Nana stood guard at the door of Yeri's room, making sure that no one could eavesdrop from the stairs. Next to her stood the girl with strange red hair now dyed to a ink-black color. The girl looked completely different with baggy peasant clothes instead of a fancy gown along with her new plain hair. Both of them anxiously waited for Takumi and Yeri to finish talking inside. There wasn't much time left before the Sky soldiers would begin their search through the brothel building.
Nana wrung her hands together, her mind was full of anxiety. She had half an idea of what was going on, but she didn't want to know more than what she already suspected. Nana always knew that Takumi tended to get himself into deep messes, yet he had always managed to pull himself out without a scratch. However this time, the experienced servant could tell that this was a much bigger issue than Yeri and Takumi were letting on. The teenage girl next to her was definitely the center of it all; Nana could say with full confidence that the girl Takumi had brought to the brothel the night of the princess' sixteenth birthday festival was no ordinary girl. The high quality gown, the jewels on her earrings and necklace, and the priceless hairpin in her fiery red hair all pointed to one person. Nana was so afraid to voice what she was thinking, that girl was possibly….
Finally, the door slid open and Takumi walked out. He was wearing the brown cloak he used for travel which also allowed him to conceal numerous weapons on his body. Nana froze at the dead expression on the young man's face. It was carefully devoid of emotion yet his hazel eyes were gleaming with something sinister, which meant that Takumi was in a dangerous mood.
"Here's the bag you packed," Nana said nervously as she handed it over. Takumi took it wordlessly, checking the contents briefly before tightening it and slinging it over his shoulders. He then turned his attention to the girl and without warning, grabbed her hair.
The poor girl flinched at the sudden contact, but stayed still once she realized that Takumi was only inspecting her hair closely. He rubbed it between his fingers, making sure that no hair dye residue stained his skin.
"I'm taking her to the Wind territory," Takumi said in a low voice. "I don't think I'll be back soon, so take care of my mother, Nana, and don't tell anyone where I'm going."
Tears welled up in the servant's eyes when she understood the implications of his words.
"Of course," Nana promised in a shaky voice. "Be safe, Takumi."
Without wasting another second, Takumi grabbed the girl's hand and headed towards the back of the brothel where the head matron was waiting. She gave Yona a hard stare before escorting them out through the back entrance.
"Your mini-me is already here with your orphan guide," the elderly woman informed him.
They were about to exit when someone blocked their path. It was Asuka and she had the biggest smirk on her lips.
"Out of the way, Asuka. You should be getting ready," the head matron reprimanded her.
Ignoring the tension in the atmosphere, Asuka approached Takumi, teasing, "What're you all in a hurry for? Trying to hide something from the soldiers?"
The courtesan's condescending eyes slid to the small figure of Yona who hid in Takumi's shadow.
"Move," he said in a stony voice. If he had to repeat himself, Takumi was going to push her.
Asuka's expression soured. "What's the big deal about this girl? All it took was one slip of tongue to a soldier and now they're making a fuss-"
Cold understanding flooded Takumi. It's because of her.
A red haze entered Takumi's vision. His body moved on its own, driven by an uncontrollable hot desire to hurt something.
The head matron yelled, "Takumi, stop-"
Asuka's eyes widened at the bloodlust radiating out of Takumi's face and screamed when he lunged for her throat. A nearby male servant saw the assault and tried to intervene.
"I'll kill you-" he snarled as he shoved the servant aside. The poor man hit the wall with a hard thud, falling to the ground with a groan.
He had his fingers wrapped around her windpipe. It felt so fragile and easy to break, he just needed to crush it, he could kill her-
Yona's sob tore him out of the tunnel vision.
Suddenly, Takumi registered the strength of numerous people surrounding him, wrestling down his arms and pushing against his body. He hadn't even noticed them there, but they strained to keep him back. Their efforts didn't bother him, however the two small hands holding his wrist felt the heaviest out of all of them. Yona was barely touching him, her fingers were like featherweights but they seemed to weigh down his conscience.
"Please," Yona quietly begged. "Please don't."
The rush of anger evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, but it left a gaping hole of emptiness inside his chest. Takumi's hand went slack, leaving a red print on Asuka's pale skin.
He let the servants create distance between him and the courtesan. Asuka stumbled backwards, clutching her throat and gasping for air while someone supported her.
Closing his eyes, Takumi breathed in deeply, flexing his fingers underneath his sleeves. He wrestled with the internal tumult of emotions inside his heart and head; he needed to stay in control right now, even if he wanted to murder the courtesan in front of him. Asuka was on the floor, her legs had lost strength, and her entire body pathetically trembled out of shock. She couldn't meet his eyes out of pure fear and began to weep, overcome with shock.
"Old hag, I think you have a snitch," he said tonelessly. "You know what we do with snitches."
All brothels had a particular code of secrecy, especially since they often served upper class clientele. It was expected of all workers of a brothel, whether it be the cooks, servants, or courtesans, that they kept a tight lip about their customers and of their fellow workers. They could afford to spread gossip, however they would never divulge any information that risked the safety of their establishment. That meant they should never attract the unwanted attention of the army or anything that could tear down their means of living. Besides their main business of night services, the brothel also housed the occasional gambling event, illegal trades, and suspicious exchanges of money. They couldn't afford to withstand a raid. If there was an issue about keeping a secret amongst workers, then they should take it to the head matron for the verdict rather than acting on their own. If a worker did something that threatened the brothel's security, then they were mercilessly tossed out the door.
The head matron narrowed her beady eyes, casting her gaze between Takumi, Asuka, and the princess. As expected, the old woman caught onto what Takumi was saying and shook her head in disappointment.
"I lost your mother, kid. I can't kick out a courtesan at this time," she regretfully said.
That was true, Asuka raked in a lot of money for the brothel which was helpful considering how Yeri was now out of commission. Asuka was supposed to be Yeri's replacement in terms of financial support. Also, a lot of time and investment had gone into training, feeding, and taking care of Asuka in preparation for her debut, so casting her out would be a large loss to the head matron. This girl was supposed to have one of the highest bids for spending an evening and many clients were anticipating Asuka's auction night for who would be the first to spend a night with her.
However, if Takumi couldn't kill her, then he would at least ruin her future.
"There's a locked trunk under a floorboard in your office," he said. "Nana has the key. It should have more than enough to compensate for a dropped courtesan."
A dropped courtesan was one whose first night had been done much too early, afterwhich their value drops dramatically. A courtesan's first night was supposed to be something special, an event that defined the rest of their career. Their first intimate client would be selected carefully as it would either raise or lower the trajectory of exclusivity of future clients. If it was done too cheaply, too easily, and too fast, then it 'ruined' the value of the woman.
The old matron cackled at the cruelty of Takumi's generosity. "Your consideration is appreciated, brat, I'll gladly do as you say. Now go, you need to get out of here. I'll take care of this."
"Thanks, granny," Takumi said gratefully. He pushed through the confused crowd, dragging Yona along behind him, and exited the brothel's back entrance.
Shouta greeted them outside with one spry little girl at his side. The small child had startingly clear black eyes framed by thin brown hair. She couldn't be any older than nine years, but Takumi knew that Shouta wouldn't have picked her without reason. Casting wary glances over his shoulder, Shouta handed Takumi a thick, hand-me-down robe which was tied around Yona's neck immediately.
"This is Sora," he introduced them to the little girl. "She doesn't talk much, but she's our best guide and pretty sneaky. She'll help you avoid the soldiers along the way and get you through the South Gate."
Takumi clapped Shouta on the back hurriedly. "Thanks, kid, and tell Mei-sensei that it's the Wind Tribe. She'll know what I'm talking about, but don't tell anyone this."
Shouta gulped and nodded. "I will. Be careful, Takumi."
With a look of confirmation from Shouta, the little girl took off. Takumi and Yona trailed after her, weaving through narrow alleyways away from the main road and out of sight from the public eye. They crossed a few points of intersecting paths that Takumi hadn't known existed, which was a testament to the girl's knowledge of the city. One or two times, they had to squeeze through a hole in the stone walls, but after many twists and turns, the girl silently led them to an opening that was adjacent to the South Gate. Right around the corner was their exit.
"You can go," Takumi told the little girl, but she shook her head and wordlessly pointed at the numerous guards stationed at the gate. It seemed like the soldiers were monitoring the people trying to leave Kuuto, which wasn't unusual if it weren't for the fact that they were inspecting the face of every single female passing through. They were definitely looking for the princess. Yona's hair was dyed black, but it would just take one soldier who was sharp enough to recognize the princess by her features. The princess' bright violet eyes were a dead giveaway that Takumi wasn't willing to risk.
Right when Takumi was thinking of ways to distract the guards at the gate, the girl tugged his sleeve. She motioned for them to stay put behind the wall, as if waiting for something to happen.
Nothing happened at first, but slowly, a low rumbling sensation vibrated the dirt floor and grew closer. Eventually Takumi recognized the noise as the sound of thundering hooves when he grabbed the little girl and Yona and pressed themselves into a tight space to avoid the incoming danger. A stampede of horses, specifically the Sky army's herd, emerged from the north side and stormed through the busy street, causing mass panic and chaos. The ground shook, dirt flew up in the air, and people screamed and ran in every direction to avoid the animals. Every soldier onsite automatically diverted their attention to the mayhem in front of them, ignoring the travelers and trying to gain control of the loose horses. Takumi covered Yona and their little guide with his cloak to shield them from the kicked up dust.
Squinting through the cloud of dirt, Takumi spotted a small group of kids chasing after the horses and harassing the frightened animals from the outer perimeter of the madness. If he had to guess, it looked like they were the reason why the horses were let loose. The kids had long, thin whips made of scrapped leather tied together, and they added to the disorder by cracking the whips over horses' heads and at their legs. The rowdy bunch moved like a unit, as if to purposely contain the chaos right in front of the South Gate in order to occupy the army's complete attention. If that was the intention, then it worked perfectly because all of the guards left their stations at the gate to help their fellow men to catch the horses. When there were no soldiers remaining for inspection at the gate, one ruffian let out a loud whistle that pierced through the air. Like cockroaches escaping the sunlight, the rag tag bunch of orphans scattered, leaving behind a huge mess for the Army to clean up.
"Is that a signal?" Takumi yelled at their little guide, his voice drowned out by the crazed situation. The girl nodded and then slipped out of his arms, disappearing into the narrow alleyways they had come out of.
Keeping Yona close to him, Takumi dove into the mayhem, dodging everything and nearly coming close to collision with a horse or soldier. They managed to join the mass crowd that was pushing its way through the South Gate to escape the havoc inside. Takumi kept an arm wrapped tightly around Yona the entire time, forcing her head down so that no one would catch sight of her face. They stuck with the mob, naturally following the flow of foot traffic to gain distance away from the city, and continued to walk from there without a single soldier monitoring them.
Breaking away from the majority, the two of them crossed several bridges, circumvented the capital border patrol, and then entered the forest edge. The green foliage and towering grassy plants covered their trails and shadow, allowing them to hide from plain sight.
And just like that, Takumi and Yona left Kuuto without the Sky army noticing.
Asuka shrieked when the servants tossed her out the backdoor.
"Why?! What did I do wrong?!" she yelled the entire time as bare necessities were thrown at her feet. Asuka ignored the dull clothes, a pair of sandals, and a frugal sack of bronze coins on the dirt ground and tried to push her way back into the brothel, but the servants warded her away. The other courtesans watched from the second and third floor, their expressions ranging between pity and disgust. A few were actually hiding smirks behind long sleeves, enjoying the drama. The head matron came out and looked completely unbothered by the woman's outburst.
"Oba-san! You can't treat me like this!" Asuka yelled, her chest heaving. "I'm Yeri's student! I'm one of the best, I'm better than-"
"You risked the security of the brothel for a taste of revenge, you short-sighted girl. I don't allow snitches to live under my roof," the head matron snapped. "You should be grateful that I didn't bid your first night for a last squeeze of money before tossing you out."
Asuka paled at the harsh words. "I just-I didn't mean for soldiers to come here-"
"Oh, do shut up," the granny barked. "You knew exactly what you were doing when you opened your cheap mouth to soldiers. I don't feed cheap mouths."
"Get out of my sight," the head matron commanded coldly. "You're a disgrace to this house."
Takumi had travelled outside of Kuuto exactly once in this life.
He was twelve years old the first time. He took a trip with a trusted merchant friend to sell wares that he'd invented and it had been a complete breath of fresh air. They didn't go far as it was only a day's travel from the city, but Takumi had thoroughly enjoyed every hour of it. Seeing a large village with his own eyes was very refreshing as well as meeting people outside of Kuuto. Takumi was fascinated by the lifestyle of those away from the capital as it was so foreign, so new, and interesting. The people in the country led a more straightforward lifestyle that revolved around community and security; Takumi appreciated the simplicity of it all as it was a stark contrast with the pomp and complexity of urban Kuuto.
On the way back, the merchant took a more scenic route to satiate Takumi's curiosity. They passed through a huge plain that had nothing. Takumi had been sorely tempted to just run away to see where his legs would take him; he wanted to see the limits of this world. There was a thrill in travelling out to the unknown where not a single sight of civilization could be spotted as far as the eye could see.
After that trip, Yeri forbade Takumi from venturing out of Kuuto until he was older. It was the first time that Takumi had felt frustrated by the constraints his mother placed on him. It was around his young adolescent years that Kuuto was beginning to feel small, a little too predictable, and a bit suffocating at times. He wanted to see something new, something that would challenge his perspectives, or anything that would simply surprise him. Even though he initially complained and huffed about Yeri's order, Takumi complied and patiently waited for the day he'd be able to leave on his own.
It seemed that the day had arrived earlier than expected.
He turned, checking on the girl behind him. Leaning on a tree trunk, the princess was gasping for breath and sweating profusely under her disheveled cloak. Takumi realized that he'd been pushing a hard pace ever since they went into the forest, ignoring the princess' physical condition.
He looked up at the sky and calculated it to be approximately half an hour past noon. They couldn't stop for breaks since they needed to gain as much distance as possible from Kuuto. The farther they were from the capital at the end of the day, the better their chances of thwarting the army once Soo-Won realizes that the princess couldn't be found anywhere.
"Keep up," he said gruffly and continued walking, but he slowed their pace to a leisurely gait. Yona didn't complain and caught up to him, taking deep breaths and wiping the sweat on her brow.
After a moment of silence, Takumi thought that he'd better explain the situation so that Yona would know what to expect in the near future.
"We're going to the Wind Tribe. The former chief will take care of you," he said. "If we come across any strangers or soldiers, pretend that you're my younger sister. Your name is 'Yebin', got it?"
Yona nodded quietly at his side.
The girl kept quiet their entire journey to Wind. Takumi believed that she was still in the middle of processing everything that had happened in the last few days: her birthday celebration which had been ruined by her cousin, her father's death, running away from the Red Palace, and now running away from the capital and seeking refuge elsewhere. She often stared into empty space when they rested and she'd trip over uneven ground and tree roots multiple times. If Takumi was next to her, he'd catch her, but if he was ahead, she hit the ground hard. Yona learned quickly that inattentiveness to her surroundings would result in eating dirt and began to be more alert as the hours of walking went on.
The mountainous terrain was arduous to climb once they got closer to the Wind Territory and Takumi could detect the thinning air as they escalated in sea level. Despite going through the toughest physical, mental, and emotional tolls she'd ever experienced in her life, Yona never threw a tantrum and followed Takumi's leads. The only time they exchanged words during their few days of travel was when Takumi notified Yona of breaks, hiding, and sleeping. There was only silence between them. Takumi could handle hours of quiet; it didn't strike him as awkward, nor did it seem to bother the princess, so he didn't give it much thought. He was fairly satisfied that the princess wasn't feeling chatty, however there was something else that was beginning to concern him.
A murmur began entering Takumi's ear.
It began as a passing whisper when they reached the mountains with just one tiny, small soft hum. Takumi didn't even notice it and passed off the auditory phenomenon as nature's background tune. With time, the soft hum was joined by several others that overlapped each other in tones, creating musical triads and the occasional discordant sound. Then the sounds eventually evolved into a more persistent and urgent volume of actual unintelligible voices talking as they got closer to the top of the mountain. At one point, Takumi had to take a momentary break to consider whether or not he'd finally lost his marbles; it was bound to happen at one point, maybe this was his breaking point? Yet, with some thought, he came to the conclusion that this was no normal occurence, but it involved something supernatural.
He couldn't understand what the voices were saying, but he could tell that they wanted his attention and were asking for a response. Takumi couldn't make out the words, nor did he want to understand exactly what the voices were trying to say to him because he had the suspicion that it was because of Yona.
He knew exactly to whom those voices belonged to and he had nothing to say to them.
He wanted nothing to do with them.
Takumi hoped that the voices would go away once he separated from the princess.
Behind him, he heard a hard 'thump'. The girl must've tripped again.
Takumi sighed and turned around, confirming that indeed, the princess was eating dirt. From his current point of view, she looked extremely pitiful; raggedy, tangled black hair covered her sweaty face, her hands grew grimy from constantly touching the earth, and the haggard expression hung on her face. For some reason, Yona didn't pick herself up this time. Takumi didn't make a motion to hold out a helping hand and stayed where he stood in front of her.
Yona's body trembled, perhaps from choking down tears. Takumi couldn't see her face, so he didn't know if she was actually crying. Something about the pathetic sight irritated him. It scratched at an unknown emotion deep inside, but he didn't know what it was.
"This isn't the time or place for tears. Save it until we get to Wind."
Yona slowly pulled herself up at Takumi's harsh words. Takumi checked her hands and knees to make sure that she hadn't cut herself and then continued walking forward.
After that, Yona didn't trip or fall again.
Former Chief Mun-Deok was an incredibly intimidating man.
The seasoned warrior took one look at Yona at the village gate and instantly recognized her. He also seemed to have the sense to detect that something was seriously wrong.
Under Mun-Deok's orders, two Wind girls discretely took Yona away so that she could wash up and rest as she had gone through a strenuous ordeal. In contrast, Takumi didn't have the luxury as the former Wind chief led him inside the Tribe, most likely for a briefing session.
Takumi sat stiffly in front of the former chief, extremely reluctant to be the bearer of bad news and nervous for the reaction. They were in the old man's study alone, so Takumi was very aware of Mun-Deok's heavy presence filling up the room. He could see how this man had been admired and feared for so long, standing up to par with the legendary Prince Yu-Hon. Mun-Deok's tall and sturdy stature along with his penetrating stare simply radiated power and commanded the attention of the people around him. Takumi was sure that the old chief could easily kill him with his bare hands.
With a dry mouth, Takumi recounted the events of the past week. Explaining how he'd been a simple soldier in the Sky Army, how he noticed the discrepancy of security rotations on the night of the princess' sixteenth birthday celebration, how Soo-Won killed the emperor, and how he ended up taking the princess out of the city. Though Takumi omitted several details, he didn't lie. Takumi believed that Mun-Deok wasn't the type to snitch nor did he seem welcome to liars, so Takumi chose to be honest. He didn't speak of his own interactions with Soo-Won, his relationship with the princess, or why he saved the girl, but Takumi was honest.
It helped that Mun-Deok took in everything calmly. It was clear that Mun-Deok didn't fully trust Takumi, which was fair, however it was already a bonus that the old man didn't kill Takumi on the spot. Takumi had brought great trouble to the doorstep of the Wind Tribe, but the former chief clearly wasn't bothered by that as he was more concerned with Yona's well-being. Mun-Deok would most likely believe everything when he confirms the details with Yona later.
Mun-Deok asked one last question before dismissing Takumi.
"What is your relationship with Yona-hime? No ordinary soldier would have thought so far ahead for a hunted princess."
Takumi held in a sigh. "I was just a soldier, sir. The princess took interest in me and invited me to tea often, that's all."
The answer didn't seem to satisfy Mun-Deok, but the old man didn't push the topic. The former chief would be able to get a better answer from Yona.
"You may rest here, but you will be kept under watch until I confirm the situation," Mun-Deok informed him. "Thank you for keeping the princess safe."
Takumi nodded before heading out, following a young Wind teenager who resembled Hak. It was a small hut, barely enough space for two people, but most importantly, it had a fluffy futon, pillow, and blanket on a clean, wooden floor. Takumi spent the quickest, most blissful fifteen minutes in the bathhouse where he scrubbed off the sweat and dirt of two days' travel. After the bath, Takumi went to his assigned hut, kicked off his sandals, and landed face first into the futon.
Finally, he thought to himself as he turned over to his back, revelling in the soft fabric of the blanket and cushion. His body and bones felt like they were soaked in exhaustion. Takumi knew that he had pushed himself these past few days, mentally, emotionally, and physically. The fatigue and stress was now taking its toll; Takumi had never travelled, so the pressure had been weighing on his shoulders during the entire journey. It was sheer luck and fortune that they hadn't encountered any trouble in their efforts to come here. And now that they were here in the Wind Tribe, Takumi could afford to relax a little.
A chance to rest.
Takumi couldn't sleep.
After kicking his blanket, rolling over multiple times, and feeling impatient with being unable to fall asleep, Takumi huffed and got up. He grabbed a robe that'd been given to him, a warm woven cloak, and pulled it over his shoulders as he stepped outside. He didn't stray far from his hut and wandered over to a large boulder to sit on. His breath frosted in the chilly night air. The weather was definitely colder in the mountainous terrain of the Wind Tribe, which was expected due to its high altitude.
Takumi looked up, marveling at the sight.
The bright white moon illuminated the night sky along with the thousands of shining stars. Takumi would usually appreciate the sight if it weren't for the cacophony of voices rushing through his ears at that moment.
Their words were no longer jumbled or muffled.
You are the twice-blessed soul, young child. Hear our voices, do not turn away from us-
-help us, special one-Help our king-
Protect the red dragon, Twice-Blessed, it is your calling-
O' child, seek our prophet, he is waiting for you-
Our Lord Hiryuu is here-
Takumi groaned, clutching his head.
He didn't want to hear any of this. He wanted nothing to do with the princess, the prophecy, or the dragons.
"Leave me alone," he muttered. "Just leave me alone, please."
Everyone, say bye-bye to Asuka.
Thank you all for the super thoughtful, kind reviews! I can't express how much they mean to me, and thank you for reading and being supportive :')