Buckle up.


x


Takumi was gazing out the window, a book forgotten in his hands, when his mother broke the quiet.

"You've been thinking about the palace, haven't you?"

Takumi chuckled at his mother's intuition. "How did you know?"

Yeri smiled as she slowly polished the koto. The soft spring sun highlighted the paleness of her skin. She looked fragile.

Takumi hated it.

"You have a serious look on your face whenever you think about the Scarlet Palace," she said. "At first it was because you dislike the place, but now it's different. Something terrible is about to happen. Am I wrong?"

Her son sighed at the accuracy. "No, you're not wrong."

Takumi turned away from the window and slumped against the wall, closing the book.

He wasn't going to interfere, he had told himself. It wasn't his business and he wasn't supposed to be a part of it.

"Will people die?" Yeri asked calmly.

Emperor Il. Maybe a few other nameless individuals Takumi didn't know.

"Yes."

"You're not going to help." It wasn't a question.

"No."

Yeri hummed lightly. "Will you grieve over their deaths?"

Takumi fingered the pages of the book. "No."

"Then you're worried about something else. Or someone."

Worried? He was worried?

Yeri put away the koto back into its wooden case and set aside the wood varnish. She motioned for her son to sit next to her and cupped his face with her hands. Takumi absentmindedly noted that her hands were dry and mentally reminded himself to massage her skin with oil later.

"You're a cold person, Takumi," Yeri said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Mother, that's offensive," he said, feigning hurt.

Yeri was unbothered. "It's the truth," she said flippantly. "But I know you care for people. Even if it's less than your ten fingers, I know you care, so it doesn't make you a terrible person to not help others in trouble. It's self-preservation."

Takumi was quiet. "Even if I know what's going to happen?"

Yeri kissed her son's forehead. "It's the burden for being too smart for your own good. Most people can live in ignorance, but you simply don't have the choice to live like that and that's not fair for you."

"It feels… wrong. To not do anything," Takumi admitted, realizing the truth of what he said. All this time, he had known deep down inside that it was wrong to ignore what he knew.

"Then if you want to, you can do something about it," his mother said.

Takumi didn't respond to that, but he nodded. Even with the encouragement from Yeri, he still stood by his decision to do nothing.

The day of Princess Yona's sixteenth birthday arrived. Festivities and attractions happened throughout the day and fireworks filled the evening sky. The head matron gave everyone in the brothel a rare day off to enjoy the holiday, so the brothel was nearly empty. Yeri and Takumi spent a few hours out during the late afternoon, not going too far, buying rare trinkets, and dropping coins for talented performers. There was a lot of good street food, though Yeri would only take a bite of whatever Takumi ate. They spent the rest of the day inside her room. Although everyone else was clearly having the time of their lives outside, Yeri and Takumi were somber as they watched the celebration continue in the crowded streets from the window.

Yeri contemplated her son's expression the entire day, being mindful of his heavy mood and fully aware that the palace was weighing on his mind. Even though it seemed like he was giving her his full attention, Takumi was distracted.

When everyone else returned to the brothel to sleep and the festival ended, Yeri and Takumi stayed awake in the night, watching the shadowed Scarlet Palace in the distance.

"You should go. Save that person you're worried about."

Takumi looked at his mother.

"You'll regret it if you don't."

He thought about it. "It's too late."

"You don't know that. Go."

Takumi looked back to the Scarlet Palace one more time.

And then out of nowhere, compulsion spurred him to move. Takumi stood and got ready to go out. He took out his bag, rummaging through for his knives and leather greaves and strapping them onto his arms and legs. Running an anxious hand through his hair, Takumi wracked his head, thinking of what else to take with him.

Coins. Nothing wrong with pocket money in an emergency. He grabbed a handful of coins, stuffing them into a tight drawstring sack, and then he fastened a short broadsword in its sheath horizontally onto the back of his hip. As Takumi pulled on his boots, Yeri went to the dresser and dug out a long dark cloak from the bottom of the trunk, handing it to him before he left. Takumi appreciated his mother's forethought, fastening the cloak and covering his head.

"I'll be back," he said, sounding extremely apologetic. "I'm just going to check."

Yeri patted his cheek. "Whether you save that person or not, it's okay."

Takumi smiled bitterly. "If you say so."

The streets which had been packed hours earlier were now deserted except for the occasional Sky Army patrol. Takumi easily avoided all of them since he knew exactly what routes they were taking. He took the most straightforward route through Kuuto to the Scarlet Palace, using the side streets and alleys when needed, and hopped over a few gates. His lungs burned by the time he reached the west gate of the outer ring. He took a moment to settle his breath before crossing the gate and entering the inner palace.

The entire time, Takumi's mind raced.

Just check.

Make sure that things were going the way they were supposed to go.

Don't be seen.

No saving.

Dodging the soldiers making rounds, Takumi rushed past the west wing to where Princess Yona's chamber was located. There was no one standing guard in those corridors which deeply unsettled Takumi because there were always soldiers posted at every corner in these parts of the palace where royalty resided. The central courts and hallways around Emperor Il's chambers were mostly likely empty as well. Takumi uneasily glanced at his barren surroundings before knocking on the doors of Yona's quarter.

"Princess," he whispered. "Are you there?"

There was no light and Takumi creaked the door open.

It was empty.

Has she gone to see her father already? Takumi debated this as he left the west wing and made his way to the north where the emperor slept. He also berated himself for not thinking of going to King Il's chambers in the first place. The entire inner palace was cloaked in darkness and Takumi hated how dark it was because there should be lit lanterns all around the place, but none were flaming which meant that someone purposely didn't give the order to light them.

Barely making a sound while he ran down the halls, sweat ran down Takumi's face. He wasn't sure if it was because of the physical exhaustion or the stress or perhaps it was a combination of both. Even the king's chambers were left unguarded.

Please, Takumi prayed while he ran.

He wasn't sure what he was praying for, what he wanted, what he was hoping to see.

Takumi panted as he turned the corner to the entrance. He saw the princess.

Princess Yona stood there at the door, the indoor candles shining against her horror-stricken face.

In that second, Takumi knew she saw it happen.

Emotions flash through her wide eyes.

Fear, confusion, shock, terror-

Takumi barreled into the princess, slapping a hand over her mouth, and hurtled themselves down below the palace deck. She fought against Takumi as he dragged them away from the edge and into the shadows.

"Princess, it's me, Takumi," he hissed in her ear. "Please be quiet, you're in danger."

Yona stopped thrashing at the sound of his voice.

They both stiffened at the sound of footsteps walking above them. It was probably Soo-Won, trying to find them. Takumi grit his teeth, his eyes darting around them, making sure that they weren't seen underground.

Dozens of heavy footsteps marched onto the palace deck and there were a few muffled voices.

"Emperor Il?" It sounded like Kye-Sook.

Takumi felt Yona beginning to shake violently in his arms at her father's name.

"He's dead," intoned a eerily calm voice.

There was a short pause.

"Did something happen, Lord Soo-Won? You seem bothered," Kye-Sook questioned.

"Yona… she saw," Soo-Won said slowly.

Takumi sucked in a sharp breath. He drew Yona near, placing a firm hand on her head.

Kye-Sook sounded unbothered. "Then she must be eliminated, Lord Soo-Won. Where is she now?"

"She… someone took her away. I didn't see who it was."

"Then we must find them," the advisor said decidedly. "General, please have your men search the palace."

At that, Takumi's mind raced a thousand thoughts each second, extremely conscious of the princess trembling in his arms. Sky Army soldiers were now looking for them. And Joo-Doh. And Soo-Won.

Searching soldiers. Not the corridors. No courts. Gardens. North wing. Exit routes. Inner walls. Hidden holes. Rear gates. Back alleys. Kuuto. Home. Hide.

He was waiting for the mob to go away, when a new presence showed up and Takumi just knew who it was by the bloodlust filling the air.

"Soo-Won. What's going on here?"

Unconsciously, Takumi swallowed down a ball of fear at the dangerous tone in Hak's deep voice. This bloodlust was exactly why Takumi never liked going near the young Wind chief ever since they first crossed paths years ago in Kuuto. At moments like this, Hak wasn't human.

Yona reacted to the Hak's voice, raising her head at the familiar sound. Takumi hoped that she wouldn't suddenly run out.

"Hak!" Soo-Won sounded so lost, so desperate and in despair, as if he hadn't just committed regicide moments before.

Soo-Won's next words stunned Takumi.

"Somebody killed Emperor Il! I-I tried to stop them, but Yona came in and then they took her hostage! They got away, I was just about to look for them-"

Takumi suddenly found murder appealing.

If it were any other situation, Takumi would have choked on his laughter and applauded Soo-Won for the superb acting. The horror and shock in his voice was absolutely perfect and Takumi could imagine a disgustingly believable mask of distress plastered over Soo-Won's face as he spouted lie after lie. Soo-Won and Hak's voices faded, indicating that they were getting farther away, presumably to search for the 'murderer and kidnapper'.

Takumi shifted his grip on the princess. She was still shaking, her quivering hands latching onto his robes. He shifted so that they were facing each other. Even in the extremely dim lighting, Takumi could see Yona in front of him.

"Princess, look at me."

Yona's eyes were unfocused.

Takumi whispered, "Do you want to go out there and show yourself? Or will you let me take you away from here?"

Like a broken marionette, Yona's mouth opened and closed several times, wavering between the two choices. Would she go outside and face a nightmare of a situation? Soo-Won and Hak, side by side, searching for her. It would be a battle of truths and lies, the favor tipping towards whoever could convince Hak, but it would be a torturous experience to face the both of them right now. How could she tell Hak the truth? How could she face her cousin, who she loved? If she reveals the truth and her words are believed, what would happen to Soo-Won? Execution. By the order of herself, the only remaining royal.

Was she able to do all of that, or would she rather run away right now.

Takumi wasn't sure what Yona could see in him at that moment, but she let out a ragged breath while tugging on his arm.

"... away," she choked out weakly. "Take me away. Please."

"Alright. I'll take you somewhere safe," Takumi said. It sounded like a promise.

He unclasped his cloak and fastened it over her shoulders, making sure that the hood covered her hair completely. Taking her by the hand, Takumi crouched while walking the princess over the side, where they could slip out to a corridor. The dead lamps were now flickering with flame, so the halls of the palace had some light. A quick glance told Takumi that all of the lamps were now lit, meaning that Soo-Won must have allowed for it after finishing his plan tonight. At first, Takumi clicked his tongue seeing the lit lamps since that meant he didn't have the cover of darkness like before, but an idea came to him as he saw a firewood shed two corners away.

Yona still in hand, Takumi crossed the two hallways and picked up a lamp from its post along the way. He tossed the flaming lamp into the shed and clasped the door shut. Within seconds, the shed was already releasing clouds of smoke and heat leaked out. Takumi surmised that it would take at least five minutes for someone to notice the fire.

"Keep up, Hime-sama," Takumi said quietly.

Yona did her best to not trip over her feet as Takumi took her out of the palace. Several times, Takumi shoved her into a corner or behind a wall to avoid a group of soldiers, but they weren't caught. When they got to the edge of the inner palace, a high-pitched metal bell rang to alert the entire palace of a fire. The number of soldiers hunting for the princess diminished as a portion of them had to take care of the fire raging near the emperor's chambers.

Takumi knew the blueprint of the Scarlet Palace like the back of his hand, including the nooks and crannies that people overlooked. There weren't too many, but there were enough for Takumi to exploit. Leaving the inner palace ring was fairly straightforward, but the real challenge was the outer ring. Since the Sky soldiers were supposed to find the princess and the 'murderer', it seemed that General Joo-Doh set up a high alert rotating circumference of soldiers all around the perimeter of the outer palace. It was a good rotation pattern, one that covered blind spots and enabled the soldiers to relay reports quickly and efficiently. When Takumi came up with it, he liked knowing that whoever would attempt to break through the security would have a difficult time.

But now, as Takumi watched the iron defense with narrowed eyes, he was sort of regretting it. He had done the job too well, he thought in a mix of displeasure and amusement.

Another distraction was in order, Takumi decided as he pulled out two of his knives. The blades weren't conspicuous in their design and metalwork, which was exactly why Takumi liked them. Less ornate and unnoticeable knives meant that he could throw them at people without getting the blades traced back to him. And he did exactly that. Yona flinched when two soldiers dropped to ground in pain fifty meters away, catching the attention of the patrol teams in front and behind.

Grabbing the princess' hand again, Takumi sprinted to a convex curve in the outer stone wall where they'd be out of sight just for less than a minute. At any moment, the entire west end of the palace would be alerted of the injured soldiers and swarm this side of the wall. They had to hurry or they'd get caught.

Takumi vaulted the stone wall, balancing onto the top and held out a hand for the princess. Still in a dizzy haze from the traumatic event and running around, Yona took his hand without much thought. Takumi held a firm grip and pulled her up, grunting at the weight, and yanked the princess over. He landed on the other side of the wall first and then held out his arms to catch her.

For a second, hesitation flickered in Yona's eyes. Takumi scanned her expression, seeing her grow aware of the severity of her actions.

Running away.

Yona looked back once, shouts of soldiers growing closer, and then jumped into Takumi's arms with a flurry of fabric. The smell of her shampoo flooded his nose, her thin waist pressing against his arms reminded Takumi how small she was.

"Let's go," he said in a low voice. "The hard part is over."

Navigating through Kuuto was easy compared to sneaking out of the Scarlet Palace. Now that it was fully night, Kuuto was quiet and still, allowing Takumi and Yona to traverse the empty alleys with ease.

The patrols in the city weren't notified of the ongoings inside the palace, Takumi observed as he saw the same pattern of security walking through the streets. The princess stumbled several times, the adrenaline most likely running out, and seeing her fatigue, Takumi knew there wasn't much time until she'd completely collapse.

In the dead of night, they finally reached the brothel's back entrance. Like so many times before in the past, Yeri was waiting for him there along with Nana, the only servant Takumi trusted with his life.

Nana stared in shock at the sight of the dishevelled girl with fine robes peeking out under the dark cloak at Takumi's side while Yeri took in the scene calmly. Takumi knew that his mother was putting two and two together, figuring out exactly what had happened in the last two hours.

"Nana, will you please wash up our guest and send her to my room? And don't let anyone see her," Yeri said, gesturing for Nana to usher in the shell-shocked princess.

Yona's grip tightened on Takumi's sleeve, unwilling to part with him.

"You can go with her, Hime-sama. You're safe here," he assured her, taking her hand off his clothes.

Reluctantly, the red-haired girl let go and followed Nana into the brothel, glancing back once to look at Takumi. He sent a hollow smile her way. Once she disappeared into the washroom, Takumi stepped inside and with his back against the wall, he slid down with his arms on his knees and let out a long sigh. Exhaustion suddenly filled his body, a tightness in his shoulders releasing.

Yeri closed the door, casting a sharp eye for any potential witnesses while doing so. She turned her gaze to her son who was erratically scratching at his hair, creating a rat's nest.

"The person you were worried about. It was the princess."

Takumi groaned, running a hand down his face, and nodded.

What has he done?


x


The following morning, Takumi was a mess.

He uncorked a second bottle of wine, filled his cup, and drained it.

What has he done?

Takumi stared out the window in his mother's room, cup in hand.

What the fuck has he done?

Takumi refilled his cup and lifted the drink to his mouth when his mother walked in gingerly. Yeri frowned when she saw an empty wine bottle next to another opened one.

"It's the morning still. Why are you drinking?" She sounded displeased. "There's a girl next door who needs your help, but you're here drunk. She's been crying every hour."

Yeri's eyes narrowed when she heard her son grumble unintelligible words over his cup.

"Speak clearly," she snapped.

"Of course she's crying," Takumi muttered, refilling his cup yet again. "A person she thought was the love of her life murdered her father in front of her eyes."

Yeri took away the cup and placed a hand on her son's shoulder.

"Takumi, what's wrong? Why are you acting like this?"

Takumi shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut.

How could he tell his mother that he regrets saving the princess? That he regrets bringing her here? That he hates how his mother convinced him to go? He hated that he went to the palace last night. He hated that he acted on impulse.

All it took was to see Princess Yona's life shatter before him for Takumi to move.

He got up, swaying on his feet, and shuffled out of Yeri's room.

"Where are you going?"

"Ogi. I need to check on some things," he said over his shoulder. "I'll talk to the girl later."


x


Takumi wasn't drunk, but he could feel the alcohol sloshing through his blood and head as he slowly trudged towards the East district. He hoped that being outside would clear his mind a bit before he went back to the brothel. Takumi didn't want to face the princess while reeking of wine, it didn't seem like a polite thing to do.

The general atmosphere of the usually rowdy district was subdued, most likely because most people were still hungover from the previous night's celebration. Everyone was going about their normal days, but they would wince every time there was a loud sound. Ogi's shack was empty except for the old man. The rundown shack was littered with trash and Ogi didn't look much better himself.

"You look like crap," Takumi commented, sitting down across from the haggard old man. There were still alcohol stains left on Ogi's clothes.

"Urgh," Ogi groaned, clutching his head. "I'm never drinking again."

"You said that last time."

Ogi lifted his head. "Hey, can I ask you a dumb question?"

"Sure, I've seen you do it before."

Maybe it was because of the hangover, but Ogi didn't fight the remark.

Wagging a loose finger in Takumi's face, Ogi's slurred as he asked, "Are you and Asuka an item? A younger friend of mine is asking."

Takumi wrinkled his nose. "No."

The old man shook his head. "Thought so, it's one-sided. He's just checking since Asuka likes to talk as if you two are together, but no one believes her because you haven't said anything."

It seemed that he had to have words with Asuka. Takumi was generally tolerant of the people around him at the brothel because he grew up there, but his leniency was mostly extended towards the older group. The older servants and courtesans had raised him, taught him things, watched out for him, saved his skin several times, so he was more than willing to put up with them. However, he wasn't as easy going with the younger people there, especially the ones who assumed his good will came freely. Takumi had been indulging Asuka in her whims every once in a while because she was amusing at times and there weren't any other girls presently who caught his eye, but it seemed that she was misunderstanding because of this.

"Well anyway, while we're on girl talk, I heard something earlier today that'll interest you," Ogi grinned, rubbing his fingers. "It's gonna cost you."

If Ogi was bluntly coercing Takumi into buying info, then it was worth it. Takumi blindly patted his body, knowing that he had the sack of coins hanging on him somewhere from last night. The old man's smile widened when the heavy pouch hit the table surface. Ogi counted the mixed copper and silver pieces in the bag with glee, before stuffing them in his inner robe pocket.

Ogi bent over, motioning for Takumi to come closer.

"The Scarlet Palace is a mess right now," Ogi whispered. "The princess is missing."

Takumi leaned back, raising an unimpressed brow. Maybe he had come here for nothing.

"That's it? I want my money back."

"No, no that's not all," Ogi waved his hands. "Remember how you thought Soo-Won was going to, uh, you know…"

"Kill the king?" Takumi offered nonchalantly. Ogi made shushing noises wildly while bolting over to lock his shack door.

"Are you crazy?" the old man whisper-shouted. "Don't say that so loudly, someone could've overheard-"

Takumi rolled his eyes.

Ogi cleared his throat. "As I was saying, Emperor Il did die last night, but it wasn't because of … Soo-Won. It was another person. They think the princess was kidnapped by the same man who killed the emperor. It seemed Soo-Won caught the person in the act and couldn't save the princess from being kidnapped. They're still on the search for her and the murderer, but they're keeping it all a secret since they don't want people to panic."

Whatever alcohol was left in Takumi's system evaporated at Ogi's words.

"Do they know who it is? And who else knows this?"

"No one knows who it is. Apparently it was too dark to see," Ogi said. "It's all being kept hush-hush indefinitely for some reason."

Takumi wasn't sure what he was expecting from Soo-Won at this point with so many lies floating around now. Soo-Won wouldn't want to announce Yona's absence because if they did find her, what would happen if she did come forward? She knew the truth of her father's death. It'd be better to let her stay gone, but it'd be even better if she was eliminated. Yona was the only loose thread in Soo-Won's plan. Takumi wondered if Soo-Won would send assassins to kill his cousin.

The second point of issue was that Soo-Won publicly avoided the fault of murdering King Il and shifted the blame to an unknown figure. The fact that Takumi hadn't been caught yet meant that no one knew that he had been there with the princess. However, Takumi wasn't willing to laze around assuming that he was safe because even if no one saw him, there was a princess hiding in a brothel and she couldn't stay there forever. Also, it would take just one person to recognize Yona and the gossip would spread like fire. Takumi had to do something, soon.

This was becoming a problem. A big one.

"Alright, that was interesting," Takumi admitted as he got up to leave.

"So, does that mean I win ten silver coins?"

Takumi turned around. Ah, the rejected bet. The one from before when they last talked about Soo-Won's plans. Takumi saw the joy on Ogi's face. It was joy from learning that Soo-Won hadn't gone through with regicide, that someone else had beaten the young lord to it, that the young lord's hands weren't stained with blood. So much hope and love for a person who didn't exactly deserve it.

Takumi actually pitied Ogi and he told the old man so.

"Ogi, I feel sorry for you," Takumi said.

He walked out of the shack.

Takumi dragged out a long breath.

He regretted everything.


x


Ugh. Storm is not over yet.