Epilogue: What I saw beyond the morning
A/N: First off, massive thanks to go evilteddybear, for beta reading this chapter and so many others, for countless brainstorming sessions and thoughtful critiques, for reeling me in when I needed it and challenging me to look deeper. This story would not be what it is without you, my friend. Thank you!
To everyone who has read this far—thank you! Honestly, I would have happily stopped at chapter three, but your feedback and encouragement inspired me to keep going. I hope you've enjoyed reading the story as much as I've enjoyed writing it for you.
Three months later
Hak frowned at the scatter of pieces on the game board. Every move open to him was cleverly and subtly blocked. No matter how hard he thought about it or considered—wait… His fingers hovered over a polished alabaster stone. No. Not that way either. He dropped his hand, a sound of annoyance escaping his throat.
"By all means, take your time, my friend," Soo-won said, smiling. "You're the one who's going to be late. Not I."
Hak folded his arms over his blue robes, glaring at his opponent. "I can't do anything." A slight brush of wind ruffled his cloak.
"Hmm?" Soo-won had one elbow propped on the table, his chin resting in the palm of his hand. His sea-green eyes glittered with amusement. "It took you that long to figure it out? I'm disappointed, Hak." By Soo-won's left ear, shards of hair were just long enough to be visible beneath the navy fabric hat he wore in the Water Tribe style. The rest of his hair was gathered at the back of his neck, held in place by a golden clasp. Rows upon rows of azure Earth Tribe gemstones were draped around his neck, a few gleaming from rings on his fingers. Soo-won's robes were deep burgundy, trimmed in bright red.
The back alley where they sat was open to the morning air and sun, bordered by buildings of various heights. Plenty of others were engaged in similar games, gambling, or drinking nearby, but not too near.
Snorting, Hak pushed all the pieces off the game board, erasing the evidence of his defeat, making a pile on Soo-won's side of the table.
Soo-won just sighed.
"You're not coming up to the castle?" Hak asked.
"Not today." Soo-won began putting the game pieces back into a wooden case. "Maybe tomorrow." He smiled. "Or maybe not. I haven't decided. Besides…it would be an unfortunate distraction were anyone to recognize me."
"In these clothes?" Hak eyed his friend, particularly the sword that hung from his hip. "You've been traveling."
"Hardly. I traded for these things."
Hak quirked a brow. "Even the Shin blade?"
Soo-won smiled pleasantly and closed the wooden case. "Give my regards to your wife, Hak." He rose from the table. "Next time, I may even let you win."
Hak growled in the back of his throat as he got to his feet. "Next time you won't have to."
Soo-won laughed and moved away. He paused before he got very far, glancing back as if something had just occurred to him. But that couldn't possibly be the case. Hak knew his friend too well for that. Soo-won was always thinking, calculating…
Those sea-green eyes gleamed with intrigue. "I hear interesting things, Hak. Sei and Shin are allies of Kouka now. And though the noble families of Kai bicker amongst themselves, some even say…" Soo-won smiled. "Today your wife becomes queen, but will she one day be empress?"
Hak scowled. "One thing at a time, Soo-won."
Amusement was plain on Soo-won's face as he turned away, the sunlight flashing off the golden clasp that bound his hair. Tucking the wooden case beneath his arm, he vanished into the crowd, Mua and Gyoku quietly moving to follow.
Hak stared after him for a moment longer and shook his head. You're still aggressive. But that makes you the Sword and me the Shield. The rumors had died down somewhat, regarding what happened to the previous king. The truth was written in the history books now, for anyone who cared to read it. But most people had heard about what the king had said and done on the fields east of Tenchou—how he'd drawn his sword against his own men to protect the princess. Many believed he'd perished that day. And, in a way, everything Soo-won had been had ended there in the bloody snow. Another slight breeze sifted through Hak's hair. You're different now…and so am I. It was a good place to be.
Grabbing his glaive and tucking it behind his shoulder, Hak flipped the hood of his cloak onto his head and melded into the steady streams of people headed towards the castle.
The main courtyard of Hiryuu Castle was filled to bursting; buzzing with activity. Hak walked atop one wall, skirting the gathering crowds and the final preparations happening below. Yona was elsewhere with her dragons, getting dressed for the ceremony. He wasn't late yet…not quite.
All five tribes were well represented; even people from faraway Sei and Shin had traveled to see the dragon princess crowned as Kouka's sovereign. He caught a glimpse of Tae-woo, Heang-dea, and several other Wind Tribe boys on the wall near the gates of the castle, surrounded by crates and crates of fireworks. Because that was a good idea—of course it was. Mundok was in the courtyard below—giving the boys an earful from the looks of it. Hak smiled as he moved on.
One corner of the yard was overrun with young children and parents with infants. Chun-ja was there with her daughter, as well as Geun-tae's wife, Yuno, with her baby girl. Geun-tae hung back with Joo-doh and the Sky Tribe guards that lined the perimeter, looking a little harried with so many toddlers underfoot.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, the atmosphere was slightly calmer where the Water Tribe and Fire Tribe generals accompanied delegations from Sei and Sen Province, respectfully. Hak saw Lili chatting with the Sei prince, Kwang-jo, while her attendants, Ayura and Tetora, watched from a polite distance.
The center of the courtyard was a swirling mass of people, many of them young adults—children and other former slaves who had returned from Kai. Tae-jun and a troop of Fire Tribe soldiers attempted to corral the most active ones, while Captain Gigan and many of the former pirates of Awa accompanied the older teens. Tae-jun looked like he'd already worked up a good sweat from running around. Hak also saw Kalgan, the boy they'd met in Kin Province, darting here and there among the crowds—obviously Up To Something.
Shin civilians in their blindingly garish robes were scattered throughout the courtyard; in contrast, the formal Shin delegation, led by General Ki-nam, stood in two perfect lines of black uniforms to one side, surveying the chaos with obvious distaste.
Musicians in brightly colored garments were warming up on platforms against the walls. Others were draping red and gold banners and streamers from every vertical surface.
Hak reached the tower that stood at the head of the courtyard, ducking into an alcove where Wind Tribe members waited to help him dress for the occasion.
An hour later, he stood at the top of the stairs at the base of the tower, on the right side of the place where Yona would be crowned.
The crowds had only swelled; even the top of the walls and the upper floors of the buildings surrounding the courtyard were filled with people who had come to witness this moment. The heads of each tribe and their delegations had moved into the front row. An aisle had been generally cleared down the center of the yard, marked by a broad crimson carpet, though occasionally a child would run across, squealing gleefully, with a guardian in close pursuit.
Hak shifted again in the scratchy, heavy robes he'd been given to wear. They were a dark blue-grey, embroidered with silver thread. The look was not too bad, but even his wedding clothes hadn't been this uncomfortable.
An elbow jabbed his side. "Stop fidgeting, Raijyuu."
Hak snorted and folded his arms. "I'm pretty sure these clothes weigh more than you do, Yoon."
The tawny-haired youth rolled his eyes. He, too, wore formal attire, but got away with a dark red tunic trimmed in gold over brown breeches and boots. Beside Yoon, Ik-soo wore new white robes.
Neither of them had anything to complain about. The robes he wore were so stiff, Hak was pretty sure he could faint and he'd still be upright.
A priest in formal white and gold robes neared the top of the stairs. In his hands was an ornate chest containing the crown of Kouka. The music started on cue, drums and flutes, and all manner of other instruments.
Hak winced; it just sounded like noise. Why had Yona agreed to have Shin musicians provide the music? And why had he let her? He'd never understand why she loved it so much.
The gates of the castle swung open— Hak held his breath. From here, his wife and her dragons were just pillars of color between the doors, but his heart surged with pride. Hime…
Cheers rose from the crowd, overwhelming even the ruckus of Shin music as Yona and the dragons began their procession through the courtyard. This was not the solemn ceremony he remembered from when King Il had been crowned. People were cheering, yelling, waving, pressing towards the center aisle—
Yona was only about a quarter of the way through when he lost her in the press of people. Hak's heart lurched in his chest. He slogged forward in his heavy clothes, ready to shout for the guards—
From the center of the crowd, a flurry of gold, red, and navy robes burst skyward— Jae-ha carrying Yona. Hak exhaled with relief; the crowds cheered louder. Zeno, Shin-ah, and Kija went running up the aisle—Zeno laughing, Shin-ah quiet and focused, and Kija looking slightly stressed at being left behind.
Jae-ha landed at the base of the steps, setting Yona down in all her finery. She wore new scarlet robes embroidered with dragons; the overrobe was woven from golden thread, the back of it trailing behind her and gleaming against the red of the carpet. Strands of pearls, gemstones, and flowers had been woven into the thick braid that hung over her right shoulder, pieces representing each tribe. She was smiling broadly, her eyes obviously moist—trying to hold it all in, but Hak could see she was struggling. As well she might! With the hearts of all of these people pouring into her, she had to be completely overwhelmed. It was a wonder she didn't pass out.
The other dragons finally made it to the base of the stairs and stood there catching their breath. Jae-ha looked patently smug. Zeno's smile was as radiant as the sun. Although Shin-ah's expression was hidden behind his mask and fur, Hak could tell the blue dragon was content. Kija still looked frazzled, almost comically so.
Yona gathered the skirts of her robes and slowly climbed the stairs at the base of the tower, the golden overrobe fanning out behind her. She was laboring to walk as much as he had, but clearly loved every minute of it.
He had no words to describe the way it felt, living this moment. He thought of the weak, helpless girl he'd dragged out of the castle on that terrible night two years ago. To see Yona now—his wife, the red dragon—standing before all of Kouka— Hak sniffed hard, his eyes misting a little. Are you watching from heaven, King Il? Can you see the woman your daughter has become? He smiled and composed himself as best he could. Nothing could make this day more perfect.
"Bah! Why are you crying already?" Yoon asked, jabbing Ik-soo in the arm. "You dumb priest. Wait until after she's crowned."
Ik-soo sniffled hard, smiling. "The queen is pregnant."
"Wait, Yona?" Yoon tugged on Ik-soo's sleeve. "You mean Yona? Does she know?"
Ik-soo shook his head. "I'm not sure. I don't know how it works exactly, her feeling the hearts of the people. I wonder if she can tell, especially given—"
Hak stopped listening, just trying to breathe. He felt faint, overjoyed, shocked— His wife…his wife was pregnant. He was going to be a father, they were going to have a child together… He swayed amidst his heavy garments, suddenly hot—
"Raijyuu, whoa! Don't faint!" Hands grabbed his arm. "Ik-soo, why did you have to say that now?"
Yona felt a confusing burst of emotion from her husband, the Shield. She glanced at him furtively, reading his surprise, his elation, the way his consciousness wavered… Not in a harmful way, she wasn't worried exactly, but…
The priest with the crown cleared his throat; Yona returned her attention front and center, assured in her heart that Hak would be fine. He seemed better than fine, actually, but she didn't know why. She'd ask later.
As for the Sword… Soo-won was near, but not so nearby as to be witnessing this. The emotions she read of him were bittersweet, as perhaps they should be. She knew what it felt like to let dreams die, even when it was for the sake of better things. When the time was right, he'd return to her. She was confident of that.
Yona finally made it to the top of the steps and knelt. It was a relief to rest her arms after the heaviness of her robes. She wasn't at all sure she'd be able to get up again.
The crowd quieted only long enough to hear the priest's proclamation as the gilded crown was set upon her brow.
"Yona, daughter of King Il and Queen Iseul, Red Dragon, you are crowned Queen of Kouka, the Sky Tribe's twelfth sovereign to the throne."
The cheer that answered the proclamation was deafening. Yona felt the crown heavy upon her brow, the falls of golden beads against her cheeks. Warmth stung her eyes. The priest bade her rise, but she struggled under the weight of her garments. Trying not to laugh, she called her dragons with her heart—
They came to her, Shin-ah taking one arm while Kija grabbed the other. As they lifted her to her feet, Jae-ha smoothed the hem of her golden robe until it trailed behind her just so. Zeno stood beside, beaming. She grinned at her dragons, her heart swelling with emotions, overflowing with joy, happiness, peace, rightness—
The priest backed away as she turned towards the crowds. Yona inhaled deeply as the Shield's heart washed through her. She paused there, waiting for her husband to approach, reading the waves of love, pride, awe, fear, and excitement rolling off of him.
The stunned surprise had faded from Hak's expression. He was smiling as he came forward to join her, his eyes thoroughly content, thrilled, and at peace. Something…he'd greatly longed for had happened. But what? The closer he came, the more she felt amusement joining the riot of emotions running through his heart.
He came to her side, studying her face; she could feel him struggling to hold back his growing delight. "You really can't tell, Hime?"
Yona blinked at him, confused. "Tell what, Hak?"
Hak just grinned and took her hand.
She felt a…glimmer of something as their fingers intertwined.
He leaned in, kissing her brow just below the gilded crown. "I love you, my queen."
"Hak." She inhaled, love for him flooding her. "I love you." Something new and beautiful was happening between them, something that filled her with wonder, even though she still couldn't quite identify it—
And it wasn't just between the two of them. Within the people of Kouka, within the kingdom, she felt it, too. —From every heart and all hearts at once: The spark of newness and dazzling light, excitement and eagerness, the start of something glorious—
That ancient voice whispered to her tenderly. You thought the dawn was the goal, Beloved. …But it's only the beginning.
Her vision blurred. Yes. Yona grinned through her tears, gripping Hak's hand tightly as the two of them stepped forward together, surrounded by her dragons, towards the cheering crowds and into the sunlight streaming from the cloudless, morning sky—
…Thus began the Kingdom of Kouka's Second Age of Dragons…