As Joohyun is thrown to her knees in her father’s once familiar throne room, she wonders what song Seungwan would be singing if she was still alive. Her cheek is cold against the burnished floor and when she tries to rise from her prostrated position with as much dignity as she can muster, blood fills . She runs her grimy hands over her light blue silks which are filthy with the grime of the prison floor she’d been sleeping on for the past few days.
Waiting for her death sentence. Maybe even looking forward to it.
Maintaining her composure, Joohyun lifts her head and stares up at the soldier who stands before her. The woman is slight, her ornate helmet under her arm almost bulky. The iron plating of the armor is elaborate with gold dragons twisting around each shoulder and winding across the plate with splashes of drying blood.
Joohyun has never seen Shilla battle armor so close before. The emissaries that had visited the palace never were allowed to don their full war regalia. When she was a little girl she had asked her father where were the soldiers that had been giving her father headaches with border skirmishes that kept him away from the palace. Laughing in amusement, her father had whispered how it would be impolite for a soldier to come to a diplomatic meeting dressed for murder. Joohyun supposes that it must be a relief for the soldiers to show their true murderous intentions at last.
“Princess,” the woman says, her voice surprisingly deep. Joohyun simply continues to stare ahead, despite the prodding of another soldier’s spear against her side.
“You wench! Speak to the Captain!”
Joohyun ignores the harsh words, continuing to glare defiantly ahead. Seungwan had teasingly told her once that Bae Joohyun’s stubbornness was unmatched by anyone in the Three Kingdoms.
“You are not afraid,” the woman observes simply as she moves forward, her boots almost silent against the burnished floors of a once magnificent palace. She’s standing right in front of Joohyun now. Her dark hair tied, back and fastened by a dark ribbon, falls over the iron collar of her armor. Joohyun barely hides her flinch when the soldier takes a knee and is so close that she can see the way the light makes the other woman’s eyes gleam like the amber earrings her younger sister once had.
“How can I be afraid when the Tang soldiers have already torn this city apart?”
The soldier’s jaw clenches, eyes narrowing at Joohyun’s voice.
“They intend to raze the capital to the ground. We tried to come to you before that happened.”
“How noble. Shilla finally comes to help us against the Tang after hundreds of years of our sole effort.”
The women tilts her head, exhaling sharply. And then two things happen at once.
Joohyun strikes, the shiv she’d made from a broken ivory comb aimed for the soldier’s throat. But at the same moment the woman lunges forward, close enough that Joohyun can smell the blood and sweat clinging to her like a rancid perfume. She carefully hides Joohyun’s knife in a strong palm, concealing the weapon against the folds of her armor. The soldiers around them laugh, curious about what their captain is about to do.
“Not like this. You shouldn’t die like this,” is whispered harshly against her ear. Joohyun’s cheek aches from where it rubs against the sharp edge of the soldier’s shoulder plates.
“You dare to tell me how I should live or die?”
The soldier leans back a little onto her ankles, their only point of contact being the shiv. Joohyun glances down and sees the blood trickling out of the woman’s tight grip.
“Shilla and Koguryeo may have differences but we come from the same blood of Tangun when he came from the sacred Baekdu mountains. The crown prince refuses to let the entire kingdom crumble because of a grudge between Koguryeo and Tang.”
“You seemed fine with waiting while our soldiers died in the border skirmishes protecting Tang’s entry into the south.”
“I am in no place to debate politics, Princess. I simply wish to follow my prince’s orders and keep you alive. Not as an unfortunate casualty.”
Joohyun jaw twitches and she glances around at the small group of Shilla soldiers who seem ready to strike at a moment’s notice. She looks the woman right in her eyes, ignoring how close they are.
“If I don’t die by your hand then I die in the hands of the Tang empire. I do not know which is worse.”
“And if I can promise you life?”
Joohyun thinks briefly of Seungwan’s smile, her beautiful voice filling the palace courtyard in the middle of an extravagant feast. Her nimble fingers had danced across the geomungo as she sang in a beautifully clear voice that Joohyun can still faintly hear with her eyes closed. Is Seungwan still singing somewhere far away, she thinks with barely contained longing.
“You think I would want to live in a world where everyone I love is dead?”
“Your father is still alive. Tang holds him hostage to prevent complete chaos in Koguryeo.”
“My father and I… we are the last, aren’t we?”
The soldier says nothing and Joohyun loosens her grip on the shiv, falling heavily back on her ankles. She barely catches the other woman quickly slipping the shiv under her armor and abruptly standing. Joohyun’s head tips back and she catches the eye of a soldier staring at her with clear desire. She thinks of the songs of the beautiful princess who had come in spring with the flowers and snowmelt, an eternal smile on her lips. How apt that others had fallen in love with the songs and she had fallen in love with the woman who had sung them?
“The Tang has their hostage and so shall we. We need to return to Seorabeol and report to the crown prince.”
“Yes, Captain Moon.”
Joohyun says nothing as the other woman gestures and a soldier gets down on his knees and binds her hands behind her back. The last thing she sees before a blindfold is pulled over her eyes is Captain Moon steady gaze without a shred of mercy.