A/N: For the sake of not having to overhaul the characterisation I had in mind for Soo-won, I will be proceeding this fic with my personal headcanons about the events prior to the storyline (which are now being disclosed in the manga and giving me endless pain sobs). My other fic, Before Daybreak, will likely be more canon compliant in this regard.
As this is a transitional chapter, like the last, it's a bit on the shorter side.
Before the new dawn settles
It starts slowly.
The pieces trickle into place, one by one by one, gradually building up a semblance of an image. And, finally, when everything seems to have fit into place perfectly - it shatters.
To his comprehension, Princess Aeri is weak.
She boasts all the connections and capabilities Earth and Water's most trusted give her, and yet when her authority truly comes into question none of that matters. The Earth Tribe General values strength and a warlord king. The Water Tribe General wishes for the ascension of Prince Ju-nam's kin. The Wind Tribe is powerless and it will always choose the First Princess over the Second.
If Soo-won wishes to lay his claim to the throne, Princess Aeri will not be an obstacle in his path.
At least, she shouldn't be.
It's all he can do to remind himself of that fact when suddenly her presence is so large. Everywhere in the castle it lingers, a taunting reminder of how King Il's bloodline will never die (because he can never kill Yona, even if she puts a noose around his neck, because he chose this guilt and it will haunt him forever, and isn't that just lovely, caring for the daughter of his father's murderer more than his own life) and even if, through some chance, through some slip of fate he could be compelled to drive a blade through Aeri's heart - he couldn't.
Earth and Water and Wind will only overlook so many wrongs, so many unanswered questions. King Il is-was held with no high regard. Princess Aeri commands the affection of General Geun-tae the way a demanding niece would, and the respect of General Joon-gi the way a saviour would. Earth's next General and Water's best doctor consider her a close friend despite the years between them. And, worst of all - she's the only one he's ever known to command the unwavering faith of a Fire Tribe noble.
Soo-won cannot erase Princess Aeri from his scheme for the crown and that shouldn't matter, because Aeri bears no such ambitions. And yet, with her sister lost to her most trusted's betrayal and her father's corpse six feet under with hardly a funeral befitting a royal, much less a king - and yet, Aeri has never seemed more threatening.
"Then, you are claiming," she says, looking between him and Kye-sook, "that the King was murdered in his bedchamber by his most loyal servant, who then proceeded to kidnap his beloved master, and the first to discover this was an outsider's troops?"
"An outsider? How dare-"
"Soo-won," she cuts in. "Is that what you are claiming?"
He thinks back to the start of their web of lies and he wonders where he went wrong. It started out fine. He knew his story better than he knew the truth from all the times he rehearsed it in his mind, the controlled grief replacing the guilt he can't help but feel. Not for King Il - never for the King. But for Yona and Hak, he held no contempt, no inextinguishable hatred or lust for revenge. Circumstance alone drove him to the fate that befell them and he can't help but regret. And, should even a speck of it break into his features, he knows Aeri will notice. So, he is careful.
Not careful enough, he thinks, as her gaze darkens with doubt. Where did he go wrong? King Il is dead, that much is obvious. Hak killed him-
Oh. Of course.
Aeri would never believe that.
Her grief dissolves within seconds upon being confronted by his bare-faced lie. A surge of anger draws her to her feet and suddenly nothing he says matters. Soo-won is vividly aware of the fact that he has made a mistake.
He closes his eyes and wonders what could happen if he told her the truth. Your father killed his brother the same way he is killing the kingdom. Would she even care? Princess Aeri holds faith as blind as her sister's when it comes to her father, even with all that she must know of Fire and Water and Earth's degrading situations. This is for the sake of Kouka. In this very moment, does that even matter?
No. Aeri cares that her father is dead, her sister is missing, and her friend is being framed. Kings and crowns and titles don't mean anything to her and that means Aeri is not an obstacle in his path to the throne, but it also means the moment Yona stumbled upon him with a sword through the King's heart, Aeri became the biggest threat to his plans.
Soo-won has made a severe miscalculation and it's already coming around to bite him.
So, he smiles, a sad, understanding smile, and knows she doesn't believe it for a second. "I understand this situation is difficult for you to accept, Princess. I wouldn't have believed it either, had I not been there to witness it. But the fact is that General Hak has betrayed the King and escaped with Princess Yona."
This is it, he thinks, meeting her eyes and seeing nothing but anger reflected in them. He very nearly flinches when it dissipates in the next moment and a cold, unfeeling civility replaces it.
Nothing more is said. She turns and leaves.
(The silence hangs heavy in the air long after, even as it splits and chases after her. Though he would never admit it, would never dare to even hope it - he had thought, maybe, he'd still have an ally within his bloodline. That Aeri, who mingled with those within and beyond the palace, who witnessed the downfalls of the King personally, who cared for Kouka and its people... would understand.
Of course not.)
"It's been a while."
Sang-chul winces at the familiar voice.
"A month, actually," Hwan corrects.
"Three if we ignore that chance meeting in the hall that one time," Aeri says. "And I hardly think that one counts."
"Ah. That's fair."
Aeri smiles. Sang-chul can't look her in the eye long enough to read the threat in it. What a shame. "How have you been? It really is terribly sad that we haven't been able to meet as often lately."
Out of excuses to stay silent, he raises his head and shows a nervous smile, only for it to fall off the moment he really sees her. "It... has. I apologise."
"For what?" she says, almost casually. "Abandoning your position? Failing to report to your master? Lying to my face?" Her voice turns sharp. "Or was there something else?"
"I... I apologise."
"As you should." She scowls at him, at the way he stares at the ground instead of at her, at the way guilt of all things clings to him like a second skin. She doesn't need Sun-hui to tell her exactly what his lack of answers implies. "Whatever. If you're going to pull a vanishing act, you could at least commit to it."
She brushes past him and continues on her way.
Something is coming, Soo-won thinks. He thinks it again and again and again, those dreadful three words accompanied by an incessant doubt. He takes hold of the castle and grabs on tight; those loyal to him increase by the day, and the late King's trusted find themselves at the wrong end of the castle gates. It's almost time to bring the other tribes into the fold.
But, he can't shake the feeling that something is coming and it won't be good.