It was dawn.
The air was crisp; not even the slightest gush of wind can be felt brushing against one's skin, but it was extremely cold until the sun began to rise up behind the mountains. The horses went on galloping past the thick snow that grazed the hilly plains of the Northeast. Thankfully, the whole travel to their location was smooth, which made it less tedious and challenging for Seo Dae Young and his men to travel East. He and the group still had two more regiment camps to visit before he could finally get back home, back to his wife and his friends.
"How far do we have until we arrive to the next location?" The leader of the group turned towards Ahn Jung Joon, the horseman closest behind him, "Is it possible that we arrive before noon?"
"Most likely," Soldier Ahn was quick to reply.
"Do you want to lead the way?"
"If you will me to, then I will, Byeongjo," Ahn Jung Joon immediately swerved his horse a little to the side while Dae Young controlled his speed for the other to advance. Their linear form spread to a thin triangle as they travelled, where Ahn Jung Joon and Seo Dae Young were the body, while the three other soldiers, Choi Woo Geun, Im Gwang Nam and Gong Cheol Ho, spread out from behind. With this, the air easily broke along their way, and they sped up efficiently.
As they darted past the plains, Seo Dae Young began to see the soft rays of the sun before them, slowly rising above the tall mountains. It bled the sky orange and red amidst the dark blue. Clearly, it was a beautiful sight to see.
He followed one ray of it to where it stretched and as his head turned to the right, he saw an image of a man riding alongside his steed.
Dae Young crinkled and squinted his eyes to clear it away, but as the ray of light shone stronger, the image became clearer. Even more visible. The way the man rode his horse in a poised bearing, with one hand on the halters and the other waving towards his direction.
It was Yoo Si Jin, and he was riding beside him.
The man was on his horse, wearing his favorite dark-blue hanbok, as well as the same cocky smile that was always plastered on his face. He had his bow and his arrows behind him on a sling, and his sword hung on his waist.
Dae Young made a surprised smile seeing his dear friend; how he loved seeing Si Jin this bright and active and as fresh as the morning sun. He looked free, riding on the plains and with the crisp air the way he always dreamed of doing. It was exactly the way he described it to him even way back their childhood years.
"Aish! Seo Dae Young, you're slow as always!" Si Jin yelled at him jokingly as he sped up before him, and eventually forward. Right when the sun rose a few distances higher, the blinding rays were gone, and so was he.
That moment dulled the soldier. Slowly, he began to pull on his halter and the galloping of his horse slowed down.
"Byeongjo, you're not keeping up with the pace," Soldier Im Gwang Nam, who was directly behind him, voiced out. Everyone in the group were slowing down while Ahn Jung Joon was already way ahead because of Dae Young lagging the rest of the group behind.
"Is everything alright?" Choi-gunkwan added.
Dae Young blinked and quickly nodded, "It's nothing to be fussing about. I am alright. I guess I'm just seeing things," He replied while whipping his horse to a faster pace, "The sun was too bright and distracting, that is all,"
The others were still curious and worried. "Should we take a rest?"
"No, we should go,"
"We'll follow after you, Byeongjo," Soldier Choi replied while picking up the ride's pace along with the others and continued on travelling to the Eastern borders of the kingdom. They all had their thick coats to guard and shield them from the cold dawn until the day was warm enough for them to take it off. The sun was exactly above the peak of the mountains, and at the same time, the soldiers have just arrived at the barracks.
When their horses' galloping shifted slowly as they approached the regiment's territory, Dae Young could see figures scampering outside even from afar. They saw every soldier of the regiment barracks were going outside to welcome them--all of them standing in orderly set of lines.
"They must have been informed by the other regiments of our arrival," Jung Joon remarked as they slowed down to the paddock area, where each of them left their horses inside. The group of soldiers went out and walked towards the regiment's direction; all five men were astounded at how the huge group of soldiers stood reverently before them despite the cold. As they closed in, he noticed how each of their faces had the same solemn, sullen expressions. Everyone were silent. Other than the sound of the soft brushing of tree branches and the clanking of the blacksmith from a distance, everything else was still.
As they closed in, he noticed how each of them wore solemn, sullen looks. Every soldier bowed before him upon arrival, and soon later began to stand at ease. Even Soldiers Im, Gong and Choi were amazed at the regiment's discipline.
Soldiers usually slack off at dawn, Dae Young walked towards them, "Have you heard of my arrival before I've set foot in your area?" He asked the commanding officer of the regiment, easily distinguished by the different war uniform he used. It took the officer a few silent glances to and fro before he could give a response.
"Ani, Byeongjo," He bowed down, "However, if you came all the way from your home with a news, we would have known already,"
Dae Young cocked his head to the side, "I disagree. We travelled to take care of the reshuffling assignments, not to do plain messenger work,"
The commanding officer looked up with curious, yet sad-looking eyes. His voice croaked as he talked with an obvious aching in his chest. Seo Dae Young knew the possible reason for this, and even if he knew there was a tremendous chance that it could be, he put the thought off. He didn't want to entertain it, neither think about it.
But then, he heard it. The words pierced. His heart broke.
"Have you not known, Byeongjo? Daegam Yoo Si Jin..."
"...passed away early this morning,"
Dae Young paused, just as his entire world did. He felt his knees lose their strength, and his fingertips get pierced by the news he had been dreading to hear. Had he not been aware of all these sudden physical weaknesses, he would have got down on bended knees in an instant.
"He's...gone," The officer bowed down, "The great young minister, your predecessor, he has taken his rest,"
Behind the regiment's commanding officer were the other soldiers who took their hats off. Dae Young found their act convincing, making the news truer and unfeigned with the grieving expression they all exhibited. They too respected the retired young minister, and were deeply saddened by the news.
But Dae Young wasn't letting all of these sink in.
"It can't be. Yoo Si Jin was doing fine just before me and my men were deployed," Dae Young voice cracked as he clenched his fists, forcing his tears inside. He was denying every ounce of truth being shoved at him because it was too soon, "It can't be true,"
"A messenger from the city came to this regiment earlier in the morning, just before daybreak—"
"I came here to check on the barracks' performance, as well as change assignments of some soldiers," Dae Young forced, "I wouldn't have travelled all the way just to hear this from you,"
"Retract your words. Retract them!" Dae Young was already being consumed by sadness, and his tears, no matter how hard he kept them in, began to fall from his eyes.
"Mianhe," The regiment officer solemnly spoke with his head still down. Everyone was devastated, but everyone also knew that among all of them who stood outside in the cold, it was Seo Dae Young who had been scarred the most. He has been the previous war minister's protégé and dearest friend, and now that one of them was gone, it was simply difficult for the other to carry on.
Despite that, Dae Young had a strong conviction for duty—just as how Si Jin exemplified back when he was in his place. He knew he had to fulfill his tasks and he had put the kingdom first before his own life; he knew Si Jin would have wanted him to fulfill his tasks than to mourn in the middle of excursion, "I have brought Yoo Si Jin's well greetings to everyone, before I headed out. He wished everyone well," He cleared his throat and spoke to them, and the commanding officer bowed in respect, along with the rest of the soldiers, "It is...the last thing you will ever hear from him,"
Their stay did not last that long; everyone weren't in their usual, active and alert selves since the news arrived. Seo Dae Young and his men got back on their horses as soon as the regiment roster was submitted to them by its officers, and they fled the place immediately. Everybody had the same groupthink, and that was to return home as soon as possible.
Seo Dae Young led the others during the journey, speeding up meters past them because he did not want any of those soldiers to see him this broken. He was whipping the horse twice as much, making him speed past forests and plains quicker than earlier.
Mianhe, Yoo Si Jin.
Behind the silence of his mind's core was a mourning soldier.
I was slow.
I was very slow.
That same time of the day, as the sun's rays began to touch her husband's pale face, Kang Mo Yeon knew she would be led out of his room soon.
The house's patriarch Yoo Young Geun, Yoon Myung Joo, and her father Yoon Gil Joon had shown up earlier that morning to get one last look, but even after they have left, Mo Yeon remained there by Si Jin's side. She wanted nothing else in this world but to be with him at his last and beyond it, and everybody respected her decision. When she requested to give her until morning to be with him, Myung Joo and the other resident physicians agreed, but placed a talisman at the back hem of her jeogori before leaving.
Mo Yeon knew that it was safe to say that she was the last person Si Jin saw. Myung Joo would come and visit them in intervals, and he would respond but he never opened his eyes. He never dared to, or perhaps he was just already too tired to lit both lids up. Throughout the night, and throughout his most difficult moments when his breath would hitch and he would sweat out his pain or even cry his tears silently, she held onto him, whispered how much she loved him and how she would continue on doing so, until he finally stopped breathing.
He was not a mess when he died. When his time came, it was as if Yoo Si Jin knew that it was finally time to let it all go. Peaceful in his bed, he died in his sleep.
The sun's light was spreading to the sheets of his blanket in no time. Mo Yeon looked at him once again, his body stiff and motionless in the comfort of his deathbed. His face was pale, his lips chapped and dry, but to her, he was still beautiful. The sides of his forehead down to his cheeks were still damp and moist with the traces of his tears.
"Yoo Si Jin-ssi, I'm still here," She whispered this line a thousand times since his last breath, while she reached for his cold hands. They weren't as swollen as they were during the past few days, but the dark patches and bruises of endless punctures were still splayed up to his arms. Nonetheless, he was still beautiful to her.
There were no more tears to weep; even if she tried to, and even if she would will herself to, there was simply nothing. She had cried everything out before dawn.
The door of his office suddenly creaked open. Alarmed, Kang Mo Yeon quickly looked towards it and saw Yoon Myung Joo in her most remorseful expression.
"I am very sorry," she had been apologizing the entire night, "The shaman and her apprentices have arrived. They will be taking his body soon,"
Mo Yeon made a slow, reserved nod.
"I'll leave in a moment,"
Myung Joo bowed at her reply and exited the room quietly, giving Kang Mo Yeon ample time alone with her husband once again. As soon as she was certain she had the room for herself once more, she glanced back at Si Jin.
She quickly held up his hand with both of hers, and noticed that she still had the emerald garakji rings on each hand--the pair of rings he gave her, the first gifts of a husband to his wife. Mo Yeon removed one of them out from her finger and wore it on Si Jin's ring finger. It fit him just right.
"I'll wait for you," She kissed his hand