Chen dreamt of his lake like he did most nights, and she was there helping him through the mud caused by the rain and then they reached the other, much sunnier side. Saeji smiled up at him, glowing in an array of colours surrounded by flowers and herbs. Then, an almighty crash disturbed the image and slowly came to his sense, awakening from his dream.
He had no time to think, as he was immediately on guard sitting straight and staring at the door. Chen realised with the lack of light that it was not much past dawn, so it couldn’t be far off morning but still too early for his liking. Beside him, Saeji appeared disturbed too, slowly waking up.
“What’s-,” she starts, but Chen was quick to cut her off.
The stairs outside creaked heavily as many people stumbled up them towards the several rooms on the second floor – of which both Chen and Saeji were sleeping.
Saeji tensed and doesn’t take much offense as Chen’s entire hand smothered her lower face.
The creaking of the floorboards right outside their door told Chen he needed to take action, but with not knowing the threat, lacking armour, and bearing only a sword -he’d struggle to come out unscathed.
“Get back, Saeji,” He whispered, grabbing her by her cloak which she never seemed to remove and pulled her to her feet. She nimbly moved through the room silently and settled behind him. He could hear her breathing down his neck, feel the tense in the air that set him further on edge still feeling the sleep in his eyes and the tiredness in his bones.
In one swift motion the door caved belted open and Chen left, drawing the sword swiftly from its sheath. Only, no one was there and a deep silence ensued.
Saeji began to talk, “Chen, nobody’s there.”
Chen held his hand up at her. Chen took a cautious step forward, knowing fine well what he heard – and it wasn’t just a figment of his own imagination, he had Saeji to back him up on that one. On high alert, he took another step. Then, suddenly, a figure leapt from the shadows to the left of the door frame bearing a sword just as large as Chens and charged right at him.
If Chen wasn’t as agile as he was, as aware, he knew he would have lost the fight then and there. However, Chen was no weak boy – he was strong, he was trained, and he was no longer a weak boy at the mercy of others. Leaping out the swords path, Chen took the sword not split through his middle like intended, but only sharply scuffing his side, a good compromise for a possibly untimely death.
The attacker sprawled forward, having expected the force of his sword in Chens gut to stop his momentum. Only, Chen had outsmarted him.
Inside Chen’s brain, things began to click into place and he started to feel comfortable. Oh how he’d missed the feel of the metal between his hands. As he raised his sword, he heard Saeji gasp – but now he didn’t stop to spare Saeji some emotion, rather, he brought his sword down on the man with no drop of regret and speared him right through the neck.
Chen had forgotten the rush of war, the rush of fighting an enemy. The pain and blood staining his side only blighted the feeling ever so slightly and he knew it would be healed in quick time - Chen hoped the feeling would last a little longer, but as Saeji’s cry ripped the night he was brought back to a reality he was fighting.
“Saeji, come to your sense! We need to move,” Chen said, prying the girl from her crouched position by the window. Chen looked out the window and considering throwing Saeji out and then climbing down after her – but unfortunately Saeji was no cat and would land on anything but her feet. “Not sure you’re up for the window,” he mumbled.
Saeji affrightedly looked out the window and realised the height and gasped. “I’m not jumping from a window.” And that’s exactly what Chen had presumed of her reaction.
Chen was about to grab her cloak and drag her behind him but noticed the deep red blood on his hands, and Saeji noticed too. “Come on,” Chen said, as he shoved his hand out of sight, grasping the handle of his sword safely in its sheath – unsure if the blood was his own or the man he’d killed with his sword.
“Why are we running? It could have been one and not any others,” Saeji reasoned, but if she thought only a single man was after them, she was sadly mistaken. Ahead, down the hall as they made a ruckus following down the stairs was a faint glow of candle light.
The faces ahead might have been the landlord, maybe a few nightshift workers – only Chen was sure they didn’t wear armour, shields, and swords. They stopped in their tracks and, as Chen took them in, began to glow in delight.
It’s as if the god above who’d never chosen once to help him before had deemed him worthy suddenly and brought his goal that one step closer with an answered prayer. There, before both Chen and Saeji, were a many few men of the King’s Guard.
Distracted by movement, Chen’s eyes fall across the bar man from earlier standing off near a wall holding a small candle looking pale and petrified. “I think you have visitors,” Chen said, pointing out to the barman curled in a standing ball.
The bar man taken a small meek step back and looked around at the guards surrounding him for reassurance. “I think they’re here for you,” He replied, as if Chen hadn’t already gathered.
“Oh yeah, thanks for the wake-up call, polite of you,” Chen remembered, with a snarky voice. “Only cowards kill men as they sleep and only vile cretins will harm a woman.”
“You don’t appear dead and your woman appears unscathed. I believe we’re in our right stance at the moment,” a tall broad man replied as he stepped forward and flashed his sword in bear sight, daring Chen to try his best.
Chen could see the intricate detail on the armour, and sure enough, the royal crest of Xiching. “I believe it must be a special occasion for the Royal Guard to pay someone like myself a visit.” Saeji knew exactly why it was deemed possible for the Royal Guard to come find Chen, but Saeji was unsure Chen himself remembered much of the previous night with the effects of his drinks and all. Chen knew perfectly well what he had done, however, and was only having them on.
“Chen of Joseon, you are hereby under arrest for treason,” a guard dared say.
Chen snorted, sure on the fact that he of all people could not be arrested for treason. “Treason? Against a king who is not my own? I’m sure my bloodline will confirm whom I’m loyal to.” Despite being loyal to no one but himself.
“Treason against Gauna under national – not regional law.”
Well, Chen didn’t see them pulling that card. Regional law was the law every citizen abided. National? There were very few recent national laws, much to the fact that the regions hated each other and couldn’t come to solid decisions. The national laws were not enforced, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be abided.
Even if regional law was abided, this specific law crossed the boundaries of absurd – most individual regions had a law against leaving to another. Chen had broken a law, but it was no law anyone in Xiching should have the right to pursue.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Saeji inputted, standing out from behind Chen.
“Be careful, Saeji,” Chen whispered, hoping she would stay quiet and away from the crossfire.
A man before them pressed on, “If found guilty you will be returned to Joseon and tried there for treason against not only Gauna, but Joseon for deserting the throne.”
But Chen didn’t flinch at the threats. All he wanted now was a route straight to the cells of Xiching – the closest he’ll probably get to the kings guard. There… Well, after being captured he was sure he’d figure out a way to do the rest of his bidding. He wasn’t sure Saeji would be alright with the plan.
Chen held out his hands, almost begging for them to be bound. The guards gave each other a look as another did as Chen had wanted and wrapped a painful rope tight around his wrist. Chen was sure his skinned red raw wrists would be worth it in the end.
Saeji was snatched up from beside him. The man holding her asked, “Should we tie her too?”
The man up front looked her up and down. “She won’t cause much trouble, leave her as she is.”
Saeji look horrified as she caught Chen’s eye. He grins sheepishly, reminding Saeji for a second of a madman. Chen never smiled. She might have asked if he were okay if it weren’t for the people around them, who would indeed think she were insane for even daring to speak.
When no one moved and no one spoke, Chen signalled to the door with his bound hands. “Please. Lead the way.”
“Chen, you infuriating, stupid, proud man!” Saeji grumbled under her breath. Chen took none of it to heart –it wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before. He shrugged and continued letting the guards pull him towards their barracks and prison where he’d then be contained. Saeji probably the same.
Being trailed through the dark streets of Xiching gave Chen a better insight to the workings of the region – he noticed that Xiching was not much past a wasteland occupied by beggars – they walked on sand-like mud and the houses were not much past huts made from mud bricks. As they moved into the richer area, he discovered it was more a case of divide – they had the resources, but not the will power.
The richer area began to envelope Chen in a familiar sense of green – the humidity impossibly began to fall and Chen felt more at peace. Of course not for long as a Guard felt the need to constantly remind him of who was in charge. Casting a glare over his shoulder at the man, he was only met with another shove that had him land flat on the ground with a thud. He could feel the faint trickle of blood down his side, slowly soaking his shirt. Chen wasn’t sure how or when he was wounded, but the pain hadn’t reached him yet.
In the distance he could see a tall building, stone built and the likes, and there on its highest point was the flag of Xiching. Chen was in no doubt that was in fact the royal residence of the man himself who Chen so dearly hated. Close by, he presumed, would be the royal guard barracks, and his cell for the night.
From the ground, Chen grovelled up to Saeji, “Do I look all that proud to you?” tired and covered in dirt.
Saeji turned her nose up at him and walked away on her own two legs – trusted enough not to run off much to Chen’s dismay. He would have loved to see her bound and struggling, for his own sick amusement.
“Get up,” A voice said, as a kick shoved into his back.
He done so and walked into the rising sun like everyone else. He was blind for the most part, until they stumbled into a shadier area of town. The bulkier man up front, obviously in charge, knocked sternly on the wooden door.
A slot in the door opened, revealing a pair of eyes. They seemed pleased with what they saw and opened the door.
Both Chen and Saeji then dragged into a contrasting darkness just briefly confusing their senses. Chen noted the damp walls and cramped corridor leading to what he presumed would be group and individual cells. It was a typical prison of sorts – much like the ones he’d seen back home, and the ones he himself had been in.
Ahead there was a larger ensemble of men, similar to those leading the pair to their confinement.
“From the stories I didn’t think you’d be able to catch ‘em,” one ahead mumbled. “But miraculously ye did.”
“Quiet, you,” the leader yelled forward, igniting sparks of laughter from guards and inmates alike.
“Tell us, how’d you do it?”
Chen was unsure who the question was aimed at, the man up front or himself.
The leader was silent as he jammed keys into a lock and opened the wrought iron doors. “I did nothing.”
The dim candlelight provided little sight for Chen and Saeji, but they could make them out fairly well. A lot of them got up to take a closer look. “So you’re saying they willing came with you?”
“As a matter of fact, they quite well did.”
A presence marched up behind Chen and briefly he felt the cool surface of a blade pressed firmly against the back of his wrist. One slit, he thought, and he’d bleed out to death. The presence moved closer to his ear and whispered with malice, “This one’s a bit tricky.” And then his hands fell apart from their binds, a pile of rope falling with a thump to the dusty ground.
He wasn’t dying today.
The leader turned around from the open cell doors and peered over at the two through dim light. He cracked his neck as he contemplated what to do. “They won’t dare escape. Lock them up. Without the binds.”
If they thought he had the sanity to not run away, they were sadly mistaken. Ropes wouldn’t have stopped him anyway.
The man marched over to the small table at the end of the damp corridor, a beam of light falling from above illuminating the small area. He held his arms and a small servant removed his armour, leaving him in an undershirt and trousers. Chen felt like he was boasting his power, a status not many cared to know of. There’d be a day his status wouldn’t work in his favour, Chen knew fine well.
He nodded in both their direction and grinned, after taking a swig of what appeared to be water from his cup. “You’ve had all six regions in a right mess, all the while we’re still not entirely sure what you’re up to,” he said, stepping closer to Saeji with a twisted smirk. “Your Nightsmen are earning themselves quite the name.”
His hand snakes up Saeji’s back igniting a spark inside Chen that had him growling a warning. Then, his fist tightens painfully around her skull causing a sharp cry to break out. Saeji winced and lost balance beneath her feet.
“They’re doing their job,” Chen snapped.
“While breaking every law that has ever kept our land at peace!” He roars, dragging Saeji back onto the floor and letting her go. She banged her head forcefully on the wrought iron behind her, and for a second Saeji felt her consciousness waver as a light feeling lifted her mind into darkness.
Chen taken a step forward only to be held back by the man from before. This hadn’t been in the plan, but of course Chen should have been a bit more meticulous and planned more into the details. “Be careful with her!” he yelled with utmost fiery rage.
The shouting alerts more guards who come fleeing to the scene.
“Just lock ‘em up, there’ll be a hearing in the morning to deal with them,” someone from the crowd called out as a few step forward to inspect Saeji who now, seemingly, had lost all consciousness.
“Don’t touch her!” Chen demanded as they knelt down unthreateningly and moved some hair from her face and examined a cut that had blood pour down her face. They look up at their leader who only gives them a look to continue.
Chen struggles against the grip had on him, only to be met with searing pain in his side, despite no one touching him. Looking down, Chen saw a dull red stain grow before his very eyes.
The man before him also seems to spot it. He loudly asks for Chen to be held back as he brutally steps forward and rips up his shirt to reveal to large deep cut on his abdomen. “An injury? So careless,” he mumbled as his hand reaches out slowly to the wound, daring Chen to protest.
Chen could almost feel his touch, and right as his hand fell excruciatingly into the wound, another man joined the picture with a shout.
His hand removed from the deep wound and jumped back in fright. There above Saeji stood a man much like the rest, gazing down at her in disbelief.
“It can’t be her…”
Chen must have tried to move forward, but that idea was quickly dismissed with a blow to his back, further being restrained. He could only watch.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Dropping to his knees, he reaches out to touch her. Saeji groaned and moved ever so slightly, but she looked too weak to do all that much. Another already by her side tried to move her into a sitting position.
Chen couldn’t stop shouts and roars of anger breaking his best, as he thrashed and struck all in sight as he watched them try and move her. An inexplicable anger that ignited a flame so hot leading to an excruciating explosion. No one seemed to listen.
More people crowded around her as she failed to stir, female servants replaced the male guards as the confused man who appeared to know Saeji was held by back his comrades. Utter chaos had broken loose and nothing was made much sense.
It became clouded, his vision, and Chen realised his own injuries were taking a toll. Then, finally, something smashed above his head and send him falling, Chen finally falling from hold and unfortunately splaying on the ground in agony.
As he felt his consciousness slip away, he could see her blissfully unaware. Chen sworn right then that she’d remain that way – unaware and safe, as far as he could help. All she had done, good or bad, he realised, had stopped him becoming a monster – running out into the unknown and wreaking havoc on the evil as well as the innocent.
Chen realised that, as he gently but painfully slipped out, that he himself lacked humanity but somehow Saeji had enough for the pair of them.
Chen woken slowly, met with darkness and bleak shadows moving before him. He remembered where he was, but only just.
His movement must have alerted another presence to his awakening. “Are you awake?”
Chen tried his hardest to move, but a searing pain had him back down in the worst pain he’d felt in years. He lifted his shirt and saw a green sticky paste mixed with his own blood where he’d been cut. What had they done?
“A nurse was called down to treat your wound. Feel lucky.” Then, appearing in front of the bars separating them, was one of the king’s guard- the familiar face of the man who seemed to know Saeji.
Chen narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing?” Chen himself wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he asked anyways and tried to move himself away – knowing best that he should stay away while injured.
The man looked around warily before putting his hand through the bar. “My names Jin. I want to help.”
His hand was there, through the bar waiting to be shook. Chen didn’t know if this was a set up to be killed, he didn’t know if he could trust him yet but he admitted to himself that any genuine help he’d be thankful for at this point. His cocky attitude had got them into this, and now he needed to repent and take the help offered.
Jin moved to the left, giving him sight of Saeji perched up in the corner on some hay, cotton wrapped around her head and breathing so heavily he was surprised he hadn’t heard it till now.
“She’s okay – the same nurse gave her something and now she appears to be better. Bleeding has stopped and should be fine in a few days.” Jin ran a hand through his hair. “We grew up together, we did. I’m not a bad guy,” Jin said, almost pleading with Chen to believe him.
“How do I know you’re not lying?” Chen asked, as he slowly tried to sit upright.
Jin leaned down and poured some water into a large wooden bowl. He chose to Ignore Chen on his doubts, and instead said, “Drink up – we’re leaving.”
Chen could barely rise to his feet and struggled more to lift the bowl to his face. He’d have to spend at least a few days getting back to health, Saeji probably longer. “Why would I leave with you?”
Jin looked grim. “Because by tomorrow both you and Saeji will be hanging from a rope after your thirty second trial. Now hurry up. I’d have taken Saeji alone but I can’t go with her.”
The rattling of keys bit at Chens hearing. He feared for a second someone else would hear them, but dismissed that and focused on instead getting out of there despite questionable trust.
Jin stumbled towards Saeji, as if he were tired and overwhelmed. “She disappeared one day – her and her family. Thought they’d died trying to flee.”
Chen walked out through the unlocked door with great pain and had to use the metal for support. “Why were they trying to flee?”
Jin cupped water in his hand and tried to feed it to Saeji, but most just poured down her face displacing a thick layer of brown dust settled on her face. “She hasn’t changed a bit,” Jin said, as if he hadn’t heard him.
“I heard you!” Jin snapped, as if Chen’s presence disturbed him. “Her father liked to deal in a lot of the things illegal in Xiching. Nothing bad, but he was big in trade between the many regions that quite obviously isn’t allowed. He was caught. One night they were there one night they were gone. Her parents however, were killed before they could escape. Always presumed she’d been killed too.”
Chen snatched some water from the bowl and asked, “Where do you come into this?”
“Was like their second son. My family couldn’t look after me.”
Chen didn’t poke any further, and Jin seemed to move firmly on. “I’ve organised someone to escort you both to the Chaesung temple – it’s a day’s travel and you’ll be protected. Trust me.”
“Trust you?” Chen asked, having to put a leash on his temper and pride.
Decorated in mounds of green and a stunning array of the most beautiful colours Chen had ever seen. Possibly the most peaceful place in Gauna, just behind his safe place that one day he’d be back for. For now, this would do.
The hill was steep, and he had no doubt the horses pulling the cart was struggling. It’d been a full day and he had no doubt that he had recovered well. Saeji still, however, hadn’t woken up and Chen would be pushing it to say he wasn’t concerned – in all truthfulness, he was scared she’d leave him.
Chen ducked back under the hay in the back of the cart, just as he’d been asked to when they’d set off. The driver hadn’t asked questions, and Jin had paid for his silence.
Chen wondered briefly how he let any of this happen – never had he made such stupid mistakes, but also he’d never let himself go so much. Never let himself make connections.
Now he knew the reason why.
“Delivery – general supplies from the city. May I pass?” The driver said as the cart came to a sudden halt.
No inspection took place, but another presence simple grunted their approval and the cart was off. He’d never felt so powerless in his life, at the mercy of others for years. It simply wasn’t something Chen made a habit out of, and something he’d long ago passed.
Then suddenly, the back of the cart pulled down like a door, and standing there was the driver. “We’re here. The monks will protect you now.”
The driver hauled Saeji from the cart, but struggled. He was an older man, a hunched back from driving a cart his entire life, and poor strength from being able to do not all that much with his muscles. Chen taken over, but he himself struggled – he’d been still in that cart for far too long.
As the man unloaded supplies, consisting of woven baskets of vegetables, meats, and firewood, he soon left leaving them both standing there a few meters from the main door, no monks in sight.
In a valley of green and nature, the temple stood out – grand stairs leading to a building of orange tinted stone that shone in the light. It was unlike anything Chen had ever seen, despite having lived in a palace for a good part of his childhood.
Chen nudged Saeji up a little to get a better hold as he thought of what to do next. He had to get his game together, keeping them both safe and complete his journey. There was no giving in, no going back. People were relying on him – his men in Joseon, others in Gauna who had simply had enough. Even if he had no one expecting anything grand, he had people to show that change was needed and it would happen – family above all, and the other officials.
After all, he was the seventh king of Gauna.