"Are you that excited to step down from your post, that you have arrived to the palace early this morning?"
That was the first thing King Sejong said as soon as the young war minister appeared before the elevated throne. He was glad to see him back—in one piece and in good health—however, he still was filled with wonderment to see that Yoo Si Jin arrived too soon; the king was at his banquet when court ladies mentioned about three people arriving all of a sudden, looking for him.
Si Jin likewise had only realized his arrival was indeed too early when he saw the only people in the throne hall was the King, two of his advisers, and himself; normally, when a minister steps down from his position, the rest of the Yukjo would be witnessing alongside the hall.
"Have I disturbed you, Your Majesty?" Si Jin asked, and though his sudden arrival did disturb him from taking a first bite of his breakfast, the King shook his head in reply.
"Well, regardless of you coming early or not, the mere thought of you being present before the throne would mean you have made a decision,"
"Then make it known at once. This shall take place, regardless of who witnesses,"
Hearing the King's order, Yoo Si Jin slowly got down on one of his knees in front of him, "I come before the throne to formally step down from my position, just as we have discussed before, Jeonha,"
There was a deafening silence between them as Yoo Si Jin knelt with his head down. He waited until the king could give his response.
"If it has been a prior arrangement on which I have given my approval, then it shall be granted. From now on, you, Yoo Si Jin, will no longer be the Ministry of Defense of this land," King Sejong declared, raising his right hand and pointing it towards the minister. "Your dismissal is of just reason, and therefore your honor and dignity both as a soldier and as a man remain in tact. For what reason would your retirement tarnish your family's honor, since you have served and protected the country despite your ailing body? This shall be made known at the Yukjo gathering wherin you shall no longer take part of,"
Si Jin nodded willingly. "So shall it happen," he said as he lifted his head, and the king gave him a look of disbelief.
Right. Something came into his mind.
"I have also come to appeal of my betrothal to the princess," Si Jin reminded the king, since he looked like he missed that part, "Just as we have talked about,"
"We have talked about it, indeed. But I never gave you my approval,"
"Then shall you bestow it upon me?"
The king smirked, "You know how I would answer that. I have the power to bestow it, however, your decision and my power would affect her greatly,"
The young man stood up from where he knelt, confused at the King's answer, "Would you not grant it then?"
"Would it be right if I did? I could not simply cut the ties after seeing the princess live her life in the palace," King Sejong went on, while Si Jin kept silent, curious and eager to listen, "Over the past season, she doted on you from afar. The first time she appeared before me, her hands were stained with soil as she carried with her shrubs of hawthorn. Months later, she transformed her flower garden into a botanical source of medicine, sending parcels of those leaves to where you were stationed. She has been hurting so long. You brought her back, but still you choose to leave her. Do you still want to sever your betrothal and see her suffer?"
Si Jin averted his gaze, "I'm trying to protect her,"
"Yoo Si Jin," King spoke, "I know nothing about your views on protecting the princess, except for the truth that it is not working. You saved her, and yet she still suffers. Have you not told me you loved my daughter?"
He could only keep his head down as the King's words hit him; he knew she suffered, and it was a fact she suffered because she clung onto him.
"I am sorry I have not met your expectations, Jeonha. All I wanted was what was best for your daughter, and I thought she does not deserve to spend her long life with a dying man--"
"Do you now start measuring your worth with the years of your span?" The King raised, seemingly peeved at Si Jin's persistence to withdraw.
"Shouldn't that be something to consider?"
"This is not for me to decide, young lad. I may lift up and bring down the laws of this land, but I shall never interfere with my lost daughter's will,"
Si Jin could hear the king's footsteps descend from the throne and approching him little by little. Soon later, he could see his dark footwear pointed towards him as he kept his head down.
"You once said you had to save her because she trusted no one but you," King Sejong stated as he stood before him, "Then you shall handle this decision if she trusts you that much. We'll see who convinces who, and whatever comes out from your agreement, then I shall support it,"
Among all options, he avoided this the most; it could have been easy if the King interfered, since she would be forced to obey, and he could go freely. But still...
Si Jin had to lower his head to hide his frustration, "Then it shall happen, Jeonha,"
Though he hated confronting her about letting go, he had to since the King did not give him his approval. He tried to avoid this at all costs, thinking that it would emotionally scar her more than it would when she only hears it from her father. However, the odds weren't on his side at that moment, and Si Jin had to face what he least expected to happen.
He disliked confronting her, but he absolutely had no other choice. What else could he do? If he wants to keep Mo Yeon safe from him, then he has to find another way to break it to her without breaking her heart again.
Si Jin thereafter bowed respectfully to the King as soon as he was convinced enough of his fate, "I shall leave now," He said sternly before turning around and walking further towards the gate, but before he could exit the hall completely, King Sejong called his attention, making him turn around to face him again.
"You have to know that I am still rooting for you to be her consort," He said to Si Jin, "And I hope and pray she convinces you to stay more than you would convince her to forget you,"
Left with no other words to say, Si Jin nodded and walked away from the hall and down towards the concrete pavements outside, where he was greeted by the presence of Kang Mo Yeon. She had been waiting for him, along with two of her court ladies. Once he caught sight of her, he stopped walking, unsure whether it was about time he told her or not, but before he could even act, she already began to speak.
"Will you walk with me?" Mo Yeon asked him, "Just the two of us,"
Hearing that, her court ladies bowed down and padded away, leaving the princess alone with the young man. "Follow me," She then said before turning away, and Si Jin followed her from behind; she thought he wouldn't, but her heart felt relieved when she heard his footwear brushing on the pavement as he trailed a few meters behind her. After minutes of walking silently around the palace courts, they ended up standing at the balcony of her quarters. Court ladies who were waiting from inside opened the door for them, and soon later walked out from the place to give them privacy, just as the princess had asked of them to do. She continued walking further in, leading him to the holding room where she once had spoken to his father. As they settled, silence crept in and lingered on for so long that it seemed deafening.
The peaceful torment ended when she began to speak.
"You've got something to tell me, don't you?" That made him look towards her uneasy expression.
"What would that be?"
"You know about it. You retired," She pointed out, "Are you pushing me away once more?"
Si Jin sighed, "Were you eavesdropping, that's why you appeared outside all of a sudden?" He asked her, but she did not answer his question.
"Why would you tell me that you missed me when you're going to leave in the end?"
"Would it be wrong to say that? I said that I missed you. If I have to miss you forever, then let it be," He sounded too serious as he spoke, and it felt like he meant everything he said to her. Mo Yeon felt him trying to slip away from her grasp.
"I don't want you to do that, Yoo Si Jin-ssi," She felt like crying, and Si Jin could only stare as she began to break down. Who was he to tell her to stop crying? He would be a jerk to say such words.
His eyes gazed down, trying to compose his mind; just as the King had spoken, if Si Jin plans to keep her away, it would already be all up to him alone.
"Is it because you're dying? It's that, isn't it?" She asked again, but he did not answer, "I had a talk with your father, at this very place. I've talked to him before back when you were on a mission. He told me everything,"
He looked up to meet her gaze, "Did he tell you everything?"
"I deserved to know," Mo Yeon asserted, and Si Jin could no longer fight that. He knew he could not blame his father for telling her everything, in fact he thought he should be thankful his father interfered in doing what he knew he couldn't do. She did deserve to know.
She deserved to know more, Yoo Si Jin thought.
"I was given barely half a decade to live when traces of it began to show...that was five years ago. I'm already past my time. Nothing is certain, so I wanted to end my life instantly," Si Jin told her, while she kept silent, "I stressed myself out. I did not take any form of medication. Cutting ties with people, not wanting any commitments were among the many things I did as a hobby. I tried to help others, seeing that I can no longer help my own. When I lost control, that was when you came,"
The time when his friends brought an unconscious minister at the health center downtown. She remembered everything.
"I thought I could just keep you at arm's length, but you've somehow filled a gap. Whether you were the princess or not, I was deeply convinced that I have been searching for you. You," Si Jin went on, "I have missed you that long. I could still miss you, I can go a long way after this conversation,"
"Don't do that," She croaked.
"I won't do it, it's going to be for you to decide,"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm giving you the chance to leave me. You can save yourself," He mentioned as he took things slow, trying his very best to make things even more comprehendible on her end, "I'm finally saying this, and I'm giving you a choice, rather than let things go my way. Otherwise you are in it for the long haul,"
It somehow felt more disheartening on Si Jin's part that he had to convince her of something he clearly knew they both did not want, and the worse thing was that he was crossing his fingers she would be convinced. "Tell me your decision," He hoped she would say she'll leave.
But she did not.
Mo Yeon gave him her answer by leaning forward towards him and wrapping her arms around his waist once more, just as she did earlier that day. She pulled herself towards him, making her head rest on his warm chest; the intimacy, the closeness made her feel as though the small room they stayed in was vast.
Then, in the silence, in Si Jin's speechlessness, Mo Yeon can hear the faint, inconsistent beating of his heart as her ear pressed near it. It skipped, it slowed down, and it paced up. There was no rhythm to it at all. This is what's killing him, she said at the back of her mind, while she placed her hand above his chest.
She was finally witnessing the most vulnerable part of him, and it somehow helped her clear the fog in her head; though she hated him keeping things from her, she understood now why he had do to so. Many months before, she had an idea that something was off with this man, and after a month, she found out he had been hiding his illness from her--something she never knew was this grave.
"I've got to push you away because I've got to. Wherever I am, you are not safe. Can't you see what has gotten in your life since I got involved?"
She remembered hearing those words from him the night before her capture. "You're not telling this,"
"Kang Mo Yeon-ssi...Princess...whatever, there are things we have to leave as secret," Si Jin replied, "I have my own reasons why I do the things that could hurt you, but it is only because I do not want you to get involved anymore,"
"What, is this another 'covert operation' you can't seem to tell me? Or