Okay, here's a slightly longer chapter. Enjoy!

Age count update:

Takumi - 21

Yona - 15 (turning 16 just around the corner, uh-oh)

Hak - 18

Soo-Won - 18


x


Takumi perhaps should have put more thought in notifying General Joo-Doh about quitting. A heads up would have been preferred, or as his old world's workplace decorum required: a two weeks notice. As far as Takumi disregarded certain aspects of manners and social etiquette, he wasn't one to drop a bomb for no reason. Of course, if Takumi ever did drop a bomb, it was on purpose. Therefore, Takumi did tell the general in advance about discontinuing his work in the Sky Army.

The issue, however, laid in the way Takumi told General Joo-Doh.

They were in the middle of taking a lunch break from sorting through a mess of letters when Takumi said, "I'm gonna quit working for you in ten days."

General choked on his tea. Takumi might have purposely waited for the man to take a sip before breaking the news and amusedly watched his superior cough out his lungs.

"What," Joo-Doh wheezed.

"I'm done working for the army," Takumi said airily. "That's all to it. You don't have to pay for my mother's medicine anymore."

In the past three years, the general had learned more about Takumi and vice versa, but the general was deeply aware of Takumi's care for his mother. Joo-Doh knew the truth of Takumi's ailing mother and he knew of the strange and deadly illness that was overtaking her body.

"What are you talking about all of a sudden? What do you mean you're quitting? Did something happen to your mother?" Joo-Doh asked in confusion. A sense of dread creeped on him as he thought about Takumi's sick mother. Did his mother's health take a turn for worse? Did she...

"Wait, don't tell me, your mother-" Joo-Doh swallowed his words, unable to voice his terrible assumption.

Playing along with the somber mood, Takumi let out a heavy sigh. "General, I've been thinking lately, but no one actually knows what's going to happen in life and people can go away suddenly. So, I've decided to treasure the people around me because you never know when they'll be gone."

Takumi paused dramatically. "My mother… she…"

General Joo-Doh leaned forward in trepidation and said carefully, "... Your mother… ?"

A pang of sympathy hit the general when he saw Takumi hunched over his food with a sorrowful expression. It was the first time seeing Takumi in this state, so it both unsettled and saddened Joo-Doh who was mentally preparing to comfort his subordinate of familial loss.

"My mother is still alive, happy, and doing fine," Takumi finished with a smirk. "She's not dead, though I do appreciate your sentiments."

The unexpected reversal of information took a second to sink in.

Joo-Doh blinked and then gaped in outrage.

"What is wrong with you?" he squeaked, his face turning red with anger and embarrassment

The general stood up, waving his arms erratically. "I thought you were going to say that your mother was-I mean, you made it sound like you had bad news, and I was afraid of assuming-I didn't want to say it, you didn't even correct me and tricked me into thinking that your mother passed away?"

Takumi pressed a hand against his chest. "I'm deeply touched that you care so much, general."

"YOU INSUFFERABLE LITTLE SHIT, I'M GOING TO KILL YOU-"

"You say that all the time-"

"NO, IT'S HAPPENING NOW. I AM GOING TO KILL YOU NOW. HERE. RIGHT NOW-"

Takumi dodged Joo-Doh's grip and turned to leave the office, lunch in hand as it wouldn't be proper to leave behind unfinished food. He nearly escaped the general's fury, but Joo-Doh's hand caught Takumi's collar right when he was about to exit out the door.

The door swung in front of them and a light voice spoke up, "Ah, is this a bad time to drop by?"

General Joo-Doh and Takumi froze in their interlocked position, looking at the visitor.

Takumi's hazel eyes widened.

He wasn't supposed to be in the palace so soon before the princess' birthday celebration.

Silky dark honey hair loosely tied and swept gracefully over a shoulder, the young man standing at the entrance wore clean and minimally detailed robes that indicated that he was a noble at the very least. Takumi couldn't help but stare because the young man was unquestionably attractive with refined features and eyes that were a strikingly bright sea-green color. Soo-Won's expression was remarkably open and friendly and nothing what Takumi would have expected from a future culprit of regicide.

This was who was going to kill Emperor Il? Takumi could hardly believe his own eyes. Soo-Won looked like he had never harmed a living being in his entire life.

"Lord Soo-Won!"

Joo-Doh yelped and took advantage of Takumi's temporary daze by headlocking him. Takumi grunted at the uncomfortable grip, repeatedly slapping the general's arm because oxygen was beginning to escape his lungs.

"I'm terribly sorry for this unsightly scene. If you would just allow me just a few minutes, I'll clean up this trash and-"

Takumi pinched Joo-Doh. Hard. Unfortunately, the general's only reaction was a small flinch.

"Oh! No need, please let him go, general. It seems he's having a hard time breathing," Soo-Won said quickly.

Very reluctantly, General Joo-Doh loosened his grip but forced Takumi to bow at a sharp ninety degree angle.

"Don't be rude," the general hissed under his breath and then straightened.

Takumi coughed, rubbing his throat, and returned the heated glare. There were many retorts he would have liked to give, but he decided to refrain since a certain individual was watching. He'd rather avoid catching the interest of that particular individual.

"Hello! Nice to meet you, I am Soo-Won. What's your name?" Soo-Won asked brightly.

Takumi stared at the young lord again, a storm of questions raging through his mind.

Was it all an act? Is it possible to be this amiable and warm while plotting treason? It couldn't possibly be an act, this young man couldn't have kept it up all these years without breaking the facade a few times. So, Soo-Won was naturally a kind person who had to kill the king for an important reason? A normal kind person wouldn't fathom such a thing, Takumi was sure that the young man in front of him had another layer in his personality, one deeply hidden and guarded against everyone else-

The general nudged him. "Are you ignoring the young lord?"

Takumi broke out of his distraction and bowed. "I apologize. My name is Takumi."

Soo-Won clapped his hands together happily. "Oh, you are Takumi! I've been curious about you! General Joo-Doh mentions you from time to time. You helped the general and the Sky army for the past three years, I've been wanting to meet you for some time now, but Joo-Doh never let me."

Takumi's polite smile stiffened.

Unwanted attention. Just great.

Despite the Sky general's attempts to dissuade Soo-Won from speaking with Takumi, the young lord won in the end. Takumi knew it was a losing battle from the start since he knew that the general had a hard time saying 'no' to Soo-Won. He suspected that pretty much everyone was unable to reject Soo-Won.

Ah, he should've just dropped the bomb and left the army right away, Takumi internally lamented as he sipped a freshly brewed cup of tea. This was exactly why no one should bother with niceties; you end up getting caught in troublesome business involving troublesome people. He could see Joo-Doh sitting next to him and drilling holes into his head as if mentally commanding to not show any disrespect in front of Soo-Won. The young man himself was sitting across Takumi and cheerfully chatting away about various things that Takumi had done in the Sky army.

"Please tell me about how you figured out how to channel water from the river below the palace!" Soo-Won was practically glittering in excitement. "And the water pump! With the reservoir!"

Takumi bit back a sigh. This was exactly the kind of situation he had been afraid of all this time. No, he did not regret any of his contributions to the welfare and improvement of the Sky Army and Kuuto in general, however Takumi highly preferred keeping out of the spotlight like this.

He chanced a look of pleading towards Joo-Doh's way. Takumi knew that the Sky general disliked letting him near anyone who was considered 'important' because apparently he had an undesirable influence upon people he met. Maybe General Joo-Doh would grant some sliver of mercy today.

"Answer the question," was the man's clipped reply.

How useless of the man.

"The basic mechanics behind it are using gravity and the force of water," Takumi said, resigning himself to the consequences while also thinking of buoyancy. "Moving water from a lower height to a higher place requires gravity doing the work for you in addition to displacement."

Though science currently was not technologically advanced, craftsmen and workers who frequently came into contact with water understood its properties without knowing the full science behind it. Explaining the push and pull forces of water, its weight, and the concept of displacement was fairly simple to explain. It also helped that Soo-Won picked up the information like fish to water, asking clarifying questions occasionally that helped Joo-Doh follow along albeit at a slightly slower pace but comprehending nonetheless. It unnerved Takumi how easily Soo-Won was able to follow the logic without any major mental blocks though it was admittingly refreshing to talk about this sort of stuff with someone who could keep up.

Joo-Doh himself was taken aback, an experience he found never stopped with Takumi. Despite years of being his superior, the general still could never fully wrap his mind around how Takumi's mind worked. Hearing Takumi rattle off about any topic with leaps of logic, of observation turned into facts and transformed into applicable concepts, was always disconcerting. It often made Joo-Doh wonder just how much Takumi knew, how much he was holding back, and how did he come to know so much about everything?

With a quick glance, Joo-Doh mentally groaned at how he could tell that Soo-Won was absolutely enamored with Takumi. Of course the young lord was. Takumi's disregard for stiff formalities didn't bother Soo-Won as the young lord himself wasn't exactly one to uphold those customs either and rather liked casual conversations and settings instead. If anything, Takumi's ease in omitting formalities was probably endearing to Soo-Won. His wide eyes hadn't faltered from Takumi's direction for the last half hour. As much as Soo-Won had made the Joo-Doh want to retire as early as possible for the last decade, the general knew what kind of person the young lord was. Soo-Won was inquisitive and he loved people, found change and discoveries exciting, and talked up a storm about anything, be it politics, weather, humans, animals, science, and more.

Takumi's mind had everything that Soo-Won desired for Kouka's future.

Though the Sky general had used Takumi's terrible manners as a deterrent from coming into frequent contact with any of the nobles, including Princess Yona, Joo-Doh had always known it was inevitable for Soo-Won to meet Takumi. Joo-Doh had done his best to seperate the two ever since the young lord first learned about Takumi's existence, but Soo-Won never failed to ask about his headache-inducing soldier.

Soo-Won's interest in Takumi unexpectedly worried Joo-Doh. Most saw Soo-Won as a harmless person, but the general was one of the very few aware that it was partially an act. Soo-Won was as manipulative as nobles came. The young lord's interest in Takumi was not shallow. Soo-Won most likely wanted to keep Takumi around, possibly as an advisor or promoted somehow, once the plan was completed.

If it were any other individual receiving attention, Joo-Doh would have tolerated it or wouldn't have fought against it, but Takumi was not any ordinary person. If there was anything besides Takumi's undying loyalty towards his mother that Joo-Doh learned about him, it was that Takumi bowed to no one. Three years ago, Sky general had sworn to beat respect for authority into Takumi's skull, but there was no result to those efforts. There was no obedience, no unquestioned allegiance to the Sky army, and most alarmingly, Takumi held no semblance of fealty to the royal family. Nothing had changed in the young man. Takumi was still as scornful of the societal decorum required in the palace when he first began working as a soldier. If Takumi showed any signs of obedience and manners, that was only because he was plotting something up his sleeve.

Though the Sky general didn't doubt Soo-Won's talent in gaining favor among people, he wasn't sure if that charm would affect Takumi the same way.

Joo-Doh's brows furrowed as he thought deeply about the future after Takumi's mother would pass. If his mother was the only reason why Takumi was willing to do 'work' until now, that meant that with her gone, Takumi wouldn't be tied to anything. No one would have anything over his head, no one would be able to convince him of anything, he would have no obligation to anyone.

"What were you two talking about before I arrived?" Soo-Won asked curiously.

Takumi and Joo-Doh froze at that.

Takumi carefully watched the general, wondering if the older man would expose his personal life in front of Soo-Won. That was one of the last things he needed at this point. Things had been going so well for the past three years, not diving too deep into the intrigues in the Scarlet Palace between the royal family and the four tribes and not being too close to Princess Yona and anyone else who warranted future trouble.

"It was just a normal fight. I was scolding him," Joo-Doh muttered.

It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the full truth. Takumi wondered if Soo-Won caught that half-truth.

"Well, I better get going. Drill training is about to start," Takumi said to excuse himself. "It was nice talking to you, Lord Soo-Won."

He bowed and left the office. Takumi made a mental note to remind the general that he was still quitting regardless of the commotion.

Whether or not Joo-Doh accepted it, he was leaving in ten days.


x


Soo-Won puffed out his cheeks. "I wanted to talk to him longer."

The Sky general sighed. "Why are you here in the first place? You aren't supposed to come to the palace until two weeks later."

"Well, I wanted to check on some things," Soo-Won answered easily. "And while I'm here, I wanted to meet him."

Joo-Doh's grip on his tea cup tightened at the thought for what was to come in less than two months. His heart beated faster every time he thought about it. The idea itself was against everything he had sworn his life to when he first picked up his swords. He had been taking great care to not let Takumi catch on what was happening around the palace. The changes in guard rotations, the new recruits that Captain Han supplied, and soldier assignments were arranged without Takumi's involvement which was different from the norm since he had always been a part of the responsibility. With a head like that, Takumi probably knew that something was off. The man had a sharp nose for mischief that went along with his sharp mind, a dangerous combination.

The Sky general wondered if Takumi knew already but doubted it. It was unlikely as it was absurd to suspect it in the first place. Something like assassination wouldn't cross Takumi's mind.

"I wish I met Takumi earlier," Soo-Won pouted. "You're mean for keeping such a good guy all to yourself. It must be nice to work with him all the time."

Joo-Doh snorted at that. "Yeah, right."

Soo-Won said quietly, "He knows a lot. A lot more than he lets on."

The general agreed.

"I'm looking forward to working with him in the future. We could really use someone like him."

Joo-Doh sharply looked up at that. Soo-Won tilted his head at the reaction.

"Is there something wrong with that?"

Takumi just announced his resignation about an hour ago. If that's what he said, that's what he'll do, Joo-Doh thought. Takumi wasn't one to be easily swayed from his decisions. Even if Joo-Doh threatened the younger man with desertion of the army, Takumi wouldn't care. There wasn't much use trying to make him stay.

"About that…," the Sky general said slowly.


x


Takumi didn't tell any of his army peers about quitting. He didn't want to make it a big deal or have people overreact because he knew that the men his platoon probably would.

To be quite honest, Takumi was going to miss his platoon. They had gotten through some serious patches over the last three years together and a few were ones Takumi would actually trust. He might even keep in touch with them.

However, for the most part he wanted to keep it quiet. Less fuss, less muss.

Takumi paused in the middle of his chore. That phrase sounded incorrect.

The last nine days had been solidly peaceful and uneventful. It was almost suspicious, but Takumi was trusting that his luck would hold out for just one more day. After tomorrow, he'd hang his Sky armor uniform one last time, pack his stuff in the barrack, and leave the palace without looking back.

He could nearly taste freedom. Takumi was almost tempted to hum in anticipation while he stacked papers neatly.

"Takumi!"

"WE HEARD THAT YOU'RE LEAVING-"

"TAKUMIIIII-"

"-WHY'RE YOU LEAVING US-"

Takumi flinched.

A parade of feet stomped through the corridor and before Takumi could hide behind a desk, soldiers hurtled themselves through the door and into Takumi. Their weight slammed him to the wooden floor. Stacks of meticulously organized files flew into the air, scattering paper everywhere.

"Geh-"

One man wrapped his arms around Takumi's waist. "We heard a rumor you're leaving the army, but it's not true, right? Right?"

"Get off," Takumi growled, pushing another man's scruffy face out of his. "I said get off-"

Five minutes later, about a dozen men were lined along the wall sitting in seiza and holding their arms up with a pissed Takumi standing in front of them. Their legs were already beginning to cramp and their arms ached. Some of the soldiers' cheeks were gaining a red color where they had gotten slapped only moments earlier. Takumi's chore, labelling and separating papers of the Sky Army's security records, were haphazardly piled to the side. Two hours worth of work now ruined.

"Where'd you hear that rumor from?"

"We heard it from the palace maids," one man sniffed while rubbing his swollen cheek.

Takumi pressed fingers to his temples, fighting the incoming headache. If the palace maids knew then everyone in the palace knew. But how? He'd only told General Joo-Doh about leaving the army and that man wasn't one for gossip or freely saying anything. The only other person who knew about Takumi's predicament other than the general was Captain Han, but the captain wouldn't dare breathe a word about Takumi in fear of risking getting blacklisted from the brothels again. The third suspect could only be Soo-Won, assuming the general told him.

Chills went down Takumi's back. Why would Soo-Won be interested in his affairs and spread it?

Takumi had a bad feeling. His brows created deep creases as he internally lamented at his exhausted luck.

He just needed one more day without trouble. Was that so hard to ask for, Takumi wondered grouchily.

"Takumi, that rumor isn't true, is it?"

The soldiers looked up hopefully.

Takumi crossed his arms. "It's true."

A few stood up in protest.

Takumi gave them the stink-eye. "Sit back down. I didn't say you could stand yet. And put your arms back up."

They sadly obeyed.

"What's going on here?"

Takumi and everyone else straightened and bowed. General Joo-Doh stood at the entrance with a look of suspicion.

"I was teaching them a lesson," Takumi said while pointing at the cluttered pile of papers behind him. "They messed it up."

Joo-Doh stared but didn't find it in him to argue. "Okay. The princess is calling for you, so go to the north wing garden. We'll clean this up."

Takumi stared back. "Why is the princess calling for me?"

The general whapped Takumi's head. "Don't question the royal family," he scolded and then pushed Takumi out of the room.

This was officially a bad day, Takumi thought darkly as he made his way over to the north wing. He passed by a few palace maids who tried to hold a conversation, asking whether the rumor was true or not, but Takumi excused himself and walked past them. It kept happening every time he turned a corner and met more people. The kitchen staff, the court servants, more palace maids, more soldiers and even ones from other platoons, and unexpectedly one or two palace officials crossed his path. Each group flocked around him, asking if he was leaving. It left Takumi deeply disturbed and exasperated at the attention.

Sure, he made a few significant contributions to all of their jobs that made their lives a bit easier, but it was no big deal. He didn't do it for them, it was just easy to do things differently that made more sense and efficient, and he hadn't even invented half of the stuff himself anyway, so Takumi didn't deserve any of that credit. Takumi refused to think that doing them favors suddenly made him important to them. Their attempts at conversation were fueled by fleeting motivation that they owed him something. They'd forget him once he left the palace.

The garden at the north wing was Princess Yona's favorite place in the Scarlet Palace and it wasn't hard to see why. Takumi smelled the heavy scent of flowers and fragrant herbs before entering through the stone entrance. The garden always never ceased to impress Takumi every time he came to this place; magnificent chrysanthemums, jasmines, and orchids covered every corner, green plants with calming aroma sprouted in straight lines at the edges, and a young cherry blossom tree stood at the center. Emperor Il knew that his daughter favored the garden, so he had budgeted a considerable portion of the imperial family's treasury towards botany. Takumi would know since he'd taken a peek at the transcripts over an official's shoulder one time.

Underneath the low hanging tree, a girl with deep red hair sat at a table with a complete tea set. Her pastel robes matched the colors of the garden perfectly and the colorful hair blended among the flowers. Her bodyguard was sitting next to her. Hak was the first one to notice Takumi, watching with sharp eyes as Takumi approached and bowed to the both of them.

"Good day, Princess Yona and Lord Hak. You called?"

The princess stood up with a pout. "Takumi! I heard you're leaving! Is it true?"

Takumi slowly blinked, not expecting this at all.

"Yes," he said carefully. "Is that why you called for me?"

Yona's shoulders slumped at his confirmation. "I… why? Did something happen?

Takumi gave a shallow smile. "I'm afraid that's personal business, princess."

Princess Yona gave him a look of surprise at the slightly cold answer. Hak was definitely glaring at him now. Undoubtedly, the young Wind chief was displeased with Takumi avoiding the princess' question.

"Then we won't be able to spend time together anymore," Yona said sadly. "I really enjoyed having tea with you."

Well, it wasn't normal for a princess to drink tea with a peasant in the first place, Takumi mused.

Yona fiddled with her tea cup in her lap. "When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow will be my last day, princess," he said.

Princess Yona's face drooped. "You won't be around for my birthday," she said in a low voice.

Takumi's mouth tightened. "I'm very sorry."

Was he feeling apologetic? Takumi wondered. He didn't want to be caught up with these feelings about the princess now out of all times.

"You're free right now, aren't you? Can you share tea time with me?"

Takumi looked at the hopeful violet eyes and internally sighed. "Of course, Hime-sama."

He found himself sitting across the princess with Hak between them, all three holding tea cups filled with a flowery tea that the princess herself chose and brewed. Takumi could only think how General Joo-Doh would screech in anger if he saw the current situation.

"How do you like the tea today?" Yona asked excitedly.

One thing that Takumi could never understand, was that the princess constantly asked for his opinions and thoughts. He didn't believe that he was all that different from the rest of the servants when encountering the princess. The lower class constantly treated royalty and nobility such the princess like they were made of glass with a combination of fear and flattery. One wrong move and their lives could be turned upside down. Though Takumi wasn't afraid of these people, he did unashamedly offer flattery to keep them in their good moods. He wasn't 'refreshingly honest' towards any of them, including the princess. He was simply courteous and kept a level head on his shoulders every time a nobleman crossed his path.

"It's sweet," Takumi said. "And the smell is very nice. I'm surprised that the tea is red."

It was too sweet. It was practically sugary juice with a floral aftertaste. Takumi hated sugary things. Seeing how Hak barely sipped his own cup of 'tea' without grimacing, Takumi assumed that the Wind chief must also dislike overly sweet things. However, since the princess was the one who personally brewed and served, Hak drained his cup.

How touching, Takumi thought.

Princess Yona brightly smiled. "It does smell nice, doesn't it?"

Hak snorted. "It's like perfume."

Yona shushed him. "Don't drink it if you don't like it," she said snippily.

The young warrior grinned cheekily. "Yona-hime made it especially for me, of course I have to drink it."

Yona ignored him with her nose turned up and faced Takumi.

"It's made of crushed rose petals and honey which is why the color is so pretty," she said lightly as if she hadn't argued a second earlier. "It's my favorite tea right now so I've been drinking it all the time lately, but the doctor says too much of this tea is bad for my health. He made me drink a bitter herbal tonic to improve my health."

"Well, we don't want the princess's valuable teeth to rot," Hak commented. "Your face can't afford to lose any more features."

Takumi watched the princess bicker with the Wind chief and took a careful sip of his drink. Takumi could see why the doctor recommended so. He wasn't used to drinking something so sweet that he could feel the sugar coating his teeth. He planned on gargling his mouth with water once tea time with the princess was over.

Staring at the red-tinted liquid in his cup, Takumi wondered, would the princess prefer drinking unhealthy, prettily-colored sweet tea or healthy bitter tea for the rest of her life? Would she rather live a beautiful lie or live an ugly truth.

"Princess," Takumi said quietly. "Would you continue drinking this tea? It slowly rots your teeth, but it's fragrant and sweet. Or would you rather drink the most foul, disgusting herbal tonic, be healed forever yet never forget the taste?"

Takumi's hazel eyes scrutinized Yona's face as he asked this. The princess paused in her squabble in confusion.

The oblivious princess tilted her head. "What sort of question is that?"

Takumi smiled faintly. "Ah, it was an impulsive question. Forgive me, Hime-sama."

What use was there asking such a vague question, Takumi told himself. It was a mistake. He shouldn't have asked.

"You're taking up this guy's time, Yona-hime. General Joo-Doh might scold him for missing duty if you keep him any longer," Hak interjected. Takumi was thankful for the dismissal.

Yona lowered her eyes. "You're-you're right. Thank you, Takumi, for having tea with me. I will miss you. "

Takumi stood and bowed deeply. "It's been a pleasure, Princess Yona. Stay in good health as always."

He left the garden without looking back.

The world will go on, he thought. If she was truly the reincarnation of the legendary king, then she'd live and fulfill whatever prophecy there is.


x


The next day, Takumi bade farewell to his tearful platoon and a constipated looking General Joo-Doh who looked conflicted at letting go a soldier walk away freely from the Sky Army. A cotton bag packed with his belongings hung from a shoulder as Takumi exited the palace side gate. He was wearing the same clothes he had first entered with, the Sky army uniform left behind in the barracks.

A voice called out his name. "Takumi!"

Takumi was sorely tempted to throw up his hands in exasperation. He turned around, annoyed. The frown on his face grew when he saw who it was.

Soo-won stood at the gate slightly out of breath.

"You're leaving?"

Takumi nodded.

Soo-Won stepped forward. "Even though so many people will miss you? Are you just going to leave all of them?"

Takumi cocked his head and narrowed his eyes.

"Excuse me if I sound rather forward, young lord, but how did you learn that I was leaving?"

"General Joo-Doh told me," Soo-Won said openly. "And then I heard the rumor going around as well."

How could someone be so honest and dishonest at the same time, Takumi thought in amazement as he stared at the young lord. Takumi wasn't sure if he could actually catch Soo-Won in a lie.

"Well of course the young lord would know about the rumor. It was the young lord that spread it, after all."

Takumi figured that Soo-Won somehow hoped that spreading the rumor would cause people to flock him with questions, pleading him to stay in the palace. The pressure would have made another person relent, but Takumi didn't crack because he had his own reasons. The bold statement caught Soo-Won off-guard just for a moment before he returned to his normal expression.

"You sound displeased," Soo-Won remarked lightly.

Takumi turned his head to the side to look down the road to Kuuto. He could hear the bustling city calling for him. The brothel where his family, his mother waited. Yeri.

"I don't appreciate my personal details getting spread like gossip," Takumi said while dropping formal speech. "Is there anything else you have to say? I'm looking forward to my 'retirement', you know."

Interestingly, Soo-Won seemed encouraged by the lack of formalities and spread his hands.

"Retiring so soon? How about working for me instead of the Sky Army?" he propositioned. "I'm looking for retainers. It'll be more comfortable than being a soldier and I'd give you a lot of freedom so that you could work without being restrained."

"No thanks," Takumi retorted.

"But-"

Enough was enough. He was tired of having these people dangle off his feet, begging him to stay when all he wanted now was to leave.

Takumi finally faced Soo-Won with irritation. "You need to stop trying to convince me to stay. I'm leaving so I can care for my sickly mother. I don't care about whatever riches, honors, or opportunities you present."

Takumi saw chagrin flash across Soo-Won's face and had to smother the urge to laugh because the emotion appeared so foreign on the young man's face. He could tell Soo-Won wasn't used to feeling this way. Wasn't this kid supposed to be more in control of his emotions?

"If people know how much you care for your mother, they'll take advantage of you," Soo-Won said in a low voice. Takumi suspected that it was supposed to be a light warning.

"Nice threat. It's a good thing she won't be around for much longer."

Soo-Won looked up in shock at that foreboding response. Takumi gave a sharp smile.

"See you, kid."

Takumi went home.


x


Asuka stormed into the shared common quarters where other young courtesans were chatting away and passing time. She picked up a pillow and hurled it across the room.

"I HATE HIM!" she screeched, her face still red from what had transpired minutes ago.

The girls giggled behind their hands. It seemed like their fellow courtesan was having a lover's spat with one of her clients. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

"But he's so cute…," Asuka sniffed and began hitting a pillow on the floor. "Why does he have to be so damn annoying and cute at the same time? It's not fair-"

"Which guy is it now?" one girl laughed. "Is it the merchant again? Why don't you just have him buy you another set of hair pins as an apology?"

Asuka raised her face. "No, it's Takumi," she said darkly. "He's back. For good this time."

The young courtesans froze and then scrambled for details.

"Since when-"

"What do you mean 'for good'?"

"You mean he's not a soldier anymore?"

Asuka shut out the noise, pressing her palms to her ears. "Stop, stop, I don't want to talk about him anymore! I'm mad at him right now!"

"Fine, let her whine on the floor," one girl declared. "Come on, girls, let's see him for ourselves."

They all listened like a flock of sheep obeying their shepherd and herded themselves out the door to find the man of interest. Asuka sourly watched them file out, feeling betrayed.

It wasn't hard to track down Takumi because there was already a commotion in the backroom near the kitchens. A ring of servants crowded the corridor where they were all attempting to eavesdrop through the head matron's closed door.

"What's going on?" One courtesan whispered to a servant.

"We don't know. Takumi just came back suddenly and announced that he's done working for the army. He's inside with Yeri and the obaa-sama," the man whispered back. "We're trying to listen-"

The door slammed open and the head matron marched out. The old lady raised an unimpressed brow at the group of eavesdroppers who cowered under her heavy gaze.

"Why're you all dawdling around when we open for the evening hours in less than thirty minutes?" she snapped. "Move! Every single one of you has work to do!"

"Yes, ma'am!" They all yelped and scurried away.

The head matron closed the door and sighed. "I'm getting old for this."

"You are old," Takumi and Yeri chorused from the office. The old woman returned to her chair inside and leaned back, now relaxed since there weren't flies snooping around.

"Shut up, brats," the matron scowled. "Yeri, if you weren't dying, I would've been training you as my successor by now."

Yeri gracefully bowed her head in thanks. "I'm flattered."

The old lady eyed Takumi. "Since your son returned, maybe I can use him as my successor instead."

Takumi raised his hands in defense. "Ah, no thanks. That sounds like a responsibility I don't want to have."

The matron huffed, "What a pity. You would have done well. Just take my place so I can die in peace."

It was rare praise from the head matron so Takumi didn't argue back. The rest of their discussion was spent talking about the money Takumi had accrued while working as a soldier. As it turned out and Takumi had suspected, Yeri stopped using the salary Takumi earned for herself since the last few months and donated the unused senjusou medicine for the poor who needed it. Yeri admitted that she no longer wanted to fight off the sickness. She'd rather die early while she still retained control of her body than fighting a losing battle to the bitter end.

The news wasn't surprising since Takumi had been suspecting it for some time. However, it still hurt hearing his mother verbalize it. There wasn't anything he could do about it. The only thing left to do was for Takumi to stay by his mother's side until she was gone. He promised himself that he'd make her last days happy.

With that determination, a month passed by without difficulty.

The days were easy and peaceful for Takumi and Yeri. His priority was to watch over his mother, so it was simple to rotate his schedule around her. Takumi shared a room with one of the servants on the lower floor to sleep at night, but he spent his days in his mother's quarters. In the morning, he helped her get up to wash up and served a light breakfast. In the afternoon, Yeri would teach a lesson or two to oirans-in-training and then take a short nap during which Takumi would amuse himself with a book, glean gossip from a servant, or play the koto softly. After dinner, Yeri and Takumi would quietly enjoy each other's company while drinking tea. Sometimes, at Yeri's request, Takumi would play the koto until she fell asleep.

The worst days were when Yeri woke up feeling absolutely sick. Her stomach would reject food, so even if she managed to swallow a bite of the most bland porridge, Yeri would vomit it out later. She could only sip water gingerly, weak from overexertion. Her hair was beginning to fall out from stress as her body wasn't able to handle the illness. Yeri was most devastated over the gradual loss of her hair and she wailed when the first clump of hair appeared in her hands.

"My hair," Yeri whimpered, staring at the long strands slipping through her fingers.

Jaw tight, Takumi watched his mother sob while clinging onto him.

"Takumi, what's happening to me?" Yeri cried. "I don't want to die, can't you do something? I don't want to die-"

For the first time in a long, long time, Takumi found himself at a loss of words at his mother's pleas.

He'd always been able to answer her requests. For as long as they had both lived, Takumi was able to fulfill whatever wishes Yeri asked of him. Beit money, jewels, clothes, favors, connections, music, or inventions, Takumi had been able to get them all.

But this time, he didn't know what to do.

If only if only if only if only if only-

If only he'd found the illness earlier.

If only if only if only if only if only-

Should've studied medicine.

If only if only if only if only if only-

The thoughts plagued him.

Understandably, along with the hysteria, Yeri had bouts of depressive episodes in which she'd lie in her futon all day without moving. Yeri's skin, once smooth and radiant, was now pale and her fingernails chipped. Through it all, between the vomiting, weeping, and mental shut-downs, Takumi stayed by his mother's side even though it tore him inside seeing her like this. When none of the servants could calm Yeri down, Takumi came in, bundling her in his arms until she fell asleep. When she was feeling especially miserable, Yeri would ask her son to sing a song. Takumi's songs were different from anything else she's heard, even the wandering peddlers from faraway countries didn't sound like him; the melody and rhythms were strange, but very catchy along with memorable lyrics. Oftentimes, almost everyone in the brothel would gather outside her quarters, sitting in the hallway and down the stairs, to hear Takumi.

It all became routine for them. As his mother's death approached, Takumi felt strangely more relaxed than he'd ever been. Yeri's death still scared him, haunted his sleep, but he was growing to accept it. What scared him after her death was the unknown of after, what would he do without Yeri.

Takumi spent his time doing what he wanted. He would occasionally mingle with his old acquaintances, reconnecting with a few friends, catching up on the latest updates, and he also checked on Mei and Shouta at the orphanage. He didn't spend too much time outside, though, because he made sure to always return to Yeri at the end of the day.

At some point, Yeri wistfully commented how she missed seeing Takumi's natural hair color, so he stopped dying it. His roots, deep maroon, were growing in and the inky black stain began to fade.

With a semblance of his old life resuming, sometimes Takumi forgot about the Scarlet Palace and the red-haired princess.

On other days, it was all he could think about.


x


There's probably typos somewhere around there lol. Thanks so much for reading! I'm enjoying the calm before the storm in this chapter. Stay tuned for the next chapter, it'll be posted soon ;)

Someone asked how strong Takumi is? Compared to Hak? Takumi is a jack-of-all-trades and better suited for secret agent stuff and will go nowhere near a battlefield because he's 1) not a warrior and 2) not made for that crap. I have this belief that no one is as strong as Hak (except maybe for that one scary guy connected to Soo-Won that even Hak was lowkey scared of, dude gives me heebie-jeebies). Only the dragons can give a run for his money (esp Zeno).