Yoon brought the spoon to his lips to taste the broth. A second later, a satisfied smirk appeared on his face. "Ah, Yoon, you handsome genius, you did it again!" He started rationing off the food into his friend's bowls. "I don't know how you did it, but you pulled off a minor miracle by making something out of nothing."
His eyes narrowed when he recalled what happened earlier this morning.
"Why are you handing me leaves?" Yoon roared at the hapless looking men. "Didn't I tell you to get us ingredients in the town market?"
Kija sniffled. "But it's not my fault! I did drag them to the food stalls! But they wandered off when I wasn't looking."
"Hold up, White Snake," interrupted Hak, raising his hand. "Droopy Eyes wandered off, not me."
But you followed me," drawled the Green Dragon.
"BECAUSE YOU SAID YOU SAW THE PRINCESS!"
"Yes, I did," Jae-Ha nodded calmly. "I can definitely see her wearing *this*." He proudly unraveled a lavender silk robe for everyone to admire. "And only this—oh Hak, be careful!" He swiftly held the fabric away from the Hsu Quandao's polished blade. "You might ruin this beautiful dress, you horrible brute!"
"Don't worry, I was actually aiming for your neck."
Jae-Ha clicked his tongue in mock sorrow. "See, Hak? That savage attitude of yours is the reason we often get into trouble. Like what you did in front of the store, raising your weapon at poor lil' ole me. My goodness, you made the merchant so mad!"
Hak stared daggers at him. "Well, if you hadn't avoided the blade and knocked over his goods in the process, then he wouldn't have gotten angry."
"And because of that ruckus you two have caused, we had to pay the merchant!" scolded Kija with a huff.
"We wouldn't have paid so much if you didn't ruin the rest of his goods with your monster-like dragon claw," replied Hak wryly.
"I was only trying to help put them back on the shelf!" pouted the white-haired male.
Zeno raised both arms happily. "But Zeno and everyone picked some fallen leaves on the way home for you so we can at least eat something tonight!"
"Hey Kid, is it dinner yet?" asked Zeno brightly, halting Yoon's reverie. "Zeno is STARVING!"
"Aren't you always?" he asked dryly as he handed the Yellow Dragon a bowl of broth. "Good thing Shin-Ah had the good sense to go hunting this morning, or we would have been eating watered salad tonight."
"Watered salad, yay!"
"That wasn't really the reaction I was hoping for, Zeno." He turned to the rest of the dragons. "Dinner time, you guys. Where's Yona?"
"The Princess is in her tent," replied Kija, plopping down beside him. "She says she has been feeling rather awful all week. I wonder what ails her."
"I've already checked up on her, Kija." The boy handed the White Dragon his share of food. "No injuries or poison whatsoever."
"She is a bit, erm, touchy, though," the Hakuryuu began tentatively. "N-Not that it changes my complete respect and devotion to her, of course. She is my master who I will absolutely serve till my very last breath!"
"We -know-, Kija," said Jae-Ha teasingly. "You and your entire line of ancestors have made that perfectly clear day in and day out." He reached for his bowl. "But Yona's mood has been swinging a bit lately."
"What do you mean?" Yoon tried not to look as curious as he really was.
Shin-Ah had also joined the campfire. He silently accepted his bowl from the strawberry blond-headed boy.
"Well, when I presented her the dress that I got from the market, her face lit up like the port of Awa at dusk," narrated the Green Dragon breathlessly. "But the next minute, she was sobbing her heart out because the color was one shade lighter than her eyes. ONE! That's unlike my sweet Yona."
"She isn't yours, and never will." Hak retorted, appearing from behind. "Why are you dragons gossiping like old ladies?"
"You're the one to talk." The former pirate wiggled his eyebrows vexingly. "Weren't you complaining earlier that she nearly emptied the entire quiver on you when you tried to tease her about her weight?"
"Well, her appetite did increase this week," remarked Yoon, forehead creasing thoughtfully. "But you're still a jerk for calling attention to that, Thunder Beast."
"Yona?" Shin-Ah asked all of a sudden, looking around the camp for his red-haired mistress.
"I'll call her." Hak went to the cloth shelter. "Princess? Dinner's ready. " He frowned at her muffled response. "What's that? You hate me and you hope that I choke on my chopsticks? That's mean, Princess. What if I die?"
An exasperated exhale came from inside the tent.
"Didn't you tell me in the past that if I die on you, you'll never forgive me?"
More indistinct noises emanated from within the shelter.
"As you wish, Princess." Hak rejoined the group campfire, scratching the back of his head in annoyance.
"So, what did Yona say?" asked Yoon.
"She told me it's fine because she can't forgive me while I'm alive either." Hak finally took his bowl. "Oh, and she's also asking for you, Yoon."
"For me?" The self-proclaimed pretty boy looked confused. He set his bowl down and approached the tent. "Yona, do you need something?"
"I can't go out there, Yoon." The princess' voice barely rose above a whisper. "I think something's wrong with me."
He grew alarmed at that. "I'm coming in."
He found Yona curled in a half circle, clutching her abdomen. "Yona!" he cried as he quickly knelt by her side to inspect her more closely.
"Not too loud, Yoon," she murmured weakly. "I had to act cranky at Hak and the others so they would stay away."
"How do you feel?" he asked urgently.
"My whole body hurts, but I feel less pain when I lie down like this. Although that's not my only concern at this moment…"
"There's more?" He was turning frantic now. He wasn't sure he had the right medicinal herbs at hand for more serious cases.
"I-It's my…" Her cheeks turned warm. "It's my legs. They feel all sticky and warm. When I checked, my sokgot were drenched in blood."
"Did I miss a wound?" He lifted the blanket to check on her again. Having treated her several times, he thought nothing of setting aside her full skirt and the layers of sokgot to see her legs. "Three layers of undergarments, and blood still seeped through all of it."
"I used to wear eight layers of sokgot back in the palace," she remarked, the barest hint of wistfulness in her tone.
He didn't know what to say, so he kept his silence.
After a few minutes of inspection, he decided there was no open wound visible anywhere. "But you're bleeding everywhere. We've got to take you to the village for the shaman to check."
"So sorry for the bother, Yoon," Vintage Yona still managed an apologetic smile amidst her discomfort and pain.
"Don't be silly. I'll be right back." He exited the tent and was met by the expectant gazes of the dragons.
"We need to bring Yona to the shaman. She's bleeding, but I can't seem to find her wounds," he said as calmly as he could.
Hak quickly rose and rushed towards the tent.
"Princess, I'm coming in." Hak's familiar baritone voice wafted into the small tent space where she had lain all day in pain.
"Hak, I would rather not—"
His head popped in, eyes dead set on her in somber concern.
"—have you see me this way…" Her voice trailed off. She was still lying with her knees tucked beneath her chin. She gave off a distinct smell of perspiration, blood, and something else that stirred the white-hot desire he had desperately shut off again and again over the years. Her slim, shapely legs peeked from the undergarments that were now in disarray.
He gulped inwardly and quickly darted his eyes away.
"I will very much like to make you my archery target once I get better," she sighed. "What if I was naked, stupid Hak?"
"If ever, I promise yours wouldn't be the first naked body I've seen, Princess." But she was worse than naked; she was vulnerable, warm, and sensual—each already dangerous on its own, but lethal to his senses when combined.
He hastily covered her with a blanket, which she promptly kicked away, exposing her thighs.
"It's hot!" she protested like a child.
"Shut up and stay still!" He wrapped the blanket around her and secured them into knots as best as he could. "As it is, I can barely—" He stopped in mid-sentence, exhaling sharply. He vigorously shook his head to erase the thought.
"Anyway, is this why you were so grouchy to us?" he demanded quietly. "To keep us away?"
"In a way," she agreed softly. "I don't want everyone to worry unnecessarily."
"That's a lost cause." He, the former General Son Hak of the Wind Tribe, would live and die worrying about her. And for all his dry, sarcastic quips, Yoon's true nurturing side would always surface. Moreover, her dragons were bound by blood to look after the reincarnation of King Hiryuu in every lifetime that they would meet.
He wondered, as he gazed fondly at the Princess of Kouka, if he could have the same privilege as them: the fate to meet with their master again in their next lives. But he decided that was him being greedy again. Why can't I just be thankful that I'm seeing her live in this lifetime?
"My abdomen was hurting a lot earlier too, but I fell asleep, and when I woke up, the pain has subsided," Yona spoke. "I just feel sore and sticky all over."
He looked at her, hunched over like a crying child, but drenched in womanly scent, and felt his body ache longingly. Greedy, he chastised himself for the umpteenth time. "What did Yoon say?"
"He's taking me to a shaman to get further checked for injuries. But honestly, Hak, I just want to bathe myself and feel clean again," she admitted.
"As the Princess wishes." He waved at her. "I'll be back." He needed the fresh air, too; he was growing precariously heady with her presence.
"Thank you, Hak."
"Is it sorcery?" asked Kija worriedly.
"I'm hoping that it's not." Yoon had never treated any illness that went beyond natural causes.
"How old is the miss?" Zeno piped in.
The group's medic sweatdropped. "Zeno, I'm not sure now's the best time to exchange trivia about Yona's life."
"But Zeno wants to know!" insisted the Yellow Dragon. "Zeno has to know!"
"Alright, alright!" Yoon held up both hands to pacify the insistent dragon warrior. "Let's see… she's a year older than me, I think." At the corner of his eye, he saw Thunder Beast emerge from the tent, looking a bit flushed. "Hey, Thunder Beast, how old is Yona?"
"Huh? She just turned sixteen when we left the palace," he replied. "Why do you wanna know?"
"Ah." Understanding dawned on the blond boy's face. "Then rest your worries, everyone. The miss will be well soon."
"B-But she's bleeding!" protested Yoon. "And unless I can see her wounds, I won't be able to treat her!"
"The miss will be fine," said Zeno soothingly. "Please give her something warm to place on her to help ease the pain. It will pass soon."
"How do you know that?" asked Kija, mystified. "Is this an illness that King Hiryuu once went through, too?"
The Yellow Dragon's laughter rang out crisp and clear. "How adorable! Have you not heard of the 'rite of passage into womanhood?" Everyone shook their heads. "Do you not have women around you?"
"Nope." Yoon lived nearly all his life with a celibate priest. "Not all of us can be an immortal beast who now knows the ways of the woman because he got married to one decades ago."
"Wahaha, the kid is jealous! So cute!"
Kija tipped his chin with his finger. "I do, but all we talk about is marriage. And then, there's Granny, but all she wants to talk about is my manhood." He turned red when everyone looked at him with maniacal grins. "O-Oi! I meant my rite of passage into manhood, you bunch of freaks!"
"Hmm… I would ask my beloved captain, but her own rite may have been too long ago and the practices may already be outdated, hahaha!" Jae-Ha placed his hands on his waist and let out a roar of laughter.
"I can sense the Captain's killing intent practically all the way from the port," grimaced Yoon, shivering.
Hak placed his arms behind his head. "I was trained to do only one thing: fight. So if you say the Princess is safe, Yellow Dragon, then I will rely on your words. "
"Zeno thanks the mister for his trust."
The bodyguard turned to Yoon. " Do we still have extra blankets somewhere?"
"I folded them and placed them under the tree over there." He pointed to the tall gingko tree not too far from where they set up camp.
"Thanks. I need to borrow them." With that, Hak set off to retrieve what he needed.
"Zeno," called Kija, "when you say 'rite to womanhood', what does it specifically mean for the Princess?" He paled a bit. "Will she grow rock-hard abs? Will she start sounding like Hak?" He conjured a mental image of a red-haired Hak dressed in the Princess' white and red gown. The White Dragon's face darkened measurably. "Nooooo!"
"Men and women mature differently," answered Zeno sagely. "For the miss, the most important change will be…" He motioned them to come closer with his fingers.
"Will be?" All three dragons and Yoon obediently drew nearer to him.
"The miss is now capable of producing an offspring."
Hak wondered if Zeno saw through his life; he must have, but gracefully decided to let him go. The truth was, the bodyguard knew exactly what was happening to his mistress.
He first learned about it back when he and Soo-Won were twelve. They couldn't sleep, so the two decided to do a late-night sparring session in the forest just outside the gates of the Hiryuu Castle.
"Here I come!" Little Soo-Won sprinted towards him from the corner, holding his wooden sword.
Hak smirked; he knew he was at a disadvantage, defending with a close-range weapon when he was used to the cushion of the larger defensive range provided by his spear. But in wars he knew he would fight someday as the right-hand of the future emperor, there would be no rules or established advantages. He would fight with whatever resources he had at hand.
He carefully timed his movements; he waited till the last possible moment, and then pulled back inches away before the edge of Soo-Won's weapon touched his chest. Then without missing a beat, he ricocheted back towards the noble to grab the opening that he knew would be created inevitably by launching such a close-range offense.
Soo-Won saw it too late to be countered properly; all he could do was step back as quickly as he could, but in the process, he lost his footing and landed on his rear. He expected Hak's sword to be thrust to his face to seal the victory, but it was Hak's hand that the dark-haired boy offered instead.
"Fast, but not fast enough," praised the servant with a grin.
"You are truly… the Thunder Beast of Kouka." Soo-Won chuckled. "I do not need to worry about Yona after all."
"We'll both protect her," promised young Hak earnestly. "And when you and the Princess get married, I will protect you both, till the very last drop of my blood."
"Oh, Hak." The noble combed his sweat-drenched hair with his shaking fingers, sighing. "That… would be wonderful, if only it would come true."
"Of course! You just need to convince the bubbly emperor. The princess needs no further convincing, you know." As always, Hak ignored the dull pain within him when he said that.
"Ssh, someone's coming!" hissed Hak, dragging him to the bushes. "Hide, hide!"
"I-Is it Captain Han-Joo-Doh?" The dark blond boy looked close to tears. "Are we doomed?"
"No, no. It's…" Hak scoped the path with his hand and narrowed eyes. "It's a court lady. She looks frantic. She's holding a big cloth bag"
Soo-Won looked intrigued. "Really?" He joined his friend in surveying the situation. "Yes, she looks distressed. Maybe we should help her."
"Wait. Why is she outside this late at night? Why is she alone? We have to be careful, Soo-Won!" scolded Hak, slapping the noble's head.
"Ahaha, sorry!" The young noble rubbed his head apologetically.
"She looks very suspicious. Let's follow her." He grabbed Soo-Won's hand impatiently. "Come on!"
The two trailed the court lady until they ended up beside the river. Curiously, they watched her pull out several garments from her bag. She then began to wash them in the stream.
"Hak, I feel stupid for following a court lady just to watch her do her laundry," whispered Soo-Won to him.
"Well, better safe than sorry! What if she was planning to meet soldiers from Sei or Xing?" he said defensively.
"Let's go back. Yona might wake up and cry if she doesn't see me beside her."
A vein popped on little Hak's head. "Fine. I'll sleep in the palace, too. The old man will not let me in this late at night anyway—" He stopped cold when he saw the court lady get up, too. Then to both boys' shock, the young woman stripped off her gowns hastily.
"I can't look!" cried Soo-Won, burying his crimson face on the sleeves of his robes.
Meanwhile, Hak could not tear his gaze away from her naked silhouette. In the softness of her curves, he saw only strength. The cold nocturnal breeze chilled her breasts and made them proud and erect, like a warrior putting on a chain mail for his very first war. Somehow, Hak felt he was witnessing something important happen to a woman he had barely acknowledged in the palace.
Bare-naked, the woman hurriedly rinsed her clothes. After wringing them the best she could, she proceeded to put the still-dripping clothes back on.
The woman froze, as if a deer cornered by a hunter. Young Hak stepped out of the bushes , holding out his overcoat to her.
"You'll get sick if you wear wet clothes," he added, handing over the cloth to her.
"T-Thank you." Perhaps relieved that it was but a boy who saw her, she relaxed visibly and accepted his kindness. She wrapped the overcoat around her.
"Y-You can have mine, too."
They both turned to see Soo-Won shyly emerge from the bushes, holding out his own coat.
"Lord Soo-Won!" The court lady looked absolutely mortified.
"Don't worry, I didn't see anything but a big sister who needs more coats." The young noble gave her a bright, reassuring smile.
Soo-Won is going to unleash it… his most powerful technique! thought Hah, cupping his face. The power of friendship!
As expected, the woman instantly basked in Soo-Won's warm, sunny aura. Her face blossomed into a blissful smile. "Thank you, Lord Soo-Won!"
"You really should teach me that technique one of these days," commented the Wind Tribe youth dryly.
"I can't! You haven't taught me yet your dark, cool glare that makes the court ladies swoon," replied the Sky Tribe boy smilingly.
"What are you two doing here, by the way?" The court lady asked. "Shouldn't you have guards, Lord Soo-Won?"
"I don't need a hundred guards as long as I'm with Hak!" gushed the young lord proudly.
"The Wind General's grandson!" exclaimed the young woman in surprise.
"You were injured," The dark-haired boy pointed to the dried blood on her garments. "Did you go to a war?"
The court lady thought for a minute. "I guess you can say that. It's a war every woman has to go through, anyway."
"Even Yona?" asked the light-haired Sky Tribe noble.
"Even Her Highness, yes," agreed the woman solemnly. "I hope hers will be less lonely, though."
"What do you mean?" the boys asked in unison.
"Well, how do I put this…" The woman tucked her knees beneath her chin. "Girls become women when they start to bleed from inside. It's not because of a wound, but it's caused by a cavity within her that flushes out all the dirt and toxins of the body as it prepares to become a pure and clean sanctuary for another life. She does it for a few days every complete cycle of the moon, until such time she gets married and bears a child."
"That sounds wonderful!" gushed Soo-Won, clapping his hands together.
"You are too kind, my lord." The woman gave him a sad smile. "Unfortunately, the rest of the people in the kingdom do not feel that way. Unmarried women who bleed are dirty. We should hide from everyone's sight until this passes. This is why I can only do my laundry under the cover of the moonless night."
"But this is dangerous!" protested the young noble.
"But not less desirable than bringing shame to my family who also lives in Kuuto." She looked at the boys fondly. "But thank you, my lord Soo-Won and Hak, for your kindness tonight. I will never forget this."
"You have to be careful," Hak reminded her concernedly. "What if it's a palace guard who saw you?"
"I won't have to go into hiding for much longer," she told them reassuringly. "Now that I have become a woman, I will be married off by my father to the suitor of his choosing. I will now be protected by my husband, and later on, by my son, if I would so be blessed to have one." Her face turned sympathetic. "Her Highness on the other hand…"
"What about her?" chorused the two lads.
"She's still young, but once she starts to bleed, she will be married off. Anyone who becomes her husband will bear a huge responsibility to the kingdom. So please, take care of her." She finished her request with a low bow.
"We promise, Big Sister." Hak gave her a thumbs-up.
"Won't you run out of blood?" asked Soo-Won curiously.
"I have never heard of such case yet," the maiden replied. "I just need to rest for two to three days, and then I return to my normal ways. I do appreciate frequent baths to feel clean, though."
"We'll walk you back to the palace. Tell the guards that you caught us sneaking out," volunteered Hak. "It will be less suspicious that way!"
"That is so kind of you. Thank you… so much."
Hak entered the tent and found his scarlet-haired mistress sitting upright. As expected, she was able to wiggle her way out of the knotted blankets.
"You don't need to carry me on my way out, Hak," she told him gently. "But I would very much like that blanket to cover me. I smell terrible."
He wordlessly wrapped the blanket around her, wisely choosing not to share his dissenting opinion about her scent and what it was doing to his impulses at the very moment.
"If Father was here, I would have asked him about this," she continued.
"He'll probably consent to you holding a weapon rather than be compelled to answer your question, Princess," he replied wryly.
"Oh? What illness do I have, Hak?" She turned to him, her large lilac eyes pulling him in, so dangerously close to drowning in her intoxicating presence.
"It's not an illness. It's a gift you have to take good care of."
"A gift?" She looked more confused. "Is it something I can give you, Hak?"
He felt himself tremble as he recalled the forbidden memory that was forever imprinted in his mind: her naked nubile body by the leech-filled pond. He imagined himself touching her silky skin, running down his rough fingers on all of her soft slender curves, leaving no space untouched, and finally back up to her face as he cupped it gently to meet his lips.
He fell on one knee, face bowed to hide the consuming hunger on his burning face. "Only if you insist, Princess. "
"My, that sounds like a precious gift!" she remarked smilingly.
Just then, the tent flaps fluttered open.
"HAK!" White Dragon's claw nearly sliced off his back if not for the Thunder Beast's swift evasive jump. "How dare you come near the Princess! Step away from her or you might get her pregnant!"
"Pregnant?" Yona looked stumped. "Only old people get pregnant, right, Jae-Ha?"
A vein popped on the Green Dragon's head, but he beamingly cupped Yona's hands. "Yona dear, I highly encourage you to learn the ways of the world by discovering it for yourself—"
"STOP TOUCHING HER!" Kija chased after the Green Dragon next, wailing.
"Eat, Yona," Shin-Ah told his mistress quietly. "Take care of your womb."
"Er… thanks?" She looked even more stumped.
Yoon glared at Hak pointedly. "So that's why you were in such a rush to go to Yona's side. Pervert."
Hak glared at Zeno, who was happily watching the scene while munching on his second serving. "What the hell did you tell them, you yellow monster?"
"Oh, this is so much fun!" gushed Zeno. "Zeno loves being around virgins, hahaha!"
:: THE END ::