A/N: Super sorry for the delay and the short chapter! Quarantine made me lose my sense of time and responsibility entirely. I hope you're all staying safe! And thank you for the reviews!
In the end, I'm sticking with Empire! Voyage has more potential for fun shenanigans and interactions with the main crew but Empire gives me a lot of freedom to have Aeri do things. Like, say, stabbing people. Maybe.
Hope you enjoy the chapter! Weekly updates should be back on track!
Into the silence of the night
In Aeri's humble opinion, Soo-won has already been in the castle for far too long by the time her and Yona's birthday comes by. She reasons with herself that it's not mere jealousy over her sister's obvious affections (how can she be jealous of Yona for loving someone the King will never approve of?) but rather the sheer ominous air that his right hand man carries.
Her eyes narrow at the black-haired man that chases the shadows in her vision relentlessly, ever-present through the corner of her eye. Yona confides in her about a figure chasing her through the castle corridors and she is not at all sorry for the way her mind immediately jumps to black hair and darting eyes.
(She hates that her first instinct is to run to Sang-chul. Where is he?)
The day begins and ends with celebration. Aeri smiles and stands beside her sister, speaking only when required. The greetings are dull and at somewhat Soo-won appears and steals Yona away from the hall.
Aeri smiles as she watches them leave. "I hate him."
"How honest you are, Princess," Hak says. At her glaring, he grins unapologetically and adds, "Well, as her bodyguard, I should be joining her. Careful you don't trip in front of everyone - just because you've no dignity left doesn't mean you have to add to your shame."
Her face flushes in indignation but Hak is long gone by the time she can think of a response that doesn't involve very undignified screeching.
When Yona returns, it's with a beaming face and a new hairpin nestled lovingly in the hair she so laments, and Aeri decides to forgive her for abandoning her to the crowds of well-wishers. And just like that, they turn sixteen, and the event comes to a close with no particular excitement on her part.
The last time she sees Father, night has fully descended.
The castle is quiet under the watchful gaze of the full moon and it adds haste to her steps. The hallways are endless and barren - she can't remember the last time she's been so alone.
First there was Father and Yona (and the Queen, she belatedly adds), then there was Hak and Soo-won, then Sang-chul, then Sun-hui and Young-soo. She can't remember when Duri and Hyun-woo came into the picture. It feels like they were always there. The castle maids and the other guards also tended to accompany her lately, so accustomed to her tendency to wander as they were.
The thought makes her smile. (After all, the castle is home.)
A cold breeze blows and she wraps her arms around herself, resisting the urge to run the rest of the way to her room. Everything's fine. She knows these halls better than she knows herself. It doesn't matter if she's alone.
(Perhaps, if she cared less for herself and more for the world around her, she would have questioned the abnormality of such emptiness within the residence of royals, the lack of guards by her Father's door, the blatant absence of the security the castle so boasted.)
Her mind drifts to the words that were exchanged in the King's chambers in a bid to distract herself from the fear that accompanies the still night. She had wanted to ask him about Soo-won.
"Yona is adamant in having him," she remembers saying. "Why do you oppose it so?"
The moment the question left her lips, Father seemed to age a decade. He released a heavy sigh and then she was looking at the King. "Do you approve of him, Aeri?"
There was only one answer she could think to give. "Yona loves him."
"She is young and he was kind to her."
"Soo-won is kind," she agreed. "But he is also royalty." (Had she imagined the way he flinched at that word?) "He commands his men well. Hak trusts him. Do you believe there is a better candidate for King after you?" (Do you believe there is a better candidate for King than you?)
Silence fell between them for a moment, until - "There has to be," he murmured.
She didn't push it. He already gave her more room to argue than he'd given Yona. She smiled and bid him a goodnight and she left.
Her lips purse as the conversation plays over in her mind. What was it about Soo-won? He had Yona's love, Hak's faith, and Father's mistrust all at once; none of these were easy to gain.
The night is young and the path is winding, ending not a moment too soon to bring her to her door. She considers visiting Yona, but the encounter with the King replays in her mind and she can't imagine speaking to her without a sense of guilt weighing on her shoulders. (But what guilt?)
So it happens that the last time she sees Yona for the next months, it is earlier that evening to give her a gift of bright violet and pink.
Sun-hui does not trust Sang-chul.
She trusts his loyalty to Princess Aeri and she trusts his devotion to his family and she trusts his eagerness to play truant. She does not, however, trust him.
It starts out as a niggling sense of doubt. Princess Aeri would gladly put her life and more in his hands and he knows it, yet he consistently disappears from his should-have-been post by her side, especially when there are foreign faces in the castle. At the same time, Joo-doh seems reluctant to sleuth him out of whatever hiding spot he's chosen now, and worst of all, he doesn't seem the least bit bothered by the man named Kye-sook. Sun-hui thinks of the suspicion in his gaze when it first laid on her and she feels betrayed.
She wonders if this is how her brother felt when the man with the bow declared full control over their home and no one but him so much as batted an eye. (The same man that ruined their people and their land - the comparison makes her shudder.)
Sleep evades her and the barracks have never been easier to sneak out of. She hesitates at the door for a moment, then goes back to grab her bow and a full quiver of arrows, slipping on her gloves as she leaves.
The guards who should've been on duty are sprawled out asleep and her worry rises. The Sky Tribe is not her home and its shadows the least of her concerns, but now the Princess sleeps and Young-soo is always so defenceless (and Sang-chul has yet to return-) and her mind is made.
The castle is silent. No matter how many corners she turns and how many soldiers she spots, not a single familiar face is in sight. Night has well and truly descended and the celebrations have long ended, but even the insomnia-plagued noble who frequently wanders the castle's corridors through the night is absent.
Paranoia claws at her and she circles around to Aeri's room. She cracks the door open and peers inside. Through the darkness, she can make out her form curled in the bed, fast asleep and not seeming to react to the intrusion. Sun-hui sighs, relief slackening her shoulders, and looks around. There's still one more place to check and-
Yona's room is empty.
Her hand tightens over her bow. Where could she be? Tonight is dangerous. There are strangers in the castle and no allies. She thinks of red hair and a nervous gaze and a stuttered greeting and her heart sinks.
"Yona said someone was chasing her," Aeri's voice says in her mind. She remembers the way the Princess' eyes darted this way and that, the way her voice shook even as she tried to calm it. "She said she couldn't make out who it was. This is the castle, who would do that?"
"The King has many enemies," she had replied.
The King. How could she not realise? If there's anyone in this castle who could be a target, it's the King.
"Yona shouldn't have anything to do with that!"
If only it was that simple, she thinks bitterly.
She runs. She doesn't have to see Hak and Soo-won bearing down on each other to realise she's too late. Hak is fighting for his master but hers isn't here so she can't afford to be so reckless. Not yet, not while the Princess sleeps (blissfully unaware of the blood that's been shed tonight).
There's something she has to confirm.
Soo-won and Hak's fight has them all distracted. The soldiers cling to their weapons with trembling hands, their gazes full of awe and their postures full of openings. She thinks she catches a purple gaze but her eyes find a head of black and she finds it difficult to keep from loosing an arrow then and there.
Still, she turns and slips into the King's chambers. She sucks in a breath at the sight that greets her and the metallic smell of blood fills her senses.
"The King doesn't care for the people."
"King Il's cowardice will end us all!"
"What kind of King leaves his kingdom to starve?"
Kouka rotted under King Il's regime and his sceptics are nothing but reasonable in their complaints. She agrees, of course - she's seen what his relaxed rule has done to her home and to others'.
But, even more than that...
The Princess loved him.
A silent prayer on her lips, she turns and leaves. There are no more than three people in this world who would truly mourn him, and she cares enough for all of them to not add her name to those who would rejoice his death.
The fighting has stilled when she emerges into the night. The soldiers have their weapons levelled at Hak's throat while another points his at Yona.
They're going to die, she realises belatedly. Her fingers twitch and she runs.
An arrow cuts cleanly through the silence.
For the first time in her life, Aeri wakes with the sun and a coil of dread twisting in her gut. The castle is not quiet and she is not alone.
The harsh shriek of metal clashing against metal echoes in the room.