A/N: Super short chapter! Felt like posting something, lol. Consider it an interlude? ^_^

Chapter 39

The group began to fall into a rhythm as they traveled north toward the empire, each day looking very similar to the last. They would get up in the morning, eat a cold breakfast, and start on the trail. They would hike, taking breaks occasionally to rest or take care of needs, and then keep going. Toward nightfall, they would hunt, set up a camp, do some weapons training depending on skill level, and then go to sleep. Sometimes they talked while they walked, and sometimes the silence sank in, not uncomfortably but in a way that reminded them they were getting farther from civilization and deeper into the mountains every day.

Yona's hair was getting longer. When Lien had first met the group, the princess' hair was closer to her ears, but now it was just beginning to brush her shoulders. It was such a vibrant, fiery red; she had never seen hair that exact shade before, which certainly made Yona stand out. Luckily they hadn't come across anyone during their journey. She was also becoming much better with her bow and arrow and the sword. Jae-Ha had started teaching anyone who wanted to join in a few kicks, so both Lien and Yona had taken him up on the lessons.

Lien could feel herself slowly becoming stronger. Her muscles were more defined, and her fan no longer wobbled when she held it up for longer than a minute. She had taken to sparring with Yona, Hak, and Shin-Ah, though Shin-Ah was extremely cautious with her.

"You know you can actually go on the offensive, Shin-Ah," Jae-Ha said one afternoon from the each of their makeshift sparring space. They were taking a break in a small forest clearing for lunch, and Shin-Ah and Lien had decided to practice for a few minutes. Well, Lien had wanted to practice, and Shin-Ah had indulged her.

Shin-Ah's gaze didn't waver from Lien, and he didn't respond to Jae-Ha. Like every time they sparred, he was somewhat on edge; he practically vibrated with awareness.

"He's right, you know," Lien said with a small smile, "I'd tell you if I couldn't handle it."

"Defense practice is…good for me," Shin-Ah said softly, taking a step back and falling into a solid stance.

Lien tilted her head to the side and decided not to fight him on it. She didn't want to push him from awareness and into anxiety after all. She gave him a half-smile and instead pressed in with an attack, her fan whirling, fire racing along the edge of it.

Shin-Ah nimbly stepped back, and she ducked as he brought up his sword. They already moved slower than they would if they were truly fighting for safety reasons, but he moved as if he was stuck in mud. Lien spun around and held her fan up to the back of his neck. In reality, she never would have been able to do this. Shin-Ah was incredibly fast when he was actually fighting, and she wasn't anywhere near his level.

"Maybe you should get blunt wooden practices weapons," Jae-Ha said, "That might make Shin-Ah a little more inclined to actually spar."

"He spars with Hak," Kija said, "And me. And you as well." He was sitting next to Jae-Ha on the same boulder, his back straight, a bit of mending in his lap. Yoon had shown him how to sew, and he only stuck himself with the needle every few minutes now. He was patching up one of his robes, his stitches neat and tidy.

"He's worried about hurting us," Yona said, a touch of fondness in her tone. She was sitting with Yoon and Zeno at the edge of the sparring area, still finishing off their meager lunch. Even though they didn't have much, she kept handing their resident bottomless pit tiny bits of her jerky.

"Well, that's true," Jae-Ha said, offering her a sly smile, "But everyone else who comes at you with a sword is going to want to hurt you, so…"

"I'm aware," Yona said. She rolled her eyes and pulled off another slice of the jerky.

"Yeah, try sticks," Hak said. Leaning against a nearby tree, he was watching the sparring match, unimpressed. "Shin-Ah still won't swing hard."

Lien shook her head and pulled back, closing her fan. Shin-Ah turned toward her, sheathing his sword, and even though he was wearing his mask, she could tell he was apologetic. It was in the slump of his shoulders, the turn of his hands. Lien smiled and put her hand on his arm, a quiet acceptance. Maybe they were right… "We can make wooden weapons. Or you can spar with Hak and I could spar with Yona. We don't have to spar."

Shin-Ah gingerly put his hand over hers and squeezed her fingers gently. "I'm sorry…"

"Don't be," Lien said, "It's like Yona said, I know you don't want to hurt me."

"But…I want you to be prepared," Shin-Ah said, looking down. "You need that, too."

That was true, but she could also learn to better defend herself by practicing with Yona. Hak could give them pointers. "I think I'm getting better, personally. Even if you won't actually spar with me." She grinned, letting him know her feelings weren't demolished over the whole thing.

"I could spar with you," Jae-Ha offered with a smirk. He slid off the rock and made a show of stretching as if getting the kinks out of his neck. Shin-Ah automatically stepped in front of Lien and crossed his arms over his chest. "Or not. I was actually kidding, Shin-Ah, so we're clear…"

"Oh."