When Soo-Won left Kuuto, it had been months since his last sight of Hak and Yona. He knew they are no longer safe with the Wind Tribe where he had left them, because Mun-deok had managed to get him that much word, passed through too many layers of possible informants to tell him their destination or what plan they followed, although he was assured that Yona was no longer a mindless burden to destroy Hak’s own chances of survival.
He had left them for two reasons: the first, that he owed it to Joo-Doh to see what rescue might be attempted for both his general and the army of the Sky Tribe. The charge that his own hand had slain King Il would see them imprisoned indefinitely as probable accomplices if he did not, with the Fire Tribe in charge of the castle now. The second, that Yona’s all-consuming grief and Hak’s own assurances that he knew Soo-Won could never have harmed the king are a knife of their own, tearing at him with a guilt at once earned and undeserved.
For it was not his hand that had slain his uncle, but neither was he innocent, save for an accident of timing that allowed the Fire Tribe, its ranks supplemented by the forces of Li Hazara, to impose order on the castle after General Soo-Jin had ‘discovered’ the king’s headless body, mere days before Soo-Won’s own plot was in truth to have begun. And while he had anticipated the guilt that would come with knowing Hak and Yona grieved Il truly, while he himself merely counterfeited sorrow for an uncle he knew to be both incompetent and murderous, he had not thought suspicion would fall on himself. The plan had been to stage sightings of an intruder, before he carried out the execution and was left free to cement his claim with Yona’s hand and take rightful possession of Hak’s allegiance. And he would be king, able to save Kouka from itself, which would have provided a counterbalance to remind him of the necessity of the deception he perpetrated upon them.
Now, there was only the shame of too-ready trust, driving him apart from them as he strove to discover what General Soo-Jin would do to his kingdom. The state of the Fire Tribe lands inspired no more confidence in his governance than did his deluded reliance on the fantastical old legends of Hiryuu, so obviously exaggerations from a later time.
Thus he spent long months concealed as Won among his criminal friends, learning what he could, and little of it good. The Earth Tribe remained stagnant, the Sky Tribe near eradicated, the Water Tribe troubled by internal unrest, and the Wind Tribe carefully pretending to believe that Soo-Won had slain his uncle in a bid for power and then fled with Yona and Hak. Until the day Gulfan came spiraling down, an unlooked-for message on his leg. Hak had circled back near enough to the capital that Gulfan had found him, Yona still firmly in tow. And Soo-Won had done all he could here, having freed Joo-Doh if not the rest of his army, and now he would have to take his careful half-formed plans to renew the other tribes and turn them into the beginnings of a rebellion, rather than the securing of his reign. Though it pained him to tear his already weakened kingdom apart with civil war, there was no other recourse to free it from the misrule of the Fire Tribe.
So he set out, carefully disguised, with Joo-Doh following at his back, to meet the two most painfully close to his heart. He had few hopes for what he might find, save that Hak at his side would be most welcome, both for his own strength of arms and command of the Wind Tribe and for his interest to General Gun-Tae, whose fickleness and apathy of late he hoped the goads of Joo-Doh and Hak might finally break, along with the provocation of Kai troops welcomed within Kouka borders. Yona might, if she were at all recovered, be turned into the symbol of their conflict that he himself could no longer be. She was not implicated in her father’s death, as he was, and so could provide a rallying point for resistance, so long as she did not remain sunk so deeply in her grief that she still took no notice of the world.
To say that he was unprepared for what he found would be an understatement. It was not that Yona and Hak were accompanied by three companions; Hak had mentioned the size of their group in his short missive. But he had not mentioned more, and had he done so Soo-Won would not have believed him. Yon was ordinary enough, a rude peasant boy with a chip on his shoulder and only enough knowledge of medicine to distinguish him from a score of others Soo-Won had met while disguised. And Hak, of course, was scarcely changed at all save for some fierce new scars. Shin-Ah, though, was strange in his silence, and especially in his eyeless mask, not for his blindness but for how he did not seem blind at all, though there was no way he could see. And then there was Ki-Ja, whose hand, bestial, taloned, and scaled in white, began to indicate the truth of what Hak claimed now: that the oracle of the mountains had sent them to find the dragons of Hiryuu. And those dragons were no mere legend, no story of four proud generals made supernatural with time, but truth, and both swore Yona was their liege.
But even this paled as he confronted Yona herself. She had always been a fragile, spoiled, sheltered, petted child, and Il’s greatest treasure. She had no notion of effort or hardship and was prone to sulks and fits of temper. And she had most certainly been apt to break in the slightest true breeze. Which made the girl before him, resilient as a sapling, such a consternation. There had been nothing in Yona that should have allowed her to become flame and determination bound up in the form of a young woman. Her face was scratched and dirty, her hands calloused, and most of all her eyes were hard, with twin flames burning in them. She looked like someone who could be Hiryuu at need. And though he felt a pang for the loss of his gentle Yona, and anger at Hak for letting her become this strange creature, there was satisfaction there too. He had merely hoped for a figurehead for his rebellion, and found instead a true rallying point, far better suited to his needs than he had ever dreamed she might be. And she brought with her monsters of a martial calibre to match himself and Hak, such as he had never dreamed might exist.