Chapter 1: What I saw in the moonlight
Setting: Kin Province in Southern Kai
Spoilers: Anime and manga chapters up through 101/102
Disclaimer: Akatsuki no Yona is the work of Kusanagi Mizuho. I claim nothing as my own.
The horror before his eyes was worse than any battlefield he'd ever seen. In every direction Soo-won looked, fields were burning. Dwellings collapsed in on themselves, leaving blackened stakes scraping the sky and smoldering heaps of debris. And bodies. Young and old. Trampled, impaled, cut open. The stench of death was suffocating and seared his eyes. Soo-won's mount pawed the ground and tossed its head; disinclined to proceed unless he forced it.
Beside him, General Geun-tae swore through his teeth. "Those Kai bastards!" He spat upon the ground.
Soo-won's fingers tightened on his reins. "Geun-tae Shogun."
"Take whatever troops you have who are willing." He lowered his voice. "Kill them all."
Geun-tae's breath came out in a rush. "Yes, Heika." Immediately, he jerked his horse around and went shouting for his men.
Soo-won let out a shuddering breath of his own. This village, Kinkan, belonged once again to the Kingdom of Kouka. Former Earth Tribe territory, rightfully reclaimed in a swift, decisive victory. The elation he'd felt, having accomplished such a successful, short campaign was now gone. Like the Kouka subjects that lay massacred at his feet.
Footsteps approached his side. It was Kye-sook, a grimace in his eyes as he covered his mouth and nose with part of his sleeve. His long black bangs obscured one eye. "Heika." He spoke softly, for Soo-won's ears alone. "It would be best if you returned to the camp."
Soo-won closed his eyes briefly. "No." He would not turn away.
Kye-sook looked up at him with concern, lowering his hands, the decorated trim of his long sleeves fluttering. "Heika…"
He shook his head. "I'm alright. I'll not falter here, Kye-sook-dono."
His advisor let out a tense breath, his displeasure plain on his face.
Just then, more horses, coming in at a gallop from the east. "Your Majesty!"
Leaving Kye-sook, Soo-won spurred on his mount to meet them. Two of his personal guards—Mua and Gyoku—reined in their horses quickly.
"Soo-won-heika," Gyoku said, between rough breaths, "we've come from the village just east of here, closest to the Kouka—ah, former—Kouka border. Seems like they were able to fight them off, somehow. There are bodies of Kai soldiers everywhere."
Soo-won drew a breath, his nerves prickling. Was it…? "Any sign of how?"
The guards exchanged an uncomfortable glance. Mua spoke. "The villagers claim they never got a good look, Your Majesty. But they said the soldiers were screaming about, uh, monsters as they were attacked."
Soo-won turned his horse east. "Show me."
General Joo-doh and a dozen others caught up with him as he neared the village. Joo-doh fell in beside him, the others arrayed around him in a loose diamond formation. Across the grassy, rocky plains, he could see the tiny village in the distance. Golden wheat fields swaying under the sun, a cluster of small, thatched roof dwellings in the center. The only smoke here rose from cooking fires.
At the edge of the fields, dozens upon dozens of bodies—Kai soldiers—littered the ground. Several villagers stood beside, cloth tied over their noses and mouths, looking over the mass of bodies silently. Clearly overwhelmed and perhaps still in shock.
Soo-won slowed his horse to a trot. "Joo-doh Shogun. You and your men will help them with the bodies. Mua-san and Gyoku-san will accompany me."
Joo-doh nodded gravely. "Yes, Your Majesty."
The formation loosened around them, as General Joo-doh and his men broke off. Soo-won rode up to the gathered villagers and dismounted. Mua and Gyoku followed.
"We're from Kouka," he said. "We're here to help." Introducing himself further seemed ill-advised at the moment.
The group of villagers—older men and women—stared back at him. "You're a bit late," one said. An elderly gentlemen with sun-baked skin and a white beard. "As far as the fighting goes. Could have used you hours ago."
Soo-won nodded. "My sincerest apologies. Are there injuries among you?"
The man looked around and shrugged. "No. They never got as far as the village."
"Who stopped them?"
The man shifted his feet and frowned. "We were hiding, you know. As soon as we heard the fighting. The boy is the only one who saw."
Soo-won looked, but didn't see a boy among them. At least, what he considered a boy. Even at Soo-won's age, Mundok had still— "Is he here? May I speak with him?"
The villagers looked at each other. The man shrugged. He turned in the direction of the dwellings and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Kalgan!"
Moments later, Soo-won saw a young, black-haired boy dart out from among the buildings.
"He's—ah—he's young, you know," the older man said. "Boys and their imaginations."
Soo-won nodded. "Of course. Thank you." Walking his horse by the reins, he went to meet the boy halfway.
He couldn't have been more than eleven? Twelve? The child had black hair and wore a knee-length jacket over his breeches. He was as tall as Soo-won's chest, and stared with brown eyes and without reservation.
"You're soldiers, huh?"
"Yes," Soo-won said. "From Kouka."
"Ehhhhhhh." The boy frowned. "Then why weren't you here when they attacked?"
"I am sorry. We didn't know the soldiers came here."
The boy sniffed. "Meh. I guess it's OK. Turns out we didn't need'ya."
"Are they still here? The people who helped you."
"Nah." Kalgan shook his head. "They went back to Kouka. The lady and the others. Some of them were still sick, you know. They needed to rest and get better."
Yona. Soo-won drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "You say they were sick?"
The boy looked down and dug at the ground with the toe of his boot. "Yeah. My fault. They got what I had. I got them some medicine though." At that, he brightened. "The pretty boy said it would be really helpful."
"Yeah." Kalgan lowered his voice. "I thought he was a girl at first. But he's really good at cooking, so. Better than my mom."
Soo-won smiled. "Other than the illness, though, they were alright?"
The boy's face grew utterly serious. "Oh yes. They were fine. I mean, they all got a little beat up in the fighting. But none of them got dead. Even the one guy." Kalgan jumped back a step and started waving his arms in large, wild gestures. "You should've seen it! He was like urrrrk, bleeeeeerrrrrr. And then like psrrrrurrrrr." Kalgan dramatically threw himself to the ground, rolled around, and then lurched back onto his feet. "And then he was like urrp! And—"
Soo-won quickly lost track of the boy's pantomiming. Fighting? Gushing blood? Explosions? He didn't know what he was seeing. But it didn't matter. He knew what he wanted to know.
It was late when he finally returned to the camp. General Geun-tae was waiting.
The general's face and armor were smeared with fresh blood. He looked exhausted, but pleased. "We took care of it, Your Majesty. Less than a handful escaped."
Soo-won nodded. "Thank you. Any casualties on our side?"
Geun-tae Shogun grinned. "None, sire."
He exhaled a sigh of relief. "That's good to hear." He looked around at the others gathered. General Joo-doh, General Kyo-ga, Advisor Kye-sook. "I want to leave a garrison here for the time being to assist with the burials and clean up, as well as protect against any further retaliation from the Kai Empire." He met General Geun-tae's gaze again. "Geun-tae Shogun, this is once again the territory of the Earth Tribe."
"And we will defend it," he said, with a sharp nod and a broad smile. "Leave it to me, Your Majesty."
Soon after, Soo-won excused himself. With Mua and Gyoku standing guard outside, he went into his tent. Finally alone. The acrid stench still clung to him. To his clothes and to his hair. He wouldn't be rid of it until he bathed. The images though? Those would stay. Another horror to haunt him when he closed his eyes.
He stripped off his armor and cleaned each piece. The only blood on them was from hauling the Kai soldiers' bodies. (Because he'd insisted; General Joo-doh had not been pleased.) He hadn't once used his sword. In contrast, Yona, Hak, and the others… He was relieved to hear they'd escaped alive.
And protected Kouka subjects in the process. He was, yet again, gathering debts to Yona-hime that could never be repaid.
He stood alone amidst the crowds in the streets of Kinkan, just before dawn. Carpenters, farmers with carts, servant girls rushing to their jobs. Currents of humanity moving around him. Kouka subjects. Kai subjects. Oblivious. He heard the gongs, the multitude of galloping horses, the sounds of their hooves like thunder in his ears. Couldn't they hear it?
Soo-won opened his mouth to shout, but no sound came from his lungs. He wore no armor or sword, but was dressed in the heavy, decorated robes of the throne. The crown weighed upon his brow. In such finery, moving was like slogging through quicksand. Please, you must run! You must flee!
His men, his army, were nowhere in sight. He was alone and powerless.
As the first rays of scarlet dawn pierced the sky, the arrows came. Flaming missiles that hurtled down and thudded into buildings and trees. That was when the screaming, the running, the panic started. Like lightning, the fire shot across dry wooden structures and brittle leaves, igniting homes and shops. The smithy exploded, flinging needles of molten metal in every direction. Next to him, a young girl shrieked and fell to the ground, writhing in agony as her skin burned.
No. No! Soo-won tried to move. Smoke burned his lungs, his robes weighed him down, and still his voice was absent. He couldn't stop it; he couldn't help them. He could only watch—and hear—it all unfold in terrible clarity.
The Kai soldiers, on horseback with their pikes and blades. The piercing, gurgling screams of the people as the soldiers razed the village, impaling with their swords, crushing those that had fallen under their horses' hooves. Snatching up screaming, flailing girls and throwing them across their saddles.
The blood of the people splattered him. Their bodies fell against him. Their lifeless eyes wide in their sockets, the warmth of their draining blood splashing against his ankles. His heart was racing out of control, his breath coming in choked, desperate gasps. It couldn't be worse. Couldn't be. Couldn't be.
But then it was. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of red that wasn't blood. Red hair. Red robes. He turned, all his limbs going to ice. A Kai soldier on foot had her by the throat, her feet dangling above the ground. She was limp and bloodied, unconscious, but her chest still rose and fell with labored breaths. The soldier was leering, grinning at his prize. After a quick glance around him, he faded into the shadows between two walls of rubble and pushed her to the ground.
And still, Soo-won could not move, cry out, or close his eyes. When the sun finally split the horizon, everything around him shone red.
Soo-won shot awake with a long, shuddering breath. It was dark and he was ice cold. The thin robe he wore was drenched in sweat. He was sitting up in a bed, but it took several moments and deep breaths for him to realize where—and when—he was. Hiryuu Castle. His chamber. He'd been back for two weeks before the nightmares started. Now he'd lost count of which night it was, or how many dreams he'd had.
He pushed sweat and hair from his face and tried to regulate his breathing. It was then he heard the sound of slippered feet against the stone floor. Soo-won froze in place. The bed curtains were drawn, concealing the room in shadow except for the side on his right that was bathed in moonlight. Gulfan's cage was silhouetted against the curtains there; the bird was awake and moving about but gave no cry of alarm. Soo-won's fingers tightened in the bedclothes. That meant—
A shadow moved against the curtains. "So. You have nightmares too."
Yona. Her voice pierced him with fear and relief in equal measure. His mind whirled. How did you get here? Am I hallucinating? Where's Hak? Where are the guards? Are you real? But when his voice came out— "How long have you been here?"
"Long enough." She stood half in the light, one side of her body cast in perfect relief against the curtains near the foot of his bed. Through the gauzy fabric, he could just make out the glitter of one earring, the curve of her jaw. The rest of her was shadowed. "I came to ask if you knew what your actions had caused in Kin Province, but it seems you do."
Soo-won drew a breath and let it out slowly. Gulfan chirped softly from his cage. "Where's Hak?"
"Close by," Yona said. "Not in the room, though. Didn't want him stabbing you in your sleep before we had a chance to talk."
She moved closer, a breeze from the window making the bed curtains flutter. "I checked my father's chambers first. I didn't expect to find you all the way up here in the tower, or so lightly guarded." She paused. "I guess I know why, now."
"Was I talking in my sleep?" He watched her as she paced quietly, back and forth. His fingers still clung to the blankets in his lap, as if for sanity. As if unsure he was truly awake. As if this were merely another phase of his nightmare. He slowly managed to command his body to relax and let go.
"Screaming," she said. She stopped in the light, facing—it seemed—away from him. His eyes were drawn to her shadowed outline. The curl of her hair ending just below her ears, the exposed column of her neck, the long earrings that brushed her shoulders. The dress that snugly wrapped her torso before billowing towards the floor. Her body was tense; the way she held herself, stiff and controlled. Her hands were fists at her sides. Her voice sharpened. "I don't like it, Soo-won. Your having nightmares makes you almost seem human. Makes it harder to hate you."
He pulled his gaze from her, appalled that he'd been staring. "You don't need any excuses to hate me, Yona-hime."
"Indeed I don't." She turned, slipping back into shadow. "So, was it worth it? Kin Province. You punished Southern Kai for the Nadai trade. You strengthened your ties with Geun-tae Shogun and the other commanders. And the entire army of Kouka was bolstered by your victory, was it not? So a few innocents' lives—even a few whole villages—mean nothing in the end." Yona lowered her voice. "Is that how you justify it?"
Soo-won said nothing. What good would it do? Would she rejoice that General Geun-tae had slaughtered those soldiers and freed the women and children they'd captured? Women and children who would go home to their dead husbands, fathers, and brothers, to their lives reduced to ash. If he claimed heartbreak, would she believe him?
"I was going to ask how you sleep at night, but now I can't." Her footsteps stopped at the foot of the bed. He could almost see her fiery glare through the fabric. "I oppose your war, Soo-won." The strength in her voice made him flinch. "I may have little power and nothing but an empty title, but I will not stand idly by while your objectives cause such suffering. To the people of Kouka and to the people of Kai. Regardless of how you personally feel about it."
Soo-won exhaled carefully. "Will you take the throne from me, then, Yona-hime? Have you come to kill me?"
There was a pause. "Then I would be just as guilty as you."
But you have thought about it. A cold smile touched his lips. "Then perhaps you've begun to realize there aren't such easy answers. Out there. Beyond the walls of this castle." Beside him, Gulfan screeched softly. Soo-won glanced at the falcon's shadow, to the unbroken moonlight that spilled in from the window. Did Hak wait beyond his chamber doors? More likely, the Thunder Beast lay along the roof, just above the window. "If you attempt good only for a select few—" like your father did "—many will suffer. If you attempt good for all, there will always be a price."
"It shouldn't be like that."
You're still naïve, Yona. Just in a different way. "If you have another idea, Yona-hime, show me."
She exhaled. "I don't know. I'm just trying to do what I can, when I can."
His jaw tightened. And doing that, you'd win the kingdom from me, if they knew who you were. One village at a time. I don't have the luxury to wait that long. He drew a breath and deliberately relaxed his limbs. "I heard you were there. Kalgan told me."
Yona drew a sharp breath.
"I have you—and Hak, I'm sure—to thank for protecting that village." He strained for any sound, any movement outside the room. "This isn't the first time. You killed Lord Kum-ji in Awa and saved the women from being sold into slavery in Kai. You transformed Lord Tae-jun into a selfless servant of his people. You were the one who discovered the source of the Nadai smuggling in Sensui." He paused; still heard nothing. "And when I was fighting General Soo-jin's treason outside of Saika, you took on Li Hazara and his troops from Sen Province." He lowered his voice. "Just who have you become, Yona-hime? What happened to the girl who fell into my arms, the night before her sixteenth birthday, and told me that she loved me? When did you become so brave?"
He heard her step backwards. Heard her exhale a shuddering breath. "You're…you're confusing me, Soo-won."
"Not my intention, Yona-hime." He slowly, soundlessly, slid his hand beneath his pillow, to wrap his fingers around the hilt of his sword. "But if you want an easy answer for that, why not join me?"
A shadow cut through the moonlight. Soo-won rolled out of bed on the opposite side, just avoiding the blade that sliced through the bed curtains and into the blankets, exactly where he'd been sitting. There you are, Hak.
The glaive flashed again, severing two of the posts that held the bed's canopy. The wood creaked and groaned as the bed collapsed on itself and released a puff of feathers and dust into the air. Hak stood on the opposite side of the ruined bed, his robes fluttering as they settled. His body, his face, his eyes, were slashed with moonlight, paneled dark and light. His gaze was pure death. Beside him, Gulfan squawked softly.
"Soo-won." His voice was low, even.
"This won't be like Sensui, Hak." He lifted his sword, matching the Thunder Beast's cold glare. "I promised Joo-doh Shogun I'd kill you this time."
A raw laugh issued Hak's throat. "Do you think you can?"
From the shadows at the foot of the bed, Yona stepped forward. "Hak."
The Thunder Beast gave no indication he heard her. Soo-won didn't dare look away. If he did, he'd find himself pinned to the wall with that blade protruding from his chest.
Hak's jaw worked from side to side. "The others aren't here to stop me this time."
Soo-won drew a breath, preparing himself—
—The strike came at him like lightning, Hak clearing the ruined bed in one leap. Soo-won dropped back, opening his stance and flipping his sword up to receive the blow. Even so, the force of Hak's blade clashing with his drove him back a good foot or so, his bare feet sliding against the stone.
He leapt back, regained his footing, and sprung forward. He cut in low and fast, aiming for Hak's hands on the staff of his glaive. But Hak was just as fast. He flipped the glaive around and Soo-won's sword hit metal, staff, metal. Each blow jarred, Soo-won's blade singing as it cut the air, Hak's blade ringing long and deep.
Soo-won sidestepped a strike and a large, ornate vase was sliced cleanly in two, the blade embedding deep into the wooden stand beneath it. Hak wrenched his glaive free, sending a shower of splinters into the air. Then he charged. Soo-won blocked, slid aside, and slashed forward. Hak. There was rage in the Thunder Beast's eyes, mixed with sorrow. Soo-won was sure he wore the same look. For so many years they had been each other's shadows. They had trained together, gotten in trouble together, fought together. And now… It was loss he didn't let himself mourn; pain he didn't let himself feel. Anything more would shatter his resolve.
Their dance of blades took them around, back, and over. Hak backed him around the edge of the ruined bed, near the window, but Soo-won held his ground. He couldn't afford to lose.
He parried another blow, his arms aching from the strain. "You're the last one in my way."
The Thunder Beast cut his eyes at him. "No, I'm not."
Yona. Soo-won's concentration broke for a split second. Too long. The glaive lifted before he was ready, leaving him open—
"Hak!" A blur of red and white split the air between them. Yona. A sword in hand, facing Hak, her back to him.
Soo-won staggered back. "Yona!" There was no way she could block Hak's attack—
Hak's eyes went wide as he checked his strike, managing to deflect his blade but still barreling into her. She fell back; Soo-won couldn't get out of the way. They went down on top of him, his sword scattering from his hand, pain bursting through his leg as the air rushed from his lungs. He slammed into Gulfan's cage as he fell. The metal cage crashed to the floor with a low clang and a shrill, falcon's cry.
"Hime!" Hak's blade clattered to the floor as he grabbed for Yona. There was a slice through the fabric of his left sleeve, blood running from his shoulder. "Hime! Are you hurt?!"
"N-no." She pushed herself up and off of him gingerly. Soo-won drew breath when he was able and winced as she jostled his leg. He didn't think the cut from Hak's blade was deep—really just a graze. But it stung all the same. He was lucky. He could easily have lost the leg.
Beside him, Gulfan flapped and squawked within his mangled cage. Soo-won reached to slip the latch. The bird shrugged itself free and flew to perch on the windowsill. There, he began to preen his feathers.
"Hak! You're bleeding."
Neither paid him mind. Soo-won watched as Hak quickly skimmed the princess' body with his hands, looking for wounds. His eyes were wild as he cupped Yona's face between his palms.
"Don't ever do that. I could have killed you. I could've—" Hak trailed off, shaking.
Yona's breath came out in a wavering rush of air. "Hak…"
Something stirred inside him, watching the two of them. Longing like a vapor, jealousy like a breath. Did they realize what they had? The way Yona looked at Hak—he knew that gaze. She used to look at him that way. And Hak had always loved the Princess. He might never have said so, but Soo-won had known. These two were the ones he had loved most in all the world. He'd known everything about them, then. Could still read them now. The brush of emotion faded and he looked away. He was the one cut off from them. By his own hand.
Soo-won glanced down at the trickle of blood coming from the wound in his right thigh, confirming it wasn't deep. He tore the hem of his ruined robe and hastily bandaged the cut. Meanwhile, several sets of footsteps converged below his window.
"Heika! Are you alright?"
His intruders' eyes snapped towards the window. Soo-won got to his feet, motioning for their silence.
He leaned out into the cool night, to the members of his guard—four of them—on the pathway three stories below. Armored, swords at the ready, lanterns in hand. He offered a sheepish smile and scratched his head. "Aaaah, I'm afraid that was just me being clumsy. I forgot I moved one of the stools and tripped on it in the dark." On the sill, Gulfan stretched his wings and continued to preen, one long feather at a time. "I knocked over Gulfan's cage." He saw two of the four roll their eyes.
The guard who'd spoken wasn't one of them. He stepped forward, his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. "Do you require assistance, Your Majesty? Shall I send up the guards?"
Soo-won waved them off with a fluid gesture. "Iya, that won't be necessary. I'll be more careful. Sorry to disturb your rounds."
The guard bowed from the waist. "Very good, Your Majesty." He turned away, his look sending the other three scattering.
Soo-won moved away from the window, exhaling. In the chamber, Yona had pushed Hak's robes off his left shoulder and was binding his arm with a strip of fabric. The hem of her dress was ragged. While she concentrated on her work, Hak watched him, his eyes still hard.
Soo-won surveyed the ruined bed and other damaged furniture, the blood—both his and Hak's—on what shreds of bedclothes remained. And sighed. So much for his private tower retreat. When Joo-doh and Kye-sook found out… He recovered his sword and sheathed it. "Battle contingents from four of the five tribes sleep within the castle tonight. Perhaps we should continue this conversation another time, and in a different venue."
Yona finished tying off the makeshift bandage. She eyed his leg, her gaze drawing him to the fact that the slice through the fabric had left his robe rather compromised. From the dressing rack by the window—the fixture still upright, somehow—he pulled a heavier robe and hastily covered himself.
"Agreed," she said and got to her feet, retrieving her own sword.
"Hak. That's an order." She slid the sword into the scabbard that hung at her waist. Blood was smeared on her dress. Hak's at her shoulder and on her sleeve. His staining her skirt.
The Thunder Beast growled low in his throat as he righted his robes and reached to collect his glaive. His eyes promised he would like nothing better than to disobey. Yet, Yona was his priority. Of course she was. Soo-won felt the smallest twinge of jealousy, despite Hak's deadly intentions towards him.
"Understood," Hak said, his voice grating as he got to his feet. He turned for the door.
Yona moved to follow, but then turned back towards him. Soo-won went still as the spilling light afforded him an unfettered view of her lovely face, flinty and cold. But a myriad of emotions warred in her eyes. Anger, confusion, sorrow, hatred, longing. Along her jaw and high on her cheekbone were scrapes—not so fresh as to have been caused the same evening—but new since last he saw her in Sensui those several months prior. As if someone had thrown her to the ground and scraped her face against dirt and rocks. Reminding him of his dream.
He fought the icy shiver that tore down his spine. "Go, Yona-hime. Before the guards change their minds."
He heard Hak's hand twist on the pole of his glaive. "Hime." His voice was cool. Controlled. "We're leaving. Now."
Yona tore her gaze from him. "Yes," she said. She turned and vanished with Hak into the darkness, a blur of white and red in scattered moonlight. He heard the chamber door creak slightly as it opened. Then, silence.
Soo-won turned to the ruined bed. He pulled free what scraps of bedclothes he could and shook them free of wood slivers. He rearranged them into a makeshift bed near the window and sat down. His thigh throbbed. He'd deal with the damages, the blood, the questions in the morning.
He leaned back against the wall in the remaining moonlight. Listening for any sounds from outside, any indication that they'd been found by his guards. But he heard only silence. That and the beating of his heart, pumping blood through his body. Searing around the cut on his thigh.
With a soft cry, Gulfan spread his wings and floated down from the window to alight on his right wrist. His head and beady eyes swiveled, searching the darkness of the room, looking back out the window. Chirping, Gulfan looked at him, his head tilted to the side, feathers bristling.
Soo-won sighed. "I know." He lifted his other hand to the falcon. Gulfan opened his beak and nipped at his fingers. "I miss them too."