There came a time when Chen often found himself deep within his own thoughts - something he sought desperately to disconnect himself from.
His thoughts consisted of a safe place, a place he could escape from his reality - that often consisted of a lake, a place he remembered from his childhood where he’d run from his family when he’d had enough. At times, that safe place was invaded, and like his reality, the palace guards would find him and drag him back to his chambers.
They couldn’t drag him away in his thoughts.
Chen remembered the coping mechanism deeply engraved within his own head, something he’d never gotten out of the habit of - now, he found himself leaping from rooftops escaping from the enemy, except in his head he couldn’t see in any light that it was, he saw it in any light but.
His coping mechanism taken away from the truth.
Chen didn’t register the danger, Chen didn’t register his life. This was how he should have led his life, Chen thought.
Now he had to find Saeji, which would be an easy task considering she wasn’t the slyest of people when evading capture. He’d find her, and it would reinstate to himself that if she were to run away he’d find her quick and easy once more.
In front Chen could see the small huts and buildings dithering out, meaning the village was coming to an end, and he’d have to find Saeji sooner rather than later.
Just as he leapt onto the last roof he could jump to, he heard a crash followed by several disapproving yells.
Chen rolled his eyes. There she was.
Leaping down from the raised ledge, he faced the scene, not far away at all. Chen had thought when he told her to run away, she’d at least put in an effort.
Ahead, Saeji was sprawled across the ground, several baskets around her, toppled over.
The villagers were not all that approving and tried their damned best to move her on. “Hey!” Chen yelled, catching all their attentions. “Saeji, get up.”
“Not until she pays up for her damages,” a stubborn woman persisted.
Chen ignored her and pushed on to reach out for Saeji. When she wouldn’t take his hand, he pulled her up to her feet instead. He didn’t glare, he instead gave her a small smile, which to anyone who didn’t know Chen might have looked anything but happy. Saeji looked up at him from under her eyelashes, and instead of waiting for a reply, they were running again down the narrow streets.
“Come back!” people yelled, but they didn’t listen and instead Saeji focused on keeping up her pace with Chen’s.
“How did you find me?” she gasped.
“You weren’t very good at hiding,” Chen replied back in a hurry as they burst out into the open where Chen could already feel the danger. “We have to find cover.”
It was raining heavily, pounding onto the ground so hard Saeji swore she could feel it vibrating through her body. The thin trees above them done nothing to protect them from the heavy rain and winds.
Chen looked down into his lap for what might have been the hundredth time today and blanked out thinking about... Nothing.
“I’m cold,” Saeji muttered, her arms winding around her tugging her thin cloak tight around her frail body.
Chen stared at her from the corner of his eye and noted her shivering arms and pale complexion. She didn’t look well at all. Chen couldn’t get a fire going, so long as they sat here without satisfactory protection from the elements, no fire would light.
“We should find a different shelter-,” Chen insisted, only to be cut off by Saeji as she bent forward and let out a small whine of resistance. “Are you alright?”
When she didn’t reply, Chen quickly got up, a feeling of intense worry overcoming him.
An over action, perhaps, but Chen dealt worst with sickness and couldn’t have the girl coming down ill dragging them behind and losing himself some vital information should something happen to either of them.
“What’s wrong? I can help,” he persisted, crouching down in front of her and pushing the dripping hair from her face and pressing his equally wet hand onto her damp forehead.
Looking up into the sky concentrating, he could feel the abnormal temperature, too high for someone sitting out in the miserable cold.
What could he do, though? Alone in a land that hated Chen, alone in a land Saeji had once escaped from due to their evil regime like many the rest.
“Tell me, where do I take you?” Chen paused to think whether his sincerity was genuine -did he really want her to live because he liked her company, or did he want her to live for the information scattered throughout her brain.
Chen knew it was a bit of both at that moment.
Saeji didn’t reply and instead her head fell backwards with a slight groan.
Looking around like a duck that’d lost its head, Chen made a grab for her and wrapped an arm around the back of her shoulders, her head instead of hitting the tree she sat against, hitting the back of his armoured arm.
Chen would put the girl’s state down to stress, after all, she was an innocent girl who’d never seen such brutal beings in her life. She’d seen her master slaughtered before her and she’d had to enter back into her homeland again bringing back what Chen presumed nothing but bad memories. Suddenly for the first time, Chen felt pity, genuine protruding pity that crushed any other emotion he might have felt at that moment.
Chen couldn’t recall a moment other than that of now that he ever felt sorry for someone, and now staring down upon the girl in his arms, he felt it again, stabbing at his encaged heart as the flames tamed in pity and respect. He also knew that no heart of his would tame at one poor girl and that there must be more than what was meeting his eye and instead was effecting his heart. Saeji was different.
The ice around his face dripped down like the rain that poured and slowly the thawing began again from neck downwards and his lungs cracked the thick ice that had garnered for a while. His heart, even through ice, raged forward in angered flames, but with the trickling of ice, the flame dimmed just the slightest and the bars around his heart cooled from a cherry inflamed red to a dull orange. It was pity, Chen told himself, and it was respect.
“Chen…” His face flicks in her direction, seeing her face roll to the other side of his arm and her closed lids twitch.
“Keep quiet, I’ll do something, just be still,” he carefully murmured into her ear, wiping more fallen hair away.
He warily tucks his right arm under her knees bringing her into his arms, gauging a reaction - whether she was in pain or not.
When she failed to react, he felt even unsure. Had she lost consciousness?
First thing he’d do was take her deeper into the forest, find some shade and some cover - it wouldn’t do if she remained in the cold and wet for however many more hours until daylight. Then, he’d light a fire to dry her off.
He set off with a good pace, making sure he didn’t shake her too much and hurt her further.
The forest was obviously a thin one, unlike the thick ones in his own region - perhaps due to deforestation and poor plantation. Soon enough, he found suitable shelter, and Chen laid her under the best tree he could find.
Her body fell limp onto the tree, slouching - her head bouncing forward as far as it could and then rolling to the side.
Most of the ground was wet around them, but Chen would have to make do if he wanted the miss to become well again.
Gathering as many twigs and sticks, dry and dead from around them, he laid her then on the driest spot he could find and began to make fire with a longer stick twisting it between his palms as fast as he could, running his hands down the length of the sticks creating wisps of smoke. He coughed at first from inhaling, but as the wood began to glow, Chen blew softly into the ember and soon before him the fire ignited.
Smiling, he sat back beside the girl and thoughtlessly laid an arm around her shoulder pulling her body closer to his own. To share body heat, he told himself.
Chen could feel her shaking, but he couldn’t gather whether from the cold or from fear. Chen knew there was a distinction between the two but at that specific moment his mind went blank. “Saeji, you need to wake up,” he whispered into her ear as he pulled a leg up to lean on and stare at her. Grasping her shoulders, he gently shook her. “Saeji.” but her head only fell back lifelessly.
Was she dead?
Chen leant in and felt the slow breathing out of warm air through her mouth. No, she was still very much alive.
What could he do? With no medical background, Chen thought it might have been better if he were the sick one - at least she’d be able to treat him then.
Staring down at her, he thought how she didn’t look like an herbalist’s apprentice. Her skin was too pale for someone who’d be out in gardens all day, but maybe that’s why she wore a hooded cloak.
But what could he do? He decided rather bluntly that if she hadn’t woken by daylight, then he’d leave her. How much was the information worth that he’d delay his entire mission?
Chen couldn’t help but feel some sense of frustration because the first time he ever taken another under his wing they pull him back. Chen felt like his patience was being tested and had to remind himself that it wasn’t any fault of Saeji’s and just the cruel fates that had everything but happiness in store for him. Of course they’d make even the simplest of things a struggle.
Daylight had came a while ago, now the sun straight above their heads. The light beamed down on the two through the gaps in the trees above.
Chen could not bring himself to further himself with his journey without her and instead decided to wait that little bit longer.
He’d also tested his good knowledge and foraged for food, coming across berries he believe safe to eat and grains he could use later. For now, he’d gathered the berries and gently brought them back to the makeshift camp for the girl to eat when she woke. Of course he’d tried them first to ensure none of those he’d picked were of the poisonous sort.
Leaning back against the rough and uneven tree trunk, he couldn’t find peace. Instead, his stream of thoughts and will to doze off was interrupted by a pain in his back caused by lack of suitable bedding and more than his usual amount of fighting. He decided leaning against the tree was no good and instead lay bent between the trees- the only way he’d be able to lie down.
The sun that escaped through the maze of trees and branches reached his face and caressed it with a hope for a better day. Chen could only imagine that if all went well he could enjoy a luxury like this for as long as he shall live. He could lie in the sun, in an open field. The sun wouldn’t just touch his face but his entire body. The delicate moor would serve as bed and the armour on his back would long have been melted down. He could live as a commoner, in a world where no divide existed and no war was waged.
With that, Chen found his peace in the thoughts within his head and at that moment Saeji awoken from her long slumber feeling groggy and confused.
Saeji hadn’t remembered how she got into the middle of the forest, and now trying to recall before her sleep, she remember nothing more than running with Chen away from the city Saeji used to know.
Her eyes easily find the large man, laying down on the brown pine needles blending with the colours of nature. She softly takes her seat closer and leans over his body, until she’s gently hovering over the man’s face. Peace was what came to mind.
Chen dreamt of peace too, like an unreachable target that only existed in dreamland.
Saeji considered disturbing him from sleep, but instead decided that wasn’t at all a good idea, considering she hadn’t yet seen him sleep appropriate hours. She hoped he would rest well after all he’d done for her, and even all that he had not.
Chen’s face began to contort as she gazed at him, like his dreams were warping. She could tell immediately his dreams weren’t of the good kind.
“Your highness,” she heard him say, referring to the king of Joseon - his father - she gathered, “Please.”
With desperation lining his already barely comprehensible sleep talk, she strained her nosy ears to listen some more.
All was quiet for some time as if the spell of badness had passed until he began talking once more, but this time it seemed different. Less vulnerable, as if a different person. “The messengers,” he mumbled, “They’re gone.”
Then Saeji remembered how much he’d pestered her about the messengers when they’d first met. The two of them had entered first their village upon arrival and met with their lord. Word had it that they were seeking to overthrow the kings of Gauna and execute their bloodline of their spellbinder curses. Saeji realised at that moment, it also meant the execution of Chen - being the son of Joseon.
A horrible feeling overcame her, a feeling she probably shouldn’t have been feeling for a man she’d known for the whole of a few days and who’d been such a brute. She couldn’t imagine losing him now.
It wasn’t only the rumours Saeji had heard, she’d heard some more and witnessed the evil men herself displaying their strength and power in the cruellest form ranging from random executions to crimes against women. It had been going on for so long but then suddenly they had vanished as quietly as they came, months before she’d even met Chen. No word left behind and no one spoke of them again, although no one forgot.
Especially those they’d tarnished with their hands if they were lucky enough to live another day.
Saeji was pulled from her thoughts when Chen began to stir, his body rolling from side to side coming in painful contact with a tree trunk.
“Chen,” she mumbled, her hand reached out and pushed him away from the hard trunk and left it there just above his hip.
How could someone be so cold and hard-faced while awake but as innocent as a child while asleep?
Distracted by her own thoughts, she mustn’t have noticed Chen awakening. “Remove your hand at once,” he muttered. Saeji jumped in surprise and grabbed her hand off the man, as if her hand was unwilling to move itself.
“Sorry,” she hastily replied, cradling her hand as if he’d burned her and looked promptly to the floor. Saeji had no clue why she felt so inclined to be respectful, even more so when no one but the two of them were around.
He slowly rose from the floor, lifting his upper body onto his arm so he could lazily look at her.
“I’m sure you regret your action wholeheartedly,” he replied, waving his other hand in the air and his head falling tiredly off his perched hand and almost touching the ground.
Saeji flinched, an immediate response to catch him before he hurt himself, but he seemed to steady himself. Besides, Chen wouldn’t have liked that.
He looks up and gives her a knowing look, used to warn her off. She shuffled backwards and acted like she didn’t see.
“Are you feeling better now? Have you recovered?” he quickly asked, rolling onto his back - as best as he could with the obstacles - and stared up at sky.
Saeji’s gaze softened. The stupid man wouldn’t give himself a second to care for his own well-being. “You’ve always worked and cared for others, haven’t you?”
Chen opens a single eye, distorting the peace on his face. “I care for myself plenty,” he argues, but Saeji believed none of it.
Looking at him now, she could spot the fatigue, the black bags under his eyes. What exactly had happened to this man? Saeji could only guess, but she was sure she’d piece it together eventually with her patience to solve a seemingly impossible - and dare say stubborn - puzzle.
“Sleep. You look tired,” she settled to counter softly, rather than argue. They’d have time for that later than, preferably as late as when she tells him about the Taoshi messengers - which she didn’t intend to do soon. Chen had an undeniable temper, that, Saeji did not mind nor care for, but what caused him to become so shut-off is what spiked a curiosity that probably shouldn’t have been spiked.
Chen, more than anything - more than the sour man who’s pushed her about and used such brute words against her - was her saviour, and currently her only lifeline. Saeji vowed right there that no matter what he puts her through in the future, she’d help him - help him fight those demons he somehow had no energy to tackle.
“No remarks, today?” Chen asked with a crack to his voice, almost disappointed.
Saeji ignored him, and instead observed his body. In good condition, he was a large man of muscle and height. Or so she presumed, she could see very little through his metal armour. “You should perhaps consider taking off your armour, otherwise sleeping may become uncomfortable.”
“How can I be comfortable when I’m in a foreign land with a woman who has every capability of turning and killing me in my sleep?”
Saeji should have been offended, but it seemed after waking, she woke with a new understanding. “I thought I’d be the one saying that.”
Chen couldn’t see her or her reactions, but it felt like he felt her eyes slowly searching him for a sign. A sign for what he hadn’t gathered. He immediately noticed her change in attitude from the very first mouthful she spoke, but didn’t question it. Her new attitude was pleasing compared to the last, and hopefully she’d act just that little bit more submissive. “We’re even, then. We both hate each other as much as the other person.”
Saeji paused, just like the surroundings. Chen, however, didn’t see any wrong in what he’d said. Saeji, however, saw the vulnerability in every syllable, she saw a little boy who refused to invite anyone into his heart in fear of something only himself was aware of.
“Sir, I do not hate anyone. It’d be a waste of any mere human’s time to torture oneself with any feeling of hate.”
Chen sighed exasperatedly, opening his eyes just a slit and giving the girl a look that told her to be quiet or he wouldn’t be responsible for the following actions. “My existence has obviously been for nothing, going by your logic of course.”
“No one is born to be a hate driven creature. We are only made that way by our demons.”
Chen’s hands scrunch into balls by his side, his eye was twitching. “What right do you have to say anything of the sort to me?” he roared, bolting up so fast Saeji hadn’t seen him coming. His hands reach out and grab hold of her own shoulders.
Saeji flinches back, but couldn’t move due to his ever tightening hold. “Let go,” she demanded.
“You criticize my every decision and analyse me like I’m one of your herbs. How can I not react like so?” Chen said, with a deep pain hidden behind his lashes. “I know that I have done many a things wrong, but isn’t the first step to forgiveness, admissal?”
Suddenly the pain in her shoulder felt like a mere scratch compared to the weight Chen was carrying on his back. Saeji had found her compassion and sympathy to be a hindering feature in her, but she’d never once cursed it. Now, she felt happy with it - happy she could see another side to Chen when otherwise she might have missed the signs and taken him straight for a horrible man with no intention.
Saeji admitted, she had at first.
Chen’s eyes were on fire like an untameable blaze, and with that the fire within him ran rampant inside him destroying any morsel of peace. It was the curse of his bloodline, he had to remind himself. With the gift of a fighter came his unforgiving rage and loveless heart. The girl wouldn’t understand.
She barely knew the truth behind his existence - Chen knew that she knew he was of royal descent, a Joseon. He was sure, however, she didn’t know of the curse in as much detail as the royals themselves.
It had always been like that - royals were always secretive, keeping the details hidden and out of sight from the commoners - Chen supposed it was to stop an uprising like the one in Taoshi and the one well overdue in Joseon. Chen also supposed that the next few years would be the end of Gauna, like any other dynasty that comes to a ruin.
Chen had read about the many predeceasing dynasties - those of the nice warm kings who cared solely for their people. How did Gauna change drastically from the peace-loving country united at the now borders, to a fire pit of rage and suppressed pleas divided in six in a single year - no - night?
The family of Hau had entered a century and a half before and ruined Gauna for what appeared the worst, but, Chen raged, it paved no right for any of the six founding members of new Gauna to do as they had done.
But it is that of an uprising. Treason. They betrayed their king, something they execute their people over on a daily basis. What gave them a right to live after that, no matter what fool sat on the tarnished throne of Gauna?
Especially his father. No, not a father of his. Chen rarely if not ever addressed him as father - at least since he was a boy of less than five who thought his father was an innocent man who could do no wrong - at least, that’s what Chen had told himself after a beating.
“Your eyes are filled with worry, you fear your horse has outgrown you,” Saeji muttered. “You have the power, right there in your hands, Chen. It’s a power your father never got his hands on and never will because of his stubborn and ignorant nature.”
Chen drops his eyes, and suddenly realising he was holding onto the miss’s arms, he drops them. “What might that be?”
“You have a will, you have a heart, and therefore there is a way. You shine brighter than any other man with the determined look in your eyes. You are strong, Chen. Just Chen.” Saeji spoke the utmost truth. His determination would light the way across his destiny, leading him safe and sound back home wherever he might find it.
“I don’t like your game of words-.”
Her hands daringly snatch out and grasp his. Putting his hands together, she wrapped her own around them. “I don’t make time for speaking anything less than the truth in my life, I advise you do the same, Chen. After all, it’ll make your journey that little bit easier. And I’ll help… If you’ll let me.”
Chen didn’t react to his hands placed between the warmth of her sincerity. Instead, he absorbed the positive energy and gazed at the transformed magnificent woman before him. He would have whispered a thanks, but he thought his face would say it all. Then, he laid back against a tree with Saeji by his side and let tomorrow come that little bit faster.