Could you lay down your life for this?
Yona is so very close to turning sixteen, the same as her sister.
The castle is overcome with bustle and cheer, the gifts already lining up one after the other. Laughter echoes in every corner of the castle, sometimes kind, more often not. But, where Yona is, there is Aeri and Father and Hak and Min-soo - there are all the people she loves, neatly parcelled and waiting upon her every desire, though some more willingly than others. She casts a baleful glance towards the door at the thought of it, dreading the moment Hak will inevitably walk through and ruin her day.
It's an auspicious day for Yona, and not only because her birthday is so close at hand; it's because, for the first time in what she considers many long, painful years (which was, in reality, only seven months), Soo-won will be visiting the castle. The significance of the King's appearance before and speech to the people today is lost to her in the midst of her preparations to greet him.
She hardly notices or cares that Aeri is in the room with her, laughing at the way she frantically looks through her wardrobe with the help of her handmaidens - "No, not this one... The colour's too dull... Not this, either... No, no, no!"
Despite her usual unwillingness to remain in any of the more frequented areas of the castle, Aeri seems happy to linger by Yona today, apparently finding much amusement in her anxiety. With an exasperated huff, Yona whirls on her sister, pointing an accusing finger in her face. "You jerk!" she says. "Help me choose!"
"Sure, sure." Her grin never wavering, her eyes skim over the assortment of dresses in blues and reds and greens before they settle on a lighter pink. "This one would go well with the blue cloak over there."
"You're only saying that because you like blue," Yona grumbles, but she picks it up all the same and strips off her outer robe. Aeri grimaces and sends a maid to watch the door, earning a faint smile in response.
For all their complaints, the maids have grown rather fond of the twin princesses and Aeri delights in the knowledge, making them regret their exasperated affection at every turn. Yona is less aware of how she does the very same.
Moments later, Min-soo enters the room with a pair of teacups and a kettle, steam wafting lazily out of the spout. Yona is dressed in the pink kimono Aeri chose. He glances at the crown princess and then at her younger sister, wearing a nervous smile. She grins in response.
"I doubt Yona will be leaving this room all of today," Aeri says, snickering behind her palm. "You can put the tray down over there. Is the ceremony still going?"
"That would be rather worrying." He sets the tea set down as instructed, filling up a cup and offering it to Aeri. She accepts it gratefully. "King Il is speaking to the people, now. I apologise if I may be speaking above my place, but you both should join him, Princess."
Aeri casts a glance at Yona, who stands in front of the mirror fussing over her hair, and then looks back at Min-soo. "I meant what I said, Min-soo. There's only one person who could possibly compel her to have a change of heart, and unfortunately he's yet to arrive... to my knowledge, anyway." She blinks at the thought, turning to a nearby maid. "Has Lord Soo-won made an appearance yet?"
"There was a fuss by the gates that only he or Lord Hak could have caused." She looks at Aeri contemplatively. "You're not going to tell your sister, are you?"
Aeri grins. "Of course not. I'm never getting a better opportunity to skip something so boring!"
Min-soo and the maid share a look. Aeri notices it and huffs, but before she can put her complaints into words the doors are drawn open and their Father enters the dressing room.
It's dramatic enough to startle Yona out of her red-hating reverie and she turns around. "Father!" she says. "What are you doing here? What about the ceremony?"
King Il smiles amiably as he responds, "As you can see, it's over." Despite the lack of reproach in his tone, Yona wilts under them, stuttering out an apology. On the other hand, Aeri resists the urge to cheer, extremely aware of Min-soo and the maid's watchful eyes. She settles for a demure bow of her head and a quick, utterly unapologetic apology.
(The King's kindness is something Aeri always admired. His smile is more of a weapon than any sword he could ever wield, his easygoing air his shield of underestimation in the face of his enemies. It's something she hopes to learn in imitation. Despite being an unconventional style of ruling, she thinks it's admirable.
Even though his vision of peace isn't something she can agree with. Not anymore.)
Aeri sips her tea, halfheartedly lending an ear to the words exchanged between her father and her sister. Her nose scrunches up in distaste when she sees Hak walk through the still-open doors and kneel behind King Il. She allows herself to snicker when Yona rounds on him, discreetly stepping to the side as her sister hurls everything she can get her hands on and more at the smug young General.
"Now, now," King Il says in a painful attempt to placate Yona, "Hak has been your friend since childhood. Moreover, he's one of the five Generals who protect this castle. He is the Wind Tribe's-"
"I don't care!" Yone cuts him off abruptly. "If you need guards, pick someone more lovable!"
Aeri nods in agreement. "He's the worst." Next to her, Min-soo laughs nervously as he pours another serving of tea.
Much to her chagrin, Hak interrupts the heartwarming moment of family bonding by informing Yona of Soo-won's arrival. Immediately, a switch flips in the redhead and gone is the teacup-throwing princess. With all the composure reserved only for one person, as well as the reckless abandonment of it, Yona runs from the room and leaves Aeri to huff a complaint towards Hak.
"You shouldn't have told her!" she whines. He ignores her and sips at his own cup of tea, while the King watches on in confusion.
"I don't like Soo-won," Aeri announces with a pout on her lips. She stands next to Hak in the castle halls, watching Yona complain about her unrequited love. The man in question had run off mere moments ago to greet the King and the Wind Tribe General, somehow not noticing Hak standing some ways behind him the whole time.
"You don't like anyone," Hak says.
"Just because I don't like you doesn't mean I don't like anyone, you self-centered prick," she huffs and, ever the image of royal grace, sticks her tongue out at him. His only response is to snort. "You're still better than him, though." She grins and pointedly ignores his mock gasp. "Because Yona obviously likes me more."
He only gets a second to feel offended by the remark (No, listen, she just shows her love differently, I swear-) before the girl in question speaks again in a distraught tone. "That's not important right now!"
Aeri beams. "You're not denying it!"
"Princess, that's rude and unnecessary. I may just cry."
"As if the man who made a platoon of soldiers break into hysterics just by looking at them could be so weak-willed."
"That did not happen!"
"Are you accusing me of dishonesty, General?"
"Not so much dishonesty as a confused mind, Princess."
Had she been less of the Princess she is, she might have tried to bodily attack him. But, unfortunately, she is what she is, and they are in public. Hak's words can only be received with a frigid glare that does nothing but make him grin triumphantly. "You imbecile-!"
"Princess Aeri," a new voice interrupts. "Have you seen your elder sister? King Il has called for her."
Aeri looks at the maid that stands near them, hands clasped firmly together as if to keep them from trembling and shooting nervous glances between the quarrelling pair. She frowns. "Yona? She's right there-!"
A quick glance around proves her to be nowhere in sight. Aeri gapes.
"She left me with this brute?"
"That's not very nice," Hak says. "The younger princess isn't much for elegance, either."
So maybe she doesn't hate Hak, but if he wasn't so well-loved by the King and by Hwan she might have. Maybe. Probably.
Aeri awakes the next morning to a sense of disquiet.
The castle is fuller than it has been in months. The usual nobles are around; they always are, sneering when they think she doesn't see them, smiling when their eyes meet only to hiss behind her back the moment she turns away. She's used to them, as much as she hates it. Having more of them isn't the most troubling thing.
It's the fact that Soo-won didn't come alone. Of royal blood as he was, the mere thought of him travelling by himself was scandalous. (Despite the King refusing to acknowledge the blood ties between them beyond a cordial smile and a reluctant greeting. A man so blatantly distrusted by a King known as the public's enemy would inevitably garner a following of said King's opposition, she knows. Her fingers twitch for the blade in her sleeve.) Accompanying Soo-won was a troupe of his most loyal as a Prince's son, and their presence makes her uncomfortable. Not enough to raise alarms, but enough to dress lighter than she usually would and keep loud accessories out of her long hair. She's used to slipping around the castle unnoticed, but it's not usually due to such extensive paranoia.
Sang-chul has been busy of late. He disappears from within the castle walls for hours and hours (she wonders briefly if his absences are authorised. He wouldn't do anything he shouldn't, right?) and claims his sister has taken ill.
(But she knows Mi-ran, the only daughter to his parents, and she knows Mi-ran would never ask this of him, or allow it. Her pride would not allow it. Not when she knows Sang-chul does so much for them, not when the castle is a much better place for him to be than the old shack they call home, soldiers' quarters or otherwise. And Aeri knows Sang-chul, and she knows when he lies - and he is.)
Sun-hui is dutiful in her rounds and keeps a keen eye on the newcomers even when General Joo-doh does not bat an eye to their unfamiliarity. The thought strikes her as odd. Joo-doh is always suspicious of newcomers, the same way he is suspicious of the soldiers with bloodstains on their sleeves claiming to have accidentally cut themselves. She's never before approved of his guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset. How can he not notice?
Hwan is not as sharp in noticing the suddenly oppressive air around the castle's inhabitants but he picks up easily on Aeri's discomfort and draws his own conclusions. He'll never admit to the way he shadows her for the rest of the day, sticking to her side even when it's just the more-familiar Soo-won who approaches her.
Speaking of Soo-won... Aeri really, really does not like him. She gazes curiously at him from a fair distance, at the way the castle maids swoon over his pretty boy looks, at the way Hak looks at him like a friend but treats him like a superior, at the way Yona makes her affections obvious to one and all, at the way King Il does the very same with his mistrust.
She hears the complaints Yona speaks against her father, hears his reprimands and promises. She hears him raise his voice only once, and then - "I cannot give you Soo-won."
Aeri wonders what it is about him.
The man in question either does not notice her doubts or chooses to ignore them. He smiles at her the way he did when they were children, when she was seven and had a target painted on her back for reasons she could never identify, when she was three and naive and acutely aware of the absence of her Mother.
She covers her grimace with her sleeve when he speaks to her and hopes he doesn't notice. If he's fool enough to miss the adoration in Yona's eyes, she imagines he would be oblivious to the discomfort she feels. (He isn't. Why?)
"It's been a while, Lord Soo-won," she says, hands primly clasped in front of her.
He smiles and she wonders why she hates him. She does, doesn't she? "Princess Aeri." He doesn't comment on the title the way he does with Hak. They're not that close and they both know it. "That it has. How have you been?"
They walk together down the castle hallways. She hoped he would simply let her leave, but when she moves towards the King's chambers he only follows after her. "I have been well. The castle does leave little to desire." Liar, liar, liar.
They turn a corner and she abruptly recalls a time when she had first convinced Sun-hui to speak with her and the involvement of a naginata too heavy for her to hold comfortably even when Sang-chul assured her it was the lightest he could find. She glances to her right, past the boy - man, not boy, he's grown, and so has she - and he follows her gaze.
"How have you been?" she says, uncomfortable with the thought of his intruding into such a cherished memory. "Yona has missed you awfully."
He has the audacity to laugh, as if without a care in the world. "I apologise for not being around more. It's hard to believe you're both almost sixteen." He offers a smile even as he avoids her question. (Why is it so hard for him to speak about himself?) "You're not still terrorising the castle maids, are you?"
She has the sense to look offended rather than surprised at his knowledge of her usual antics. The castle may be home and such occurrences commonplace enough to be common sense to those that are frequently within its gates, but Soo-won is someone she does not expect to take such interest in her activities.
(It makes her squirm and avert her gaze, fidgeting with her fingers under the long sleeves of her dress. Father hates him and she should treat him accordingly. But why is he so kind?)
"It's not so much that I've stopped," she says, pushing away her conflicted emotions with a plastered grin even Duri wouldn't find fault with, "as it is that they've simply adjusted. Adapting and all that, you know. They've even learned how to set Hwan loose on me, and he's just terrible. Have you met him, yet?"
Soo-won nods. "Yes, the boy from the other day? He..." Soo-won falters and, dare she say it, pouts, as if he is the same child that separated her and Hak from a childish squabble when they both were less keen on hiding the extent of their dislike of the other. "He doesn't seem to like me very much. You wouldn't have something to do with that, would you?"
It startles a laugh out of her. "The only person I would ever try to bias someone against is Hak, I promise you. And maybe General Joo-doh."
He laughs with her, even as he tries to protest on Hak's behalf. His argument dies out when she says He's insufferable and you know it! and they reach the King's chambers.
It isn't until she notices her father flinch imperceptibly at the sight of the two of them together that she wonders if the question had been more meaningful than she first imagined.
The day passes and Yona is happy, so she doesn't bother to think on it further.
(Perhaps it was then that things that started to go so wrong.)
[Nervous laughter] We are... very close to the end of my chapter backlog. Depending on the route this fic ends up taking, this is, um, the last chapter of my backlog.
Quick, no-context poll to find out which way to go: Empire or Voyage? I don't expect many people to reply, just totally curious. Would love to see your thought process while you're at it.
I haaaated writing this chapter, and editing it was even worse. It's so strictly tied to canon, even with that Soo-won section, ugh. The less I rewrite the manga the happier I am. Might come back and remove the first section entirely in the future.
I wonder why the chapter title is so dramatic... :)