Chapter 1: The Living God
The soft sound of Jaehyun’s steps across cold stone floors drifted gently through the halls of the cathedral, disturbing the silence of the morning despite the gentleness with which he stepped. He’d slept in again. For someone with little to do but wander the twisting walls and pathways of the holy building he always seemed to be running behind, as if he ever had anywhere else to be.
Somewhere in the distance people were singing, their voices hazy and soft but the melody familiar. He could tell by the tune of the hymnal that he was later than he thought. He couldn’t be late again, it would be the third time this week. Father Pious would forgive him, just as he always did, but Father Humble had a cruel eye and a keen love of punishment. He would not be so benevolent.
With a small huff of breath Jaehyun sped up, breaking into a run as he followed the twisting pathways, speeding down the dimly lit corridors until he broke through the darkness and entered the vestibule just outside of the sanctuary. Great stained glass windows lit the room in patterns of swirling colour, dancing across the floors and glimmering in the morning sun.
The song was nearly finished. He was just in time.
“I thought I was going to have to put on your veil and hunch down a bit to convince them I was you again,” a voice said to his left. Jaehyun turned to see the Cavalier standing with his palms resting on the hilt of his sword, an amused glint in his eye.
Jaehyun offered a crooked smile, chest heaving a bit as he tried to catch his breath. “I still can’t believe that worked,” he responded. “Part of me suspects Father Humble knew, but with no proof he couldn’t punish us for it.” He plucked his veil from where he’d tucked it into his belt, smoothing the gauzy fabric against his thigh before laying it over his head.
The fabric was simple. It was nothing more than a draping of cream coloured voile that hid his features from view, hanging down to his chest so that if anyone were to grasp at it he would have time to react and cover himself with his hands. Over it, around his head, he slid a circlet of thin gold to hold it in place.
Father Diligence reminded him often that the people were not to see his face, were never to look upon the Holy Visage of the Living God. It might drive them mad, he said passionately, clapping his wrinkled old hands before him in an attempt to keep them from shaking. And so Jaehyun dutifully covered himself any time he was to be seen in public, lest he harm anyone with his celestial countenance.
Through his now clouded vision Jaehyun looked to the Cavalier, whose eyes scanned the silent room as if someone might jump out at any moment. That was his usual state of being, always on his guard, always at the ready. His eyes, dark and serious, never seemed to stop moving. His lips were always pushed into a thoughtful pout.
“You weren’t at breakfast,” Jaehyun pointed out, hoping he didn’t sound petulant. “Have you not eaten?”
The Cavalier smiled, shrugging one shoulder. “I was paying my weekly penance,” he said, eyes never turning in Jaehyun’s direction. They rarely did. He was always too busy looking for danger, looking for anything that might compromise Jaehyun’s safety.
“So you haven’t eaten?”
“I’ll eat at supper,” the Cavalier said as if he weren’t bothered. Looking closer Jaehyun could see that his movements were stiff, his stance rigid. His penance must have been great that morning. “Don’t look at me like that,” he added, lips twisting into a smirk. “I am honoured to prove my devotion to The Divine, and I’ll be able to eat in a few hours. Stop sulking.”
“What if The Divine wished your devotion to be a proper meal?” Jaehyun muttered, eyebrows knit. He knew it was almost time. They would call for him soon. He moved to stand in front of the great wooden doors that led into the sanctuary, painted a deep red and finished with polished golden handles, so heavy that it took two men to move each door.
“Then The Divine can bring me some porridge from the kitchens next time,” the Cavalier murmured from close behind.
Jaehyun took a deep breath, heart fluttering in his chest. He could never quite say why, but every time he stepped into mass it felt like the first time. He never got used to the eyes following his every move. “Stay near?”
The Cavalier stepped closer, ever a comforting presence just over Jaehyun’s shoulder. “Always.”
It was said that two great things happened on the day of Jaehyun’s birth.
The first was that a chasm opened up in the ground, a vast, gaping pit just south of the Holy City of Ardent that rent the land in two. Out of the pit came a host of terrible creatures, hideous monsters with large, grotesque bodies and great horrible mouths filled with gnashing teeth, sometimes with wings, sometimes with wicked claws that twisted from bony hands. They were bastardizations of the Holy Word, their sharp teeth and hissing tongues speaking of darkness and malice and anger, reminding the people of their sin, how far they had strayed from sanctity.
The church moved quickly to assure the people of their blame. “They were sent as a test!” the old men wailed, hands clenched together in supplication to a god long since dead. The cardinals and bishops swore they were manifestations of the guilt of the people, sent to warn man of his own misdeeds. To turn him back to the church, to remind him that even with no god sitting on the Rosewood Throne they must still keep Heaven in their hearts.
The second occurrence happened in a small nunnery tucked in a dark corner of Ardent.
The Holy Sisters of the Miraculous Vision hovered around a young woman as she gave birth, her cries echoing around the small room they’d prepared for her. She was young. Far too young to be with child, but the world was not a perfect one and the sisters knew that well. They did their best to comfort the girl through a complicated birth, dabbing her forehead with a cool cloth, rubbing liniments on her hands and feet and whispering words of encouragement as she pushed.
Despite their best efforts, the girl did not survive childbirth. What did survive, though, was the Living God.
He came into the world without a cry. From the moment of his birth he examined everything with curious eyes, far too wise for one so new, calm and contemplative and full of forgiveness. When they put the wrapped child in the arms of the old, blind Mother Superior so tender was his blessing, so rich his mercy, that her sight was immediately restored.
And thus was the first miracle of Jaehyun of the Benevolent Sight, fifth of the Living Gods.
The church rejoiced at the birth of a new god. It had been so long since Heaven had deemed them worthy of a messiah, nearly a hundred years since divine feet walked the earth. They immediately brought the child to the cathedral to be raised in safety, bestowing on him the gift of education, raising him to be a comfort to the masses. And in the twenty-two years since the people daily rejoiced in the opportunity to stand in his silent presence, listening intently as the cardinals spoke of his miraculous love. No one outside of a chosen few had ever seen his face, or heard his voice for themselves. It was forbidden, lest his perfect beauty and grace drive them mad.
In the twenty-two years since, Jaehyun hadn’t gone insane from his life of silence and solitude. That, he thought, must be his second miracle.
The Rosewood Throne was not particularly comfortable. The wood was cold and rigid underneath him, the arms carefully carved to represent twisted vines covered in thorns. It was just slightly higher than it ought to be for him to sit comfortably; the gods that came before him must have been taller, for his feet just barely touched the ground. Jaehyun supposed it was an act of gratitude to his people that he must sit on it three times a week for hours at a time, gaze held forward and back straight as Father Temperance preached the homily of the day.
On that particular day, as all others, he spoke of sin.
“And on that morning so long ago the ground opened up before us, belching great clouds of black smoke and spewing forth our guilt made flesh to walk among us with the bodies of beasts,” he wheezed, voice thin and reedy. If not for the cavernous ceilings of the sanctuary providing an echo Jaehyun doubted anyone would be able to hear him, so weak had his voice become over the years.
Temperance preached on. “Beasts that wore the faces of men, that spoke with men’s voices but walked on an animal’s legs. Beasts with great leathery wings and wicked claws. Beasts that preached malevolence, that would punish us for our sins rather than let us atone for them.”
Jaehyun had never seen the monsters that walked the land beyond the city. The walls surrounding Ardent were too high and the guard too skilled, no creatures had ever made it past their defences. He wondered what life must be like for those outside of Ardent, the ones who did not have the same protections to rely on. The Cavalier had seen them. He spoke very little of the creatures he’d fought during his years of training, tight lipped despite how Jaehyun had pleaded, saying only that they were the true manifestation of evil and that The Divine would do well to turn his mind from such thoughts.
He could be so boring sometimes.
As the cardinal droned on Jaehyun let his eyes wander, though he was careful to keep his body stiff and straight and his face directed forward at all times. If he strained his eyes to the left he could just make out the pulpit at which the cardinal of the day spoke, raised a few feet off the ground to make it easier for the entire congregation to see. It made sense; many of the priests were getting on in years and did not command the same attention they once did, they often needed help to address the masses.
Jaehyun looked forward, into the swarms of people filling the nave of the church. Pews stretched out before him, four columns separated by aisles laid with lush red carpets. The middle aisle was the one he himself walked when he came in during mass every morning, every head in the room whipping around to watch his silent pilgrimage from the main doors leading from the vestibule to the Rosewood Throne. On either side of the seating area there were great stone walls decorated with beautiful windows that matched the ones in the foyer, depicting lush images of the living gods at various stages of their lives.
There wasn’t one for Jaehyun yet. Tradition dictated that it would go up after his death. He often wondered what story it might tell.
“But on that same day Heaven bestowed upon us a gift. For in a humble convent a baby was born, and that baby was The Living God.”
Temperance made a grand gesture with his hand, motioning to Jaehyun’s shrouded figure sitting still and silent before them. A few faces followed the motion, but most had no need. They had already spent the length of the service staring, eyes wide and mouths agape in wonder as they puzzled over who Jaehyun might be under the veil, what their benevolent god might truly look like. That sat in awed silence, enthralled by him, enraptured. Sometimes they would weep, hands reaching out as if he might reach back and grasp them, grant his blessing. He didn’t. He wasn’t allowed to touch anyone. No one was allowed to touch him.
Sometimes their rapture was overwhelming. Occasionally they rushed forward, try to approach him, only to be turned away. The lucky ones met the firm hand of the Cavalier, who tried to be gentle as he turned them back to the pews. The unfortunate ones were dragged off by the Holy Guard. Jaehyun had no idea where those poor penitents were taken. He was afraid to ask.
“A gift from Heaven. A baby with the grace and power to restore the sight of a devoted old woman, bestowing gifts not five minutes after the moment of his birth. And since then his mercy has been far-reaching, his forgiveness unending. The doors of Heaven were shut and barred until he threw them open, arms wide and love merciful.”
Somewhere in the congregation a woman started weeping, her sobs loud and shrill. Sure enough her cries started a chain reaction, the room soon filled with a chorus of wails that echoed around the sanctuary. Jaehyun grit his teeth and tried to ignore the noise.
“Penitents!” Temperance called, lifting his skinny old arms high, fingers spread wide as if he were trying to wrap the entire congregation within his embrace. “The Living God hears your cries, he sees your desire to be made clean! I tell you this, he is the one true path to salvation! Through your weekly penitence and your devotion to the church you sanctify yourselves and are made clean!”
Jaehyun’s eyes flickered over to the Cavalier, standing stock-still at Jaehyun’s right hand. He didn’t return Jaehyun’s gaze - he wouldn’t dare in a room of hundreds, when anyone could have a knife hidden up their sleeve ready to draw blood. Still, Jaehyun wondered what he felt during times such as these, where the noise was almost impossible to bear.
He ought to feel guilty. It was his duty to be grateful. He was getting tired of the headaches, though.
It took some time for the cries and pleas to die down. Temperance’s arms were once more held out, this time slowly lowering his palms as if to physically abate the sound filling the room. Finally it was silent and he continued his sermon.
“You are loved by your benevolent god,” he said, a warm smile on his wrinkled old face. “And some day, you will be forgiven. Remember to read your nightly devotions and to wear your scars of contrition with pride, and your sins will be cast away. Now.” He clapped his hands together, bowing slightly. “Leave your gifts of atonement at the feet of His Grace and go about your daily toils. Bodies that are wearied by hard work do not have the stamina to sin.”
There was a crick starting to form somewhere in Jaehyun’s neck. He longed to stretch out, to move his muscles to try and work it loose, but he knew the punishment for such childish fidgeting. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on other things. The book he’d begun reading the night before. What they might be having for supper later. How he might badger the Cavalier into telling him more about the cities outside of Ardent.
As his mind wandered the congregation began to line up before him, a long path of men and women that stretched from a few feet in front of him all the way to the back of the nave, wrapping to the left and around the pews. One by one the supplicants stepped forward, laying their weekly offerings at his feet.
Often their gifts were food, whatever they could spare without their family going hungry for it. Occasionally artisans would leave tokens made by their own hands; small carvings, ornate pieces of jewelry. The lucky ones, the ones who lived comfortably in stone houses at the centre of the city, left gold coins that sparkled in the light that streamed in through the windows.
“You’ll be out soon.”
Jaehyun jumped, pulled from his revery. The Cavalier had become quite adept at talking without moving his lips very much at all, projecting in a way that ensured only Jaehyun could hear him. While Jaehyun dare not speak back he was grateful for the entertainment. Something to do with his mind other than awkwardly stare as people placed gifts at his feet.
“I think I’m going to sneak into the kitchen after mass and nick something to tide me over until dinner. I’ll grab you one of those honey biscuits.”
Jaehyun had to press his lips together tightly to keep from laughing. He did dearly love the sweet biscuits the cooks made on occasion, though they seemed to bake them more and more now that they knew Jaehyun so enjoyed them.
This is how they often passed their time. Jaehyun sat, a living statue for people to admire, the Cavalier always his companion, always at his service.
Jaehyun prayed that his guardian might stay forever at his side. He prayed to the gods that came before, to the ones that may come after, that he might never be truly alone.
The end of mass signified the beginning of Jaehyun’s period of silence and study, hours spent in the massive church library reading about the old gods as he reflected on his duty to his people. From there he was allowed into the courtyard for exercise, the Cavalier always at his side, hands resting on his rapier hilt as Jaehyun took turn after turn around the garden. After that they ate supper before going to the small chapel in the south wing for evening prayer, and then on to bed.
Jaehyun followed the Cavalier up through the winding staircases of the old building, the stone steps chilly under his bare feet. Even with the veil obscuring his face Jaehyun walked confidently, so well versed was he in the path that led to his bedroom that he didn’t need sight to find his way. He spent most of his free time there. When there were no benevolences to perform and no blessings to bestow he kept to his only private place, either alone or in comfortable silence with his constant guardian, the only spot in the Cathedral where the cardinals did not insert themselves.
He knew he shouldn’t think such things about the men of service. They were devoted to him. They had given up their secular lives to serve their god and his people, overseeing the safety of the city, tending to their souls.
But they could be right bastards sometimes.
As soon as they crossed the threshold to his bedroom Jaehyun shut the door, carefully sliding the lock into place. With practiced movements he used the candle in his hand to light more around the room, casting everything in a soft golden glow.
“Alright,” he said, ripping the veil from his face as he turned to face the Cavalier. “Let me see it.”
His guardian had the audacity to look confused. “See what?” He unlaced the leather bracers wrapped around his forearms, setting them carefully away. He never wore much protection, relying more on strength and skill to protect himself from blows. Just the bracers, a leather chest piece and the rapier at his side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Jaehyun said with a huff of breath. “You’ve been limping about all day. Let me see your back.”
The Cavalier waved his hand dismissively, walking to the window to open the shutters. Jaehyun’s bedroom was high in a tower that overlooked the church gardens, no surrounding buildings making it necessary to the curtains drawn at all times. Jaehyun could properly enjoy the fresh air, and the Cavalier was always eager to let him.
“My penitence was the usual. There’s nothing special to see,” he said, though the careful way he moved about the room belied the truth of his words. “Go to bed. You have blessings tomorrow.”
There were times where Jaehyun wondered what the whole point of being a god among men was when no one listened to a word you said. It happened often. He’d ask a question only to be quieted by the cardinals, make a request only to be reminded that he ought to be spending his time in quiet reflection. It was starting to get old.
He drew up to his full height—paltry, next to the Cavalier—and folded his arms. “If your wounds are that bad then we—I—can’t risk them becoming infected and killing you. As the Divine I order you to let me see.”
The Cavalier turned, a stunned look on his handsome features. It was the first time Jaehyun had ever seen him looked surprised. It made the candlelight sparkle in his eyes, dark and curious, as he stared at Jaehyun in silence.
And then he started laughing.
“You looked like an angry kitten just then, holy word,” he laughed, shaking his head. He was still chuckling as he turned to grab his sleep clothes, tucking them under his arm and heading for the privacy screen in the corner.
Jaehyun tried his hardest not to stamp his foot. “I’m serious. Please? Just let me look, and I promise if it doesn’t look any worse then last week I’ll leave it alone and let you go to sleep.” He fell silent for a moment, looking at the ground as he swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Please? I hate to think of you in pain.”
The Cavalier stopped just before he moved behind the screen, shoulders falling a bit. He sighed, turning around. “Fine. Only so you’ll stop fussing.”
Jaehyun brightened at his acquiescence. “Good. Thank you. Sit on the bed and I’ll just...I’ll just have a look.”
Not that Jaehyun knew what he was looking for. He’d never really seen any wounds other than his own, and his only knowledge of healing came from the books he read in the library when everything else bored him. There had never been any practical application. Especially since he wasn’t allowed to touch anyone.
It was a church decree. Passed down from the mouths of the cardinals, enforced through steel with brutal efficiency any time someone had the audacity to try and touch the Divine. Even as a child it was forbidden. The nuns who raised him wore gloves at all times, as did anyone brought in to tend to wounds or care for his illnesses. The Cavalier always wore his own thin leather gloves, any time he had to touch Jaehyun to intercede between he and the masses it was never skin on skin.
Other than when his mother brought him into the world, Jaehyun had never felt the warm flesh of another person.
He watched as the Cavalier sighed, moving to the bed and sitting on the edge of Jaehyun’s mattress. After a moment’s pause he gripped the bottom of his shirt, pulling it off and casting it to the side.
Jaehyun’s breath caught in his throat. He was no stranger to blood, of course not. He paid his own penances weekly, the lash in Father Humble’s hand meant to remind him of the suffering of his people and open his heart to their prayers. He’d had his share of falls as a child, lived through plenty of split lips and bloody noses when he was still curious and wild, climbing in and out of the church pews when there was no one in the sanctuary to stop him. He’d even seen a man killed once, the unforgiving arrow of a city guardsman piercing his heart as the foolish supplicant rushed for Jaehyun in the middle of the city square.
For some reason none of that startled him like this did. The Cavalier’s back, broad and muscular, was decorated with brutal looking strokes that decorated his tan skin from the tops of his shoulders all the way to his trim waist. Most were an angry red, though some were a vicious looking purple that made Jaehyun’s eyes water. His own penance was never so bad.
“What horrible sins have you committed?” he asked softly, crawling across the bed to kneel behind the Cavalier, so close that Jaehyun could feel the heat from his skin. “What could you have done to deserve this?”
“Nothing more than usual,” came the steady response. The Cavalier spoke calmly, though there was a tension in his shoulders that Jaehyun had never seen. “The problem is that I don’t cry out the way they want. They strike harder and harder, hoping I’ll break.”
Jaehyun’s breath caught in his throat. “And...do you? Do you break?”
The Cavalier looked over his shoulder, something dark and unreadable in his eyes. “Never.”
The response sent a shiver down Jaehyun’s spine, a curious thing that made his mouth go dry. He sat on his knees, posture stiff, palms placed carefully on top of his thighs. His fingers itched to touch. He was curious, dreadfully, dangerously curious at what it might feel like to have someone’s skin against his own. And once the thought lodged itself in his brain he couldn’t shake it loose, no matter how he tried.
“I think...I think I need to clean these,” he said, carefully crawling off of the bed and walking to the basin where they cleaned up at the end of each day. He lifted the cloth meant for his face, dunking it in water and carrying it back to the bed. “It might be cold,” he said, hoping the Cavalier didn’t hear the way his voice trembled. “Are you ready?”
“Jaehyun,” was the response that met him, the Cavalier’s voice low. “What are you doing?”
Jaehyun wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t stop. “I’m. I’m fixing your back,” he said, hoping he sounded just as firm. “Now hold still.”
At first he was careful to only let the cloth touch the Cavalier’s back, dabbing gently at the places where skin hard torn and dragged blood along the surface of his flesh. He was gentle despite the way his hand trembled, careful to not cause pain, to not truly touch.
He had to break the silence.
“What’s your name?” he asked, heart beating a funny sort of rhythm in his chest. “I’ve known you for nineteen years and I’ve never...never even thought to ask, which seems awfully wicked of me. You’ve only ever been my guardian. Will you tell me your name?”
The Cavalier made a small noise of confusion, the muscles of his back rigid as he tried to keep still. “What do you mean?”
Jaehyun stopped, frowning. “What do you mean, what do I mean?”
“I haven’t got a name.” He said it as casually as he said anything else, as if Jaehyun had asked him what he thought the weather might be like tomorrow.
“How could you possibly not have a name?” Jaehyun asked breathlessly. “Everyone’s got a name.”
The disinterested way the Cavalier spoke about it caused a strange sort of distress to fill Jaehyun, eyebrows knit and lips pursed together as he considered this. “But they must have - your mother and father, they must have…”
“Jaehyun.” The Cavalier spoke firmly, breaking him out of his confusion. “I was raised to be of service to the church. My parents didn’t know how yet, my role wasn’t decided on until you were born, but they knew I would be a devotion.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “They didn’t have money to offer the church as a tithe, and barely enough food to feed themselves let alone a baby. The kindest option for everyone was to give me away.”
He spoke so calmly of it, as if he had no real attachment to his past. No anger at being given up. That was fine, Jaehyun had enough rage for the both of them.
“And the church never thought to name you?” he asked, jaw clenched tight around his anger. “They never...never treated you as a person?”
“I’m not a person,” the Cavalier said with a shrug. “I’m a tool. I’m your tool. My existence centres around you and your safety, there’s no point in giving a hammer a name, is there?”
“You’re not a hammer,” Jaehyun said passionately. “You’re not a thing. You’re a person. You’re...you’re my friend, and I won’t have you nameless as if you don’t exist.” He put down the cloth, struck by a boldness that moved him without and deeper thought, any consideration over what he may be about to do. With a deep breath he lifted his palm, placing it flat on the Cavalier’s back, flush against his skin. He was careful to mind his wounds, settling his fingers just on either side of his neck where no lash marks marred his skin.
Immediately the Cavalier sat up, rigid as if he were staring some great danger in the face. “What are you doing?” he asked, voice high, panicked. “You’re not—you’re not supposed to—”
“If they won’t give you a name then I will,” Jaehyun said, words firm. “You’re mine, aren’t you? Then you’re mine to call as I wish.” He closed his eyes, letting the warmth of the Cavalier’s skin spread through him, from the tips of his fingers through his palm and to his wrist. The barest moment of human touch and Jaehyun was already drunk on it, dizzied by the way it made him feel.
The moment felt important. He had to take his time.
Jaehyun spent a few minutes dwelling on it; the idea of being nameless, of being raised as a tool rather than a person. He had never thought much about how his guard had come into his position. It must have been odd, to be given over as a child, to have your agency taken away at such a young age. The Cavalier was never given a choice as to what he would be. His position at Jaehyun’s side was ordained from the moment of Jaehyun’s birth, when the cardinals began to comb the land for the perfect companion for the Living God.
As the Cavalier sat trembling under his touch Jaehyun thought back on everything he’d ever read, all the stories he’d ever been told. He remembered the ones that delighted him most as a child, the tales he begged the nuns who raised him to tell again and again.
“John,” he said suddenly, the name springing from his mouth unbidden. “Your name is John.” He smiled softly to himself, stroking his fingers lightly over warm, firm flesh. “But to me you’ll be Johnny, because you are my dearest companion.”
The Cavalier—Johnny—stood quickly, so quickly that Jaehyun withdrew his hand as if he’d been scalded.
“Go to bed,” Johnny said, voice cold. “You’ve had a long day and it’s making you foolish.” He kept his back to Jaehyun, grabbing his sleeping shirt and pulling it over his head. It was clear that he was making a point not to look over as he laid on his normal spot on the floor, a thin rug that did little to provide him protection from the chill of the stones under his back.
Jaehyun stared in shock as Johnny threw the closest thing he’d ever seen to a temper tantrum, folding his arms over his chest and staring up at the ceiling. That, at least, wasn’t strange. He’d been trained from a young age to sleep with his eyes open lest danger strike in the night. Jaehyun watched until he saw Johnny’s breathing even out, chest rising and falling slowly, the only real indicator that he’d fallen asleep.
With a sigh Jaehyun rose from the bed, moving around to snuff the candles and casting the room in darkness. He changed into his sleeping clothes, climbing into his own lush bed and pulling his blanket over his chest. He didn’t know why wanting to name Johnny had upset his companion so. He felt properly guilty over it, the distress knotting in his chest and making it hard to swallow.
It was some time before he was able to fall asleep. Just before he did, the fog of unconsciousness plucking at his mind like fingers plucking at harp strings, he heard a soft, deep voice whisper softly below him.
Jaehyun smiled softly to himself and let sleep pull him under.
Chapter 2: The Cavalier
Please be aware that this chapter contains explicit physical and emotional abuse.
Jaehyun was three years old the first time he sat on the Rosewood Throne. He looked comically small in such an austere seat, his brown eyes wide and cheeks round and fat with infancy as he stared up at the nun who had placed him there. He made it an astounding fourteen seconds before he reached out to her, grasping with his little hands and chirping, “nanny?” again and again in an attempt to be picked back up.
“No, little grace,” Sister Clarity chuckled, smoothing down his hair with gloved hands. “You must sit, my love. This will be your place from this moment on and you must learn to keep it.”
The child would accept no such reasoning. He tried to hop down, immediately letting out a shrill whine when he was immediately set back in place. In a moment of frustration he let his tiny hands grab onto the arms of the throne, shrieking when the thorns pressed into his tender young skin. His whining turned into ugly wails that bounced off of the ceiling and echoed back, face turning pink, nose dripping.
“Oh, little thing,” Sister Clarity sighed. She looked back and forth, checking for onlookers before scooping him into her arms. “I know, it is not an easy path to walk. But you will learn to walk it, and you will be the kindest, gentlest soul the world has ever been blessed to know. But for now we all must suffer a bit, musn’t we?”
“He only cries because he knows you will spoil him so.”
Sister Clarity jumped at the stern voice ringing through the sanctuary, immediately putting Jaehyun back on the throne. She turned, offering a bow to the two men walking down the aisle to the altar. “Father Humble. Father Diligence. I apologize, the Divine was wounded by the chair and I wanted to check for blood.”
Humble frowned at the excuse, a look of disdain on his face as Jaehyun whimpered and tried to hide behind the nun. Diligence, however, smiled.
“His life will be one of wounds and suffering,” he said, hands clasped behind his back. “He must learn now to handle it with grace, to respond with the stillness of Heaven.”
Sister Clarity nodded, thought it was clear from her fidgeting that she struggled to ignore the toddler as he cried softly behind her. “May I clean his face, fathers?”
“Please do,” Humble said, raising an eyebrow at the child. “How are his lessons? He’s walking well? He does not seem to speak much, I wonder if we should introduce more...traditional methods of encouragement.”
“He walks and speaks well,” the nun said quickly, eyes wide. “I assure you Father, he is ahead of most children his age in his development. He is wonderful and kind, just a bit shy. Sometimes the fathers of the church frighten him, I think it’s the robes. They look so very official.”
Both Diligence and Humble studied her in silence as she scooped Jaehyun from the throne, cooing and whispering endearments as she drew a handkerchief from her pocket and cleaned him up. Soon his cries died down and he was left clinging to the front of her habit, his eyes wide as he looked at the cardinals.
“Nanny, nanny, wanna go,” he sniffled, cheeks blotchy and pink.
Sister Clarity sighed, stroking his hair away from his eyes. “Now now, don’t fuss,” she soothed. “You must be patient at all times. You must do as you are told and speak when spoken to, little grace.”
“None must hear the holy voice, other than those trained in the tending to of the Divine,” Diligence said calmly. “You must only speak when you are safe amongst your keepers, or in the confines of your bedroom.” He looked up at Clarity. “You’ll be bringing him along to the gardens. The boy has arrived.”
Clarity looked surprised at this, hugging Jaehyun a bit tighter. “Already? I thought he wouldn’t be sent for until his grace was at least five.”
“There was a change in plans,” Humble said, no warmth in his voice. “He has shown a remarkable maturity for one so young, and he has responded well to all lessons and training. It has been decided that, to build trust, he will be given to the Divine earlier than previously anticipated.”
Jaehyun heard little of their conversation as they spoke. The affairs of grownups were often so very boring, it was much more interesting to play with the prayer beads around Sister Clarity's neck. As he was carried from the sanctuary he touched them with his little fingers, watching the way the lights from the windows danced in their reflection. He only looked up when they walked into the garden, eyes lighting up as he assumed he was taken here to play.
"Oh yes! Down please! Nanny please, pu'me down!"
"Hush," Humble hissed. "Boy. Come here."
Jaehyun was distracted by his strong desire to complain by the three strangers approaching from the far side of the garden. Two were dressed the same as all the other grownups he saw walking by at the church, wearing heavy plated armour with hoods drawn over their heads. The other was a boy, barely older than him.
Jaehyun gasped, waving his chubby arm. "Hi! Hiiii! Hi!"
The boy looked at him, dark eyes curious. "That's...that's god?' he asked softly, head tilted slightly down, gazing at Jaehyun from under his lashes. He seemed almost wary of the fact, as if the Sister and the Fathers might be playing some sort of trick on him.
"It is," Sister Clarity said with a soft smile. “He is young still, learning how to be what he truly is, but this is indeed the Divine.”
Diligence glanced to Humble, who gave a small nod. "We will leave you to oversee their bonding," he said with a beatific smile. "See that his grace learns to trust the boy, it will be imperative to his protection later. We must know that they can rely fully on each other without forming too strong of an emotional attachment."
Sister Clarity looked confused by the instructions but nodded anyway. "Yes, father. Thank you, father." She watched as the men left them to return indoors, sighing. "The strangest things..."
"Nanny," Jaehyun said firmly, tugging at her prayer beads.
"Oh! I'm sorry little grace, you must be very curious." She turned back to the strange boy, kneeling as she set Jaehyun on his feet before him. "Be gentle with him," she told the boy with a kind smile. "He's not the best at walking just yet, so he can be quite clumsy." It was an admission, the opposite of what she told the cardinals, but it was important that the boy learn to be gentle.
The boy looked at her shrewdly before his eyes rested on Jaehyun. "Hello, your grace."
Jaehyun giggled, toddling over before crashing to his the ground not a foot before the boy. The boy immediately shot a panicked look to Sister Clarity, who simply gave him a wider smile and a small, indulgent nod. Somewhat comforted by the permission the boy knelt, taking Jaehyun's hands with his own before helping him clumsily to his feet.
"Hello, your grace," he said shyly. "I'm your cav—" He looked to Sister Clarity, who mouthed the word to him silently. "Right. I'm your ca-vuh-leer."
Jaehyun was twelve years old the first time the Cavalier saved his life.
It happened during mass. Most of the morning went on as it always did, a long, boring liturgy followed by a line of people waiting to leave offerings at his feet. Jaehyun knew he ought to be grateful for the gifts, but something ugly in his heart reminded him that they weren't his to be grateful for. He didn't need piles of gold and jewelry, didn't need all of the food better suited for the city's growing children, but he knew that the church didn't either. It was a curious thing that they whisked it all away after every mass, never to be seen again.
He felt angry. Sullen. Diligence said this was normal for a boy of his age and that the feelings would pass. Temperance said he ought to work on his scriptures, perhaps others would be able to use his feelings some day to contend with their own. Humble merely gave him a threatening glare, looking down his nose with little interesting in the feelings of a child.
Jaehyun tried to stay still as the line crept forward. To his right the Cavalier stood stock still, his bony fourteen-year-old body odd and out of place standing before the congregation. Jaehyun wondered if the gods before had felt this way. Did Heechul resent the church as he sat in the stiff and unyielding Rosewood Throne? Did Yeeun ever long to climb the church walls and escape?
It was hard, but Jaehyun managed to hold back the sigh that had filled the space in his chest. Instead he let out a slow, quiet breath, closing his eyes and trying to stay calm.
The moment he did so all hell broke loose.
There was a loud cry from not far in front of him. Jaehyun opened his eyes to see a hollow looking man with a face of intense rage running towards him from the front of the line, a knife held high as he rushed forward. So sudden was the attack that he even slipped by the Cavalier, making it just to the foot of the Rosewood Throne, swinging the knife towards Jaehyun's throat.
Jaehyun have never contended with the thought of death. This must have been a mistake on my part, he thought dully as the tip of the knife nicked his skin.
Suddenly the man was yanked back, the Cavalier taking a firm hold by his hair and using it to toss him to the floor, closer to the front of the line and farther away from Jaehyun's trembling body. The moment the man's back hit the ground the Cavalier had his rapier out, sliding through the air in a neat arc, slashing the man's throat. A thick red spurt of blood danced from the wound. It covered the front of the Cavalier, splattered across the unfortunate penitents standing too close, even landed across Jaehyun's bare feet.
It was warm. Jaehyun had never considered how warm blood would be. He wanted to scream but managed to keep himself quiet, eyes wide behind the veil.
Things happened very quickly from there. The church guards swooped in, rushing the congregation out of the cathedral and barring the doors. The Cavalier took Jaehyun by the arm, yanking him out of the throne and pulling him behind it. With Jaehyun's arm still tight in his grip he moved the heavy tapestry hanging on the wall, revealing a door Jaehyun had never seen before.
"Where does that—"
"Hush," the Cavalier said with an authority not suited to the pitch of his voice, opening the door and pulling Jaehyun inside. It was dark, pitch black, but that didn't seem to deter the Cavalier as he continued to pull Jaehyun along. "Don't be frightened. I'll keep you safe."
Jaehyun searched his heart for the truth before speaking. "I'm not frightened," he admitted, panting as he followed closely along. "I'm with you." It shocked him that he meant it. As frightening as things had been in the moment, he knew that the Cavalier would do anything to keep him safe.
The Cavalier squeezed Jaehyun's arm gently before continuing through the darkness, pulling Jaehyun to safety. After a series of twists and turns they came to another door, which the Cavalier pulled open with a soft grunt. Still, no light shone through. Jaehyun was just about to ask where they were when Johnny pushed something forward, a heavy clatter revealing the hallway leading to their quarters.
"Come. Mind the painting," the Cavalier said, still holding Jaehyun's hand as he led him through the opening. Jaehyun did as told, watching as the Cavalier quickly restored Father Honesty the Wise to the wall. Once the painting was back in place they continued their journey, up to their bedroom, the door locked securely behind them.
"Why did that man want to kill me?" Jaehyun asked, eyes wide. He looked to his feet, stomach turning as blood started to dry and oxidize against his skin. "What have I ever done?"
The Cavalier stood facing the door, rapier still held tight in his hand. It was clear from his posture that we was ready to strike at any moment, almost challenging another attacker to come through the door. "He's one of the Profane."
"The Profane," the Cavalier repeated. "They're a sect from out beyond the city walls who defy the notion of a living god. They resent the church and every so many years do whatever they can to disrupt the church's power over the city. The living god’s influence over the people."
Jaehyun was stunned. In all of his reading he had never come across the term "The Profane," had never known there was an entire group of people who wanted him dead. How could they not tell him? Didn't he have the right to know what he was facing in the world?
"Have they...tried anything before? With any of the other gods?"
"All the time," the Cavalier said, eyes still focused. "There were sixty-three different attempts on Kim Jongdae alone. Father Diligence says they liked to make themselves known quite often when you were small. For a while they moved you to live with the nuns of the convent so no one quite knew where you were."
"Well," Jaehyun said, voice shaking. "That's fun, I suppose. There's a group of cultists out there who have already tried to murder me and no one ever told me. Wonderful. Wonder when they'll actually win and kill me for good." His voice was bitter, thick with the uncontrolled emotions of a teenager put in a vulnerable position.
Suddenly the Cavalier was before him, gripping Jaehyun's shoulders and holding him tight. "Never," he said firmly, voice breaking in a way it often did these days as the pitch of it tried to burrow deeper into his throat. "Do you understand? I'll never let them touch you. I swear it."
Jaehyun had never heard someone speak with such conviction in his entire life.
Jaehyun was sixteen years old the first time was made to take penance.
He hadn’t meant to drift off during mass, he was just so weary. The previous night had been a night of little rest, his sleep plagued by violent nightmares and restlessness. Long before sunrise he had given up on any chance of peace and had instead decided to spend the night reading by the window, the crisp winter air drifting in to cool his heated skin. Moonlight danced lightly into the room to provide just enough light that he wouldn’t need a candle. The book felt heavy and comforting in his lap, the weight reminding him that he was awake and his dreams couldn’t haunt him here. With a soft sigh he placed his finger on the page, trailing it under each word as he read.
It wasn’t long until a voice broke through his silent study.
“You’re awake. You ought to be resting.”
Jaehyun looked up from his armchair, just able to make out the Cavalier’s head poking over the side of his bed through the darkness. He offered a small smile. “No, I couldn’t sleep. My dreams were troublesome tonight.”
Rising from his thin rug, the Cavalier walked across the room to sit instead at Jaehyun’s feet. “Prophecies?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. It was not often that he pressed Jaehyun to speak of his holiness and wisdom, but every now and then curiosity would get the better of him. The moments made Jaehyun feel warm. He liked when his guardian let him see moments of humanity.
“I don’t think so. I haven’t seen anything truly telling in quite some time, I don’t think.” Jaehyun frowned, looking out the window. “I don’t think, at least. Often the fathers tell me my dreams have deeper meanings, meanings that they say I am too young to understand. So perhaps there is a message to be had that I can’t yet grasp.”
His companion hummed, dark eyes thoughtful. “Perhaps you could tell me of them,” he offered. “Maybe I’ll see something you can’t.”
Jaehyun considered this, idly stroking his fingers over the open page now left half-read. There couldn’t be any harm in it, certainly. The Cavalier may not have been given the lessons of the clergy but he lived in such close proximity to them that he must understand some things. Beyond that, he was the closest thing Jaehyun had to a friend.
“Alright,” Jaehyun said softly, placing the pressed flower that he used as a bookmark. It was a snowdrop, delicate and white, brought back as a gift from the Cavalier after he’d been away training beyond the city walls. The Cavalier said they bloomed in the snow, pretty little things that blossomed under cold and unloving conditions. Jaehyun could remember how he had flushed at the knowledge, for reasons he couldn’t yet understand.
“I dreamt I was standing in the garden, looking at a door in the distance,” he said softly, once more turning his head to look out the window. Past the courtyard, past the walls that protected the church—and Jaehyun—from onlookers, he could see a sea of houses clustered together. The streets of Ardent were tightly packed, no space left unused. “Behind the door there was light, and I wanted to see where it came from. But as I moved to look hands began to reach out of the ground, grabbing at my ankles and trying to hold me back.”
The Cavalier huffed a breath. “Hand? Human hands?”
The question gave Jaehyun pause. He forgot that the Cavalier had fought the monsters beyond the city walls, had seen creatures in no way human. “I...believe so,” he said slowly. “I couldn’t see what they were attached to. They looked human, though grotesque. Bony and pale and sickly. As if they belonged to the dead.”
“It sounds frightening.”
“It was,” Jaehyun murmured. “I tried pulling away, but they gripped tight. I called out to you and you came, swinging your sword to cut them away, but every time you freed me from one, two more would rise in its place.”
The Cavalier looked surprised, posture becoming straighter. “You dreamt of me?”
“I dream of you often,” Jaehyun said, confused by his reaction. “You are a permanent fixture in my life. Some days you’re the only other person I see. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I’m just surprised, is all,” the Cavalier said, ducking his head down. At eighteen he could well and truly be called a man now, his shoulders broad and jaw sharp. As was tradition any time a city guard came of age his shoulder length hair had been cut into something shorter. He looked like a new person, though his gentle teasing and easy way of speaking were as familiar as ever.
“You’re foolish,” Jaehyun teased. He himself certainly didn’t feel like a man, his cheeks still round and his gentle black waves falling past his eyes. Every day he wore the same white linen pants, the same white linen tunic, the same veil meant to keep his features hidden. How was he to know if he had grown or not? He didn’t have access to mirrors, the only reflection he ever saw was thin and vague in the chapel windows. “Well? What is your scholarly assessment of my visions?”
The Cavalier hummed, rubbing his hand over the shadow of a beard hidden just under olive skin. He made a great show of thinking it over, even at one point closing his eyes and repeating the details of the dream to himself. FInally he looked back at Jaehyun, expression grave.
“I think you’ve been nicking wine from the larders before bed, and it’s making your head go all strange.”
Jaehyun squawked at that, lifting the book from his lap as if to throw it. The Cavalier laughed and fell onto his back, covering his face with his hands.
“I can’t believe you thought that I, of all people, might know. I’m just a sword your grace. Leave the thinking to those meant for it,” the Cavalier said with a grin, pushing himself up with his palms flat against the floor. “And go back to bed, you’ll be sorry tomorrow when you can’t stay awake during mass.”
He was right.
Jaehyun tried his best, he really did. Unable to move to pinch himself he resorted to pushing his hands slowly against the twisted thorns of the throne, hoping the pain would clear his mind and keep him awake. Unfortunately the pain failed him, and before he knew it a foot was nudging harshly at his own.
“Having a bit of a nap?” Humble drawled, hands clasped in his robe. As Jaehyun jolted awake Humble looked at him with disdain, peering down the bridge of his nose. “You are lucky you sleep with a particular stillness, none on the congregation would have known how you disrespected their prayers.”
“The people come to you with open hearts,” Temperance said as he made his way slowly down from the pulpit, voice withered and thin. “That you might turn away from their supplication is a sign of great disrespect, my child.”
Jaehyun blanched at that, hands clasping together to fidget restlessly in his lap. “No, I promise fathers, I take every single prayer seriously,” he stammered. He could see the Cavalier just beyond Humble, looking at him with narrow eyes. “I...I was plagued with nightmares last night, I didn’t sleep well, I really, truly tried—”
“Enough excuses,” Humble snapped. “Come along, we have business to attend to.”
Jaehyun looked to the Cavalier, who gave the barest shrug of his shoulders as Jaehyun stood and followed Humble. Instead of leaving through the large red doors as they usually would they walked instead to the smaller ones just behind the pulpit, doors that led to a tiny antechamber with little more in it than a prayer bench, a heavy looking wardrobe and a few candles. There were no windows to let in light, the walls decorated instead with paintings of the old gods.
Heechul of the Midnight Sun. Jongdae of the Glowing Sea. Byeongkwan of the Dancing Sky. Yeeun of the Shaken Earth.
Jaehyun looked around slowly, taking in the austerity of the little room. He’d seen the inside a few times in passing, but he himself had never been within. It was meant for penitence for the higher ranking members of the church, and as Jaehyun never had to pay penitence so he never had need to enter.
“Father?” he said softly, trying not to tremble. “Why are we here?”
Humble ignored him, instead moving to the wardrobe and pulling open the solid wooden doors. Jaehyun’s heart fell to his feet. Within he could see a host of vicious looking tools, whips and floggers and thick iron cuffs that dangled from hooks on the wall. Humble looked over the selection before selecting a thin wooden cane, shutting the wardrobe behind him.
At the entrance to the chamber the Cavalier was growing agitated, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Father Humble, his grace has yet to eat today. I need to take him to the kitchens to—”
“Kneel on the floor, Jaehyun.”
Jaehyun swallowed hard, cheeks burning hot. “What?”
“Kneel on the floor,” Humble repeated. “I will not ask you a second time.”
Jaehyun looked to the Cavalier, whose jaw was clenched so tightly that Jaehyun could see the muscles in his neck tensing and shifting. He didn’t understand. What was happening? Why was the Cavalier so upset? Still, he knew better than to keep Humble waiting. Jaehyun slowly lowered himself to the ground, kneeling there as told. The stones were cold through the thin fabric of his pants, harsh against his bony knees.
Humble began to walk around him in a slow circle, rhythmically tapping the cane against his palm. “We’ve been far too easy on you all these years,” he hummed, voice low and smooth. “We’ve let you become complacent. Lazy. You sit on a throne, the world coming to your feet while you do nothing more than wait. You can’t even bother to spare a thought to your devotees.”
“It’s not true,” Jaehyun argued weakly, looking to the ground. “I swear, Father. It was a mistake. I l-love my people, I am grateful to them—”
“You will speak when spoken to,” Humble shouted suddenly, the sound echoing around the room. Jaehyun jumped, trying to make himself smaller.
“I’m sorry, father,” he whispered meekly.
A long silence followed as Humble continued to circle him, like a vulture wheeling through the sky in search of pray. Jaehyun desperately wished that the Cavalier was within view, a comforting presence in all of this confusion.
“It’s time you began taking your own penance,” Humble said finally, stopping to stand before Jaehyun. He set his hand, soft and cold, to Jaehyun’s chin to lift his face. Jaehyun’s eyes were wide and frightened as he met his stare. “I positioned the idea from the start, but the rest of the church is far too soft. Far too swayed by a pretty face. But that ends today. You’ll feel the pain of the masses, and with each blow you’ll think on your duty to them. Am I understood?”
Heavy steps moved towards them as the Cavalier approached from behind. “You will not touch the Divine,” the Cavalier growled, and once again Jaehyun was stunned as he spoke with the low voice of a man and not the boy he once was. He wanted to crawl on his hands and knees to hide behind him, to take shelter in his strength.
Instead he sat where ordered. Jaehyun knew how this would end.
Humble turned to the Cavalier, a bemused smile on his face. “There are implements worse than a cane in that cabinet,” he said, voice dripping with contempt. “Would you wish me to use one of those instead?”
The thought sent a chill through Jaehyun’s veins. He turned to the Cavalier, managing a smile that did little to hide the way his stomach twisted into tight knots. “Please. It’ll be alright. Father Humble is right I...I deserve this. I ought to be more thoughtful.” The Cavalier didn’t seem swayed by his assurances, though he did manage a step back. He stayed in Jaehyun’s periphery though, a comforting presence in the corner of his eye. That was a small mercy, at least.
Humble moved as well, standing just to Jaehyun’s right. He held the cane in his left, tapping it a few times against the ground. “One word,” he said to the Cavalier, “and I’ll add another ten strokes.”
With that he brought the thin rod whistling through the air, landing harshly against the soles of Jaehyun’s feet.
Jaehyun knew that he ought to stay silent, that this was his punishment for disrespecting his people. Still, he couldn’t help the sharp yelp that fell from his lips, or the way his palms slapped against the floor as he fell forward. The hot sting of impact lanced through the soles of his feet and up to his knees, making his teeth clatter together.
“Sit up,” Humble said coldly. “Be still. Think on your transgressions.”
There were tears of shame prickling in Jaehyun’s eyes as he forced himself to his knees, muscles tight and trembling. He settled and tried to breathe.
The next three lashes were spaced out over the soles of Jaehyun’s feet, and though they hurt just as much as the first he was able to keep himself kneeling upright. Out of the corner of his eye he could still see the Cavalier hovering, desperate to come to his aid. That, at the very least, provided him a small scrap of comfort.
As Humble continued to strike he thought of the penance the Cavalier paid weekly, just like the rest of the country. It was mandated. Every seven days after mass the people of Ardent and the walls beyond would return to their homes, tithes left at the feet of the living god or in whatever small church they worshipped at, and pay their own penance. Jaehyun knew from his guardian’s stories that punishments varied depending on the guilt each repentant felt. Some, who walked a holier path, wore the lightest marks on their backs to signify their minor sins. Some, like the Cavalier, often felt so full of shame that their marks were carried with them well into their next punishment.
“What crimes could you commit to leave you feeling so heavy with them?” Jaehyun had whispered one night, watching the Cavalier toss and turn on the ground in an attempt to find a comfortable position to lay in. He would not say. He never said.
Another blow from the cane brought Jaehyun's mind crashing back to reality. The blows were starting to land on top of each other, the pain in his feet intense as he struggled to stay upright. He knew Humble. The man felt no sympathy, any begging or other such sign of weakness would simply make him angrier. So Jaehyun did his best to stay still, to dwell on his misdeeds.
He sat through another five blows. Another ten. Again and again the whistle of the cane slicing through the air interrupted the quiet of the antechamber, though it was soon followed by Jaehyun's ragged breathing. At the twenty-third blow he couldn't take anymore, a sob tearing itself from his throat as he leaned forward, pressing his forehead to the ground as tears fell heavily from his eyes.
"Please," he all but wailed, fingers scrabbling at the stone. "Please, no more! I'm sorry, it won't happen again, I'm sorry..."
There was a blessed pause as Humble withdrew, panting lightly. He was not as old as many of the fathers, and certainly not as thin and frail. Instead he was tall but quite sturdy, his hair a dark deep brown with gray starting to streak itself through the temple. His brow was stern above blue eyes, so uncaring that they seemed like chips of ice.
"I suppose you've learned your lesson," he said. He moved to tuck the cane back in its place, bringing his right hand up to massage the left. "Take him to his room and clean him up. I expect that this will not be a problem again."
Jaehyun was still weeping as Humble swept out of the room, the wooden door creaking behind him. The pain was unimaginable. He had so little context or conditioning to handle such brutality, his only real brushes with injury were the times he stumbled down the stairs and turned his ankle, or when he tried to climb the tree in the garden and fell, only to land on his wrist. The sprain had healed quickly enough.
But this...this was so much more than physical discomfort. Jaehyun was ashamed.
He hated the Cavalier seeing him like this, crying on the ground like a frightened child. He hated how his nose ran and his eyes felt puffy, the way his body was curled in on itself as he tried to ease the tension in his muscles. Hated seeming weak, especially in front of someone so strong. Let it be anyone else. Let it be the entire congregation who saw him torn down before them, made small and human. He would have all the eyes of Ardent see him beaten before he had to bare it before his protector.
With a soft whine Jaehyun let himself fall to the side, back to the Cavalier.
Silence fell over them as Jaehyun's weeping subsided. His singular focus on his own pain was finally broken as footsteps approached him, the heavy step of the Cavalier. Jaehyun felt him kneel, felt a gloved hand lay on his arm. It was so rare to be touched outside of being tended to by the physician that the gesture drew a small noise from high in his throat.
"Don't turn away from me," the Cavalier said softly, guiding Jaehyun to his back. When Jaehyun forced himself to look there was desperate concern in his eyes, their gazes locked together. "I'll let you hide from anyone else, but never from me."
Jaehyun hiccuped a small sob, nodding.
"Alright," the Cavalier sighed. "Let's get you to your room so I can tend to your feet. Put your arm around my shoulders."
It felt a bit dangerous to wind his arm around the Cavalier's neck like this, but Jaehyun did as told. Immediately he was lifting from the ground, one arm under his knees and another wrapped around his back.
"What...you don't have to do this," Jaehyun sniffled. "I can walk!"
The Cavalier rolled his eyes. "I almost put you down just to prove that you can't, but I think even that is a bad idea. Be still. I won't see you in anymore pain."
His response sent a small thrill of something through Jaehyun, though he did his best to pointedly ignore it. Instead he took the contact for the small miracle it was, letting his head drop to the Cavalier's shoulders as they made their way into the winding halls of the cathedral, heading towards the staircase that would bring them to their room. Their pace was a quick one, Jaehyun assumed that was to avoid running into anyone on their way back to privacy. To hide that, even fully clothed with no skin touching, the Cavalier was carrying the living god so intimately.
"It aches," Jaehyun said miserably. His feet were throbbing, an intense heat licking at his skin. "Is this what you go through every week?"
The Cavalier didn't answer for quite some time. First he got them safely to the bedroom, resting Jaehyun gently on the bed. He immediately went to fetch water and a cloth, bringing it along as he moved to sit at Jaehyun's feet.
"It is," he said finally. "What I go through, that is. It doesn't hurt as much after the first few times though, you learn to focus on your guilt and your sin and it turns the pain into something else."
"Into what?" Jaehyun asked, trying not to complain or draw away as the Cavalier began to clean the bottom of his feet.
That was a curious thing. The Cavalier was almost always with Jaehyun, only leaving on occasion to train beyond the wall and keep his skills sharp. Jaehyun couldn't imagine what trouble he could possible get into on those short trips away. Without thinking of the rudeness of it he blurted out, "What could you possibly need forgiveness for?"
The Cavalier paused his ministrations, looking up with a small smile. "Don't you already know, your grace? You are the receiver of our prayers, after all."
Jaehyun huffed a small breath. "You know that's not how it works. I can't see inside your head, people need the chance to prove their own heart through their actions. I'm just...just a conduit, I suppose. Father Temperance says I filter the prayers of the weary to Heaven, and it's through my mortal flesh that they are allowed to be holy after they die."
"I know the lessons," the Cavalier said softly. "I just don't understand, I suppose. You are our hope. Our connection to divinity and forgiveness. How..." He looked down to Jaehyun's feet, sighing. "How can they do this to you?"
"The duty of the church is to remind me of my responsibility to the people," Jaehyun said immediately, as if reading the words verbatim from a book. "If that means using pain to discourage poor behaviour then so be it."
The Cavalier looked up to meet his eyes. "Do you really believe that?"
"Of course I do," Jaehyun said quietly.
The Cavalier nodded. "Then it must be true." The words might, to someone else, sound like sarcasm, but Jaehyun knew his constant companion. He could hear the sincerity in his voice, see the steadiness in his hands. When the living god spoke the Cavalier believed him.
After his feet were cleansed the Cavalier used a small brush to apply ointment to the skin, finishing with fresh linen bandages that he left to retrieve from the infirmary. "There," he said softly, grabbing Jaehyun's blanket and draping it over him. "Rest. I'm sure that once this...incident makes it to the rest of the clergy they'll be incensed, it won't happen again."
It was decided a few days later that Jaehyun would take weekly penance, just like his people. Pain to remind him of his connection to them, pain to keep his heart open to their pleas. In the years since he'd grown quite used to the lash.
Jaehyun was nineteen years old the day he realized he had fallen in love with the Cavalier.
There was nothing extraordinary about the day. There had been no attempts on Jaehyun's life to sweep him off his feet, nothing out of the usual day’s activities that made him address his feelings in any particular way. It was nothing more than a sunny day that they spent together in the gardens, taking their breakfast in the sunshine.
There was only one day a week the church didn't hold either a mass or some grand parade through the city. One day that Jaehyun had no duties or responsibilities, where his time was his own to spend as he wished. Often he would pass the day reading in the libraries, the Cavalier gazing out the window with a look of intense boredom on his face. Today, though, they had decided to take in the fresh air together, munching on apples as they talked about nothing in particular.
"I don't think I've ever been stung by a bee," Jaehyun said to the Cavalier's wide eyed gasp. "It's not like we have a apiary on church grounds, and if I see them among the flowers I mind my own business. I've never had the opportunity."
"Never had a bee sting," the Cavalier mused. "I mean, I knew you were sheltered, but this goes beyond what even I could have imagined."
Jaehyun laughed, though it was tinged with sadness. "You're not wrong. The paths I walk never change, I think I'd let myself be stung by a thousand bees if it meant I could leave the cathedral."
A silence fell as the Cavalier watched him, eyes thoughtful. "I would show you the world if I could," he said softly, tilting his head to the side. “Even if I had to cut down a thousand foul monsters to do it.”
And that was it. Jaehyun gazed over, grateful that the veil covered the look of shock on his face. His heart did something funny and a little bit painful in his chest, and suddenly he knew that he would spend the rest of his days longing for the Cavalier with his entire heart.
Jaehyun buried the feeling as deeply as he could. With any luck at all he would never think on it again.
Chapter 3: The High Cost of Silence
CW: this chapters deals with Silencing, one of the church's awful practices. It's heavy, but have faith in Jaehyun.
“Wake up, your grace.”
Jaehyun was having the loveliest dream. He was standing outside as snow fell lightly around him, the flakes gently kissing his skin before melting away. There was a sword in his hand but he was in no danger. Not too far away Johnny stood watching him, the snow clinging to his long, dark lashes, dusting his hair with powdery white.
“You must wake up. Your day is full and Humble will be furious if you are not there to line up for procession on time.”
In his dream there was another man standing not far from Jaehyun, watching them with an amused glint in his eye. Though Jaehyun didn’t recognize him his smile was one of the loveliest he’d ever seen, bright and wide with eyes that sparkled and danced. His jaw was square and his long hair was pulled back in a pony tail, his clothing simple and of muted colours. He, too, held a weapon in his hand, this time a bow and arrow, though they rested casually at his side. Jaehun could sense another person nearby but before he could turn and look—
Jaehyun slowly opened his eyes, blinking up at Johnny through the bright light streaming into the bedroom. He groaned, trying to find a comfortable spot on the bare mattress beneath him. “Mm? What is it? I was dreaming.”
Johnny snorted, seemingly uninterested in his plight. He pulled Jaehyun’s blanket back, tossing it aside. “We have procession in one hour. You need to bathe, get dressed, and eat in that short period of time. You’ve no time left for dreaming today.”
He seemed to be in a foul mood but Jaehyun decided to let it go, forcing himself to sit and raising his arms in a grand stretch that had him moaning as he worked his limbs loose. When Johnny rolled his eyes Jaehyun grinned, hopping out of bed and heading behind the privacy screen. Waiting there was a tub filled with hot water. He stripped down, stepping in and beginning to scrub himself clean.
“I never hear them come in with hot water for the bath,” he mused, grabbing the bar of soap floating nearby and scrubbing himself until his skin was pink. The soap smelt of roses, lovely and sweet, the perfume clinging to him as he washed. He worked sudsy water through his hair, sighing happily as the grime of the week came away under handfulls of steaming water.
Johnny grunted from the other side of the screen. “You sleep like the dead. I’ve never seen anyone sleep as heavily as you do.”
Jaehyun hummed, making sure to clean under his fingernails. He so despised dirty fingernails. “I suppose. Father Diligence says I need to learn the benefit of rising with the sun. Though I think that if I haven’t yet, I’m not going to.”
He stepped out of the tub, letting the water drip from his naked skin for a few moments before grabbing the towel left for him. He rubbed it over his hair until it was only slightly damp and particularly fluffy, sticking up at all angles. Once his body was dry he pulled on the usual white linen shirt, the usual white linen pants, before stepping out from behind the screen.
“You’re cross with me today,” he pointed out, hanging the towel over the screen. “Why are you cross with me?”
Johnny eyed him with a look of disbelief. “I’m not cross, I’m in a hurry. At least one person in this room needs to have a sense of urgency. Put your veil on, we need to go.”
Normally Jaehyun would obey, immediately springing into action. Johnny always seemed to know what was best for him. Today, though, the tension between them made him feel raw. As if he didn’t have sturdy ground to stand on. Instead of doing as told he planted himself in the middle of the room, pushing his lips into a small pout.
“Stop it,” Johnny said firmly. “Pouting won’t work. We have places to be.”
Jaehyun held firm, jutting out his lower lip the slightest bit more. They sat like that for some time before Johnny sighed, shoulders sagging.
“Fine. I’m sorry I was cross, I just don’t want you to be punished for being late again. Now will you please put your veil on so we can go?”
Jaehyun instantly gave his most charming smile before settling the fabric over his head. “Will we still have time for breakfast?”
“We should,” Johnny said, setting his rapier into its hilt before leading Jaehyun into the staircase and down to the main level of the building. “I went ahead to tell them you’d be coming, there should be porridge waiting at the very least.”
“Thank you,” Jaehyun said fondly, trailing close behind. As they walked his mind wandered back to the night just a few days ago, to Johnny’s bare skin under his hand. He longed to reach forward and touch again, to let his fingertips brush over the back of Johnny’s neck, but he kept his hands carefully at his side. “Do you know if we have anywhere to be after procession?”
There was a moment of silence before Johnny stopped, turning to face him. “You’re not going to like it.”
The look on his face was enough to make a lump form in Jaehyun’s throat. There were few duties that he could not grin and bare, few tasks that truly made him uneasy despite the baseline melancholy that seemed to cling to his life. For Johnny to look so grave, voice so dire...
Jaehyun clasped his hands nervously in front of his chest. “No, please don’t say it’s what I think it is,” he practically whimpered, eyes wide behind the veil. A suffocating dread began to fill all the empty spaces within him, the room suddenly feeling terribly cold.
Johnny sighed. It was clear he wanted to reach out and comfort Jaehyun, but he kept his hand carefully over the pommel of his sword. “There is to be a Silencing in the afternoon,” he said slowly. “Immediately after we return from procession.”
In twenty-two years Jaehyun had never made it through a Silencing without being shaken to his very core. They were violent. Awful. Time after time he would have to wait until the end of the ceremony, wait until the congregants and fathers had all left before letting Johnny support him as he stood from the throne, legs trembling and stomach turning. On days like that he couldn’t seem to support his own weight, limbs too heavy with guilt and horror to move on his own.
“I don’t want to go,” he whispered, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. “Please Johnny, I don’t want to go.”
Johnny looked helpless, hands falling to his sides and fingers twitching slightly within leather gloves. “I know, your grace,” he said, voice just as soft. “I know it pains you. But we have no option. We must respect the wishes of the families and respect the sacrifice of the Saints and show our love to them by being present, at the very least.”
At the very least. Jaehyun managed to put one foot in front of the other, did it again, over and over until they were once more walking towards the dining hall. “Could you imagine?” he said, head spinning as he considered the horrors to come. “Having your tongue cut out?”
Johnny looked away. There was something hidden in his eyes, but he turned his head so quickly that Jaehyun could not find it. “There are worse things, I think, that one could do for love.”
They arrived to the dining hall just in time to eat a quick bowl of porridge and a few handfuls of dried fruits, Jaehyun carefully holding his veil away from his face with each bite so as to continue hiding himself without making a mess of the draping. The hall was full of church guards getting ready to start their patrols for the day, a boisterous group of men and women who chattered and joked and fought until the room was crowded with noise. They never paid much attention to Jaehyun or Johnny. In the beginning recruits might be awed by their presence, might trip over themselves to behave a certain way when in the same room as the Living God, but the wonder wore off quickly. Jaehyun was grateful for it.
“You’re picking at your food,” Johnny pointed out, buttering a piece of bread before taking a hearty bite. “You need to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” Jaehyun returned weakly. Even though the cooks had snuck honey and bits of apple into his porridge, just the way he liked it, he could barely make himself swallow each bite. It felt heavy, like it stuck to the lining of his stomach, weighing him down.
Johnny sighed, setting the bread back on his plate and leaning forward. “I know you aren’t. I know you’re upset. But if you’re going to be on your feet all day then you need something to give you energy.” He offered a small grin, fluttering his eyelashes. “A few more bites? For me?”
Jaehyun huffed a breath. “I’m not a child, you know,” he said even as he raised another spoonful to his mouth and forced himself to swallow. Johnny smiled triumphantly and Jaehyun dearly wished his face were uncovered so he could stick his tongue out at him.
Processions, though held every week without fail, were a grand affair. After breakfast every member of the church—save for a few guards left behind to patrol the cathedral—came together in a great group to parade about Ardent. It was seen as a way for the Living God to walk amongst his people, to see the world as they saw it and to bestow his graces on their homes and neighbourhoods. The cardinals led the procession, blessing the onlookers and gifting the people of Ardent with their smiles and grace. Jaehyun and his guard always brought up the rear, to give the crowd something to anticipate and make sure they stayed for the whole procession.
It was fairly overwhelming for Jaehyun, who had to kneel on an ornate platform that was carried by a group of sturdy looking attendants. It was the one day a week he got to truly go outside, not just wander the church gardens. Over the years the idea of leaving the cathedral walls had come to terrify him. He felt too exposed.
“What if there’s a Profane in the crowd?” he whispered to Johnny as his pedestal was fetched for, his last opportunity to speak to his companion for the next few hours.
Johnny hummed, seemingly unworried. “You know you’re safe while I’m at your side,” he assured. “You’ll be fine.”
Jaehyun took a shuddering breath and resisted the urge to nod. He watched as the usual bearers brought the platform over, lowering it just off the ground. The two men and one woman that carried him every week were quite large, sturdy and strong and built for manual labour, though it always amazed Jaehyun that they could lift even the platform without tiring. He sighed and shrugged, moving to take his place.
And then a curious thing happened. As Jaehyun went to step up one of the nearby guards offered a hand to support him, and out of pure instinct Jaehyun took it. Jaehyun barely registered the action until his mind landed on the buttery softness of his leather glove, the warmth of his hand underneath. He gasped, eyes going wide.
For the excitement it caused one would think a bomb had gone off. A few of the guards cried out in shock. Two of the bearers dropped their sides of the platform just as Johnny grabbed Jaehyun and yanked him roughly back, tearing his hand from the guard’s and making him realize just what he’d done. The guard was gloved, as they all were, but the mere fact that he reached out had set everyone into a panic.
As soon as Johnny had Jaehyun tucked safely in the grip of his left arm the right was on his rapier, drawing the thin blade from its hilt and brandishing it at the guard. It glittered menacingly in the light of the vestibule where they gathered, sparkling reds and yellows and blues that reflected off the face of the poor, terrified guard. “You forget your place,” Johnny snarled, eyes flashing with a fire Jaehyun rarely saw. “The Divine is not to be touched, boy.”
The guard, wisely, dropped to one knee in the face of Johnny’s rage. “I swear Ser Cavalier, it was an accident. I moved without thinking, I meant only to be of assistance.” His voice trembled and Jaehyun felt an intense pity for him, though he was trapped by his strict orders not to be heard in crowds. With Johnny’s current state of agitation he didn’t assume his Cavalier would hear him if he whispered. Instead he tugged at the sleeve of Johnny’s shirt, trying to get his attention.
“I ought to cut your hand off, let it be a lesson,” Johnny shot back. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Kunhang,” he said quickly, eyes turned to the floor in an act of submission. He tucked his palms dutifully behind his back, as if patiently waiting for the blow that was sure to come. “Wong Kunhang.”
Jaehyun was baffled by Johnny’s rage. It had been an accident, couldn’t he see that the poor boy was shaking? Jaehyun tried to wiggle out of Johnny’s grasp, but Johnny just held tighter. In response he tried to pinch Johnny’s arm, but Johnny merely ignored him as he continued to stare at the boy with an unfounded anger.
The crowd pressing in around them parted, revealing the captain of the guard making his way over to them. Of all the people in the cathedral the captain was probably the only other person Jaehyun had any sort of camaraderie with. Any time Johnny was sent beyond the city walls Kun would step in as his temporary guardian, though he always chose to post himself outside of Jaehyun’s door at night rather than keeping him any real company within. They’d even shared a few short conversations, which practically made them family when compared to Jaehyun’s interactions with most others. He seemed good. Kind, as far as Jaehyun could tell. Though now he looked anything less than pleased.
“Ser Cavalier,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Would you kindly stop terrifying my recruit and let him off the ground?”
Johnny’s eyes flickered over to Kun, and then back to Kunhang kneeling before him. It was as if a light suddenly flickered on in his brain. He quickly released Jaehyun, sheathing his weapon and forcing his muscles to relax.
“He...he needs to learn quickly,” Johnny stammered, his usual coolness missing as he was faced with his own tantrum. “Were the cardinals to see—”
“The cardinals did not see,” Kun said calmly. “And new recruits are allowed a certain amount of leeway when making mistakes, don’t you think?” He offered his hand to Kunhang, who eyed him cautiously before accepting the help and rising to his feet. “The Divine is to be treasured. Some might assume that means offering small courtesies as they would with anyone else. He didn’t think.”
Johnny stood in silence, chin raised but eyes lowered. “Very well. Be mindful, boy. Don’t slip again.”
“Ser, I won’t, I swear,” Kunhang said quickly, scrambling to resume his post.
Kun eyed Johnny cautiously, as if deciding whether a wild dog posed any threat to those around it. He stepped close, lowering his voice so only he, Johnny and Jaehyun could hear. “Pull yourself together. We are watched at all times, and it would not do to let passion cloud our judgement.”
Johnny gave a terse nod. Kun returned it before turning on his heel and walking away.
The gathered soldiers studied Jaehyun carefully for a moment. It was miserable, for once he was thankful for the veil and the fact that the surrounding men and women could not see the way his cheeks burned. Blessedly, most of those in service to the church grew bored with Jaehyun’s “otherness” after only a few months of service, so it wasn’t long before they all returned to their posts and their previous conversations.
“Are you alright?”
Jaehyun turned to look at Johnny, furious that he would have the audacity to ask such a thing. “I’m fine. I was always fine. I didn’t need you stepping in to terrify that poor boy and remind me that I’m not one of them.”
Johnny looked stunned, drawing back a step. “What do you mean? Jaehyun it’s my duty—”
“And another thing,” Jaehyun said, voice a low whisper so as not to be heard by those nearby. “What does he mean, don’t let passion cloud your judgement? What’s he on about?”
Johnny frowned, opening his mouth to respond, but before he could there was a call from the battalion leader at the front to come to order. Jaehyun shot Johnny a glare he hoped he could feel through the veil before stepping properly onto the platform this time, kneeling in the middle. They’d have a proper conversation about it later, once they were tucked safely in their room for the evening. For now everyone came to attention and the march began.
Processions, in Jaehyun’s opinion, were very much the same as mass. The only real difference was that he was being brought to the congregation rather than the congregation coming to him. The moment the church doors were thrown open and the hot summer air hit his face a nervous energy filled him, and he had to press his palms firmly to his thighs to keep himself still. Especially on that particular morning, being as agitated as he was from such a dramatic altercation not minutes before.
As always, a group of worshippers already stood in wait as the procession left the church and began to meander down the main street that bisected Ardent into two mismatched pieces. The moment they caught sight of Jaehyun they began to kick up a great din; prayers and supplications and praises layered on top of each other, over and over, until the air was filled with a great cacophonous noise that was almost dizzying. Jaehyun wanted desperately to cover his ears but instead he sat still, silent as always.
Just before his platform he could see Johnny, back straight, hand resting ever on the pommel of his rapier as he walked.
Johnny’s reaction to the guard had been strange. Jaehyun had seen him face danger time and time again with a cool head and a steady hand, to see him become so agitated over something so silly seemed out of place. It was curious. Still, he wasn’t wrong. If the cardinals had seen the guard offer his hand…
It would have been cut off at the wrist, to be sure.
The beginning of the march brought them past the more well-off homes of well-to-do families, the ones that sat in the front pews during mass dressed in elegant finery, who left great sums of money before Jaehyun with smug smiles on their faces. It was clear how the church rewarded them for such offerings. Their houses and businesses were allowed to be built so much closer to the Cathedral, basking in the warm glow of the the church’s favour.
Jaehyun thought that he might despise them. It was a guilty sort of thought, knowing that they hadn’t done anything truly wrong other than support the church. But the arrogance on their faces, the way they stared and smirked as Jaehyun was carried by, as if he must belong to them, made his stomach turn.
From the main street that led to the city gates they turned left, venturing deeper into Ardent, where money was scarce but true devotion was thick in the air. A ways ahead, past the rows upon rows of guards marching in formation, Jaehyun could hear the cardinals calling out their benevolences to the crowd. As they turned down one of the winding side streets a group of onlookers started singing out one of the more cheerful hymns. Rose petals were tossed in the air, catching on the wind and dancing around the revelers in swirls of pink and white. Jaehyun lifted his eyes to watch them float around him.
“Your grace! Your grace!”
Jaehyun dragged his eyes down and back to the crowd, seeking out the shrill voice calling out to him. His gaze landed on a small girl held aloft on her father’s shoulders, waving a little scrap of yellow fabric in the air. Jaehyun smiled as he took in her joy. Her red hair burned a bright coppery gold in the sunlight, her freckles obvious even from some distance away. Jaehyun’s eyes traveled down to her father, smiling at her joy, his clothing simple and roughshod other than the bright red peony pinned to his tunic.
Jaehyun’s blood ran cold. Peonies were the marks of the Saints. The bold, joyful little girl’s father was one of the Silenced.
Suddenly the joyful singing sounded discordant and threatening, Jaehyun’s stomach turning as he forced his eyes forward. In a few short hours there would be another Silencing. In a few short hours a handfull of children ranging from ten to fifteen years of age would be presented to the Divine, their tongues cut out as a sign of sacrifice and dedication to the Living God.
“It’s always the poorest families,” Johnny had told him once, passing Jaehyun a glass of water to chase the taste of sick from his mouth. He spent most evenings after a Silencing ill, unable to keep down the food that felt like heavy, burning shae in his stomach. “Which makes sense, with how the Saints are treated after their Silencing. People practically throw gifts at them in the streets to thank them for their sacrifice, as if it’s a choice they made themselves.” Johnny sighs, rubbing his hand over his face. “They’re often given quite a bit of food as gifts, which helps support the family until the Saint is old enough to move out on their own.”
Jaehyun dragged himself away from the bucket he’d been retching into, crawling miserably into his bed. “It’s barbaric,” he whispered. “How could they do this in my name? I hate it.”
“I’ve my suspicions, but none of them are well founded enough to voice out loud,” Johnny mused. “Go to sleep, your grace. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Jaehyun had wondered in the dozen or so Silencings since then what Johnny’s suspicions were, but he knew how well his Cavalier held on to secrets he did not wish to tell. Besides, he had his own thoughts to form, his own inklings to dwell on. Because Jaehyun of all people knew that the church liked people silent.
By now the procession was moving into Low Town, the poorer areas of Ardent far from the glittering tower on a hill that was the Cathedral. Jaehyun’s gaze swept over the crowded houses, the narrow streets, the way the people here seemed the most joyful and sang the loudest. It warmed him to know that despite the way tithing and taxing ravaged their homes, despite the peonies he saw pinned to more and more shirts as the people had less and less, they were at least happy.
His eyes flickered to a small building tucked at the end of a filthy looking alleyway, well tended to and clearly loved despite the way the city crumbled and fell apart around it. He saw it once a week on these marches, and once a week the sight of the building made something twist longingly deep within. He longed to run up to that ragged little home, to pound on the doors until he was let in and protected from this life he was forced to lead. To be taken in and to be loved.
Jaehyun sighed, closed his eyes, and waited for the procession to be over. Waited for that entire mess of a day to be over.
The parade marched on, winding about until it ended up back in front of the Cathedral. A set of guards pulled open the great oaken doors, the ones carved with ornate reliefs of the gods of old, great golden handles glimmering in the sun. The cardinals led the way back inside, followed by the congregants attending the Silencing. Once everyone was seated in their rightful place Jaehyun’s platform was set on the ground right before the doors. He stepped down gently, no hand to hold with which to steady himself, and crossed through the vestibule and into the sanctuary.
Each step he took down the main aisle and to the Rosewood Throne felt like a step towards his own demise. Immediately Jaehyun chastised himself for such a selfish thought. He was in no danger. Johnny’s presence not three feet behind him saw to that. The only ones in any danger were those poor sacrificial lambs being led to slaughter. Not that they ever died; the church saw to that, was ready with healers and heated blades to cauterize open wounds. A lost life would look poorly on them. But to give up ones voice? Jaehyun shuddered at the thought.
He was barely seated on the throne before Diligence began speaking at the pulpit.
“Today is a day of great sacrifice and great love,” he said, face radiating a fondness that Jaehyun knew did not reach his heart. “Today we honour those that show their devotion to the living god through action, through blood spilt and pain embraced. Today we canonize a blessed few who will kneel before the Divine and offer their lives to him.”
Their lives. He spoke as if the children would be dying. Jaehyun worried that he might be sick before the ceremony this time, instead of his usual illness that overtook him after. He wasn’t sure he was going to make it through this.
“The first Silencing was an act of perfect oblation,” Diligence continued, “an act of protection of the first living god by the first Cavalier. Ardent was locked in a bitter war with the Profane, then a veritable army and not just the skulking group of buzzards that they are now. The city burned. The Divine was well hidden away but his guardian was cornered, his capture iminent.”
Jaehyun tried to imagine such a thing. Johnny, back to the wall, knowing that the end was near. Bile rose in his throat and he desperately tried to swallow around the bitter taste as it hit the back of his tongue. He was going to vomit in front of the entire congregation.
“Knowing the Profane were drawing near, knowing that he would be tortured for the whereabouts of the Divine, the Cavalier knew he must silence himself so that no information came unbidden from his lips. In an act of bravery he drew his blade, using it to cut his own tongue from his mouth so that he may never speak a word against the one he so loved.”
He so loved. Jaehyun wanted to weep.
Diligence looks over the crowd, eyes warm. “Three new lives are offered today, here to honor that act of defiance and passion. Step forward, children.”
That small pit of dread in Jaehyun’s stomach grew to a great, gaping chasm as the three unlucky souls stepped forward. All were boys this time, all teenagers and all wearing matching expressions of terror. How Jaehyun longed to pull them into his arms, to steal Johnny’s rapier from its place at his hip and wield it in protection of these innocents. He had no training though, no strength in limbs made weak by infrequent meals and a lack of real exercise. How could he possibly help them?
“Now, children. Tell us your names.”
The idea of speaking before a room full of expectant watchers seemed to terrify the children much more then losing their tongues. Jaehyun could barely hear the first two, unable to make out their names. When the third spoke he managed to project a bit more, managing a hoarse “Jisung” before falling silent again.
This Jisung...he looked like a small, frightened animal, like a baby bird not yet ready to be pushed from the nest. Jaehyun’s palms began to sweat as he held tight to the studded arms of the throne, fingers itching to reach out. His mind was racing.
“Brave children,” Diligence said warmly, holding his arms open towards them. “Today you become the best among us. Today you give up a small piece of yourselves to gain so much more. Do you willingly lay down your lives today in service to the Living God?”
The first boy gave a small nod, though his eyes were filled with tears. The second looked nervously at a sturdy man in the front pew who Jaehyun could only assume was his father. The man gave a stern look, and the boy quickly nodded as well.
Jisung stared openly at Jaehyun, his wide, dark eyes seeming to beg for some sort of escape. Still, he whispered a hoarse “yes.”
Jisung, Jaehyun thought, heart hammering in his chest. I will not let this happen to you.
For a few silent minutes a small group of guards and healers prepared for the Silencing. A tray of instruments was lain out on a flimsy looking wooden table set before the row of teenagers, who were made to kneel in preparation. A guard stood behind each, prepared to hold them in place. One tended to squirm when one’s tongue was being removed.
Jaehyun could feel his muscles twitching, the thorns of the throne digging deeper into his palms as he gripped tighter. One or two pierced his skin, blood warming and wetting his palms. He payed the pain no mind. Pain was nothing to him.
“Jaehyun be still,” Johnny warned, voice low. “You cannot make this easier for them, so do not incur punishment upon yourself for your agitation.”
But Jaehyun couldn’t be still. He couldn’t let this happen. And he realized he might be ready to do something completely foolish for it.
A man in a red robe with a hood that obscured his face stood before the boy named Jisung. A guard lifted a knife from the silver tray, a wicked, curved thing that he handed to the hooded figure with reverence. The hooded man put his hand on Jisung’s head, firmly guiding it back. From his position Jaehyun could see that Jisung had begun to cry, thick tears running silently down his cheeks as he tried to be brave.
“Do not be alarmed by screams, or by blood,” Diligence called as a nervous energy ran through the attendants. “For screams are merely our cries of supplication, heard by the Divine and remembered when we earn our Heavenly reward.”
Jaehyun wanted to scream. He wanted to yell back that no, he didn’t appreciate hearing children wailing in pain, and no, he didn’t want this, and to hell with all of you for accepting this. He wanted to fight back. He wanted to do something.
He saw Jisung blink up at the Silencer, eyes shining with tears that he tried desperately to keep from falling. He saw the boy open his mouth, bottom lip trembling. He saw the Silencer raise his blade.
Jaehyun stood from the Throne.
The gasp that rose from the first few pews was enough to gather everyone’s attention and turn it on himself, from the Silencer to the teenagers to Father Diligence himself, watching wide eyed from his pulpit as Jaehyun took a few shaking steps from the altar. The moment he stood he chastised himself for it. He had no idea where to go from here. How to stop this. He simply stood there, palms bloodied, eyes locked on the three children desperately in need of someone to intervene on their behalf.
A few gentle footsteps from behind told him Johnny was approaching. “Jaehyun,” he whispered, clearly alarmed. “Jaehyun, what’s wrong?”
Jaehyun did the only think he could think of in that moment. He let his body go loose and pretended to faint.
The gasp this time was much louder than the first. Immediately Diligence lifted his voice over the crowd, calling for the guards to drive the congregants out and back to their homes. Jaehyun could barely hear him but he heard him call for the children’s families to take them home, keep them safe until they were sent for later.
Steady arms scooped Jaehyun up, Johnny’s body warm and firm against him as he carried Jaehyun back through the hidden passageway behind the throne. This time they weren’t alone though, he could hear two more sets of feet scrambling after them.
“What’s wrong with him?” Humble asked, the rage in his voice barely concealed. “Does he live?”
“Of course he’s alive,” Johnny shot back, voice trembling. It was a curious thing, he so rarely seemed afraid. “He must have fainted, some...some kind of fit, I don’t know.” His voice lowered, so much more soothing when he spoke next. “It’s alright, your grace,” he whispered. “I’m here, you’ll be alright.”
Jaehyun couldn’t help the small bit of guilt he felt at worrying Johnny, but more than anything he felt triumphant. Proud. He’d done something. He’d stopped the madness.
“To see him step forward during a Silencing,” Diligence panted, clearly struggling to keep up with Johnny’s much longer legs. “What will we tell the congregation? It’s unheard of.”
A door was opened, and Jaehyun could smell the strong herbs and harsh medicines of the infirmary. He knew the room well. He often ended up here after a particularly bad penance, the wounds on his feet and palms treated with liquids that burned so brightly that they brought tears to his eyes. Johnny set him down on a soft bed just as another set of steps rushed over.
“What has happened to his grace?” a nurse asked, voice high with alarm.
“He’s had some sort of fit,” Johnny told her, hovering close by. “He stood from the throne just before a Silencing and stood there for a moment before dropping to the ground.”
Immediately small, gloved hands began to flutter over Jaehyun’s body, pressing here and there, checking for wounds on his head or any sort of fever or chill. “Has he behaved out of sorts at all today? Perhaps some sort of sun sickness from being outside during the procession?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Johnny responded, clearly miserable over feeling so useless. “He seemed well enough, if not a bit solemn. Should we worry, sister?”
The examination continued in silence for a few long minutes. Jaehyun tried desperately to keep still, breathing slow no matter how his heart hammered in his chest. He was disobeying. There was a terror in that, no matter how glad he was to see those children walk out unharmed. Part of him worried that Humble would see through his ruse and punish him dearly for it, or worse, punish Johnny. They seemed to see how it pained him when his Cavalier bore the marks of his misdeeds.
“How was his appetite this morning?” the healer asked. “Did he eat well?”
“He picked at his food,” Johnny answered quickly, eager to be of any help. “He didn’t feel well, said it all felt heavy in his stomach. I had to beg him to take a few bites.”
“That’ll be it, I suppose,” the healer nodded, withdrawing her hands. “I’m sorry to say that there’s nothing to be done but sit and wait, he’ll come to soon enough and then I’ll be able to have a closer look. I suspect that all he needs is a hearty meal, there’s not enough meat on his bones.”
“Very well. We shall oversee his rest until he awakens. Leave us,” Diligence said to the healer, his voice dripping with the careful mask of kindness he’d built himself over the years. “We wish to pray over the boy until he returns to us.”
Immediately Jaehyun could hear the nurse excuse herself from the room, but he could tell by the silence that followed that Johnny must have held tight. It was his duty, after all, to see to Jaehyun’s health and wellbeing, and poor Johnny had no way of knowing that this was all an act. So he stood fast, even at the risk of the fathers’ displeasure.
“I do not wish to leave him,” he said, voice calm and cool. Jaehyun wondered how he spoke to the cardinals so without his voice shaking. “He is my ward, it is my duty to stay near at all times. Especially when he is in such a vulnerable state.”
Jaehyun would have done any penance to see Humble’s face in that moment. He so detested being told no. “You were not asked for your opinion, boy,” he said, voice cold and cruel. “As Cardinals of the Living God our word is law when it comes to his health and keeping. In a moment where prayer might save his life, would you dare stand in our way?”
“With all due respect, father—”
“Now, now,” Diligence cut in, ever the diplomat. “When he rises I’m sure he’ll need something hearty to eat to regain his strength. He’s so fond of those little honey biscuits they make in the kitchens, isn’t he? Why don’t you go round up a few of the cooks and ask them to make a batch for him? I’m sure he’d be delighted.”
It was a clever move, as it allowed Johnny to see after Jaehyun’s health while spoiling him a bit at the same time. There was a beat of silence before Johnny must have acquiesced, for the sharp tap of his footsteps grew farther and farther until the door shut and he was gone.
Immediately Humble and Diligence were hovering at his side. Jaehyun quickly closed his eyes tighter and pretended to be asleep, just in time for one of them to lift his veil to look him over.
“Still out cold,” Humble said, his contempt obvious in his voice as the veil was put back into place. Jaehyun wasn’t shocked by his lack of concern. Of the three cardinals Humble had always detested him openly, never once pretending to hold the smallest modicum of fondness for him. Diligence did a much better job at acting the beloved caretaker, showering Jaehyun with praises in public and at least behaving with a touch of civility in private. Temperance...Jaehyun didn’t see much of Temperance these days, the old man keeping to himself at the twilight of his life.
“HIs constitution has been...delicate lately,” Diligence said, words careful as he held tight to his facade. “I often inquire after his health, but his guardian says so little. Merely says that Jaehyun is well and that he would see to it were he not.”
A bloom of fondness unfurled inside of Jaehyun like a flower in the spring. Good old Johnny.
Humble scoffed. “His guardian has grown too fond of him. Sometimes I wonder if it might be best to separate them and assign Jaehyun a new Cavalier. I’ve heard his current guard is quite good outside of the walls, dealing with the beasts that roam there. We could always send him out and let nature deal with him for us.”
“Or have him locked in a jail cell somewhere and merely tell the Divine that he was sent to serve elsewhere,” Diligence mused.
Immediately that small blossom within grew cold and died, as if doused in ice water. Jaehyun dearly prayed that he did not show any outward distress at the idea despite the way his heart was beating rabbit-fast in his chest, each breath a struggle as anxiety started to seize his limbs. They wouldn’t dare, would they?
Another bout of silence as Diligence seemed to consider this. “I don’t dislike the idea. His Cavalier strengthens him. The Divine has become too comfortable lately asking questions, voicing his opinion on church doctrine without being asked. Changing things up...it might help us regain a bit of control. Silence his curiosity.”
“It would be risky,” Humble warned. “Worth it, I believe, but a risk. Is it a risk we’re willing to take?”
Diligence merely laughed, an arrogant sound that made Jaehyun want to scream with rage. “We shall position the idea to Temperance. He has a keen eye for how events may come to pass, he’ll be able to help us make the wisest decision.” With a hum he straightened the bedsheet covering Jaehyun, a strange act of domesticity for a heart so hardened. “Come. He’ll be in his study. Let us have our decision made before the week is out.”
Jaehyun listened carefully as they moved away, the heavy door of the infirmary opening and closing with a dull thud. As soon as they were gone he sat up, whipping the veil from his face. He couldn’t breath. His lungs felt like they were filled with lead, every inhalation painfully heavy despite how desperately he tried to draw breath. Hand twisted into a claw he clutched at his chest, as if trying to scratch away whatever weight was pressing down upon him.
He was terrified. It went so far beyond his love for Johnny, the warm affection he felt at having him by his side. Johnny was the only one who understood him. The only one who knew him as he truly was, and not as a figurehead of the church to be carted around from place to place while hiding himself from the world. Who could fill that space? Who could protect him from not only the world, but from his own fears like Johnny could?
The only thing he could think to be grateful for in that moment was that the fathers had been so brazened in speaking over him in such away. He supposed they would never expect Jaehyun to lie, to act out in such a way by choice. The living god was raised to be meek.
Before Jaehyun knew it hot tears were welling up in his eyes, dripping down his cheeks and onto the pristine white bedsheet that covered him. His tears were silent and his face frozen in a mask of worry, but they fell heavily, one after the other.
By the time Johnny returned, Jaehyun’s shirt was nearly soaked with them.
It took Johnny a few moments to notice Jaehyun’s state of distress. He was too glad to see him “awake,” rushing to his side with a plate of honey biscuits and what appeared to be a few pieces of candied fruit that he must have snuck from who knew where. “You’re up!” he exclaimed, putting the plate down and moving to sit at Jaehyun’s side. “I’ve been worried sick, you were...you’re crying. Jaehyun, why are you crying?”
Jaehyun did not respond right away. He was too busy staring at the far wall in a daze, mind swarming with a thousand different thoughts. What could they do? How could they fight this machine? Tears dripped past his lips and seeped into his mouth, salty on his tongue.
“Jaehyun.” A hand, gloved but so very tender, gently cupped his cheek. Johnny’s thumb swiped over the tears still running from his eyes in rivulets, gathering them and brushing them away. “Jaehyun, look at me. What’s happened?” Without thinking Jaehyun leaned into the touch, eyes closed as Johnny pulled the veil from his face and cast it to the floor. Suddenly that gloved hand was pressed against the bare skin of his cheek. “Jaehyun please,” Johnny begged, eyebrows knit together. “Please, let me help you.”
Slowly, like shaking sleep from tired limbs, Jaehyun forced himself back to the present. There were decisions to be made. Truths to tell.
“You said to me once that you would fight any monster to show me the world,” he said slowly, voice low and careful as he tried to pick out the words that would best convey his desperation without sounding crazed. “What if those monsters were human?”
Johnny frowned, searching Jaehyun’s face for something that might give him clarity. “I have before, I would again. Who’s hurt you, Jaehyun? What do you need?”
Jaehyun finally raised his eyes, letting them meet Johnny’s and holding him there. “I need to leave this place.”
In the years to come he would dwell on this moment, the hushed conversation that would serve as the turning point of his entire life. Johnny’s eyes went wide as he sat up, hand dropping to the mattress, lips parted as he searched for a response. “What...what madness is this, Jaehyun? What are you talking about?”
Jaehyun closed his eyes, shaking his head firmly as tears began to fall once more. “They...they thought I was asleep,” he choked. “The things they said, Johnny. The things they do. A room full of children, wailing and bleeding from the mouths in some sick act of penance? I never asked for that.” He looked up, eyes wild. “They do it in my name and I never asked for it, do you understand?”
“What did they say, Jaehyun?” Johnny asked, voice firm. He spoke as if Jaehyun was having some sort of fit, as if he was resisting the urge to shake some sense back into him. “What terrible things could they have said to make you consider something so drastic?”
Jaehyun smiled weakly. “Would you like the truth, or shall I say something pretty and godlike? Something to be written into my testaments, to be read by the masses when I’m dead?” He gave a small, broken laugh, wiping viciously at his tears. “They’re going to take you away from me. Send you somewhere far, somewhere to die. My only friend and I…” He looked away, swallowing hard. “But it’s so much more than that, don’t you see? I think they might put a blade in my back if they could find a way to control the masses without me. And maybe they will. Kill me, find someone of the same height and shape to put the veil over and call Jaehyun. It’s not like anyone would ever know.”
Johnny sat in a stunned silence, clearly trying to take it all in. “You’re speaking madness, Jaehyun. They would never separate us, I was given to you long before...I was trained for this, I…”
“It’s more than that,” Jaehyun said again, passion heating his voice. “The things they do, all in my name! Taking food from the mouths of the people, taking money from their pockets, never to be seen again, and under the pretense that I willed it. I cannot be a part of this anymore, Johnny. I…I want to be free.”
For the first time in their lives, Johnny looked terrified. “You’re ill,” he said weakly, shaking his head. “You’re just not feeling well. Sleep, eat something, your head will clear and then you’ll see how foolish this all is.”
Johnny didn’t understand. He didn’t understand that Jaehyun would wilt and die without him, like a plant left unwatered, hidden from the sun. He didn’t understand that somehow Jaehyun was going to escape this life of solitude. He didn’t understand, but he was going to.
“Johnny.” Jaehyun leaned forward, resting his hand on Johnny’s arm. Johnny flinched but made no move to pull away. “Johnny. Believe me when I tell you that I will either leave, or I will throw myself from the highest window in the cathedral to end this pain.” He was desperate. Begging. “Please. Am I your friend or am I your captive?”
The question transformed Johnny’s face from one of horror to one of desperation. In a moment of raw passion he ripped the glove from his right hand, taking Jaehyun’s and holding it to his heart. “I have lived my life in service to you and only,” he said with honest conviction, his fingers intertwining with Jaehyun’s own. “And I will do so until the day my heart stops. That you could even ask that...”
There was a flutter of hope in Jaehyun’s heart. He held tight to Johnny’s hand, drunk on the roughness of his skin, the fact that Johnny himself was the one to claim this touch. “Then you’ll run with me?”
Johnny took a deep breath, closing his eyes as he exhaled. Slowly, ever so slowly, he moved his ungloved hands to touch Jaehyun’s cheek. “I’ll get you out of here or I’ll die trying.”
Chapter 4: With Wings Spread
To Jaehyun’s fear addled mind escape should have been a sudden, spontaneous thing. The moment Johnny agreed to run with him Jaehyun expected a fast dash out the doors of the cathedral, running wildly into the night with the church close on their heels. He expected a fast pursuit by the city guard, and perhaps even a bloody standoff that ended in he and Johnny dying in each other’s arms. It seemed grim to imagine such a thing, but it was the nicest way he could think of dying. Loved. Free.
What he didn’t expect was a great load of sitting around and waiting.
He should have known better. Johnny was far too clever, far too methodical for such random action and fits of passion. The moment Jaehyun was released from the infirmary Johnny led him instead back to their quarters, doing a thorough search of their room and the hallway leading up to it before shutting and locking the door.
“Are we not going?” Jaehyun asked, eyes wide. He was already making a mental list of the few belongings he possessed that he might need to bring along. A few of his books. The pressed snowdrop. Perhaps his veil. What’s more, his hand and cheek still seemed to burn where Johnny touched him, clouding his thoughts and causing him nothing but distraction.
Johnny glanced over at him, frowning. “Now? Of course not.” He took a few urgent steps over to the window, glancing around into the night before closing the shutters. “We have to plan. There are things we’re going to need to acquire.”
“Like what?” Jaehyun asked, frowning. “What could we possibly need?”
The room was quiet, and the hushed tones with which they were speaking only added to the odd sense of urgency. Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, leveling Jaehyun with a stare. “Do you own a pair of shoes?”
Jaehyun paused in his pacing about the room. He looked at Johnny, frowning. Of course he didn’t own a pair of shoes. He was carried everywhere he went, on the rare instances that he left the church grounds.
“I didn’t think so,” Johnny said with a small smirk. “We can’t run wildly into the night, not if we want our chances to be good. If we were to leave now they’d clue in and come after us right away. I’m hoping to give us a head start so we can be far from the city walls before they even realize you’re gone.”
It made sense. Of course it made sense, Johnny was nothing if not sensible. Still, the idea of waiting made Jaehyun sick with nerves. He went back to pacing about the room, brain on fire with all the different ways this could go. Possibilities branched out before him, some with happy endings, most culminating in tragedy.
Suddenly, quietly, a bare hand wrapped around his arm, tugging gently. Jaehyun’s eyes went wide in his shock as he looked down to where Johnny touched him, fingers large and strong but incredibly tender around Jaehyun’s thin wrist. It was such a new, dangerous thing. Touch. True human interaction. He let his eyes flicker up to Johnny’s, his companion watching him with such raw honestly that Jaehyun’s heart skipped a beat within the cage of his ribs.
“Come,” Johnny said softly, giving another small pull. “Sit with me. We have much to go over.”
Jaehyun felt a small thrill of fear as he moved to sit next to Johnny on the mattress, pressing his sweating palms to his thighs. He couldn’t imagine what Johnny might want to talk about. Had he noticed Jaehyun’s love, simmering just below the surface of his skin at all times? Would Jaehyun have to contend with that, make excuses before they flew together into the night?
“There are things we need to discuss,” Johnny said softly. Jaehyun’s heart climbed into his throat. “Truths that need to be told and understood. Is that alright?”
Jaehyun stared at him with wide eyes, managing the barest nod.
Johnny took a deep breath before speaking again. “There is a very strong chance that, at some point, you will have to go on without me.”
That wasn’t the truth Jaehyun was hoping to hear. His heart crashed down to his chest, face twisting into a sort of horrified confusion. “What on earth do you mean?”
Johnny took a deep breath, looking to where he still held to Jaehyun’s wrist. He ran his thumb gently over the pale skin, so soft and lily-white next to the golden tan of his own. “Even if they suspect that you ran on your own, they will change the narrative to fit whatever suits them. The story will become that I kidnapped you, and they’ll spread that lie far and wide so that they may bring you back alive.”
He looked up, eyes grave. “A time will come that I will have to fight for you, and there is a chance that I’ll die doing it. And when that time comes you must promise me that you’ll run. Do not try and save me. Do not go back to their torments because you think you can’t make it on your own. Run. Survive. And do it for me.”
The silence that fell between them was heavy, and Jaehyun could feel Johnny’s hand trembling where it gripped to him. He frowned, a small flare of anger sparking inside of him. “What? Absolutely not.”
“No, Johnny,” Jaehyun said, defiant in a way he had never before been. “We aren’t just escaping for my freedom, but for yours as well. If we run, we run together. If we fight, we fight together. And if I die then I’ll die at your side, and at the very least we’ve chosen the way our story will end and I will run happily into death’s embrace.”
Before Johnny could argue Jaehyun adjusted his hand, pulling away slightly only to instead intertwine their fingers. “You are the only friend, the only family I have ever had,” he whispered, eyes shining bright with emotion. “If you think for one moment that I would not take any opportunity to repay you for all the kindness you have done me in our lives…” He looked down, smiling softly. “Then you’re even more of a stubborn idiot than I thought.”
Johnny merely watched him in silence, hand trembling in Jaehyun’s hold. Finally he sighed, nodding. “Very well. I should have known better than to even suggest such a thing to you.”
“You should have,” Jaehyun nodded, feeling a bit lighter as Johnny chose not to fight him over it. “I think we need sleep. It’s been a day of high emotions, and I suspect the next few days will be busy ones.”
“We’ll have to do our best to keep up the pretense of business as usual,” Johnny pointed out, slowly releasing Jaehyun’s fingers from his own. Jaehyun felt empty at the loss. “So they don’t suspect anything.”
“I wear a veil,” Jaehyun pointed out. “That won’t be hard.”
Johnny chuckled, standing to remove his bracers and the belt that kept his sword at his hip. “Mass tomorrow, penance the next day, another day of mass, and then your day off,” he listed as he prepared for bed. “The night of that last mass. That’s when we run. That should give us a day and a half to put distance between ourselves and the Cathedral.”
Hearing Johnny set a solid day for their attempt made Jaehyun’s heart race. He climbed into bed, trying to take deep breaths as he pulled his thin, scratchy blanket over himself. “Very well. I’ll be ready.”
Johnny snuffed the candle and took his spot on the floor. “I don’t think we can be ready,” he whispered, voice thick with honesty. “But we’ll try anyway.”
The next few days, as expected, involved a great amount of "business as usual." Unfortunately for Jaehyun this meant excessive amounts of time left with nothing but his own thoughts, sitting on the throne in utter silence and dwelling on the days to come. His mind often wandered to what their life might be like beyond the walls of Ardent. Where would they run to? How would they start over? In the hopeful part of his heart, the spark of joy that the church had not yet smothered, he created a rich, beautiful future where they were happy.
They would build a little home in the woods, far away from the threat of church guards and power-hungry cardinals. Johnny would teach Jaehyun to fight, to wield a sword against the mysterious monsters he had heard so much about but never seen. Jaehyun would teach himself to do small, necessary things, like mending clothes and cooking supper, and their life would be peaceful and quiet and blessedly happy.
Those small optimisms kept him looking forward to their escape, rather than becoming so overcome with fear that he changed his mind and called the whole thing off. Even if these silly hopes never came to pass, they gave him something lovely to dream about.
Two days after their pact was made Jaehyun woke to Johnny walking into the room, a tray of food in his hands. He sat up, stretching and yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Were you up very early?" he asked, blinking sleepily at Johnny as he set the tray of food at Jaehyun's side. "What's this?"
"I didn't sleep," Johnny admitted. This surprised Jaehyun, as he looked just as energetic as ever. "I had some business to attend to while you slept. And this is your breakfast, you've met before."
Jaehyun scoffed, though he gladly took the steaming bowl of porridge and tucked in. "Don't be clever, I've only just woken up," he complained around a mouthful of food. "Where did you go? And why are you bringing me breakfast in bed?"
Johnny watched him eat for a long moment before walking across the room, disappearing behind the privacy screen and coming back with some sort of package wrapped carefully in brown paper and tied with a string. He sat at the foot of Jaehyun's bed, opening the bundle and laying it out for Jaehyun to see. It was clothing. A simple tunic and trousers in muted colours, the fabric plain and the garments clearly homemade.
"For when we leave," Johnny said quietly. "You can't walk out of here in gleaming white, you'll be a beacon for anyone looking for us. I got you a pair of boots as well, as it isn't safe for you to go traipsing into the woods barefoot. If you're dressed like everyone else we might stand a chance, it's not as if anyone but a very chosen few know you're face." He looked up, grinning. "And I brought you breakfast in bed because I spoil you terribly, don't act like I don't."
The porridge was sugary and light as Jaehyun spooned it into his mouth, just the right amount of honey to satisfy his sweet tooth. Between the hearty breakfast and the clothing sitting before him, Jaehyun felt bright. Energized. They were putting together a solid plan, this was really going to happen. "Where are we going to go?"
Johnny's expression grew thoughtful at the question. "Out of the country," he said slowly. "Far, far from Ardent and the incorporated cities surrounding it." He began to wrap the clothing back up, standing to hide them away once more. "If we head due east from the gates of Ardent and travel for a few weeks we'll reach a port city called Orison, we'll be able to secure passage on one of the ships there."
"I've never been on a boat before," Jaehyun said, eyes wide. "Is it exciting?"
Johnny laughed softly, moving back to sit at the foot of the bed. "It's quite exciting. I think you'll like the feeling of the wind in your hair. If you don't get sea sick, that is."
"The rocking of the boat can make a man ill," Johnny said, folding his legs before him and resting his elbows on his knees. "I traveled with a fellow once when they were teaching me how to navigate on water. Remember when I was gone for the better part of the year?"
Jaehyun remembered. It was a miserable time.
"He could barely keep a meal down," Johnny continued, ignoring Jaehyun's sour expression. "Spent most of his time leaning over the side of the ship, retching every meal into the water. Made good bait for fishing, at the very least."
"That won't be me," Jaehyun said loftily. "I'll take very well to the sea, I think. I'll be captain of the ship in no time."
Johnny laughed, shaking his head. "You saw a live fish once and you screamed and hid behind me until the cooks took it away."
"I was startled, it was slimy!" Jaehyun argued, incensed. "You should have warned me!"
They continued their comfortable conversation as Jaehyun finished his breakfast, setting the bowl aside to take down for washing later. He drank a glass of water before climbing out of bed to clean up and dress for the day, scrubbing his face and brushing his teeth, picking up the ornate comb gifted to him by the fathers last year for his birthday and trying to make sense of his hair. Once tidied he pulled on his usual clothing, grabbing his veil and pulling it into place.
"Penance today, after mass," he sighed, watching Johnny arm himself. "Are you ready?"
Johnny shrugged, stepping into his boots. "It doesn't bother me, your grace. They've forced me to build up a great tolerance for pain and then act confused when I don't cry out at their lash. I'm happy to give them the exercise." He looked up, sighing. "Still, I am grateful for the opportunity to think on your service to us."
His words made Jaehyun squirm. No matter how the statement was intended it felt like a barb, digging uncomfortably into Jaehyun's skin and making him realize the odd power balance in their relationship. He swallowed it down, tucked it away for later. He was already asking so much of Johnny. He would wait to ask him to reconsider the nature of their relationship.
The closer they came to their day of escape, the faster time seemed to move. One moment Jaehyun was kneeling before Humble and being told of all of his wrongdoings and shortcomings as his palms were caned, the next he was listening attentively as Johnny tried to explain what plants were acceptable to eat in the wild without poisoning one’s self. He found little time to sleep in the evenings leading up to leaving, too busy mentally preparing himself for what was to come.
The thing about plans, as Jaehyun would find out, was that the more desperate you were for them to work out perfectly, the less chance that they would.
It was the night before their escape, and Jaehyun sat before his collection of books with a look of intense concentration on his face. Johnny said he could take one. Anything more would be too burdensome, so he was left with the almost impossible task of narrowing down which was the most important to him.
“They’re just books,” Johnny said pointedly, sitting on Jaehyun’s bed and carefully sharpening his rapier. “Just pick one and be done with it.”
Jaehyun shot him a glare, eyes narrow. “It’s not just a book, Johnny. It’s information. Escapism. These books have seen me through so much, I have to take this choice seriously.”
“As you wish,” Johnny said, clearly only to placate Jaehyun and end the conversation. He returned to his sword, moving the whetstone along the blade in long, even strokes, the ring of steel on stone humming through the room. Jaehyun opened his mouth to continue the argument—a new favourite hobby of his—when there was a knock on the door.
Immediately Johnny stood, sword moved to his dominant hand. “Get behind the screen,” he ordered, posture tense. They never received visitors in their quarters, especially at this time of night. On top of that, at sundown the next day, they’d be running from the place forever. A sudden visitor did not bode well. Jaehyun carefully tucked himself behind the privacy screen, holding his breath as Johnny opened the door.
The long silence that followed was terrifying. Jaehyun held his breath as he waited for any sort of indication of what to do, imagining this grand elaborate plan that involved him jumping out of the window and praying his leg didn’t break so he could run. Then Johnny huffed a breath, voice low when he spoke. “What the hell do you want?”
“I’m so sorry, Ser Cavalier, but I...I need to speak to the Divine.”
It took some time to put together who it was that Jaehyun heard speaking. The voice seemed only vaguely familiar, and the way it trembled made it even harder to place.
“What business would you have with his grace?” Johnny asked, voice cold. “None are to see him or hear his voice. What makes you so special?”
“Because, Ser Cavalier, it is a matter of life and death.”
Though the speaker seemed terrified he spoke bravely, and in a flash Jaehyun remembered why he recognized the voice. Jaehyun stepped out of hiding to see Kunhang standing before Johnny, chin lifted and jaw set.
“Johnny,” Jaehyun said, walking over to touch his guardian’s shoulder. “It’s alright.”
Kunhang looked at Johnny, his hard won boldness turning to curiosity. “Johnny...you have a name?”
“Given to me by the Divine himself,” Johnny said coolly. If a stranger weren’t present Jaehyun would laugh at the posturing, the pride.
Suddenly Kunhang’s eyes snapped to Jaehyun, as if Johnny’s mentioning him reminded the soldier that he was there. His eyes went wide, hand moving to his heart as he stared with wonder in his eyes.
“Your grace,” he whispered. “They said...I thought I couldn’t…”
“As far as I am aware, no one has ever gone mad from seeing my face or hearing my voice,” Jaehyun said kindly. “You are perfectly safe here with us.” He tugged Johnny to the side so Kunhang could step fully into their quarters, Johnny’s glare obvious as he pushed the door shut.
“I can see why they might keep you covered,” Kunhang said softly, the reverence in his voice making Jaehyun shift uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “You’re beautiful, your grace. It might distract the congregants from their lessons if they could see you like this.”
Immediately Jaehyun’s face went hot in a way that could only mean his cheeks and ears were glowing red. “Please, you mustn't speak like that,” he murmured. “I’m only...I’m only me, there’s nothing special about that.”
“You said you have a matter of life or death to discuss,” Johnny cut in, folding his arms.
Kunhang startled, as if remembering his task. “Oh, yes. Your grace, the cardinals know of your plan to run.”
It was as if Jaehyun’s blood turned to ice, running cold through his veins and chilling him from the inside out. His head began to spin, and the only thing he could do to keep himself upright was cling tight to Johnny’s arm. He was swaying. Light-headed. “How do you know?”
Kunhang looked as if he greatly regretted having to be the one to deliver this information. “They’ve begun to spread word to the guard that you’ve taken ill, that there is a sickness in your heart and that it might drive you to do foolish things,” he said in a rush, breathless in his hurry to explain it all. “Down in the barracks...well, there’s no great deal of love for the fathers, you see. Captain Qian left to get more information and the recruits all started talking…”
“About what?” Jaehyun asked breathlessly.
Johnny adjusted their positions, his sturdy arm wrapping around Jaehyun’s waist and keeping him steady. “How did you translate this into us trying to run?”
“I put two and two together,” Kunhang said, finally scraping together enough bravado to shoot a glare in Johnny’s direction. “I didn’t get into the church guard with a brain full of nothing, you know.” He turned back to Jaehyun. “They increased guard presence around the cathedral exits without telling us why. The city gates, too. It was the only assumption I could make.”
Jaehyun felt helpless. Hopeless. He looked up at Johnny, heart stuck in his throat. “What do we do now?”
“We leave tonight.”
Jaehyun’s eyes went wide as Johnny left him, kneeling beside the bed and reaching under to gather the clothing he’d collected for Jaehyun. “Tonight? I’m...Johnny I’m not ready, I’m not!”
Johnny paused in his preparations, looking up at Jaehyun with a soft look in his eyes. “Jaehyunnie. You will never be ready, it’s a mistake to think that one more day might make all the difference. This is our last, best chance at getting you out of here. Do you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” came Jaehyun’s response, almost unbidden. “With my life.”
“Then trust me in this,” Johnny said with a soft smile, walking over to press the clothing into Jaehyun’s arms. “Change.” He turned to Kunhang, expression thoughtful. “You...you’ve done well, Kunhang. I am in your debt.”
Kunhang seemed stunned by Johnny’s candor. He straightened, offering a smile that changed his face entirely. He suddenly looked young, bright and excited and so perfectly human. “I am glad to serve the Divine,” he said, cheeks flushing a gentle pink. “Your grace, I hope...I hope that you find joy, wherever you end up. And I hope that someday we will meet again, when you are free of all of this.”
With a bow and a smile he left, leaving a stunned Jaehyun in his wake.
Time seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. One moment Jaehyun was staring at the door with wide eyes, the next he was dressed in civilian clothing as Johnny gave him a rundown of the next few minutes of his life.
“Do your best to stay behind me,” Johnny instructed, sliding his sword into its sheath. “I’ll examine every path, every corner, and check for guards or anyone who might give us away. If we find trouble along the way you run, do you understand me? Run as fast as you can and I’ll find you once I’m free.”
Jaehyun swallowed hard, hands clenched at his sides. “Where are we going to go? Which way do we run?” They had envisioned a silent walk out of the cathedral, sneaking to the gates and slipping out. How covert could they be if the cardinals were already aware of their plans?
“We still run for the gate. We’ll get out by force if we must.” Johnny crossed the room to stand before Jaehyun, eyes full of some strange, hidden emotions that Jaehyun could not recognize. He took Jaehyun’s hands in his own, squeezing gently. “Are you ready?”
Jaehyun shook his head. “I’m frightened,” he whispered honestly, clinging to Johnny like a lifeline.
Johnny smiled softly. “I know. I am too. I promised you though, didn’t I? That I’d get out you out of here or die trying. I have no intention of dying today, Jung Jaehyun, so that only leaves us one other option.”
His words were so sincere, his hands so steady and warm, that Jaehyun could not help but believe him. He was filled with gratitude so immense that tears sprang to his eyes, hot and heavy as he tried furiously to blink them away. It would not do to cry, not now. They were in danger and he would need to keep his wits about him. Still, someday he would need to find a way to thank Johnny for this. For his life.
“Alright,” he nodded, voice hoarse. “Alright. Let’s go.”
Jaehyun’s first step out of their bedroom felt oddly like his first taste of freedom, despite having miles to go before they were truly in the clear. Still, his heart soared at his first deliberate act of rebellion. He had picked the lock and was spreading his wings, moving closer and closer to the cliff edge where he would jump, catch the wind, and soar.
He followed carefully behind Johnny, steps light and purposeful even though his heart beat heavily in his chest. As soon as they’d descended the stairs outside of their bedroom Johnny led him to the hidden door in the wall, the one behind the painting that he’d only been through a handful of times.
“Don’t the fathers know about this passage?” Jaehyun asked, watching Johnny return the painting to its place once they were through. “Won’t they be able to find us here?”
“The father’s know, but they wouldn’t expose it to the rest of the guards,” Johnny explained quietly. They were able to walk faster now, traveling quickly down pitch black corridors. Jaehyun found his hand held tightly by Johnny’s, guiding him this way and that in the dark. “They like having escape routes. Information that the public isn’t privy to. If these passages were exposed they’d have no method of escape if they themselves were ever in trouble. Instead of searching the passageways themselves they’ll post heavier guards around the cathedral to catch us elsewhere.”
That seemed reasonable. Still, Jaehyun’s palms began to sweat in Johnny’s tight hold. “Do you think we’ll have to fight?”
Though he didn’t respond verbally, the brief pause in Johnny’s step answered Jaehyun’s question. He suddenly tugged them both to the right, walking in a direction entirely new to Jaehyun.
“Where on earth are we going? I didn’t know the passage led in this direction,” Jaehyun gasped, reaching out with his free hand to feel along the cold stone wall.
“The passage leads in many different directions,” Johnny explained. “You never know in which direction we’ll need to run. Now hush, I’m trying to count my steps.”
Jaehyun had always wondered how he knew where to go in these sightless journeys.
They came to a flight of stairs, Johnny’s grip on Jaehyun tightening as they suddenly began to travel up and up and up. Each step was slow. Careful. It seemed counterproductive to their journey but every time Jaehyun tried to move faster Johnny would simply grab him tighter.
“It would not do to have you fall down the steps and break your neck,” he said calmly. Jaehyun didn’t understand how he could be so still, so unbothered. Wasn’t he frightened too? He sighed and forced himself to walk slower, carefully ascending each step.
“The shoes are strange,” he admitted in a small voice. “I keep feeling as if I’m going to trip over them.”
“You’ll grow used to them,” Johnny assured. “They’re necessary once we’re past the city walls. You haven’t had the time to grow the callouses that I have, every step would pain you if your feet were bare.”
“You could always carry me,” Jaehyun joked, trying desperately to sound as if he weren’t terrified. The words clicked in his throat, mouth sticky and dry. He wasn’t sure he sounded very convincing.
Johnny laughed softly, almost pitying. “Part of me suspects I’ll be carrying you anyway, Jaehyunnie.” They finally reached the top of the stairs, both panting lightly. Jaehyun thought they must be quite high, after all that walking. “Alright. We’re just before a door. Hold your breath and let me listen, alright?”
Wondering where the door might lead, Jaehyun took a great gulp of breath and held it in his lungs. He could hear a soft shuffle and then Johnny was opening the door, moonlight cascading into the passageway.
“The wall,” Jaehyun gasped, the sticky summer air damp against his skin. “I’ve never been up here…”
“Lest you be seen from afar,” Johnny reasoned, stepping carefully out. He pulled Jaehyun into a crouch, only occasionally peeking over to see if anyone loitered about the church grounds. He must not have liked what he saw, as he quickly hid himself from sight once more. “It unnerves me that there’s none guarding the walls. Wouldn’t they have all of their bases covered?”
“Would they be as concerned if they expect us to flee tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Johnny said with a hollow laugh. “They will do quite literally anything to keep you under their thumb, Jaehyun. You are property. Very valuable property that they will guard with their life.”
As much as Jaehyun knew it to be true, it still wounded him to hear himself referred to in such a way. From Johnny nonetheless, though he knew Johnny thought no such thing of him. He took a shaking breath, doing his very best to hunch over as low as possible, thighs already starting to ache at the strange position he found himself moving in. He opened his mouth to complain but immediately thought better of it, closing his mouth with an audible snap.
“Where are we going? How are we going to get down?” he whispered instead, eyes wide.
“There’s a staircase at the northwest corner of the wall,” Johnny said as he pressed on. “We’ll be able to climb down there.”
“You must know that the northwest stairs are heavily guarded, Ser Cavalier.”
Jaehyun felt his heart shudder to a stop before forcing itself back into motion with a few laboured beats. He fell forward onto his knees, looking frantically at the approaching figure of Kun rounding the corner.
Johnny stood, hand already reaching for his rapier. “I do not wish to spill your blood,” he said firmly, putting himself between the captain and Jaehyun’s trembling form. “But I will be taking him out of here, even if I must go through you to do it.”
Jaehyun knew he was meant to be still. He knew he was meant to be silent, to let Johnny handle everything and to follow close behind. But Jaehyun was tired of being silent. Kun was a good man, had become something very close to a friend, and Jaehyun was desperate.
“Please,” he said softly, slowly rising to his knees. “Please Kun. I know you’re heart is kind. I know that you have come to care about me as a person, instead of the pretty possession the church trots out to make everyone bow at their feet.” He swallowed hard, clasping his hands in front of him. “Please. I will wither and die here, Kun. I can no longer live in this cage. Please, let us go.”
As Kun studied them a few heavy drops of rain began to fall, far too loud against the stone walls for how fragile the moment felt.
Kun heaved a sudden sigh, lifting his hands to rub furiously at his face. “They already know you’re out of your quarters,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re searching for you. The best I can do is send them in the wrong direction.”
Jaehyun looked stunned. “You’d do that?”
“You’re not the only person who sees the truth of things,” Kun said, not unkind. “You have more friends than you know.” He turned to Johnny, the soft expression melting into something harder, more stern. “Use the ivy on the east wall to climb down. It’s your best chance, there are no entrances on that side so the patrol will be light. I’ll create a diversion to draw them away. Whatever you do, avoid the main entrances to the city. You won’t make it through.”
Johnny gave a solemn nod. “Thank you.”
“Yes, well. Thank me by getting him out of here,” Kun scoffed, clapping Johnny firmly on the shoulder. “I wish you both luck. I would say that I hope we meet again, but I never want see you behind these walls again, your grace.”
With a short bow he turned, running off in the hopes of giving them a fighting chance. Jaehyun looked to Johnny with wide eyes, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat. “What do we do if we can’t use any of the city gates to leave?”
“I’m not sure,” Johnny admitted, and it was all too clear that he was putting on a brave face for Jaehyun’s benefit. “Let’s get away from the church, we’ll go from there.”
Jaehyun nodded, though the sweat on his brow betrayed his nerves. They once more sunk down, hunched over as they doubled back and traveled away from the northwest corner of the wall.
Out of nowhere, like lightning through his skull, pain lanced through Jaehyun, sending him crashing once more to his knees. He clutched at his head as he desperately fought back a startled cry, biting down hard on the inside of his cheek to force himself silent. It was agony. White hot and sharp, the ache was nearly blinding as he rocked himself back and forth, trying to force himself through it.
And then it was gone, and he was left only with a picture in his mind.
Johnny knelt before him, eyes wide and panicked as he took Jaehyun’s face in his hands. “What is it? Are you alright? Jaehyun look at me!”
Jaehyun managed a delirious smile, a bit dizzy as the memory of the pain clung to him like a film. “I’m alright,” he slurred. “And I know where to go.”
It was clear from the look on Johnny’s face that he thought Jaehyun was having some sort of fit. He offered his hand, helping Jaehyun off of his knees and guiding him along. “What do you mean? Was it...was it a vision?”
“I’m not sure,” Jaehyun said honestly. “But I had a thought, and the moment I had it I knew it would lead us in the right direction.” He gently squeezed Johnny’s hand. “Do you trust me?”
“No,” Johnny deadpanned immediately, ducking to avoid the swat Jaehyun aimed for the back of his head. “But you are the Living God, so if you say you know the way then I’m going to follow.” He stopped to peer over the side of the wall, heaving a deep sigh. “The way down will not be easy,” he warned. “Climbing can be difficult. Whatever you do, hold on tight. Are you ready?”
Jaehyun dearly wished he would stop asking that. He was never going to be ready, but he didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. “I’m as ready as I’m going to be.”
That seemed to be enough for Johnny. “I’ll stay beside you and lead you down. Don’t let go, Jaehyung.”
“I’m not going to let go,” Jaehyun grumbled back. “I don’t wish to fall to my death, you know.”
“I’m glad you’ve retained your sass in this time of trial,” Johnny snorted, hoisting his leg over the wall, first one and then the other. Jaehyun leaned forward curiously, watching as Johnny took great handfuls of the creeping ivy that clung to the stone. “Alright. Now you try.”
Jaehyun wondered, briefly, who gods were supposed to pray to. Did he ask himself for protection against breaking his neck? Would that work? There was no time to consider it, as Johnny was looking at him expectantly with a hand reaching out for his own. Jaehyun took a deep breath and carefully shimmied himself over the wall, feet scrabbling to find a hold on the wall before allowing himself to move his hands to the thick vines.
“Oh no,” he whispered, eyes wide. “I definitely cannot do this.”
“Yes you can,” Johnny whispered back, fierce. “You are stronger than you think. Now. Move your feet first. Lower yourself into your next hold, and only then do you move your hands from their current position.”
Jaehyun carefully did as told, fighting the fierce shaking of his limbs and the way his hands grew clammy and wet as he tried to carefully ignore his fear. “If I were to fall from here,” he began, voice wavering, “would I die?”
“Most certainly,” Johnny said, barely breathing any harder as he focused on getting not only himself, but Jaehyun down safely. “So do not fall.”
“You’re terrible at being comforting,” Jaehyun said, foot kicking absently in midair for a moment before it found a new hold. He kept going like that, down, down, a few inches and then a few more, until his arms began to ache and the sweat on his palms made it difficult to hold on. And just when he couldn’t handle anymore, just when he was genuinely worried that he may slip and fall and break every bone in his body, he was on the ground.
“There,” Johnny said softly, taking Jaehyun’s hands an examining his palms for any lasting damage. “All of that, and your hands are still bruised from yesterday’s penance. Impressive, your grace.”
Jaehyun couldn’t help but blush. “Yes, well. My choices were climb or die.”
“And you picked the right one. Where is this mystery place I’m supposed to follow you to?” Johnny glanced around before taking Jaehyun by the hand, darting off of church grounds and past the cobbled street that wrapped around the cathedral. Slipping between two houses, Johnny made sure they were under cover before turning to Jaehyun to await further instructions.
Only Jaehyun was standing with his hands clasped over his mouth, eyes wide.
“Jaehyun? What is it?” The alarm in Johnny’s voice was tinged with an urgency that bordered on demanding, but he did his best to stay calm as he examined Jaehyun for any sudden injury. “Did you see someone?”
Jaehyun shook his head, swallowing hard and willing his mouth to speak. “No, I...I’ve never set foot on the ground outside of the cathedral. I’ve never...I’ve never walked beyond the church gardens.” There were tears in his eyes as he looked to Johnny, shaking from head to toe. “We’re actually out.”
“We are,” Johnny said softly, taking Jaehyun’s hands in his own. “And we’ll have time to celebrate, I promise. But we’re not free yet Jaehyun, we’ve a ways to go. Can you tell me what you saw in your vision?”
Oh. Right. Jaehyun quickly wiped his eyes, steadying his nerves. “I know the way. Follow me.”
They were careful to stay in the shadows as they traveled through the city. It was a bit disorienting, confusing to walk behind buildings and stick to dark alleys, but Jaehyun found that if he could at least see the main roads periodically he could find their way. They traveled past the richer homes right by the cathedral, further and further away as the city grew darker, dirtier.
“Jaehyun, where could we possibly be going in Low Town?” Johnny asked in a worried whisper, voice hissing through his teeth. “Who could help us here?”
“I don’t know,” Jaehyun murmured, keeping his eyes forward as he pressed on, forever confident that Johnny would follow if he led. “I know where we’re going, but I don’t know what we’ll find there.”
Johnny muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like “gods”, but followed anyway.
The moment Jaehyun saw the house at the end of the alley his heart began to race. It was just as it was every procession day, rundown but welcoming, calling out to him to step inside, find out what was within. In his vision he had seen it standing like a beacon, the door open to them. He could hear a whisper in the back of his mind that had promised safety. Protection. Bolstered by that feeling of comfort, he lifted his hand and knocked on the front door.
There was a moment of waiting where Johnny looked like he might throttle Jaehyun for knocking on random doors in the middle of the night when they were still so far from freedom. Though he couldn’t make out the words Jaehyun could hear hushed voices inside, and soon the door opened to reveal a wide-eyed nun with a housecoat thrown over her sleeping clothes.
Jaehyun smiled softly, tears springing to his eyes as he looked at the woman before him. She was tall, just a bit taller than Jaehyun himself with a round face and kind eyes. Though she was not yet someone Jaehyun would consider old, her light brown skin had begun to show the signs of a life of hard work and sacrifice. Her tight curls were flecked with silver that danced in the light, curls that Jaehyun could just barely remember tugging on with childish glee when he was still young, smitten with the way they would pull taught and bounce back into place.
Sister Clarity stood before them, pure shock on her face as she looked between them. Jaehyun couldn’t help the way he grinned, heart full to bursting as he bowed to the only mother figure he had ever known.
Chapter 5: Hello, Nanny
It felt a bit like coming home. Sister Clarity, the only nurturing figure Jaehyun had ever known in his life, suddenly threw her arms around his neck and pulled him into a tight hug that knocked the breath from his lungs and nearly sent him to his knees. It felt...familiar. Comfortable in a way it shouldn’t, with how touch-starved he’d been his whole life. But somehow her arms felt like they belonged around him, and in a moment there were flashes of memory that he hadn’t been able to recall in a very long time.
A warm smile beaming down at him as he wrote his name for the first time during his lessons. Calm, soothing words as he cried over a scraped knee. A gloved hand stroking his hair when the fathers’ backs were turned. Loving eyes watching him play in the gardens, watching as a young Johnny hovered nearby.
He’d been six years old when Sister Clarity had been sent away. All of his schooling and care then fell to the fathers and, well...they hadn’t taken very kindly to the job.
Jaehyun gave a small, choking sob, viciously trying to fight the tears gathering in his eyes. The memories continued to flood in, and with them came the realization of just what he had lost when she was sent away. “I didn’t remember you enough to realize how much I’d missed you,” he apologized, burying his face in her shoulder. “I’m sorry I forgot, nanny.”
“You poor, darling boy,” she whispered. “Don’t you worry, I’ve missed you enough for both of us.”
They continued to cling to each other, the emotion overwhelming Jaehyun’s already tender nerves, until there was a polite cough just beside them. Jaehyun turned to see Johnny watching with a raised eyebrow, foot tapping against the packed dirt below.
“I don’t mean to rush this reunion, but we are being hunted,” he murmured. “Might we come inside?”
Sister Clarity turned her gaze to look Johnny, just as stunned as she was moments ago upon seeing Jaehyun. “Oh, sweet thing. I hardly recognized you, you’re a man now, aren’t you?” She pulled reluctantly away from Jaehyun, opening the door wider and motioning them inside. “Come, please. You are always welcome with us.”
The door was barely shut behind them before Clarity pulled Johnny into her arms, smothering him in the same motherly affection as she had Jaehyun not a moment before. Johnny looked at Jaehyun with wide eyes over her shoulder, awkwardly trying to decide what to do with his hands. He settled on stiffly patting her back as Jaehyun tried to stifle his laughter.
“Sister?” All three looked up to see a young nun watching from an open door, a look of concern on her face. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is wonderful,” Clarity said, quickly wiping her eyes. Just greeting some old friends.”
Jaehyun had a strong urge to cover his face, to shield himself from the eyes of the girl looking between them with no small amount of curiosity. They had no way of knowing who they could trust. This young sister, seemingly innocent, might have strong loyalties to the church. Might turn them in. Just as he went to duck his face it occurred to him that she had no way of knowing who he was. He lived his life veiled and hidden away, his anonymity meant that no one other than a select few knew the face of the living god.
“I’m sorry we woke you Sister Prudence,” Clarity added. She turned to Johnny and Jaehyun, eyes sparkling. “Come, we can speak with some privacy in my quarters.”
As they followed through the convent Jaehyun let his eyes drink in everything he saw. He so rarely got to experience new places. If he was lucky he, on occasion, stumbled on a room in the cathedral he had never seen before, but those instances were few and far between. Now though... now there was so much new. From the simple rugs thrown across the floor to the candles burning in front of paintings of the old gods to the spiderweb high in a darkened corner, he consumed everything he saw with a ravenous hunger.
From the main vestibule they moved through a small chapel, nothing more than a few simple wooden benches and an alter covered in glowing candles and bright flowers. After that came a staircase that led to a second and then third floor, where Sister Clarity opened an old door that protested at the use by emitting a low groan. Her steps were brisk as she led them inside.
“Here we are,” she said, practically breathless in her excitement. “Make yourselves at home.”
The room inside was small, but it had been made into a home. Sister Clarity might live a life of austerity but she clearly had her small pleasures. Her mattress was thin but covered in a thick, hand-knit blanket that looked lovely and warm, spread over a neatly made bed pushed into the corner. There was another clutch of brightly coloured flowers next to a small portrait of a young man done in pencil, a single candle burning next to it. There were a few chairs, a few books, not much to her name but she obviously lived a life of carefully tended happiness. It pleased Jaehyun to know she lived well.
He wandered over to the desk, letting his fingers touch the delicate petals of a yellow daisy sitting in a glass vase. He smiled with a particular softness, eyes trailing to the image in the gilded frame. “Who is this?” The face seemed familiar in a way that made Jaehyun think that perhaps he’d seen him in a dream. “I don’t recognize him, he’s not one of the old gods…”
He turned to see both Johnny and Clarity staring at him, matching looks of concern on their faces. Their stares made him feel terribly exposed, folding his arms across his body as if to shield himself from view. “Have I...said something wrong?” he asked softly. “Should I know?”
Johnny stepped forward, a look far too near to pity on his face. “I’d forgotten that they never let you have a looking glass.” He turned to Clarity, eyebrows knit. “How...how did you know? He’s never uncovered in public. This can’t have been a guess, it’s too true of a likeness.”
“I saw his face in a dream once,” Clarity said, soft, almost amazed at her own words. “I sketched what I could remember. I’m not sure if it was a vision, or perhaps just my brain putting together a good idea of what he might grow into from what I saw of him as a boy. Or maybe the heavens thought it important that I know. That’s how I knew it was you, when I saw you standing at the door.”
Dread filled Jaehyun’s stomach at the implications of their words. He immediately felt foolish, eyes moving to stare at his feet. “It’s me, isn’t it.” Not a question. A statement, a declaration of his ignorance. In a room full of people, he was the only person their who didn’t know his own face. He was no better than the rest of the congregation.
Johnny wasn’t wrong. The fathers detested the idea of vanity, had raised Jaehyun completely in the dark as to his own image and what his appearance may be. There were no mirrors available to him, the only reflections he ever saw relegated to hazy, warped things in thick glass windows or basins of water. None of them were ever clear enough to give him a real idea of who he was.
“People are brought in to tend to his shaving and other personal matters,” Johnny explained to Clarity. “It just...it never occurred to me…”
“Please stop talking like I have some terrible illness that I’ve only just learned about,” Jaehyun snapped, avoiding not only their sympathy but his own image sitting on the desk. It was as if the small portrait was mocking him, the idea of looking at his own face somehow shameful. He couldn’t bring himself to so much as glance over, no matter how curious he felt. “It’s...it’s fine. It’s just the truth of it, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Strong arms wrapped tight around him, and Jaehyun found himself sinking immediately into Johnny’s embrace. He shuddered and drew a deep breath. Johnny had held him before, plenty of times, in fact. Carrying him gently when he was ill, gripping him tight while pulling him out of dangerous situations. The feeling of Johnny’s embrace was one Jaehyun knew well. But this, being held for no reason other than comfort…
Jaehyun could get used to this.
“I’m sorry if my reaction gave offense, your grace,” Johnny murmured softly. “Sometimes I forget all of the strange guidelines they’ve set for you. Would you like to look?”
Jaehyun nodded softly, cheeks burning as he hid his face against Johnny’s shoulder.
“Alright,” Johnny soothed, giving him a small squeeze. “Let’s look.” He kept one arm around Jaehyun to steady him as he brought him closer to the desk, lifting the frame with his free hand so Jaehyun could see. “It’s a perfect likeness, this...this is what I see when I look at you.”
Jaehyun swallowed hard and let himself look. In the drawing he was gazing just off to the side, eyes cast down, dark lashes stark against pale cheeks. He knew well enough that his hair was curly and dark, but now he could see the way it framed his face and spilled past his forehead and nearly into his eyes. It was strange. Knowing that this was him, he felt he ought to have some sort of feelings of understanding. Self-recognition. Instead he felt little connection to the person on the paper.
“I’m done looking,” he said softly, turning away. Johnny, faithful and understanding and wonderful, didn’t press him. He merely set the photo down, giving Jaehyun’s shoulder a small squeeze before stepping away.
“I’m quite sure you didn’t come here to admire my silly old drawings,” Clarity said, sitting in the small reading chair in the corner. She smoothed the skirt of her habit, simple and grey and worn with time. “What in the name of the holy gods are you doing out here on your own?”
It suddenly became immensely important that she understand, that they have her support in their escape. Jaehyun fell to his knees at her feet, eyes wide as he took her hands in his own. “We’re running away, nanny. Johnny is taking me away and we’re never going back to that horrible, wicked place ever again.”
Clarity looked surprised, but not at their desperation to run. She looked up between them, eyebrows knit together. “Johnny?”
Jaehyun glanced over his shoulder at his guardian, a rosy pink mottling his pale cheeks. “They never gave him a name,” he said quietly. “So I gave him one myself.” Briefly, shyly, his eyes met Johnny's. Jaehyun was surprised to find a soft blush that matched his own. "And that's the thing of it, nanny. He's been with me my entire life and they never even gave him a name. How can they...how can they claim to be holy men and do the things they do? Treat people the way they do?"
Clarity sighed, lifting one hand away to stroke Jaehyun's hair back from his face. He couldn't help but melt into the touch. His eyes fluttered shut, head tilting to the side to encourage her fingers, gentle but sure as they carded through his locks. He wondered, briefly, if this was what having a mother must be like. How nice it must be, to have somewhere there to love you unconditionally.
"I'm not surprised you wish to leave," she said softly, lowering her voice so as not to be heard by anyone passing by her door. "You've lead a very strange life, my little love. I wish more than anything that I could go back in time and give you both a proper childhood, protect you from the way things were." There was a sad smile on her lips as she glanced at Johnny. "Especially you, darling thing. You've had so much responsibility for so long."
There was a soft click as Johnny swallowed, looking away. "I don't regret my place in life," he murmured. "I was born to be the Divine's protector. And I have to protect him now, Sister. He is owed a life and I intend to give it to him."
Outside Jaehyun could hear some sort of shouting, the heavy sound of boots thudding in the distance. The guard must be combing the city. Just as Johnny said, the church would not rest until Jaehyun was back in their possession. And if they could not bring him back alive then they would return with his corpse in a pretty glass box. If they could not have him as a god they would have him as a martyr.
"How will you escape the city?" Clarity asked, still petting Jaehyun's hair as if calming a worried child. "They will come looking for you here. You know that, Johnny. Any place that has any sort of connection to Jaehyun will be searched thoroughly."
"I know," Johnny whispered, and for one awful moment there was true fear in his eyes. "My only plan is to storm the gate and fight through the guard so Jaehyun can escape. If they cut me down so be it, I just need to buy him time."
Immediately Jaehyun opened his mouth to protest, but Clarity gently hushed him, tapping a finger to his nose. "Jaehyun, my love. My sweet boy, who has been so much to so many people for so long...is this what you want? Knowing that they will chase you, knowing that monsters wait beyond the city gates...do you truly, in your heart of hearts, wish to run from the place?"
Jaehyun had his answer with no hesitation. "More than anything," he whispered, hoping she could see the truth in his eyes.
Clarity nodded, looking back to Johnny. "And you. You've been fighting your whole life, but this time it will be against an army you've always had at your back. Are you prepared for the fight ahead?"
Johnny nodded, expression grave.
"Alright," Clarity said softly, gently moving Jaehyun's head from her knee and standing. She moved to the rickety old bookshelf in the corner, opening a small box and pulling out a silver key. "Come along."
Jaehyun watched in confusion as she moved to the door, stopping to glance back. "Where are we going, nanny?" he asked, taking Johnny's offered hand and pulling himself to his feet. "We can't go back out yet, you can hear the city guard combing the streets."
Sure enough the marching and raised voices seemed to draw nearer and nearer, matching the rhythm of Jaehyun's frantic heart. They were too close. And Clarity was right, this was one of the few places in the city Jaehyun had any sort of connection to, thanks to his nurse.
"Come, I'll explain as we walk. We must be quick," Clarity said, urging them along. She led them back into the hallway and down the stairs, back to the first floor and into the chapel. "You've heard of the Profane, have you not?"
"I've read on them," Jaehyun said, shrugging one shoulder. "I know they want me dead, and that they were the reason the third Divine died so young."
Clarity nodded. She walked purposefully to the small altar at the front of the room, running her hand over the polished wood. "They've been a problem for the church since the very start, but whoever leads them now is particularly keen on putting a stop to their power. There were a few attempts on your life when you were quite young, and for some time the fathers moved you here to the convent for safe keeping."
It didn't make much sense, why would Jaehyun be safer in a small convent full of women then in a mighty cathedral protected by an armed guard? "Why would they do that?" he frowned, head tilted slightly to the side. "I'd been told I stayed here, but I never understood it."
"You did not have a guardian assigned yet to your care," Clarity explained. "So instead of using the sword they decided to hide you away, telling most of the sisters here that you were an orphan in need of care. Myself and the Mother Superior knew the truth, and that's why I was moved to the cathedral when you were moved back. I'd been doing so already and they saw no reason to assign a new nurse."
Jaehyun still didn't understand. "But how could this place have offered me any real protection?" he asked. "What if someone found out?"
Clarity smiled, kneeling next to the alter. She slipped the key into a small hole right by the base, turning it until it clicked, then giving a mighty push. The entire structure seemed to slide smoothly away, revealing a hole in the ground with a ladder descending into the darkness. "You were safe because there are secret ways out," she said with a smile that was almost mischievous. "And only I have the key to them."
Johnny rushed to look down the hatch, eyes wide. "Where does it lead?"
"Past the wall. The idea was to give us an escape route in case the church ever fell," she said in a hushed tone. "If the city was ever compromised and our last hope was to run we would have a way to do so."
Behind them, past the closed doors of the chapel and beyond the vestibule, a solid fist pounded on the convent door. Jaehyun jumped, freezing in place. "It's them, they're here," he choked, looking at Johnny with panic twisting his features. "We have to..."
"You need to go," Clarity agreed. "I'll close the entrance behind you. Run, and run together. Don't ever convince yourselves that you'll ever have to go alone." She looked to Johnny in particular, gaze firm. “You’ve sold yourself on the idea that you must die for him. He doesn’t need you dead. He needs you alive.”
Jaehyun stood, tears in his eyes. He felt foolish, he'd cried more in the past week then he had in his entire life, and yet he couldn’t stop himself. "Come with us, nanny," he pleaded. "Run away with us. Let's all start over together."
Clarity smiled softly, lifting her hand to touch his cheek. Her own gaze was full of just as much emotion, of hope and promise and a love she'd done so little to hide despite what the fathers had demanded of her in the small amount of time they'd shared together. "Jung Jaehyun, if life were perfect I would pack my things right now and run with you. But I can't go on this adventure, my little love." She leaned in, softly kissing his forehead. "But I can throw them off the scent and give you two a fighting chance, so that is what I’ll do."
She looked at Johnny, beckoning him close. Though his steps were reluctant he let her take his hand, pulling him into their embrace. "Be good to each other," she whispered. "Look out for each other. No one on this entire earth shares the bond that you two share, and that alone will protect you. I know it."
There was another heavy knock against the door. She pulled back, eyes wide. "Now go. Run. Don't look back, just spare a thought for me now and then. That's all I need." She hurried them to the hatch, grabbing a candle from the pulpit and pressing it into Johnny's hand. "There's a large stone that blocks the entrance to the path you'll be taking, push hard enough and it will move."
Johnny nodded, lips pressed together. He paused, looking almost as if he was going to say something profound, before dropping instead into a deep bow. "Thank you, Sister." With those simple words he stepped to the ladder and disappeared into the darkness.
Jaehyun wanted to stay. He had so much more to say to her, so much more to ask. But he could hear another Sister opening the door and speaking to a guard, so all he could do was follow Johnny down the steps. The glow of the candle barely lit the way, and soon Clarity pushed the pulpit back into place and cut off the small bit of light that filtered in from the chapel.
Johnny and Jaehyun were alone once more.
For quite a long time all Jaehyun could do was stand there, trembling in the darkness, Johnny's face the only thing he could see in the small amount of light the candle afforded. He swallowed hard a few times, breathing through his nose and trying to fight back the cresting wave of emotion that threatened to overtake him. Years and years and years since he'd seen Sister Clarity, and all he was given was a little under an hour to make up for it. And now he would never see her again.
Was nothing in his life fair? Was he not allowed to love anyone? It was exactly what the fathers had always wanted, to keep him isolated. Lonely. Weak.
A hand reached out, taking his own; Johnny's palms were calloused and rough, but comforting as he struggled to pull himself together. It started to clear the fog of pain, remind Jaehyun that he needed to focus on the task at hand.
"I know it hurts," Johnny said softly, "but we haven't got much light to work with. Let's see where this passage takes us, and once we're out and safe we can take a moment. Alright?"
Jaehyun nodded, blinking furiously. "Alright," he agreed, offering the bravest smile he could muster. "Yes. Let's go."
The tunnel—for that was the only way Jaehyun could think to describe it—was long and narrow and damp, the walls seeming to get tighter and tighter as they traveled through. The candle Johnny held was barely enough to see anything at all, really. Jaehyun could see a bit of Johnny and a bit of the walls, and other than that nothing more than the darkness surrounding them.
"All these secret places, all for me," he wondered softly, reaching out to touch what felt like stone beside him. "So many tunnels, so many hidden doors."
"You're precious," Johnny reasoned, though he didn't look back. "Worth protecting."
Jaehyun was glad it was too dark for Johnny to see him blush. He'd been doing far too much of that lately.
The pressed on for quite some time, so long that the candle waned to a barely-there flicker. If Johnny was worried it might go out he didn't say, merely kept walking in the only direction they could take. Sometimes Jaehyun wondered if Johnny worried about anything at all. Jaehyun certainly worried. He worried about being caught, dragged back to the cathedral kicking and screaming. He worried about being separated from Johnny. He worried about what monsters they might meet outside of the city walls.
"I can hear you fussing in your head," Johnny said, startling him and pulling him from his thoughts. "Stop it."
Jaehyun sighed. "How can I not? We don't know what we're walking into."
Their footsteps echoed around them as Johnny considered this. "True," he hummed, voice soft. "But we do know what we're walking away from. And I think that's the greater evil, don't you?"
Jaehyun opened his mouth to argue but found he couldn’t. Johnny was right. None of the horrors they could encounter beyond the wall would be worth putting themselves back in that prison for. So Jaehyun continued to walk, following until his feet began to ache and the boots he wore rubbed stinging wounds into his heels.
Johnny stopped suddenly, causing Jaehyun to crash into him. As he did the candle flickered out, casting them in utter darkness.
“Oh!” Jaehyun grabbed quickly to Johnny, gripping him tight. “What do we do now?”
“We push,” Johnny responded, and Jaehyun could practically hear the smirk in his voice. “We’ve reached the end of the passage.
Jaehyun carefully reached around Johnny’s figure, fingers stretching out until they connected with the stone wall before them. He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see anything at all and sure enough, in a jagged sort of ring, he could see light peeking around whatever stood before them.
“There must be some sort of stone covering the exit,” Johnny reasoned. From the movement of his body Jaehyun assumed he must be feeling along the barrier. “If we both push we should be able to dislodge it. Are you ready?”
“I’m not very strong, I don’t think,” Jaehyun said warily, adjusting until he was standing beside Johnny, palms flat against the stone. He gave a gentle push to test the give, of which there was none. He hoped Johnny was ready to bear the brunt of the work.
Johnny laughed softly, a gentle huff of breath. “I think you’re stronger than you realize. Alright, on my word...push!”
At Johnny’s signal Jaehyun leaned his entire body into the rock, gritting his teeth as he tried to use his weight to dislodge to obstruction. With a soft grunt he shifted his feet against the ground, digging his toes into the hard-packed earth and trying to force himself harder against the seemingly immovable object. He pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and all he got for it was the barest shift of the stone.
He gave up after a moment, panting. And then he heard Johnny laugh.
“You weren’t even pushing, you ass!” he exclaimed. “I thought we were doomed!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Johnny said, clearly delighted with his little joke. “I had to, you’ve been so bloody grave this whole time, I had to do something to lighten the mood. Alright, I’ll help this time, I promise. Go!”
This time when Jaehyun pushed he could hear Johnny struggle to do the same beside him. He once more set his weight and leaned in hard, feet scrabbling against the ground for purchase. At first nothing happened, just the same small shift. And then, inch by inch, the boulder began to move.
“We’re getting it!” he cried, panting. “Keep going!”
“I wasn’t about to stop,” Johnny grunted, clearly straining. They pushed and pushed, sweat forming on their brows and sticking to their shirts, until there was just enough of an opening to let a body through. Moonlight spilled into the passage, illuminating their triumphant faces as they turned to each other in excitement.
“See? You’ve got some muscle to you. We’ll make a proper warrior of you yet,” Johnny said with a grin. He gently guided Jaehyun away, stepping forward to peek outside. When he didn’t see any immediate danger he stepped out, getting a better look at their surroundings.
“It’s clear. You can come out,” he called, arm appearing in view to wave Jaehyun outside.
With a deep breath Jaehyun followed, carefully easing his body through the opening they’d created. With his heart racing in his chest and fear a heavy presence hanging over him, Jaehyun took his first real steps beyond the walls of Ardent and into the world.
Chapter 6: A Rush of Blood
Jaehyun found that he was not particularly keen on sleeping on the ground. After a week on the run his muscles were stiff and sore from trying to find comfort in the hard earth, back a constant ache and feet torn and tattered from the just-too-small boots he walked in each day. As they traveled through the woods branches would reach out to him like desperate supplicants, gripping and tearing at his skin until he was covered in a fine criss-cross of scrapes and scars. His hair hadn’t been properly brushed in days and he longed for a bath.
It was a marvel how Johnny seemed completely unbothered by the hardships they faced. No matter the weather, no matter how little they were able to find to fill their bellies, he pressed on with a dogged resilience that kept him silent and focused as they walked. His determination was a quiet one. Steady and unyielding, with little time to sooth Jaehyun’s tattered nerves.
Jaehyun had never felt so lonely.
“Johnny,” he said softly after a particularly long bout of silence, the emptiness in the air between them gnawing at him worse than his hunger. “Johnny, I think...I think I need to stop for a moment.”
It took a while for him to get his response, long enough that a hot spark of anxiety began to smoulder in his chest. It seemed to choke him, his breaths laboured as he waited for a response. When Johnny finally answered it was terse, short. “Not right now.”
Jaehyun swallowed hard, doing his very best to ignore the wound that he could feel reopening on his foot. The skin had rubbed away again, the pain sharp and raw, a constant reminder of how far he was from home. A constant reminder of how weak he was. On top of that there was a dull ache in his hip that throbbed with every step, a gift of a fitful night’s sleep.
The past week had been nothing more than a long march from Ardent. No city guardsmen hot on their heels. No monsters jumping out to try and make a meal of them. Just walking, with the occasional stop to sleep in makeshift camps. If Johnny himself slept it was not very often. When Jaehyun fell asleep, uncomfortable and cold on the wet grass, Johnny was wide awake and keeping watch. When he woke up feeling barely any more rested than the night before Johnny was still alert, eyes silently scanning the woods around them.
They’d yet to run into another human being. Johnny had chosen their route carefully, and though it saw them traipsing up and down steep hills and fording rushing rivers, it had been relatively safe.
Three days ago a thought had popped into Jaehyun’s mind, a nasty, ugly thought that had plagued him constantly since then. It whispered in his ear that Johnny had begun to resent him, that Jaehyun had dragged him on this fool’s errand on a whim. Ardent had been Johnny’s home just as it had been Jaehyun’s. All he had ever known as far as comfort and peace. And now they’d left that comfort for an uncertain future that could very well result in their deaths. Barely seven days out and Jaehyun had already begun to think that this whole mad errand was a mistake, that maybe they should turn around and go back home.
In a desperate attempt to sooth his own nerves Jaehyun had tried to start conversations, little things like asking about the birds chirping in the trees, or whether or not Johnny thought they might find a village soon. Each attempt was met with a short response and then more silence. Jaehyun was going mad.
And now he was tired. Hungry. Worn thin. Desperate to cling to the only friend he had in the entire world.
“Johnny,” he tried again, doing his best to inject some of the helplessness he felt into his voice. “Please, I think I’m bleeding again and I’m... I’m so very tired, please, can we rest?”
Johnny turned so quickly and so suddenly that Jaehyun took a step back in surprise. Jaehyun wasn’t quite sure what he expected, but it wasn’t the look of intense anger on his companion’s face.
“Jaehyun, I know you’ve spent your life spoiled beyond measure, but I need you to stop being such a little prince and focus on the danger. Just because we haven’t seen anyone yet doesn’t mean we aren’t still being pursued.” Johnny’s frown depend, eyes narrow. “I know you’re tired. I know your feet hurt. Mine do too. But I need you to stop complaining and push through. Or would you rather sit for a few minutes, enjoy the birdsong until someone comes along and cuts our throats?”
Jaehyun stared, mouth agape at the sudden outburst. Even in the cathedral, even when Humble was at his angriest, he was rarely spoken to in such a way. And Johnny...while they might have shared one or two teasing arguments they’d never spoken to each other out of true anger like that. Johnny was always the first to comfort him when he was hurt the first to sooth him when his nerves were frayed by a Silencing. Johnny was supposed to be on his side, but Jaehyun’s weakness and constant complaining were driving him away.
Jaehyun closed his mouth, trying to look composed despite the way his chin began to tremble. It was childish to cry over something as simple as being scolded. They had much bigger problems pursuing them. “Alright, I’m sorry,” he choked, blinking hard. “I’ll be quiet.”
At Jaehyun’s words Johnny seemed to snap out of whatever mood he’d been stewing in, his anger melting to shock and then quickly to regret. He took a step forward, reaching out helplessly and nearly crumpling when Jaehyun took a step back.
“I’m sorry,” Johnny whispered, clearly mortified over his outburst. “Jaehyun I’m so sorry, I’ve been so caught up in my own worry and my own stress that I... I’m sorry I spoke to you like that, I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet, I just…”
Johnny’s face twisted into pure agony, eyes squeezed shut as his teeth clenched together. He sank to his knees, bowing his head and clasping his hands before him. “Please, forgive me, your grace,” he begged, and Jaehyun was stunned to see him trembling. “I misspoke. I’m unworthy of your companionship, unworthy to be in the presence of the Divine. I don’t deserve your forgiveness but please, if you could find it in your heart…”
“Oh, stop it!” Jaehyun begged, covering his ears with his hands to try and drown out Johnny’s hopeless prayers. It sounded so impersonal, like he was just another member of the church standing before a shrouded figure rather than Jaehyun’s dearest friend and confidante. “Stop it stop it stop it!”
He walked backwards until his back hit a tree, the bark lifting his shirt and scraping his skin as he slid to the ground. All he could do was hide his face in his hands and try not to weep himself. Johnny looked up slowly, eyes red rimmed and bright with tears. “Jaehyun please,” he whispered, a small bit of hope returning to his face as Jaehyun lowered his hands and met his eyes.
For a few moments they did nothing more than stare at each other, their emotions hanging heavy between them. Finally Johnny scrambled over, sighing in relief as he was allowed to pull Jaehyun into his arms. He rocked Jaehyun gently, taking a shuddering breath as he held him tight.
“I’m sorry. I let myself get too tired,” he whispered, resting his cheek against Jaehyun’s hair. “I’m so weary that I feel hollow. All I do is dwell in my worry for you, and it’s turning me into a tyrant.”
“Let’s find a proper place to rest, please,” Jaehyun begged, winding his thin arms around Johnny’s neck and clinging to him like he was his lifeline. “I could...maybe I could help you hunt, so we can have a decent meal. We could light a fire. We’ll feel better after a real rest, I promise.”
Johnny sighed, closing his eyes and considering the idea. As he thought he continued to rock Jaehyun as if comforting a child, seemingly unbothered by the way Jaehyun hid his face in the crook of Johnny’s neck and breathed him in. “Alright,” he murmured. “If you think it best. See that rock face over there? We might be able to find an overhang that will provide a bit of shelter. Let’s at least make it there and we’ll stop for the night.”
“Thank you,” Jaehyun sighed, relief sweeping through him and finally easing some of the tension in his muscles. They slowly got to their feet, righting their clothing before setting off in the direction of the rocks Johnny had pointed out.
They seemed to be the face of some sort of cliff, stretching high above them in jagged fits and starts, moss clinging here and there in patches of vivid green. Jaehyun thought this might be the side of a mountain, though he wasn’t sure. He’d heard of mountains before, had seen drawings, but had never looked on one in real life. He wondered what was above, what they might find at the very top if they were to climb all the way up.
“There’s a cave,” Johnny said eagerly, pointing. In the distance Jaehyun could see a very thin opening in the rock, just enough for a person to walk through. “That’s exactly what we needed. Let me go in and make sure it’s safe, if there’s nothing inside we'll be able to light a proper fire and everything.”
“That sounds lovely,” Jaehyun sighed, limping along in an attempt to keep his shoe from rubbing at his sore. Johnny offered his arm, which Jaehyun took gratefully. “You need to sleep this time. Properly. There’s no reason I can’t keep watch.”
Johnny seemed to want to argue, but he had no leg to stand on. He simply couldn’t keep going under the weight of such heavy exhaustion. “We’ll both sleep,” he agreed. “I’ll cover our tracks and hide the entrance. We’ll be safe enough for the time being.”
The idea of both of them getting some proper sleep sounded lovely. It lifted Jaehyun’s spirits, making it easier for him to travel the last few yards to their designated hiding spot. Once there, he waited patiently for Johnny to scout inside, only entering when he was called for.
The inside of the cave was murky and damp and quite deep, but the prospect of safety and rest made it feel like a palace. “It’s perfect,” Jaehyun sighed, ignoring Johnny’s snort of laughter. “Shall we hunt? Maybe I can sweep some of this debris out...oh! You could show me how to build a fire!”
“One thing at a time,” Johnny chuckled, placing a warm hand on the small of Jaehyun’s back as he slipped by. Jaehyun shivered at the contact, scraping his teeth over his bottom lip. “Let’s see if we can find running water nearby. Gods, I could use a wash.”
They’d left with so little in their hands, it had been a tenuous few days of constantly looking for water and food to keep them going. They each had a water skin tied to their belt, but more often than not they hung empty. Each sudden rainshower had been a blessing.
A bit of searching in the immediate area led them to a small stream, not much more than a trickle but enough to refill their supplies and clean up. Johnny immediately stripped to the waist, kneeling beside the water and cupping it in his hands, splashing it across his face and through his hair. He took handful after handful, scrubbing his skin until it glowed pink, working loose the dirt that had collected over the past seven days.
Glancing back at Jaehyun, he laughed at the stunned expression on his face as he looked forward with a singular focus. “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jaehyun slowly, so slowly, lifted his hand to point. He didn’t say a word. Didn’t make a single sound. Because there, past the stream and across a large clearing, was a monster.
The reality of the creatures that walked the wilds never seemed that pressing within Ardent. The city walls were high, impossibly thick and manned at all times by skilled warriors who kept the people within safe. On the rare occasion a beast could fly there were archers at the ready. It had been over three hundred years since once of the creatures had made past the walls. So long that the tales had turned to myth, and so many of the citizens lived their lives as if they were mere stories to tell naughty children to keep them from wondering what lay beyond Ardent.
Jaehyun had never even seen them in drawings. The fathers forbade it, convinced that the hideous profanity of their sheer existence might in some way sully the Divine. Johnny never said anything because he was a stick in the mud who claimed he didn’t want Jaehyun to have nightmares.
Perhaps he was right, because Jaehyun was sure the horrible thing staring him down would haunt his dreams for years to come.
It stood on two legs, the shape and size of it roughly human, though that was where the similarities ended. Both arms and legs were unnaturally long, and it bent at the knee so deeply that its knuckles dragged along the ground as it began to step forward. It wore the face of a wolf and the antlers of some giant stag, and its narrow chest was sunken with ribs that protruded under a thin grey hide. At the end of each finger was a wicked looking claw, hooked and deadly. It’s fur was patchy. Thin. Hideous. And it looked at Jaehyun with a hatred beyond comprehension.
It tilted its head up, taking a few ragged breaths, scenting the air before looking back to Jaehyun. As its beady black eyes refocused it drew its muzzle into a grimace, parting its lips and hissing “you...you….” Its lips didn’t seem to move to articulate the words. They came fully formed from deep within its throat, as if some pitiful being was trapped within.
Jaehyun’s attention was finally pulled away by Johnny moving closer, his rapier in his hand as if it had never left. “Be as still as you can,” he murmured, eyes trained on the beast. “I’m not going to let it hurt you.”
Jaehyun knew he wouldn’t.
Stepping through the stream, Johnny moved slowly towards the beast with his sword at the ready. “Hello, ugly,” he called, lips twisting into a deadly smirk. “Would you like to dance?” When the monster paid little mind to him he continued to move forward, stance low and knees bent, ready to spring forward at a moment’s notice. He whistled sharply, finally earning himself the creature’s full attention.
“Sorry, the Divine isn’t taking visitors right now,” he sneered. “If you want to get to him you’ll have to go through me.”
That seemed to suit the monster just fine. With a growl that seemed to shake the very earth around them he lunged, giant claws at the ready.
Jaehyun had never seen Johnny fight like this before. There had been plenty of moments where the Cavalier had to think quickly, striking out with deadly blows or deftly pulling Jaehyun from danger, but his first priority was always removing Jaehyun from the situation and into a safer one. This...it was almost like dancing, wasn’t it? He was so light on his feet, springing from one spot to another, working circles around the hulking beast so deftly that it couldn’t seem to get hold of him. He made it seem effortless. The creature would reach out with an arm as thick as a tree branch only to have Johnny duck easily underneath, his rapier glittering in the fading light of dusk to deliver blow after blow.
Jaehyun expected the fight to be bloodier. He expected to be more frightened, or to have to take off running at Johnny’s frantic instruction. Instead Johnny made short work of the monster, and soon it was laying dead at his feet.
Johnny slowly withdrew his blade from the creature’s throat, wiping it along the grass to remove some of the blood. Once it was resheathed he walked to Jaehyun, a look of concern in his eyes. “Are you alright?”
All Jaehyun could do was stare. Stare at Johnny’s shirtless form, at the way his hair hung before his face in messy strands. It was getting long again, long enough that he’d taken once more to tying it back with simple black string, but the string had failed him and now it hung loose, the ends tickling along his jaw. His chest (which Jaehyun had rarely seen) heaved as he caught his breath, and Jaehyun was stunned by the definition of muscle underneath his golden skin.
“Yes,” he croaked, eyes wide. “Yes, I think I’m alright.”
Thankfully his concerning behaviour must seem normal enough after seeing his very first monster. “Come, clean up. I’ll take you back to the cave and find us something to eat. You can rest and we’ll...we’ll talk about what you saw.”
Jaehyun nodded, forcing himself to look away. He lowered himself to the water’s edge and splashed handfuls against his face, thankful that it was cold enough to distract him from his foolishness. He washed to the best of his abilities, only periodically glancing over to see Johnny scrubbing the monster’s blood from his skin. With each movement Johnny’s muscles shifted and moved, smooth and strong, drawing Jaehyun’s eyes to parts of his body he had never really looked at before. Jaehyun felt heat prickling under his skin, felt the way his cheeks and ears grew hot, which of course meant that they must be turning pink. He doused his hair in more water before filling his canteen, drawing a shuddering breath. By the time he looked back Johnny had—thankfully—pulled his shirt back on.
“Alright,” he murmured, keeping his eyes cast carefully to the ground. “I’m ready to go back.”
Unfortunately Johnny was far too perceptive to merely walk away. He knelt down, bringing his face mere inches from Jaehyun’s. “I know it’s...a lot,” he said slowly, eyes bright with concern. “You did well, though. I’m proud of you.”
Oh. Right. The monster. Jaehyun managed to twist his lips into a pained smile, nodding. “Thank you. It...it will take some getting used to, I suppose. I’ll get there.”
Johnny lifted his hand, touching Jaehyun’s cheek soothingly. This of course did nothing to help Jaehyun’s flustered state, only serving to agitate him further. He felt pinned as Johnny studied his face, eyes moving from his own to look over the rest of him, checking him for wounds. “Alright,” he finally said, seemingly appeased. “Let’s go back.”
They made short work of the trek back to their temporary shelter, moving quickly lest they run into something else lurking in the woods. Johnny urged Jaehyun to the back of the cave, kneeling to drop an armful of sticks and branches he’d collected along the way. “I want you to wait here,” he sighed. “That...that thing knew what you are. If they’re drawn to you in some way it won’t do to have you traipsing about if you don’t need to.”
Jaehyun nodded, though he wasn’t entirely sure that the creature had some sort of deep knowledge that Jaehyun was the Divine. More than anything he simple spotted Jaehyun first and figured him out as the easier target. “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.”
“Good, good boy,” Johnny said with a small flash of a smile. He was clearly teasing, but Jaehyun couldn’t find it within himself to rise to the bait. He was too busy listening to the words “good boy” echo in his mind over and over, louder and louder until it was all he could focus on. Johnny seemed to notice, leaning in to get a better look at his face. “Are you sure you’re alright, Jaehyun?”
“I’m fine,” Jaehyun managed, but his voice must have betrayed his flustered state as suddenly he found himself pulled into Johnny’s massive arms, held against his chest. Jaehyun squeaked, eyes wide. “Johnny, I’m fine!”
It wasn’t Johnny’s fussing that was the problem, it was his proximity. For some strange reason Jaehyun was still excited from watching Johnny fight the beast, body hot and blood rushing through his veins. He had...stirrings, the sort he rarely dealt with other than a few embarrassing mornings back in the cathedral.
Johnny chuckled, gently ruffling his hair. “Very well. Sit here. I’ll hunt down something to eat, I shouldn’t be too long. If you hear anything you hide, alright? Stay here in the dark and be as still as possible.”
“Alright. As still as possible,” Jaehyun repeated.
In the small bit of light afforded to them by the setting sun Jaehyun could barely make out Johnny’s face, and as far as he could tell he was studying Jaehyun closely. He must have decided there was nothing urgent to attend as he gave a small nod and stood, heading for the mouth of the cave and disappearing into the evening.
The moment he was gone Jaehyun let out a great gust of air, one he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. His heart felt nervous and light in his chest, like it might beat right out of his body if given the chance. The same heat from before was still licking across his skin, and the collar of his shirt felt uncomfortably tight. With a dull thud he fell to his knees.
Between his legs, betraying his desperate attempts to be calm and still, he was hard.
For the living gods, sexual gratification was the worst of all sins. Jaehyun had grown up knowing well the story of Kim Jongdae, who had fallen in love with his cavalier only to be caught by the church in the middle of relations and punished dearly for it. His ending hadn’t been pretty.
As soon as Jaehyun was old enough to understand the layout of his body he had to listen to Temperance give long-winded speeches about the sin of self gratification. He learned early to be ashamed of any urge he might feel, which only grew worse as he settled into his affection for Johnny. Even if he’d wanted to touch himself, he never really had the chance. He was so rarely alone, his guardian always a few feet away, always watching.
Jaehyun had made it twenty-two years without knowing the touch of his own hand.
Under normal circumstances he would do what he’d always done; close his eyes, think of the fathers, will his erection away. He didn’t have that sort of time right now though, Johnny would be back soon. He’d light a fire and see the predicament Jaehyun was in, and Jaehyun would die from the shame of being found out.
Besides, was there really anything wrong with it? He’d already established that most of what the cardinals had demanded of him was simply a method of control, why not this as well? A way to nip his passions in the bud, to leave him meek and docile. Maybe as his next true act of rebellion…
Jaehyun swallowed hard, eyes flickering to the mouth of the cave. It was some thirty yards away, and with the darkness settling outside he wouldn’t be very visible until Johnny was back within reach. If the last few days were any indicator Johnny would be gone for quite a while hunting. Jaehyun had time.
Sucking his lower lip between his teeth, he ran a curious palm up the inside of his thigh, higher and higher to the apex where his legs met and he ached to explore. Despite his trousers being rough and thick the touch sent shivers up and down his spine, skin breaking into goosebumps.
He couldn’t help but laugh nervously, shutting his eyes and forcing another calming breath through his nose. In and out. In and out. It felt ridiculous to be doing this here, now. An entire lifetime in a comfortable bed and he decided his first experience needed to be in some cold, damp cave after being attacked by a monster. He thought that might be the thing, though; the excitement spurred him on, made the blood rush hot and heady through his veins.
It took a moment to convince himself to move his hand those last few inches, to actually touch the hard outline of his cock. The minute he did the image of Johnny shirtless and panting sprang back to the forefront of his mind and he moaned so pitifully that he thought must sound wounded. Johnny had looked so beautiful. Strong and steady in a way Jaehyun would never be, muscles firm and begging to be touched. Jaehyun wondered what it might be like to feel them, to slide his fingertips along his warm skin and take his fill. He wondered what it would be like to lay underneath him, his body firm on top of Jaehyun’s slighter frame.
Would Johnny cry out for him? What beautiful broken noises might he make under Jaehyun’s hands? Jaehyun moaned softly as he considered it, gently pressing his palm against his aching length and rocking gently into the touch. It felt incredible. Unlike anything, any small pleasure or delight he’d ever experienced. Something hungry sparked and crackled low in his gut like a fire glowing warm inside of him. His breath came in short bursts, head spinning as he dizzied himself with each shallow gasp for air. He needed more.
With trembling fingers he unlaced the front of his trousers, opening them just enough to slip his hand inside. At first it was curious, strange to touch himself other than during a bath. As he slid his fingers up to the head he shuddered, eyes going wide as the sensations cut through him, curling him on in himself.
Jaehyun pulled his hand out, spitting into his palm before slipping it back inside. It made the slide so much easier, made it so he could take himself in hand, working himself in his fist with small strokes. His free hand braced against the damp earth as he pushed forward with small thrusts of his hips, mind once again tormented by images of Johnny; touching him, tasting him, taking his fill.
It didn’t take long for Jaehyun to come. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, eyes shut tight as he spilled into his hand, wet and warm and so very odd as it seeped over his fingers. He swore he could see stars behind his eyelids. The feeling was indescribable, spreading from that concentrated point between his legs all the way out to his fingertips and toes, breath stuttering in his chest as pathetic little noises tries to escape his throat.
Jaehyun slowly opened his eyes, laughing breathlessly in the quiet of his dark shelter. He withdrew his hand, making a face as he leaned over to wipe his fingers onto some nearby moss, making a mental note not to sit or lay anywhere near it. Once his trousers were laced he closed his eyes, considering what he’d done.
He expected to feel guilt. Numbing, gnawing guilt that choked him, made it impossible to even consider looking Johnny in the eye. Instead he felt calm. Like some of the stress of the past week had been lifted from him, leaving nothing a stillness that he reveled in as he waited for his companion to come back.
It took some time for Johnny to come back. By then the light of day was gone, just enough moonlight illuminating the world outside to see his shadowed form ducking into the cave and making his way back to Jaehyun.
“You’re alright?” he asked, laying a brace of hares beside the pile of wood he’d collected earlier.
Jaehyun smiled softly, though Johnny probably couldn’t see it. “I’m alright.”
“Good. I cleaned these outside, I know you can be...squeamish when it comes to blood.”
“I think I might be able to handle preparing a meal. That’s a bit different than having someone killed as they make a rush for you,” Jaehyun snorted, watching as Johnny pulled two small stones from a bag at his hip. He began striking them together, sparks showering from the collision and raining down on the wood and dried leaves piled there. As soon as an ember caught Johnny leaved forward, blowing gently until the small red glow turned into a crackling fire.
“Oh, it’s nice to have some proper light,” Jaehyun sighed, immediately holding his hands towards the warmth. He closed his eyes, humming in satisfaction. “Will you teach me how to do that?” He opened his eyes to see Johnny watching him with a curious look in his eyes. “What?”
Johnny quickly shrugged, working on preparing their meal. “You seem to be feeling better. I’m glad, is all. And of course, I’ll teach you anything you want. Do you want to help me cook these?”
Jaehyun nodded eagerly, crawling to sit closer to Johnny’s side. He watched as Johnny carefully selected two long sticks, pulling a knife from his boot and using the blade to sharpen the ends. “You have to choose damp wood for this part, lest it ignite and you lose your meat to the fire,” Johnny explained, piercing the meat with the skewers. “Now hold it over, just above. There you are, well done.”
Jaehyun glowed at the praise. He’d never cooked anything before, there was something exciting about preparing his own meal. “This isn’t so bad,” he said, biting his lip. “How do you know when it’s cooked properly?”
“You sort of just know, I suppose,” Johnny laughed, the fire sparkling in his eyes. “It changes colour a bit, the less pink the better. It’s better to overcook it than to eat raw meat.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Jaehyun mused. He let his eye be drawn back to the flame, mesmerized by the way it moved, reds and oranges and yellows dancing before his eyes. He felt hypnotized. Gone were thoughts of being chased, the danger of the church coming after them. Instead he felt an odd sort of calm flowing through him.
“Jaehyun, can I ask you something?”
Jaehyun snapped out of his daze, looking to Johnny with wide eyes. “Strange that you would ask for permission. What is it?”
Johnny seemed to be perturbed by whatever thought plagued him, staring at the roasting meat with narrow eyes and his brows draw together. It took him some time to get the courage to speak and once he did it was so much softer than his usual words.
“You don’t think you’re god, do you?”
Jaehyun turned, stunned into a momentary silence. Johnny seemed dedicated to not meeting his eyes, carefully looking at the fire. “Why do you say that?” he asked, frowning. “Have I...done something?”
“What? No,” Johnny said quickly, finally meeting his stare. “Quite the opposite. I’ve never wondered. Always known. But sometimes you speak as if you yourself aren’t sure, and it’s a curious thing. To hear a god doubt himself.”
The question made Jaehyun consider his feelings in a way he’d been avoiding for quite some time. He scraped his teeth over his lip, letting his eyes drift through the darkness as he searched himself for his answer. “I...I’m not sure,” he answered quietly, biting back a sigh. “All these things they say I’ve done, the things they say I can do...it doesn’t necessarily feel like something I have a connection to.”
He laughed, the sound hollow as it echoed around them. “Apparently I’m meant to throw wide the gates of Heaven and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. That’s...that’s news to me, Johnny. How exactly am I supposed to do that? I’ve no power. No control. I couldn’t exactly tell you where Heaven is, or how to get there. I barely even know my own face. What sort of god am I?”
“But you’ve performed miracles,” Johnny said desperately, finally looking up. “I’ve seen you do it. Back in the cathedral, when you had a vision of where we were meant to go next.” He looked at Jaehyun like he needed his divinity to be true, like his entire existence depended on it. Perhaps it did. Jaehyun couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to realize the boy you were sold to at a young age was nothing more than flesh and blood. He desperately wished he could be exactly what Johnny needed, but more than that, he couldn’t lie to him.
“I’m not sure if I’d call that a vision,” Jaehyun sighed. “I think I was just digging up a memory at the time I needed it most. I’d been there before, I’d simply forgotten. What other miracles were there? The blind nun who could see when she took me in her arms? There’s no proof that it’s true, for all I know it’s something the fathers created to make me into the Divine that they needed me to be.”
Johnny pulled his hare from the heat, encouraging Jaehyun to do the same. The sound of the fire crackling was the only noise between them as they at in an uncomfortable silence, Johnny clearly burdened by the things Jaehyun had said.
Jaehyun picked sadly at his meal and let him have the time he needed to contend with these truths. The meat was lean and cooked through, and more than anything it felt good to eat until he was full for the first time in a week, but he couldn’t help but focus on Johnny’s sorrow. Would he leave? If Jaehyun wasn’t a god would he feel obligated to stay?
Johnny gave him no time to dwell in that thought. “Well, I still think you’re the Divine,” he said, words resolute. “And I shall serve you as I always have, no matter what you may believe.”
“You couldn’t leave me anyway,” Jaehyun pointed out. “It would be like leaving a baby to survive on its own in the woods.”
That, at least, earned him a laugh. The mood lightened in small fractions until they were back to conversing normally, discussing their plans for the days to come.
“If I remember correctly, there’s a town not far from here. We should load up on supplies. Fresh clothes, some shoes that actually fit you,” Johnny said, tossing the carcass from his meal away before taking Jaehyun’s and doing the same. “We’ll have to be careful, interact with as few people as possible. People may not know your face but they’ll still be suspicious of strangers. I’m sure the church has passed out a description of you, as well. I bet they regret keeping you hidden,” he said with a smirk.
“We should find a way to carry more water,” Jaehyun mused. He yawned, turning his face politely away, jaw cracking as it was stretched wide. “And I think you should find me a weapon.”
“Just what you need, a sword to fall on,” Johnny teased, grinning. “You should rest. We won’t have many opportunities to get a proper night’s sleep, get it while you can.”
Jaehyun nodded, rubbing his hands over his face. As Johnny doused the fire with handfuls of damp earth he shrugged out of his jacket, balling it into a makeshift pillow. “Can we not sleep with the fire?” he asked, blinking as they were once more cast in darkness.
“It’s not safe,” Johnny said, apologetic. “We can’t risk it acting as a beacon to let anyone passing by know that we’re in here. Is that alright?”
It would be laughable to hear him asking for permission if it weren’t so endearing. Of the two of them Johnny clearly knew what was wisest, yet here he was, worrying once more for Jaehyun’s comfort. “Whatever you say is best is undoubtedly best,” Jaehyun reasoned. They were back to normal, talking and laughing and relying on each other just as they always had. He could deal with a bit of darkness. “Stay near?”
Johnny obediently moved closer, easing himself down barely a foot away from Jaehyun. “Rest well, your grace,” he murmured, and Jaehyun longed to reach out, to take his hand.
They laid in silence for quite sometime, the quiet only broken by the occasional shift as they tried to find a more comfortable way to sleep on the cave floor. It wasn’t as difficult for Johnny, who had spent most of his life sleeping on a rug on the floor. He was never favoured as Jaehyun was, never given the same comforts. Jaehyun, however, was used to a mattress. No matter how threadbare.
Jaehyun lay there for quite some time, listening as Johnny’s breathing evened out. It had always been the only way to truly tell if he was asleep, as Johnny’s eyes were open even when he was unconscious. Once the rise and fall of his chest slowed Jaehyun slid just a few inches over, convinced a closer proximity, no matter how small, might sooth his nerves. When Johnny didn’t stir he slid ever nearer, swallowing hard when the backs of their hands brushed ever so slightly.
Jaehyun stilled, shame colouring his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out quickly, stomach dropping. “I’m sorry, I just thought that I might—”
“It’s alright, Jaehyun.”
Jaehyun looked up carefully only to be met with a curious look on Johnny’s face, one he couldn’t quite decipher. “You can come close. It might...it might help you sleep.”
Nodding slowly, Jaehyun closed the final few inches between them. “I think it might,” he murmured, sinking down as Johnny’s arms wrapped around him. He sighed and rested his head on his companions chest, already lost in the touch of his skin. Immediately the chill of the night air seemed to dissipate, leaving him feeling warm and safe.
He thought it might be a mistake, that perhaps his nerves at being held in Johnny’s arms might keep him awake. Fate seemed determined to prove him wrong. His erratic heartbeat slowed, and he quickly found himself being pulled under.
Chapter 7: Sun and Moon
Jaehyun dreamt once more of faces he did not remember and friends he had never known. The man with the healing smile was there again, eyes bright as he beckoned to Jaehyun through the snow, pointing to something in the distance that clearly caused him some sort of excitement. The scarf around his neck, thick and brown and seemingly stitched by hand with love and devotion, swayed gently in the wind. Jaehyun called out to him, asked where they were going, but the man merely smiled and pointed to his lips, shaking his head.
“He won’t say.” Jaehyun turned to whoever had spoken behind him. He was suddenly faced with another stranger who greeted him as family. This one had a head full of soft blond curls that drifted about his face like the snow falling around them, eyes bright and wide, jaw sharp but smile soft. He looked almost ethereal, as if he himself were divine; more-so than Jaehyun at least, in his filthy clothing and ill-fitting shoes. There was an innocence about him, but also a deep wisdom. Jaehyun immediately trusted him with his life.
“He won’t say,” the man repeated again, smiling. “He won’t say until you learn to listen.”
“What do you mean?” Jaehyun asked curiously, reaching out to the dear friend he’d never before laid eyes on. “Where are we going?” The man wore a scarf that matched the one their silent friend wore, thin fingers woven tight into the wool to trap its warmth against his skin.
“Home,” he laughed, taking Jaehyun’s hand and tugging him along. “We’re going home, Jaehyun.”
Jaehyun woke shivering. Nightfall had brought a chill that had not yet broken in the morning sunlight, seeping from the damp ground below them and through his clothing, his limbs trembling in an attempt to generate some sort of heat. He grit his teeth to keep them from chattering, curling up closer to the warmth of Johnny’s form.
And then he remembered.
Johnny. Pressed up behind him, a firm arm wrapped around his waist. They’d drifted off like that, calm and comfortable despite the austerity of their situation, having made the willing choice to find comfort in each other. Jaehyun had expected to spend the night wide awake, laying stock-still and trying not to disturb his companion. Instead he had found more peace in slumber than ever before.
Johnny’s voice rumbled behind him, a balm to his soul. “You’re awake?” His breath was soft and warm against Jaehyun’s neck, sending a shiver down his spine that he hoped could be blamed on the cold.
Jaehyun smiled softly, letting his eyes slip shut once more. “I am. Can we stay here a little longer? Sleep a bit more?” He longed to stay in the circle of Johnny’s arms, to languish in the safe-haven they’d created for just a little while longer.
He heard Johnny yawn, felt him rest his forehead against the back of Jaehyun’s shoulder. “I wish we could, but we’re not nearly far enough away to let our guard down. I promise that someday we’ll be able to sleep in a proper bed for as long as we want, but today isn’t that day.”
Bed. Singular. Jaehyun chose not to point this out, though he held onto it like some delicate flame cupped tenderly in the safety of his hands. More and more lately Johnny spoke like they were a singular entity, like they were two pieces of a whole rather than separate souls wandering the wilderness. He would keep that small precious thing close to his heart any time the outlook was grim.
“Alright,” he hummed, blinking sleepily. “Alright. Let’s drink what’s left of our water and refill our skins in that stream before we set off again.”
“That... is clever,” Johnny said, clearly impressed by Jaehyun’s rare moment of forward thinking. “Who is this seasoned traveller before me?”
Jaehyun laughed, blushing. “Oh, be quiet. It’s just common sense.”
Trying to peel himself away from Johnny felt like some great act of penance, the greatest punishment anyone would ever pay. They got to their feet, stretching the stiffness from their aching muscles, working themselves loose after another night on the ground. Jaehyun watched with curious eyes as Johnny was careful to dispose of the evidence of their being there; the bones from the hares were buried, ash from the fire strewn about until it was nearly undetectable amidst the dark earth.
“It won’t do to leave a trail for the church to find,” he explained, looking about once more to make sure their tracks were covered. Once done they moved back to the mouth of the cave, listening carefully for signs of life. The morning sun filtered in through the trees in blades of gold, motes of dust swirling in their beams. A bird trilled somewhere in the distance, and if Jaehyun listened closely enough, he could hear the rush of the stream they'd visited the day before. What he didn't hear was the tromp of boots, or the call of a captain barking orders. They seemed to be the only souls about.
“It doesn’t sound like they've caught up to us,” Johnny whispered, eyes narrow. “It’s strange that we haven’t seen heads or tails of them yet.”
“Perhaps they’ve decided I’m not worth the trouble,” Jaehyun said, though he knew this was nothing more than wishful thinking on his part.
Johnny clicked his tongue, gaze thoughtful as he scanned the trees for anything at all. “Definitely not. You’re worth more than you know.”
Much of the day was spent as the days prior; they walked, they listened for danger, they took the occasional rest to pick at whatever food they could find. Johnny seemed much more open to conversation now, which took some of the weight of their journey off of Jaehyun’s shoulders. It kept him from dwelling in the reality of their situation, what would happen if the guard caught up to them and dragged them back to the city.
It would be bloody, at the very least. Of the five living gods three had rebelled, two of whom had been killed in a public execution. Jaehyun shuddered and tried not to think of their grisly ends, instead forcing himself to think about what life might be like once they were free.
Perhaps they could become farmers. Jaehyun felt he might be good at that.
After a few hours of walking they came across another stream, where they were quick to refill their stores. This one moved faster than the other, and there were no horrible monsters lurking about, waiting to tear Jaehyun limb from limb. Jaehyun sat down for a brief rest, sprawled out on a flat rock warmed by the sun. He took a deep breath, admiring how very green the world was there.
“We’ll follow the water for a bit,” Johnny said, watching as Jaehyun kicked off his boots to dangle his feet in the coolness of the stream. He looked around before sitting next to Jaehyun, folding his legs before him. “Following the water helps to cover our tracks, and if they have dogs it will throw them off of our scent.”
Jaehyun nodded as if that made any sense to him. He was glad for the chance to walk in the water, though. The stream bed was smooth enough that he could leave his shoes off, tucking his boots under one arm and giving the sores on his feet a bit of a break. Apart from that, it was nice to wash his feet. He couldn’t imagine how he might smell.
After an hour of walking the stream turned into a river, and soon the current was too strong for them to fight without wearying themselves too quickly. They moved to the bank, walking in thick brown mud until the water suddenly dropped off into a steep decline, leading into a valley below. Johnny moved straight to the edge, eyes lighting up as he peered into the distance.
“There’s a village,” he said breathlessly, turning to beckon Jaehyun closer. “We can finally get a proper supply of food to bring along, you won’t be so hungry.”
“What if we're spotted?" Jaehyun asked, a flair of nerves sparking low in his stomach. He'd never really walked among anyone not associated with the church before. To move so freely among the people was something he never thought he'd have the chance to do. He was startled to find that the idea frightened him.
Before the anxiety could settle Johnny lifted a hand, stroking it soothingly through Jaehyun's hair. He moved to cup Jaehyun’s cheek, his skin so much softer than Johnny's rough palm. Jaehyun immediately leaned into it, tipsy on how easy it had become for Johnny to touch him, to gentle him in such a way.
"They won't know your face, Jaehyun," Johnny said calmly, thumb sweeping over his cheekbone. "The greatest gift the church gave us was keeping you hidden your entire life. They might know me, but they won't know you."
Jaehyun swallowed hard, blinking up at him. "But what if they recognize you? What if they hurt you?"
"They won't get the chance." Johnny gave a wink that could only be described as "roguish," gently patting his cheek before removing his hand. "Come on. The trip down will be rough, but if we take our time we'll make it."
It wasn't exactly a drop, more like a steep decline with large rocks and gnarled looking shrubs obscuring the path. Jaehyun found that if he leaned quite far back, kept his hands braced behind him, it was easier to keep his balance as he slowly slid his way down. Every now and then he would slide and every time Johnny was there to catch him, grabbing Jaehyun firmly by the back of his shirt and hoisting him to his feet once more.
As they crawled their way down Jaehyun couldn't help but dwell on Johnny's touch not minutes before. It had become all too easy for his guardian to reach out for him, just as it had become easy for Jaehyun to accept and encourage each touch. Jaehyun wasn't quite sure what this meant. It shamed him to realize he had no examples to turn to when it came to relationships, no idea if Johnny's behavior was that of a suitor or merely that of one man given away to another at an early age.
Though even Jaehyun, in his carefully cultivated naivete, knew that this wasn’t the case. Johnny treated him so tenderly, spoke to him in a way that reminded Jaehyun of the lovers in the few fairytales he’d been allowed to read as a child. This, unfortunately, introduced a new concern; Johnny's life had been spent in service to Jaehyun. Perhaps this meant he could never really love him equally, could only worship him as a supplicant rather than a man. And if they were not equals, could they truly be together? If Jaehyun were ever to confess his devotion, could Johnny make a conscious choice to turn him down if that were his desire?
By the time they were back on level ground Jaehyun was silently fretting, having convinced himself over the course of an hour than he and Johnny could never possibly be together. His life would always be a lonely one. It was something he would simply have to come to terms with.
The walk to the village wasn't long from there. Johnny and Jaehyun were careful to keep to the trees, staying among the shadows so as not to be spotted from a distance. Jaehyun did his best to keep low and creep along just as Johnny did, eyes wide as he looked around, as if he himself might spot something critical and save their lives. As if their safety wasn't riding completely on Johnny's shoulders.
Soon they were close enough to see the village for what it truly was; a small collection of buildings crowded together, not quite big enough to be called a town, but close enough. There seemed to be a square made up of business and taverns, small houses and cottages dotting the land around them. In the distance Jaehyun could make out a building that seemed to rise above the other. Mounted on its pointed roof was a symbol Jaehyun knew well; it was a highly stylized depiction of an eye, one long curved line representing the lid with a half circle peeking out from underneath. From that half circle a straight line extended down before ending in a vague sort of tear-drop. It was the symbol mounted on every church in Ardent and the cities beyond, a clear depiction that those inside were devotees of the Living God.
"Cities are always built around a church," Johnny explained. He put a hand on Jaehyun's lower back, gently guiding him closer to where houses began to pop up across the land. If he felt Jaehyun try to resist, attempt to stay within the cover of the woods rather than approach civilization, he did not say. "It's to keep the Divine on everyone's mind at all times, to remind them that their lives are built around devotion and penance."
Jaehyun frowned. "Is everyone meant to take penance?" He knew many of the citizens of Ardent burned and broke their skin in acts of contrition, knew that the members of the church were required to submit to the cane and the lash, but he'd hoped that maybe, the further out they went, the less he would see it.
Johnny sighed. "Yours is a religion built around punishment, your grace. We all kneel out of respect for your sacrifices."
There it was again, Johnny's careful unwillingness to see Jaehyun as anything other than a god. Jaehyun swallowed hard, a small line of consternation forming between his brows as his frown only deepened. "I have never asked that of anyone, Johnny. You know that. How can they say they take punishment for me when I never asked for their pain?"
Johnny had no answer for him. They pressed on in silence, working their way towards the center of the village, occasionally stopping to hide behind buildings or pausing in thickets of greenery and plan their next moves.
"Alright," Johnny murmured, biting his lip. "We'll move about as if we intend to be here. I think the best disguise we could have is no disguise at all. There's a good chance that no one here has seen me before, and if we moved about acting suspicious then we'll only tip someone off. So be calm, be confident, and follow my lead."
Just beyond the building they’d hidden beside Jaehyun could see people milling about the town square, many of whom seemed to recognize each other. They would call out and smile as they passed, which only added to Jaehyun’s anxiety. A tight knit community would probably notice the presence of strangers in their home.
Jaehyun swallowed, reaching out to touch the sleeve of Johnny's jacket. "I'm frightened," he admitted, the words seeming to stick in his throat. "I'm sorry Johnny, but... I'm so frightened."
Instead of brushing off his nerves or chastising him for his fear Johnny turned, pulling Jaehyun once more into the cage of his arms. "I know," he whispered, holding Jaehyun tight. There it was again, uncompromising, unforgiving touch. As if he'd always been allowed to do this. "I'd be more surprised if you weren't, you've spoken to maybe ten people your entire life. But people are good, Jaehyun. A lot of them are so very kind, we just have to find the kind ones. Do you trust me to know the difference between the good and the wicked?"
Jaehyun could only nod, burying his face against Johnny's shoulder. "I trust you," he whispered. "With my life."
Johnny pulled back slightly, though when Jaehyun went to pull away he merely tightened his hold. Jaehyun looked up in confusion, realizing all too late that their faces were a mere inches apart. He could feel the warmth of Johnny's breath against his lips, could feel the way his hands trembled as he pressed them to Jaehyun’s lower back.
"Jaehyun, I would...you must know that I..."
Jaehyun licked his lips, swallowing hard. "You would what?" His heart was pounding in his chest, and in that moment all he could see and hear was Johnny, so blessedly, beautifully close. "Please, please tell me..."
Johnny parted his lips, eyes sweeping fitfully over Jaehyun’s face as if they didn’t quite know where to settle. His breath hitched, but just before he could speak they heard a heavy pounding on a door not too far from their hiding place.
“Church guard’s on their way,” a voice called in the distance, coloured with distaste more than fear. Jaehyun stilled in Johnny’s arms, listening closely for the person to continue. “Seems as though they’re doing daily sweeps until the Divine is returned.”
A door opened, a second voice joining the first. “Hope he’s having fun on his little jaunt while the rest of us watch them tear our homes apart trying to find him. This is the third time in a week they’ve been here.”
Jaehyun’s eyes flashed quickly to Johnny, but Johnny was too busy listening to notice his distress.
“Well. If we’re lucky they’ll find him soon and drag him back by his ear, he can go back to haunting the cathedral and stop interrupting our lives.”
A door shut, and the voices were gone. Jaehyun swallowed hard, hands clinging tightly to Johnny’s arm. “Back to the woods?”
“I don’t think so,” Johnny murmured, eyes sweeping the area. Jaehyun would never understand how he might seem so calm at such a time, when Jaehyun’s own heart threatened to burst, it beat so hard. “We don’t know if they’re already on the outskirts of the village or if they’re only just leaving the tree line, but I don’t think we can risk it. They’ll have scouts sweeping the woods in either direction and we can’t safely say which is the best route to take.”
“So where do we go?” Jaehyun asked frantically. “Johnny, they can’t catch us!”
Johnny turned, hand once more finding Jaehyun’s cheek. “I know,” he murmured. “I know. Be still, trust me. Alright?”
Jaehyun nodded despite how he trembled. He let Johnny tug him carefully along, bit back the protest that formed on his lips as they walked boldly into the town square, past groups of indifferent looking people going about their lives. Very few even glanced their way, and when they did it was with mild disinterest that sent them quickly back about their business. Still, Jaehyun couldn’t find it within himself to relax.
In his head he saw the same image again and again, playing in his mind over and over until nausea began to bubble in his stomach and he was worried he might be sick. The two of them caught. The two of them killed. Worse yet, the two of them dragged back to the cathedral, back to the gilded prison he had come to know so well, and separated for good.
His anxiety wasn’t helped by the fact that Johnny was dragging him right to the church at the centre of town.
“Johnny no,” he begged, quickly yanking his hand free and taking a step back. “We can’t go in there, it’s...it’s too much like…”
Johnny glanced around before stepping close, lowering his voice. “Any other building or business in this town will easily spot two strangers hiding amongst them,” he said, clearly working at being calm despite the weight of their freedom resting on his shoulders. “But two supplicants in prayer will not be so closely judged.” He bit his lip, taking a deep breath. “It’s hiding in plain sight, Jaehyunnie. And it’s the best I can do.”
Jaehyun blinked, surprised by his candor. He pursed his lips and tried to bolster himself, giving a small nod. “I will follow where you lead,” he murmured. “You always know best.”
They approached the church slowly, as if at any moment the doors might burst open and a whole contingent of guards would pour out. Jaehyun tried to feign a confidence he did not feel as they pushed through the main entrance into the smallest sanctuary he’d ever seen—not that he’d seen many, at this point his knowledge of churches were the cathedral and the convent they’d escaped through.
This church was clearly a humble place. It consisted of one large room, five roughhewn pews on other side of the main aisle. A few thin windows allowed slices of afternoon sunlight in, the rest of the glow provided by numerous candles on pedestals around the room with wax running thick down their bases. Two men were holding a quiet conversation up near the dais that held the lectern, though they went quiet as Johnny and Jaehyun stepped in.
One of the two, shorter with a round jaw and dark hair swept out of his face, smiled kindly at the newcomers. “Hello, welcome. Is there something we can do for you?”
Johnny and Jaehyun shared a quick glance before Johnny spoke. “Hello, father,” Johnny said, offering an easy smile. “We’re merely passing through your village, but it’s been some time since we’ve seen a proper house of worship. Might we stop a while for prayer?”
The priest seemed vaguely surprised by this, if not a little delighted. “Of course, of course you can,” he said, motioning to the pews. “Take as much time as you like. We don’t often see people visiting these days, it’s a blessing to see penitents passing through.”
It felt a bit wicked lying to the father, but Jaehyun didn’t see what choice they had in the matter. He smiled at the man before letting his gaze wander to the taller of the two, who was watching them carefully from the pulpit with a look Jaehyun couldn’t quite place. He seemed...suspicious, really. Thoughtful. Unfortunately there was no time to dwell on his attitude, as Johnny was pulling him carefully to a pew and lowering the prayer bench.
As they knelt Jaehyun could hear the approaching steps of a battalion outside, moving through the square. “They’re here,” he choked, palms clammy where he rubbed them against his thighs. “They’re outside, Johnny.”
“Just keep your head down,” Johnny whispered, lips barely moving. “If we must we’ll fight our way out, but for now just...be still. Pray.”
Pray to whom? Jaehyun thought bitterly, though he bowed his head and clasped his hands before him. He thought of the gods that came before, wondered if they ever prayed to the others in times of need. Did Yeeun reach out to Jongdae when she was frightened, or alone? Did Byeongkwan cry out for Heechul? Would the next Living God pray to Jaehyun, call out to him in sorrow or joy, reach out to the past as her people reached to her?
He tried desperately to pray. He tried to focus all of his hope and longing and cast that out into the universe, reaching out to heaven the way his followers did. He reached out and listened.
He heard nothing.
“Who do you think they are?”
Jaehyun stilled, straining to hear the men at the front of the sanctuary. The second man, with his dark eyes and honey blond hair, spoke with a voice was high and sweet and clear, with a curious lilt at odds with how pointedly he spoke. “I don’t buy the weary travelers story.”
“It’s not our place to speculate, Donghyuck. If they come to us for a place of worship then we offer it. It is not our lot to try to find the underlying truth of every word.”
“Maybe not for you,” the younger man said with a scoff. “I, unfortunately, don’t get to debate the difference between a lie and an untruth.”
“Then don’t debate it. Leave it where it lies. The Living God, in his infinite wisdom, will reveal all truths when it is time for us to know them.”
“Hyuck. We’ll continue this conversation later.”
Jaehyun swallowed hard, staring wide-eyed at the floor below his knees. Did they think their words were quiet enough to not be heard? The younger of the two, with his wide, piercing eyes, clearly knew that he and Johnny weren’t what they claimed. They should run. They should go now, take once more to the shadows, fight their way out as Johnny said. It wouldn’t do to stay here, pinned, waiting to be taken.
But there was no time. The sanctuary doors burst open and the heavy footfall of boots closed in on them.
“Commander,” the father—Taeil—said calmly. “It’s not been two days since you last came through Saint’s Rest. Has there been no word?”
Jaehyun glanced carefully out of the corner of his eye, watching as a tall man in well-polished armor led two lower ranking recruits deeper into the church. “Nothing, Father. Every trail we’ve followed has led to nothing. I worry that if the Divine isn’t rescued soon then...well. Our window is closing.”
Rescued. Then the tale truly was that Johnny had kidnapped him. The mere idea of it made Jaehyun’s blood boil. He clasped his hands tighter, digging his nails deep into his palms in an attempt to quiet the fire raging inside of him.
“Please,” he whispered, so quietly that his words barely reached his own ears. “Heechul. Yeeun. Jongdae. Byeongkwan. Any of you, please keep him safe. I don’t care what happens to me, but don’t let anything hurt him.”
“And who are these two?”
“Keep. Your head. Down,” Johnny whispered frantically.
“Ah, these young men joined us a little over a week ago as a stop on their pilgrimage to Ardent. Jongin unfortunately grew quite ill and they had to pause their travels, they’ve been staying with us for the time being,” Taeil said smoothly, the lie dropping as easily from his lips as a homily or a prayer. “He and Junmyeon should be back on the road in a few days, right as rain. For now they’ve taken a vow of silence as penance, to hopefully speed their healing.”
Acting quickly, Johnny faked a lusty cough, covering his mouth with his hands.
The commander hummed softly, walking slowly up the aisle to where Johnny and Jaehyun knelt. “You. Truth teller. Who are they?”
Donghyuck snorted. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“And I wish you’d answer my question. Who are these men?”
“Travelers,” Donghyuck said slowly, voice bland and uninterested. “Commander, this is a small village full of old farmwives and retired fishermen. If the Divine were hiding in our village no one here would be able to keep it to themselves, word would hit Ardent in a matter of hours.” He laughed, the sound like chiming bells. “Really, commander. Are you asking me if father Moon, a man devoted to serving the Living God, would lie?”
The Commander growled, a frustrated sound. “Is the Divine inside this church?”
Donghyuck leveled him with a pointed look. “The Divine is in every church, Commander. In the hearts of all of us, isn’t he? That’s sort of the point.”
There was a long pause in which Jaehyun felt five pairs of eyes turned on he and Johnny. Finally the Commander heaved a sigh. “Very well then. Remember, it’s your duty to report back to us if you hear anything. Do I have your word?”
“You have our word,” Taeil said quickly, before Donghyuck could find the chance to say anything else.
It took a few more tense minutes for the small contingent to make their way out. When they did Jaehyun let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, the muscles in his body relaxing one by one.
Johnny looked up at the men, who stood watching them with curious eyes. “Thank you,” he murmured. “I...thank you.”
“Who are you?” Donghyuck insisted, leveling them with a glare. It was obvious that he’d had enough of them already, arms folded over the simple white robes he wore. “Please believe that I know a lie when I hear it, so the truth, if you’d be so kind.”
Jaehyun took a shuddering breath and looked to Johnny, who gave a small nod. “My...my name is…” He swallowed, closing his eyes. “My name is Jung Jaehyun. This is Johnny, my Cavalier. We’re trying to get to Orison, to find passage on a ship and away from this country.”
Taeil and Donghyuck stared in stunned silence, watching as Jaehyun tried desperately not to squirm. Finally Taeil broke the silence. “Well. You must be weary, and you look half starved. Come, we’ll feed you and you can tell us your story, I’m sure you have much to say.”
“Taeil!” Donghyuck moved quickly to his side, taking his arm and demanding his attention. “And what will the legion say when they find we’ve been harbouring fugitives?”
Taeil turned with a look of shock in his eyes. “We serve the Living God, Donghyuck, and now he is on our doorstep. And I, for one, would like to know the truth behind the tales we’re being told. Don’t you think the people deserve the truth?”
For a long moment Donghyuck looked between Taeil and the newcomers, eyes narrow as he processed his thoughts. “Fine,” he finally spat, dropping Taeil’s hand. “Fine. Just remember, the more I know the less I can say when they return. And that’ll be on you.”
Taeil smiled wearily, offering a small bow to Johnny and Jaehyun. “Come, our home is just beside the church. You’ll be safe there for the time being.”
As they stepped outside Johnny was careful to check their surroundings, only letting Jaehyun leave when he was convinced the church guard was nowhere to be found. The followed Taeil and Donghyuck through the grass to a small cottage just beside the church, ducking inside. The home was simple. One room, a small table, a small fire for keeping the space warm and preparing their meals. Jaehyun noted the bed pushed into the corner, one thin mattress to serve the both of them, one threadbare blanket.
Still, Taeil radiated a warmth that made it seem greater than any palace. “Come,” he said, motioning to the table. “Sit. How long has it been since you’ve had a proper meal?”
Jaehyun blushed as he and Johnny sat, ducking his head down as he stared at the table. “Over a week,” he said softly. “We...do well enough. Johnny is a skilled hunter. Still, sometimes there isn’t much around to be hunted.”
“We’ve survived it so far,” Johnny said, voice low. His eyes still flickered from place to place, always on the lookout. “We’re not used to hardy meals at all times a day, we do fine on meager rations.”
Donghyuck looked at them curiously. “With all the food given in offering? I would think every night was a feast for you.”
That earned a hollow laugh from Jaehyun, who merely shook his head. “No, quite the opposite. Where that food goes, I could not say. We’d be better off putting it right back on the tables of the people who offer it to me. Most of them look so hungry. I supposed some of it goes to the enlisted men, though they don’t seem to have much meat on their bones either.”
“Interesting,” Donghyuck murmured. “I’d wondered.”
Two portion of stew were set down before them, steam drifting off of them in waves. There was clearly no shortage of vegetables in this little village; the bowl was full of cabbage and turnip and carrot and leek and some meat that looked a bit like pork. Taeil hadn’t skimped, either; the bowls were filled to the brim, so much so that he had to move slowly as he placed them so as not to cause a spill. The smell was so rich and warm that Jaehyun’s mouth immediately started watering. He looked at Johnny, who merely smiled and gave a fond shake of his head.
“I don’t know what you’re looking at me for,” he teased. “Go on.”
It felt like it had been ages since Jaehyun had eaten. That morning they’d managed to find a meagre amount of berries and some watercress, but that felt like nearly nothing at all, sticking to his ribs rather than filling his belly. The moment he dug into the stew he was filled with a warmth he hadn’t felt in heaven knows how long.
“It’s delicious,” he practically moaned, unable to be ashamed at how poor his table manners must seem. “Thank you.”
Taeil laughed softly, bringing Donghyuck a bowl before sitting down himself. “Well. I’ve given my life to serving you, I supposed a bit of food is the least I can do.”
At that Jaehyun blushed, looking down. He felt as if he ought to say something but no words came to mind.
Thankfully Johnny was there to save him, as always. “You were very eager to step in and cover for us,” he said, eyes thoughtful at he considered Taeil across the table. He gestured vaguely to Donghyuck. “Even this one, as wary of us as he seems, held his tongue when asked directly about us. The guard will have your heads if they find out you knew. Why risk it?”
Taeil stared at them thoughtfully for a moment, chin resting on his clasped hands. Jaehyun paused his ravenous eating to look between them, eyes curious.
“I’m sure you know what the church has said about you,” Taeil said softly, looking to Donghyuck, who merely looked away. “That you dragged the Divine from the cathedral in the middle of the night at sword point, forced him away from his home and his service to the people. They've created a narrative that if his grace isn't brought home soon it will be too late to save him, that you'll both be executed as heretics."
The mere idea made Jaehyun's blood boil. "Heretics," he spat. "As if we left to spread some sort of anti-church agenda. As if we aren't running for our lives."
"That doesn't answer my question," Johnny pointed out. "For all you know they're telling the truth, and I've merely got Jaehyun in my thrall. Why help?"
"Because I serve the Divine," Taeil said softly. "And if the Divine shows up on my doorstep, frightened and in need of my help, why would I turn him away?"
"There is little love for the church outside the walls of Ardent," Donghyuck said suddenly, folding his arms across his chest. "Love for the Divine, yes, but no love for the church that hides him away behind high walls and claims him as their own. They feed their own bellies and leave the people of the villages and towns outside of Ardent to rot, sit and watch as their people starve and struggle to defend themselves from monsters." He sat back, folding his arms. "So there's your answer. Taeil serves the Divine. Not the church."
Johnny looked taken aback by his candor. "And you? Who do you serve?"
Donghyuck looked to Johnny, meeting his eyes in a way so few had throughout his life. "I serve Taeil, Ser Cavalier."
"You speak so plainly," Jaehyun said, no reprimand in his voice. He rather admired it, the ease with which Donghyuck spoke.
"I've not much choice," Donghyuck muttered, looking away.
Instead of reprimanding the younger, Taeil merely reached over to touch the back of his neck with soothing fingers. This seemed to calm whatever ire had been bubbling up within Donghyuck; he sighed, closing his eyes and letting his shoulders fall, letting some of the tension drain from his body. Jaehyun watched curiously as the exchange passed between them, drinking in the affection in Taeil's eyes as he brought Donghyuck back down to earth.
"What of your story?" Taeil asked, letting his hands fall to his lap. "What drives the Living God away from the land of Ardent?"
Jaehyun looked to Johnny, who merely shrugged and encouraged him on with a wave of his hand. "The Cardinals..." Jaehyun sighed, looking down. "I must seem properly spoiled, a pet bird trying to escape a gilded cage. But there is no language that could explain the true sorrow of living under their watch." He smiled weakly as he looked up, meeting the kind gaze Taeil had set upon him. "No family. No friends but Johnny, though he has always been more than enough. My nursemaids weren't even allowed to touch me with their bare hands, so even as a child I was not allowed the comfort of companionship. My life is what the people see of it and nothing more. I spend my days sitting shrouded before people who think I can save them from themselves, all the while I have no power, no holiness with which to reach out to them."
"Johnny and I disagree on the state of my divinity," Jaehyun quickly amended. "He is convinced he sees something that I, perhaps, do not. Nevertheless, they used me to control the people, and any time I had the audacity to think or speak on my own I was beaten just like everyone else."
Donghyuck's face had changed from one of easy dismissal to one of guarded interest. "It doesn't seem like there's much benefit to being god, then."
"My weekly excitement came from the cooks sneaking honey into my porridge," Jaehyun said with a humorless laugh. "I'm not sure how they painted my existence within their walls, but it is not one of particular excitement or joy."
"The final straw came when...when they decided to separate us," Johnny said in a hushed voice that seemed to draw all three men to lean towards him. "Jaehyun was trying to stop a Silencing when he found that they were going to send me away. I don't know where I'd end up, probably sent to some front to die, but..."
"But he's all I've ever had," Jaehyun whispered. "And I would rather spend my life on the run than accept being parted."
A hush fell over them as they all considered his words, absorbing the story between them. When Taeil spoke he was resolute.
"And this is why I chose to help you. Sometimes you don't need to know a person's story to trust that they have one." He sighed, shaking his head. "This does confirm what many suspect. Mistrust of the church has only grown over the years, I fear if something isn't done soon then people will soon turn from the faith as an act of protest."
"I mean. I wouldn't really be bothered," Jaehyun said weakly.
Taeil laughed, though it wasn't unkind. "I'm sure you wouldn't. The people need faith though, your grace. Even if it is unfounded, even if they believe in things that they don't understand, everyone needs to believe that they are loved beyond their mortal lives."
They spoke further, learning more about their new companions; Taeil had taken over as head of his church three years ago after spending some time studying in Ardent. Donghyuck had joined him not a year ago to serve, though they did not speak of how his appointment came to be or if they'd known each other prior to the assignment.
After their meal was consumed and Donghyuck had cleaned up Taeil stood, walking to a small trunk over by the mattress. "You'll need supplies," he mused, opening the container and pulling out a small pouch of worn leather. "We haven't got much money, but there should be enough to get a few things to send you away with."
"No, we couldn't," Jaehyun insisted. "We didn't come here to abuse your good will and take what little coin you have. We'll manage just fine."
"Trust me, he's not going to let it go. Might as well let us help you," Donghyuck drawled, watching with half-interest.
It was decided that Taeil would escort Johnny to purchase whatever goods they needed, allowing them to keep up the guise of penitents under a vow of silence. Jaehyun would stay behind with Donghyuck, out of sight and safe for the time being.
"We'll leave at sun-down, travel when it's dark," Johnny told Jaehyun, pulling his gloves on. "You should try to get some sleep, we don't get many opportunities for a proper rest, you know that."
Jaehyun nodded, chewing his lip. To the side he could see Taeil and Donghyuck sharing a hushed conversation, Donghyuck's hands clutching one of Taeil's between his own. Jaehyun turned back to Johnny to give them a moment of privacy. "Be careful while you're out there, please. Keep your head down. And do try not to take too long, I'll be worrying the entire time you're away."
"When are you not worrying?" Johnny teased, reaching forward to tug playfully at a lock of Jaehyun's hair. "We're safe, for the moment. Rest while you can." With that he nodded politely to Donghyuck, casting one last backward glance at Jaehyun before following Taeil into the sunlight.
Jaehyun found himself alone with Donghyuck, anxiety curling unpleasantly in his stomach.
"I suppose...I should try to sleep," he said slowly, hands fidgeting before him. "This may be my only chance for a while. I won't be in your way, would I?"
Donghyuck glanced over, raising an eyebrow. "I can't imagine you would." He motioned to their threadbare mattress, though his eyes still held the burning curiosity that made Jaehyun feel as if the man could see right through him. Instead of dwelling on it Jaehyun knelt on the mattress, laying on his side with his back to the rest of the room.
It took him quite some time to nod off. He couldn't stop thinking about the presence in the room, wondering if Donghyuck could be trusted as Taeil was. Still, he was too weary to fight the pull of sleep for too long, and halfway through his fretting he drifted off.
He woke as the sun had begun to set, shadows lengthening and casting the inside of the small cottage in shadow. Donghyuck had lit candles at some point, their fire providing a dim glow through the room. Jaehyun sat, rubbing his eyes and humming softly as he tried to pull himself fully from the confusion of slumber.
Donghyuck looked at him, tilted his head in consideration, and turned back to whatever he had bubbling in the pot on the fire.
Jaehyun wasn't sure if he should try to fill the silence, especially with the way Donghyuck showed so little interest as he moved about the room. Instead Jaehyun looked around, distracting himself by thinking of where they might go next. He wondered if they would spend another week traipsing through the woods. How far were they from Orison? Johnny said it would be a bit of a journey, but Jaehyun had no real context for what that meant. Still, no matter how long, he would press on. He would push himself as hard as he had to until they were free.
"Are the two of you lovers?"
Jaehyun's heart nearly stopped. He whirled around to look at Donghyuck with wide eyes, hand clutched to his chest. "What? How could you...what?"
Donghyuck seemed quite pleased with how he'd flustered Jaehyun. "You talk like lovers. I was curious if it was true, or if you're just so under socialized that you don't know how else to talk to people." He stood, moving to the window to grab a small bundle of herbs hanging there to dry. "It's alright if you are. It's a lot more common than the church makes it seem, the people in the outlying territories have no qualms with it."
"With...what?" Jaehyun asked, faint.
Donghyuck smiled as if acknowledging some shared secret. "You know." He carefully plucked some leaves from the sprig of greenery in his hand, fingers nimble and quick. "You can tell me, you know. I like a bit of good gossip, but I know what information not to spread."
For someone who had just woken, Jaehyun felt exhausted. "You're very candid," he sighed, sitting on the mattress with his back against the wall. "You certainly aren't afraid of the truth."
Something dark passed through Donghyuck's countenance, so quick that Jaehyun thought he might have imagined it. "You're wrong, your grace. I find honesty to be quite terrifying." He sighed, looking aside. "Still. It means something when I tell you I can be trusted, that I won't betray your confidence."
Jaehyun considered this. As much as he wanted to grip his particular truth close to his chest so no one might ever know, more than anything he felt burdened by the weight of it. Perhaps...judging by what he'd seen of Donghyuck and Taeil, perhaps there was a reason Donghyuck could be trusted with something like this.
"I love him," Jaehyun said softly, the words foreign and frightening on his tongue. "I've loved him for years, now. And I think...I know he loves me too. But it frightens me."
That seemed to puzzle Donghyuck, who moved to the bed to sit next to Jaehyun. "Why is that so frightening? That sounds like the ideal, if you ask me. Not many people manage to fall in love with the person who loves them as well. It sounds like it should be easy."
Jaehyun laughed softly. "Perhaps it would be, if he were a simple farm boy and I were anything other than what I am. If we had been raised to be...to be normal. If he didn't spend his life in servitude to me." The terror to voice his feelings was still there, but Jaehyun felt it grow smaller and smaller the longer he spoke. Donghyuck's face was honest. Almost sympathetic. It felt...nice to talk about it. "How do I know if his love is his own, or one that's been forced on him since he was a child? How do I know that I've earned his love through my own doing, and not by virtue of who I supposedly am?"
Donghyuck hummed, seeming to think this over. "I can see your predicament. Honestly, I'd worry more if you yourself weren't so concerned. I think that's enough to show your intentions, that it's something you're conscious of. Something that you'd catch, were your fears realized in any way."
He stood, laughing. "Because trust me, your grace. He'd obviously do anything for you, and that's got nothing to do with who the church says you are."
It was comforting to hear someone say such a thing, to sooth Jaehyun's fears. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"
"I couldn't if I wanted to," Donghyuck snorted.
“Well. Whether or not that’s the case, thank you,” Jaehyun murmured, cheeks flooding with pink. “I’ve quite honestly only ever had Johnny to talk to, and...I couldn’t exactly go to him for this. It makes me feel a bit less crazy to hear that we’re...normal.”
“I don’t know if I’d say you’re normal,” Donghyuck teased. “You’ve ages to go before you’re normal. That, though, isn’t anything at of the ordinary.”
Jaehyun felt himself bloom under the teasing, shy smile turning into something wider and brighter. “Well you would know, wouldn’t you?”
Donghyuck laughed at the sudden change in Jaehyun’s demeanor. “And what does that mean?”
“You and your rector clearly have a particular fondness for each other,” Jaehyun said, lowering his voice as if sharing a secret with an old friend. “He touches you so freely, I was surprised at first. I thought I was imagining things until I noticed that there are two pillows on one bed.”
Donghyuck went still, eyes narrowing as he met Jaehyun’s eyes. Gone was the sudden friend from a moment before, replaced by something much more guarded. “What do you mean?”
“Taeil,” Jaehyun said, face falling in his confusion. “Are you not—”
“No,” Donghyuck said quickly, and then just as quickly raised his hand to cover his mouth, a look of fear twisting his pretty features. He lowered his hand to his chest, clearing his throat as if something were stuck inside. “What have you done…”
“What have I-what do you mean?” Jaehyun asked miserably. “I’m sorry if I’ve done something wrong.”
“No, not you,” Donghyuck spat, clearing his throat again. He coughed once, twice, three times as Jaehyun watched on in confusion, watched as Donghyuck’s breath became laboured and his face went pale. “No, it’s me. I’m not supposed to...I can’t…”
He started coughing again, great, gasping things that sent him to his knees, fingers clutching the blanket as he tried to catch his breath. Jaehyun watched with alarm as a particularly hard cough flecked his lips with blood. It began to drip from his lips, thick and syrupy and red, pooling on the bed below him as he continued to gasp and cough pitifully.
“Donghyuck,” Jaehyun gasped, heart hammering. He darted to the table, grabbing a cup and filling it with water before returning to Donghyuck’s side. “Here, drink this, it’ll help!”
Instead of taking the offered drink Donghyuck merely pushed Jaehyun’s hand away, the water spilling over the edges and down the front of Jaehyun’s shirt. Fear had him nearly paralized but he forced himself to pull Donghyuck close, rubbing a firm hand over his back and trying to sooth his trembling form.
“It’s alright, it’s going to be alright,” Jaehyun said, practically begging the universe to make it so. He felt the fabric of his shirt stick to his skin as Donghyuck coughed up another mouthful of blood, sweat beading his forehead as he let Jaehyun hold him close. “Just breathe, please breathe Donghyuck, please…”
So great was his distress that he didn’t notice the door open, didn’t see Johnny and Taeil return with arms full of parcels. He only looked up when Taeil dropped his burden in surprise, eyes wide as he took in the scene before them.
Jaehyun looked up, desperate, shaking. “Please,” he begged, tears running down his cheeks to soak the front of his already ruined shirt. “Please, I think he’s dying!”