The hour was almost midnight. The shadows in the room wavered in the flickering firelight, dancing across the walls. On one wall, the darkest wall, they were converging on each other, growing darker, roiling around as if a violent storm were present in their very heart. They stretched, growing into the form of a man, taking on shape even as they convulsed. Flames darker than the blackest night burned where eyes should have been, and the mouth was a gaping maw of nothingness.

Standing, Shin walked over to the shadow-thing and knelt down on one knee, head bowed and right fist to heart as a sign of respect and obedience.

"Master," he said, addressing the creature.

"Arise, my servant," the thing hissed, though it's mouth did not move. "You need not fear my wrath tonight. I am in good spirits."

"All went well, then?" Shin asked, climbing to his feet but still keeping his eyes averted.

"Very well," the shadow thing answered, seeming to chuckle as he glided across the floor and took the seat the Councilor had recently vacated. "Your Empress has a strong heart, and a pretty figure besides. I will enjoy breaking her spirit. She will be another flower in my garden of night."

"And the young man?" Shin asked, gaze down-turned. "What do you wish us to do with him?"

"Leave him be for the moment. I want the empress to see his pain, and she is not even conscious at the moment."

"Yes master," Shin said.

"In fact," the thing continued, "I want you to let her see him. Just once. Let her hope for deliverance, so that when it all comes to an end, her grief will be even more complete."

"With all due respects, Master," Shin interrupted, "I'm not sure that is wise. I say this merely as a statement of fact and not as a boast, but the Imperial bloodline thrives in the most extreme difficulties, for that is when hidden strength surfaces. What does not kill them will only make them stronger."

"I am well aware of the abilities your empress possesses," the shadow thing hissed harshly. "I am insulted that you would think I would leave something so important undiscovered!"

"I apologize, Master," Shin said hastily, dropping to one knee again. "And I beg your forgiveness."

"Granted."

"And Master... might I ask what you plan to do with our country?" Shin asked hesitantly.

"We had an agreement, did we not?" the thing rasped. "The souls of your empress and all her court and council members in exchange for the throne. Do you not trust me, my servant?"

"Of course, Master."

"Then put your mind at ease," the shadow-thing said. "I have another task for you."

"Anything," Shin intoned, bowing down again.

"I need her child, be it male or female. Unfortunately, I cannot affect it so long as it remains innocent," the thing spat, as if the word 'innocent' tasted foul in his mouth. "As soon as it is born you will take it from her and raise it at my instruction. Do not let it be touched by another human being, not you, not the midwife, and ESPECIALLY not its mother! Do not educate it; let it grow up in ignorance. Do not coddle or pamper it; give it only the bare necessities. But above all else, do not love it and do not teach it to love; hate it, scorn it, hold it in disgust. Let it believe that the world is a cruel, unkind and unfair place, that it is not worthy of the love of another!"

Shin smiled grotesquely at the thought of his new task.

"Yes, Master," Shin said, seeming pleased with his new orders. "It shall be as you wish."

"Good," the thing ground out, almost smiling. "It is only a matter of time until my plans come to fruit. Now, I'm hungry...That servant girl you passed in the corridor, bring her to me. She is troubled by the thought of lost love. Her soul will be especially dark tonight, and just what I'm in the mood for."

*******

Aska awoke slowly, crawling out of the confines of sleep as if rising through water. A hand was gently bathing her forehead with a cool, wet cloth, while three familiar voices hummed a lullaby in harmony. The soft chinking of a pestle grinding in a mortar was barely audible over the music-making. It sounded more as if a siren was blaring and a sledgehammer was working away at the wall beside her. Her head was pounding in unparalleled pain, and for a moment Aska was sure her skull had split open.

Easing her eyes open and wincing at the light, Aska looked up into the face of her Aunt Jinna, who was kneeling beside her pallet on the floor.

Jinna's shade-lighter-than-black eyes lit up as her niece stirred. She stopped singing, the harmony loosing its sweet soprano voice.

"Hanna, quick," she called to her sister, who was grinding herbs with the mortar and pestle. "Bring over the anesthetic. She's waking up."

Hanna reached for a water-filled clay cup sitting beside her and tipped the herbal mixture into it. The drink frothed a little but did not spill over. Standing, she bustled over to sit beside the pallet, handing the cup to Jinna, who in turn handed it to Aska and helped her to sit up.

Linna sat grimly off to the side, watching over all proceedings with her eagle-eyed gaze while stitching furiously at her needlework

One single question tried to climb its way up through the melee of chaos that Aska's mind had become. She could not remember exactly what had happened to her, but she knew she was forgetting something terribly important. Absent-mindedly accepting the cup that was pressed into her hands, she raised it to her lips obediently. The rank smell wafting from the frothing liquid seemed to knock her senses back into place. For a while, she merely sat, letting the horrid scent work it's magic. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she nearly dropped the cup in her lap.

"What is this?" she asked, looking questioningly at Hana. Unfortunately, her throat was so sore and swollen form the chloroform that she had to repeat herself three times before one of her aunts finally understood her.

"Nothing that will hurt your precious child!" Linna said snidely, scowling at her niece in disgust as she moved closer, kneeling beside Hana.

Aska was tempted to tell Linna to watch her tone but the pounding in her head was too much, so she merely glared at her aunt before raising the cup to her mouth again. Once again she nearly dropped it.

"How do you know that I'm-" she began, only to be interrupted by Jinna.

"Councilor Lee informed us of your... condition," Jinna answered quietly, calmly, looking at her hands folded across her knees.

"And then he went on," Linna said indignantly, "in the most disrespectful manner, to tell us that we might attend you if we so wished, but should anything happen to you, good, bad, or otherwise, the three of us would be held responsible!"

Aska had always disliked Linna. Whether it was passing a law or choosing a new council member, Aska never did anything right in Linna's eyes. The woman always criticized her, never offered advice, and now looked down on her with utter distaste.

"Now Linna," Hana said, smiling at Aska in a motherly manner. "The poor darling has been through so much today, and she doesn't need you harping on her!" Turning to Aska, she smoothed the bangs out of her niece's eyes and motioned for her to drink from the cup she still held. "Now dear, you just gulp this down, hmm? It'll help your throat, and keep you head from aching."

Although Aska simply adored Hana (it was hard to dislike a woman who read to you when you were supposed to be studying), but sometimes it was aggravating to be treated like a seven year-old when you were in fact seventeen. However, Hana's sweet, sunshiny demeanor made it impossible to stay mad at her. To Aska she seemed to be the archetypal Earth Mother. From her nurturing spirit and knowledge of medicine, to large breasts and hips that promised healthy children, Hana oozed motherly tendencies from every pore in her body.

Aska's train of thought was cut off, as Hana became impatient and motioned again for her to drink.

Steeling her nerves, Aska raised the cup to her lips and drank it down in three gulps. The barley in the mixture left a bitter aftertaste on her tongue, making her wish another cup of water were at hand.

"Now, that wasn't so bad," Hana said, smiling sweetly. "Now darling, why don't you get some rest and just let us-"

"Is Sang Yung alright?" Aska asked softly, finally managing the courage to ask the question her entire world depended on. Her eyes clouded with tears as she continued, needing an answer with all her heart and dreading it just the same. "He's not.... He's not d-dead... Is he?"

Jinna glanced at Hana and Linna before shaking her head.

"No... No, he's alright." Jinna answered slowly. "Bruised to the bone in some places, but other than that he's still very much alive. For now. The council is reluctant to set an execution date without a trial first, but Councilor Lee doesn't seem to want to give him the benefit of a fair trial."

Aska nodded absently, her mind registering nothing but the fact that Sang Yung was still alive.

Jinna continued, not noticing her niece's indifference. "We need to discuss your current situation, Aska. You have a large bit of explaining to do, not only to us, but to your council as well! When did things change between you and Sang Yung? What happened?!"

"What usually happens between a man and a woman alone in eachother's presence?" Aska responded tartly, knowing the effect it would have on her aunt's temper, but not really caring at the moment.

"Don't play games with me, child!" Jinna said, sitting up straighter, her eyes smoldering at the snide remark. "You know full well what I meant! You don't seem to understand the implications of the crime you have committed! We promised your mother, on her deathbed! that we would raise you appropriately. Do you know what it is like for me? For the three of us! To have our last of kin dying before us, her final words a request to her sisters, and to sit here now and know we have failed her?! Have you any idea the shame in my heart at the mere THOUGHT of what lies inside your body?!"

Turning her head, Aska looked sharply at her aunt. "Do not patronize me Jinna," she said calmly. "I'm in no mood to be lectured."

"I don't care what kind of mood you're in!" Jinna said, almost shouting as her anger flared. "Why can't you see what you've done?! Passion has a price, one that can only be paid in blood! Sang Yung's blood, Aska! That is the price! His blood and your child's! And if you don't give them up willingly, your blood as well!"

Angry tears marked their trails down Aska's cheeks as she rounded on her aunt.

"Don't you dare even suggest to me that I give them up without a fight! What kind of love would that be, if I valued my own life above his and our child's?! If we can only be together in death, than so be it!"

Hana gasped audibly at this, hands flying to cover her mouth.

"Aska..." Jinna said uncertainly, surprised by the conviction in her niece's voice.

"I can't live without him, Jinna." Aska said softly. "It's as simple as that."

"So be it," Jinna said stiffly, her eyes as cold as ice. "Then all we can do is wait for Lee to make the next move. I'm sure it is only a matter of time."

*****

Sunlight trickled in through one tiny window, barely enough for Sang Yung to see by. He lay on his back in his cell, trying his best to avoid pressing his bruised flesh into the stone. There was no cot down here, not a single blanket, not even a pile of straw.

The stone was cold beneath his back. He had been stripped of his jacket; an action typical of less-than-trustworthy guards -it had been one of his finest- and his shirt stuck to him uncomfortably, though whether with sweat or blood, he could not find out. Moving caused too much pain, and his head was aching dully from the numerous blows he had received.

The fact that his cell had a window was a promising sign. He had not been assigned a cell deep underground, where he could be "forgotten" by the person who was supposed to keep him fed and watered. Of course, the fact that he had committed one of the most forbidden crimes in the history of their society was not something he could be led to think they would dismiss so easily. He somehow knew that he was supposed to feel at ease here, and that the absence of cot and straw was a poor attempt to disguise the actual intentions.

And yet, those two thoughts did not match up like they should have.

His head began to ache again as he tried to think more deeply, so he left that thread unfinished and turned his mind to the simpler, more urgent matters pressing on his conscience: what had happened to Aska? Was she hurt? The mere thought of anyone inflicting even the tiniest harm upon her brought to surface an almost animalistic rage unlike anything Sang Yung had felt before. Anyone who harmed such an angel was surely meant for damnation, and he had no doubt of the end that destiny had in store for Lee, Lum-Lum, and all their traitorous guards. Were he able to sit up, he would have been beating at the bars of his cell, however vain the attempt might have been.

His wounds would heal, and he would find a way to make everything right, just as he had promised Aska. Everything would be all right. It was just a matter of time.

End Chapter 4

Well, this took a damn long time! I'm really sorry folks, but the end of this doesn't look to be in sight. I just haven't been in a MKR mood lately. I'm still trying to finish this, but don't expect too much…. Oy, if only I could just finish what I start! Thanks to all the great people who reviewed! Your comments were much appreciated.