.

Of course you're going, make no mistake about it. Our king has first claim upon your loyalty. That is the right of it."

I looked at the far wall. No matter how harsh she was, she couldn't hide the tears glittering in her eyes. It was too much. Too close.

I was going home, but Grandmother would still be dead. Five years have passed, but I still... I still think about her. She's been dead longer than I knew her and it never stopped hurting.

"Grandmother..." Kija said. His voice was thick. "I promise to come back and introduce her. It won't be forever."

I stood up. This was too much like pouring salt in an open wound. "Good. We'll leave tomorrow, so... take the night to say your goodbyes. Zeno, you coming?"

The yellow dragon held out his hands like a little kid reaching for his parent. "I'm tired, mercenary-shi. Carry me!"

"Hah?" I scoffed. "No way. Do I look like a pack mule to you?"

"Nope! Barram is a thug!"

"Oh my god, shut up ."

Zeno laughed and took my offered hand, and I pulled him to his feet.

"I wonder what the pretty boy made for dinner?" Zeno mused.

"I saw him picking some strawberries on the way in." Wonder if I can get him to make some sort of sweet?

Kija stood. "There's no need for that. We are having a feast tonight, to celebrate the arrival of my brothers. You may join us for that."

Zeno and I exchanged a glance.

"Pass." I said. Parties were never my thing.  

“Zeno’s going!” He said.

The white dragon offered us a pretty smile. "Then I will see you there."

We made our way out of the house. I looked up at the sky.

Four dragons.

I've... got the four dragons. I did it.

...now what?

I have no idea. Do I just bring them to Yona and drop them off then walk into a river somewhere? I needed more information.

I can go home, but the thought held no happiness. It didn't feel real, like the scars on my hands felt wrong sometimes. Like I was hollowed out. I had the key to a chest that's been locked away so long, I wasn't sure it was real anymore.

The sky was clear. Full of stars in a way you don't see in my world They shine down, touching my skin like it's never been bloody or broken, and it reminds me of what I'm leaving. The things I’ll miss. The smell of incense and food. Darkness so absolute felt alone in it, even with Zeno standing by my side. The dragons. Yoon. Yona. Hak.

...Soo-won.


I shook my head. Too early to celebrate now. "Still a long way to go yet." I said. "Come on. Let's go save the village girls from Jae-ha. Or save him from them."

Zeno laughed, and hooked his arm around mine. "Lead the way, Mercenary-shi."

Like the white dragon promised, there is a feast. It lasts most of the night, with the dragons and Yoon as the guests of honor. I don't speak to any of the villagers and they leave me alone for the most part. A few of them bow to me like I'm someone important. Two little girls elbow each other in the sides for before approaching. They throw something into my lap and run away before I can do more than blink.

I stare after them, eyebrows raised. Looking down -- it was a garland of flowers. Sweet peas, daffodils and white roses.

What?

Zeno laughed. "Looks like Mercenary-shi is really a messenger of the gods now."

I throw the flowers at him, and he catches them with another laugh, turns and winds them around his arms.

"Messenger of god?" Jae-ha asked. "What exactly went on in there?"

I roll my eyes. "Eat your food."


 

The village’s goodbye to Kija in the morning is tearful, but I'm not awake enough to appreciate it. The voices whispered in my ears all night, distracting me from sleep with every new word spoken. It felt like hearing a language I've forgotten, and I could learn it again if I only listened hard enough.  My heart beats in double time. I stare into the distance and I can feel my hands opening and closing on my staff. Feeling the grooves under my fingers.

The voices roll over me like a wave.

Inhale. Exhale.

I stop waking, and the rest of the group turns to look at me.

“We need to head back to fire country.” I said.

“Really? Is my - our master there?” Kija asked.

“No. I need to speak with the priest.” I said. The voices murmur agreement in the back of my head, and I ignore them. Ik-soo would know what to do.

He had to.

Yoon brightened. "Ik-soo? Really? That’s good. I wanted to check up on his anyway.”

“Why do we not just go to king Hiryuu?” Kija demanded. “It’s been too long already.”

Jae-ha rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a brat, Kija. Waiting never hurt anyone."

“Don’t call me a brat!” Kija said, offended.

I gave Jae-ha a discreet thumbs up for distracting Kija from the topic.

 

-



The fire crackled. For once the group was quiet, finishing up the last of Yoon's meal. Some sort of venison with a sweet taste and fresh salad picked in the mountains. I took  out my carving knife and Shin-ah settled by my side for our nightly lesson.

I looked at him sitting next to me, quiet and attentive. He looked up and I realized I was staring into the distance,  listening to the murmurs again. "Sorry. Got lost in thought." I lied.
He tilted his head.

"Nothing important."  I looked down at the carvings on my staff. It was slowly growing more complicated as I regained my skill. The movements came easier. The night smelled sweet, the wind bring the heavy scent of rain. We'd have to watch out for that. Hopeful we'd be in town before it hit, but if we weren't, then I'd need to set up a shelter of some sort.

Kija sits down next to me, drawing me out of my thoughts. "Will you... what is my master like? I know you probably told the others, but I want to know. You said you’d tell me." His voice is wistful. Longing.

"I haven't told them anything." I leaned forward to stir the fire. It was starting to get colder.  

Kija blinked. "What?"

I shrugged. "You're the only one who's asked."

The White dragon looked over at Jae-ha. "Really?"

Jae-ha shrugged. "I don't care about any 'master'. Barram was interesting so I tagged along." He blew me a kiss. "Darling was just too magnetic."

I roll my eyes. "Flirt."

"Only for you, my dear."

Guess those villagers hanging off him were my imagination. Maybe they were ghosts. Mystery girls. Expecting Jae-ha not to flirt was like expecting a fish not to swim. He was harmless, and it was all for fun in  the end.

"But - but surely you want to meet our master? After so long waiting, how could you not?" Kija's eyes flick down to his wrist. "I've wanted to meet them my whole life. My whole life. Will they need me? Will they want me? Will I be worthy?"

Worthy?

I leaned over to Kija and put a hand on his shoulder so he looked up, into my eyes. "Kija, you don't need to be worthy of anything. Okay? I already said it before. She'll love you."

And Yona would. She'd be charmed by Kija's manners, blush at Jae-he's flirting, laugh with Zeno, love Shin-ah like a little brother.

Kija swallowed. "How do you know?"

Because she did once. If I never came, Yona would be here in my place. Kija hadn't changed.

I give him half a smile. "I know."

Kija swallowed. "Tell me about her. Please."

I hesitated, let go of his shoulder. How do I describe her to someone who's never met her? Never seen the flame burning, not in her hair, but in her eyes; the way her mouth smiled more than it frowned? How proud I was of the woman she was becoming?

The look on her face when her father died.

"Kind." I said at last. I could feel the other dragons and Yoon listening. "Selfish. Proud. A little naive. But kind most of all."

The night after grandmother died, I remember her small hands on my face. Tears and hiccuping sobs. Yona loved like she did everything else: with her full effort. Her eyes filled up with tears for a scarred, grieving stranger.

My chest ached.  What a queen she must make.

I wish I was there to see it.

"Her name is Yona." I tell Kija, and her name feels too heavy for me to hold inside any longer.

It hurts to say it -- but less than I expect.

"She's going to love you." I said. "All of you."

And that's the truth.


 

I was right about the rain. The cloudy sky gave with a crack of thunder and rain crashed down us in a torrent.

I expected Yoon to be upset about the rain, like he usually was, but he only seemed surprised. Instead Kija seemed to be the one bitching about it the most.

"It doesn't rain in Fire Tribe country." He said. "The ground is parched. With this, the farmers might actually get a decent harvest. People are starving." Yoon's mouth turns down. "The old king didn't care. Maybe his daughter will be better."

I say nothing.

"We do the best we can." Yoon flipped up his hood. "But even King Hiryuu didn't start with nothing."

I looked towards the west. Towards the palace.

Yellow hair and a hand on my back. My side feels empty, strangely lopsided without Mercy on my hip.

None of my business anymore.

The road was deserted in the rain. Zeno was splashing through puddles, getting himself and anyone standing too close soaking wet. Kija was looking around with interest. He didn't get out of his village much, and his reactions to the traveling we’ve done was funny.

Jae-ha was walking next to me with his arms folded. "So. What will you be doing after this, my dear? Go back to being a merc? Or perhaps a pirate?"

"I'm not joining your crew, Jae-ha." After this, you won't see me again. Hopefully.

"You're a pirate?" Kija demanded. "I'm traveling with a criminal?"

“Oh yes,” Jae-ha said. “One of the worst.”

...I almost, almost tell him what I'm responsible for. Just to see the look on his face.

A hand tugged at my shirt sleeves and I looked down into Shin-ah's masked face. He was looking down the road.

"Soldiers." He said.

Of course.


I tapped my knuckles gently on his head. "Thanks."  Then I pulled up my scarf and wrapped it around my face, tucking the ends in. I haven't seen any wanted posters out, but that didn't mean they weren't looking for me.

Soo-won was subtle, when he wanted to be.

Jae-ha watched me with a smile tucked into the corner of his mouth. "One day, you'll have to tell me your full story. It sounds so very interesting."

I flipped him off and he laughed.

"Wait, why are you hiding your face?" Kija asked. "Are -- are you a criminal as well?"

He sounded so scandalized. I shrugged. "A bit."

"What on earth did you do ?"

Trusted the word of a prince.

"Don't worry about it."

"No, see that is the opposite of what I will be doing now---"  

The sound of horses hooves

I elbowed him to shut him up. "Not in front of the soldiers." I said under my breath.

"What soldier -- oh."

Yeah. Oh.  

I fell to the back of the group and bowed my head, as if to keep the rian off my face. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the hooves get closer and closer. The rest of them didn't have any reason to be stopped, but we all look a little --

The horses hooves ground to a stop. "Halt! What is your business here?"

--suspicious. I sighed inwardly.

Jae-ha waved lazily at the guard who stopped us.  "Morning. Can we help you gentlemen?"

He was a plain looking man in his early thirties with dark hair under his helmet. The rain came down in sheets off his cloak and he looked just as wet and miserable as the rest of his crowd. It was a group of twenty soldiers. He didn't dismount, just looked down at Jae-ha with suspicious eyes.

I frowned behind the scarf. When Yoon and I left fire country the first time we went weeks without seeing a single two-man patrol. What happened to change that?

"What is your business in Fire Tribe?" The guard asked.

Yoon stepped out. "I'm in town visiting my uncle. They agreed to escort me back home."

The guards looked over the group. Even the rain cloaks couldn't hide the sheer weirdness of the group -- Jae-ha's green hair, Zeno's wide grin, Shin-ah's mask and fur, and

my height and covered face.

"...Are you performers of some kind?"

Jae-ha laughed. "That's right!"

Zeno pulled out a trio of colorful bean bags and began juggling. "We were going to put on a show in the next village we could find, but the rain came down! No one wants to stand out in the rain and watch someone perform."

"That must be tough." The guard said, sympathy in his voice. "What do you all do?"

"I play the music," Jae-ha said.

"I don't see any instruments."

"Bandits." Jae-ha shrugged. "Our friend in the mask does a wonderful swords-dance, Zeno juggles and tumbles, and Kija," He gestured to the white dragon. "Is a dancer."

Kija sputtlers. "I most certainly am -- ow!"

Jae-ha smiled even brighter, as if he hadn't just elbowed Kija in the gut. "He's shy."

"Right." The guard looked at me. "And you?"

Yoon shrugged. "Protection."

The guard narrowed his eyes. "A merc?"

"Bandits are a problem." Jae-ha looked over his shoulder at me. "They're not talkative but they can fight."

"I see." The guard looked at me too. "Well, if you ever feel like making any extra coin, come up to the castle. We always have openings for soldiers available. You might be out of work soon enough."


I blinked. What, all of the bandits were going to be gone?

"Has something happened?" Yoon asked. "I've never seen this much of a procession of soldiers for anything less than a border attack."

The soldier glanced over his shoulder. then back to Yoon's curious, pretty, face and coughed. "Technically, I'm not supposed to tell anyone this but --  "The new queen, may she live forever, ordered my lord to take care of the bandits in this area."

"Really?" Yoon sounded surprised. He leaned forward into the older man's personal space. 'That's wonderful news!"

The soldier scratched his head, but I can make out the red blush even with the rain coming down so hard. "That it is. If you have any info, make sure to drop off a tip at the manor or a guard out post."

Yoon smiled, fully aware that it was flustering the man. He was a self proclaimed pretty boy -- of course he knew what he was doing. "I'll be sure to do that."

A flicker of movement caught my eye. A white horse pushed out of the crowd of soldiers. A dark haired, stocky man with dark hair caught up under his hood. "What's the hold up?"

I dropped my eyes, heart in my throat.


Shit.

Heuk-chi's eyes passed over the group and I felt them like physical thing. He knew me. Tae-jun often returned to the palace during the social season just to bother Yona. He and I were passingly familiar. I've even sparred with him a few times.

My shoulders shrunk in on themselves.


Don't look at me. Don't look at me. Don't look at me.


I was too tired to fight right now.

"Captain!" I watched the guard salute out of the corner of my eye. "It's nothing, sir. Just a traveling entertainment group."

Heuk-chi turned his bland eye over the group. My heart was a war drum in my chest. My hands clenched on the staff. My mouth was dry.

The rain seemed louder. His eyes passed over me.

He paused -- and turned back to the guard. "Hurry up. No one wants to be out in this weather."

The man saluted. "Yes sir!" He looked at Yoon with softer eyes. "Better get to the village. This sort of rain can make you sick."

Yoon agreed.

The man mounted his horse and the guards took off into the rain, the sound of the rain muffling the sound of horses hooves. I don't look up, but I can see them out of the corner of my eyes.

A head of brown hair in the middle of the soldiers formation. Tae-jun's awful gaudy taste hadn't changed. His cloak was a vivid red burn against the grey and black of the armor around him. The hood on the cloak was up but I caught a glimpse of his face.

Tae-jun looked... tired. Dark circles underlined his eye, and his skin was sallow. The normal smug smile was nowhere to be seen.

I ducked my head again, frown on my face. Did something happen in the palace?


 

 




Chapter Text

"This is miserable weather for a journey." Soo-won said quietly, watching An Lili and Yona compare two dresses that looked nearly identical. They seemed very serious, and normally the sight of Yona returning to her old, cheerful self would be welcome. "I don't like this."

Thunder cracked outside with his last word, a rolling sound Soo-won could feel in his bones. It was noon, but you couldn't tell by looking outside. Dark clouds blotted out the sky and the sun chocked before it ever touched the ground.

Hak continued sharpening the tip of his spear, not looking up. He was sitting on the window sill. "Well. You know how it is. Once her majesty makes up her mind, there's no changing it."

Soo-won sighed. "Surely you can speak with her?"

He lowers the spear and gives Soo-won a flat look. "If she's not listening to you, she'd not listening to anyone."

Soo-won blinked. "What do you mean?"

Hak sighed and went back to his spear. "Never met someone so smart and so dumb at the same time."

Soo-won's thoughts are interrupted by Yona and An Lili finally deciding on a dress, Yona passed the dress to her servant and dusted off her hands. "Alright! I think that's everything. Hak, we're ready!"

"Finally." Hak got to his feet, a move that reminded Soo-won of a beast of some kind. Lazy and sated, but always ready to fight once more. "You sure took your time."

Yona stuck her tongue out at him. "You don't have to come. An Lili's people can protect me just fine, mister Thunder Beast."

"They'd get sick of you three days in and feed you to the wolves." Hak said cheerfully.

"Pfft. I'm a delight." Yona smiled at Soo-won. "Right?"

"That you are." Soo-won smiled at her, hands clasped behind his back. "Must you go, cousin? It's a long way to the water tribe."

Yona sighed. "Again? Soo-won, I can't stay in the palace forever." She looked overher shoulder, too the large window overlooking the city, grey and dull as it was. "I can't be ignorant of the way my people live."

She could. King Il never stepped foot out of the palace, not in Soo-won's memory.

But… that wasn't the kind of Queen Yona was. He glanced at Yona, who was adjusting to the unfamiliar wight of the traveling pack on her back. Slung next to it was an unassuming bow, plain but well made.

It looked strange next to Yona's red hair, and Soo-won exhaled. He never wanted this for her. To put her in danger… He planned around it.

I could go. Soo-won wanted to say, the same way he'd had for the past two weeks leading up to this trip. He doesn't. It's the same old argument, and he knows that she's right. Yona wasn't a little girl anymore.

Yona was a queen.

Hak shook his head. "Quit talking like you never snuck out of the palace, my lord. You were running around like an idiot the second you could walk." Hak sent him a grin. "Drove everyone crazy trying to find you."

Startled, Soo-won smiled. "Well, I had places to be."

"As do I." Yona said. Her smile was bright - if it wavered around the edges, neither Soo-won or Hak said anything. She wouldn't welcome them pointing out her fear.

(None of them mentioned who he went out to see. The name pressed down on Soo-won's shoulders anyway.

Jeong, where are you now?)

Soo-won frowned at Yona and Hak. "I don't like this."

"I know." Yona said. Her red hair was covered by a plain green cloak. The rain was coming down hard on the outside, like a thousand fists hammering against the windows and doors, trying to get in. Yona and Hak were dressed in in subdued clothes. Nothing could be done about Yona's hair, but the two of them wanted to go without fanfare to the Water Tribe and they dressed the part.

Soo-won brushed stray thread off her shoulder and tried to summon up as smile for Yona. It was harder than he remembered. "Going out of the palace -"

"-Isn't safe. I know, Soo-won." She took his hands and smiled up at him, and Soo-won's heart clenched. Her cloak hood was too big, and the image of ten year old Yona overlayed itself on the present. "Someone has to go. You know that."

He did. The source of the drug had to be found and stopped before it spilled over the water tribe borders. The country wasn't strong enough yet to hold up against something like that. It had to be taken care of.

But why did she have to go?

The last time Yona stepped out of the palace she was seven years old and Soo-won almost lost her forever. He turned around to find her gone, and the frantic singing fear in his heart. He still feels it now, like a bell that never stopped ringing from somewhere deep within.

He loved her. Of course he did.

Yona was the only family he had left.

"I could go." Soo-won said, before he could stop himself.

Yona gave him an exasperated look. "No matter how many times we have this argument, my answer hasn't changed. You know more about palace administration than I do. You can do the ruling stuff alone. I can't. Not yet, anyway. Soo-won, you need to stay and keep things running." She looked out into the rain, back straight, eyes clear. "I have to know. I have to learn."

Soo-won bowed his head, hands folded into his sleeves. Everyday Yona surprised him more and more. He never once thought, in all the years of plotting, that she would end up becoming the young woman standing before him with burning hair, and eyes lit from within. He feared she would break with King Il's death.

Instead, like a tree with the shading branches cut away, she bloomed upward. Reaching for the sun.

He was grateful that he got to see her like this. That he didn't have to do this alone.

And Yona wouldn't be alone either.

Soo-won summoned up a smile and looked up to Hak. He pulled his oldest friend in for and short hug. "Keep her safe. Keep yourself safe." He pulled back. "I don't know what I'd do without either of you."

Soo-won looked down at his friend. he'd been thoughtful, the past few days. His dark eyes looked somewhere far away and Soo-won couldn't say what he was seeing.

Hak met Soo-won's eyes dead on. The lighting from the storm lights him up for a brief moment, turned someone so familiar into a stranger. Soo-won can't see anything but those eyes, looking at him. Open, trusting Hak's expression is lost to shadows.

Soo-won's skin crawls, but he only smiles. If he can't see Hak's expression, it wasn't negative. If he can't breathe, it's only the heaviness of the rain.

"Move on." Hak said after a beat, a familiar smirk killing the stranger. "Conquer the world."

Yona laughed. "Soo-won could do it anyway. He doesn't need us for that."

It takes everything he has not to flinch. Yona must be working on her aim, because that comment hit home. Not because it was cruel - but because it was true.

He - he didn't need them. Soo-won spent his life ensuring that he never needed anyone. He would let both of them die if it saved the country. 

The thought tastes rotten. He'll never forgive himself for it. Soo-won's back felt cold, empty, like something that should be there wasn't. He pushed the feeling away with a tiny shake of his head. He didn't have the right to regret what was already done. The past is dead. Only the future remains.

The thought doesn't show on his face. He smiled at both of them. "Alright. Safe journeys. Come back as soon as you can."

"I don't know, I think I could use a vacation. I heard Water tribe has some nice beaches and pretty women." Hak said, arms behind his head.

Yona scoffed, and the queen vanished into a haughty fifteen year old. "What do you need a vacation for? You don't do any work!"

"Dealing with you takes some serious skill."

"Why you -"

Soo-won walked with them, watched them bicker their way out of the palace gates, out to where Lili and her guards were waiting impatiently.

As one they both turned and waved.

"Bye, Soo-won!" Yona called back.

"Don't let the palace burn down while we're gone!"

Soo-won raised a hand in reply. The second he couldn't see them - his smile dropped. He turned back to the palace, face neutral.

There were far too many holes in the budget to be normal. Someone was covering for the drug trafficking.

(Soo-won sees Hak's face, quiet and watching. He knows Hak is smart, whatever some people say. Soo-won can't afford him getting suspicious.

Someone has been speaking of things they shouldn't.)

Soo-won had cleaning to do.


Yona's heart beat in her chest. The rain comes down in sheets and she's glad of it. The thick cloak hides her shaking hands. Despite her words to Soo-won, she's terrified. The last time Yona went out of the palace - it's blurry. She remembers the stiff burlap against her skin, the smell of something sweet that sunk into her bones, pulled her down into sleep. She takes another step in the present and her younger self's terror threatens to take over.

Yona takes another shaky breath and forces herself to look up. The gates were in front of them. In a few steps more she would be the furthest away from the palace she'd ever been.

She was strong enough.

She has to be.

Something bumped into her from behind and Yona nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked over her shoulder, up into Hak's face - but he wasn't looking at her. He stared straight ahead, not saying anything. Just standing next to her.

Something inside Yona settled.

Hak was right behind her, watching her back.

Lili, riding on horseback a few feet ahead of them motioned for the guards to open the gate. Yona and Hak, posing as her lady's maid and Hak as a bodyguard did not rate a second glance.

Yona found Hak's familiar, calloused hand and squeezed it briefly. Thank you.

The gates opened. Rain poured down, turning the trees into green smudges, the road to mud.

Yona took a deep breath and walked through. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the air seemed clearer out of the city walls. The roads were clear; no one sane wanted to be out in this weather.

Lili's haughty attitude dropped and she dismounted her horse; she fell back into step with Yona. "Remind me why we have to go in secret?"

Yona smiled at her. Lili was prickly but funny. It was nice to have a girl her own age around, for once. "I don't want to give the culprits advanced warning."

She sighed. "I don't know why you personally had to come." She held out her hand before Yona could protest. "I don't know why, but I am grateful. A true noblewoman must always acknowledge her debts, and I am in yours." She bowed, her hair falling over her shoulders. Rain dripped down the ends, despite her servants best efforts at keeping her dry. "Thank you, your majesty."

The tips of Yona's ears felt hot and she hurried to push Lili back into standing position. "There's no need for that." Yona smiled. "I will do everything I can to help you. Okay?"

Lili blinked. "Um. Of course, your majesty."

"You can call me Yona." Yona squeezed Lili's hands one more time; Lili's skin felt cool, like water on a fall day. Then Yona adjusted her hood. "I think we're friends by now."

Lili stumbled forward a little, her eyes still wide on Yona's. "Yes your maj- Yona. Thank you."

Yona laughed. "What are you thanking me for?"

Lili's pretty face went red. "F-fine! We can take turns riding the horse. I don't want you to walk all the way."

Shaking her head, Yona declined. "That's alright, Lili. I can't ride a horse."

"...You really were sheltered. My father is strict, but he never stopped me from riding."

Yona blushed a bit. Lili was so blunt sometimes. "I am not sheltered."

Lili reached out to hold Yona's hand again. Yona let her, a tickly feeling in her stomach, like she'd swallowed a bird. She'd never really had a friend her own age - besides Hak, but he didn't count. He was just Hak.

"I can show you how to ride." Lili said. "It's not that hard."

Yona hesitated, looking over the horse. It's a huge beast, with a white mane, tail and coat. The hooves alone are the size of Yona's face. She squared her shoulders and gave a decisive nod. Yona had to make this trip successfully and if that meant riding a horse, she'd do it. "Alright. Please show me."

"Really?" An Lili didn't look convinced, but never mind that. She held the reigns of the horse in one hand, took Yona's hand in the other. "If you can't do it, there's no shame in walking. It'll just take a little longer."

"Really." Confident as she wanted to sound, Yona can't help but look over her shoulder, back at the palace - only to find Hak walking behind her and Lili, watching them with a deadpan look on his face. Yona bristled on automatic. That look only meant trouble and teasing.

"What?" Yona asked.

Hak watched for a moment longer. "Nothing. I just didn't expect to have girls in the competition too."

Yona blinked. "What competition?"

But Hak refused to say. "Nothing. An airhead queen like you won't be able to understand it."

Rude! Yona's apprehension fell away like the miles underneath her feet. Lili was as good as her word and Yona learned how to do some basic riding. Every time she fell, she wanted to quit. The rain didn't stop and she got muddier and dirtier with every day - but Yona got up each time and went back. She didn't want to give up on things anymore.

The roads remained clear of people, if in terrible repair. The dirt roads turned to mud and the few paved roads were in poor repair - cracked stones nearly too dangerous to take the horse across. Yona didn't want the poor thing to break a leg. The horse was a patient animal, tolerant of Yona's mistakes. It be a poor way to repay him.

Her hands went tight on the reins at the sight of yet another broken cobble road. Yona would have to work out a plan to pay for the new ones. No wonder trade was slow. How could she expect any merchant to take a caravan through this mess? The bubbling irritation took her by surprise.

How could her father be so blind?

Every mile solidified Yona's decision to travel. Her father never left the palace except to visit the other tribe heads. Yona - Yona can't live like that. A queen can't be kept in her has to live. She has to live outside, because that's where the people are. The land and the people. Yona has to know.

She has know what her father failed to do; just how deep the wounds from his pacifism and ideals ran.

It was bitter work. No child should have to count their father's sins.

The tally was growing too high for Yona to exscuse.


They were a mere day away from the water tribe capitol, rain still pouring, when Hak's head snapped around. "Down!" Hak snapped.

Yona dropped to her knees without thinking.

The arrow tore through the air where her head was and thunked into a tree across the way. Yona stared at the bright yellow fletching.

If she was a second slower -

Hak's shadow fell over her like a blanket and Yona realized she was shaking. It takes her two tries to talk. Her mouth feels dry, despite the rain. "Hak?"

He didn't look at her. "Bandits."

Yona followed his gaze, down the road. Dark shapes were emerging out of the rain, one, two, five, ten - at least thirty of them.

They were surrounded.

Yona pulled closer to Hak, still on her knees. Lili's two female guards came out of wherever they went when Lili wanted to seem alone, standing in front of Lili. Yona's breath came out in short bursts.

One bandit stepped out of the pack.

"Hand over your valuables and the girls and we'll let you live." The man was huge, and broad. His voice sounded bored like this was just routine to him.

Hak smirked. "And if I don't?"

The man gestured behind him. "Then you die."

"We'll see about that!" Hak launched himself at the man, no more words exchanged. Steel clashed and sparks flew. The mud made moving harder than it should be. Hak was slow, and hissed when the bandit drew a blade across his upper left arm.

Die.

Hak could... die?

Yona's heart slowed in her chest. It was like she stepped back from the fear, the mud, the bandit and his glinting sword. Looked at herself. The only thing she can hear is the rain, hitting the ground, one thousand drums playing out inside her head.

Hak was smiling, if you could call his barred teeth a smile.

The bow was in Yona's hand. It didn't matter how it got there.

She knocked the bow back. Thirty people against the second strongest person she knows. One creeping up behind him. Lili's guards are around her, fending off their group.

Yona looks down the arrow. Pulls back on the string. The creak of wood seemed so loud.

The bandit lunges for Hak's blindspot and he whirled - too slow.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The sound of rain in her head.

Yona lets go.

The bandit chokes around the arrow in his throat. Hits the ground.

Hak looked over his shoulder. Yona met his eyes, still on her knees in the mud. Blinked once.

One down. Twenty nine to go.

Hak laughed and threw himself back into the fight. He moved like a demon, like a beast, like lighting, he timed the death of his enemies to peals of thunder, like some obscene parody of a dance.

Yona knocked and released, knocked and released and worked around him; as if they worked together a thousand times.

No matter how loud the rain in her head was, she still wasn't skilled enough. She missed more often than she hit... but she hit enough.

It was over as fast as it bandits with sense turned tail and ran when their leader fell under hak's spear. Under Yona's arrows. It was barely a fight; for all of the bandit's height, he was no match for Hak, trained by Jeong and Mundock.

Hak turned to her, and said something. Yona can't hear him over the rain and her ears are filled with static deeper than the rain. The calm melted away, ran like blood from the bandits throats.

Yona falls back to her knees, first one, then the other. Her arms ached. Her hands shook.

She can still see the first bandit's eyes go dark.

Yona killed him.

Her stomach roils - but she doesn't even feel bad, or anything other than nauseous. It was him or Hak.

Yona wants her father. Yona wants Soo-won.

Yona wants to turn back time, bring Jeong here, to this moment. Jeong would know how to make things right.

"Hey. Anyone in there?" A sharp rap on her head brings Yona out of her head.

She looked up to find Hak crouching in front on her, leaning on his spear. Blood dripped down the shaft, none of it his. Red, like her hair. Yona tears her eyes away, looking up at his face; she can't read his expression. His eyes are dark. Strange.

It scares her. Like the Hak she knows is gone, and she's all alone. Yona reaches out and finds fabric under her finger tips.

He's real.

He's here.

As long as that's true, Yona will survive. Even if he's strange, even if she has to kill again. She gave a shaky exhale. Looked up. Smiled at Hak's blank eyes. "I'm fine." She said.

It might be the worst lie she's ever told. Her voice and hands shake, but Hak only takes her hands in his.

"...Mm." The ice melted out of Hak's eyes, and he gives her a rare, sincere smile. "You did good."

The words rang in Yona's head like a gong. She felt her eyes burn, her face crumple. Yona choked on a cry and curled into Hak's chest. It wasn't sadness for the blood on her hands, or remorse, and she still felt numb. The bandit had a choice and he made it.

...She regretted that she couldn't be her father's daughter. She was sorry that she wasn't sorry, Part of her was screaming - the part of her that never left that room where her father's blood glittered on the floor like spilled lamp oil.

Footprints through blood.

I'm sorry father, Yona thinks through the static and the rain and her heartbeat. I'm sorry I can't be that girl anymore.

Cradled in Hak's arms, Yona wept - not for the men she killed, but for the princess that she was.


Hak waited for Yona to cry herself out. Exhausted, the princess fell into an uneasy sleep. The past week was rough on her; sleeping outside, the rough weather, learning how to deal with things like a normal person. He can't lie to himself - he loves her most like this, covered with mud, red hair a mess. Yona was most beautiful when she struggled, when she stopped being a queen and started being a person.

Footsteps camp up behind. Hak glanced up, into Lili's dark eyes. Her girls watched Hak like he was a rabid beast.

She nudged one of the bandits with her foot. "That's quite the smile, Lord Thunder beast."

Hak touched his face and found his mouth curled up. "I can't help it. Battle does that to a person."

"Hmm. I rather doubt that is what has you smiling so." She glanced at Yona's sleeping face and something in her softened. "Her first kills?"

"She's learning." He said. Six months ago, she couldn't even hold a bow. Now her callous catch on the fabric of his cloak, rough enough to draw the bow without faltering. Hak carefully shifts her into his arms, but she doesn't stir. He can feel her heart, slow and steady. Red hair stuck to her face in ragged strands. Her clothes are covered in mud and less pleasant things, and soaking wet.

She's beautiful.

He loved the princess, but Hak finds he loved the person even more.

Hak stood, Yona in his arms. He could feel Lili's eyes on them, but so long as she wasn't a threat, Hak didn't care if she stared.

"She's quite something." An Lili said. 

Ha. Hak recognized that note in her voice; the seed of hopeless admiration planting it's roots. She was already gone - it's too late. Hell if Hak was going to just give her over to some noble girl though. Soo-won was one thing, but he wouldn't lose to anyone else. They could pry her from his dead hands.

He bared his teeth at Lili in a parody of a smile. "Sure is."

An Lili and Hak study each other in the flashes of lighting. Rain continued to pour down.

Finally, An Lili snorts. "Let's get going. I am sick of being wet."

That, Hak could agree to.


 

Chapter Text

Shin-ah tugged at my sleeve. "...house."

Shin-ah developed a habit of standing beside me over the weeks he's been with us; probably because Jae-ha, Kija and Yoon's dsire to play a game of 'Steal the Mask'. When Shin-ah pulled on my robes I didn't elbow him in the temple, though it was hard. I was already used to having him or Yoon or Zeno hanging off me like a jungle gym. The dragons were very… touch oriented.

Truthfully, it was familiar in a way that ached. In Xing, the princess and her cousins often played with me - though they played war rather than house. In the palace, Soo-won and Hak always came up with the strangest games that normally ended up with me having to literally drag them out of physical danger. Yona, spoiled brat that she was, treated all of her guards they were there to pick her up whenever she wanted.

I've spent most of my life around children, teenagers. It's easy to adjust to looking out for this group.

"Really? We must be close." I said.

Jae-ha slung an arm around my shoulders. "You didn't know already? I thought you came from this area."

"I've only been here once." I shrugged. "I don't remember much."

Most of the memory was blurred, colored with the taste of iron and a ache somewhere Yoon couldn't reach.

I rubbed my right shoulder. It was mostly healed, but the scar was still tender. The closer we got to the hut, the more it ached. I dropped to the back of the group, every step like pulling through mud. I couldn't help it. The hanging trees shed their leaves. The sound of water rushing. I clenched my hands. Phantom water closed above my head; all I can see are Hak's eyes, his reaching hand.

The past always lies just below the surface, waiting for me to look back.

I shook my head, push through the cold water around me, mind spiraling outward, further on and up.

The only thing that matters is the future, and the people around me right now.

"...Barram?" Shin-ah's voice brought me fully out of my head.

I shake my head again, and give him a smile. "I'm fine. Just thinking."

He moved closer after a moment, nearly stepping on my feet a couple times, like a puppy that was cute, but underfoot. The rest of the group moved ahead of us, but I couldn't without stepping on Shin-ah, he was standing so close. I let him cling. It cost me nothing, and the group got along better when everyone was happy.

"What happened?" Yoon's voice split the air.

I took off running before I could fully process it, Shin-ah one half-step behind me. The two of us fell out of sight, but I could see the hut just behind the hill. The dragons were standing in it, backs tense.

I shoved through them and burst through the open doorway, staff at the ready. The place was a mess - food scattered on the floor, tables overturned, shards of pottery all over the ground.

Ik-soo was lying in the middle of the floor, cradled in Yoon's arms. He was breathing, and his eyes fluttered open. "Y-yoon?"

Did Soo-won find me again? I glance over my shoulder, grip tight - before reason kicked it. No, this wasn't his style. He wouldn't hurt one of his own citizens just to come after me - that would be wasteful.

Yoon looked like he was one step back from tears. "Ik-soo what happened?"

The priest blinked again. Then he sat up and threw his arms around Yoon's neck. "Yoon! It's been so long - I'm starving!"

...That was not the attitude of someone who's just been attacked. I sighed and eased my staff back to the ground. I had a feeling this would be stupid.

It was.

"Are we sure that he's a priest?" Kija murmerd under his breath. "No disrespect meant, of course, but he seems... rather flighty."

Like Kija never walked off cliffs because he wasn't paying attention. It's not like he can't see them - it's more like they just don't register for him.

I snorted and leaned on my staff, watching Ik-soo cower under the threat of Yoon. The rain stopped sometime in the last hour, and sunlight glitters overhead. We'd moved outside - Ik-soo's hut was too small for seven people to fit comfortably.

"He's the real deal." I said.

A roar drowned out his reply and I winced. The voices were worse, louder, around Ik-soo then all of the dragons combined. Impossible to ignore - but I still couldn't understand what they said. The tone was easy to figure out.

It reminded me of - Hak, looking at Yona. Yona, beaming up at her father. Grandmother's hand on my shoulder.

Whatever those voices were, they loved Ik-soo.

"How do you know?" Kija pressed.

I remembered the day after I woke up for the first time. The burn of tears and salt and failure heavy on my tongue.

Ik-soo's hands clasped in prayer and the way the hair on the back of my neck rose. How heavy his words became, not in tone, but in feel. He spoke and nailed me back down to earth.

"I can tell." I said. "Speaking of which, you should go help Yoon with dinner." I walked up to the bickering pair and snagged Ik-soo by his worn collar. "Borrowing him. You can yell after lunch."

Yoon scowled at me, but I didn't give him time to protest. I dragged Ik-soo out of the cottage yard, a ways down the canyon to where the water was loudest.

Ik-soo dropped where I let him go, flat on his back, staring at the sun. His mouth curled up in a fond smile. "You've taken good care of Yoon. Thank you."

I shrugged, and my shoulders feel tight. I sat down next to him, legs crossed and my staff resting over them. "I owe him."

Ik-soo turned his head just slightly. "Yes. But that's not why you did it. You're a kind person at heart, Barram."

The water rushes. If anyone else said it, I would have punched them, but ... Yoon wasn't the only one I owed. He may have saved my body, but Ik-soo saved my mind. Without a goal, I would have crumbled. Broke.

I watched the shadow of fish darting here and there under the surface. "I'm not kind." I said.

Kindness would have left Yoon behind, no matter what he thought. Letting Yoon become so attached to me when all I wanted to do was leave wasn't kind.

Ik-soo hummed; low-note, high-note. Not an agreement. Just a sign that he was listening.

I sighed and drew a knee up to my chest. My eyes felt heavy. The last of the cicadas cried from the trees. "I gathered the dragons. What now?"

He didn't say anything and the moment stretched.

A whisper, so soft it could have been wind. It wasn't. I could feel the weight of it in my bones. My fingertips dug into the soft dust of the earth. The voices rose again, and I tilted my head, listening despite myself. It was faint, but I could just make out a - impression of some sort.

Intent. Movement.

Go.

I... frowned. Go? Go where?

"Barram?"

I looked over at Ik-soo.

His eyes were hidden by his hair. "Is something wrong?"

I paused. How do you say I'm hearing voices and one of them just told me to go somewhere without sounding insane? I shook my head. "I'm fine."

"Barram." Ik-soo sat up, all of his usual awkwardness gone. In its place there was a stillness, like a frozen mountain lake.

The voice whispered again, more instant this time.

Go.

I flich back, but Ik-soo jerks forward.

"You heard that." His voice was faint. His head tips forward.

"Oh." He said, like the air was punched out of his lungs. "Oh. You can hear them."

"I don't know what you're talking about." It's futile. He's not listening anymore.

Ik-soo looks to the sky, and the light washes over his dirty face like a caress. "Thank you." He whispered. I know he's not talking to me. "Thank you for this chance. I thought I was the only one left." The wind blew, a sudden gust that moved the hair out of his eyes and my stomach dropped.

The smell of ozone hung in the air. The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

"Ik-soo." I snapped again. "What the fuck is going on?"

He looked at me, and his eyes were clear. "You hear the voice of the heavens. Barram, you're a priest. Like me."

My stomach dropped out of my body. "No."

"Yes. Haven't you always felt it?" He leaned closer and I fight against the urge to move back, like he was a viper. "Sometimes it's like being whispered to by a voice. Or a pair of eyes on you, something glimpsed at the corner of your eye?"

Iopen my mouth - but I can't refute it. I can't . The words 'You're insane' refuse to fall off my tongue, my throat constricts on a denial. Dreams fliker through my head - Jia in the resplendent room. The strange, not human person after I fell into the river.

Ozone in the air, and it was like remembering a book I read a long, long time ago.

It was the sound of a voice speaking from a mountain top, the soft roll of thunder, swimming underwater during a thunderstorm. The feeling of eyes after I spoke to the gods by Grandmother's grave, on behalf of the only woman who treated me like family and never betrayed me.

I felt - I felt something watching me. Something big, something not human.

"I think," Ik-soo said softly. "If you belonged to this world, you would've been a priest. They love us, because we hear them. They knows us. From birth to death, I will never be alone. So long as I have faith. So long as I have breath. The gods hear you. We priests can sense -" he falters. "... could sense each other. Even the yellow dragon has an echo around him, from before he became a dragon. I thought it was just your origin, but if you are like me..."

Something invisible brushed past my cheek. Ik-soo's hair stirred like something ruffled it, and I could hear a soft voice. It was singing.

They love us?

Precious one. The voice crooned, something warm curling around my body. It felt like pure sunshine

I stood, hands going to tuck into the long sleeves I no longer had. Restless energy like something running a currant through my blood. I can't keep the incredulous smile off my face. "They love you. Me? Who cares if I can hear them? It's not like they heard me."

Ten years. War after battle, grief after loss, pain after prayer.

"I begged." I said, softly. "I was alone, and I begged."

They had no right.

Ik-soo flinched. His hair fell back into his face, hiding his terrible, clear eyes. "Barram..."

"No. They don't... they don't get to change their minds now. They don't get to break their word now that I'm almost done." I leaned in, ignoring the roar building in the back of my head. "I don't care. Okay? Priest or no priest, I'm no believer. They can take their blessings and shove it up their asses. The very last thing I want to do is speak to them. I'll fulfill the bargain, and then I'm going home."

One month of hearing things didn't compare to ten years of being forgotten. I was so close. If I had to tear through heaven and kill the gods to get the power to return home, I would.

...Understanding.

I ignored the voice of god in the back of my head, keeping my eyes on Ik-soo.

He looked down at his hands. "...I understand. I - I know it's to late. My apologies Barram. I got overwhelmed. I have been alone for a long, long time."

Grief brushed over my arms, so deep my eyes prickled. Child. Loss. Grief, grief. Mourning. Ours, our child, alone.

I grit my teeth against the feelings.

There used to be more priests.

I took a deep breath and shoved the anger aside. None of this was his someone from my world fell into my lap after all this time, I wouldn't let them leave. Ik-soo deserved better, deserved more.

"I know. I'm sorry." I said.

And I was. Not for the gods; never for that. But for Ik-soo, who was kind, who saved me without asking anything in return. I was sorry that the only option he had was me. He deserved some sweet apprentice with wide eyes and devotion to match his own. Not me, a scarred mess of bloodstains and secrets, someone who was leaving and hated his gods.

"But you're still going." He said.

The gods and I were both silent.

Ik-soo nodded, unsurprised. He stood up and took my hands in his own. They were calloused with a life of hard work, but so warm. So gentle. "You are kind, Barram. Never doubt that."

I said nothing.

He gave me a smile, sad and longing. "I must pray."


Staying around the priest sent prickles up and down my spine. The voices were louder, more insistent. The whispered promise of love in them was enough to make my teeth grit.

I've been alone so long.

But it wasn't enough to make me forget what they did, and what they didn't.

There was a boiling cauldron of rage in the back of my mind, a beating heart of 'how dare they, how dare they'. I waited, practiced my breathing meditation until I felt like a person again. Only then did I return back to the house. The dragons didn't give me more than a glance, so I guess I did a good enough job.

Jae-ha tilted his head at me, studying, when I joined them at the cottage.

I shook my head and flexed my hands; trying to lose some of the tension. Shin-ah and Kija and Yoon didn't need to know what my problems were.

It was stupid. Shin-ah was alone and abused his whole life. Yoon was a doctor, who came from a life of poverty. Kija told us some of the traditions on the way, enough to know he didn't have it easy either. it was stupid, but even knowing, there was a part of me that looked at them and thought: just a kid.

You don't hurt kids.

Blood, tacky on my boy had no limbs, no eyes, no *skin - he was mindless with pain. Medicine wouldn't save him. Not in this era.

I raised my knife, but some part of me was praying that I wouldn't have to -

And the gods ignored me. Rage, red and hot, surged inside me. I took another deep breath.

It didn't help.

I swallowed back bile. "What's up with the boxes?" I asked.

There was a small wheelbarrow sitting in the middle of the small path going through Yoon's herb garden, filled to the brim with wrapped parcels. The sharp smell of medicine floated through the air. I recognized it by now, with how much Yoon's used on me. Under the medicine there was the smell of grain, and vegetables.

Yoon ducked out of the house, put another few packages on the wagon and darted back inside.

Jae-ha shrugged. "I have no idea. Yoon just started loading up after we got all of the mess cleaned up." The green dragon tilted his head to the side, an unspoken invitation to sit beside him. "You look tired. Did the priest want something?'

I blinked. "No. It wasn't anything like that. I just needed to talk to him."

"That's not a face you make for nothing, Barram.'

The declaration stopped me in my tracks. I glanced back over my shoulder, and met his eyes. The normal flirting was gone, replaced by something deeper. Something truer. I never know what to do when he looks like this - something older, full of loss and fear and compassion burns in him.

"It's fine. I'm fine." I said at last.

He blinked once, slowly. Then looked away with a sigh. "More secrets? You never seem to run out of them, my dear."

If only he knew.

"I'll see if he needs any help." I said, ignoring his words. I walked away, trying not to run.

He let me go in silence, but I could hear the roaring of some great beast from far away.

I grit my teeth.


"Need help?" I asked Yoon.

"Oh, you're back." Yoon looked up from setting a package down. I glanced around, but Ik-soo was nowhere to be seen.

A knot in my chest loosened at that. I didn't want to see him right now - none of this was his fault, but that didn't make it easier.

Yoon threw a bundle of fabric at my head, and I snatched it out of the air before it hit me in the face.

I gave him a look.

"If you lose that one, I'm not making you another."

"Another what -oh." I unrolled the bundle.

It was an overcoat, done in a red that reminded me of expensive wine. The red faded to deep black on the bottom. It was long - long enough that it'd reach mid thigh on me. The fabric was soft. Good quality, but durable. Gold geometric designs were stitched into the sleeves and around the hems. The sleeves were wide

"You made this?" I asked. It looked professional.

There was a belt to go with it. The outside was done up with patterns that reminded me of waves around the bottom, white and gold. Birds of some kind emerged from the sea on the back, also in white and gold. It was beautiful, extremely well done.

I slipped it on. it fit perfectly, unlike all the other overcoats that always fell a little short, and not broad enough in the sleeves or shoulders. I have a lot of muscles.

Sleeves fell down to my fingertips , and I folded my arms into the sleeves.

"It's beautiful." I said, honestly. "Thank you, Yoon."

He sniffed again and looked away, but that didn't hide the way his ears turned red. "I don't need to take care of you getting sick as well as injured. Speaking of, try not to get stabbed while wearing it. It took me a long time to fine enough fabric to fit someone your size. Freak."

I reached out and ruffled his hair. "It's good work."

He froze for a moment; I nearly took my hand back, but then he leaned in, just a bit. "You're welcome." He said.

We stood there for a moment, until Zeno's voice broke through.

"Oh, are we hugging now? Zeno wants a turn!"

Yoon pushed away from me. "I have work to do." He said, but it didn't cover the red tint to his face.

I gave him an amused smile. Couldn't let anyone see him breaking his devil may care attitude.

He scowled and went back too inspecting the boxes.

Zeno walked up and stood next to me. "The pretty doctor is so adorable."

"A good kid." I looked down at the overcoat. It was warm.

I was going to miss him.


The supplies turned out to be something for the surrounding villages. With him gone, no one's been handing out medicines and food.

Yoon looked down at the last bundle of food still in his hands. "It's the only thing I can do. The land grows worse and worse and there are fewer people to till it every year. The draft never seems to end. Every single able bodied man gets pulled into the army, and most of them don't come back. I worked hard to stay under their radar." He brushed a bit of dirt off the package. "I go into the army, and I suddenly have to put more importance on the *nobles. As if their lives are worth more than anyone else's."

"Yeah." I said, finally. "I get it."

The attitudes of the nobility took me years to break out of.

King Bai was noble. Royal traced from beyond the founding of his own kingdom.

HIs blood was just as red as mine.

Yoon looked up, surprised. "Everyone always thinks I'm strange. I don't... I don't understand how they can think that way. Why fight?"

Pride. Power.

Because they can.

"Nobles are told from birth that they're better than commoners. More intelligent, more poised, more worthy. It... most of them would be better off never stepping foot into a palace." I looked up at the sky. Soo-won's favorite pastime was networking. What sort of noble haven't I met before? "All that money, all that power, it does something to their minds."

Even Yona. Even Soo-won. Trained to their duties from birth. That sort of pressure would crush anyone.

"Have you met nobles before?" Yoon asked.

I smiled and looked down. "A few."

"...were you a noble?"

Such suspicion. "No. Not even a little bit." If anything, I was treated as a curiosity in both palaces. Eyes followed me wherever I went. They were more curious than hostile, but the memory of it still itched.

Yoon scowled at me. "Hmph. Whatever. You can help me pull this into town. Heavy lifting is everything you fighting types know anyway."

I smiled. "Manual labor too good for you?"

"Of course it is! If anything happened to my hands, who would patch you idiots up when you get poked full of holes."

True. I picked up the handle with on hand and follow Yoon out of the little valley where his cottage was. It was an uphill journey, but walking with only Yoon was easy. He darted off the path every so often picking flowers and weeds, all edible. I know a few things about plants, but Yoon was the expert in the long run. I kept to the path, pulling the cart.

The dragons were vetoed by Yoon on a account of being "way too flashy." I was over six feet tall, but my hair was plain brown and my scars could be hidden by a scarf. There's no way to hide Kija''s left hand or Shin-ah's... everything. Jae-ha needed to keep the other two in line, and Zeno wanted to stay behind anyway.

We made it to the first village easy. Once the village children caught wind of the cart, we were swarmed by younger children. I looked over them. Not one boy over the age of twelve, though there were a few girls.

Yoon wasn't kidding. Without the younger people to work the field, the village would starve. Not enough time, food, or money to buy what they needed.

Tae-jun's father was a poor ruler. I've meet him a few times, on festival days when he stayed in the capital. He always looked like he was sucking on a lemon. He never payed attention to me - and why would he? I was just a hired thug. Useful but not very smart.

Nobles like him were a dime a dozen.

I looked over the village again. The houses were little more than mud huts with thatch roofs.

An older man in his sixties pushed through the crowd of children. His back was bent with hard work and his wrinkles spoke of hard times. For all that, he smiled and bowed to Yoon. "Doctor. We ain't seen you in an age. Something happen?"

Yoon smiled back. "I'm sorry. I was traveling. It was too sudden to send a message out."

The man ducked his head, and I raised an eyebrow at the tint of red to his ears. "No worries, doctor. We know you got things to do. We get by, even if your help is welcomed."

"I know. I brought over the extras from the harvest, and replacement medicines."

The man sighed. "You are far too good for us doctor. I hesitate to ask..."

"What is it?"

"My wife - she's fell ill nearly a month ago and still ain't got better. She won't' listen to a damn thing I say - pardon my language, doctor - and keeps getting out of bed too work. If you tell her she needs rest, she might listen."

Yoon sighed. "I doubt it, but I'll take a look after we pass out the food."

The man let out a relieved sigh. "Thank you kindly, doctor."


Things crumble. It starts with the slow thunderous sound of horses hooves on the horizon. The undercurrent of metal on metal, the smell of old blood. I looked up from the little boy showing me how to tie a particular knot.

"Go find your mother." I said, eyes on the horizon. I tilt my head and listen. The gods whisper, but I ignore them.

Ten horses. Maybe fifteen.

The ground rumbles.

They're not slowing down.

Only one road leads into the village, which is settled in between two sheer cliff faces. No one here to help defend. I settled myself in it, hands loose but steady on my staff. "Tell her to let Yoon know he'll have more work soon."

A pause and then sound of little feet running down the path fast as they could go. Just in time. The first of the bandits apeered at the edge of the mouth leading into the village.

I exhaled. My head cleared out - what priest, what village?

There was only me and them.

I was off in my count. Twenty. A large band, all of them bearing down on the village. Ten or so on horses.

The leader of the pack spotted me and drew his sword with a cleanshink. Good metal.

I waited until the very last moment, my staff held horizontialy in front of me.

Inhale. Exhale. The horse ate distance, twenty feet, fifteen, ten. At five feet, I struck. I shove up with my staff, following the line of it with my body.

Crack! I felt bone break when my staff found the bandit's rib-cage, the force of his own momentum ripping him from his seat. The man dropped and the horse continued on, riderless. I wasn't worried about that. It'd follow the path out of the village.

The other bandits didn't have the same instinct.

I settled back into place. Let them come.

Even now I hear the gods whispering to me.

I bared my teeth.

I've been killing bandits nearly as long as I've been in this world. It's easy to fall into routine in fights. I stole weapons, I kicked sensitive parts, I ripped through ears and noses, anything unprotected within reach. My hands are covered in blood.

The last bandit standing choked on bubbling spit and blood. His calloused hands clawed weakly at the sword through his stomach. I tugged it out and pulled it across his throat. Better a quick death than living through the agony of a gut wound.

The ground was so wet with blood it shined. I looked down at myself. Also covered in blood. I pick hold the soaked thing further away from my skin. Yoon wouldn't be happy. At least it was red and black. It wouldn't show stains as easy.

Now.

Why didn't any of the bandits retreat?

A few of them were already injured. This one with a few broken teeth. That one who limped and died to a stole knife.

The sound of distant thunder answered my questions. I looked up.

The soldiers stared at me.

"Gods and spirits." Someone whispered.

"A demon!"

"Killed all of them -"

Hmm. It's been a long time since anyone called me a demon.

Can't say I missed it.

A figure broke through the motionless ranks of soldiers to the front. "What exactly is the reason we're standing around? We have bandits to catch - oh." Tae-jun, in a pristine white and blue cloak swayed on his horse. The blood seeped ever closer to his horse's hooves. "...That's disgusting." He said.

"Well. That's that problem solved." Heuk-chi said. He was standing behind Tae-jun, holding the reigns of his horse in one hand. "What about the other one?"

Tae-jun went a little green around the edges. "What other problem?"

Heuki-chi gestured at me with his chin. "The one who killed all of them."

Tae-jun looked at me for the first time. All the color drained out of his face. "...Jeong?"

I blinked. The smell of blood grew stronger with every heartbeat. I couldn't quite make sense of this situation. A part of me looked at this spoiled noble and couldn't connect him with the twenty five men I'd slaughtered.

I reached up. Touched my bare face.

Ah.

Shit.


Crouched at the top of the canyon, overlooking the field of blood on surrounding the village, a figure in a dark blue dress watched.

"...Jeong?" They murmured. The veil across their face fluttered in the wind; scars peaked out. They leaned forward as if straining against something large and invisible. Then they sat back down on their heels.

A small, mirthless smile crossed their face, behind the veil - and then it broke. They buried their face in their hands, shoulders coming up around their ears. "Why couldn't you stay hidden? Why did you have to fight?" They asked, voice muffled.

With on last glance over their shoulder, the figure turned and vanished into the brush. Fa had news to report.

They were loyal.


next chapter: yoon learns some stuff

Chapter Text

I stared at Tae-jun and the blood draining from his face. Heuk-chi inches in front of him like one wrong move will startle me into attacking.

I might. I felt like the ground was shaking around me, like the blood of the bandits was crawling up my body; leaving a disk of dry earth around my feet. It's only an illusion. I'm standing in a sea of blood - blood thatspilled. The part of my head that treated the world like a mirror reflected the red and I heard my heart, slow and steady.

Calm. Clear. Dead men littler the ground and I feel nothing.

Maybe Heuk-chi's not wrong to protect his lord. I should put down the soldiers. Tae-jun was no obstacle, and neither was Heuk-chi. From the way his mouth tightens when our eyes meet, he knows it.

I could take care of this problem.

It'd be easy.

"Barram? What the hell happened?"

Yoon.

The cold receded slightly and I felt my spine relax. It was like dropping a boulder I didn't know I was carrying. I risked one look over my shoulder.

The doctor had an armful of supplies, and he picked his way over the bodies. "Did bandits attack?" He stopped at my side and frowned. He shifted the bundle of supplies and whacked me in the shoulder. Of course Yoon wasn't afraid. He's seen me butcher countless bandits over the months. He didn't like it, but Yoon was also a product of his time. He understood. "You got blood all over yourself already! I just gave that to you - oh."

Yoon's eyes narrow when he spots the soldiers. "Did - did they chase these bandits towards the village?"

"Looks like." It was easier to ignore the itching sensation crawling up my arms with Yoon there to distract me.

The first time I killed a man, I was fifteen. I remember the blur of it, the smell of copper, the reek of fear. I don't remember moments, but feelings, impressions - except for one moment in the chaos. I stood at the top of a small hill, the river screaming at my back. The man, just an enemy soldier, spear raised. My arms went up, and - I cut his throat. I don't remember his face, but his eyes were brown. I remember the light falling with his body.

I remember how little I felt. Maybe I was broken, even back then.

He was dead. I wasn't.

Time moved on. The first Jeong picked me up out of the battle and I lived.

Most of me forgot - except in moments like this, when I looked at Tae-jun and Heuk-chi and thought: I could kill you. That voice belonged to the part of me that never left that moment; that part of me lived there, watching that man fall.

In my memory, he never hit the ground.

Tae-jun swallowed. "...We did?"

Yoon snorted. "Typical nobles. Never thinking about the people you trample under your feet, so long as results happen."

I see Tae-jun bristle. "The queen ordered us to -"

"As if I care. If you want to make a difference, change the tax system. Until then, the only thing you're doing is pulling out the symptoms - not treating the cause. The people are starving. We are starving." He shook his head. "I don't know why I bother. Nothing ever changes. Barram, bend down and let me look at you. How are you so freaking tall?"

"Long time, no see Tae-jun. Heuk-chi." My voice stayed even.

He flinched.

Tae-jun's mouth opened and closed. His eyes were wide. How many people, I wondered, ever told him the truth?

I said nothing. I bent to let Yoon examine me, but kept my eyes on the group of shifting soldiers. They were standing uncertainly behind Tae-jun. A few of them glanced at the lord furtively when Yoon spoke. None of them looked like they disagreed.

Tae-jun blinked. Blinked again. "Y-you - you, how dare you lecture me! You're just a commoner. Do you even know who you're talking to?" All of his fear slid away as he grabbed at the indignation with both hands. He gestured at the soldiers behind him. "Arrest him!"

The soldiers shifted. One of them stepped forward.

"That would be a mistake." I said, mildly. My voice was hoarse, as if I hadn't spoken in weeks. Like I'd been screaming.

Yoon glanced at me, eyes narrowed.

The soldier and Tae-jun both froze and I met his wide eyes. Expressions flickered over his face, faster than I could read; he was pale as milk.

Heuk-chi's mouth tightened. "Jeong. You look... well."

My mouth quirks up. Heuk-chi was one of those people I wanted to like on instinct. Our sense of humour matched up well. I snorted. "Yeah. Not much has changed."

"Jeong?" Yoon asked. "Who's Jeong? Barram, Do you know them?"

Yoon's hands paused for a split second. I looked down at him for the first time. Yoon looked up at me, a little confused. His hands, still checking me over, were gentle.

"Hah!" Tae-jun pointed at Yoon triumphantly. "You can't lecture me. You don't even know who you're standing next to!"

Yoon turned his head away like ignoring a buzzing mosquito. "The bugs sure are loud today."

"Stop calling me a bug! I am a lord!"

I sighed; A headache was forming behind my eyes. Tae-jun was funny in small doses, but any longer was pure annoyance. It was one reason I didn't mind playing keep away with Yona.

Yoon and Tae-jun continued to argue in the way of two teenagers. I looked away, rubbing my chest. The scene was familiar, even if the words were different.

I… missed them.

"I'm not the one who's sheltering a criminal!" Tae-jun yelled.

Yoon paused. "A... criminal?"

"Of course! Everyone knows that Jeong killed king Il."

Crack!

Everyone jumped at the loud noise and looked at me.

I dropped the now broken staff to the bloodied ground. Sometimes I don't know my own strength.

Every time we went into town I looked for wanted posters, guards. People who looked for me. I never found them.

It was easy to forget. Easy to pretend that night never happened.

"Barram?" Yoon's voice. Shaky. "Killed..."

I closed my eyes. Say nothing.

Soon, I'd be gone. The anger burning at Soo-won was barely embers. It wasn't forgiveness. It was just... exhaustion. I wasn't good at being angry. It drained me too much. If any anger remained, it was at myself. I knew what he was like, how far he was willing to go. Soo-won was a prince and he hated his uncle.

If Yona and Hak knew, it'd break their hearts.

Better it be me who betrayed them, rather then Yona's family betrayed her.

It's easy. All I have to say is… nothing.

The silence dragged out into its own answer.

Yoon let out a shaky breath. "So what?"

The breath gets punched out of me.

Tae-jun faltered. "W-what?"

Yoon turned to glare at him. "So. What? Why do I care about some royal dying, however they did it?"

"He was - he was the king."

"And that makes it worth crying about? Blood doesn't mean you're a competent ruler. You." Yoon pointed at Tae-jun like Yoon was the spoiled noble. "Follow me. I'm going to show you what exactly your father has done to this place."

Tae-jun got swept up into hurricane Yoon. There wasn't anyone who could save him now. I watched Yoon drag Tae-jun away and my chest is tight. I know Yoon will want to know more later, but his unwavering support...

The guards glance at Heuk-chi, obviously not sure what to do about it. He hesitated, but after giving me an unreadable glance, waved them away.

I looked at Heuk-chi. "Not going after him?" I asked.

Heuk-chi. "Keeping my eye on the danger."

Meaning me?

I smiled. "You always were a smart one. Drink?" I said.

He considered that. "Please."

Yeah. It's been that kind of day.


Jeong was exactly the same. Maybe a little quieter, a little more reserved - but also relaxed, in a strange way. Heuk-chi didn't know why that surprised him. Anyone with eyes knew Jeong didn't like palace politics.

They passed the cup to him and Heuk-chi took it. No reason to hesitate.

They watched him take a deep drink with half a smile on their face. "Not afraid of being poisoned?"

Heuk-chi wiped his mouth. Weak sake, but this village was starving. He wasn't going to be picky. "If you were going to kill me you'd wouldn't draw it out."

That got a low laugh. "True."

Heuk-chi had confidence in his skills, but he was a realist at heart. He wasn't even a match for General Hak. How could he beat Jeong, who won against the general three times out of five? No one knew anything about their past, but Heuk-chi knew what a soldier looked like. Jeong was… different.

They might be younger than him by a few years, but it always felt... humbling to sit beside them. Even for someone as hard to impress like Heuk-chi, Jeong was something else. They survived more battles than Heuk-chi'd ever seen and showed in their every move. No wasted movement, even when Jeong was just pouring out out a measure of sake.

The two of them drank in quiet for a while. The sounds of villagers filled the air when they crept out of their homes after the danger passed. Heuk-chi watched a mother and child, both emancipated to the point of skin and bones look suspiciously at him.

Jeong is ignored.

Interesting.

"They don't know." He said. Who Jeong was. What they'd done.

Even the kid Jeong allowed in their personal space without so much as a flinch.

Jeong's shrugged. "No. I don't go broadcasting it."

Heuk-chi supposed that made sense. Being known as a regicide two times over did no one any favors. He took another sip of sake, but Jeong's cup remained untouched - that habit hadn't changed.

Heuk-chi and Jeong were never close, but they it wasn't odd to find them sitting together watching Tae-jun face off against the royal children and General Hak. Tae-jun always lost those fights, to no one's surprise.

"Why did you do it?" Hauk-chi asked, at last.

Jeong smiled, and it pulled oddly at the scars on their face - and there wasn't any mirth in it.

It didn't make sense. Jeong was the bodyguard of the second in line for the throne. Everyone who lived in the castle for three seconds knew how much Soo-won respected and trusted them. The thunder beast considered Jeong a sibling. The king often invited Jeong in for tea. Yona was often found just playing with Jeong's hair while they sat in the gardens.

Jeong loved those kids.

Was it all an act?

Heuk-chi didn't think so.

They doted on the royals, spent most of their time being pulled around like a toy, all of it with tolerant good humor. The whole situation sat in Heuk-chi's throat like a pit he couldn't swallow.

Heuk-chi preferred the simple life. Difficult things were best left to the people who were bred to them. Let the empress govern, let the lord's go about their business. All Heuk-chi had to do was keep Tae-jun safe (from his own stupidity, mostly.).

But.

Prince Soo-won said Jeong was drunk. Jeong... didn't drink.

Then why not say so? Why not say they were innocent? Heuk-chi didn't know anything about the Xing emperor's death, but King Il? No way. The one who benefited from the death of the king the most... Someone Jeong would be willing to take the blame for.

Heuk-chi stopped his thoughts right there. It wasn't his business. All he had to do was serve.

(Thank all the dragon gods that Tae-jun was an idiot. Stabbing someone in the back was beyond him.)

Jeong's wide mouth is flat and blank. The memory unsettles Heuk-chi, something about it subtly wrong in a way he can't quite place. They might be more relaxed here, but there was something off about them. Their face was too blank.

Heuk-chi blinked.

Jeong was always smiling, back at the palace. Heuk-chi never saw them outside of the company of the royal children, but maybe that was why. They always smiled around the kids, a lopsided, easy going, slightly scary thing. (No amount of cheer was going to counter Jeong's scars.)

The Jeong sitting next to him was - off. Older. Quieter and sadder and their smiles were small, sarcastic things.

There was a man in Heuk-chi's home village, an old soldier. He had one eye and one hand and no one waiting for him at home. He smiled and told stories to anyone who'd listen. Babysat children, including a younger Heuk-chi.

The old man died. He got slower, stranger. Looked over the word himself, instead of reacting to it. People... forgot about him more and more often, and he seemed fine with that. Expected it.

Jeong reminded him of the old man the last time Heuk-chi saw him. Sitting by himself on a bench in front of his home, remaining hand clutching a walking stick. He looked over the crowd, but Heuk-chi knew he wasn't the village. He was looking, wistful, at something much further away. A foreign land.

The old man died the next week.

All the adults sighed, but none of them seemed surprised. It was his time, they said.

Jeong looked like their time was coming - and they were waiting for it. Patiently.

Their eyes, even while looking at Heuk-chi, saw something so much further away. A place he couldn't even imagine, reflected in the eyes of a giant.

Heuk-chi shook his head, trying to get rid of the feeling of something crawling up his spine. Jeong was strong. Very, very, very strong. They carried a little bit of strangeness with them, something that went beyond the mere physical strangeness of a foreigner. Maybe there was a reason for that.

Perhaps Jeong wasn't a human at all.

Would it matter?

Heuk-chi took a sip of his sake. Thinks about the way Jeong smiled at the palace, the way they let the little doctor clean their face, tired and so very gentle.

Not really. Not in any way that mattered. Jeong was a good person, regardless of being a person at all.


They drank together for half an hour, until Tae-jun staggered back looking haggard and drained; a very unimpressed looking Yoon followed behind him.

Heuk-chi looked him over, but found no wounds. He looked the same as always, if a little more frazzled. He stopped in front of Jeong - and froze. It was almost comical. Jeong was sitting on the ground, but they still had all of the power, and everyone knew it.

"You gonna turn me in now?" Jeong said. Heuk-chi tensed.

Tae-jun swallowed. "N - no."

Jeong blinked. Heuk-chi followed. No?

Tae-jun face was pale. Of course - he'd always been scared of Jeong.

Except - this didn't look like fear. His spine stayed straight, his hands stayed still, even as they clenched on his cloak.

Jeong tilted their head. "Why?"

Tae-jun flinched, but he didn't back away. "I... need you to know something. About my father."

Oh.

Huek-chi's sake cup dropped from numb fingers. He's staring, and he can't stop. Even when Jeong looks at him and back at Tae-jun.

That's a neat solution Heuk-chi hadn't even considered.

His brown hair is dirty. Somewhere in the village, Tae-jun's gained a few smudges of dirt on his face. The bottom of his cloak is coated in blood and mud. He looked the same as this morning, except for his eyes. Gone was the hesitation. Gone was the boy.

His eyes were so clear.

Heuk-chi swallowed. It felt like he was seeing a glimpse of the future. Tae-jun as he could be, not as he was.

Jeong sat up straighter. Their scarred face is calm. "I'm listening."

Tae-jun shifted. "My father…" He closed his eyes. Swallowed. "Two days ago, I returned home to the manner and… I went to go see him. I always do. I didn't… I wish I hadn't. They were in the study. My father and his advisor were talking." His shoulders slumped. "My father is planning a coup."

The look on his face planted the seed of rage inside Heuk-chi.

A coup. Lord Name was arrogant. The blood of king Hiryuu belonged to the fire tribe, but so what? Did he think about failure? What would happen to his sons? What would happen to Tae-jun?

Heuk-chi was raised in the capital, but he wasn't blind. Lord Kan Soo-jin was a shit ruler. This village is starving, and it's not the only one. He couldn't even keep his own lands in order, and he wanted a country?

Ambition.

Heuk-chi would never understand it.

Now Kan Soo-jin forced Tae-jun into a difficult position. Do nothing and let the woman he loved be attacked, or go against his honored father?

It was miserable.

Heuk-chi couldn't do anything to make it better and it burned.

"A coup?" The little doctor hissed. "A coup? With what army? There are no more men to conscript!"

Tae-jun looked down at his hands. "He… mentioned an alliance. With Kai."

"Who." Jeong spoke for the first time.

Tae-jun flinched back. "I don't - my father said... He said," Tae-jun choked. "He said that Yona was young. This was the perfect time to strike. He was going to force her to marry my older brother - or me. He was called Li Hazara of Sen province."

Jeong's mouth was flat. "I've heard of him."

And judging by the reaction, it wasn't good.

Heuk-chi stood, moved closer to Tae-jun. He didn't say anything, because what the hell would make this better? All he could do was guard Tae-jun's back the way he always had.

"Why," Jeong said. "Are you telling me this?"

But it sounded like they already knew.

Heuk-chi braced himself. He wasn't on Jeong's level, but he would defend Tae-jun with his life.

Even against Jeong.


Yoon prided himself on reading the atmosphere, and the fine hair on the back of his neck was standing up straight. He opened his mouth to say - something, anything that would stop the little lord from saying whatever was next.

But Yoon's too late.

"I want you to deliver the message to the palace and - and help Yona." The little lord took a deep breath, like it cost him to get those words out.

Barram's - Jeong's? - face goes blank.

Yoon stared, heart dropping down to his feet. Six months since Barram washed up on his doorstep and he recognized that look in their eyes. The past is poisonous thing for them, and Yoon has no antidote.

If there is one thing he hates, it's being helpless.

Yoon looked at the young, annoying noble.

"You want me to... go to the capitol." Bartram's voice is emotionless. Their voice is so quiet, so calm, it's like a empty place someone he loved once stood. Not something, but an absence of something.

It sent a shiver crawling down Yoon's spine. Barram killed a king - and like this, Yoon can't believe it. The grumpy, kind mercenary was gone and in their place was something cold, with many teeth.

The noble takes a step back, and Yoon almost followed him. Except - it's Barram. Jeong. Whatever they call themself, Yoon remembers the first time they ruffled his hair, and tells the small screaming voice in the back of his head to shut up.

Barram wasn't going to hurt him.

"I -" The noble swallowed. "I don't think my father would be a... good ruler." The admision seemed to cut the man, every word a knife. He looked down at his hands, then over at his plain looking bodyguard.

The bodyguard is still sitting beside Barram, but he's too still. Yoon recognized that posture - Jae-ha just before he strikes. He doesn't say anything, but whatever the noble sees there, it steadies him.

Yoon can't help but snort to himself. What ruler? All the bastard general ever did was tax his people and spend it on his army. The whole country could starve together and the only thing he'd notice was the tributes stopped.

"If I go back, I could die. Why do you think that I'm that stupid?" Barram's voice is still eery and calm.

The noble flinched again. "...yes. B-but the army... the army isn't going to be enough. Not against this. Not without backup. They can't stop it."

"But I can."

They've forgotten Yoon's standing there. Yoon's fine with a little eavesdropping. He's sick of the secret Barram carries like a clock around their shoulders. He sick to death of seeing Barram fucking sad - and they are, all the time.

Barram deserves to be happy. They can be annoying, but at their heart, Yoon has never met anyone so - good. They kept Yoon safe.

If they killed the King, who cares? it's not like Yoon is a patriotic person. Things are - better. The new queen is fixing things. Yoon can't remember the last time he walked down a road and saw the guard patrolling - and here this spoiled noble son is, doing his best to clean up the bandits. He's stupid but he's trying. It's more than anyone has ever done.

Yoon let out a huff and stepped into Barram's personal bubble - slowly, so they can see him coming. He's determined, not suicidal.

"No way." Yoon said, voice flat. "What does this have to do with us?"

All three of them look at him with surprise. Yeah, they all forgot he was there. He'd be pissed off if he wasn't already ready to spit fire. "How dare you." He stalked up to the noble, ignoring the way the bodyguard tenses. Barram will keep Yoon safe. "Treating Barram like some sort of attack dog. Go here. Do this. How the fuck does one person stop an army? You go! You fight! LEAVE BARRAM ALONE!"

A pair of strong hands circle Yoon's waist, pulling him back him back from the noble's stupid, wide eyed face.

"Yoon, it's okay." Barram said.

Yoon fights against Barram's hold, eyes burning. "No it's not! You hate fighting, you hate it! Everyone always wants you to keep doing it." He can't break free. They're too strong. Yoon hates that they have to be strong. "I hate this."

"I know. I know. it's okay." Barram sounds like themselves again, that awful emptiness gone.

Yoon sniffles. "I hate you. You're so stupid."

He's so tired of seeing them be hurt.

He can't see Baram's smile, but he can feel it. "Yes, yes. I'm awful and stupid."

No. People are awful and stupid.

Yoon wipes his eyes while Barram looks at the noble and his guard. "I need to think about it. Go away."

The guard drags the noble off before he can protest. The rest of the soldiers go with them. 

Barram - Jeong, whatever - is good.

Nothing will ever change Yoon's mind.


 

Chapter Text

All of the anger drains away when I look at Yoon. His hands were fisted in the robe he made for me, his head buried against my chest. "Look," I said to Tae-jun. "I need to think about it."

Tae-jun bristled. "There's no time! The army is already on it's way and -"

Heuk-chi touched his shoulder. "Now might not be the best time, my lord."

Yoon wasn't going to let go anytime soon, so I picked him up like he's five years old. He doesn't resist. He was too light, and he still hadn't let go of my shirt. "You can handle the bandits?" It's not a question. Heuk-chi glanced at the corpses littering the ground. I don't look. If I don't see them, they don't exist. I don't have to think about it.

"I think we'll be fine." He said.

"I'll be back tomorrow." I was exhausted. With a nod, I turned and begin my walk back to Ik-soo's cottage.

After a few minutes of silence, Yoon spoke. "It's not fair."

I keep my feet on the road. "The world's not fair."

"I hate it. I don't want you to fight."

"I know."

"You should be happy." For once he sounds his age; his voice breaks.

I pretend I don't notice the tears spreading over my shoulder. "... I am. I am happy." I said. Maybe not the kind Yoon means, though. It's a guilty, quiet sort of happy, the kind that lives under my heart, inside where no one else can see. I can't forget what I've lost, but I can put away it for brief snatches of time.

I'm happy with the dragons, and grandmother, and I was happy in the palace. I was so, so lucky to meet the people I did. Yona, Hak, Grandmother, Yoon, Li, Fa, Ik-soo, Jae-ha, Kija, Zeno, Shin-ah, the Red Hand.

Soo-won.

This world is full of pain - but it's equaled by the kindness of the people in it. Even if some of the memories hurt, the good outweighs the bad.

I'm... happy.

Even when I know my family will be worried sick. Even when I know how many lives I've ended Even when I know I'm leaving.

"...really?" Yoon sniffled.

My smile is a little tired, a little bitter. "Yeah."

One more reason I can't forgive myself.

When we arrive, the dragons gather around us with worry clear on their faces. I put Yoon down, and he wiped his face. Shin-ah hovered over Yoon like he was a worried mother bird, but it was better than Kija's panicking.

"What happened?" Jae-ha asked in an undertone.

Before I can answer, Ik-soo stops me, hand around my wrist. "I must speak with you." He said quietly.

I flinch at the surge of voices.

Ik-soo gives me an apologetic look and drops my wrist. "Sorry, Barram."

"It's fine." I said, rubbing my wrist. Skin contact makes it worse. "Do we have to do this now? I'm kind of busy."

"Yes. It's important." Ik-soo glances up at the sky, a crease of worry between his brows.

I narrowed my eyes, and glance at Jae-ha.

He shrugged.

"Alright." I said.

"Not here. Follow me." Ik-soo leads me away from the cottage, crossing over the river down to the foot of a cliff. A small waterfall tumbles from the top, over an ledge. The rush of water is loud.

Ik-soo pulled me under the ledge, where it was nearly dry, and sat down in the dirt without care for his clothes.

I mimicked him. The cliff wall is firm and cool against my back. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach I was going to need solid ground to get through this conversation.

Ik-soo pulled his knees up to his chest. "If you have the ability to be a priest, the gods should've told me. I... I wanted to know why they didn't." He exhaled. "When you arrived, I felt you. All of the priests did. You know that. But... we all felt you for nearly three months after. Like a sore tooth in the back of my brain, you felt... wrong. Unnatural. Something like you shouldn't be here, not anywhere." Ik-soo looked at me, his strange eyes clear. Apologetic. "You were never meant to be here and the world itself knew that."

"I know." I said, watching the river churn.

I did. Even after all the years between me and that first gasping breath on the river, I still remember.

The air was cleaner than anything in my world - and yet it tasted wrong. I remember breathing through my mouth because the air was too thick, a wrong that went deeper than the corpses rotting in the field. Something that reached inside of me and pulled on things that were never meant to be moved.

The weeks after that were hell. Not just the battlefield, but physically. I couldn't keep food down. I couldn't breathe without a rattle in my chest. My body was too light and too heavy at the same time.

But it got easier after a while.

Ik-soo nodded. "For three months there was a walking wound in the world - and then it started to fade. Humans are adaptable by nature. Jeong, you never belonged here but... you started to change. Adapt." His hands worried at the hem of his robe. "You started to fit into the world."

My heart - sinks. I look down at my body like it belongs to someone else. "What does that mean?"

"It means... you slowly lost your connection to your home." Ik-soo held up his hand. "Not all the way. That would take years, decades maybe. Your body might change, but the human soul is harder to mold."

I frowned. "Then what's the problem?"

Ik-soo was quiet for a long time. "The problem is you wound up next to the reincarnation of King Hiryuu. No matter how human they are now, they were once a god. A dragon. Do you know how powerful a soul of that type is? Enough to influence another at least." Ik-soo's face was miserable. "And then you met me at a point where you were incredibly vulnerable - and I sent you to the dragons."

I can't breathe. My heart overpowers my voice. "I... can't go home?"

Ik-soo shook his head. "You still can. You kept something from your past out of the world - your name. Names are important. It slowed the conversion. But it won't last for much longer."

"How long do I have?" I demand.

"I don't know for sure."

"Your best guess."

He clasped his hands together. "Two weeks. Maybe less, if you stay around the dragons."

Tae-jun said Yona was in the water tribe. It's a two week walk.

Soo-won is in the palace.

I... can't do both.

"I... need some time to think." I said.

"Of course." Ik-soo stood up and walked away. He looked back. "I'm sorry Barram. I didn't know."

I shook my head. None of this was his fault.

I waited till he was gone.

Then I punched the cliff wall. It crumbled under my hands, and pain radiates up my arm.

"Goddammit." I whispered.


Jae-ha is the one who finds me, sitting in the same spot. He looks me up and down, doesn't mention my bleeding knuckles. "Yoon told us about what happened at the village." The green dragon's mouth was unhappy for once. "He was pretty upset. You want to go." Jae-ha said. "To the capitol."

I said nothing.

None of us liked seeing Yoon upset.

How much had Yoon told them? I don't ask. I trusted him, maybe more than I trusted anybody. He wasn't one to spill out secrets that didn't belong to him. "It doesn't matter."

Jae- ha sighed. "Does this have anything to do with that boy? The pretty one from the governor's house?"

I glare at him, but Jae-ha doesn't take the hint.

"I've been patient. I haven't asked. But this… I think this affects all of us."

"No. It doesn't." I said. "Because we're not going."

He dropped the casual stance and stared at me. "What?"

An army was marching on the capital. Soo-won was in the palace, without Yona, without even Hak as backup. I had two weeks. And I wasn't going. Hands clenched, I exhaled. "We're going to the water tribe."

Yona was there, from what the priest could tell. It was the opposite direction of the castle. Going to the palace would take too long. I'm on a deadline and it's getting tighter by the miunet.

"Why not?" He demands.

Why did he care?

I throw my hands up in the air. "There's an army. Going to the capitol. It's not that complicated! Why the hell would I go?"

"Because - Barram. Jeong. I saw you with that boy for three seconds and even I could tell you loved him." His voice gets quiet. "And you still do."

"I don't - " I can't finish the sentence.

I was so tired of lying.

I inhale, breath through the wave of restless energy the thought crashes through me. Hak wasn't in the palace. Soo-won was alone.

My heart feels likes it's been torn from my chest. I press my hand to it, as if searching for a hole. I feel wounded, wounded to point where I had nothing left to bleed out. I bow my head. The sound I make is small and inhuman, the low grief of an animal pushed too far. The voices of the gods build up in the back of my mind like a wave, break over my head. The sudden noise is too much and I press into the cliff behind me. They plead with me to ask them. I only had to ask.

Still I don't pray.

I don't know how, anymore.

(And I have nothing to say to them.)

Green and black fill my sight. Jae-ha kneels by my side. His hands, familiar, hover in the air like an unasked question.

"Barram..." His voice was quiet.

The effort it takes to fight my way back down to my body almost isn't worth it. I let out a shaky breath and pushed past the ball of barbed wire and glass in my stomach.

"I will not use you." I said, and it's a promise. I've said it to each and every one of them, and I meant it. I still mean it.

Jae-ha blinked. "What?"

"This will be a war. Not a skirmish, not some sort of bandit camp. Your powers - " I laughed, and it's not happy. "Do you have any idea what my commanding officers would have done to have soldiers like you?"

The smell of meat fills the air, and my stomach turns over. Iron and copper and something sweet to the point of rot underneath it all. I remember bodies. How warm blood felt when it splashed on my face, my clothes. I remember my hands becoming a gradient, old flaking brown to dark, glistening red. A record of death I delivered.

Most of all, I remember my lips were chapped; dry to the point of tasting blood every time I spoke. For one year, it never left me. Not on the battlefield, not off it. I never got rid of the taste.

Yoon, Jae-ha, Kija, Shin-ah, Zeno - why the fuck would I subject them to that?

"I will not use your powers." I promise him, my self, the red earth under my hands.

Not for war. Never for war.

"Oh." He said. Jae-ha stared at me, then heaved as sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You really mean it."

"Yes." I said.

"For us - you'd let him go. Even though you love him."

"...Yes." My voice was hoarse, like I'd been screaming. The word stuck in my throat. The thought of Soo-won still hurts, but not like betrayal. It's a longing. I miss him. I never really stopped missing him.

I don't want to leave without saying goodbye.

(There was a chance. Yona and Hak were in the water tribe, but armies are hard to hide. Soo-won wasn't stupid. He had spies everywhere. He'd send them a message. When they heard about it, wouldn't they go back to the palace?

It was a gamble.)

"Its doesn't matter. I'm not going. The point is moot." I looked down at my scarred, calloused hands. "I'm not going to drag you or Kija or Zeno or any of you into a war, just because... because someone I know is there."

I... was going home. I swallowed down the pit in my throat, forced my shoulders to relax. I fixed the idea into my head like the centerpiece on a dinner table, the blooming flowers colored with the grey skies and the red of my aunt's hair. My father's brown eyes, just like mine. The laughter of my siblings.

(It's faded. Another casualty of my conversion?)

"Oh man." Jae-ha scrubbed a hand over his face. "You... how can you be real? Okay. Okay. I can do this. I can deal with the fact that you are genuinely good. It's a little sad to know that I never stood a chance, but I'm an adult. I can deal with it like one."

Jae-ha was fun, but sometimes I didn't understand a god dammed thing he said. "What?"

Jae-ha glared at me. "Let's put this in small words. Did it ever occur to you, you moron, that we want to help you? You wouldn't be using us. We're friends, Jeong."

I blinked. Whatever he was going to say, I wasn't expecting that.

...What?

Whatever he saw in his face makes his eyes go soft; he stepped closer to me and took my hands in his. "You know you don't have to do this alone, right?"

His hands were calloused and warm. All the days on his skin made his skin a few shades darker than me. My mind is quiet for once. I don't know what to say.

"Let's go back to the others and ask." Jae-ha said. "We can put it to a vote."

"Okay," I said at last. "Okay."

He pulled me back to the cottage. Everyone was gathered around the fire, including Yoon. His eyes were red, but he looked in better spirits, scolding Zeno and Kija for trying to sneak tastes of dinner.

Zeno looked up with a smile. "Welcome back."

"...I'm back." I said. "Yoon told you about the village?" I said to the group.

The dragons exchanged looks.

"Barram... killed...king." Shin-ah said.

Zeno nodded. "And there's an army marching for the capital."

I took a deep breath. "Yes."

"Hah!" Kija pointed at me triumphantly. "I knew you were a criminal!"

Jae-ha snorted as he dropped next to the fire. "We're all criminals, genius."

"I am most certainly not!"

"You going to report the rest of us to the soldiers then? Mr. Law abiding citizen."

Kija spluttered.

Jae-ha shrugged. "That's what I thought."

"I want to go to the capitol." I blurted out.

They look at me, then at each other.

"Okay." Zeno said with a shrug.

"...Okay." Shin-ah said.

Kija sniffed. "If we must."

All four of them looked at Yoon, who glanced at me. He scowled at them. "Fine. But only because it matters to Barram." Yoon clapped his hands. "We'll get ready to head out first thing in the morning. Make sure you get all your gear because we're not turning around for it if you forget something."

Zeno laughed. "Yes mother Yoon."

Yoon shooed them off. It happens almost too fast for me to register. I don't know how to take their easy acceptance. They know there'll be fighting, even if they don't know how bad it'll be.

I feel like someone pushed me over the edge of a cliff again - or was about too. That one unbalanced moment before free-fall. "What?"

Jae-ha leaned against my side, threw an arm around my neck. "Told you."

"But it's... dangerous."

I feel his shrug. "It doesn't matter. You're one of us, the same way Yoon is."

Yeah.

I got so, so lucky.

It's like I've lost all my strength or put down the world. I collapse into Jae-ha, rest my head on his shoulder. "Thank you." I said.


Soo-won sighed and rubbed his forehead. He didn't appreciate just how much Yona took on until he tried to do it alone. He could do it, of course. There was no other option. He just… missed her and Hak.

Soo-won found himself looking out the open window after the audience passed, watching the red sea of trees outside the town sway in the wind; winter colored the sent of the wind and cut into the bones of the people below. Soo-won's office was still warm, a fire going in the grate.

He didn't feel warm. He felt – restless. Like a part of his soul strained against his body, pushing out, urging the rest of him to just go.

Jeong is alive. They're out there.

What are you waiting for?

Soo-won's feet stayed in place. It was a selfish thought, a stupid thought.

What would Jeong do if he found them? Kill him? Embrace him? Both?

Soo-won didn't know. How strange, how unnatural, to think of that face and feel uncertain. Did they still braid their hair? Did they still practice katas in the early morning? Did they still smile?

The brief glimpse he got wasn't enough. Like a single scrap of meat to a starving dog, Soo-won gnaws it down to the bone in his mind. A flash of green as the man he doesn't know pulls Jeong away – but Soo-won doesn't care. He savors the memory.

Strong shoulders. Heavy brows, brown eyes – looking at him. Jeong always looked at him; saw through him. Soo-won exhales in the present, leans forward over the windowsill. He doesn't believe in gods, doesn't worship any being. If he can't gather it in his own two hands, it means nothing to him. Ideals mean nothing in the face of his starving people; Soo-won's father taught him duty.

Before King Il killed him.

If Soo-won prayed hard enough, though. If he prayed would the gods turn him into something that could go to Jeong?

Soo-won wished for wings. To be something that could perch on their shoulder and feed from their hand. Jeong was strong. They could hold him up. The cold air brushed over his face, like a familiar hand.

Soo-won closed his eyes. Leaned in.

He ached.

"Your highness?"

Soo-won blinked and turned away from the window, found General Joo-doh standing there with the customary frown of his face. "General. Is something the matter?"

The man's eyes flickered between Soo-won and the window. He stepped into the room slowly, like a man about to spook an animal. Soo-won is hard pressed not to roll his eyes. The man's concern is almost sweet, but Soo-won doesn't plan on dying just yet.

The night after his father was murdered, Soo-won, ten years old and sick to death of tears, made a promise on his father's would have revenge. It would take years and years, but he would take the life of the man who stole his father from him.

But there was a price. There was always a price, Soo-won would come to learn. In return for spilling the blood of his own family, Soo-won vowed to build up a country his father would be proud of. No matter what he hand to sacrifice. No matter who he had to sacrifice.

Soo-won broke his promise. If he killed Jeong that night, all of the holes in his stories would have… vanished. No one knew. They might suspect

Jeong would never suspect him. It was easy to murder someone who trusted you.

With lady Bin-na's connections and Soo-won's own status, poison wasn't hard to come by. It was a simple plan. Find a untraceable, slow acting poison and put it in the bottle of sake.

He remembered standing at the table in his room, a small glass vial in one hand, staring at the bottle of sake.

It was simple.

His hands didn't shake.

But they don't move either.

He couldn't. The thought made him sick to his stomach, made him want to bend over and retch. Soo-won set the poison down of the table with a gentle click and picked up an identical vial, this one with something that would send Jeong to sleep instead.

One selfish act.

"General." Soo-won said with gentle smile, pushing past the memory. "Did you need something?"

He was even honest. It wasn't the man's fault he was pushed into shoes too big to fill. Soo-won was not in the habit for blaming others for his own failings.

"...Not me. Lady Myeongseong wanted to speak to you."

Soo-won doesn't let his wince show. "Of course. Please show her in, if you would."

He thinks about sitting behind the desk, putting a barrier between him and the queen. No, that would leave her standing over him. The more he gets to know her, the more wary he is of giving her a single inch of weakness. Soo-won knows what a person who will do anything for their goals looked like.

The steel in him recognized the steel in her.

The general gave him one last look, taking in the window behind him and the smile on Soo-won's face. Soo-won could see the moment he decided to mind his own business and ignored the stab of pain. Jeong would have waited there all day until he confessed what was bothering him.

Soo-won stomped down on the thought mercilessly. Jeong was gone by his own hand.

He had no time for regrets.

Queen Myeongseong's black hair was pulled back into a high tail, pinned through by a gold hair pin with finely carved koi and carps along it. Their ruby eyes glinted in the firelight.

When he looked at her face, he found her studying him back. Her eyes dropped to his chest. No. to the faint shape of the dagger hidden there.

She looked back up. The two of them shared an innocent smile.

Yes. They were very similar.

"Would you care for a refreshment, Lady Myeongseong?" He gestured to the fine oak round table in the corner. A freshly brewed pot of tea sat there.

The woman's smile became a bit more genuine. "No thank you. I just came to tell you that something has come up aat home. I will need to leave soon."

It wasn't often that Soo-won was caught off guard. His hands stilled on the tea, before he finished pouring himself a cup. He used the brief moment it took to pick it up to think furiously.

He knew she stayed this long for a reason - and he could only think of one. Information on Jeong. If she was leaving she must have gotten that information. But what did she know?

Soo-won turned back around, still smiling. "That's a shame. I was hoping to invite you to view the flower festival with Her majesty and myself. I know that she enjoys having a elder woman of similar rank around. She gets tired of being around men all the time."

You're going to leave without saying goodbye to your host? How... rude.

The queen smiles. "That's wonderful to hear. Your queen is a delight to work around. Such a charming girl, even my own cousins could learn something from her."

*I have my own family to attend too. Surely your beloved queen wouldn't begrudge me that?

Soo-won smiled even brighter. If he hadn't meant Jeong, marrying Myeongseong would be so bad. He admired the way she stood firmly, her composure, her responsible nature. Myeongseong loved her country above all else and Soo-won understood that. It was rare that Soo-won hated anyone, but it was rarer that he liked them on a personal level. In another world, in another time, they would have been good together.

"Please, sit." Soo-won "I've been remiss in my duties as a host. I have yet to really have a conversation with you. If you're leaving so soon, I must satisfy my curiosity now."

She stood by the door, watching him with unreadable eyes.

Soo-won let her. It was a simple question. Take the offer - or don't, and leave him wondering why.

Finally she sat with a smile. "How could I refuse?"

Soo-won turned up the airhead to full. "Are you sure I can't get you a drink?"

"Might as well." She leaned back, like this was a casual conversation between friends.

Soo-won poured her a cup, ducking his head just enough to hide the little smile on his face. He had to admit - It was more fun to play with someone who knew the game.

"So!" He said, handing the cup over. "Tell me about your country? I've never been."

He wasn't one for losing.

They don't chat for long. One of the servants knocked and opened the door when Soo-won invited them in.

It was Li. Soo-won remembered Jeong story. One of their teachers.

Myeongseong frowned. "I thought I told you not to interrupt us, Li."

"Pardon me for interrupting, your highness, your majesty. I wouldn't be here, but we did receive a message from Fa." He bowed and presented a scroll the size of his pinky finger to Myeongseong.

She took it and traced the red border around it. Her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me. It seems urgent."

"That's quite alright." Soo-won said. "Don't mind me."

She nodded and cracked open the scroll - and stilled, so abruptly it was like witnessing her turn into a statue. All expression slipped off her face. The drip of rain outside was the only sound for a long while. Soo-won sipped his tea.

Finally, Myeongseong rolled up the scroll. She set it down on the table with a gentle click. Her smile is empty. "It seems the problem has been resolved. We shall be staying with a little while longer after all."

Soo-won watched her take a small, neat sip of tea and couldn't stop his stomach from dropping.


 

Chapter Text

We head for the capitol in the early morning, leaving a worried looking Ik-soo behind us. The dragons, Yoon, and me back into familiar glare. Ik-soo drew Yoon in for one last hug. "Stay safe. Listen to Barram."

Yoon grumbled, but his knuckles were white, fisted in Ik-soo's robe. I looked away, chest tight. Fourteen and I was bringing him into a war zone. Younger than I was, that first time. I should leave him behind. Let him deal with the sick and the elderly.

But... Yoon wasn't me and he wouldn't thank me for babying him. Yoon didn't have fifteen years of peace behind him. Yoon didn't have any reason to think of the world as flawed. Of wars as anything but inevitable. He was an orphan faced with the threat of starvation from birth. He's stronger that me at fifteen, mentally if not physically.

Yoon was the first to take a deep breath and let go. He took a small step back, towards us and the open road. He gave Ik-soo a slightly watery smile. "Don't hurt yourself. Go to the village if you're hungry, don't try to make anything yourself. I'd like to have a house to come back too."

Ik-soo managed to smile through his worry, still not voicing the clear reluctance of this parting. He understood more than anyone, Yoon's need to help. Yoon wasn't one to sit at home, not if he had the means to go and make something better. It was the doctor in him, I think.

"I'll keep that in mind." Ik-soo waited for Yoon to turn away - then he looked at me. There was no demand in his eyes. Just a question. A simple request.

Will you keep him safe?

I glanced at Yoon and thought about finding him sitting over me some nights - bad nights, the nights after king Il and Soo-won, when all I could think about was blonde hair and dark eyes. When I thought about falling. When I woke, Yoon was always by my side, even though he was exhausted.

I looked back at the priest, met those clear eyes - and I gave the slightest nod.

I will bleed myself dry before I let a single drop of his blood hit the ground.

It was what I owed him, the very least of my debt. I wasn't going to be around long, but so long as I was, Yoon would be safe. That I could do, as long as I could.

Ik-soo looked at Yoon again, safely in the middle of the dragons and wiped his eyes. It didn't help - the man was a terminal crybaby. He bowed to me, a properly deep bow, and I could hear the roar of a mountain shaking in the background, a now familiar voice just on the edge of my understanding.

I glanced over my shoulder, even though I sensed nothing. The gods never appeared and it didn't matter. The sound of scales approaches ever closer, like ten thousand leaves shaking in the wind, or the roar of some distant ocean. I shake my head and turn back to the Dragons and Yoon.

The horses we borrowed from Tae-jun shied back from the dragons, but with a little finesse we manage to get everyone on top of one. The army was large but it sounded like they didn't care about stealth. We were behind them.

"Let's go." I said, guiding my bay mare around. "To the capitol."

The tree's foliage were on their last legs. We have no trouble following the army. Once beautiful paths were churned to mud and the red leaves were ground down under countless hooves. The fire tribe army was still ahead of us, and I could smell smoke on the wind.

I stretch out my legs, the soreness from riding all day was taking a toll on me.

It was worse for the others (expet for Yoon, who took to it like he took to everything else: that is to say, perfectly). I, at least, knew how to ride a horse, even if I didn't like it. Working with as many nobles as I have, it was learned in necesity.

Kija wobbled when he hit the ground. "I hate this." He said, voice flat. "Horses are evil."

Zeno laughed. "Don't say that! They might hear you and take offense."

Kija turned to look at him slowly. "Horses can understand me?"

"Maybe!"

"...I can't tell if you're kidding." Kija looked at the horse with a suspicious eye.

I smiled a bit. No matter how strange it felt. I was going into a war - how could I be any sort of happy?

The capitol was near and the signs of the army passing were ever present. The smile didn't last long. We came across the first village burned to the ground. Huts made of mud were trampled. The wooden roofs were burned. I carefully stepped over the corpse of some family's dog. There was blood on the muzzle. Not far away is the body of a young woman. Clothes torn. Eyes open.

Kija was quiet. His mouth was pursed, but he can't hide the stricken look in his eyes. He knelt by the body and closed her eyes with his human hand, gentle as anything.

I looked up to the sky. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ten years and a thousand miles between the two, but all armies are made up of the same thing: people.

Yoon took a step forward, but I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

Yoon hesitated. "I just want to -"

I sighed. "Yoon. We can't stop here."

From the look he gave me, dark and poisonous and full of despair, he knew it. "We're still in fire country."

"I know."

"His own people. I don't understand." Yoon looked over the blackened village.

A familiar sight. I thought of days on the battlefield, watching the people around me turn from men into monsters. I watched them burn filds and homes. I saw them do worse.

And I was too tired, to numb, to full of blood to care about it. To stop them.

And here was the reason I wanted to leave Yoon behind. He was kind, in every way that mattered. He lived and bled for the chance to help one more person. He was a doctor by choice. By nature.

He cared.

Looking out over the village, all I felt was a little tired. A little sick. It wasn't new. Like trying to wring blood out of a stone, my horror was long spent.

I ignored the small tremors that ran up his frame and turned him away from the village. "We need to keep going, Yoon."

He took a deep breath. Having something to focus on rather than the smell of smoke settled him. "Right." He wiped his face, and with one last look at the village, he turned back to the group. "Let's go." He said, expression resolute.

The four dragons exchanged glances.

"Alright." Kija said.

None of them wanted to hang around the village either.


Joo-doh kept his eyes forward, staring at the far wall of the throne room, ignoring the fire tireb solider cowering on the stone floor. It's hard to ignore the rage building up in the pit of his stomach. He wants to take a step forward, tower over the man by at least a head. Not many are tall enough to look down Joo-doh.

He doesn't. That's not his job right now. Besides - Lord Soo-won was doing a fine job all on his own.

Lord Soo-won stared at the sweating messenger, dressed in fire tribe red and gold. "I'm sorry. Can you repeat that?"

His voice is even. Polite.

It's not a request.

The man swallowed. "The most - most high general of our Fire tribe, blood of the dragon king and rightful ruler of the land and kingdoms of Kouka means to occupy his place upon the fire throne. The - the pretenders of s-sky tribe will g-give up the throne..." The man, not so arrogant under Joo-doh's dark eyes stutters and trips over his words like a new recruit.

"Lord Kan Soo-Jin." Joo-doh said, rage getting the better of him. His fingers flexed. If that fool was in front of his at this very moment, tribe laws or no, Joo-doh would take his head off.

Blood of King Hyuruu? The man was simply using an old folk tale to fuel his stupid pride. Senseless ambition. King Il just died!

Kouka can't take a civil war.

"Quite." Soo-won gestured. "Guards, arrest him."

Joo-doh doesn't bother watching one of the guards drag the pale messenger away. He turned to Soo-won. "My lord, the queen -"

He stopped.

Joo-doh was a man with a core of steel. He has served two - now three - rulers, and accomplished his duties to the best of his abilities, pushed himself so far his body broke. His heart was made of sterner stuff, iron and stone like his will.

The look in those eyes shakes something in his chest.

Lord Soo-won wasn't smiling. His hand covered his mouth, his arm propped up on the advisory seat, his hair hanging around his beautiful face like a veil of spun gold. He looked like a statue, like a thing of marble and chisel instead of a person. In that moment, Joo-doh felt something he hadn't in a very long time: uncertainty.

It was difficult to remember sometimes, that this was the son of the man who trained Joo-doh. Not now. Soo-won was mirror image of his old mentor, and his eyes were blades of glass. Those eyes watched the messenger being dragged away, his fingers tapped upon the plain wood chair the first adviser, rather than the king. Even now, with the queen away, Lord Soo-won didn't sit upon the throne - and it made no difference.

This was the face of a king.

Joo-doh held as still as possible. He didn't know what Lord Soo-won was thinking. It was a familiar, slightly bitter feeling. Jeong, damn them, left deep shoes behind them after their traitorous act. Joo-doh didn't know how to read his lord, but he did his best. This - this stillness was new. A part of him always thought that Soo-won was far too silly to lead a country. His only two settings were pouting or sparkling.

This Soo-won was a sharp edged, vast thing and Joo-doh was in range of his blades. The only thing he could do was wait.

"General. How large is the fire tribe army?" Soo-won asked, without looking.

Joo-doh clears hi throat. "Not big enough to take the castle."

"Hmm. Why is our friend so confident, then?"

That... was a good question. With General Hak and Joo-doh himself in residence, the fire tribe didn't stand a chance of winning.

But Kan Soo-Jin sent a messenger.

Why?

It was insanity. Any solider worth their salt knew that surprise attacks were a vast advantage.

Soo-won finally looked up, and a smile darted across his face. It wasn't a happy thing. "It appears our dear general has been making some friends."

"It must be Sei." Joo-doh said. "The Xing contingent has been here for months, but nothing was observed from them."

"We did start negotiating a small trade deal with Queen Myeongseong. They have no reason to attack us."

Joo-doh held his tongue.

No. Not quite nothing. It burned to know that Jeong was out there somewhere, breathing. Living and changing, while King Il received only a cremation. King Il was a good man. Joo-doh saw the body, and knew that King Il suffered before he died.

If Joo-doh got the chance, he would return the favor.

"Start making preparations." Soo-won stood up from the advisers throne. He stood at the top of the dais. The three large steps put him a little higher than Joo-doh, but it felt like more than a few inches. Soo-won was a giant, proud and tall.

Joo-doh found his head bowed all on it's own, like standing underneath a large waterfall. His heart was fast. "Preparations, sir? Will we be fighting them?"

That would... not go well. The citizens would panic. War didn't happen near Kouka Castle, not since the founding of Kouka itself. Joo-doh's insides clenched at the very thought of this place being harmed. It was a testament to the country, a living piece of history, something that never failed to shelter the heart of its people.

You did not fight in the castle.

Outsiders never seemed to understand that.

Soo-won's smile was calm. "Fighting? Goodness, no. We will be setting up a... welcoming party of sorts."

Joo-doh's head was still bowed, but he could see Soo-won's face out of the corner of his eyes. it was like looking at a still pool. Nothing resembling mercy could be found within it.

He bowed, deeper still. "By your command, my lord." Perhaps the boy had more of his father in him than Joo-doh thought.

A small, vicious part of his heart thought of that spoiled brat (Kan Soo-Jin and smiled. If he wished to style himself as King Hiryuu the second, a god among men, then it was only right that someone like Soo-won was the one to make the man come down to earth.

It was about time.

Soo-won's smile never faltered during the outline of his plan, and Joo-doh can't help but stare at his lord's face.

It's a vicious, mean plan, and it would work.

Joo-doh bows again, deeper this time. "It will be done my lord."

"Of course. I have nothing but faith in you, General. We must keep the castle safe while Her Majesty and General Hak are away."

Joo-doh agreed, but in his heart he doubted. Her majesty was clearly trying her best, but... Soo-won lived and breathed the power of a king. Why did he not take the throne? Joo-doh doubted Yona would have begrudged her cousin it. She didn't even seem to enjoy it very much.

He said nothing. It wasn't his place.

Joo-doh only had to follow Soo-won's orders. He saluted, hand over his heart and went to do so.

Kan Soo-Jin would regret this.


Fa crept along the side of the road, out of the woman's dress and into their own familiar leather and black cloth. They stayed the path, even with Jeong's strage group out of his sight. They knew their own skill - and they also knew jeong's.

They were Jeong's teacher after all. It's been...years, but people don't change. Not that much.

Fa scaled the last hill, keeping their bodies low and their mind on their work. the past was already gone. There was nothing Fa could do to change things.

There. Below them, laid out in the ruins of yet another burnt village, with the smoke of the fire disguised by the plumes drifting off the houses. Clever

They stilled, stopped well out of earshot and studied the group. Studied Jeong.

Tall, as ever. They wore a fine red overcoat, tied shut over a dark undershirt, dark pants worn loose and bracers on their arm. It was like looking back into the past - the scars were a bit different and their hair was worn back instead of in a high tail, but -

Fa's heart cracked the slightest bit.

Jeong. Their best, brightest student, who did what they thought was right. Who saved Fa. Who Fa could never repay.

Their fingers curled into the soot, the dirt, tried to find purchase within their resolve. They have to keep going. The queen - they swore. They swore.

("Take care of her." Tired eyes. Blood aginst tanned skin.

It was the last thing Jeong asked of them before Jeong fled the palace.

Fa promised.)

Fa swallowed. Jeong was right there - all they had to do was stand up and walk down the hill. Would Jeong welcome them? Would they attack?

The last time Fa and Jeong spoke laid in the back of Fa's mind like a burr he can't quite shake. The bitter eyes, the slumped shoulders, the utter grief shared by the both of them. Li backed away from the two of them, cradled the body of their king in his arms and wept with the freedom Fa loved about him most. It hurt only a little less than receiving their first punishment from failure.

Li would understand, when Fa took them to the dungeon. Showed them the body. Later, he would forgive Fa. Now - it was Fa and Jeong at the gates of the castle. Jeong's face was splattered with blood. Fa didn't know who the blood belonged to - the boy, the father, the king? Either way, it was terrible, and they fought the urge to strip it from Jeong's skin.

They can't look away.

Jeong keeps strange company.

Fa looked over the group, still and watching. Jeong's companions are cheerful young people, with a variety of hair colors. One of them wears a mask and a fur ruff. None of them can be older than twenty, except jeong and the green one. Though, there's something… strange about the cheerful one with the headband. Something about the way he moves bothered Fa.

It wasn't strange. Jeong always preferred to spend their time with children. They were a protector at heart, one more thing that made King Bai pick them to be his daughters personal guard.

The companions also made Fa's skin crawl. It's nothing on the surface - not even the white haired one's strange hand. Fa has seen stranger things in their time.

The yellow-haired one. He moved like a beast, when no one was watching. Like his skin contained something much larger and stranger than it seemed. Foreign and wild, and Fa didn't want to face him in any sort of combat.

The only one who didn't ping Fa as Dangerous was the youngest looking. Skilled hands and proud posture - the doctor, information that Fa charmed out of a villager. He was kind. He didn't fight.

Fa watched a tall figure bend to speak to Yoon.

Jeong was fond of the young doctor.

Oh, Jeong. They were headed into a war. hadn't Fa warned them about wearing their heart out on their sleeves?

In a battle - anything could happen.

People don't change that much. Jeong was always too soft to last.

Fa took one last glance at the group. The palace was a days run away.

They turned and walked into the night.


Far, far away the capital, a bird swooped down to land on a berry bush. It picked happily at the dark blue fruit. It wasn't much longer until the autumn passed and winter came with it. It was late flying to warmer weather.

A roar, like a roll of thunder across the sky, brought it to awareness. It looked up - the sky was clear.

The first horse rolled through, black lightning, stirring up the dirt beneath it. Then the march of booted feet, stepping in time.

It was the first, but it wasn't the last. Soldiers and horses crested the top of the hill and down in a wave of humanity that blacked out the land beneath it.

The bird took flight with a rush of wings like a heartbeat.

The horses continued onward, towards the capital.


 

Chapter Text

The first ray of the sun stabbed Hak's eyes like a knife and he groaned. Hak rolled over and put a pillow over his head. He was protesting. Nope. Morning was canceled for the foreseeable future.

He was exhausted. Since their arrival a week ago, Lili's father was a pain in the ass to deal with. They had to do it again today. He was slippery as a eel, which made him perfect for the head of the water tribe. He never wanted to tell the two of them anything straight out. Yona and Hak had to jump so stupid hoops to get at the merchants selling the drug.

(Not to mention the uneasy feeling of being alone in water tribe lands. It was part of Kouka, true, but under King Il's hands, the tribes were nations under their own rule. They've had to be.

Hak should've said no. It was horribly dangerous to have Yona out here like that.

He looked at Soo-won, trying to talk her out of it, and wondered.

Is this place any safer?)

Another all-nighter passed like a hazy dream. He recalled speaking with - arguing, really, though Lili's father tired to pretend he was too refined for that - the water tribe general. He was frustratingly indirect, a living stereotype of people who lived within the water tribe.

How on earth did someone like him raise someone as blunt as Lili? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against her father's passive aggressive bullshit.

The sound of footsteps down the hall has Hak on his feet in seconds. Lili stepped through the door with something that smelled awful and snorted at him. Lili thrust a cup of kaf at him.

Speak of the devil.

"Here. Drink it."

"Didn't anyone teach you to knock?" Hak took the cup anyway. The stuff tasted foul, but it kept him running on no sleep. It was hot but not enough to scald. The bitter taste coated his tongue but he drank to the end. It always made him feel like there were bees buzzing around in his chest after it hit.

Lili sniffed. "This is my house. Why should I?"

Hak heard rumors about the refinement and gentleness of the water tribe's only daughter. He wanted to find out what those people were smoking. It'd probaly help out with the drug investigation.

The door opposite the bed creaked open, attracting both their attention. Hak knew Lili wasn't here to see him. Yona stepped out, still rubbing her the sleep out of her eyes. "Morning Hak, Lili."

"Good morning Yona!" Hak pretended to gag at the sparkle in Lili's voice. She glared at him, than smiled at Yona and offered her and identical cup of dark brown liquid. "I brought you a little pick me up. I'm sorry about my father, but he can be stubborn. He wanted me to take you out around the city today."

Hak snorted. He'd call Lili two-faced, but she really did like Yona. Even Hak could admit that. "You have stubbornness in common."

Lili sniffed. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about."

Neither of them mentioned how closely they both watched Yona. The other reason Hak was so exhated.

"I can tell him to back off." Lili said. "Give you some time to rest."

At least Lili was almost as worried about Yona as Hak was. Yona bushed herself like something was chasing her. He knew what it was.

The first time Yona took a life.

When she woke up, she cried like her heart was breaking. Then nothing. She returned to her normal self, if a little more subdued.

Hak was unsurprised when Yona shook her head. "That's alright. I want to get this done and return to the capital. I'd feel bad if Soo-won has to do all of the work himself for too long." She said, took the drink and drained it in one shot. Yona made a face when she finished the drink. Not as interesting as the first time. Gagging and coughing the whole time - her face was the funniest thing Hak'd seen in years.

The moment is broken by one of Lili's servants bursting through the door, normally kind eyes wild. "Lady Yona - we received a message from Lord Soo-won! The fire tribe army marches on the capitol!"

The words hang heavy in the air, like a valuable vase dropped. A feeling of horrible realization and then -

crash.

Hak shook his head, trying to clear his ears. The words made sense seperatly, but the whole of them did not. The fire tribe was marching on the palace? They were only gone for a few weeks. What did Soo-won do?

Yona stood with a screech of wood on wood, the cup falling to the floor. "What?"

The situation hit Hak fully. Fuck. Soo-won was in the palace. Alone.

He jerked to his feet. "What's the situation?" Hak demanded. "Are they there yet? How did Soo-won know?"

"The fire tribe isn't exactly hiding it! We're getting survivors from the villages in their path, even this far away, and it's looking like they'll have no problem just rolling over the civilians from their own country." The servant spat of the floor, and Lili didn't reprimand her.

Hak felt still. His eyes never left Yona.

"Hak." Yona's voice was tight. "We're going home."

"That might not be the best idea." Hak said.

Yona jerked around to look at him. "Soo-won -"

"I know. He's in danger, but you are the queen, your majesty." Hak ran a hand through his hair. "I can't - Even for him, I can't let you go into danger."

Yona glares at him. "So we just let him die? I can't believe this - He doesn't have Jeong anymore, Hak!"

(A calm look that blossoms into a smile, a scar and hands that were always gentle.

Jeong, slipping out of reach.)

"And just why is that?" Hak yelled back, temper getting the better of him.

All the blood drains from Yona's face. "What?"

The words settled into the room. Hak holds himself up under them, but it's a close thing and he still can't stop thinking about that night by the waterfall.

Why would Jeong hurt the king?

Hak can't think of a single reason. It made no sense.

Except, if it wasn't Jeong, why not say so? Come back to the castle and explain what happened? What could make Jeong take the blame without protest?

Hak glanced at Lili. She gave him an unreadable look but took the hint for once and stood up. "We'll leave you alone." Lili said, and slips back out the door. walked through the door, her dark hair behind her like a banner. "We have arrangements to make and refugees to settle." Her face was disgusted. She took her duty to the people seriously.

Yona didn't look after her. Her face was still bloodless. "Hak. Explain yourself."

Anything was better than the stomach clenching fear of being right.

He thought of Soo-won, Seven years old and bubbly, the first time he and Hak took Yona out of the castle. He thinks of turning around, finding her gone, and the terrible fear he felt. How it swallowed him whole. Soo-won didn't panic. Soo-won took the two of them to a dangerous den and pushed his way into it.

Hak knows that nothing scares Soo-won. He's so much prouder than anyone thinks. Hak'd secretly sneered at the men and women who saw his pretty hair and his pointless smile, and dismissed him for it. Soo-won was a blade, Soo-won was a dagger - Soo-won was dangerous.

It was something to be proud of, before.

Now it inspired a cold wind blowing up Hak's spine. He looked at Yona, sitting silhouetted in the weak morning light and licked his lips. His hands don't shake. Mundock trained that out of him early. Yona told him about the state of the country and while he knows she's not lying - he never really believed it either. The image of King Il in his heart is a man who would bleed himself on a blade before letting anyone touch his family.

Jeong's village was run down. Not starving, but not well off. Hak was raised in the wind tribe; there was always food to be had.

If the village was like that, surely the situation wasn't as bad as Yona thought?

Hak paid attention while traveling. It was worse. The roads were barely more than paths. The people were poor, the merchants were few. People were barely scraping by or inhumanly corrupt.

Soo-won often went out of the castle. He was smart, smarter than pretty much everyone Hak knew. Could he see this coming?

Of course.

It's little things like that - they pile up like sand in the dessert, bits of evidence until Hak poured over his memories of King Il and Soo-won.

The two of them always seemed fine. Now, Hak sees the sour note lingering beneath the surface. The times where Soo-won hesitated a hair too long, where King Il spoke a little too soft. There was love, but there was also something both Hak and Yona missed. Something darker and quiet stood between the two of them, a long shadow cast by something Hak didn't know.

The truth pressed down on his shoulders like a heavy hand, all the little things he missed came back to sting his skin like wasps. How did he not notice before? he could have done something. He could have changed it somehow.

Magma bubbles beneath Hak's ribs, a seething ball of rage and pain. He looked down at the cup of kaf by his elbow and desperately wished for something stronger - but no. He was alone with Yona in strange territory. He couldn't.

Hak hesitated and Yona noticed, her eyes going narrow. "Hak."

The word felt like thin ice. He can't keep this from her, and Lady Bin-na's voice filled his ears. The more he thought about it, the more his heart sunk.

Hak's tongue is heavy, but he forced the words out. "I... I don't think Jeong killed his majesty."

Yona stared at him. "Hak - Hak, you were there. You saw them - they had blood on their hands, on their feet."

Hak grimaced. Yona's empty voice echoed back at him, six months ago.

She walked through my father's blood.

Still. He couldn't stop now. The words came pouring out of him. "Think about it, Yona! Why would she kill him?" He took a step forward, hands out, palms up.

Yona threw her hands up in the air. "I don't know, Hak! It was pointless and senseless, and I have no idea why! I can't - I can't think about it right now. It hurts." She turned away, put one hand on the table, one hand on her face, covering her eyes. "Hak. Please, don't make me think about it."

Yona... already knows.

Hak's heart goes numb. "How long?"

She's silent.

"Yona! How long have you been suspicious?"

Yona doesn't uncover her eyes. "Since the funeral. I could tell something was wrong. I tired to push it away. I tired to block it out, because if it wasn't Jeong then who? Who stood the most to gain from this? Who had th opertunity, the motive? Who lied?" She laughed, once. "There was no one else in that room."

Hak's heart was breaking. "Princess..."

Yona flinched back. "Please Hak. Please, Hak. Don't make me say it." Her eyes glitter with tears, and Hak almost - almost backs down. He can't take it when she looks at him like that. His own traitorus heart breaks, pushed his words down his throat, took his breath.

He does it anyway. "Soo-won was there."

HIs name, out in the open like that, breaks both of their hearts.

Yona's eyes filled with tears. The sound she lets out was like a child being hurt, like someone learning that world wasn't okay, and never would be again. The day her father died, Hak's swore to keep her safe.

How could he protect her from her own breaking heart? He would give all of his blood to know. He would cradle the shards in his hands, keep it together with his pieces of his own in places of missing bits.

Hak pulled her into a hug, rested his head on her red hair.

She gasped like a dying thing, cried like she couldn't get enough air. It was messy, ugly, real. Hak doesn't look at her at all. If he has to see her heart breaking all over again, nothing would stay his hand. Not even Soo-won.

He closed his eyes and waited her out.


By the time she's done crying, Yona feels emptied out. Her eyes ached but her mind was clear. For the first time since her father's death, she thought the words.

Soo-won killed my father.

It hurt.

Hak would never, ever lie to her. Not about something like that. It was like hearing a song clearly after forgetting the lyrics. She wanted to block her ears, too un-think it somehow. A great wind pushed her mind onward, ripping up the foundation of her naivety. Could Soo-won, the boy she loved, do something like this?

She didn't know.

Would Jeong turn on someone like her father?

...No.

The truth so rarely made anyone happy.

She thought about the funeral, about long hours learning Soo-won while working together.

Her father was a good man, but a terrible king. Soo-won wanted what was best for Kouka. He lived and breathed the people, loved the city. That was never in doubt. He loved Kouka - enough to shed own blood.

Or the blood of a uncle. The blood of a king.

She can't... she can't even say he was wrong.

And that hurt the most.

King Il was driving the country to ruin. No place was left untouched by his hand.

(If he was left alive, a civil war would've been inevitable. There were too many factions. The traditionalists would've never gone for Soo-won, and neither would the fat leeches who fed of her father's kindness. The people who cared about the citizens would've followed Soo-won.

It would have torn the entire country in two.)

Yona feels like the night sky, feels like something high up and empty but for the bits of other people left in her like stars. Jeong's hand in her hair, after a nightmare woke her. Hak grinning at her after being particularly irritating. Her father reading to her when she was very young. A mother she can't clearly remember, singing something high and sweet.

Soo-won, sitting by her bedside when she was sad and sick. Worried but there in a way no one else ever was, or would be again.

She pressed a fist into Hak's chest. His heart was strong, calm.

If she wasn't a queen, she could ignore this. Let the thought of kind Soo-won, who held her after her mother died, hurting anyone slip out of her mind. If only she was still that selfish princess. If only Soo-won could stay that shining, fuzzy warmth in the back of her heart.

If only.

But she wasn't, and Soo-won was only a person, and people - people were capable of terrible things.

Either Soo-won or Jeong killed her father.

Jeong attacked her. Soo-won held her hand.

Soo-won had motive. Jeong… did not.

A fresh wave of tears burn out of her eyes, but she doesn't stop to think about it. She looked up at the ceiling, let them fall. Inside of Hak's embrace, Yona was the safest she would ever be. He would die before she got hurt - and she couldn't bear the thought. If his heart stopped, Yona would -

Keep going.

Yona was a queen. The death of one man couldn't hold her back. Bodyguad, bandit, or father.

...The life of one bad king could save her country from self-destructing, and Soo-won made his choice. Forgiveness was water in an inferno. Yona didn't have it yet - might not ever have it. Perhaps the most she could hope for was understanding.

She used her sleeves to dry off her eyes.

The sun rose outside and she knew she couldn't stay here forever.

Hak started when she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him back.

"We have to go back." She said quietly, taking in the familiar smell of oil and metal. Safety. "We have to - Soo-won is alone in the castle."

No matter what she felt, she couldn't let him die. Not before she got the truth from his own mouth. She was tired of lies.

Hak's head rested on her shoulder for long moment, and Yona's heart broke again. He loved Soo-won just as much as she did.

"Alright." He said.

"Alright." She agreed.

To the castle.


Soo-won stood upon the battlements and looked down on the city, hands clasped behind his back. It was a familiar, beloved sight. Tiled roofs did not matter so much as the people inside them, but Soo-won loved the trappings of it all the same.

A scuff of feet on stone behind him and he tipped his head slightly.

"General." He said. "Is everything prepared?"

The scarred man steped up beside him and gave a deadpan look. "Of course." He saluted, hand over heart. "The troops are ready, as are the… others. The firework-makers worked overtime to comply with your highness's request. No matter how strange it seemed."

Soo-won smiled. Joo-doh was funny when he wanted to be; Soo-won was growing fond of the man.

Soo-won turned back to the city, at the ribbons of water that tied all of it together. The reason King Hiryuu picked this place for the capitol was the natural defenses. Mountains to the back, rivers to the left and right, and heavy forest to the front. The only road big enough to let an army through was the main one, through the high walls, through the heavy white gates.

"Are you sure about this, your highness? The damage to the city alone, for something as risky as this..." Joo-doh asked. Joo-doh was a military man. He never questioned his superiors so to even ask showed how serious he was.

Soo-won gave him a smile he didn't feel. "Of course." He lied.

Perhaps he should feel guilty. It didn't matter - Soo-won was so used to lying at this point, there were few people who could tell the difference. Maybe even Jeong would be fooled; he wasn't a grieving thirteen year old anymore.

The thought held his heart in vise and squeezed. He touched his chest. It was a pity one needed a heart to rule. It's nothing but a living consequence, and there were moments when he wondered if having it was really worth it.

"I will of course, welcome other options, if you have them General." He said.

The man was quiet, as Soo-won knew he would be.

There were no other options.

Without Yona and Hak here to ground him, it was getting harder and harder to stay. The people needed him, and he was good at the work, but it wasn't enough. He felt like a music box reaching the last few notes, tired and slow. Something inside him was winding down.

Loneliness was a hungry thing, gnawing at his ribs. Soo-won did this to himself, and he... he can't regret it. He can't. If he regrets it means all he did was for nothing. His revenge, his father, his people, nothing.

Soo-won's father was tall and strong and his voice was deep. He tired to think about his father's face, the ever present grief that his absence brought out in Soo-won, but it was like holding a candle next to a bonfire. All he can picture is Jeong's betrayed face. His father's face faded to a fuzzy impression.

The thought stung.

Resentment boiled inside him, and hatred at his own weakness. His uncle was never a coward, but he was an idealist - and it was worse. If King Il was any good at his job, Soo-won - Soo-won would've forgiven him. Would've let him live at least.

He wasn't, so Soo-won didn't.

"Sir." The tension in Joo-doh's voice is like a hammer against the metal of Soo-won's skull. He looked up, outwards, towards the gates.

Ah.

Right on time.

The army was coming right up to the gates, like a crashing wave in slow motion. Soo-won watched the sun rise up. From his vantage point, he could see it glinting on thousands of spears, like light on the water. The ranks of the proud fire tribe soldiers walking up the road in military lines. There, at the head, with a clearing around him, were two men on horseback. It was too far to see their faces.

"It's Li Hazara, just like you predicted sir. And Kan Soo-jin." Joo-doh spat. "Traitor."

"Always a man to believe in his own myth." Soo-won looked at the soldiers, turning against their own people for the sake of one man's greed.

Joo-doh looked at him. "Sir?"

Men of faith were easy to deal with.

"It's time." Soo-won turned back into the castle. Yona and Hak should've gotten the message by now. All he had to do was hold out. "Open up the gates."


Lady bin-na look critically at the bonsai in front of her. Better than her last attempt - this one actually had a bit of a shape to it, even if it was a bit lopsided. It was a recent hobby she picked up on a trip to Xing. One could only go over the family accounts for so long before one felt like burning the lot (and the family along with it).

The empty compound mocked her. All the servants were sent away earlier. Bin-ba wasn't so callous that she would keep them when battle threatened. Good help was hard to find, and they'd be no use to her dead. She placed the shears down, and threw herself down onto the couch, regardless of the careful makeup and hair-styling. It wasn't like her husband was home to impress.

"Hyun-ki, get me a book." She said, arm over her eyes.

Nothing.

She propped herself up on her arms, and found her dear guard staring at her with disapproving eyes. She rolled her own. "Stop looking at me like that. If I disappear before the army comes I'll be the first target when the dust settles."

Lord Soo-won was entirely too sharp. He'd ask questions: where had all her servants gone? How strange that Bin-na was packed to leave already. How very lucky that she, who rarely left the capital outside of business, recently purchased a lovely estate by the sea in Xing. Did she know that the queen of Xing had some sort of grudge against Lord Soo-won's favorite body guard? It's certainly possible.

Bin-na was a businesswoman. Information has a price, just like everything else. If she sold it at a discount, well. Queen Myeongseong was very pursuasive.

Bin-na smiled, but it more a baring of teeth.

That brat of a lord thought to threaten the one thing, the only loyal person she possessed?

Queen Myeongseong wasn't the only one who could hold a grudge.

A shadow fell over her and she sighed. "Very well. I suppose it's late enough. Lord Soo-won will have other things than one such as I to worry about."

Hyun-ki didn't wait for her to stand up; he scooped her up  directly off the couch, exasperation radiating off him even though his face remained blank.

She didn't fight him.

Let's see how well Lord Soo-won dealt with a threat to his bodyguard.

"I love it when a plan comes together." She said. "Ah. Did you send the letter? I quite forgot."

He grunts. "With the fastest courier."

Excellent. It wasn't as if Jeong was the one she despised, after all. They'd been nothing but polite.

She was willing to leave them a way out.


 

Chapter Text

 


The first sight of the capitol walls, tall and proud, sent a ripple of awe through the troops. Not surprising - the vast majority of them were conscripts, farmers. When would they have the time to see the largest city in the country?

At the front of the army, rode two men men on fine horses; that was where the similarities was tall and broad, with black hair and equaly dark armor, obviously well used. Countless scratches marred the surface. Beside him rode a shorter grey haired man with a face that seemed made for the look of disdain he wore. His armour was utterly pristine, and a long cloak of wine red flowed behind him, rippling like the banners of the army in the wind.

General Li Hazara leaned forward, hands shading his eyes. "So that's your capital. Pretty well fortified."

Lord Kan Soo-Jin smiled, poorly hiding his disdain. " Of course. It is the largest wall in the country."

"Hmm. That don't do much good when the gates are left open like that. What is your prince playing at? I heard the boy was a coward like his uncle, but this is a little much. Is he surrendering?" General Hazara asked, sounding mildly interested. He elbowed Kan Soo-Jin hard enough to sting.

Barbarian.

Was it not obviously a surrender? Kan Soo-Jin glanced over his shoulder and sighed inwardly. A barbarian with a large army. At least half of their combined force belonged to him, and the General had left a good portion behind to guard his home province. It was truly a tragedy that one such as himself had to look to the uncivilised army in Sei for allies to claim his birthright.

Kan Soo-jin glared at the man and shifted his horse a few more paces away. "Perhaps. I've met the boy before. Hardly ruling material. He is a poor spokesman with a short attention span and spent most of the time mingling with that boorish bodyguard of his. Hardly worthy of the throne."

Coward or not, it mattered very little to Kan Soo-jin. He was after the throne he deserved, and if the female brat and the rest of the generals bowed to him they could live. He knew his youngest was infatuated with the chit. She would make a fine wife - her blood was pure enough, despite her father's deficiencies.

Her bodyguard and Soo-won would have to go, of course. Kan Soo-Jin tolerated no pretender to his throne.

Hazara bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. "Hmm. Well, I'll enjoy this, whether he is or not. His father was an old - friend of mine. He showed me so much consideration. I'll be happy to return the favor to his son."

Kan Soo-Jin swallowed against his suddenly dry throat. This was the face of warlord, the reason Kan Soo-Jin lowered himself to working with the man. Hazara was one of the best generals to come out of Sei.

Kan Soo-Jin pulled his unshakable confidence around him. "Quite. I do not care what you do with him, so long as the girl remains unharmed."

He smiled again. "I remember the deal."

Hmph.

Kan Soo-Jin had no time for the pesantry's gawking or Hazara's unecesary caution. His vision went further, and his eyes looked above the wall, to where the palace was just visible. The home his ancestors, stolen by the usupers of the sky tribe. The Red dragons on his banners snapped in the wind. Kan Soo-Jin sat up straigher. It was as if the very wind was pushing his army forward into the city.

"Advance." He said to the captain at his side.

The man glanced at the gates. "Sir, perhaps this could be a trap? The gates are open." One of his many captains said, riding a step behind him as he should.

Kan Soo-Jin scowled at thim. "I can see that, Captain. Report to the quartermaster after we take the city. Ten lashes for speaking out of turn." He said. Showing undisciplined behaviour in front of a foreign general was asking for trouble.

After a moment, the man bowed and dropped back into rank.

Impudence. Thinking some commoner had the right to advise his lord without first being offered the grace of his attention.

"You don't think so?" Hazara tightened his heavy metal gauntlets.

Kan Soo-Jin studied the gates again, but there was nothing out of the ordinary with it. He snorted. "A trap? As if that boy had it in him. He is just like his uncle. If he attacks us, how could he say he was a part of the royal family?"

"You think he won't attack his own citizens?" General Hazara asked.

kan Soo-Jin snorted. "He is exceedingly protective of his commoners."

"Hmm." He looked up at the walls. "Good to know."

Despite his certainty, a thread of tension left Kan Soo-Jin's shoulders after the first three ranks passed through the gates without issue.

It was finally time. He was almost there, and just beyond the walls, rising up like a clenched fist - the palace. The castle, home of the red dragon, and the Kan's ancestral home. He could almost taste incense in the air, almost feel the cold, clean weight of gold on his brow. He, Kan Soo-Jin, would be the one to restore King Hiryuu's bloodline to it's proper place.

Then the fourth rank passed and -

Light.

Kan Soo-Jin jerked away, a second to late. A column of pure white light burnt into his retinas, leaving him blinded for a few terrible moments. A wall of solid noise slammed into him. His horse shied back and he barely kept from being throne to the ground while blinded. By the time he can see again, the smell of burning meat filled his nose. He blinked spots from his stinging eyes.

What on earth happened? Kan Soo-Jin had never seen anything like it. His ears were still ringing.

The gates were unscathed, except for strange black marks on the gate - but the soldiers were not so lucky. Bodies, mere chunks of charrcol with dark, twisted metal where armor used to be.

"The gods - the gods disapprove!" One cried out, panic in their voice.

That was it - the panic started, spreading out over the soilders like dark hands, planting seeds of fear.

"Hold!" General Hazara roared.

His luttenits picked up the cry quickly, and together they herded the fire tribe soilders back into formation. The chaos took a moment to resolve.

"Looks like this Soo-won has some tricks after all." The general sounded a bit amused - but under that, his calculating eyes showed through.

Kan Soo-Jin glared at him. "Do not speak if you do not have anything useful to say. You," He said, pointing to the closest high ranking soldier. "Ten lashes for every miserable soul who ran. The fire tribe does not house cowards." How dare these peasants embarrass him so? None of General Hazara's people tried to break rank. It was inexcusable. "Move forward! The next man to run will be used as a forward guard!"

After checking over the gate a few times over and finding only the smell of smoke and that strange black soot, they continued on. Wary of traps, the rest of the army rode towards the castle.

Kan Soo-Jin's horse shied away from the troops, perhaps sensing it's master's impatience. It was all he could do to wait for the troops to pick their way across street and alley way. He could taste his heart on his tongue. It grew from a simple want into a beast inside his heart, lunging at the cage of his ribs. He was so close.

"Hurry them up!" Kan Soo-Jin snapped at a lieutenant. "We do not have all day."

"Sir, they're going as fast as they can. They risk triggering a trap if they take -"

Lord Kan Soo-Jin whirled on the man, narrowly missing him with horses hooves. "Did I ask for excuses? If they cannot do their job, I have no use for them! Those who are not competent enough to survive should be honored to die in the name of their lord!"

The man bowed his head. "...Yes sir."

The order was passed on, and they moved much faster than before. So what if a few peasants lost their lives? What was a few sacrifices in the name of returning the Fire Tribe to its proper place as rulers, with Kan Soo-Jin at it's head?

A trifling price, and one he would pay without grief.

The impatience doesn't fade - they move faster than before, true, but it was only the threat of more traps that kept Kan Soo-Jin from rushing up to the castle ahead of the troops. It takes half an eternity to reach one of the largest market squares.

There's something… off about it, but it takes a moment to realize why.

"Where are all the people?" Someone asked softly.

It was a large space, the shape of a rectangle. Normally collapsable stalls graced the stone floor, hawkers cried out their wares , children played and beggars cried out from the corners. Seeing it like this - empty of life, of people, it was almost eerie.

"Soo-won must have evacuated." General Hazara said. His horse shifted, and he patted the beast's neck without looking from the surroundings. "Quite smart. Having that many hostages around is foolish. Perhaps the boy is more like his father than I thought."

Kan Soo-Jin snorted. "The brat is nothing like Yuu-hon. He would have used the civilians as shields. No, this is a symptom of cowardice, just like his uncle. Caring for the rabble and setting up honorless traps in place of proper battle - ridiculous."

The man smiled. "That may be. But moving any amount of people takes time - and he moved a good portion of your population out of the battle field with only a few days of warning. You think that doesn't take skill?"

Kan Soo-Jin barely kept the disdain off his face. Of course to a barbarian without class or charisma, moving people would seem to take skill, but Kan Soo-Jin saw it for what it really was - softness, in the head and the heart. Skill?

Hah.

"Of course, we could always ask him what he did with the citizens." General Hazara leaned forward against his horse's neck, looking up. "Soo-won, I presume?"

Kan Soo-Jin's head whipped around.

There, standing on the low roof of one building, hands clasped behind his back, was Soo-won. He smiled down at them, his face almost entirely in shadow. "Hello, Lord Soo-Jin, General Hazara."

Kan Soo-Jin drew his sword. "Soo-won. Have you come to surrender then? Perhaps you have more sense than you look. Not that it would be hard. Archers, ready!"

The boy smiled that infuriating, friendly smile. He looked for all the world like this was a mildly interesting conversation he was enjoying; just like his damned uncle. "Oh dear, your seemed to be confused." He waved over his head. "You see, I'm not the ruler. I can't surrender without an order. Plus - that's what I came here to ask you." The smile grew brighter, to the point where anyone watching could've sworn it literally sparkled. "If you surrender now, I will not charge your family with treason. Only you."

A pillar of rage built up in Kan Soo-Jin's stomach. "You dare give me orders, boy? Exactly who has the army here?"

That damned smile doesn't fade. "Why, you do." Then the smile dropped. He raised his hands, and like a wave heads clad in dark cloths poked up from the roofs surrounding the square.

A ripple of shock went through the soldiers, and Kan Soo-Jin almost flinched. There were at least a hundred of them, all of them silent and watchful.

But… a hundred men? Did Soo-won take him for a fool? Kan Soo-jin snorted. "You think to challenge my army with that amount of people? Take your bluffs elsewhere, boy."

Soo-won tilted his head. The setting sun shone behind him, putting his face in shadow and crowning him in a halo of gold. Kan Soo-jin couldn't see his expression. "Is that your final answer?"

"Archers!" Kan Soo-Jin called out. "Ready!"

"That's what I thought. A pity." Soo-won raised a hand into the air - and for a moment the time slowed. He stood like that, and it was like he was a magnet, like he was the brightest thing in the world.

He slashed his hand down.

No one had time to react. The black clad people on the roof threw something that into burst on the ground, spilling underneath their feet. Kan Soo-Jin pulled his horse back to avoid being struck with one, but it shattered on the ground in front of him. He settled his horse, leaning forward to look at the object. It was a small, plain clay jar broken from impact. Something seeped from the cracks and it smelled strangely familiar. "Is that... oil?"

General Hazara grabbed the reins of Kan Soo-Jin's horse and pulled back hard. "Get away from the oil!"

But the warning came just seconds too late.

The black clad people on the roofs had small bows already knocked. With another signal from Soo-won, the first arrow was loosed. It whistled through the air, and Kan Soo-jin looked at it. It was lit up, falling from the sky like some sort of star knocked to the ground. Kan Soo-jin watched it fall in slow motion.

Fire.

Oil.

Soo-won meant to burn them alive.

"MOVE!" The general bellowed, with the voice of someone who fought countless battles. Even Kan Soo-Jin instinctively jerked back - it saved his clothes from being more than singed.

Arrows skittered across the stone ground, nearly none of them hitting a person - but it was enough. Oil sparked, became a flashing pillar of flame. Kan Soo-Jin and General Hazara were out of range, but not everyone was so lucky. Screaming filled the air of the capital, underneath the roar of flames.

"Is he insane?" Kan Soo-jin demanded. Something hissed and popped. The smell of charred flesh filled the air. "He'll set the whole capital on fire like this!"

The general grunted, putting out the flames with his hands. "No. Not with the rains we've been getting lately. The oil is just to start the fire - and to cut down the army, because you were right. We outnumber them. I bet he's soaked the whole place with water. The capitol won't burn. Your people will." He laughed. "Gives a whole new meaning to the name Fire Tribe."

Kan Soo-Jin glared at him. "My soilders are not the only ones burning." He snapped. "Save your disrespect for one who cares. I will not back down from this because of a few tricks." He pointed at one of the lutenints. "You - get the army moving again, get us out of here! We have to take the castle. And send someone out after that whore's son." Kan Soo-jin looked up to the roofs again, but Soo-won was gone. He ground his teeth. "Scale the roofs! I want him found, alive!"

Damn whatever promise he made to Hazara, he wanted to kill the boy himself.

He whirled his horse around the fire - annoyingly, it was dying down already, proving the barbarian right. "And someone put those peasants out of their misery. The screaming is giving me a headache!"


The night air is clear and bright, but I could smell smoke on the wind. The horse shied, but I keep pushing onward. We were a day or two behind the army. They had a head start on us and horses need to rest. We pushed the beasts to near death as it was.

"It's ahead." I shouted to Jae-ha over the wind. Yoon was clinging to my waist with a death grip. I was the one with most experience riding, so he got to come with me. Zeno and Kija were sharing a horse to my left and Jae-ha and Shin-ah to my right. We had to abandon the other somewhere, because we needed speed and neither Yoon, Zeno, or Kija possessed the skill to ride at more than a trot.

"Hate this!" Yoon gritted out.

The road was a mud churned mess, and it was clear by now that the fire tribe wasn't trying to hide.

What the hell was going on? Did Kan Soo-Jin think that just waltzing in would work? Soo-won would see them coming, and that would give him time to plan. Giving Soo-won time to plan was fucking stupid.

Still, I can't help the little sliver of apprehension in my heart. I haven't forgiven Soo-won, but I don't want him dead. The fire tribe army was huge, big enough that I knew the defenders had no chance. There wouldn't be time to call for reinforcements from the other tribes. Soo-won was at a huge disadvantage with only the armed guards in the city for back up. The thought makes my stomach sink.

"Fighting!" Shi-ah said. "Ahead!"

I kicked the horse, urging it to move faster. I snatched my staff up in one hand. "I hear it! Get ready!"

Metal against metal, cries of pain, horses and people screaming in unison. We crested the last hill that lead to the city and got a view of the walls for the first time.

The gates of the city were open. Gates intact. Not forced. Soo-won… let them in?

Black streaks on the wall, the smell of - fireworks?

...Gunpowder?

The split second of confusion slides off the top of my thoughts like liquid - all of my mind is focused on the soldiers, fighting in the fortress.

We leave the horses outside the gate. There wasn't any point in having them inside the city when we wanted to move quickly and quietly. The gate was scorched black. I touched on and my hand came away with soot on it. It was a scene out of some hellish nightmare; a piece of the past come back to life. The taste of old pennies on the tongue, the foul smell as bowels were cut, burning meat.

I stepped over the charred corpses littering the gate. Pretend I didn't notice Kija going pale, or Yoon's tight grip on his bag, Zeno's pursed mouth. I warned them.

I didn't have time for that.

War smelled like the inside of a butcher shop.

I looked at the wide open gates. Soo-won's fingerprints were all over this situation.

"What happened here?" Yoon whispered. "It's like they were - were burned alive."

Jae-ha shaded his eyes. "He doesn't hold back, does he?"

I said nothing. Just looked at the corpses, the massacre that Soo-won orchestrated. I could feel him on it like reading a book. His hand, writing out the death of these men. It should disgust me, but… it's not like my hands are clean.

I think I might be broken. The only thing I felt was a vague sense of rightness. They were attacking. It was his right as a prince to defend his people, to be as ruthless as possible. A plus B equals C.

I shook my head. "Lets go."

Yoon bit his lip. "Barram..."

He was a doctor. One of the men let out a groan and it sounded like agony. He was half charred. It'd be kinder to put him out of his misery.

Despite that I hesitated. Looked Yoon in the eyes. "You can't do anything for them." I said. Most of the men left behind were too far gone to save for the medicine in this era. They'd die within the hour.

He looked down. "I know. But I..."

I sighed and looked up at the sky. Yoon grew up in this place where life meant less than a string of coin. Despite that, he cared. He pushed and pushed and saved as much as he could. Sheltered life in his arms from the storm.

Compared to me, who became the storm without hesitation, he was the better person. I think he would have died first, rather than do what I did.

I ruffled his hair. "I know. It's okay. Zeno, Shin-ah, Kija." I looked at Zeno. "Will you stay with him?"

Zeno gave me a long look, before he nodded. "Zeno will protect the little doctor."

I smiled at them, even though it stretched my mouth in a awkward way. The smell of blood in the air, copper and old rust. I watched my mouth move, heard my voice, from somewhere outside myself. My hands were cold. My chest was a glacier.

War… I despised it.

"Thank you." I looked at Yoon. "Stay safe. I'll see you soon."

"Really?" Yoon asked, biting his lip. "It's okay? I feel like I should stay with you. I'm the one who wanted to come. But these people need my help and I have to -"

"Yoon. It's okay, I get it." I smiled. I felt... detached. Like I was watching the scene from outside my body, watching the dragons with dispassionate eyes. Within this space, there were no friends or enemies. There were only threats and not-threats. The dragons were not a threat, so I ignored them.

I left the five of them there, heading deeper into the city by myself. I avoided the fighting when I could, but it was unavoidable sometimes. I missed Mercy. With that dagger, I was invcible. The staff just wasn't the same.

I had to get to the castle. There was an army between me and it, all of it likely knew my name and face. I looked down the street, plumes of smoke rising itno the air like giant colloms holding up the sky. Soo-won never did anything by halves. There were soilders scattered like nocked over chess peices all over the street. I nudged one with my foot. The corpse didn't move. Fancy armrour. Some sort of noble?

I sighed and crouched by it. "Sorry about this." I said and ripped the long red cloak off it's shoulders. I tore the cloak further into a long strips, removing most of the charred bits. Than I wound it around my neck, until I had a makeshift mask. I needed it for the smoke anyway.

Someone was following me.

"Stay with Yoon and the others." I said, without looking over my shoulder.

Jae-ha dropped down from the rooftops to my side, hands in his pockets. "Nah. They'll be fine - Zeno knows not to let Yoon get too close to the fighting. Shin-ah will watch their backs. I… kinda just don't want Kija with us. He's a sensitive kid. Doesn't need to see this. Plus, we move faster if it's just the two of us."

I looked at him. "I don't need you."

"I know. I want to be there." He said, voice quiet, serious. He shrugged, slipping back into nonchalance like a familiar pair of shoes. "I'm doing what I want, the way I always have. Carry on as much as your murderous little heart desires."

I gave him a short nod, some far away part of me accepting this as right; likr his place was beside me.

"Keep up." I said.

"Of course, darling."


 

Chapter Text

Li Hazara watched Lord Kan Soo-Jin looked over the troops with a scowl on his face. Less than half of his personal troop remained and the few that were were bleeding and bruised, or lost to the various traps. Li Hazara's own troops were better off, but not by much. Soo-won truly was his father's son. He turned the place into a death trap in less than three days.

"Incompetent buffoons!" Kan Soo-Jin kicked one of his foot soldiers viciously. The man gritted his teeth and ducked his head, not making a sound. This was not the triumphant march the fire tribe lord expected, no doubt.

Li Hazara snorted. The man was a fool, like a thousand other fools Li Hazara recognized. The privileged brats sent to Hazara's army expecting riches and glory. They never found anything but an early grave.

Soldiers were expected to die, yes, but that didn't mean you treated them like they were disposable. Morale was almost as important as strategy on the battlefield. This fool of a lord had neither. It was a pity he was the one who reached out to Li Hazara a few years ago and not one of the other generals. Li Hazara thought the earth tribe general fit his style of battle the most.

The only thing waiting for Kan Soo-Jin at the end of this was a knife in the back.

"Go!" Lord Soo-jin snapped at the lieutenant next to him - a steady looking man with a clean shaven face and worry lines around his eyes. Not young, but not old either. Professional soldier, judging by his calloused hands.

"Sir, the traps -"

Lord Soo-Jin struck without warning, catching his lieutenant on the side of his jaw. It wasn't a light blow either; the man staggered under the force of it.

"I grow tired of your comments, peasant. Do as I say without any asides. I am your lord, and you will obey me."

Hazara watched the lieutenant's knuckles go white.

"...Sir." He bit off. Not an agreement. Just a simple, neutral 'sir'.

That was the face of someone at the end of his rope, and Soo-jin didn't even notice. A fool indeed. Not that Hazara would say anything. Kan Soo-Jin was not someone Hazara was fond of.

Hazara doubted that the fool even knew any of his soldiers names, let alone personalities. There were merits to that approach, but if you didn't know who was in your camp, it was easy to lose control.

The foot soldiers exchanged uneasy, grim glances when the orders get passed down. They started again, but reluctantly.

Hazara snorted and looked back at the long, innocuous hallway. The palace of Kouka showed its long history. Beautiful marble and wood floors, long elegant hallways, gardens everywhere, each more beautiful than the last. The smell of green hung in the air, underlying the faint scent of expensive incense.

No one would suspect that the whole thing was a death trap.

General Yu-hon's son was ruthless. He spared nothing and no one, and it was clear that here, on his home ground, he was willing to burn it to the ground if it meant that Kan Soo-Jin couldn't have it.

Hazara considered leaving the palace behind - but he'd come this far. With the wealth of Kouka on his side, he could return to Sei and unite the country. Face up against the two petty men who tore it apart. The thought of grinding those old fools' noses into the dirt and it was sweet.

He could make himself a king.

An emperor.

Sweet enough to deal with the ramblings of Kan Soo-jin until they had Soo-won in hand, Li Hazara was willing to put up with Kan Soo-jin's incompetence.

For now.


My first battle was heat. It felt like the second I crawled out of that river, shivering and wet, the cold evaporated from my body, hitting the air and turning to steam. It was winter. Snow turned red before it even hit the churned mud of the battlefield. Battle after battle, I built a little piece of myself that stood back and watched me burn from the outside. It kept me alive, kept me from turning to ash, to a corpse like all the others.

Hotheads die quicker.

Snow fell, turned red. Battle cycled. Soldiers burnt up, burnt out, and died. I froze myself instead. I froze from the inside out and I started learning. Noticing the ebb and flow of battle, When it was safe to rest, safe to clean my blades hilt of blood and less pleasant things. I got used to pain.

Eventually, I stopped getting hurt at all.

The battle of the capitol was cold.

Fire burned on nearly every corner, and I should've felt it.

There was a flow to war. I inhaled, and I could taste it on my tongue. Music came from the screams, the clashing of blades, and I moved with it. Dancing across the flow of battle, with Jae-ha following just behind me. He was quick on his feet, throwing knives and kicking soldiers away without a pause. It was almost like being back in the Red Hand, with my squad-mates covering my back again. The two of us were on the palace walls, the most likely place for Soo-won to direct the battle. If he wasn't there...

I cracked a soldier about to plunge his dagger into a palace guard across the back of his knees. He went down with a scream of pain.

The guard stared up at me, and what little blood he had drained from his face. He licked his lips. I didn't know him, but he obviously knew me.

"L-lord Jeong." He stuttered.

I put the staff across my shoulders. "Don't call me that."

He flinched, holding his bleeding arm with the other. "Wh-why did you come back?"

I ignored his questions and knelt down next to him. "Where is Soo-won?"

The guard glared. "W -why? So you can kill him like h- his majesty?"

I stared at him, his words so much smoke on the wind. Under the helmet I could makes out a face young enough that I doubted he needed to shave. He was downed, not a threat. Bleeding out. I reached into my belt.

He flinched, hand half raised to protect his throat.

I dropped a roll of bandages onto his lap. Yoon always made sure the dragons and I were prepared. "Get to the city gate. There's a doctor called Yoon there. He'll fix you up." I stood up, only to find Jae-ha watching me with a tiny smile on his face.

I raised an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"Zeno is right. You're kind." He said.

I looked down at the fire tribe soldier, still whimpering on the ground, the guard who was staring at me. It was only a role of bandages. He had a strange sense of kindness.

"You're insane." I turned away from the soldier and Jae-ha, dismissing both of them. I had more important things to worry about.

He laughed and nudged my shoulder, ignoring the blood on it. "That I am. Where to next, oh glorious leader?"

"Soo-won wouldn't be in the thick of things." I said. Soo-won knew his own value and his value to the people. He wouldn't put himself in danger like that, not without a good reason.

"Is your prince a coward?"

"Not my prince." Not my anything, anymore. Ache spread through my chest, like putting pressure on a bruise. I shook my head. Not the time. I thought of all the stupid places I've pulled Soo-won out of. Bars and Gambling halls, traders and gang members and kidnappers, oh my. The kid was a walking health hazard with no sense of self preservation.

"He won't hesitate to leap into danger if it's necessary - but this?" I gesture to the battlefield, the smoke and fire sprouting up in the background. The blue of the palace guard was barely visible among the red of the fire tribe, but every so often a flash of black would appear and another smoke bomb or a firework and oil combination would make red of a different sort bloom up again.

"There's no reason to be here." I said, watching another black clad shape jump from one roof to another below me. There was something familiar about the way it moved.

Jae-ha looked out over the battlefield, shading his eyes. "Wish we brought Shin-ah. He'd be able to see through this mess. I haven't even seen the lord that everyone followed here." He paused.

I blinked and looked over the battlefield. He was right.

I couldn't see him anywhere. My heart sunk. Kan Soo-Jin was after the crown, and all the trappings that went with it.

Soo-won would never allow it.

"The throne room." I said.


The palace was a damn maze and the traps were everywhere, but with Li Hazara's soldiers' skill and the Fire Tribe troops acting as sacrifices, they made it to the throne room were made of some heavy dark, wood, full of severity. A dragon was embossed in gold, coiling endlessly around itself. The eyes winked in the torch light, a deep red. Hazara thought they might be rubies, but he'd never seen a ruby that burned that bright.

The soldiers paused as one, under the gaze of that great beast. Old power radiated off the very walls, pushed the heads of the proud down with the heel of it's boot. Hazara felt his fingers twitch. He was so close to having that power for himself.

Kan Soo-jin looked at him with contempt. The man sniffed. "Kindly keep your eyes in your head. I know Kouka is grander by far than your small backwater, but we are not here to sight-see."

Hazara hid the spark of true anger in favor of a fake smile. "Of course, of course." Kan Soo-jin would be dead soon enough. Hazara doesn't have time to waste getting angry at a walking corpse. He raises his hand. "Open the door!"

The soldiers do, eventually. Every inch is an agonizing wait. Every creak has them flinching back. No one wants to die after making it this far and who knows what kind of traps the price set on it? Even Kan Soo-Jin was silent for once, though the impatience nearly radiated off him. No doubt he expected something grander, such as slamming the door open.

At last the doors stood wide.

Hazara waited a moment. Nothing exploded.

Kan Soo-Jin straightened up. "Enter!"

The room beyond the door was long, with a dark red carpet leading up to a dais at the far end. Tapestries hung from the walls, masterpieces that looked almost life like. The ceiling was tall, and it was clear the whole thing was built by fine craftsmen. The room dripped wealth. The centerpiece was the throne sitting atop the dais - more of the dragons Kouka natives were fond of were carved into the gold and wood throne. They looked even more life like than the one on the door, if that was possible. Authority radiated off it.

Hazara stared avidly. Soo, it would be his. He could almost feel gold on his brow.

"You made it this far. Welcome."

It's only years of experience that stops Hazara from jumping. The sound of a even voice breaks the spell over him, and he looks away from the throne. There, sitting to left of the throne was Soo-won.

Hazara's eyes narrowed.

This was Soo-won? Hazara could hardly believe it, wouldn't have if not for the glimpse of him earlier in the square. He looked different in the light of the throne room. It was almost impressive how delicate the boy looked, with hair of spun gold and eyes the color of the sea, his skin more flawless than one of Hazara's concubines. A simple band circled his head, barely worthy of being called a crown. He wore no other decorations, and his eyes were down. He looked more like a spirit, still and serene, sitting with hands folded neatly. Li Hazara could have mistaken him for a woman if he didn't know better.

Perhaps Hazara would let him live on as a concubine instead. His old ones were growing stale and it's been a while since he had a man. How old was the boy? Seventeen or so?

It would be a pleasure to break him.

Li Hazara narrowed his eyes. Why not sit on the throne? His cousin was out of the castle, making him the de-facto ruler of the palace. Soo-won had the right.

Ah well. Something to think about later.

Standing behind him, in parade rest, was a man Li Hazara vaguely recognized as the sky tribe general. A very serious, dangerous man - but not good enough to stop all of them, much less Hazara himself.

"Soo-won." Kan Soo-jin sneered. "I see you've run out of cowardly little tricks. It's a shame you take after your uncle and not your father. General Yu-hon would have been ashamed to raise such a spineless wretch."

Soo-won looked up for the first time, and for one terrible second Li Hazara's heart flinched back. Soo-won's sea-glass eyes were razors, sharpened to a biting edge. They didn't see - they cut through him.

"Li Hazara." Soo-won said after a moment. His voice was soft and pleasant, so different from the commanding tone in the square. "You are here, against treaty. You and my Uncle had an agreement."

Kan Soo-Jin was ignored. Li Hazara steadied his heart. He was a soldier of one thousand battles. He'd killed more people than this wet behind the ears prince had ever met.

What did he have to be afraid of?

"He's dead." He said with a shrug. "The terms no longer applied."

Soo-won leaned forward, resting his head on his fist. "Is that so."

The boy showed no sign of fear. The admiration blossomed, and Hazara hands itched to reach out a break him in the way all beautiful things broke in the end. He wanted the boy. Their soldiers outnumbered the palace guards three to one, despite all the losses they took.

He looked at the boy on the throne and crossed his arms. This child wasn't his match - he was not general Yu-hon, no matter how clever his traps. Hazara bares his teeth in a smile. "Of course. I'm always up to renegotiate."

"Hm." Soo-won looked back to Kan Soo-Jin. "You want to be king?"

"I deserve to be king! Your bloodline is made up of nothing but pretenders to the throne, while mine is descended from the Noble Red Dragon himself! If not for your clan's treachery, we would still be rulers!" Kan Soo-Jin drew his sword and pointed at Soo-won. "Step down and you may yet live to see the dawn, boy!"

Soo-won tilted his head. "I am not sitting on the throne. If you want it, you may claim it yourself."

A beat of silence.

Hazara looked at the throne. It remained imposing and quiet. The eyes of the dragons seemed to watch the army below like they were so many ants. There was nothing Hazara could see wrong with it, and yet...

What did Soo-won do to it?

Kan Soo-jin seemed to reach the same conclusion, because he hesitated before taking a single step.

Soo-won smiled, politely. "Is there something wrong, General?" Under the concern, the gentleness, there was the slightest hint of mocking. "I thought you wanted to sit on the throne?"

Hazara stared at that beautiful face, and wanted. He would take Soo-won for his harem, no matter how this ended.

He glared at the prince. "Is there nothing you hold sacred?" He pointed his sword at Soo-won again. "Seize him!"

Hazara sighed inwardly, and unsheated his own sword.

Soo-won would have to wait.


Yona and Hak ran three horses into the ground to make it back from the water tribe to the capitol, and still takes more than a day. The sun is a low smudge in the sky nearly blocked out completely by the haze of smoke rising from behind the city walls.

The sight of Kouka burning hollows out the dark pit inside Yona, a howling thing that barely scabbed over with the loss of her father. She can barely breath for rage, can barely see for fear.

A large, callused hand wrapped around her wrist and jerked her around. "Princess. We have to keep moving."

her hands were shaking. "But- Kouka -"

Hak took her face in his hands. "Don't look at that. Look at me. I need you here."

His dark eyes flicker with the fires, but in them there's something warm about them. His skin dances with the shadows and the light and the pit inside her -fades.

Yona can't look away.

Hak needed her.

She nodded, once. Swallowed stiffly. "I understand."

Hak studied her for on beat more. "Alright." His calloused hands catch at her skin when he let her go, slowly.

Yona grasped his hand in her own before he could let go entirely. "Hak. Thank you."

Thank you for being steady and true and there.

He grinned at her. "Someone has to keep you from being an idiot."

She snorted. "Like you have room to talk."

I will keep you safe. It wasn't a promise. It simply felt... right. Like a truth in the deepest part of Yona's soul. Hak would be happy, would be with her, so long as he wanted. He was the only thing she was sure of anymore.

They hold hands for a moment longer, and Yona leaned into him briefly. He was solid and safe, and she never wanted to move away.

Her city is burning.

She straightened up and let go of his hand, took out her bow and strung it. "Let's go." She said, looking up at the city. Pulled up her hood and set off, step after step down the road to the city gates. Smoke filled her nose. Yona never looked behind her.

She already knew Hak was there, matching her step for step.


It's hell. The first step into the city is tainted by the sound of screaming, people breaking and burning. Yona's heart rang like a bell struck too hard. She never wanted to be a warrior.

Her hands stayed steady. The bow creaked, the arrows flew. She didn't always hit her mark - but she hit more than she missed. Every dull thunk of wood into flesh sounded like an apology to her heart.

I'm sorry, Father.

Quickly the smoke overwhelms. She ripped up the bottom of her dress, tied it around her face and kept going, ignoring the sting in her eyes. It's just the smoke.

(If she kept telling herself that to keep fear from drowning her, it's no one's business but her own.)

Hak moved in front of her like a great ship, like a wave crashing down on the shore. The soldiers broke on him, while the defenders treated him like a lifeboat in their last moments of air. They saw their general and it bolstered them.

Yona watched from the back, and understood. Hak was awe inspiring. He moved like the thunder beast he was nicknamed for, like he wasn't fully human. Something about it echoed in Yona's mind. She blinked once. Jeong overlayed on Hak's body in a strange double image. There were differences, like the dagger in Jeong's hand, but it was enough to shake Yona.

Enough to distract her.

A blow to her head sent her stumbling, a cry of pain spilled from her lips. Agony radiated from her temple. Something wet dripped down her face. Yona had no time to recover - a rough hand grabbed her hair and pulled back, setting off a starburst of ringing pain in her forehead that nearly robs her of light.

She scrabbles to her feet, going with the tug, wary of more pain. Her bow was gone. Rough hands around her throat. It takes a moment to understand. A soldier got behind her for a sneak attack, and Hak was never, ever going to let her hear the end of this.

The smell of sweat and cold metal behind her. Slightly panicked breathing. "S-stop!" The soldier cried out to Hak - and he sounded barely older than Yona herself. "Stop fighting, or I swear to god I'll kill her!"

Something cold laid itself at her throat, and Yona's heart sank. She could feel the way he trembled through the blade.

The moment stretched and Hak turned in slow motion. His eyes were black pits in his blood splattered face. Yona felt the full body recoil and barely moved in time to not get her throat split on accident.

Hak stopped.

"D-drop your weapon." The soldier called out.

The soldiers Hak fought pulled in tighter around him - those that could still stand - but he dropped his spear without a second thought.

The clatter of wood on the ground rattled in Yona's ears.

The soldiers glanced at each other, before taking one careful step forward.

Hak doesn't even look at them. His eyes are on Yona.

Shame. Shame bubble in her stomach, shame that for all her vows, she still felt so afraid. She didn't want to die. The cold steel burned at her neck, almost blinding in the fire light.

But under the shame, there was something else. Something larger and growing; like a lily across the water, like a bonfire consuming a home, like a pool of her father's blood, Yona felt the anger seconds before it hit the surface of her mind. It felt like seeing someone you love throw a spear at your head. It felt like knowing thousands of her people were dying for one man's greed, his ambition. Like figuring out a horrible truth. Yet, Yona was calm.

No.

No, she will not wait. She's not that girl anymore.

Her hand found the dagger at her waist. The soldier was paying more attention to Hak than to the girl in his arm.

What good has red done for her, anyway?

Nothing at all.

Yona swung the dagger, and threw herself back at the same time.

Strands of red scattered in the wind, shining like blood in the light of the fire. Yona doesn't look - she's busy fighting for her life.

The soldier's shock doesn't last for long, but it's enough. he doesn't have a hold on her, so she throws her head back, felt something crunch under the back of her skull. He let out a cry of pain and fumbled at his sword. She throws her head back again, away from the cold metal at her throat. This time he can't keep his grip on her and she breaks free.

Without waiting, she takes off into the smoke. Her head throbbed with every step. She heard footsteps pounding after her. Yona's ankle met a piece of rubble, and she went down, the whole world turning somersaults around her. She barely got her hands up in time to stop herself meeting the ground face first. A long shadow fell over her. Yona rolled to the left, and a sword came down where her head would have been. She scrambled back, until her back hit a half destroyed wall. Yona noted with a little hysteria, that his nose was probably broken.

The soldier approached, all the hesitation gone from his eyes, one hand holding his still bleeding nose, the other his sword.

He snarled at her and took a swipe - she scrambled out of the way, heart like a drum inside her head. The rubble the two of them were stood on swayed, unsteady as a boat in the ocean. Yona's stomach rebelled, but she didn't have time to throw up - he was coming after her.

Yona's heart thudded in her chest. No time to get her bow out. No arrows anyway. Her knife was gone. Her head was spinning, still.

Where was Hak?

She tried to stand up, to run, but dizziness pulled her back to the ground.

The soldier raised his sword.

Yona inhaled - to scream? To call for Hak? For Soo-won? For Jeong? She didn't know.

The blade fell.

She closed her eyes.

Something warm splattered Yona's face. She raised one unsteady hand to touch it - it came away red. Blood.

Not... Yona's blood. She looked up.

Standing in front of her was a boy. Yellow hair, pale skin, an orange band around his head. A gold coin hanging from that headband winked at her in the fire light. His back was too her. All of this information, Yona dismissed it in favor of the important information.

A sword protruded from that back, and a dark red stain spread from it.

The blood on her face burned.


Chapter Text

The soldier's blind anger vanished, and he looked at the sword in his hand with horror; horror Yona knew. The flash fire spread of realization: This is a person, and I've just done something unforgivable to them. This soldier was barely older than Yona. He never killed anyone before. She doubted he's even fought. Some conscripted farmer's son pushed into this by his selfish lord.

The yellow haired boy slumped to the ground and he took the soldier with him, both of them dropping to their knees. It drove the blade deeper, and the boy coughed, blood spilling from his mouth.

The soldier let go of the blade like it burnt him. "I- Are you okay? I mean no of course you're not -"

The boy laughed, and Yona flinched at the wet sound underneath it. "Don't worry. Zeno will be just fine."

The sound of his voice hit a place inside Yona, a little whisper she didn't recognize, that sounded... old. Familiar. Yona's fear vanished like smoke into the sky. Heat prickled at the corner of her eyes. She was safe. With this boy here, nothing would harm her.

Then the boy slumped all the way to the ground. He made a sound of pain when the blade drove itself deeper.

He was dying.

The soldier scrambled to his feet, took one step backwards, then another. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean too." Then he turned and ran, out into the darkness, leaving Yona behind without a second glance.

She pulled herself up onto unsteady feet, and slowly, using the wall as a support, made her way to the boy with head spinning all the way. She pushed on him onto his side and inspected the wound. It was even worse than she thought. The boy lifted his left hand to protect himself and the sword pierced through his hand, deep into his chest. Yona swallowed. It might have missed his left lung, if the soldier got very, very unlucky.

Yona doubted it.

"I-I'm sorry." She said. Her eyes were burning, and it wasn't from the smoke. "I don't know - I can't fix this." He saved her life, and she couldn't help him in return. Yona wiped her eyes. She hated being helpless.

The boy patted her knee with his one good hand. He looked so pale, but his smile didn't falter. "Little miss doesn't need to worry. The reason Zeno is here is to protect her, after all."

Yona stared at him. The words made no sense - protect her? The just met.

Yona had no reason to believe him. He could be a liar. He could be delusional. He could be a spy.

She believed him anyway. She couldn't do anything else. He felt safe.

He coughed again and red spilled down his chest.

She tried to summon up a smile. "Your name is Zeno?"

There was a war on. She should leave him here, go find Hak and get to the castle. She didn't move. She recognized that rattle in his breath.

Blood pooled out of his mouth, dripped down his chin. He laughed. "That's right. It's nice to finally meet the little miss. Zeno's brothers will be so happy to know you."

"Having family is nice." Yona said, quiet. "I'd be happy to meet them."

Zeno smiled at her, and it looked so strange with is pale face, and dripping blood. "Zeno thinks so too. They can be a handful, but he would miss them. Zeno has a request for little miss."

"Anything." Her throat was tight. Her hands were clenched in her dress.

"It hurts." He said, tapping the sword with his free hand. "Will the little miss help me pull it out? Zeno doesn't think he can do it by himself."

She sniffled. "O-of course."

She took the pommel of the sword in both hands. Yona's never touched a sword before. It felt strange. Heavy and rough, still warm from the soldier's grip. Zeno's free hand covered hers. They were more calloused than she expected. Colder.

"On three." He said.

Yona nodded, mouth firm.

"One. Two. Three."

Yona heaved and pulled, and the sword shifted outwards. It pulled with a strange sucking sound, and Yona could feel it vibrate, grinding against the bones in his rib-cage and hand. She sobbed once despite herself, dry and quick, and the sword came free. Blood poured from his hand, his chest, but Zeno didn't seem to care. He let out a sigh of relief and let his left-hand fall to the earth. He struggled to sit up before Yona could stop him.

"Much better." He said.

"I'm sorry," She said again, though it was little more than a sob this time.

He smiled at her again. "Little miss didn't do anything wrong. Zeno will be alright."

Yona's eyes burned.

"Ah, it hurts." Zeno said, leaning forward to put his forehead on Yona's shoulder.

She sniffled. "Sorry."

Zeno laughed again. Warmth speed out from the blood dripping on her dress.

"Yona!"

The queen jerked up. That was Hak's voice.

Zeno was still in her arms.

Her heart stopped. "Hak, I'm here!"

Before she could fully process it, there was movement in the smoke. His eyes were like chips of ice in his shadowed face, his gaze swept over the rubble and the fire to land on Yona and Zeno.

The smoke is broken by a blur of dark robes and darker hair. Hak burst from the smoke, covered in blood and other less pleasant things, radiating something murderous. His gaze landed the two of them - Yona on the ground, the yellow haired boy slumped against her.

He stalked to them. "Are you okay? What happened?"

Yona - burst into tears. It was embarrassing, but she was so beyond anything but the relief she felt. "He saved me and now he's dying! Hak, help him!"

Hak looked at the boy in her arms, and his mouth went tight. "Princess..."

The nickname made Yona's heart sink even further. Her tears flowed out, and she clutched at Zeno. She felt so useless, so weak. All this time and she was still the same person who stumbled on her father's corpse. There was nothing she could do.

"Ah... Little miss is crying." Zeno said. "Don't worry, don't cry. Zeno is very good at not dying."

Hak's eye flickers down - and narrowed. "What the hell?"

Yona looked down too and gasped.

Gold climbed Zeno's chest, spreading like paint poured over his skin. It started from the wound on his hand, tracing up his wrist, up over the arms. It wasn't paint - but scales, scales the color of the coin hanging from his bandanna, the color of his hair. Under the scales, the hole slowly shifted, shrinking back, until it sealed over and vanished.

The scales stopped before they reached his face. His yellow hair gleamed in the firelight.

He didn't - he didn't look human.

...He reminded Yona of Jeong, she realized. The memory is fuzzy, but Yona recalls the first time they met, in her mother's garden. Yona thought that Jeong must be a spirit, or a sleeping oni, because she'd never seen anyone so big. That was strange enough, but there was something deeper. Jeong was something other, something that left a vague sense of 'this is not right' in the very back of her head.

Zeno was different. He had the same strangeness to him, but it was more familiar. Like he belonged with her. He was one of Yona's people, the way Lili or Hak was. The way Soo-won used to be. The thought of giving him up was awful.

"What are you?" Hak's voice was mildly interested.

Zeno smiled, scales on his cheek, circling his eyes. "Zeno is the yellow dragon."

"Like - as in King Hiryuu?" Yona blurted out.

"That's right! At your service, little miss." He bowed, even though he was kneeling. "Zeno and his brothers are finally together again, and they will want to meet you."

Hak took a step forward, until he stood a little between Yona and Zeno. "You're some kind of monster, huh?"

Zeno smiled at Yona. "Does the little miss think Zeno is scary?"

Yona stared at him, tear tracks still drying on her face. Was he scary? He looked like something that wasn't human, some sort of half-formed creation of a mad god. He carried strangeness with him like a veil, wore it like a robe.

Yona moved past Hak and reached out without thinking, put her hand where the wound had been. The scales were warm to the touch and slightly smooth. She could feel his heart beat through them.

Alive.

His scales shined like gold. It was beautiful.

"No." She said to Zeno. "I'm not scared."

His smile was brighter than the sun.


They were going to lose.

Soo-won doesn't let the grim thought show on his face. The thieves he used to light up the city were not frontline fighters. They were sneaks and lurkers, and by this point, even the most loyal of them was long gone. Soo-won didn't blame them - it was their nature.

The soldiers of the palace were soft people, used to being coddled. King Il did everything to avoid war - and succeeded.

The standing guards of the palace were cut down like paper tigers before Li Hazara and Kan Soo-Jin's army.

General Joo-doh and the few veterans from Soo-won's Father's Day were keeping the fire tribe soldiers at bay and the guards together. They couldn't hold forever.

If Soo-won had just a little bit more time, he would have sent word to the other generals; if he had Hak here, there would be a chance. Even Yona would be useful. She had a way of getting people to listen to her Soo-won couldn't quite match.

If he had Jeong -

Soo-won shoved the thought back. He didn't have time for what-ifs. Not in the middle of battle.

"Bring me Soo-won's head!" Kan Soo-Jin screamed over the crowd.

Soo-won was skilled, but he wasn't prepared for the surge of soldiers in his direction. He caught the first sword and the second, but the third catches him through the shoulder. He kept a hiss of pain between his teeth and backed up. He feels something beneath his foot and he falls backward.

"Your Highness!" Joo-doh shouted. He's across the room, but Soo-won could hear the panic in his voice.

Soo-won's brain kicked into focus. His senses sharpened and the whole world slowed down. Soilders surrounded Soo-won on every side. He can't take them all on. Joo-doh was too far away. There's no way out.

Soo-won, half sprawled on the first step leading up to the dais around the throne, understood his death was coming. He'd been prepared from the first step of his plan, but still. He thought he'd be more... upset.

He wasn't afraid. Soo-won accomplished what he set out to do. Yona was strong. Hak was with her.

The country would be alright in time.

Soo-won just wished...

A blade swung down. Soo-won doesn't close his eyes. He wanted to see it coming.

A blur of red drops from the ceiling, landing in front of Soo-won.

Thunk.

The sound of metal into wood. A moment of utter stillness.

Long, brown hair held back in a low tie. Broad shoulders. That familiar back.

"Jeong." Soo-won whispered. Was he hallucinating? Was this the last gift of a mind about to end?

Jeong pushed the soldiers back with almost insulting ease, knocking one down with a shove and following up with a boot to the stomach that sent another man sprawling. The sword stays in the staff.

"What the fuck is going on here?"

It was low, but Jeong's voice shivered over the room, heavy and intent. Even Soo-won felt like his skin was trying to crawl away from the unspoken threat in that voice. It spread out like a ripple in a pond, breaking over the soldiers.

"Well?" Jeong leaned on their staff. Soo-won could see the intricate carvings, marred by the large cut where the sword was still lodged.

The fire tribe soldiers hesitated. Soo-won understood their fear. Jeong like this was difficult to go against - their presence seemed to swell to fill the room, their height turns from mealy tall to towering.

None of the soldiers dared move.

Kan Soo-Jin shoved through the frozen soldiers, his sword drawn and red with blood. "What are you fools doing? I told you to bring me his head -" He stopped short. "You!"

"Me." Jeong said.

"Y- you!" Kan Soo-Jin pulled himself up, and Soo-won almost had to admire his tenacity. Not many people could stand up to Jeong like this. "Why have you come back, traitor? "

Jeong tilted their head. "You're calling me a traitor? That's pretty rich."

Kan Soo-Jin sneered. "Do not compare me to you, peasant. I seek to return my clan to its rightful place as rulers."

"That's nice." Jeong's tone was supremely dismissive.

"You bastard-"

Jeong rolled their eyes. "So, you want to be King?"

"It is what's owed me!" Kan Soo-Jin pointed at them. "Attack the kingslayer!"

None of the soldiers moved. Soo-won didn't blame them. The pressure in the room cranked up one step, and all Jeong did was stand there, waiting.

Kan Soo-Jin glared at his people. "Are you all deaf? I said to attack!"

"My lord is that really -"

A flash of bright metal and the man who spoke went down with a cry of pain. Blood dripped from Kan Soo-jin's blade. The other soldiers flinched back, eyes wide.

"I will not tolerate such disrespect." He said, tone deadly. He raised his blade again, obviously intending to finish the downed man off.

Jeong's staff flickered out, faster than thought. They struck Kan Soo-jin's knees out from under him and he went down with a shout, swing going wide.

"You dare -" Kan Soo-Jin started to snarl.

Crack.

Jeong's staff shattered the marble floor next to Kan Soo-Jin's head. "You're a real piece of work." Jeong did not sound amused. "You treat your men like that, Kan Soo-Jin?"

Kan Soo-Jin's face was pale, but the set of his chin was stubborn, even sprawled on the ground. "I did not give you leave to address me by name, traitor! They are only peasants and live to serve their lord."

Soo-won could almost admire that amount of blind faith in his own nobility.

Almost.

Jeong glances up at the men and raised an eyebrow. "Well, you heard the man. If even one of you wants to die in his place, I'll let him live. How about it?"

A beat of silence. Soo-won should interfere. No matter how little he liked the man, Kan Soo-Jin was one of the four pillars of the country, the head of his clan, and came from a truly noble bloodline.

Soo-won kept his peace. Kan Soo-Jin betrayed the royal family, attacked the palace in the name of power, and had sons to take his place. His life would be no great loss.

"What are you waiting for?" Kan Soo-Jin face was red.

The soldiers glanced at each other, then they looked to one among their number. He was a tall man wearing a battered breastplate. Scars covered his bared arms and a cut on his cheek leaked blood sluggishly down a face like granite. Kan Soo-Jin's second in command? Soo-won had seen him in the heat of the battle, directing his own side. A competent man.

He took in the whole scene, nothing of what he thought showed on his face. "Sorry, My lord."

Kan Soo-Jin stared up at the man. "What are you -"

The man shrugged. "Your blood is so important. Don't think a peasant like me could replace it."

Jeong laughed, low and mirthless. "Well. Guess no one wants that kind of honor." Jeong pulled the sword out of their staff and inspected the edge. "Want to know a secret?"

The man swallowed. "W-what?"

Jeong shrugged. "King or peasant, blood's just blood in the end."

Kan Soo-Jin watched the blade rise with wide, almost mesmerized eyes. "You can't kill me. I am descended from dragons-"

A spray of red and the smell of iron.

Kan Soo-Jin's head rolled away, eyes still wide and staring.

From beginning to end, not a single soldier attempted to save Kan Soo-Jin. That tells Soo-won more about the man and his rule than a thousand reports.

The world would be better off without him in it.

Jeong sighed and stood back up. They looked at the fire tribe soldiers. "Are you done being stupid?"

The hard-faced man bowed. "I think we are, my lord."

"Not your lord." Jeong wiped a streak of blood off their face.

"Well now," A voice spoke. Li Hazara stepped to the front. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were wary. "I was looking forward to killing him myself. It seemed only fair that I get to do it after putting up with him for so long."

Jeong shrugged. "First come, first served."

Li Hazara's wild black hair made him appeared even larger than he was. He almost matched Jeong for height and his shoulders were even broader. He gave Kan Soo-Jin's head a disinterested glance. He glanced back and Jeong and his eyes narrowed. "You look familiar."

Jeong adjusted their grip on their staff. "Can't say the same. You going to keep fighting?"

"Well, I think I have the advantage here." Hazara folded his arms in mock thoughtfulness. "You know, I think maybe I will. I've always wanted to be a king."

Jeong rolled their eyes. "Idiots always seem to. Alright, let's do this then."

They settled into a low stance, steady and unyielding.

Li Hazara laughed. "You think you can take my soldiers alone, fool? They're not the same as these fire tribe milksops." He takes a step forward. "Why don't you work for me? I see you have some skill –"

He doesn't get a chance to finish. All Soo-won hears is a high-pitched whistle before three throwing daggers embed themselves just half an inch from Li Hazara's feet.

"Never said I was alone." Jeong said.

"More Kouka tricks?" Li Hazara snarled, all levity gone. He sneered at them, raising his blade. "You think you're my match?"

"You think you're mine?" Jeong said. Their voice was clear as a bell.

Soo-won said nothing. If Hazara wanted to assume this was Soo-won's doing, that was fine by him.

"We going to do this or not?" Jeong asked.

Hazara stared at them with narrowed eyes – and then they eyes went wide. "I know you. The dog of the Mad King. I thought you died with him."

Soo-won only noticed Jeong's flinch due to practice reading their body language. Jeong pointed their staff at him. "Nope. Will you surrender?"

Soo-won knew Jeong's reputation on the battlefield. He'd heard the rumors that spread along the fields of battle, down the rivers. Even King Il had heard of the young, powerful stranger the previous king of Xing held in his hand.

It was one thing to know - and another to see that reputation in action.

Soo-won watched Li Hazara- hardened general, warlord and general merciless man hesitate and consider: Jeong and their backup, against his army of well-trained soldiers. Who would win?

Li Hazara dropped his weapon. It clattered to the ground.

"A good decision." Jeong said. They don't lower their staff. "You. Tall fire tribe guy. Come and tie him up. Everyone not from Kouka lower your weapons or fuck off. I don't really care which."

The tall man does indeed come forward. He roughly the back of kicked Li Hazara's knees. He jerked the man's hands behind his back in smooth, practiced motions.

Jeong looked at the rest of the Sei soldiers. "Anyone else feeling like trying me?" The pressure in the room ratcheted up a notch, and the soldiers exchanged glances. They threw down their arms as well.

After the last of them had been secured, Jeong moved out of the low stance and rubbed the back of their neck.

They turned, and their eyes landed on Soo-won.

Soo-won realized he was still lying half sprawled across the dais and lets out a shaky breath. There was no way he'd be able to get up if Jeong decided to kill him.

Jeong doesn't move. Not even when a green blur dropped of the ceiling and landed next to them. The man Soo-won saw Jeong leave with from the governor's house stands up from his crouched stance. "That went well," He said with a cheerful smile.

Jeong ignored him. Their eyes never left Soo-won's.

"Soo-won." They said.

It's the voice that gets through Soo-won's ringing ears. His hand clench, nails scraping against the stone steps, will scraping against the desire to reach out. To take their hand.

Soo-won's eyes burned.

If he was one to believe in gods, he would say a prayer for letting him see Jeong one more time before he was gone from the world. It was good enough.

Then reality came rushing back in, and Soo-won exhaled a shuddering breath.

General Joo-doh looked at Jeong and his mouth went pinched. He looked at Soo-won.

Soo-won shook his head slightly. Whatever brought Jeong here, at this exact moment, Soo-won knew it was time for an end.

If they wanted him dead, there was very little in this world that could stop them.

Soo-won got up. Jeong made no move to stop him, and Soo-won found himself grateful. A debt was owed. If Jeong had come to collect…

Soo-won would rather die on his feet.


I looked at Soo-won. His hair was the same gold. His eyes were wide and clear and a part of me, buried so deep I didn't remember existed, looked at him and breathed a sigh of relief.

He was bleeding, and bruised. His hair fell over his shoulder, his clothes were disheveled. He was still beautiful.

It's like something inside my chest expanded with every step forward. I missed him. Not because he reminded me a better time, on the banks of the river. I missed him because being without him felt like missing a hand. It was like being torn apart. I stopped barely an inch from him.

He doesn't move away. He stares up into my face. His eyes are wide. Every time he inhales his chest almost brushes mine.

"Soo-won." I said again, lower this time.

His hand moves halfway up, hovering between us. He bit his lips and lowered it to his side. "Jeong."

He could reach out, take my hand in his; or he could fit it around my throat, take my breath away like he took everything else. I didn't know which he'd choose: His secret or my life. Maybe he didn't know either.

(Maybe I'd let him.

It wouldn't be such a bad thing, to die by his hand.)

"What are you doing here?" His voice is hoarse.

His question settled in the air between us like a sticky black tar, grinding the gears of my mind almost to a halt.

Why are you here?

Good question.

I could reach out and snap his neck. It'd be so easy. I have at least a foot on him. I'm stronger. I'm heavier. I have every reason to kill him. We both know it.

He didn't move away and I don't reach out.

Why am I here?

My mind feels like a clear pane of ice.

All I can do is reflect Soo-won's eyes.

I smile. "I came to say goodbye."

Standing there, among the fallen soldiers on the throne room floor, with smoke still drifting up, I thought I'd be angry. Instead, I felt steady.

Like I was reaching an end.

I looked at Soo-won, and I was... glad. Glad that I came. His hair was longer, and there were barely noticeable bags under his eyes. Not enough sleep. There was no one to take care of him - Hak had his hands full with Yona, and Yona needed to hold up a country.

He'd be fine. Soo-won wasn't thirteen anymore. He didn't need me now. Maybe he never did. Maybe it was just something I made up, trying to be a little less lonely.

Trying to justify my life here, somehow.

Jae-ha shifted closer to my side. I glanced at him, watching him watch Soo-won with narrow eyes. His mouth pulled down to one side. "This is your prince?"

Not mine. Not anymore.

"...Yeah." I said instead. It's true enough, at this moment. "Soo-won, this is Jae-ha. He's one of the dragons of King Hiryuu. You'll be seeing more of him."

Soo-won doesn't even glance at Jae-ha. "You're leaving?"

I can't quite read his tone, but that's nothing new. I shrugged. "Yeah. Time I went home."

"You found a way?" Soo-won asked.

"I did."

Soo-won opened his mouth but before he could say anything, an alarm went off in the back of my mind.

I dropped to my knees, and a dagger whistled overhead. It clattered against the stone dais.

The design was familiar, but I didn't get time to think about it. I rose up and whirled around, bringing up my staff just enough to catch the second and third knife.

The fourth tore a long gash through my outer robe, and a thin red line began to bead with blood on my upper arm.

"You have kept up with your training, Jeong."

That – that was a voice I hadn't heard in nearly five years, but it was still familiar as the back of my hand.

"Fa?" I asked.

It was. They stood in the opened door, dressed in the black uniform of the shadow guards of Xing. I blinked, because what were they doing in Kouka? As far as I knew Fa, the leader of the guards, did not leave Xing. That would leave the ruler without a guard.

Fa glanced behind him. My eyes followed without thinking.

A young woman stood behind them. Her hair was long and black.

Her eyes were red and looking at me.

"Myeongseong." The name is punched out of me. She looks so much like her father it's like a knife in the back. The angle of her eyes echoes his, except I've never seen his eyes look so cold.

Not even at the end.

She beckoned someone from behind her.

Li moved in front of her, with an unconscious body laid across his back. From the shallow breaths they were unconscious, but not in any danger.

My heart started to sink. I stared.

Jae-ha hissed between his teeth.

"Jeong, King-slayer." Myeongseong spoke for the first time. Her voice was emotionless, like she wasn't speaking to the person who murdered her father. "You will come with us, and you will stand trial for your crimes."

There was no or else.

There didn't need to be.

The person laid across Li's shoulder was Yoon.


 

Chapter Text

Five hours earlier.

Yoon wiped the sweat off his forehead. It was hard work, helping these people, not the same as seeing to the few villages he could reach on foot. His hands were covered in blood, again. It was definitely smeared all over his face. Yoon left it there. The few clear rags he had were best used as bandages.

"Kija, can you get me some clean water?" Yoon asked without turning around.

Kija, sitting just behind him, didn't move.

Yoon glanced over his shoulder, frowning. "Kija?"

The white dragon stared at the wall of the building, pupils blown so wide his eyes were almost swallowed up in them. He stood abruptly and rushed out, letting the door swing behind him.

Yoon blinked, glanced at his patient; the man was stable as he was going to get, so Yoon followed Kija while wiping his hands of the blood on them as best he could. He was already covered in the stuff, and it grated at the doctor in him. Baram wasn't kidding about war being messy. There wasn't any time to clean himself up beyond the basics.

His makeshift hospital was a crude set up, barely more than a bit of the city that wasn't on fire. Yoon borrowed a nearly pristine merchants house to set up a hospital for the worst of the soldiers. The merchant's wife who lived there gave Yoon full permission to bring the wounded into her house with her mouth set in such a thin line, Yoon wondered if it was her son, brother, or husband that was the soldier.

It wasn't difficult to spot Kija - that white hair stood out like a beacon among the rubble and soot of the capitol around them. Shin-ah stood next to him. The two of them were staring in the same direction, and while Shin-ah still wore his mask, Yoon was willing to bet that he held the same expression as Kija. Anxious.

They were waiting for something. Zeno, maybe? The yellow dragons took off nearly an hour ago, without so much as a goodbye. Maybe they could sense something was wrong with him with their magic dragon powers, or whatever.

Yoon shifted. He wasn't worried, he was just - angry that the idiot left even after promising that he would take care of Yoon.

(What would be bad enough to make Zeno break a promise to Baram?)

For now Yoon had time to wait for whatever was making Kija and Shin-ah so anxious. Battle worked in rhythm, Yoon found . In another hour, it would start up. Yoon watched, but the two dragons didn't say anything - they just stood there. The doctor looked around, but Zeno was nowhere to be found.

It didn't take long.

A familiar head of yellow hair appeared out of the smoke, waving vigorously to the three of them standing there. His shirt was ripped up, but there wasn't any wound under the blood. He didn't move like he was hurt. Yoon felt the familiar rush of irritation, and under that - relief.

He stepped forward, in front of the other dragons. They both jumped like they just realized Yoon was behind them.

"There you are. Next time you're going to run off, tell someone." He said, hands on his hips.

He laughed. "Yes, mother Yoon."

"Don't call me that!" Yoon looked at the two people following Zeno. Neither of them were seriously injured, but the girl had a cut on her neck and the boy was walking like he had a limp. "What did you drag back with you?"

Zeno grinned, wider than Yoon had ever seen. "Zeno found her!"

Yoon blinked. "Found who?"

Kija knelt with a thump on the ground, head bowed. "My king." He whispered, voice choked.

The girl blinked, eyes wide. "Um."

Oh.

Shin-ah glanced at Kija and the beaming Zeno, before slowly following Kija down onto one knee. "...King."

The girl pulled Kija up almost immediately, her face going red. "Please, you don't have to - Hak, help me out!"

The dangerous boy watched her with a smirk and made no move to help. He was watching the rest of them out of the corner of his eye.

Yoon blinked. There was an echo of Barram in the way the young man stood, the tilt of his head.

"I don't know, your majesty. People should bow to their queen, shouldn't they?" The boy - Hak drawled.

She doesn't look like much of a noble, covered in soot, with old blood drying on her forehead, but he didn't say it like a joke.

He looked at the dragon's king. Fancy clothes, trying to pass themselves off as merely well off. The girl's skin was pale as milk under the dirt and soot. Her hands were soft, all the callouses on them barely weeks old. If she wasn't a noble, Yoon would eat his hair clips.

Her hair was red as the sunset. Red as the fire burning outside.

Yoon knew them.

Yoon clenched his hands, felt his nails bite into his palm- He knew her. This boy and this girl and her traitorous cousin.

After Yoon learned Barram's real name, they told him part of the story. Not all of it, but enough. Enough for Yoon to figure out how badly this girl's cousin hurt Barram.

Zeno looked so happy.

All of them did. It was in Zeno's bright smile, Kija's genuine tears, even Shin-ah showed it through the set of his shoulders.

This girl was important to them.

Yoon inhaled, unclenched his hands and stepped forward. He was a doctor, before everything else. "Quit crowding her, you oafs." A smear of blood stood out on the girl's pale skin. Yoon wouldn't let his personal feelings get in the way of his duty. He elbowed Kija aside, ignoring the white dragons' squawk. "She's hurt. Let me take a look."

A hand blocked the way.

Yoon glared up at the dark haired bodyguard. "Can I help you?"

He raised an eyebrow. "An introduction would be nice. Maybe an explanation, if we're really stretching."

Yoon rolled his eyes. "Your friend is the reincarnation of some dead king, these weirdos are the dragon warriors of legends - minus one, who's still out fighting with… another member of our party. " Yoon very much does not want to talk about Baram. He pointed at each of the dragons. "Smiley is Xeno, the yellow dragon. Mask is Shin-ah, blue dragon. The fancy boy with the weird arm is Kija, the white dragon. If you see a chronic flirt with green hair jumping every damn place, that's Jae-ha, the green dragon."

The bodyguard raised his other eyebrow. "And you? Are you some sort of warrior of legend too?"

Yoon crossed his arms. This boy wasn't going to scare him. "I am Yoon, insanely talented doctor and the prettiest boy you'll ever meet. My talents are perfectly human and all natural. Now get out of my way and let me do my job."

A low giggle broke the tense standoff. Yoon and the boy looked at the princess. She covered her mouth, but it did nothing to hide the way her eyes crinkled. There was something compelling about her violet eyes, something infectious in her laugh.

Yoon wanted to like her, and he resented it immensely.

"Sorry, I'm not laughing at you. It's just - it's been a very long day." The girl's smile faded a bit. "A very long day. "Hak, I don't think he's going to hurt me."

"Princess..."

"I'll be fine Hak. I like them."

That was all the permission he needed. Yoon brushed past Hak's hand with a sniff. "Of course you do. I am a delight."

She smiled. "It's nice to meet you, Yoon. My name is Yona. Don't mind Hak. Being my bodyguard makes him paranoid."

It takes Yoon the space of minutes to get her properly taken care of. He can feel the dragons hovering behind him like worried mothers the whole time. It'd be insulting, but Yoon could tell it wasn't about him. In fact, not one of the dragons looked away from Yona.

Yona remained polite, soft spoken, and kind. She didn't complain even when Yoon found another bruise manually. She was a model patient.

Damn her.

He parted from the group as soon as he could, after checking Yona and Zeno, just to be sure. Yoon looked back over his shoulder to watch the dragons convene around their king again, and Hak as well. Yoon's heart sank.

The dragons were happy, but all Yoon could see was an end of a journey - he liked traveling with the dragons, with Barram. He didn't want to give it up.

He lifted his head and firmed his mouth. He didn't have time for what ifs. There was work to be done.


Yoon decided early on that he hated war. It was ugly - not enough time for all the people he wanted to save, not enough supplies for the wounds. The dragons helped, but it wasn't enough. He and the few women who stayed behind worked together. A few of the women had first aide skills, but none of them had the experience Yoon did.

Jeong warned him. He just didn't expect it to be this bad.

Yoon blew out a sigh. The man he was working on groaned in his sleep, clutching at his the stump where his left hand used to be, agony still present even in unconsciousness. There was nothing Yoon could do about it. He had to save his anesthesia for the worst of them, the ones who would thrash too much to hold still.

"Pardon me, is there a doctor?" A low voice called from the courtyard door.

Yoon looked up.

There was a tall woman wearing a veil standing in the doorway. Even in the flickering firelight he could pick up the dark patches of blood on her dress, the awkward way she was holding her arm. He sighed inwardly. No rest for the beautiful. Standing, he wiped his bloody hands on his robes - they were already beyond saving at this point, a mess of blood and less pleasant things that wouldn't wash out - and beckoned the woman in. "Here. Come in, let me take a look at you."

The way her eyes relaxed the slightest bit was enough to make Yoon seethe inside. People shouldn't have to look like that, ever. Like basic kindness, basic human decency was some great mercy.

No, Yoon was finding he didn't much like war at all.

The woman took careful steps into the room and perched on the stool next to him. "Thank you, doctor."

Yoon took her arm, gently probing it. "Don't worry about it."

The woman's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Where are you from, doctor?"

Yoon pursed his lips. "...Fire tribe."

"But... isn't the fire tribe the one attacking? I saw soldiers from the palace being treated in the walls. Why are you helping them?"

"Because I can." Yoon snapped.

The woman blinked. "Oh, pardon me! I didn't mean to offend you - it's just... I don't know of anyone who simply... helps."

He takes a deep breath and reigns in his irritation. "The world is awful. War happens, and who suffers? Not the fat nobles in their mansions, not the people who start it. People like you and me always get the worst of it." The woman had a nasty looking cut on her forearm. Shallow, thankfully. Easy enough to fix. Yoon concentrated on the work. "People starve for war."

"That's not your responsibility." The woman said, voice quiet. "The world is unfair. Cruel."

Yoon snorted, but his hands remained gentle. "It is. I don't have to be."

She goes quiet. He fetched a roll of makeshift bandages to wrap around her arm and let her think.

The woman sighed. "You're a good person, Doctor."

He tied off the bandage. "No. I'm just doing what's right."

The woman flexed her hand, watching it move. "No." She stood, and something in the movement seemed strangely familiar. "You're far braver than the majority of people. Doing the right thing isn't always easy. Most prefer the easy option."

Yoon narrowed his eyes. The woman - didn't move like a villager. Yoon glanced over her again. The skin of her hands was pockmarked with the telltale scars of fire, of blade. His heart turned to a drum in his chest; the fine hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, and he carefully sat back. "It's the only option."

She looked at him and their eyes crinkled in that way that meant a smile. there was no warmth in her eyes this time. "You're wrong, Doctor. There are so many worse choices."

No one was around. The dragons were still with Yona and Hak; Yoon wasn't going to call on the half dead soldier to defend him.

"You remind me of someone." His voice shook despite himself. Yoon wasn't a fighter. There wasn't a chance in all nine hells he would get away from this woman. Yoon still had to try. He stood up, trying to keep his movement nonchalant, and started cleaning up the desk.

"Do I?"

"Yeah. One of the best people I know. You move just like Jeong." It's strange to say Barram's other name out loud.

Yoon only noticed the minor flinch because he was looking for it. That's all the confirmation he needed - he threw a wad of bandages into the stranger's face and took off for the open door.

She let out a little surprised sound.

Yoon sprinted for the door. "ZENO!"

It wasn't enough. Something hard impacted the back of Yoon's neck and he lost feeling in his legs. A pressure point? Cold fear raced up his spine when he hit the ground hard enough to make his teeth rattle. He barely saved himself from crashing face first into the floor.

The sound of footsteps. Yoon tried to crawl his way to the door, dragging his useless legs behind him. It was useless. Another blow, and his arms gave out on him. His heart thudded in his ears.

"KIJA - ugh." Another blow knocked the breath out of his lungs.

The veiled figure crouched down beside Yoon. "I am sorry, Doctor. I didn't want to get you involved, but orders are orders."

Yoon glared at her, face pressed into the cold floor. "Apology… not… accepted." He gritted out. Every word was like trying to lift a mountain with his teeth. What use was there in being sorry about it?

(What right did she have to sound so sad?

Yoon resented the familiar lilt to their voice. A tinge of underlying grief, heavy and utterly incapable of being changed.

What right did she have to sound like Baram?)

She sighed and tapped the back of Yoon's neck again.

Then there was nothing but darkness.


Yoon came back to consciousness like one might after a night of drinking; his sight blurry, his the taste in his mouth reminiscent of the one time Kija was allowed to cook by himself, and face first in the dirt with a rising sense of 'this isn't right'.

What happened? He... finished a surgery. Yoon tried to sit up, and nearly fell flat on his face. His hands were tied behind his back, and the stiffness in them said they had been for a while. Why were -

The woman.

Yoon tensed. He can't believe he'd been kidnapped. Jae-ha was never going to let him live this down, when the dragons and Jeong came to find him. Yoon could already picture the smirk on his face. He'd call Yoon a beautiful damsel and Yoon wouldn't be responsible for his actions.

If they find him.

Yoon pushed that thought away, down into the part of him that never really rose out of the streets. Of course they'd come for him. Of course they'd find him. The dragons might be weird, but they were good people and Barram, at least, would come after him.

They would.

Yoon shook his head. None of this was getting him loose. He shoved all the thoughts out of his head and focused on pointedly not panicking. Yoon shifted to sitting up, carefully, and took in his surroundings.

It was a run down shack, barely more than four walls and a roof, all of it made of some sort of bamboo. Not on fire, or covered in soot, so it was almost an improvement.

"Finally awake?" A bored voice asked out of nowhere.

Yoon flinched so hard, he unbalanced and fell back into the dirt. Heart in throat, he twisted to look behind him.

A woman was sitting in at a low table. She was older than Yoon but younger that Barram. Just one of the gold pins holding up her dark hair would be enough for Yoon to live on for a few years. She wasn't looking at him, but studying a scroll. A flickering candle was the only light in the room, except for the low light filtering through the cracks in the wooden walls.

"Who the hell are you?" Yoon snapped.

She looked up for the first time. Her eyes were red as fresh blood. "That is need to know."

"I think I need to know!"

"In time, you will." Her voice was glacial. "You will not be harmed while in my care, so long as everything goes well."

Yoon glared at her. "I have work to do and I don't appreciate being manhandled like a sack of rice."

"I do not care." She sounded almost bored, like she went around kidnapping beautiful boys all the time. She studied him. "...You truly do not know who I am."

Yoon scowled. "I don't make a habit of dealing with assholes".

"Just murderers and king-slayers."

Yoon didn't so much as twitch. "I don't know what you're talking about.

Something in her face shifted. "They did not speak of me, then. Jeong."

Barram. She was after Barram.

He kept his face still. "I don't know any Jeong."

Her eyes were like chips of ice.