The Blood of Kings

Joo-Doh tries for a long time to contain, or at least conceal, what Soo-Won’s anger at his father’s death might lead him to do, and in the process misses exactly what Soo-Won is doing and what part he may have to play in it. Character Study, Drama, Loyalty Porn, I-3

Character(s): Il, Joo-Doh, Soo-won, Yona

Joo-Doh was beginning to worry about Soo-Won.

Months after his father’s funeral, the boy walked the halls of the palace as if he were still in the funeral procession, stumbling and uncertain. Joo-Doh was a little afraid that, if the princess stopped coaxing him to eat like a pet bird, he genuinely wouldn’t remember to do so. And Joo-Doh didn’t know what to do, now, any more than he had years ago when it was the queen who had been killed and Yona who was wild with grief.

Actually, that wildness had been easier to deal with than Soo-Won’s pale, stunned silence.

As though the world had just been waiting for him to think that, voices raised sharply down one of the inner corridors, and Joo-Doh strode forward with an exasperated sound between his teeth. As if he didn’t have enough problems already, with discipline on the edge of breaking down in some squads, it seemed Yu-Hon’s death was stirring up tempers even among the…

…the king. And Soo-Won.

“Do you think I don’t know?” Soo-Won was shouting, tears on his face even though his eyes blazed through them. “Did you think I wouldn’t learn?!”

“I told you the truth; it was an accident!” Even more than Soo-Won’s unaccustomed rage, the edge of strain and anger in Il’s raised voice shocked Joo-Doh still, where he stood at the turning of the corridor. “He was my brother!”

“So you say.” Soo-Won stepped back, expression hardening into something far too chill for a boy that young, and his words cut like a live blade. “I see no relation.” He spun on his heel and stalked down the hall, shoulders high and stiff. Il reached a hand after him, only to clench it and let it fall, head bowed. Joo-Doh stepped back, carefully silent, into the main hall, looking around to be sure no one else had witnessed that. This was not the time for anyone to hear of dissension in the royal family, not with the man whose leadership in the field had kept their borders safe so recently dead. Apparently he was going to have to add ‘keeping the king and his nephew from each other’s throats’ to his list of a newly minted war-leader’s chores.

He suspected, darkly, that anticipation of watching him have to deal with this kind of thing was why Geun-Tae had been grinning so broadly at his investiture.

He made a careful bit of noise, turning the corner again, and bowed to the king exactly as usual, brief and perfunctory. The king’s smile in return was weak, but when was it not? He’d never been comfortable around the kingdom’s warriors. Joo-Doh counted it as a successful return to normality, and turned briskly down the corridor that would eventually lead to the courtyard of the messenger birds.

He didn’t think he could bring Soo-Won back to anything like normality, not if his normally even temper had snapped so spectacularly, and it was looking like the princess couldn’t either, so it was time for last resorts. A corner of his mouth quirked up, wryly, as he started composing a note to Mundeok, in his head. Young Hak could be a hell-raiser, especially when Soo-Won saw fit to incite him, but he did have a way of rousing Soo-Won in return. Right now, Joo-Doh was willing to deal with the one in return for the other.

He didn’t really want to think about what the palace would be like, if Soo-Won stayed as coldly furious as he’d just been.

Joo-Doh sighed as he paused in his final, evening round of the palace. There was still light burning behind the screens of Soo-Won’s rooms.

Nearly three years after the accident that killed his father, and it was like part of the boy was still frozen in that moment of knowing the most important thing in his world was gone. His mourning time was nearly over, but clearly not done. Open loss might not show on his face, any more, but his smile was different these days, barely skin deep and scraped thin over pain. Anger still flashed out from behind it, too, every now and then, and Joo-Doh couldn’t really blame the boy for that. It was such a stupid, pointless accident that took Yu-Hon from them all, but especially from his son. Small wonder if Soo-Won was enraged at the world for permitting such a thing, cold to his uncle, and painfully quiet sometimes, even with the princess or their partner in crime, Hak.

He supposed he should be grateful that the lights were burning, Joo-Doh reflected as he climbed the stairs to the breeze-way; at least it meant that Soo-Won was in here instead of sneaking out into the town as he’d done more and more often lately. But at least when he was sneaking out he wasn’t brooding. Joo-Doh had looked after the royal children for over five years, now, and seeing Soo-Won’s bright laughter and subtle spark of challenge quenched like this was troubling.

So his voice was a bit gentler than usual when he tapped on the door and nudged it open. “Soo-Won-sama? You should get some sleep.”

Soo-Won was standing at the widest window of his rooms, with his back to the door, looking out over the drop of cliffs that guarded the palace’s rear. He stood so still in the lamplight that he barely even seemed to be breathing, arms stretched out until his fingers touched the frame to each side. That position made Joo-Doh just a touch nervous, though if asked he’d have said no one was less likely to take his own life in grief than Soo-Won. Soo-Won had always had more resilience in him than that. Just in case, though, Joo-Doh eased quietly inside and closed the door behind him before taking a few steps toward his charge. “It’s late, Soo-Won-sama. Come get ready for bed.”

“Does this seem right to you, Joo-Doh-shougun?”

The soft question was so level, so distant, that a faint chill ran down his spine. That was not a child’s voice. “Does what seem right?” he asked, edging around to get a look at Soo-Won’s face.

“This country is dying, like my father died. Not of malice, but of misadventure and bad timing and incompetence.” There was a flick of sharpness on that last word, but when Joo-Doh stepped far enough around to see, Soo-Won’s face was perfectly still, almost serene if not for the tightness around his eyes, the dark shadows behind them. That expression didn’t change in the slightest as he turned his head to look straight at Joo-Doh. “Does our world seem right to you, Joo-Doh-shougun?”

“This is the mortal world, not the celestial one,” Joo-Doh answered quietly. Under the weight of that gaze, he could only give his charge the hard truth he’d felt sawing away at his own soul more than once. “There will always be things that are wrong.”

That hidden rage flared in Soo-Won’s eyes for a moment, sudden and hot, and just as suddenly concealed again. Soo-Won’s voice was as measured as ever when he spoke. “I know that this is true. Some things will always be wrong. But that does not mean that we should tolerate those which can be put right.”

True unease nipped at Joo-Doh for the first time. On the face of it, this seemed like the abstract discussion of evil in the world that any child probably needed to have, sooner or later, after losing a parent. The princess certainly had, after her mother died, though hers had involved far more tears and smashed dishes. But it wasn’t just pain looking back at him from Soo-Won’s eyes, tonight. Soo-Won had spoken of his father, yes, but also… the kingdom. Incompetence killing the kingdom, and wrongs that should not be tolerated. The earlier chill he’d felt turned to ice, coiling heavily in Joo-Doh’s gut, and he couldn’t help how his eyes widened. However much he might agree, sometimes, there were names for what Soo-Won was saying. Deadly names.

Soo-Won’s perfectly level gaze narrowed for a fraction of a moment, and then melted away into a rueful smile. “I’m sorry, Joo-Doh-san. I’m rambling aren’t I? You’re right; I should go to bed. I hadn’t realized how late it’s getting.”

That just made the chill grip harder, because Joo-Doh didn’t believe for an instant that this had been over-tired rambling—nor that the lateness Soo-Won spoke of was anything to do with the advancing night. He’d seen Soo-Won smile just like that, before, usually to cover the kind of risks with his person and safety that by rights should have turned Joo-Doh’s hair white years ago. It was always completely natural, entirely believable, and invariably meant that Soo-Won intended to keep right on doing whatever he’d planned on. “Soo-Won-sama…”

“Yes, Shougun?” Soo-Won was still smiling, but now Joo-Doh could feel the edge hiding under it, like a knife under silk, and finally realized part of what alarmed him about this whole conversation.

Soo-Won never called him by his title, always spoke to him as a familiar guardian, not as the war-leader of the Sky tribe. Always, until now. Joo-Doh looked at his royal charge’s smile, sweet and open and utterly implacable, and swallowed hard. Softly, trying not to tip this precarious balance in any direction at all, he said, “Please sleep well, Soo-Won-sama.”

Soo-Won’s shoulders bowed for a breath with what did look like weariness, and he closed those bright, hard eyes for a moment. “I’ll try, Joo-Doh-san.”

Joo-Doh nodded warily and withdrew, trying not to feel like he was retreating from a battlefield as he left the room and latched Soo-Won’s door closed behind him.

The memory of chill followed at his shoulder as he moved on through his evening rounds.

Joo-Doh sat at the more sheltered of the two tables in the dusty back court of a small, run-down inn and glowered at his drink. If he looked up from his drink, he’d just glower at his infuriatingly stubborn charge instead, and if he heard one more soldier mutter about royal nannies under their breath he wasn’t going to be responsible for his actions.

In retrospect, it had probably been a bad idea to change out the handful of men he took along with them on this past year’s increasingly frequent travels, but it was bad enough that he was being dragged back and forth across the country. He hadn’t wanted to take any one group out of the regular rotation that often; it was bad for discipline and worse for their training. So every time Soo-Won had insisted on gallivanting off outside the palace, visiting yet another port or village or fortress, every time the king came to Joo-Doh and asked if, just perhaps, he wouldn’t mind too much, Il didn’t want to say no but the boy was a royal nephew after all and kidnapping was always a possibility… Every time, Joo-Doh had stifled a sigh and agreed to watch over Soo-Won’s journey, and chosen a new set of guards to go with them. Apparently this had just made the amusement of his men at his difficulty in managing one sheltered noble boy more wide-spread.

Joo-Doh took a long drink and shot a dour look at the three soldiers who’d taken the next table over and were laughing quietly into their own drinks. He’d like to see them do any better.

Of course, most of them still thought these trips were some kind of whim. Few of them ever noticed that Soo-Won was always awake and up before them, and only a handful had actually caught Soo-Won at his sword training and seen for themselves the knife edge that lay under that silk-soft smile. Joo-Doh had, so far, been able to keep those few quiet by reminding them of how much the king disliked weapons and how displeased he might be to find his nephew practicing with such fierce dedication. His men had all dealt with enough royal interference curtailing their field training, or quashing even ceremonial appearances by the palace guard, that they’d kept their mouths shut. He suspected word might be making its way slowly through the ranks of the guard itself, but it hadn’t gone further yet. Joo-Doh was grateful for that.

Because he hoped, with all his heart and soul, not to ever find himself ordered to execute Soo-Won for treason.

The thought made him take another long drink, and beside him Soo-Won laughed softly. “Has it been such a long day, Joo-Doh-san?”

Joo-Doh gave up any further attempts at avoiding his barracks nick-name and glowered at Soo-Won properly. “It’s been a long year,” he corrected, acidly, “and if you’d told me you intended to come this far north into Fire, on this trip, I’d have brought another five men along. Or have your travel journals,” he infused the phrase with as much sarcasm as possible without raising his voice, “not mentioned the increase in bandit activity?”

He was fairly sure that Soo-Won’s travel notes did mention exactly that, because he’d caught sight of a page of them now and then. They were more comprehensive than the reports he received himself from trained observers. Passing those steadily growing files off as a “travel journal” had made him choke at his charge’s bland-faced audacity, the first time he’d heard it.

Sooner or later, this charade had to break, and every time he thought that he tried to bury the knowledge. He would hold that day off as long as he could.

Soo-Won smiled at him, sunny and gentle, and spoke just clearly enough to be heard at the next table. “I’m sure the skill of your good soldiers will be more than enough to keep us safe.” The soldiers in question elbowed each other and puffed out their chests, half-jokingly, to look more impressive. Soo-Won positively beamed at them.

Joo-Doh’s hands itched to strangle the boy, just a little bit. Except that he was reasonably sure Soo-Won would be able to hold him off for a while; he knew Soo-Won had been training with Hak every time the boy visited the palace. And such a display would raise the very questions he’d been trying to avoid. He took a slow breath and tried to stop grinding his teeth.

The sunny smile barely dimmed, but Soo-Won’s eyes acquired a hard glint behind it. “Be calm, Joo-Doh-shougun,” he murmured. “I have my reasons for coming here.”

That was exactly what Joo-Doh was afraid of, but saying so might invite finding out what those reasons were. Frankly, he was still hoping to bluff through whatever happened when the king finally caught wind of all this, and surely that could be better done with some genuine ignorance at work. So he didn’t answer, only leaned back as the inn’s one server arrived to set out bowls of soup and rather scant dishes of cabbage and dumplings, and took another drink.

And nearly choked on it as the server pulled a knife out of her sleeve and pressed the edge swiftly to his neck.

“Don’t move!” barked the inn-keeper from where he was suddenly filling the doorway, a horse-bow already drawn and aimed at the soldiers’ table. “You. The noble boy. Set your purse on the table and stand back.”

Joo-Doh silently cursed himself for letting his temper set him even a little off-guard. He cast a quick glance around the tiny courtyard and growled low in his throat as three more men, far scruffier than their host-turned-bandit but just as well armed, popped out of the nearest buildings and ran to flank them, swords and cudgels in hand. “Please do as he says, Soo-Won-sama,” he gritted out, opening his hand slowly toward his men at the next table who were frozen in the act of standing, teeth bared in grimaces of outrage and embarrassment.

Not that he had any intention of letting this riff-raff keep their money, but it would get Soo-Won further out of the way of that bow and clear of Joo-Doh’s swords when he drew them.

“Yes… yes, of course,” Soo-Won stammered, eyes wide as he stumbled to his feet, and that should really have warned Joo-Doh. Soo-Won only ever stammered like that when the princess was trying to hand-feed him or when Hak was scruffling up his hair. Even so, he was caught nearly as much by surprise as the little gang of bandits when Soo-Won’s hands lifted away from the purse and he took one long step back from the table, whirled toward the inn-keeper, and cut the man’s head half off in one fast, hard sweep of steel.

Later, Joo-Doh would think. Later, he would remember the sureness of Soo-Won’s hand sliding under the concealing looseness of his outer-robe, the calculation of the turn that flung his robes clear of his sword’s draw, the utter stillness of his face as he cut. Right now, though, he had other concerns, and long training and hard experience threw him back from the knife against his throat, drove his elbow into the woman’s stomach, and cut her arm to the bone with the first sweep of his own draw. “Get the flankers, search the buildings,” he snapped at his men as they started up from their table, the tension of the ambush breaking into the reaction speed he’d trained into them. He silenced the high, shrill sound of pain the woman was making with a hard blow of his hilt to the side of her head and left her in a heap as he herded Soo-Won back under the courtyard’s tiny balcony. His eyes tracked back and forth across the open space, half street and half town square, that the little inn backed up to.

When Soo-Won spoke, it was so soft he almost missed it.

“There are only the five of them.”

It took a few seconds for the implications to penetrate the singing of adrenaline, but when it did Joo-Doh froze. Soo-Won knew how many this little bandit gang had. He’s brought them here, insisted on stopping at this scruffy inn, knowing that the inn-keeper had taken up with bandits. Joo-Doh turned slowly to face him, fury rising. “Soo-Won-sama…”

“I had to know,” Soo-Won cut him off, voice harsh before he took a slow breath and continued with his usual evenness. “I had to know if I could do this, and no lives of those who are in my care could be lost in the knowing.” His eyes flickered to the sprawled body of the inn-keeper and away in a flinch that Joo-Doh recognized from other boys fresh from their first kill. “This town was as prosperous as any in this region manages to be, before he came. I doubt Kan Soo-Jin will spare the tax money to re-build that prosperity fully, but at least now they have a chance.”

Joo-Doh could hear perfectly well the fingernail grip on composure running under this small economic lecture, and made an intensely exasperated sound between his teeth. He laid down his swords on the nearest table and pushed Soo-Won down into one of the chairs. “Breathe,” he ordered briskly, setting a hand on the back of Soo-Won’s neck and pressing his head down. “Slowly.” He could feel the tremors running through the boy gradually subside, faster then he would have expected, to be honest. When Soo-Won made to straighten up, Joo-Doh let him and busied himself with cutting the late inn-keeper’s overshirt into rags, to clean the swords, and strips to tie the woman up with. Soo-Won accepted a swatch silently and cleaned his own sword with only a few pauses to swallow hard.

Joo-Doh was, rather reluctantly, impressed. The royal children had been kept away from violence of any kind, and even if he’d come here seeking it, Soo-Won was dealing with his first kill better than some young soldiers Joo-Doh had commanded. Blood would tell, he supposed.

The possible consequences of that didn’t quite occur to him until his three men came back, dragging another unconscious prisoner with them, and he saw the way their eyes moved from the splash of blood across Soo-Won’s robes to his steady hands sheathing a clean blade. When Soo-Won nodded to them, cool and apparently unshaken, Joo-Doh could see their shoulders straighten exactly the way he’d seen happen when Soo-Won’s father acknowledged one of the men under his command. That was when Joo-Doh started cursing again, silent and heartfelt.

How was he supposed to keep this quiet?

Joo-Doh paced the dark halls of the palace on his way to his rooms, slow and weary. It had been a very long month.

First there had been the princess’ thirteenth birthday, which had put Soo-Won and Il in the same place all day, resulting in a great deal of tension as they both smiled for Yona and tried not to show how chilly Soo-Won’s glance got every time it crossed the king and how the king’s voice turned tight and sharp every time he spoke to Soo-Won. Then there had been a caravan coming south, decimated by bandits just inside Fire’s north border, and Joo-Doh had to spend far too long arguing with Kan Soo-Jin until the prickly bastard agreed to accept a few squads of men from Sky to help clean them out. And just to tie things off perfectly, the past two solid weeks had been full of negotiations that started with an incursion over the border from Sei, moved through two shouting matches between Soo-Won and Il that he knew of, and ended with another territorial concession. Joo-Doh had just returned from seeing off the Sei envoys, far more courteously than he would have preferred, and he wanted to find his bed and sleep for a day or two.

But there were lamps still burning in the guest rooms Soo-Won kept here, now he’d moved back into Yu-Hon’s house in the town.

Joo-Doh spared a moment to reflect, darkly, that he would probably get more sleep if his sense of responsibility were just a little less developed, before he tapped on Soo-Won’s door and called quietly, “Soo-Won-sama? It’s late.” After the last few years, the corollary please go to bed and stop plotting something I’m going to regret some day was probably understood on both sides.

Tonight, though, he got a surprise when the door swung open to show, not Soo-Won, but the attendant and aide he almost never brought to the castle with him, Kye-Sook. He looked Joo-Doh up and down, coolly, before turning back to the room where Soo-Won stood in a pool of lamplight. “As we have discussed, then, my Lord,” he murmured, and bowed deeply to Soo-Won before slipping out past Joo-Doh and down the quiet corridor. Joo-Doh was still looking after him, trying to pin down why that cool look made him uneasy, when Soo-Won spoke quietly.

“Come in, Joo-Doh-shougun.”

It was a command, not an invitation, and Joo-Doh was moving before he quite realized it. He drew a breath to remonstrate, only to loose it as his eyes finally met Soo-Won’s. They were as level as he’d ever seen them, but tonight they were also fiercely intent, and that look cut off his words like a blade laid against his throat.

“I have need of you,” Soo-Won said quietly.

“Soo-Won-sama, I can’t… This won’t…” Joo-Doh made sharp, frustrated gesture, the knowledge that had walked beside him for the last seven years boiling up in his throat. He couldn’t go along with this. What good would a civil war do anyone at all, especially now with every surrounding country gathering like vultures, circling lazily as they waited for something to die.

Soo-Won cocked his head, pinning Joo-Doh under that uncomfortably sharp gaze. “In three years,” he said, quite conversationally, “this country will be no more. The only reason we’ve made it this long is Kai’s own internal strife. But now that Xing and Sei have realized that they can start carving away our territory and meet no resistance, smaller interests than the Empire itself have started to look our way. Li Hazra, north of Fire, will be ready to move within three years, and there are two separate Southern Kai traffickers who are already moving in on Water’s port markets. Once Earth has exhausted the mines left them after my uncle’s last concessions to Kai, those same interests will move on Geun-Tae-shougun’s territory, and he will have to choose between loyalty to Kouka’s throne and safeguarding his people.” Soo-Won’s mouth tilted in something that didn’t look in the least like amusement. “I think we both know how that will play out.”

The litany of disaster waiting to happen—starting to happen—froze Joo-Doh’s heart. “Then you must know,” he managed, voice rough, “that anything that divides the kingdom further will only bring the end faster.”

Soo-Won folded his arms and leaned back against the window-frame behind him with a sigh. “If I sought merely to depose my uncle, perhaps to exile him, then yes. You would be right. Nothing would bring down the scavengers more quickly than the least hint of a figurehead they could use as an excuse to invade. And that,” his voice fell, soft and cool and level, “is why I must kill him. Swiftly and as secretly as may be done, so that I can present myself as the only surviving heir and be fairly assured that the tribe’s war-leaders will acknowledge me rather than see chaos.” When he looked up from his folded arms, the fire in his eyes rocked Joo-Doh back a step. “And then, Joo-Doh-shougun, then we can start to take our territory back and to remind Sei and Xing and Kai that we are not a country it is safe to take lightly.”

The absent thought ran through Joo-Doh’s mind that, if Geun-Tae were standing here, he’d be cheering out loud and probably planning their first campaign before he even remembered to tell Soo-Won ‘yes’. Joo-Doh felt that he had considerably better sense than that overgrown adolescent, but he still felt like Soo-Won had reached in and turned his world inside out with one pull.

He hadn’t realized how much his own vision had narrowed, how far in he’d pulled it in an effort to ignore the bleak future looming up. Not until Soo-Won spoke, and suddenly he could see a future more than a year or two away. Suddenly, the dull grinding awareness of threats closing in from every side, threats he was not permitted to drive off, eased into a glimmer of hope and an unfolding path forward. It flowed over him like the first breath of a new dawn, and he breathed it in with something painfully like wonder.

One thing caught at his attention, though, like a thorn caught in his clothing. “The only heir? But the princess…”

Soo-Won flinched, the first time Joo-Doh had ever seen that happen, he realized. “I love my cousin well,” Soo-Won said, folded arms tightening until his shoulders drew in. “I will do my best to keep her out of it, to find somewhere safe to send her.” He rubbed his fingers across his forehead, still not looking up. “It can’t be a noble family, but she’s very young still. Surely she will adjust if I can find a merchant family to hide her in. One that travels a lot, ideally.”

“And if you cannot?” Joo-Doh asked, slowly, not wanting to think about it himself, but he hadn’t become the Sky tribe’s war-leader by ignoring critical strategic issues.

Soo-Won’s hand fell, fisting tight as he tucked it under the concealment of his sleeve. For a long moment he was silent, head bowed, shoulders taut. When he spoke again, his voice was thin and airless. “I will not be the contemptible creature my uncle is. I will not allow personal grief or guilt to rule over my responsibility to my people. If I cannot keep her hidden… then I must see her killed as well, before she becomes a pawn in the hands of our enemies.” He pulled in an unsteady breath and looked up with a brittle smile. “Kye-Sook asked me that as well. I will do whatever must be done.”

“Soo-Won-sama.” Joo-Doh moved to reach out a hand, only to halt. What could he possibly say? It was the truth, and while there was enough resentment against the king that he might not make a very good cat’s-paw, Yona was a beautiful and innocent young girl that all hearts would melt for. If she learned of this, if her grief was seized on by one of the Kai nobles and set up at the head of an army… Even the people in the army’s way might wonder if she didn’t have justice on her side.

Soo-Won shook his head. “It is what it is.” He let out a slow breath, and then straightened, and the intensity that had struck Joo-Doh so silent at first rose around him again, like a fire catching. “I will do what must be done,” he repeated. “And to do that, Joo-Doh-shougun, I need you. I will need at least two of the tribes’ war-leaders to support me from the first, but above that I need you. I need the unbending determination that drove a young officer who was merely competent to become the equal of Lee Geun-Tae. To recover our country’s footing and drive off the scavengers coming now to feed, I need the strength that holds Sky’s warriors steady even as their king turns away from them.” Very softly, he finished, “Will you give these things to me?”

It struck Joo-Doh a little breathless, to be seen through and through, and then to be called on to serve as he once hoped to. “Soo-Won-sama…” It came out husky, and he swallowed, drawing himself up in return. “To one who sees, and will act, yes. For this, I will give all that I am.” He had to swallow again before he could finish, because there was no going back from this. But his steps were firm as he came away from the door and knelt down at Soo-Won’s feet, head bowed. “Soo-Won-heika.”

Soo-Won’s hand rested briefly on his bent head. “Thank you, my Shougun.”

The calm certainty of that acknowledgement put a tiny shiver down Joo-Doh’s spine. He had come up as Sky’s war-leader under Il, and he’d never had his king’s full trust.

Until now.

The thought quieted an old, old tension in his chest, and it came to him that, yes, he could rest in his king’s hands now, and be sure that he would be used rightly in the service of his kingdom and people. The bared steel in the gaze that met his, when he raised his head, promised him that, and he met that steel willingly with his own.

“Your will, my king.”

Joo-Doh would never have expected that becoming involved in plotting a treasonous coup would make him feel so much more relaxed at meetings of the Five Tribes, but this seemed to be the case. For once, he’d managed to sit through An Joon-Gi’s obvious obfuscation as he talked around the condition of his northern port towns, and Il’s obliviousness as he tried to agree with everyone, and even Geun-Tae’s open yawns, without his hand itching to knock anyone’s heads together. He only marked these things as indicators of future projects. It was a bit of a revelation, suddenly having that vast weight of frustration fall away, lifted by the surety that all of these things would be seen and seen to.

That didn’t mean he was enthusiastic about having Kan Soo-Jin as a co-conspirator.

“Are you sure about this, Soo-Won-sama?” he asked quietly as they watched Fire’s war-leader sweep away down the corridor in a nearly visible cloud of self-satisfaction.

“I know he’s loyal to nobody but himself,” Soo-Won murmured, cutting straight to the heart of the issue as Joo-Doh was coming to expect of him. “But Fire has by far the largest army of any of the Tribes. Better to have it behind me for now than to risk him picking up on our plans from the outside. While he believes that he may make use of me, he will be a powerful ally.”

Joo-Doh snorted a bit at that, because that didn’t say very kind things about the man’s perceptiveness. “And when he realizes otherwise?” Because even Kan Soo-Jin probably wouldn’t be able to keep believing that once Soo-Won took the throne.

The brief curve of Soo-Won’s lips, distant and yet anticipatory, almost made him shiver. More than ever, of late, he saw Soo-Won’s father in him—Yu Hon’s skill with a sword and his strategic vision both. Strange, given how much Soo-Won looked, and even sounded often, like his mother.

“That,” Soo-Won said, soft and certain, “is when there will be an opportunity to see to Fire’s recovery. One way or the other.”

Joo-Doh bowed his head, at that. He didn’t like the idea of having to fight amongst themselves, but he doubted Kan Soo-Jin would feel the same. Soo-Won’s hand rested on his shoulder for a moment, and his voice was low but even when he spoke. “Whatever must be done, we will do. But I will do everything I can to protect as many of our people as is possible.”

Joo-Doh raised his head, looking back steadily, reassured again by the fire that burned at the back of Soo-Won’s eyes. “Yes, my Lord.”

The quick patter of slippers coming down the corridor made him step back into the shadows of the nearest door as the princess came careening around the corner. “Soo-Won!” She lit up like sunrise at seeing her cousin and reached out to catch his hands as she skidded to a halt. Soo-Won reached to catch her, so swift and unthinking and protective that Joo-Doh couldn’t help rolling his eyes a little. Both the boys were so transparent around the princess.

“I have dancing lessons this afternoon, and Hak says I dance like a crow, and you have to come watch so you can tell him I don’t!” she said all in one breath, tugging on his sleeves insistently, already poised to dash back the way she’d come, presumably with her cousin in tow.

“I’ll come, Yona-hime,” Soo-Won promised, smile distantly kind while his hands were thoughtlessly tender, straightening her over-robe. “In just a moment.”

She pouted up at him, and not just because of the delay in meeting her whim, Joo-Doh thought. Yona was more than just transparent, where her attempts to capture Soo-Won’s attention were concerned. “Come quick, then.”

Soo-Won watched her as she turned with a soft huff and ran back down the outer corridor, light as the garden breezes that followed her. His face was perfectly still, but the darkness in his eyes and the white-knuckled fists he hid in the folds of his over-robe made Joo-Doh step close again and say, softly, “We will do everything we can to confine her away from things, Soo-Won-sama.”

Soo-Won closed those shadowed eyes for a breath. “Thank you, Joo-Doh-shougun.” When he opened them again, they were distant, but intent again—sharp and fierce. A king’s eyes, Joo-Doh thought, and Soo-Won’s words carried a king’s knowledge and weight. “I will do what must be done.”

Joo-Doh bowed, and answered that the only way he could, the way he was increasingly sure the entire country would answer Soo-Won’s blazing will.

"Yes, my king."