The elderly woman helped them by the first light of day out the forest far from any village. Telling Chen and Saeji what way they should head, they began walking.
Chen wasn’t sure what his next step of action should be, considering he now had no where he was welcome.
His final goal, final task, would be to break down the regional divide, but right now he had to aim lower. He had to aim for the lords, the able bodied men who’d fight either with him or against him. He had to prepare for the larger tier of action before he could jump right in.
Marching through what now seemed like boggy wasteland, Saeji complained about the mud, complained about the cold, and complained about the damp but Chen was sure no one was around to hear her whine.
But, in between all his thinking, Saeji had said some useful things to say as well as the occasional whine; berries they could eat and not get poisoned, what direction she deemed safest, and it went on.
Now, his mouth and hunger was settled with the taste of sweet sugars and he was sure now they reached the top of a small hill that they were headed in a good direction - behind them it was dark, the village they’d just past - in front was the setting sun that Chen had not seen for a long time.
He’d seen the setting sun, but never a sun as beautiful as the one in his mind that rose above the lake and set behind his head. But as Chen peered across the sky he could easily challenge that. The view was beautiful.
“Over there,” Saeji whispered, “that’s where my family used to live.”
“Over where?” Chen asked, not familiar with the area.
Saeji smiled at the memories only she had access to and chatted on like she was talking with anyone other than Chen. “In Xiching. There. That’s the border, you can see the wall dividing it. We lived close to the wall. It almost feels like I’m home.”
Chen was curious about what happened but it wasn’t his place to ask. He never had a place to be curious when it came to other people, but that suited him fine - the less he knew, the better it would be.
A gust of wind struck them from behind, hard enough to almost lift the petite girl off her feet. “Wow,” Chen mumbles as he reached out to settle her back in place.
Looking up under her damp eyelashes, she bows her head in a silent thanks and looks down the floor. The wind curls wisps of her hair in a protective cocoon around her face.
“Do you want to go home?” he asked. Chen knew he was done with Joseon. He’d settled his authority in Joseon - they knew his name, it passed villages in the form of tales and rumours. If he needed to garner support, Joseon would be a place to start.
They had to move on.
She looks up at him from under her hair and asked, “To Xiching?”
The Xiching ruling family had the gift of foretelling but the curse of a boring, selfish, hermit-like life for their own future. They could predict their own futures but at the curse of never living a truly satisfying life. Chen might have said their fates were as worse as the rest, but Chen the decided that never feeling love was too horrible that he wouldn’t wish it on another. The family were rude and just as their curse decided, selfish. Their people impoverished. The streets lined with con artists and scams that normally led back into the ruling of Xiching.
“Are your mother and father waiting for the day they return?” Chen asked, wondering if their waiting would encourage her to enter the region.
“They killed them,” she mumbled.
Chen wasn’t surprised that her parents were dead; it was not uncommon for people to die early deaths by various means. “Who?”
“The lord of our village killed my mother and father - to teach a lesson, they said. A family friend had me escape. They were captured trying to help me get out the boundaries.” Saeji had a face set in a cold angered look cast directly at Xiching’s borders. Chen had no doubt that she despised the area with a vengeance deep within her bones.
The same hatred Chen held in his heart for many things.
Maybe they weren’t so different.
Chen set off down the hill without waiting on her, but she easily caught up. She didn’t say a word, he couldn’t hear her breathe.
The base of the hill was a mile off the border, so that gave them a wide berth to make their way without being seen. Chen remember the wall that curved right around until you could see the lips of a sea.
The border wall couldn’t go right through the ocean, there would be a way around it.
Chen looked at the wall himself, straight on. He could climb the wall if he really needed - if there weren’t armed men guarding it. He couldn’t see them, but Chen was sure that was the point. Not to be seen, to make it all that more enticing to people wanting to sneak their way it. More criminals put under.
But Chen thought, climbing the wall himself having to fight o the enforcement would be hard enough - now he had Saeji to take care off as his personal handbook to the other regions of Gauna.
They would have to navigate the coast.
Snatching Saeji’s hand, he briskly walked in the presumed direction; north-west. “Let go of me,” Saeji asked meekly from his flank.
“We’re in a hurry.”
“My legs work perfectly fine,” she counter-argued.
Instead of dropping her hand, he pulled on her harder throwing her in front of him. “You know the direction better than me. Lead the way to the coast,” Chen asked not so politely.
“Why do you need to go to the coast?” confusion written clear over her features.
Chen sighed in frustration, not used to explaining himself. “Can you not ask questions,” he grumbled.
Saeji pushed him back with her tiny force and stood like a blockade in his way. “I have a right to know where a pig headed man like yourself is taking me!” she demanded.
Chen stared her down, challenging to have the fool try and push him any further. This wasn’t a normal occurrence for him, Chen wasn’t used to people challenging him, no less a woman.
“We can’t exactly jump the wall, can we?” he told her like she was a child who wouldn’t understand.
“How am I supposed to guess what’s running through your mind? So far your way of dealing with things seems rather absurd.”
"My absurd way of dealing with things is going to save our lives," Chen snaps. He saw her face contort into a cringe as he spat his words. Chen softened a little. “So keep moving.”
Saeji kept quiet from there - she obeyed him and stuck by his side. Maybe be was coming to realise he was on the right side of the battle field - in order to survive she’d stick like a leech, piggy-backing off his hardships.
Chen also kept quiet - but about his thoughts. If he had wanted to talk, he wouldn’t know what to say, especially to a lady so young.
“I’m hungry,” she piped up, quite some time after they’d last spoken. They were nearing the shore, Chen could hear the waves crashing against rocks and smell the scent of the sea. Too bad he had rarely seen the sea - while Joseon was technically on the coast, the no-man’s land that - technically - belonged to Joseon occupied most of the coast. The tiny section of coast that belonged to the region was far too dangerous to be occupied on a regular basis. Chen had visited several times on official visits with family. Joseon’s lacking harbour was placed to the most eastern of its bounds.
“Then eat,” Chen replied.
“Eat what?” she kept a steady pace by his side and looked curiously up at him Not fearfully, not angered, but curiously.
Chen was not only ill-educated about nature and all it could provide, he was also still very new to it. He was sure Saeji would know more than Chen. “Look around you - nature can provide you food.”
“This just shows how little you know about the world outside Joseon,” she mumbled, not intending for Chen to fully hear her.
Chen did hear her though, but thought nothing of it. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he engaged in conversation.
“The Xiching’s are brutal rulers - especially the 2nd grandson. The family poisons the ground and water supplies so everything sourced from the wrong areas will kill the consumer. It’s their way of keeping people in line,” she explained. “If you don’t obey, they won’t give you safe food - consider yourself dead.”
“So you’re saying anything edible around here will more or less kill us?” Chen asked.
He couldn’t believe the extent to which some of the founding families would go to suppress their people. No, he could believe - he’d witnessed the own suppression in his own region, he’d witnessed his father steering the downpour of death and malicious intent.
It was like an addiction, Chen had known his father's actions to be. Once he’d started keeping his people under with force rather than words, it stuck, and he didn’t ever get out of that cycle. It was a curse of violence, a needy voice inside begging you must be superior - Chen sometimes heard the voice as well, telling him he should be put down like he was, that he should fight back. Chen was sure it was the same feeling as his fathers, yet this force internally had yet to grow.
Chen knew that the cage around his heart - keeping the love from his life, would also keep away the bad opponents if he chose not to let them in.
“It’s the sea,” Saeji felt the need to shout as her pace doubled that of Chen’s and quickly threw herself into the open surroundings of the beach.
“Be careful, you don’t know whose watching.”
“Yeah, yeah, and you better remember not to eat any of the wild berries,” she laughed back at him.
Her burgundy cape billowed in the wind as she ran, occasionally bouncing against her figure. The hood fell from her head, unleashing an unruly amount of thick black hair that tumbled down the girls back. “Someone will see you,” he yelled. She stuck out so much that it would be hard to notice.
As Chen himself rounded wall after trudging through knee height sea water, he found he was - quite simply on the other side - no guard in sight. Maybe it was a miracle from the gods Chen did not believe in, but something had happened to give them an easy journey.
“Thought you said there would be high level security?” Saeji asked as she limped back from the water, soaked the bone. “I see literally nobody.”
“For someone who is supposed to be too scared to come back to the region, you sure don’t act that way. At all,” Chen snaps back.
A small frown appears on her lips. Hastily bringing her large hood over her head once more, it’s as if she was suddenly back in that dark place she’d been in from the moment they’d met. “There’s a reason for everything.”
“Not unless you stop looking for those reasons.”
Chen could feel her eyes burning into his skin, tearing him apart to reach for the very reasons he just said he didn’t want to look for - but it was true; Chen gave up looking for reasons long before he realised he’d never feel what other children felt from their parents. He stopped believing that there was a god, because if there ever was one, surely he wouldn’t be so cruel to damn him with such a fate, and finally he questioning why things happened only got him in more bother despite the internal turmoil for answers.
Chen’s instinct kicked in before he could really get angered by Saeji and instead focused on the task at hand.
Behind the wall, Chen could now see clearly. There were small huts, presumably for the guards, but there were no guards in sight. This was either a miracle or a setup - he wasn’t hoping for the latter.
“Get behind me,” he mumbled, grabbing hold of her upper arm and pushed her back.
Upon entering, though, he couldn’t see too much of a difference to Joseon, but it was the small things that stood out; the wild flowers blossoming in patches were dull and weak, tuffs of grass had been pulled up and left around, the constant smell of burning seemed to hang around, and ahead in the distance he could see the beginning of the homes - dark, shadowed, and scary.
“I’ve never been out of Joseon,” Chen explained, not expecting a serious reply, if not any.
Saeji mumbled, “You’re lucky.”
Chen wasn’t about to ask why he was lucky, he was sure he’d get to know why later so there was no point asking useless questions.
Above them dark clouds started rolling in over their heads as if setting another obstacle in their path. Then, the first droplets fell.
“Fox rain,” Saeji mumbled.
“Fox what?” Chen asked.
“Rain that came out of nowhere. It doesn’t look like it’s going to settle any time soon,” she said.
The already damp ground grew sticky with the disgusting combination of dirt and water. It became superglue and slowed their pace. “We have to stick to the north-most wall, ok?”
“Because just over that wall is the sea, and they can’t get us in the sea,” Chen explained, but he himself knew if they were to jump that wall to escape enemies, they’d be swept off into a worse fate of drowning and perhaps an animal attack.
At least the death would be quick and less pain than a stab wound.
Creeping through the region was hard, and just as they were about to lose sight of the watch hut, everything became eerily quiet. Chen could hear both their breathing, he could their footsteps in the sludgy mud. He could hear nothing more.
Just then, an ear bursting bang. “Enemies have entered the territory!”
The seemingly bleak and empty region burst into fury and Chen began to panic in a blur of confusion. Where were they coming from?
Chen was sure nobody was around when they’d entered through the open entrance.
“Can you smell that?” Saeji muttered, no doubt talking about food.
Chen could see their dark clad figures approaching obscured by the shadow provided by the storm. Shit! “Run,” he whispered.
“What?” she asked, distractedly.
“Run!” Chen yelled this time as he grasped hold of her hand and ran as fast as he could towards the maze of buildings near the wall. Perfect place to love them.
Some were made from mud bricks, that were falling apart like expected and didn’t look steady enough to jump. Chen knew it was someone’s home. Saeji was gasping behind him, out of breath already.
Chen looked back and saw the moving carpet of soldiers closing in. This was completely unexpected, completely having taken Chen by surprise. “Shit,” he mumbled.
But then, Saeji was the one who was leading them both through the maze of houses without even Chen asking her to do so. At least with Saeji, she supposedly knew her way around.
Chen found himself rethinking if he could trust her, and for a second considered separating themselves and then running the furthest he could away from her, but as they ran against the harsh wind and Saeji’s hair blew behind her ruffling her cloak and her composed appearance he realised she was as much delicate as she acted strong. He couldn’t leave her behind - not after her telling him about her past, her history in this region no matter how cruel he wanted people to think he was.
Instead, he held her hand tighter.
The streets were small and dank, but that didn’t stop them both. Instead they ran harder trying to lose the tail of the guards running frantically to catch them.
“Is there any place we could go to wait for the fuss to die down?” Chen tried to say as they ran faster.
Saeji lurched forward, tripping over a basket of fruit that had been strewn across the ground in a rush to flee from the chaos.
Before she could reach the ground, Chen reached out and held her up from the ground. “Come on, there has to be a way out of here,” he mumbled.
Saeji was about to respond until she gasped and scrambled from her grasp. “Chen, watch out!”
Chen instinctually rolled to the empty space to his left and squashed a few fruits beneath him. Then, where Chen and Saeji once were, an axe on a long wooden stick was slammed into the ground.
Obviously they weren’t welcome here either. “Come on, Chen, get up,” Saeji gets up from the ground hut then realises Chen wasn’t going anywhere.
Chen saw the axe half buried in the dried mud and it was like a feral rage overcame him. How dare they throw an axe at me! Chen, seething and burning with anger, got up from the ground and drew his sword in one precise second.
While drawing his sword, he twisted, slicing an approaching attacker along the waist making them fall half unconscious to the ground.
Villagers began fleeing by the dozen and soon enough no one but men in swords stood in the dank streets that stank of the sewage, and Saeji, who clinged like her life depended on it to his back. He supposed that her life did depend on it, otherwise they’d leave this town lain on a cart ready to be taken back to Joseon.
The suited guards were arriving on scene, having been given notes of the disturbance.
“Joseon’s aren’t welcome here,” a burgundy suited guard growls.
A villager waves his free hand and clenches the pick-axe in his hand harder. “Not just Joseon’s, sir, its Chen Joseon, the prince.”
“I’m no prince,” Chen snarled with as much venom he could muster.
“It seems he’s got himself some company for the journey,” another muttered.
Chen could feel bars around his heart chatter as the flames licked their way out of its bounds. He wanted nothing more than to unleash his fury on their bodies with his swords and his fists.
They looked like vile cretins of human beings, they wouldn’t be missed and Chen wouldn’t regret ending their lives.
“Little lady, come over here-.”
Chen swung his sword in their direction like a mad man. “You stay away from her,” he growls as his sword makes contact with one of their arms.
Their screams of pain ripped into their air until the crowd of men began parting, lowering their weapons. “What’s going on here?” the voice bellowed into the thick air.
Chen didn’t know where to look with so much going on - the men with the dangerously threatening weapons or the imposing voice coming from behind the crowd.
Chen didn’t wait long as the figure appeared before him. Chen felt Saeji flinch behind him and crush closer into his back. He noted that if a fight broke out, her position was constricting and could end up having them both killed.
“We’re passing through,” Chen snarled.
The man before him had long shaggy hair and faint trace of stubble along his jaw and upper lip. A scarred and dirty face that told him he wasn’t welcome. “You’re aware for any man to cross regions, they’d be breaking the regional law?” he questioned as his hand tauntingly reached down to his metal scabbard.
Chen tilted his head, causing a crack in his neck. “I’m aware,” he nonchalantly replies.
“Yet you dare cross this border!? You’ll be lucky if we kill you quickly for this!”
Chen isn’t fazed. Although rough and strong looking, Chen knew he was better than a weasel like him. “If you say so.” planning to turn around and make a run for it at any second.
“Do you realise who I am? I don’t suppose you wouldn’t, considering you’re not from around here,” the man eerily threatened as he stepped closer. “But I’m sure you’d huddle in your graves as soon as you found out.”
Chen found that pretty funny, almost so funny that he looked down to stop the bubble of joy from escaping. It was sickening joy he got from temptations of a war. Considering he was Chen, a Joseon not by choice, this man in front of his should be the scared one.
“You realise who I am?” Chen retorts.
“You’re the spoiled boy prince who’s escaped his palace and won’t be going back.” The man rips the swords from his scabbard and points it at the two of them. “I’m the second son of Xiching, and if I condemn you to your deaths you very well must do so!”
“I’m not one for doing as I’m told,” Chen muttered as he raised his sword and in one swipe had the other sword strewn on the ground.
That was easier than expected, Chen thought.
Chen nudged his arm, giving Saeji the hint that she should probably start backing away now. “I’ll kill you!” he hears a voice wail, but Chen was already sprinting alongside the girl down a backstreet very much like the one back in no-man’s land.
He could feel them, close behind and by no means falling behind. “When I count to three, you run on ahead, Get as far away as possible. I’ll deal with this and I’ll come to find you,” he told Saeji. It was too dangerous to have her linger about. He’d kill them all, each and every one who dared come near them with a weapon in their hand. To do it painfully or with mercy, Chen thought, it would depend on who came at him.
“How will you find me?” she babbled in confusion.
Chen didn’t wait on any response as he turned from his current direction and wisped around clutching his sword and left to his own devices. He could hear Saeji’s small feet pounding away in the distance.
Now he could unleash the anger, knowing no one he was supposed to care about was around.
Load clashes of metal indicate their looming fight as he speared the first daring to come near. In and out, he then moved onto the next. Screw mercy, screw compassion - they were vile excuses for humans.
All sane thoughts were put on the backbench as those of a monster took over, and the instinct running its rounds were those of survival.
He thought and fought like an animal the animal he was born to be. Chen could feel the Joseon inside him igniting his bones in a feral fiery spirit as his sword sliced through the delicate skin of a man and his entrails fell from the slit onto the cold hard ground, but the buzz in Chen’s ears muffled the screams and cries, even distracted him from the spray of blood flecking onto his face.
“You bastard!” the supposed prince yelled from the distance.
I’ll kill him, Chen thought, I’ll kill him next.
Chen’s feet lifted from underneath himself as he detected the arrow slicing the air aiming for his kneecaps, jumping at the perfect time to avoid the arrow and bounce his boot-clad feet off the dirt wall, making it collapse into a heap of dust and rubble. Now, dust circulated into the air like a puff of smoke and even Chen struggled seeing the happenings.
They’ll have to try much better.
Despite the dust and the amount of hunched citizens looking for clear air to breathe, he could easily make his way through them all based on his acute hearing. Chen knew the direction the prince was, he could hear his shouts and choking.
As the dust began to settle, he noted he had to hurry.
Leaping into the air, he slammed his foot onto someone’s back and launched himself into the air and down straight above the prince. Raising his sword, he fell like a feather, in time to see the prince look up with horror in his eyes as he said his last prayers to the god who didn’t care.
The sword entered at the top of his neck and through half his upper body and protruded out the back of his spine, creating two ragged entry and exit wounds. Warm drops of blood sprayed into Chen’s face from hitting a major vein, but before anyone could realise what had happened and get up to stop him escaping, Chen was already back on the rooftop and sprinting through the village on their roofs alone, breaking them as he went.
He was some distance away before he heard their heartbroken screams. Chen, however, didn’t care a single bit.