Chen nor Saeji knew which direction they headed and what direction would lead them to safety, but they carried on regardless. They hadn't found their way to the end of the thick forest, Chen found that a blessing and a signal he was doing something right. It reassured him things would go well.
“Where are we going?” Saeji asked. She knew perfectly fine well where they were, Xiching, a region just as evil as the rest - or so she’d heard. She hadn’t gathered, however, the need to enter. Saeji couldn’t help but scold herself that she hadn’t asked before they stepped a single foot past no-mans.
“To find someone,” Chen replied. By someone he meant no one in particular, having given up on the Taoshi messengers when he came to a realisation recently that no one would tell him the whole story and he was sure by now that Saeji knew less than half of it. Meaning, ultimately, she was useless to him.
Saeji tripped trying to keep up, stumbling over the gnarly roots and calloused ground. “Who are we looking for?”
Chen didn’t look in her direction, not able to look her in the eye since he woke up a few hours ago with her head on her shoulder. “Someone.”
Having given up on the messengers, Chen had given up on the lords. He hadn’t yet given up his hope. His initial reason to venture out of Joseon had given him plenty excuse to gather a following outside his home, create an uprising wider than the Nightsmen of Joseon. That was his goal now.
Saeji didn’t know, Chen thought. It was safer that way.
“Hey!” she yelled, striking his back hard with her hand. “Am I an enemy? Aren’t I allowed to know what’s going on?”
Chen decided not to yell, not to shout at her. Not even react.
“Saeji, would you say that’s a village over there? Where the capital?” he asked, shutting her up and changing the subject.
“I-I don’t remember, but I’m sure it’s crawling with officials.”
Chen stared off through the thinning trees at the mud shack-like buildings and nodded. It begins.
“You didn’t have to knock the poor man out,” Saeji whispered furiously as Chen rummaged through a small home near the outskirts of the village.
Chen had all but barged through the door and in no time had the owner of the house on the ground unconscious.
“He better not be dead.”
Chen looked back over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at the girl. “It was a pressure point. I gathered you’d feel squeamish if I broke his neck so I saved you the displeasure.”
Saeji fell to the middle aged man’s side. He was obvious suffering malnutrition, seeing as Chen found it effortless to knock him out having not much fat covering the pressure point. In fact, Chen was unsure such impoverished man would be able to wake up after such an attack.
Let’s hope for Saeji’s soft hearts sake. Her compassion would be the end of him.
Chen began stripping his clothes, already spotting what he could only compare the wearable rags hanging on a line straight across the room.
His metal armour was a struggle to remove, but it came off and fell to the floor in a bang.
“Are you just going to leave your armour here? Do you really need to change? Your underclothing would be fine!” Saeji rambled, as if it was she he was stealing from.
“Maroon is the shade of the Nightsmen, and very uncommon among the villages due to its significance in the rebellions. I’d be noticed straight away.”
Chen lifted his long underclothing from his body, leaving his chest exposed and legs covered by the same shade of maroon coloured bottoms.
Saeji initially looked away, but as her eyes shot down, she caught a glimpse of the shiny lines covering his back. Saeji slowly looked back up.
Chen heard her audibly gasp and immediately regretted even giving her the chance to see.
Before he could cover himself, he felt her cold fingers run over his thick and ragged scars. They were no easy healing clean cuts that each held a story from far before his teens towards the later end of just the other month.
Suddenly he remembered his first close call with death, when he dared try escape his palace and was brought back kicking to his father. His back was marred with scars and burns from a heated poker
And a rusted knife.
Chen thanked his father for it, though. It taught him that Chen’s father was nothing but evil, and he suppose it’s what brought him closer to today.
Saeji’s colds hands stunned Chen into a standstill as his entire back tensed and he could do nothing but focus on her soft touch. “I thought we had an understanding that touching wasn’t allowed,” Chen growled, as if that would change the situation.
She ignored him, however, and said, “Who did this to you?”
Saeji fell silent, so unlike her. Chen was tempted to turn around to face her, but he knew the scars on his chest were just as bad as those on his back.
“Why are you so cold, so distant? We can help,” she mumbled.
Chen at that second didn’t care, because something inside him just tore. As if hearing it was different that thinking it. As if hearing it from her was important. He turned suddenly and looked her in the eye from above.
“You really are one clueless girl,” he muttered.
She shakes her head, unfazed by his attitude. “You’re just failing to tell me the important parts of your story.”
“It’s a story no one has ever wanted to hear,” hence Chen had never had the pleasure of explaining in great detail nor depth. Even Shinwoo knew very little as he held the belief that what didn't concern him was of no use to his ears. Chen was glad he didn’t want to know.
Saeji looks his up and down, slowly. “Who are you, Chen Joseon?”
Chen snapped out of the daydream upon hearing his supposed second name. “Not a Joseon, anyway.” His hand grabs the clothing from the line and pulls it hastily onto his body and dodges Saeji, now fully changed he pulls the man to one side and decide he would leave his armour. What use did he have for it now other than making himself a sitting target?
He would bear his sword instead as proof of identity and protection - concealed for the time being in his sheath.
“So long as that curse runs through your veins, you can’t deny your relations.”
Chen barged about the house like it was his own, respecting the property not in the slightest. “And what would you know about any curse?”
Saeji shrugged. “I just know that all the founding fathers and their descendants are cursed as a consequence of their gift. A balance.” She explained like she knew the whole story, which only annoyed Chen that little bit more. “I suppose that’s why you’re so unlucky.”
Chen reappeared in front of her, looking less scary than he had with his armour but his face still held the same threats as before. “That damn curse has nothing to do with luck.”
Saeji ignored his face and hoped he couldn’t see the quivering scared girl inside. “I know Xiching are blessed with foretelling, but as a curse their lives are plagued with misfortune and a boring fate so their lives never really hold any excitement. Could drive a man insane.” She looked up, completely unaware of the pain she was putting him through. “What does Joseon have?”
He taken a step back. “Butchers of the battlefield with no ability to feel the love of another nor have any love of their own,” he bluntly responded, shutting Saeji up until not even her breath was audible.
She stared at him like with so much pity, it was almost unreal. Saeji thought it was unreal! How could anyone go through life thinking they were not loved nor possess that capability when it was seen all around them? What about his parents?
“I didn’t know-.”
“I gathered as much,” Chen cut her off.
“I’m sorry, Chen, really-.”
“You don’t have to be. No, you better not be. I don’t want to walk around with a useless blubbering girl who can’t get over some useless irreversible facts.”
Chen didn’t care, for he never knew a different way. He had nothing to miss not knowing what all the fuss was about - instead there was a hole, deep within his own heart that he didn’t know how to fill.
Saeji shut up from that moment on and they went on their way silently without so much as a squawk from a bird at their foreign presence. Weaving between winding alleys to avoid the main flow of villagers - still not confident in their costumes to act as locals.
Hen in the form of a local tavern, Chen's eyes brightened. Bed and breakfast accommodation. Chen was sure he could prove a man of his silver and buy the two of them proper shelter to sleep.
He pointed at the signpost, written clearly in paint and said, "You head in first, I need to look for something," he explained, that something being some silver coins for his pocket and he was sure Saeji wouldn't be the happiest to see that happening.
She knifes, still unsure and probably unwilling to speak from their previous situation. Saeji have him an unsure smile like the actress she feigned to be and gently made her way out and across the alley into the main road and then the tavern.
He nodded, perhaps happy she for once was doing as he asked and turned promptly around crashing straight into a shades figure in the dark but damp alley.
"Remove yourself," the older voice scratched in frustration - stumbling to the ground.
Before the body could hit the floor, Chen reached out to grab his upper body to prevent the seemingly frail figure from hurting - and just by chance came in contact with a leather pound attached to a belt loop to his right - sounding and feeling full of heavy coins.
With thieving fingers, Chen expertly unattached it without the man knowing - only the slightest twinge of guilt present.
"Watch where you're going!" The man exclaimed before shaking his head and going on his way - totally unaware of the amount Chen had swipes from him.
What good luck was all Chen could think - and how unlucky the man perhaps was. But Chen needed this more than anyone else, he decided.
Walking through the dingy street in sight of the tavern Saeji entered, he gave an almighty sigh, only fantasizing about the bed he's sleep in, the cover from the element and most importantly - the rice wine.
Chen felt the best way to forget his worries and troubles was just to drown them in a sweet bottle of sour alcohol.
Entering the tavern proven somewhat hard, with the amount of drunkards falling about with their friends and then the robust couples dancing at this time to the accordion player on the raised platform.
By the bar, Chen immediately noticed, Saeji was being spoke to by more than a half dozen men.
Chen couldn’t help but think how rare a lone female must be around an area like this - considering it wasn't the safest among the drunk men and the even crueller married women who often sat on various booths and stools around the area.
Couldn't blame them, Chen snorted as he taken in the sight before him. What a sight it was.
Approaching with more than slight amusement, Saeji found him and pleaded with her eyes. For what exactly, he wasn't sure but he caught the drift that she wanted away. Quickly.
He leaned against the bar, happy to let the charade continue that little bit further - beyond sure that Saeji wouldn't point Chen out to the men to get them to leave being far too proud.
Then, one man’s hand left his side and grabbed Saeji almost aggressively on the arm. Saeji’s face contorted ever so slightly in pain - but obviously didn't want to show it.
Chen shot from his seat, and intervened knowing fine well a line had been crossed. "Take your hands off my woman," Chen roared, at his words causing Saeji to flush bright red.
A few men walked off without a word but a few daring lingered and challenged Chen with their eyes. The one to speak, obviously drunk stare Chen right in the eye, as if challenging the very words he spoke and acting as if they had a right to do so. Chen narrowed his eyes upon them with a fleeting feeling of disgust as he watched one reach an arm out before his features contorted in a warning.
“Your woman, you say?”
“I saw you sitting over at the bar without as much as a word until now. She’s no yer woman,” one challenged.
What he said held truth, but Chen liked to disagree - Saeji was stuck with him for this journey whether either of them liked that or not, so Chen held nothing against acting as the girls partner so long as it kept either of them safe.
Then, right in plain sight his hand slid across the back of her covered shoulders as if they’d been long-time friends. Chen took a threatening step forward, scaring the drunk man none at all. The man behind the bar slammed an object down on the tarnished wood and yelled for everyone to settle down.
No one listened until he offered a free glass of rice wine, luring the drunk man from Saeji. He moved on wobbly feet towards Chen and grinned. “You wouldn’t mind sharing-”
Chen didn’t need to move all that much before his arm fell forcefully onto the base of his neck causing the drunk nuisance to fall in an unconscious heap to the floor, all but drooling onto Chen’s feet. Chen grimaced and kicked the man's face from his boots before Chen had to clean his saliva from them. Stepping over him, Chen tiredly drags out a stool and sits down.
“I apologise on their behalf, but they’re my only customers most days so I can’t exactly tell them to leave. I hope you understand,” the old bearded man behind the bar explains before leaving two glasses in front of them and giving a quick nod of the head dismissing himself further away from the two deeper into the musty wooden pub.
Chen was sure no one would recognise them if they were careful about their actions, and he was sure they could lay their head to rest in the next few hours if they were lucky. For now, he’d drink the rice wine and hope better would come with the minutes.
Downing his glass in a few mouthfuls, he slammed the glass back onto the flaking bar and gazed around - ignore Saeji who stayed strangely silent. The room was much hazy despite the sunlight right outside the window. Perhaps from dust or the smoke from burning incense in the corner of the room - but because of this, in a way it set Chen on edge - not knowing his surroundings as clear as he’d like.
Even some faces were obscured by the musty air, setting Chen on edge.
Looking back down at his empty glass, he realised he’d need a lot more if he wanted to get comfortable. Calling down the bar man again, he asked for another - when asked for money, Chen remembered the contents he stole and lifted the pouch onto the bar and tipped it out, not having yet counted his riches.
He wasn’t expecting much, but to his surprise it appeared like the amount would last them a good few days. What a stupid man the guy was to be carrying that quantity outside where anyone could steal it…
“You got a fair fortune there,” the bar man mumbled as he poured the warm wine into the dirty glass.
Passing a small silver coin in his direction, Chen began to drink his wine again and leaned his head up against his arm, just wishing everyone would come to a silent hold and let him have peace for even a morsel of a second - that the men in the corner would stop fighting and smashing glasses, that the woman would stop their obnoxious laughing together as they watched their husbands, that the clinking of glasses would just wither away into nothing.
“Are you alright? Maybe we should check about that room…” Saeji asked, piercing his eardrums with her voice.
Chen raised his hands, as if to tell her to be quiet. “I’ll ask him, I’ll ask.”
Calling the busy bar man over, he rushed as if they’d disappear and then, with a slight pant to his voice, asked them what they needed.
“We need a room,” Chen grumbled immediately.
“Two rooms,” Saeji cut in.
The same man as before looked them up and down from behind the bar, and then chose then to tell them they had only a single room available for the night - not that Chen expected them to have even a single room available anyway.
Chen was more than fine with a single room - plus it meant they had some extra money from the compromise. Saeji didn’t seem pleased, however.
“No, we need two rooms,” Saeji argued, but the bar man paid no attention and walked off, considering the room sold for the night and pleased with himself.
Chen could feel the alcohol taking effect and let all his worries slide. “Didn’t you hear the man? He said there’s only one room,” Chen explained as if she was a child, but he was patient - probably due to the wine. As the bar man passed by them again, it’s like he could read Chen’s mind. He placed an entire bottle down, rather than a glass. Chen began drinking again. “I think I’ll take this in my room.”
Saeji taken the wine bottle from his hands as he raised it to his lips and looked him dead in the eye. “No, finish it here then you’ll sleep.”
“My one night of peace and being off unofficial duty, I’m plagued with a girl who won’t let me off the hook.”
Then behind them, the relative peace is disturbed with a crash. Both Chen and Saeji snap around and watch the same people as before break out in yet another fight, cursing, and now bottles being smashed as well.
Through the dark cabin-like space, Chen rises - spurred on by the rice wine in his system and watches with every intent of getting involved, himself. Saeji was tempted to hold him back and demand he sit down, but she was sure he wouldn’t listen. Not that she could get between the two burly men if it came to that.
“You’re proposing we betray the Xiching Dynasty? What are you, insane?” A cooler and perhaps more sober man wailed, slamming the bottle against the wooden table in the far corner, causing shards of glass to shatter in all directions.
The drunkard nodded with excitement behind his movements and explained, “There’s been some strays entering the region - they bring news from Taoshi-.”
Chen’s entire demeanour changed, again, his emotions becoming clear with the alcohol. He’d more or less forgot about the messengers - seeing as he’d completely changed his plan of action when he decided no village lord could dictate what he says or does.
“-They say there are uprisings in the other regions, they’re planning to overthrow the superiors.”
“If it weren’t for the superiors we’d be living under the same dynastic rule as our grandfathers, suffering under a negligent king,” the man with more sense argued.
“If we wait around for the biggest war of all time to happen between the supposed friendly regions, then we’re all dead after being called to duty, our wives and children won’t be able to survive much after that without us. What do you expect us commoners to think of the situation? Its fine for those of a higher ranking such as yourself-,” the drunken man slurred, until Chen approached, cutting him off by his mere presence.
Chen looked like how any commoner would look, and even with the wine in his system, the look on his face he adopted told them he was no mere commoner as his attire may suggest. Then, his hand reached for the sword, conveniently under the robe he’d stolen earlier from the home.
The sharp sound of metal on metal drew everyone into a tense silence.
“Put it away, boy, we’re not asking for trouble.”
But Chen’s intentions weren’t to hurt them, but to simply show them who he was - with his only identifying possession; his sword, carved with a Joseon pattern and the royal seal.
Gasps resounded at the realisation. “The Taoshi will get nowhere with their supposed uprising - they’re a mess!” Chen roared, although unsure of his words himself. They could have an army prepared and waiting for word. Chen stood by it, though. “Joseon, however-.”
“We’ve heard all about you, boy. Rogue son of Joseon - just by looking at ye and yer sword I knew exactly who you were. And yer no welcome here,” another man, more elderly than the rest, grumbled at Chen who paid minimal attention to him.
Chen merely glanced and continued. “I’m the leader of the Nightsmen - we protect those our king will not. I assume it’s a similar case all over Gauna - but that has to stop. It’s been a long thought dream of the Nightsmen to overthrown the dynasties of Gauna and unite ourselves as one. We’re different from the Taoshi - because we have already secured our support in Joseon, now we move to the other regions and make it a national project.” or so Chen assumed Taoshi had no support or no real standing in the run of things. Which he’d like to think.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’d walk out this bar and go straight back where you came from,” one man yelled, as if Chen would ever obey. “And your Joseon girlfriend too.”
“She’s a Xiching like the rest of you,” Chen retorts, almost childishly, but he wasn’t in his right mind.
Whispers broke out, almost as if the fact one Xiching had crossed over, it immediately meant it was ok for them to waver and do the same. Chen almost felt like Saeji’s company was worth the trouble all along.
"As you said; the longer you stay under this rule the worse it becomes. Less that you can do about it." Chen put his sword back in the correct position and taken a few large steps around the now cleared centre of the room. "I'm inviting you all personally to join us - let yourself be known as allies of the Nightsmen and you will be rewarded greatly when the time is right."
Saeji looked around as wary as she'd ever been, looking at each and every one of them. While no one cast a glance at her, they all took different approaches to Chen who some seemed to admire and some seemed to hate. She wondered if she should fear for any of their lives, and out of a stupid thought she raised the bottle to her lips and let herself finish off the wine. Perfect.
"I won't ask for names, I won't ask for a promise. I just ask you be aware at some point we will need your help and we will come for it. Even if you doubt is. We promise we will deliver." Chen seemed confident he'd done the job, and Chen thought so too. Ready to turn back to his girl and a bottle to drown his fear in, someone interrupted.
"That's exactly what the founding fathers thought; that they could bring peace. Look how that turned out."
Chen just wanted to end the conversation after conveniently adding what he wanted to say, not nearly as nervous as he should have been. "We're fighting an entire different battle. I will offer my own head to my father if I fail you- presuming in the midst of things I make it that far."
Chen had already said way too much, so with his first sensible thought, he hushed and returned to his seat. The bar atmosphere, however, remained thick and uneasy.
Saeji was just the littlest bit angry with Chen - he shouldn’t have said any of that to anyone. Saeji wasn’t even sure if she’d have told a close friend, or someone she even remotely trusts. If someone in the pub tonight were to turn them in, by morning - well, Saeji doubted they’d get to see the morning.
The small room they were provided with was small, but it was a room no less. Blankets were bundled in a corner, their cleanliness unknown, and a small bed of blankets atop a soft surface appeared to be a bed. Chen was laying down on that bed watching the dust float around the room via the several candles provided. The drink must have been wearing off, Saeji thought, because he hadn’t looked so glum for the entire night so far.
“You realise we can’t stay here?” Saeji pointed out as she sat on a corner of the single bed they were both going to argue over in the coming hours.
Chen’s eyes met hers just briefly. “We can stay here for as long as we please, nothing will happen.”
Saeji was prepared for him to up and leave at the first glimpse of common sense, but he hadn’t… he almost seemed, well, Saeji didn’t know - Chen was hard to interpret. One minute he was happy, happy to help and happy just to be alive. Others, he looked like a man awaiting his turn at the gallows. But Chen didn’t fear death as she’d seen, and Saeji couldn’t imagine anything scarier.
He was a man with a past, Saeji reminded herself. She was sure there was a lot she didn’t know or understand that he might have already told her.
“Where do we go from here?”
Chen’s eyes gradually closed as he exhaled, his entire body moving with the action. “Every region has a king’s guard. We need to infiltrate the king’s guards - of as many regions as possible. These people are closest to the royals, and with even a single man of the lowest rank from each guard on our side could mean the difference between winning this fight. And just maybe we’ll find that Taoshi messenger.”
Chen squinted through a single eye. “Why what?”
“Why everything? You’re going to all this trouble to fix something you didn’t do and to help people who don’t deserve it,” Saeji explained, sounding selfish and mean, but she liked to think she had a point. Chen didn’t feel to her like a single man, he felt like many.
“If everyone thought like that, Gauna would have perished long ago. I can’t live comfortably if everyone else lives in pain, because so long as there’s pain there is trouble, and when there’s trouble I’m almost always involved. I want to live quietly.” and that was no word of a lie - Chen wanted to go back to Joseon when this was all over, when his father was locked up or executed and build a home by his lake so he could never be disturbed. He’d live off the land as part of the dream and then suddenly it’d be him versus the world, not him versus the people which seemed a tiring task to Chen.
Saeji was quiet, wondering if that now he was talking, he’d let a little more slip. “Are you confident?”
“It could take years, many painful years, but evil never lasts and I feel it’s time the evil in Gauna is rid of.” Chen sits up and leans back on his arms, watching her closely. “I feel responsible in a way, being who I am.”
Saeji felt the need to ask, and who exactly are you, Chen Joseon? But she kept quiet knowing he wouldn’t appreciate the question, quite obviously aimed at his background.
“But anyway, it’s late, and I’m getting a headache. I don’t suppose you have a cure for that?” Chen asked, still not in his right mind, looking completely harmless but alert.
Chen fell back down again, forming a pillow out of another blanket and shuffled to the edge so if Saeji should choose to sleep there’d be space. She appreciated it, but being back home brought back memories she’d rather forget and she knew that sleep would evade her tonight.
“Just sleep,” Saeji mumbled, pulling a blanket over him made from a nice cotton brought from afar. It was a luxury Saeji was sure Chen hadn’t had in a long while if he’d been living outside the palace since a teen. Was this a first in many years, sleeping under a roof?
Although it was cold, Saeji was sure it was warmed than out there, and possibly warmer as a region. She could only hope he’d have a peaceful night’s sleep.
But Saeji couldn’t give up thinking - There was to Chen that it appeared, there were problems deep within him. He didn’t know love? Had he been neglected growing up, Saeji wondered… If it were a consequence of the superiors, then it’s likely it had been so…
But wasn’t that stuff all psychological? Saeji wouldn’t take for a second that a man, no matter how hard or cold like Chen, couldn’t feel love. Saeji would prove it.
“Goodnight, Chen,” she muttered, and with a single motion, extinguished the single remaining candle, plunging them into darkness.