It was supposed to be just like any other tournament.
"I, Tae-jun, hereby issue a challenge for the princess's hand!"
An ordinary tournament on a warm autumn afternoon, through which Hak could happily nap.
"With all due respect, Your Highness, a bit of pocket change is hardly adequate for a tournament of this scale! I propose we change the stakes!"
Nap in peace without worrying about the sheer idiocy of these hotheaded adolescents.
"Are you questioning the will of the King, Lord Tae-jun?!"
"Oh, no," said the Second Son of Whomever From Wherever, Hak didn't remember and Hak didn't care—"merely his sense of excitement."
No one leapt to the defense of King Il. No one reprimanded Tae-jun for his insolence. King Il had few allies, it seemed, and far too many young men desired the hand of the fair Princess Yona.
Said Princess Yona was currently seething in her spectator's throne, her fingers twitching over the bow that Hak knew was concealed in the folds of her robes, unbeknownst to her father. It was the sort of seething where her face was still placid and beautiful like the citizens expected, but fire blazed hot and heavy in her eyes.
"What a demotion," Hak murmured lazily. "A tournament prize, like cattle or a sack of gold."
"Idiots can't win my favor, no matter how well they fight," Yona said lowly.
Hak snorted. "Then who will?"
"Someone competent," Yona bit out. "I don't care for this proposal in the slightest, so long as the victor would truly be a good leader of our nation."
Hak raised an eyebrow at that. "Really? You'd have to marry someone you didn't chose. I thought you were past that demure phase."
Yona's eyes cut to him, strangely intense. "Demure or not, it is my duty to protect this nation. If a strong marriage should do that, then it would be an honor."
Hak smiled softly. The Princess had grown up remarkably well. It was little wonder that so many men were fighting for her hand.
So many... men.
"Yet with that said..." Yona's lips suddenly thrust out into an adorable pout. "They're like a bunch of little boys! There's no way that any of them could possibly be a good ruler!"
Hak coughed in laughter. "I doubt you'll have to worry about it, Princess," he said drily. "The likelihood of your father accepting this is—"
"Very well," said King Il, and the entire arena dropped into shocked silence.
King Il smiled.
"But on one condition," King Il said placidly. "Princess Yona herself shall determine the parameters of the tournament."
Yona's jaw dropped.
Hak's jaw dropped.
The Second Son of Whomever From Wherever's jaw dropped.
"Me?" said Yona in an uncharacteristically quiet squeak.
"Well, certainly," said King Il, still smiling. "After all, it's your hand they seek, not mine."
Yona's eyes widened.
"And," continued King Il in a quieter voice, "the engagement could be as long as necessary."
Yona covered her mouth with a deceptively delicate hand, her eyes brimming with tears. "Thank you, Father," she whispered. "You're... you're too kind."
King Il gave her a tender smile before he turned back to address the rest of the arena. He probably said something about the games being delayed for a few days until Yona submitted her parameters, that lodgings would be available in so-and-so places, et cetera... but all Hak could think was WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE SPIRITS IS GOING ON.
Yona was going to be married.
It made sense. It really did. She was on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, old by many accounts. She was lovely and fair and kind and every bit of character that a man could ever desire. He had been bracing himself for this, expecting it, weighing it in the back of his mind. Yona was off limits. He knew that much.
Except... except now, she wasn't.
Yona's tournament would be fair, and it would be open. He could... participate. He could possibly... just maybe... Yes, he wasn't known as the Thunder Beast for nothing...
"No," he said firmly, aloud. Yona glanced at him, but he was too absorbed to care.
He'd learned how to govern the Wind Tribe before he'd sworn allegiance to Yona, but that wasn't on the same level as a king. He wasn't sure he could be the competent ruler for whom Yona was seeking. She deserved a king, not a general. He had never had a great head for the drama of politics; it annoyed him too much.
Aside from that, there was the obvious problem that he didn't want to marry her if she didn't already love him. His... his own feelings hardly mattered. Other men might not care in that regard, but he certainly did, foolish as it was.
He was well practiced in shoving his feelings into a crevice. He could continue to do so.
For Yona's happiness.
"Arrrrrgh this is impossible!"
Yona slammed a palm down on the fine, handcrafted table before her, glaring angrily at the parchment currently covered in scribbles of ink. Hak glanced up from his post against the wall, lifting an eyebrow.
"There's no way," Yona bit out, "that I can possibly judge a good king from less than five tests!" She wheeled around, her eyes blazing. "Hak! Give me some ideas!"
Hak grinned. "Whether they can tolerate your idiocy," he teased.
She kicked him in the ankle. "Good ideas," she said past her smile.
Hak rubbed his throbbing ankle. Yona was grinning, but he could see the stress balled up in her shoulders and neck. In such a short time, she had to come to terms with the fact that she would have to marry. This was probably not the best time to joke around, much as he wanted to do so to ward off the heavy air.
He glanced over her shoulder. Nothing intelligible was on her paper; she was well and truly stuck.
"Why don't you try thinking of it differently?" he said nonchalantly.
Yona blinked. "Differently?" she repeated.
Hak nodded. "Think of five traits you would want in a king, and make one test for each trait."
"Oh," Yona said. Then gasped. "Oh, Hak, that's actually a brilliant idea!"
Hak snorted. "Of course. I came up with it," he said.
But Yona was already engrossed in her papers, whispering heatedly to herself. "Bravery? Yes, but not incredibly important... ah! Compassion. Yes, compassion and humility. And..." She suddenly paused, her eyes flitting at Hak.
"Your Highness?" he said, confused.
"...Could you, um, not... stand like that, Hak?" she said, turning her face away.
Only then did Hak realize that he was still poised over her shoulder, his cheek just a hair away from hers. He dug his fingers into her chair, lingering for just another moment before he stepped away.
"Sorry... Your Highness," he said flatly, and retook his post by the wall.
Yona's shoulders slumped and she silently returned to her task. Perhaps it was just the lighting, but Hak swore that her cheeks looked unusually warm. He turned away and refused to pay it any heed.
Fifty thousand spectators gathered at the newly built Kouka Grand Arena the next day in the autumn wind, chattering excitedly amongst each other. The tournament, originally intended to celebrate the opening of the Grand Arena, had somehow turned into a dramatic challenge to win the hand of the fair princess. Nothing like this had happened since the days before King Il's reign.
For this reason, every seat was filled when the gates opened at midmorning. Fifty thousand pairs of eager eyes watched as the five generals paraded through the arena in brilliantly colored robes, their grand standards whipping high in the air. As General Hak split off to take his position behind the thrones, the minor lords filed into the arena, followed by a large number of lesser nobles who fancied a chance at Princess Yona's hand.
Finally, a herald's "His Majesty the King and Her Highness the Princess!" ushered in the royalty, punctuating the beginning of the tournament with a flourish of drums and flute. King Il sat in his throne, while Princess Yona stepped forward to address the quieting crowd, her clear voice cutting through the arena.
"Citizens of Kouka," she said deliberately. "I thank you for attending this milestone event in history. As you are aware, this arena has been built to host exhilarating Games to promote entertainment and good will among our prosperous kingdom."
She paused, folding her hands in front of her. At his close distance, Hak could see that she was shaking despite her apparent confidence.
"In... celebration of this opening, the tournament shall decide the future son-in-law of the king," Yona continued, "according to these four tests."
She swept her hand to one side of the arena, where hundreds of chairs were set in orderly columns. Upon each of them sat a man or woman with extensive years, wrinkles, and silver hair.
"These are some of our kingdom's esteemed elderly," Yona said. "You are to feed them a provided meal and wash their feet. But do so carefully, for they are your judge and shall determine whether you pass or not."
Around three-quarters of the man recoiled with disgust. One half even turned around and exited the arena. Yona's eyes narrowed and Hak smirked.
The trait of Compassion, Hak realized. Yona was already weeding cruelty out of the tournament.
Yona gestured next to a series of large flagpoles, at the base of which sat lumpy sacks of straw. "The second test," she said, "is to take your sword and stab the sack of straw when the flag is raised. An attendant will raise the flag. Do not attempt to raise it yourself, or you will be disqualified."
This test seemed unusually simple. Hak peered over the balcony and glanced at the flagpoles. One attendant was standing at each flagpole, a solar clock at their feet.
Of course. The attendants would not raise the flag until a certain hour. Yona would be testing for Patience. Patience was an important quality of a king, to be sure.
"The third test," Yona suddenly said, "shall match you against each other in separate duels around this artificial terrain." She gestured to a field of looming blocks, bricks, and crates near the edge of the arena. "You must only incapacitate one other competitor in order to pass the test."
Strategic wit, Hak thought. He had no doubt that the obstacle area was less simple than it seemed.
"And the final test..." Yona looked right at Hak, and he suddenly felt a chill run up his spine.
"The final test," Yona said, "is to make it through Hak, and grab this ribbon tied around my wrist." She smiled quietly. "The prize is, of course, available to any who participate in the tournament."
Hak's veins froze.
Make it through Hak.
Even though he had already decided not to participate in the tournament, she effectively singled him out and shut him down. He had no chance of entering the tournament now.
He tried not to let it hurt him. She probably just didn't think about it. In fact, seeing him in a romantic light must've been unfathomable to her. He should be honored. She trusted him to protect her. She trusted him to get rid of any idiots.
And yet... something hurt. Deeply.
The arena fell in a deadly silence as all eyes swiveled onto the infamous Thunder Beast and his terrible weapon.
"One last thing," Yona said, and her voice hardened the slightest tint. "We are discussing not only my future, but the future of the entire kingdom. As such, I will not tell Hak to hold back. You may lose your life in the final test. An adequate stake for such an important position. Wouldn't you agree... Lord Tae-jun?"
Somewhere beyond his shock, Hak was impressed. Yona held Tae-jun's gaze with steel, an ironic tilt to her smirk.
You like stakes? I'll give you stakes, she seemed to be saying.
He couldn't help but chuckle at that.
Surely, this was the ultimate test of Bravery.
The tournament started and the first test of the elderly alone narrowed the competition to just seventy men.
Hak lounged nonchalantly against the wall, turning his quandao over in his hand as the hopefuls stood at the base of their flagpoles, swords poised before the sacks, eyes fixed angrily on the attendants. Most were not accustomed to waiting, it seemed.
Fifteen men grew too impatient and stabbed their sacks. They were immediately escorted out of the arena.
Hak snorted. Clearly, these privileged nobles had only ever hunted for sport. The patience required to shoot down prey for survival would easily suffice for this flag test. Some bitter part of his mind snarked, if only I could take the test, but he promptly shoved it away, as was his custom.
He glanced behind him. Yona was standing in an altered ceremonial dress, rich in color but loose in form. A translucent cloak encircled her slender figure, sparkling like water in the afternoon sun. He swallowed and quickly turned away, tightening his grip on his quandao.
The flags finally raised and sacks of straw were rent to pieces. Four more men had been disqualified, admitting just sixty-one into the third test.
As the nobles were ushered into the course, the elderly were escorted off of the arena by the flagpole attendants, allowing the crowd's view to be unobscured. The restlessness that had been raised by the slow pace of the second test quickly rose to a fervor as each noble was handed a quarterstaff.
"Hak," came Yona's voice.
Hak turned his head, but kept his eyes on the ground. "Yes, Your Highness," he said.
There was a brief pause. Then: "Do you feel that this tournament is unfair?"
Hak blinked. "Unfair?" he repeated.
"Never mind," Yona blurted suddenly. "Never... never mind."
He was about to press the matter further, but the blast of a gong switched his attention back to the obstacle course. The nobles were now running about, searching for a target to eliminate. Some, it seemed, had allied with each other. Hak caught a glimpse of Tae-jun weaving in the shadows, slamming his staff against the first person he ran into. Hak was fairly surprised that the spoiled brat had made it through the first two tests, but no matter; he wouldn't make it through the fourth.
The first batch of men, who rushed to finish the test, were ten in number. They stood before Hak with their choice of weapon—mainly dulled swords and lances.
None of them seemed to want to face the Thunder Beast first.
Hak leaned easily against his quandao, a teasing smile on his lips. "What's the matter?" he taunted. "Am I just that handsome?"
Finally, one of the men surged forward with an angry roar. A proud noble, Hak noted. One of higher rank. He swiftly swept his quandao in a powerful circle, shoving a wave of wind at his opponent. The noble's lance lifted at the sudden force, leaving his guard completely open. Hak easily smashed his hilt into the noble's stomach, sending him barreling back. With a follow-up tap on the temple, the noble was out of commission.
"Is that it?" Hak said with a yawn.
The remaining nine men gritted their teeth, but seemed reluctant to draw close. Hak snorted. He didn't even need to try with these pathetic idiots.
And then one of them stepped forward, but only to speak.
"Look," said a trim noble. "We know that we can't beat you. So why don't you just let the best man through?"
The man next to him bristled in rage. "You mean the Wind General will get to decide the princess's future husband? That's nonsense!"
Hak tightened his grip. "It is nonsense," he agreed coldly. "I'm not 'letting' anyone through."
A man at the end of the line stepped forward. "Tch! Let's just fight him all at once. He can't take all of us!"
"Uh, yes he can," squeaked another man at the opposite end, but the other eight were already charging at Hak with swords raised high.
Hak dug his heels into the dusty ground, a smirk coming unbidden to his lips. He pushed his feet and lunged forward, sweeping in quandao in a fluid crescent. A scythe of wind scooped all nine men up and bodily flung them back.
"What was that?" he drawled easily as the men collapsed in an unorganized heap.
Furious, they leapt to their feet and rushed at him, this time fanning out to approach him from different angles. Hak sat back for a moment to calculate, then leapt into action.
He dashed forward, punching the hilt of his quandao straight into the gut of this first man. With his newfound momentum, he span into a butterfly kick, slamming his heel right against the jaws of two more. The three hapless opponents crumpled to the ground, groaning wordlessly.
He flung his quandao around his neck, buffering the flat of its blade against three more nobles. The final two, he dispatched with an easy kick to the gut. He yawned mockingly as the nine men squirmed in place and were eventually dragged off by attendants.
The next twenty who passed the third test were dispatched in a similar fashion. In fact, they proved to be such sad matches that Hak could not help throwing in a few flourishes for style points. Egged on by the cheering of the crowd and Yona's heavy gaze on his back, he twisted and flew like a phoenix, bringing fiery reckoning upon any who dared to pass him.
Finally, he landed on the ground, staring at the mass of bodies around him. Most of them were unconscious. Some sustained minor injuries.
"Any more?" Hak snorted.
And then something slammed against the back of his skull and he tumbled to the ground, ears ringing.
Thankfully, the blow had been slightly misplaced. The back of his head was supremely sore, but he was still conscious. Vision spinning, Hak drew himself to his feet and turned around.
Tae-jun, the Second Son of Whomever From Wherever, held out his long and supremely expensive-looking sword, his lips fixed into a confident smile.
"You should be thankful that the blow was from my hilt, not my blade," Tae-jun said loftily. "For I would not wound a man whose back is turned."
Hak snorted. "I suppose a blow to the head doesn't qualify as a wound for you," he said drily.
"Consider it a message of warning," Tae-jun sniffed.
Hak barely suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Most likely, Tae-jun hadn't wanted to appear dishonorable in front of Yona, but he also hadn't wanted to forfeit what little advantage he could gain. As it was, Hak had to admit that this duel would be much more difficult; not only did this lord seem more comfortable with his weapon, but Hak was still seeing spots and stars.
"Why don't we make this easier for the both of us?" Tae-jun said patronisingly. "You take a little rest, I pass through, and we shall be none the wiser."
Hak scoffed. "As if," he said, and lunged at Tae-jun.
His feet felt sluggish, as though he was dragging himself through mud. Tae-jun easily stepped out of his path, a relaxed smile playing around his lips.
"Behold, the power of the great Thunder Beast," he taunted.
Bewildered, Hak turned to face Tae-jun. His weapon suddenly felt so very heavy.
"Maybe you're getting old," Tae-jun continued airily.
Hak charged again, but Tae-jun dodged—except this time, a solid blow to Hak's back accompanied it. The arena gasped as Hak stumbled to the ground, shoulders smarting, world spinning.
"Nice try," Tae-jun jeered.
Hak blinked. His eyelids weighed down against his lashes.
Something was wrong. Something was very, very, very wrong.
Hak was baffled. He had never had such low stamina. He had easily sustained worse injuries than a blow to the back of the head. What could possibly...
...and then a tiny little gleam on the dusty ground caught his eye.
A needle that was empty, a needle that could easily have been pushed into his arm when he was hit on the back of the head.
A sudden realization came to Hak.
"You," Hak gritted out to Tae-jun, "didn't just hit me with your hilt."
Tae-jun blinked in a terrible attempt of wide-eyed innocence. "Who, me?"
"What—" Hak's heart jammed in his chest and he fell over, groaning. "What did you—put in that—needle?"
Hak, came Yona's faint voice, but Hak refused to move his eyes from Tae-jun's.
"Nothing terrible," Tae-jun slurred—no, it was Hak's hearing that was slurring. "Just a little sleepy aid. You're only having a hard time because of your heartrate, you know, for a fast circulation does wonders."
"Coward—" began Hak, but Tae-jun brought down his hilt and slammed it against Hak's head. Hak crumpled to the ground, his world exploding in white pain.
Hak lay there.
He desperately tried to move a muscle, to turn over, to grab something, anything.
But he was so... so very tired.
His eyes slid into darkness. He desperately fought to keep his vision.
Yona. He had to see Yona.
He sluggishly turned his gaze, squinting in focus. A blurry red shape was fluttering its way to a shining pedestal of pure light.
Someone was... someone was going to Yona.
Warning signs flared across Hak's body, bringing a much needed surge of energy. His vision cleared for a brief second, and he could see Tae-jun kneeling before Yona.
"I, Tae-jun, have passed your tests, noble Princess," he was saying. "True love has won this day."
No, Hak thought. His sight darkened, but he fought desperately against it.
Tae-jun reached for Yona's wrist.
No no no no no
And Yona pulled her wrist back.
The stadium collectively gasped at this public humiliation and dropped into utter silence.
"Princess?" he said doubtfully.
Yona stared at him. Hak could not see her eyes at this angle, what something caused Tae-jun to stagger back, choking.
"Kouka," Yona said clearly, "does not need a king of dirty tricks."
Tae-jun flushed and bristled, the first signs of discomfort creeping along him. "Your Highness, I cannot believe that you would insinuate—"
As he spoke, he surreptitiously reached for Yona's ribbon, but she pulled back again.
She said nothing, but the defiant look in her eyes was clear.
The humiliation was too much for the spoiled Second Son. Almost unthinkingly, he reached for his sword, blinded with anger—
And energy pulsed through Hak, screaming, protect Yona protect Yona protect Yona—
Tae-jun's sword swiveled out of his sheath—
Yona could easily have moved, but she did not, standing perfectly still with no trace of fear in her eyes—
Hak surged to his feet and lunged forward, thrusting his quandao outward, and Tae-jun's sword skidded away, deflected.
"You dare," Hak hissed, rage burning through his veins, "raise your hand against the princess?"
Tae-jun's face was white with shock. His sword lowered to the ground.
"I... I didn't mean..."
"A man," said Hak, "has true control over his emotions. You have no excuse."
He posed his quandao threateningly at the head of Tae-jun.
"I don't know what came over me," Tae-jun begged. "Honestly. I love her, I do."
Hak only snorted and pulled back his quandao.
"Wait!" Tae-jun blurted, recognition fluttering over his face. "How are you still awake?"
Hak lowered his weapon and leaned in close, whispering so no one could hear.
"You," Hak hissed, "know nothing about true love. Little boy."
And with a final swing of the hilt of his quandao, Tae-jun was out like a light.
Hak straightened, the thrill of victory chasing every thread of poison from his veins. His head was light on his shoulders as he turned to Yona.
"Your Highness," he said quietly, burning beneath her unwavering gaze. "There are no more participants."
The arena was completely silent as the crowd held its breath. In the stillness, Hak could hear the gentle flutter of Yona's skirts.
"There are," Yona said, her expression unreadable.
Surprised, Hak surveyed the arena. So far as he could tell, every man was unconscious. He slapped the end of his quandao on Tae-jun's head. Just to make sure, of course. "Pardon, but I don't see..."
"There is still one participant," Yona said clearly.
She raised her wrist towards him. The pale ribbon wavered uncertainly in the wind.
Hak's voice caught in his throat.
It couldn't... be possible. But then... why were the corners of her mouth lifting ever so slightly, almost invitingly, and why was a light flush spreading across her cheeks, and why was her hand trembling, trembling like the ribbon on her wrist—
Hak stepped forward, keeping his eyes fixed on hers, looking for any sign of fear or disappointment.
She did not move.
He stepped forward again, the blood in his veins thrumming at a terrifying speed.
She did not move.
"Your Highness," he said quietly.
He was only an arm's length away.
"Hak," she responded.
He could have lifted his hand and touched the ribbon. She was still holding her arm out, and he knew that she would not draw it back. But she would do so out of a sense of duty. She would do so out of love for her country. Not... out of love for him.
He drew back, smiling emptily past the twinge in his heart. "Taking this would be foolish of me," he said. "You are free of your obligations for the time being, Your Highness."
He began to turn, scrapping together the remains of his restraint, seeking to cool his blood.
"Can you... answer me one question?"
He swallowed. "I would refuse nothing if you commanded it," he said dully.
"Not... not out of my command." A pause. "Out of your will."
Something about her tone gave him pause. He turned around.
She was shaking. Not noticeably, not enough for anyone to notice except him, who stood just two paces away. But he had been expecting a proud figure, upright, unbending, maybe with angry, willful fire in her eyes at his impudence... and instead was met with an uncertain, genuine extension of... something. Something he could not word, but something that sent hope rushing through him, something that raised his heart to his throat.
"Your Highness," he said, stepping forward—
—but Yona suddenly stepped back, clutching her wrist against her chest and lowering her head.
It was a terribly timid motion, one performed out of instinct rather than intention. Her eyes were hidden beneath the translucent hood of her glimmering cloak, unreadable... but just below, he could make out the scarlet flush of her cheeks, deepening in the afternoon light. Her breaths were light and ragged, her jaw tense. Almost as if...
He held his breath and stepped forward. The clatter of his light armor reverberated in the arena as his robes billowed around his ankles.
Neither of them spoke.
The wind picked up, brushing Yona's hood off of her head in a ripple of silver. The sun caught the edges of her hair until her head blazed with light. Hak's breath caught as the luscious crimson river floated on the back of the breeze, nearly blinding him with its brilliance.
"Hak," Yona whispered. "Could you... possibly... grow to see me as a woman?"
"But the... tournament," he said blankly. "Your... your king..." Surely she had been planning for a different lord, not him.
"The first three tests were for the crowd," Yona said, her voice shaking just slightly. "The last... was for me."
Implying no one would pass him.
Implying he would be the only remaining participant.
Implying that the first three tests were only for show, and she'd had him in mind all along.
"The prize is, of course, available to any who participate in the tournament."
He had thought it peculiar that she had chosen to say such a statement, but he never would have imagined...
"I, well, you know, you're not the biggest idiot on the planet, and you're not unbearable all the time..." She flushed even deeper and stared at her shoes, unusually girlish. "And... I think you would be a good king. Out of the boys here, I mean."
He sensed fear behind the guarded precision of her words. She was open, so terribly open, and out in public. He could read her.
She... wanted him.
It was a thought that lingered only in his dreams. It was a desire that he crushed underfoot whenever it spread its rebellious roots in the stirrings of his heart. A nuisance. A distraction. An impossible, delusional scenario.
Yona saw him as a man. More than that, she held... feelings for him.
He raised his hand, brushed the tips of his fingers against her jawline, and lifted her head. Her eyes locked on his, tenuous, but steadfast. Fierce beauty bled through every inch of her skin, prying open the iron cage of restraint that he had locked away for so long.
"Yona," he murmured.
She gasped lightly at the name that slipped from his lips, but did not move. She had never been so bashful, so fragile. His other hand tightened on her shoulder.
Can you... possibly... grow to see me as a woman?
"To me," he said raggedly, "you are more than just a woman."
And he tipped her chin upward and she closed her eyes and he closed his—
—the arena faded away and they were standing there, caressed by the wind, relishing the simple, primitive sensation of lips upon lips, tingling of the skin—
—and something in the back of his mind snarked, wow, when did you get so cheesy, get me some crackers, but he promptly pushed it away, because some things were just nice to enjoy after thirteen years of longing—
—so those thoughts quickly faded away, replaced by a sudden fire blazing in his veins, propelling his body—
—he tugged Yona closer, sliding one arm around her waist, and something about her slender figure flush against his seemed perfectly asymmetrical, almost as if she had been shaped to fit—
—ridiculous, his mind said, he pushed it away again—
—Yona hummed quietly against his lips in satisfaction, her hands slipping over his shoulders and around his neck, her heart pulsing faster than a hummingbird's wings—
—or was that his—
—and then Hak's mind finally said something useful, you need air, and he drew back reluctantly, panting for breath.
The arena was still deadly quiet.
Yona's cheeks were brilliantly red and her eyes were clouded, but a smile was playing about her lips. "Hak, dummy," she muttered. "You forgot to touch the ribbon."
Hak blinked. Then smirked.
He lifted her hand, pressed his teeth against the end of the slim ribbon, and pulled it undone with his mouth. It unravelled smoothly and he let it waft to the dusty ground.
The arena, if it was possible, quieted even more, feeling a little faint at the somehow lewd-looking display. Yona's expression did not change, but he could feel her hand trembling in his grip.
The blaze within him softened. He dropped to one knee, bowing his head.
"Your Highness," he said, reciting the formal proposal. "Please look favorably upon my quest for your hand."
Yona was silent for a moment, then spoke. "May you find fortune from the heavens," she whispered.
An acceptance. More than that—the strongest acceptance phrase there ever was. Shocked, Hak raised his head.
Yona beamed through teary eyes as the crowd erupted into defending cheers. Illuminated by the sun, she bowed her head, the red waves of her hair blazing in Hak's vision. He had never seen her smile in such a way, so carelessly and brilliantly happy, not since they were children. He was stricken into stillness.
Then Yona lowered her head and pressed her lips against his and Hak suddenly didn't feel like being still anymore.
Yona was stooped over her outdoor desk, stamping wedding invitations. Her very useful fiancé Hak was lounging against the wall, face tilted upwards toward the welcoming sunlight. Apparently, lessons for kingship were quite exhausting.
Still, he had been a skilled general. Surely he would be adequate to lead the people.
Smiling quietly, Yona glanced at the next name on the list. She paused, her eyebrows nearly lifting into her hair.
"Tae-jun," she read aloud, then smirked. "Well, that's interesting."
"Tae-jun?" Hak raised his head. "Why does that sound so familiar?"
Yona rolled her eyes. "He's the one who complained about the stakes at the tournament, remember? The one who poisoned you."
"Ah." Hak grinned devilishly. "Is that so?"
"Yes, it's so. He's the second son of—"
"Give him a front seat. Best viewing." Hak's smile widened. "After all, he was the sole reason why we could marry. He deserves to... see the fruits of his hard labor."
Yona glanced from him to the invitation list and back. "That... sounds like a good deed," she said slowly, "but... why do I get the feeling that you mean some kind of evil...?"
Hak only cackled, already in a faraway world.
Yona stared, then shook her head, an affectionate smile playing on her lips. She turned back to the wedding invitations and began to write.