Takumi will admit, one of the worst feelings was when a girl takes one look at you and immediately starts crying.
Yona saw him enter her secluded guest room and when her eyes landed on him, tears began streaming down her face. Takumi instantly felt guilty and irritated at the same time, though he wasn't exactly sure where the irritation came from. It was a mix of reasons, for not preventing her father's murder, perhaps, or knowing that her cousin would do this and not telling her, or leaving her alone in the brothel without coming to see her. Also, he could be feeling guilty for regretting saving her and then irritated at himself for feeling that way.
Yeah, it was probably that, Takumi reasoned. It had to be that. Why should he feel guilty over keeping quiet about a regicide?
Yona's voice was scratchy when she weakly asked, "Where were you?"
Takumi tried not to wince at the pain shining in her eyes. "Out. Have you eaten?"
The girl shook her head. Right then, she had no appetite. A dead family member would do that to anyone.
"How are you feeling?"
The princess couldn't formulate a proper answer, but Takumi didn't fault her for that. With glassy, empty eyes and a pale pallor, he could tell that Yona was still shellshocked by last night's events. And now, it was up to him to take responsibility, Takumi lamented.
He should've left her there, Takumi darkly thought as he handed her a handkerchief to wipe away the tears. Yona dabbed her eyes, but the waterworks didn't stop and she continued sniffing. Eventually, the quiet cry morphed into a full on gasping sob. Yona hunched over and clung to his sleeve while Takumi had to hide the grimace as he half-heartedly patted the princess' back in a reassuring manner. The girl tried to speak, but her heavy hiccups interrupted any semblance of speech, so Takumi made shushing sounds, encouraging her to just cry it all out. She had a lot of grief to process and ten hours wasn't nearly enough for anyone to get over a father's death, much less a death caused by a backstabbing, traitorous family figure.
"There, there," he said uncomfortably in an effort of emotional support. Dear God, he wasn't suited for this kind of thing. His dying mother, he could handle. Sort of. Not this, though.
After nearly an hour, Takumi had a tear stained robe and an exhausted princess sleeping on his thigh. He very carefully replaced his leg with a cushiony pillow, making sure to not disturb Yona in her slumber. The dark circles under her eyes showed that she hadn't gotten much last night, so she needed it now. Even her sleep, Yona's breathing occasionally stuttered from the heavy crying earlier, but she noticeably calmed down when Takumi patted her hair. Looking at her tear stained face, he wondered exactly what possessed him to help her this far.
She was definitely one who had the least amount of interactions with Takumi during his time in the palace, but he could remember each encounter with blazing clarity. Yona always sought him out for tea time and even though Takumi was able to block most invitations, he'd been dragged into several tea parties throughout the years. Each instance was filled with her happy smiles, the highest quality of tea he'd ever tasted in his life, and Hak's surly presence. Takumi could hardly recall a time when she wasn't cheerful in front of him. It's probably because he was so conscious of her existence that the image of her innocent smile remained so fresh in his mind. This was all the more reason that the sight of her grieving was troubling.
She was an important person in this world as she had a reincarnated soul that called on the servitude of mythical beings. Takumi knew that Yona was extremely kind and had a large capacity for mercy and grace, qualities that were admirable and difficult to come by in a human. On top of that, she was a princess so any sensible person would fall head over heels for her as a girl. It wasn't hard to believe that Hak loved her.
Takumi thought that these admirable traits probably came with her reincarnation as the first Scarlet King and that the four dragons were drawn to her for this. She was special because of the reincarnation. Without it, Takumi believed that Yona would be nothing more than an oblivious, weak princess.
So small, Takumi noted as he twisted a strand of her red hair around his fingers. The princess barely came up to his shoulders. How was this little girl supposed to be the reincarnated king of legends?
A rattle outside the room caught Takumi's attention. Someone was snooping.
Takumi quietly tucked a blanket over Yona before leaving the room, being sure to lock it behind him, when he came face to face with Asuka. There were no flirtatious bare shoulders and collarbone given today, so it seemed like she was mad at him. Usually Takumi would find her anger sort of cute and amusing, but he didn't like the confrontational set in her shoulders and only watched her with a heavy stare.
Asuka broke under the pressure first, asking heatedly, "Who's the girl?"
The jealous look in her eyes grated on Takumi's nerves. She had her arms crossed with a finger tapping against her forearm impatiently, as if she was entitled to answers from Takumi. He internally snorted at the audacity and returned the expectant look with narrowed eyes.
"What does it matter?" He said coldly.
The girl's jaw hung loose at his words. "What does it matter?" Asuka repeated in disbelief. "I thought, I thought we were-"
"Together?" It almost came out as a sneer. "I don't remember agreeing to that."
"I don't know if you recall, but you came to me," Asuka hissed. "Why the hell are we not together?"
"Because I said so." He was being a complete asshole, so Takumi felt like she deserved the slap.
He let her hand swing.
Ignoring the sting on his cheek, Takumi raised a brow at Asuka. "Satisfied?"
"I'll be satisfied when I tell everyone how you're a two-timing, arrogant slimeball," she snapped back and jerked her chin where Yona slept. "Does that girl know how much of a bastard you are?"
Takumi allowed a slap, but he wasn't going to let her talk about Yona to other people. That was dangerous. Asuka stumbled backwards when the look in Takumi's eye turned glacial.
Roughly grabbing the young woman by the collar, Takumi bent over to her ear level. "The only reason why I tolerate your attitude in the first place is because of my mother. Nothing you did yourself bought my favor, so be careful and keep your mouth shut."
He let go and walked away, paying no mind to the shaking courtesan behind him.
Not for the hundredth time since he brought the princess into the brothel, Takumi mentally cursed himself for being an idiot.
Even though Yeri was asleep next to him, he silently stared daggers at her unconscious figure. If only he didn't let his mother's softhearted side convince him to check on the princess. If only he went to the palace slower. If only he ignored everything.
If only if only if only if only if only if only-
There was no use crying over spilled milk, Takumi sighed to himself. What's done was done, he now had to deal with the consequences of doing the stupid sacrificial act. The koto laid unattended on his knees while Takumi stared off into the distance, trying to consider all the choices, factors, and possibilities of this complicated clusterfuck he'd tangled himself into.
There were very few courses of action he could take. Though he wasn't limited in resources, he had time constrictions and had to avoid the attention of Joo-Doh, Soo-Won, and the shady advisor, Kye-Sook. The first option was that he hand over the princess to Hak, pray the young Wind chief doesn't kill him in the process, and wash his hands clean of the issue. And then book it out of the country so he wouldn't get involved in any of the impending political and civil wars. The second was that he gets the princess sent to the Wind Tribe for safekeeping as he was sure that the old elder Mundok would take good care of Yona, and again, wash his hands clean of the issue. And again, flee the country. Another idea was to get Mei, the ex-shrine maiden-in-training, who would be more than happy to help the princess, but that risked the safety of the orphanage. The last resort option was to force Yona to return, but that'd be cruel even for his standards, so Takumi decided against going back to the Scarlet Palace. Either way, Takumi was very much determined to burn the remaining threads of his involvement with the princess as soon as possible. He was well aware that the country could potentially dissolve into anarchy should Yona fight her cousin, but he avoided thinking about that topic. Takumi was only going to prepare the means of the princess getting somewhere safe and trustworthy. That was it.
Currently, Takumi favored the second choice. He could pull some solid favors from a reliable mercenary group to escort Yona under the guise of a traveling caravan. Takumi could even forge some papers to smoothen the journey if they come across Sky Army checkpoints until they reach the Wind territory. Best of all, Takumi wouldn't have to deal with the princess, nor would he have to face Hak's wrath. That kid's monstrous strength freaked the hell out of Takumi.
Yeri's raspy voice broke the quiet. "Takumi?"
Takumi blinked. "You woke up? Does something hurt?"
"Everything hurts," his mother huffed. "Why did you stop playing?"
Takumi readjusted the koto on his lap. "Thought you fell asleep, but I'll keep playing. Any song requests?"
"The one with dancing bears."
"I already played it at least ten times." Takumi didn't mean to complain to his dying mother, but he was beginning to grow sick of it.
"One more time," Yeri murmured. "And I want you to sing this time."
Takumi's fingers glazed over the strings, plucking the intro to the melody. His voice came out low, a little scratchy from a lack of warmup.
"Dancing bears, painted wings,
Things I almost remember,
And a song someone sings,
Once upon a December-"
He knew why his mother liked this song so much despite it's strange lyrics and untraditional tune.
"Someone holds me safe and warm,
Horses prance through a silver storm,
Figures dancing gracefully across my memory."
"Far away, long ago,
Glowing dim as an ember,
Things my heart used to know,
Things it yearns to remember
And a song someone sings
Once upon a December."
Yeri's eyes were closed as she hummed along to the short song. She loved the imagery in the lyrics describing a distant love in the middle of winter.
Takumi suspected that her liking of the story was related to one of her suitors a long time ago, a man who swept into Yeri's life like a snowstorm and left right when winter ended. He'd heard stories about the person from Nana as a young boy when he asked about who stood out most prominently among Yeri's clients. Apparently, the suitor was a rich merchant of nomadic ancestry and traveled the world in search of exotic goods and rare items. The man stayed in Kuuto for a few solid months for trading and establishing business connections while waiting out the winter blizzards in order to pass the mountains. It was through insider trading secrets that the foreign man got to meet Yeri and apparently it was the type of heartbreaking whirlwind romance that people liked to fantasize: a seemingly fateful encounter of soulmates who couldn't stay together in the end. A rich traveling man addicted to the thrill of vast seas caught in an affair with a beautiful courtesan whose wit matched his, yet she didn't desire adventure and favored a stable environment. Nana often got starry-eyed whenever she recounted the memories. It was one of the few times that Yeri would turn down her other visitors to focus all her attention on just one person. They spent the entire winter together like newlyweds, but the man left when the cold season passed. Takumi was born in the beginning of autumn the following year.
"You know you're the reason why a bunch of courtesans wanted sons? The head matron had to put an end to it immediately."
Takumi snorted at that. Courtesans were so desperate for a family sometimes; they wanted something in their life that would represent unconditional love like a parent would give to their child. They often made the mistake of thinking that a child would fill the void in their hearts.
Yeri reached out and patted Takumi's hand. "As if their sons would be as amazing as mine," she chuckled. "So, what are you going to do when I'm gone?"
The sudden question caught Takumi off-guard and his throat got tight just by trying to think of an answer. He hadn't really thought of future plans since the issue of the princess had been weighing on his mind for the last fifty hours. Takumi had vague ideas, mainly involving travelling, but nothing specific in mind.
"Probably travel," he said quietly.
Yeri smiled. "I think that's a great idea. Kuuto is too small for you, Takumi. You've been itching to leave this place for some time now."
A corner of Takumi's lips quirked upwards. "Kuuto's not small."
His mother yawned and shook her head. "No, but you don't belong here. Someone like you should see the world. It's in your blood."
Takumi didn't have a chance to respond as Yeri's breathing quickly settled into a steady rhythm. He set aside the koto and stared out the window, watching the setting sun turn the sky orange.
It was true that he's been wanting to get out of Kuuto to see the rest of the world. There was so much he wanted to experience for himself like the sea, other countries, technology and culture, foreign languages, and more. He wanted to see this new world of a completely different universe. Sometimes, the idea of an entirely new planet excited Takumi so much that he'd actually feel something like a spark lighting up the dead weight inside. It was exhilarating to feel something. Maybe that was the 'blood' Yeri was talking about.
But, before he'd free himself into a new life, Takumi decided that he wasn't going to leave the city until Yeri's final day. That was his only condition. Yeri was his only anchor in Kuuto; Takumi was basically counting the days until he'd be let loose.
A crying princess wasn't going to get in his way again.
Takumi might have slipped up once, but one time was the limit. He could sneak into a palace for Yona, but he wasn't going to leave Kuuto for her.
There was no way.
As a kid who grew up in unsavory parts of town, Takumi developed a sixth sense for unlucky, bad days. Maybe it was an instinct rooted in having a past life, but it was the type of gut feeling when he woke up and just knew that something terrible was going to happen that day. Sometimes, warning signs flashed here and there beforehand, giving Takumi just enough time to brace or prevent it. Other times, the bad thing slammed into his face first thing in the morning like a delayed hangover.
Today, it was the latter.
He'd just finished washing up when Nana found him. The look of deep panic on her face gave Takumi a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Sky soldiers are questioning the head matron in front of the brothel right now," she said hurriedly. "They're demanding to search the place."
Takumi froze in place for a second before snapping to action. Wiping his face with a towel and pulling on a robe, Takumi rushed out with Nana trailing after him.
"Cover the girl's hair with a bandana," he instructed her. "And then put her in a servant's outfit and send her to mom's room."
Nana nodded and split off toward where Yona was hidden on the ground floor. Takumi strode down the hallways, ignoring the questioning workers along the way, and straightened his clothes. He took a deep breath before diving into the commotion at the front door.
The head matron was raising a ruckus, which was a big deal as she rarely caused a scene.
"I am not letting soldiers search my place like a drug dealer's den," she barked, waving her wooden cane at the flustered Sky soldiers. "If you want to raid a place, go down the street to the east. Plenty of dens there."
"By the command of the royal family, we're authorized to search-"
The head matron cackled, "So, you can search anything now, can you? Is the Sky Army finally acting like a big boy for its people? Since when did your 'authority'-"
Takumi decided to step in as it seemed like the hag's belittling was only making the situation worse. He stood next to the matron and took a good look at the two soldiers who led a small platoon behind them.
He recognized one of them right away. "Min-Gi?"
"Takumi!" The relieved man exclaimed. "What happened to your hair? Is that a wig?"
"This is my real hair," Takumi responded with a tight smile. People had been asking him the same thing lately ever since his roots fully grew out and the hair dye faded. It was getting a little annoying, but sometimes, it was funny to see people's reactions.
The friendly soldier from years ago had become a platoon lieutenant and most commonly seen patrolling the main roads of Kuuto. It was good to see a familiar face, but Takumi couldn't quite recall the identity of the other man though he was sure that they had crossed paths in the past. Since he couldn't remember a name, he guessed that it was a casual social encounter.
He pointed at the man next to Min-Gi. "You seem familiar, have I threatened or extorted you before?"
The man glared at him. "We've met," he said begrudgingly. "There was a card game that you organized with-"
Takumi snapped his fingers in recollection. "With Ogi, right, you lost a lot of money at that time. Extorted it is."
That explained why the soldier was so forgettable. There were many people who thought they could win easy money that night since the concept of poker seemed like a laughably light-hearted and straightforward game at first, but many got hooked as they kept playing. The concept of luck, reading facial expressions, catching lies, and memorizing a freshly created set of cards was addicting yet incredibly frustrating when one lost. Takumi had to break up a number of arguments sparked by sore losers, one of which being this soldier. The soldier couldn't cough up the full cost of losing up front, so like many others, incurred a debt to several people in Kuuto.
"Anyway, it seems like you need to search this place?" Takumi asked.
"Sorry Takumi," Min-Gi said apologetically. "It's just for security purposes, you know the deal with the army."
Takumi narrowed his eyes and stepped forward. "Yeah, I do know the deal, so that means I also know that the army doesn't do this sort of thing randomly. What's going on?"
Min-Gi struggled between telling the truth and keeping the reason confidential as he knew that Takumi would swear to secrecy if Min-Gi requested it. Yet, Takumi was no longer a soldier and shouldn't be privy to army affairs anymore.
"I can't tell you," he said weakly. "I'm really sorry, Takumi. I'm under direct orders of the general."
The head matron slammed her cane down, snarling, "You can tell your general that he's got no business being nosy. I'm not letting a single one of you inside. Takumi, get them out of here."
With those stubborn words of finality, the old hag went back inside the brothel and closed the doors firmly shut.
Min-Gi sighed. "If I can't lead the search, then the general is coming down here himself and I don't think you want that."
Takumi grinded his teeth at that. If Joo-Doh got involved, then Takumi couldn't do anything too obvious that'll leave traces of his meddling. The last thing he wanted was to be hunted down by the general because then Soo-Won would know.
"Do you have to do the search now? Can't you come back later?"
Min-Gi shook his head. "We have to do this now."
There's not enough time to do anything, Takumi knew. He had nothing prepared for Yona, no arrangements for safe travel, no money, no food, no clothes, nothing. Swears and curses ran through his mind as Takumi grasped for something that would stall for time.
He needed time.
"Right now is a bad time," Takumi lied to them. "Let us tidy up and get ready for business before you barge in with your soldiers. We won't be able to prepare like usual if there's a dozen men getting in the way."
"We'll be really quick about it-"
"The head matron will bite my head off if I let you walk in now," Takumi retorted. "I'll talk to her while you wait so that she won't attack you guys."
He could see the two men warming up to the idea, they just needed one more push to have the favor be worth the trouble.
"Are either of you guys in debt? How much?"
Both of them answered yes, they had fairly small debts to the local loan sharks. This was uncommon as many soldiers incurred loan debts from their time enjoying the pleasure districts in a style that was out of their budget. Luckily, Takumi knew the two sharks that Min-Gi and the other soldier mentioned.
"How about this: you guys wait for us to get ready, then I'll get the sharks off your backs. Debt free."
The lieutenant and his subordinate blinked at the unreasonably fortunate offer.
"Are you serious?" The other guy asked disbelievingly.
Takumi crossed his arms. "Very. I know both of them and they owe me. They'll be happy that I called in to repay the favors."
Min-Gi let out a good-natured laugh. "Of course, if the sharks had to owe someone, it'd be you. Alright, it's a deal, but no more than an hour. Any longer, then General Joo-Doh will be coming here himself and none of us want that."
The two of them shook on it. The Sky soldiers milled around across the street while Takumi tried very hard not to slam the brothel doors behind him.
It was a very bad day indeed.
The situation was much worse than Takumi had realized.
He had sent out two orphan messengers. The first to account for the two debts of Min-Gi and his subordinate, and the second to get information, but there was only bad news. Takumi learned that not a single mercenary group, not even a caravan, had plans to go southwest. No travelling group could be convinced to cross mountains if they didn't have plans to do so in the first place unless the reward was a hefty sum. Takumi currently didn't have that kind of money since he'd stopped pickpocketing and fighting in underground rings three years ago. Even the strings he could pull wouldn't be enough.
Takumi wasn't one who physically displayed stress, but the frown marks on his face was enough to tell anyone that he was not in the mood to be engaging in small talk. He was literally turning his mental gears to chug out a solution in this extremely unfavorable situation. The Sky soldiers were standing watch in front of the brothel, so he had to use the back entrance when convening with his messengers. They're undoubtedly looking for Yona who's easily recognizable by her fiery red hair. He couldn't allow the brothel to get involved in this mess, so he needed to get the princess out of here as soon as possible.
Servants tiptoed around him in the back warehouse as they got their chores done, unwilling to disturb his deep thoughts. A battered, yet sturdy drawstring bag sat at his feet. Inside the bag was a heavy coinsack, dried meat and fruits swiped from the kitchen, two sets of spare clothes, a warm robe, and a pair of leather sandals. There was also a thin knife that could be strapped to the upper ankle, but Takumi was planning on giving the princess a brief tutorial to weaponry before handing it to her.
The only problem was, he'd assumed that everything would be in order and planned for Yona's departure.
Of course, he couldn't keep the princess a secret from the head matron, so he had showed the old lady where Yona was hiding. The hag put two and two together upon seeing the red haired girl, realizing that the Sky soldiers were searching the brothel because they somehow received a tip that something important was stashed here. She didn't know why the Sky soldiers were unaware of the missing princess or why the princess was running away in the first place or how Takumi even got involved, but the head matron understood the gravity of the situation and kept quiet. She only ordered him to get the princess out of here, which he agreed with, however at the cost of her silence, Takumi had to endure a beating for bringing the princess into the building.
He rubbed his left arm where it still ached from the strike of the granny's cane.
There was one detail in particular that bothered Takumi, the question being how did Sky Army get tipped off? Right now, his only saving grace was that the soldiers don't know that they're supposed to find the princess. Their only orders were to search the place as commanded by the higher ups. Evidently, Soo-Won didn't want news of the missing princess to spread.
Nana approached him quietly. "Your mother called for you," she told him behind a hand. "I'll be washing the girl's hair."
Taking the beaten bag with him, Takumi went up to his mother's room where Nana escorted Yona out to the lower washroom. The girl had her hair wrapped in dark cloth, stains of ink black hair dye peeking through the fabric and flecks of it streaked along her hairline. She'd gotten changed out of her nicer clothes and wore a plain servant's outfit like Nana. Takumi avoided eye contact as Yona passed him and went straight to where his mother laid on the futon. Yeri was awake, but her eyes were closed, revealing the lack of strength in her body.
Yeri cut straight to the topic. "Where is she going?"
"Wind territory. The former Wind chief was fond of her."
"How? Nana told me that you can't find anyone for escorts."
"I'll figure something out," Takumi muttered.
"The hour is almost up, the soldiers will be inside soon. You have to figure it out now," Yeri said calmly.
Takumi grasped at straws. "There's a guy at the palace, the current Wind chief. He can help her."
"That's too risky. You might cause a scene if you break the news of the princess to him there."
"I'll get the White Fang guys, they're cheap-"
"You can't leave that girl with them, they'll sell her in Water."
True. Those guys tended to do that to solo travelers.
"Ogi is compromised. You know that."
Takumi's teeth grinded. He literally had no options right now. He had never felt so cornered like this before.
"Takumi, listen to me carefully," Yeri said softly.
He glanced down to where her hand covered his. Her grip was weak and the finger bones protruded her papery skin. She felt cold.
"You have to take the girl to Wind yourself. There's no other choice."
His mother pressed on, rejecting his denial. "You know it's the right thing to do. Having you protect her is the best solution and it's the best thing for her. She needs you. She has nothing else right now."
"I'm not leaving," Takumi hissed. "I've already done the 'right thing' for that girl and look where that got me-"
"Oh, Takumi," Yeri sighed. "You have to drop whatever hidden grudge you have against this girl. Even I don't exactly understand it."
"That's not the point," he argued. "I'm not leaving you when you're counting days, I don't care if it's the emperor needing my help, I'm not leaving-"
"Then take this as your dying mother's last wish," she cut him off firmly. "She wants to see her son to go and save the princess in distress."
Takumi swallowed hard. "You don't mean that."
Yeri looked at him in the eye with the most steady gaze he'd seen from her since the day she started permanent bedrest.
"It's my last wish Takumi. I'd like for you to grant it just like how you did for all my past wishes."
A strong pierce of pain throbbed inside when his mother said those words. Yeri knew that Takumi liked fulfilling all of her wishes, from the most whimsical of requests to the most important ones. Even if she joked about wanting something, he'd get it for her, but she wasn't joking now. Yeri knew the weight of her demands. Takumi's own last wish to stay with Yeri during the last seconds of her life, but she was denying him that. That's all he really wanted from her.
Why would she send him away?
He didn't want to go.
Takumi put another hand over Yeri's and bent over on his knees, pressing his forehead against their folded hands. He let out a ragged breath.
"Please don't tell me to go," he begged in a low voice. "That's the one thing I can't do for you."
Yeri took her hand away and ran her fingers through his hair.
"Go, Takumi. Don't let your mother die an unhappy woman," she said.
Takumi's shoulders shook as he bit back a silent scream. Tears dripped down his face and onto his hands holding his mother's weak hands that were so cold. They didn't hold much life left. There was no guarantee that Yeri would still be here if he were to go and come back as soon as possible.
His tears were for premature grieving. This was most likely the last time he'd see her.
Tbh, this chapter is clumsy, but I wanted to update to move on. Brb, crying in a corner rn.
P.S. New story cover.