A/N: Please never trust a word I say again.


CHAPTER NINE
To that place you call home


So, it's not a normal day. Aeri has been attacked inside the castle before, but in her own room? Where Sang-chul and Sun-hui and Duri and Hyun-woo adamantly rotate guard at all times? Where Yona is a breath away and Hak is always at her back?

Never.

She imagines she doesn't make for a very intimidating presence in her nightgown and with her wild bedhead, but there's a naginata under her bed for a reason and she is not afraid to use it. Sun-hui restrains the intruder, kicking aside his sword (the sword that was aimed for her, the sword that would have killed her in her own home, the sword red with blood oh god Sun-hui is injured-) and Aeri levels her blade at his throat.

"Who sent you?" she hisses, the sun's glare in her eyes and the shock of the situation dragging her quickly from her just-awaken drowsiness. Before her eyes a musty cell overlaps her bedroom and the man looks older, wearier, worn, the features of his face too familiar. She breathes heavily and forces the image away.

The man is silent. She presses the sharp edge closer to his skin, watching impassively as he flinches away from the cold kiss of metal and as a trickle of blood seeps out.

The man sneers, eyeing the blade even as he says, "As if a pampered princess like you would be able to kill."

"I do not have the time or patience for your foolishness." She lifts her gaze to the door of her room, seeing a pair of maids huddled by it but not a guard in sight. Her eyes narrow. "Where are the guards?"

And then man laughs, cold contempt and bitterness and nothing jovial; haughty and arrogant, and, most of all, self-assured. Confident. Confidence that does not belong with a man facing down death. (Even if the pampered princess of Kouka cannot kill, the Earth Tribe's wild beast can. How does he not know fear?)

"With the true king, of course."

The weapon in her hand digs into the ground, spearing through the man's hand. His screams echo through the otherwise silent castle and yet, there is no one to come and investigate its source. Her heart is a weight in her stomach and she doesn't so much as notice the white noise die out and the departure of her guard, doesn't so much as care for the careful motions of the maids that guide her through her morning preparations.

The true king.

Kouka has but one King. Kouka has her father for its king, so why-

But Sun-hui is... calm. There couldn't possibly be an uprising in the castle while Sun-hui is so unruffled. Could there?

She hesitates at her door, feeling painfully bare without the weight of the naginata in her hands. Before she can think twice, her feet lead her back to her bedside dresser and her hands reach for the second drawer, probing beneath the layers of misguiding fabric.

She's never needed to keep a blade on her person within the castle, but today, she doesn't feel safe without it tucked into her sleeve. After all, she knows better than anyone that a strong guard isn't always enough.

(It wasn't enough then, there's no way it'll be enough now.)

In the comfort of her isolation, she'd thought the assassin had been a fanatic. A fool, stupidly infiltrating the castle to make an attempt on the life of the most unlikely royal.

A solitary attempt and nothing more, like that time all those years ago.

She didn't think there could be something more.

(But Yona's room is empty.)


The castle is quiet.

Nobles and maids alike steer away from the brooding storm cloud that is Aeri, sitting in the garden with her back against a large tree and her head buried in her arms. A thin chain necklace dangles from her closed hand, the pendant swaying with the light breeze. The silence around her is suffocating, deafening in its persistence.

Where is everyone?

Sun-hui stands on the opposite side of the tree, vaguely registered in her mind. Hwan is silent next to her. Everything about this is wrong.

Father, Yona... where are you?

Soo-won's voice answers, soft and considerate. Kind. Ever the astute cousin. Ever the composed royal. "There was an attempt on the King's life. By the time we arrived, he was already..." He stops and hesitates, lips pursed and worry in his eyes. (Were those the eyes of a grieving man? Soo-won lost an uncle. Where is his mourning?) "I'm sorry, Aeri."

Her fingers tighten around the necklace, the chill of the metal sharp against her skin. Her heart clenched with every word she remembered, each their own stab to the chest. Everything is wrong. The castle is too quiet.

"What about Yona?" she'd whispered, naively hopeful in her ignorance. "And Hak? They- they need to know."

Pity. That was all his countenance portrayed. (Where is your grief?) "General Hak betrayed the King."

Oh, she thought, this is all a lie.

"He kidnapped Princess Yona and... if what we saw is true, he was the one who killed King Il."

Hak, kidnap her sister? Betray her father?

Kill her father?

"I want to see him."

This can't be real.

"I wouldn't recommend it, but... if that's what you want."

Father is dead.

Hak killed him.

Yona is gone.

Everything is wrong.

She closes her eyes and she doesn't feel like opening them again, doesn't feel like looking up and not finding Yona peering down at her with all her smiles and cheer.

("Aeri! Here's where you've been! I've been looking for you all over!" Yona smiles and everything's alright. Please, let everything be alright. Please, come back.)

She doesn't feel like looking up and not seeing Father's kindness, Father's smile that's only for her and Yona, soft and happy and content and all she's ever wanted from him.

("Goodness, Aeri, you can't be taking a nap out here. Come on, let's get you back to your room." Where did you go? You can't leave me alone like this. Father, please-)

She doesn't feel like looking up and not seeing Hak's stupid grin and his stupidly big spear thrown over his shoulder, doesn't feel like thinking of Hak and traitor instead of friend. (He wouldn't. The kingdom could kill itself from the inside out and the King responsible for every bit of it, but Hak... for better or worse, Hak would never betray him.)

("Need a hand there, Princess? It must be difficult moving with all that baggage you've put on." She feels heavy, but Hak, I don't think that's why.)

She opens her eyes and the sky is clear, the sun is bright, the wind is strong.

And everything is so, so wrong.