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Dusk Till Dawn

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Hyejoo is eight when she first holds a sword.

It’s her brother’s, an ornamental blade gifted to him for being appointed the position of Royal Guard for the House of Ha. Not intended to be used in combat, it nonetheless carries a weight that Hyejoo doesn’t fully understand even as she holds it up to the sun with awe in her eyes and aspirations in her heart. The dark rubies embedded along the hilt gleam under the light, though it’s the largest jewel that sits at the pommel that catches Hyejoo’s attention.

Is that a crack?

Hyejoo squints and tilts the sword to get a better look. As children are prone to do, however, she loses balance and finds herself stumbling as she tries to balance the heavy weapon in her grip.

A hand reaches out to steady her.

“Whoa there,” her brother laughs. “Looks like you still have a long way to go before you catch up to me.”

“But I will,” Hyejoo insists with all the stubbornness of a youth naive to reality. “Just give me a few years, and I’ll be a knight like you.”

“I think it’ll take a little longer than that,” her brother says kindly. “But I do look forward to the day when we can serve the House of Ha together, like Father and Uncle once did.”

Hyejoo’s eyes shine.

“We’ll be the greatest pair the duke has ever seen!” she proclaims, her imagination already beginning to run wild with fantasies of the future.

That dream never comes true, for her brother is executed five years later for treason.

Their mother is never the same after that. She becomes inconsolable with grief and indignation, wailing day in and day out about the sheer injustice of what transpired. 

“My son would never!” she cries at the gates of the Ha castle. “My husband and brother both died for the duke. How could my son possibly murder him!?”

The truth falls on deaf ears, as none are willing to challenge the version of events told by the eldest Ha daughter. As the new duchess stated, it was half of the Royal Guard who turned their blades on their liege and the other half who allowed it to happen through their negligence and incompetence. The entire guard is purged, and their families are stripped of all power and prestige that once came from that title. 

Hyejoo isn’t left unscathed, her pagehood revoked a year before she was due to become a squire. In exchange for their lives, she and her mother are forced to give up the family lands granted to her great-grandfather. They relocate to a small, derelict cottage with nothing but a small bundle of the cheap possessions they were permitted to keep.

“Hyejoo,” her mother weeps. “How could this have happened to us?”

Hyejoo can only come up with one answer: such is life north of the Cygnus River. 

She can still remember how her father once spoke with pride of the former duke. He exalted his ruler for the stability he granted to his domains and lauded how the Ha duchy was free from the machinations that often plagued other lands. While other lords and ladies plotted against their neighbors and used their armies as tools to fulfil their thirst for conquest, Duke Ha governed peacefully and wisely, avoiding chaos and bloodshed. 

Unfortunately, he never discovered the rot infesting his own house and destroying it from the inside out until it was too late. 

Hyejoo often tells herself that her family’s fate was just collateral damage in this game the nobility love to play. From the start, they were mere pawns, free to be sacrificed or discarded as necessary for their masters. Hyejoo constantly reminds herself of this brutal fact, for it’s the only way she can really cope with the rage that lurks within her. Facing the cruelty of reality is a good way to stymie the hunger for vengeance, or so Hyejoo convinces herself as she focuses her energies on living a quiet, humble existence with her mother. 

Once again, her hopes are crushed, this time within a year. 

Whereas Hyejoo bottled up her fury and tossed it up a mountain to be abandoned and untouched, others aren’t so keen to forgive and forget. Perhaps it’s karma in some way, for several banished servants of the House of Ha conspire with foreign nations to commit actual treason this time. They work against the duchess in hopes of disrupting her upcoming marriage to a count she was rumored to be enamored with.

The ploy ends with death. 

The count abruptly keels over during a banquet, clutching his chest with foam frothing at his mouth. It doesn’t take long for the court physicians to declare that the man was poisoned, and it takes even less time for the furious duchess to demand the heads of anyone potentially involved. For all the blood that runs in the next few weeks though, the count’s family is not appeased. They refuse to be, using the count’s death as a pretext to march upon the Ha lands.

Hyejoo is fourteen when she first takes someone’s life.

She doesn’t have much choice when leather-clad infantry storm into her village, trampling through the local market and setting buildings ablaze as they rampage through the countryside. Hyejoo barely has time to shove her mother inside their hut when a soldier charges up to them, spear at the ready.

“Sorry, kid,” he sneers, and then he thrusts his weapon right at Hyejoo’s heart.

Hyejoo ducks. Her mother screams when the spear embeds itself into the door, but Hyejoo is more preoccupied with lunging at her attacker. He’s knocked back onto the ground with a grunt, but Hyejoo gives him no chance to stand back up. She pulls his helm over his eyes before yanking his own spear out of the wood.

“Wait, no!” the man squeals as he scrabbles backwards on the dirt. He fumbles with his helmet while begging for his life. “Mercy, please! Mercy!”

His desperation attracts the rest of his squad, and Hyejoo hears angered shouts as more men make their way towards her. Her hands begin to shake in anticipation of what may very well occur in a matter of minutes, her own mortality becoming glaringly obvious in the face of the facts.

A wave of calm suddenly washes over Hyejoo.

If this is to be the end, then so be it.

Hyejoo plunges the spear downwards.

She raises it again just in time to block a strike from one of the invaders, the strength of his blow sending her a step back. Using the momentum of that inadvertent action, Hyejoo moves backwards to dodge another swing before jabbing her spear at her opponent’s thigh. He howls in pain, sinking to his knees, but another member of his squad prevents Hyejoo from finishing him off. 

One foe soon becomes two, which turns into three, and even though Hyejoo takes another soldier down, she eventually finds herself trapped against a wall due to the overwhelming odds. Blood drips down her arm from the multiple cuts she’s received, and specks of red trickle onto dead grass like grains of sand falling in an hourglass. 

Briefly, Hyejoo wonders if this is what her brother felt in his last moments: numb, cold, and empty.

Someone on horseback appears out of nowhere. Their sword reflects the flames devouring the village as they raise it above their head before bringing it down on one of Hyejoo’s assailants. They crumple without a word, and their surprised colleague is just as easily dispatched.

The rider dismounts and removes their helmet.

“You’ve fought well,” says Lady Ha Sooyoung, second in line to the throne of the Ha dukedom. Her serene countenance is a sharp contrast to the carnage surrounding her, and she pays no heed to her own troops sweeping in to eliminate their enemies. Instead, she focuses her attention on the young and battered teenager before her. “You’re Son Hyejoo, aren’t you? Your brother was once a friend of mine.”

Hyejoo says nothing.

Sooyoung tilts her head.

“You’re strong,” she comments, eyes flickering over the bodies at their feet. “I can see why your brother used to praise you so.”

Hyejoo still doesn’t respond.

Sooyoung sighs and runs a hand through her hair. She frowns, but her gaze isn’t critical as she continues to regard Hyejoo with something bordering on sympathy. After several long minutes, she finally comes to a decision and suddenly kneels before Hyejoo. 

“Help me,” Sooyoung says quietly, her solemn appeal making her seem older than her eighteen years. “I need someone who bears no loyalty to my sister, someone who cannot be swayed by fear or greed. More importantly, I need strength. I need your strength to save our country.”

Another mounted warrior rides up to Sooyoung before Hyejoo can answer. It’s a captain, judging by her decorated armor, and she merely watches the exchange with vigilance while Sooyoung remains on her knees. 

“Lend me your strength, Son Hyejoo,” Sooyoung beseeches her. “I’m tired of all this,” she says, gesturing at the ruins around them. “I’m tired of all the death. Aren’t you?”

Hyejoo lifts her spear, unbidden outrage boiling forth at the question. She has half a mind to snap at the older girl, to point out how hypocritical it is to say you’re tired of death while being accessory to so much of it. Another part of her just wants to impale Sooyoung right on the spot. An eye for an eye, and a sister for a brother, right?

Sooyoung’s captain shuts down the latter idea. She steers her horse between Sooyoung and Hyejoo, her own sword drawn. 

“Stand down, Yubin,” Sooyoung orders wearily as she rises to her feet. “She has every right to hate me.”

Yubin scoffs. 

“And yet you asked her anyway?”

“I need a blade that can defeat my sister. Even if that blade will turn on me in the end.”

Something in Sooyoung’s words resonates within Hyejoo. Perhaps it’s the calculated sincerity, the way Sooyoung has laid out her intentions in their barest form while dangling the acknowledgement that they may backfire on her. Perhaps it’s the quiet plea in her eyes, that ember of hope that she’s entrusting to Hyejoo. Or perhaps it’s what she’s offering that beckons to Hyejoo so, that promise of purpose.

Either way, Hyejoo finds herself lowering her spear, and hours later, she joins Lady Sooyoung’s entourage as they leave behind what remains of Hyejoo’s village. Her mother sees her off before she goes, and while she doesn’t say much, it’s clear that she’s imparting her wishes of retribution when she passes on the last keepsake of Hyejoo’s brother.

A shattered ruby.

Hyejoo is careful in hiding that fragment of the past as she reenters the Ha’s castle after so many months. It’s easy to tell how this place has changed, dark, sullen looks occupying the faces of nearly every inhabitant. The halls are dreadfully hushed, and the only thing keeping them from being dead silent is the endless marching of patrolling soldiers.

Hyejoo soon joins their ranks under the pretext of training to become a part of Sooyoung’s personal guard. She spends her days drilling alongside men and women older than her, and the rest of her time is taken up by Sooyoung, who insists on personally educating Hyejoo about all the ongoing politics relevant to the duchy. It’s mind-numbingly boring information, but Hyejoo does her best to commit it all to memory knowing what’s at stake. At least she’s allowed to partake in consuming the snacks and delicacies delivered to Sooyoung during these tutoring sessions.

Days pass, and the moon continues its never ending cycle of waxing and waning. Eventually, the infamous winter the north is known for announces its presence through frigid winds that gust throughout the land, bringing with them sickness and disease.

Hyejoo’s mother is one of the casualties.

“Take some time off,” Sooyoung suggests gently when they receive the news. “Go home.”

“I have no home,” Hyejoo says.

She tries to throw herself into her work after that, but Sooyoung doesn’t let her. Her hours in the training grounds are often interrupted by random, whimsical summons that force her to lay down her arms for the time being. After the first few times it happens, Hyejoo doesn’t hesitate in making her vexation known. She says several choice words to Sooyoung regarding her bloodline, harsh and unfair accusations she immediately regrets upon seeing Sooyoung’s resigned acceptance. 

“It’s okay,” Sooyoung smiles as she carefully takes Hyejoo’s shaking hands in her own. “I know you’re carrying a lot inside you. It’s okay to let it out.”

Hyejoo doesn’t cry that day, but something inside her does fall away. Like a splinter or a shard, it casts itself into the distance, and Hyejoo doesn’t think she’ll ever see it again.

A year passes, then two. 

Hyejoo and Sooyoung continue to bide their time, Sooyoung gathering influence behind the scenes while Hyejoo relentlessly hones her strengths. An unexpected boon comes in the form of the duchess’s own Guard Captain taking an interest in Hyejoo, and she’s quick to use that to her advantage. She begins training under him, learning the idiosyncrasies of the Royal Guard and how to best exploit them. 

Several opportunities arise for Hyejoo to simply assassinate the duchess and be done with all this, but she stays her hand. 

“Soon,” Sooyoung promises. “Soon.”

Hyejoo is almost seventeen when that fateful day arrives at long last. 

A messenger bursts into the dining room where Hyejoo stands at attention behind Sooyoung. 

“We’re under attack!” the man yells. “General Choi has betrayed–”

He’s interrupted by a sword in his back, and the general’s troops pour into the hall. 

Sooyoung and her sister are quickly ushered away, the Royal Guard flanking them as they flee out a side door. Hyejoo, on the other hand, makes her way towards the entrance of the castle, one target in her mind. A long forgotten calm descends upon her as she cuts her way through the soldiers that impede her path. It empowers her, leaving her mind crystal clear as she swings her sword left and right. 

She finds the general locked in combat with Captain Yubin right in front of the massive double doors leading outside. Clangs and shouts surround them, other combatants fighting for their lives, but Hyejoo can’t afford to stop when she sees Yubin struggling against the general. 

Hyejoo immediately leaps into the fray, dodging a wide sweep from the general’s poleaxe. He lets out a bellow when he sees this new challenger, but he doesn’t stop his assault on Sooyoung’s right hand woman. By this point, Yubin’s shield has been reduced to a lump of uneven metal, and Hyejoo can see the exertion in the older woman’s face. Hyejoo tries to draw their nemesis’s attention to her, but her efforts are ineffectual when the general’s movements are far too quick. Every action he takes either bashes Yubin further or forces Hyejoo to dodge, leaving neither any room to retaliate. 

And then Hyejoo gets an idea. 

It’s a gamble, she knows, but it’s their best bet. Grabbing an abandoned sword from the floor, Hyejoo holds both weapons in her hand like a cross. She approaches the rampaging general cautiously like the mad bull he is, and then she waits. 

The general strikes. 

Hyejoo parries his blow at the last second, sparks flying as the metal shaft of his weapon grinds against one of her swords. Twisting her body to get the proper angle, Hyejoo then uses her second blade to catch the head of the axe before readjusting the first one to trap the general’s instrument of destruction.

“What the…” The general gives a rough yank, and Hyejoo stumbles but still holds ground. “Huh, stronger than I thought–”

Yubin drives her sword through the plates of his armor. 

Hyejoo can feel her adversary’s life seep away, his polearm dropping with a clatter as the general slumps over. It rattles on the stone floor next to him for a second, only to be silenced when Hyejoo picks it up. 

“Sooyoung,” she says to Yubin. 

“Sooyoung,” Yubin nods. 

The two of them split up, each with their own designated task for the second half of this plan. Whereas Yubin needs to secure the rest of the castle and rally the troops who have already secretly pledged their loyalty to Sooyoung, Hyejoo goes in search of the lady herself. She still feels eerily calm as she runs down corridors, head strangely empty despite the fact that she is mere minutes from fulfilling what was surely her mother and brother’s final wishes. 

The death of the duchess. 

Hyejoo finds them in the throne room of all places. 

Nobody is there to stop her as she barges inside, and a quick glance around tells her why; most of the Royal Guard have been reduced to corpses alongside the dead bodies of Sooyoung’s own protectors. The two Ha sisters face each other in a standoff, though Sooyoung is outnumbered and alone while the duchess still has her Guard Captain. 

“You!” the duchess screams upon seeing Hyejoo. “Take this traitorous wench’s head at once!”

“That’s rich, coming from the original traitor,” Sooyoung spits back. “Patricide, does that ring any bells?”

“At least I did it on my own,” the duchess hisses. “Unlike you, coward… Tricking that Choi fool into rebelling… You were always scared of getting your hands dirty, weren’t you, wittle Soo-Soo?”

“That bloodthirsty madman was a blight on our lands, and you would know that if you cared about our people,” Sooyoung replies through gritted teeth. “Two birds with one stone, as they say.”

“Too bad your life ends here,” her sister sneers. “Soldier, I told you to kill her!”

Hyejoo steps defensively in front of Sooyoung. 

The duchess lets out another, infuriated scream, and her Guard Captain lashes out at Hyejoo. 

The captain is a master with a sword, Hyejoo knows that. Even armed with the knowledge that he favors his left side due to an old injury, Hyejoo has never been able to defeat him in a one-on-one duel. She’s come close several times during their practices, but at the end of the day, she knows she can’t beat him at his own game. 

But she has a different weapon this time. 

Hyejoo takes advantage of the poleaxe’s significant reach as she engages with the captain. She makes sure her swings are timed well, her strength balanced so she doesn’t leave herself wide open as she keeps him at bay. Dimly aware of the Ha sisters fighting somewhere to her right, Hyejoo finally sees the chance to make a quick jab at the captain’s weak point. She misses that initial thrust, but the edge of her blade catches his side as she pulls the poleaxe back. 

Red. Hyejoo wonders if there will ever be a day where she no longer has to see that color. She doubts it. 

“Damn you,” the captain curses as he clutches his torso. “Damn you all!”

Hyejoo silences him. 

She turns back to the last remaining members of the House of Ha just in time to see Sooyoung bring her sister to her knees. 

“I hope you’re happy,” the duchess wheezes up at Sooyoung. “I hope you’re happy that you’ve won like the snake you are.”

“I’m not,” Sooyoung says quietly. Hyejoo can see her sword tremble as she levels it at her own flesh and blood. “I had to do this. I have to do this.”

Her voice shakes on her last sentence, and it seems to take all her might to raise her sword above her head. Recalling a conversation they once had where Sooyoung had shared childhood memories of happier times, Hyejoo moves forward. 

She brings the poleaxe down one last time. 

“What– Hyejoo–”

“The blade should do the killing.”

“... And are you going to turn on me now?”

Hyejoo kneels before her liege.

“Save our country,” she whispers. 

And Sooyoung does. 

The road to rebuilding is long, though it’s expedited by the groundwork Sooyoung laid before executing her coup. She succeeds in painting General Choi as the instigator of events, and Yubin is promoted as his replacement for her part in slaying him. Although rumors begin to spread of Sooyoung’s role in the chaos, they’re quickly forgotten due to everyone's immense relief at seeing the end of a tyrant and the rise of a much more benevolent and wise leader. Some foreign states are not as fast in acknowledging her right to rule, but they all fall in line soon enough due to the Ha duchy’s surprisingly swift recovery. 

Hyejoo herself remains in Sooyoung’s army, serving as her personal bodyguard. The first few transitional months are rough, and Hyejoo has to fend off more spies and assassins than she’d like. Things soon mellow out, however, and with her hard earned free time, Hyejoo begins to indulge in her newfound penchant for horseback riding. 

“Well, at least someone’s having fun,” Sooyoung pouts one afternoon. “Meanwhile I have to deal with paper after paper after paper after paper after paper…”

Hyejoo feels a little bad for her at first, then not so much when she catches Sooyoung sneaking off every so often at night. Hyejoo doesn’t say anything about this; she just keeps watch as Sooyoung heads into town to meet with some commoner who smiles like the sun and makes Sooyoung laugh like nobody else can. 

Hyejoo learns a few months later that this commoner isn’t a commoner after all. 

Sooyoung decides to host a ball, the first since she seized power. It’s an overly extravagant affair, deliberately so, and Hyejoo doesn’t expect to see many friendly faces when she’s forced to be there as a guest. Her fellow attendees mainly consist of other regional powerhouses along with some aspiring lords and ladies, and Hyejoo feels incredibly out of her element as a ‘mere’ guard. She knows she’s more than that to Sooyoung, but these snooty nobles with their fancy attire don’t, so Hyejoo is fully prepared to ignore everyone while stuffing herself with fancy food. 

And then she sees a familiar figure standing next to the duke of the House of Kim, Sooyoung’s biggest rival and threat. Hyejoo is instantly on guard, regret already filling her at the prospect of having to tell Sooyoung that her female friend can’t be trusted. 

Except Sooyoung personally drags Hyejoo into a meeting with the woman five minutes later. 

“Hyejoo, this is Lady Kim Jiwoo,” Sooyoung introduces with a nauseatingly sweet smile. “Lady Jiwoo, this is Son Hyejoo, one of my most trusted retainers.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Jiwoo says with a polite, socially correct curtsy. She then winks and lowers her voice. “Sooyoung has told me so much about you!”

“Huh– Huh?” Hyejoo blinks. Sooyoung elbows her. “I mean, uh, it’s an honor to meet you, my lady.”

“She personally convinced her father to attend tonight,” Sooyoung murmurs, and Hyejoo nods, well aware of the significance of having the duke present. This is the entire point of the ball after all, a showcase of Duchess Sooyoung’s connections and public recognition of the House of Ha’s prominence. 

“Sooyoung and I share the same dream, you see,” Jiwoo explains softly. “And it’s not a little one.”

Hyejoo lifts an eyebrow. 

Sooyoung clears her throat. She straightens her back, squaring her shoulders, and something begins to burn in her gaze as she turns to Hyejoo. 

There’s that fire again, Hyejoo realizes, that one from oh so long ago, the one that brought Hyejoo onto this road that they’re sharing now. It’s not nearly as unwelcome as it was the first time, and Hyejoo finds herself easily accepting the idea that she’s about to join another life changing ride.  

“We want to unify the north,” Sooyoung says. 

“Tell me where you need me,” Hyejoo answers. 

Thus, a new journey begins. 

Although uniting multiple small countries under a single banner is a more daunting task than deposing the ruler of one, this endeavor is markedly less bitter than their original mission. It probably has to do with the fact that they’re working for the sake of the future this time instead of trying to salvage the past. 

Jiwoo’s presence is an obvious boon, her cheery demeanor brightening even long, drawn out, candle-demolishing midnight planning sessions. She is as sharp as she is optimistic, and her vision for the world they’re trying to create is one filled with peace and hope, a vision Hyejoo strives to achieve. She’s not alone, for Sooyoung also puts in countless hours into turning their dream into reality. Hyejoo thinks Sooyong works even harder with Jiwoo around, and more than once she finds the two whispering together. It’s not hard to see the fondness they hold for each other, the warm intimacy they share as they confide the deeper parts of their hearts.

Hyejoo wonders if she’ll ever find someone like that for herself. 

Probably not.

It’s no surprise when Sooyoung and Jiwoo announce their engagement. On the surface, it appears to be a purely political arrangement since only a small handful of people are privy to how long the pair have truly known each other and the depth of their affections. It’s an advantageous move either way, their marriage signifying the union of two of the most powerful houses on this side of the peninsula. Countless nobles rush to pledge their support, and they’re all just as eager to formally invoke treaties recently signed with the Has and the Kims. This eventually snowballs into a wave of houses linking together in a way they never had before. 

Sooyoung and Jiwoo name the fruits of their labor after paradise. 

The Eden Alliance. 

For her efforts in the establishment of this coalition, Sooyoung is crowned High Queen, a position that grants her the final word in matters. Her queen Jiwoo always reminds the aristocracy that the Alliance is a collaborative effort though, one where participating members are encouraged to engage in diplomacy rather than warfare. 

Unfortunately, holdouts that refuse to join are not so keen on “discussing things like calm, mature adults” and quickly prove to be a thorn in everyone’s sides. 

A confederacy is formed in the east as a direct counter to the Alliance, its leaders decrying Sooyoung as a despot soon to follow in her disgraced sister’s footsteps. They reject all concessions and forms of appeasement, outright tearing up a proposal for a nonaggression pact, and it doesn’t take long for them to launch an attack on a small barony on the edge of their lands. Per the terms of the Alliance, High Queen Sooyoung immediately dispatches General Yubin and Hyejoo as reinforcements for the besieged baroness. 

Jiwoo gifts Hyejoo with a young, black stallion right before she departs.

“His name is Aegis,” she says, patting Hyejoo’s head as she hands over the reins. “Treat him well, and he will keep you safe, I promise.”

“Protect Sooyoung while I’m gone,” Hyejoo implores in return. “This is probably just the beginning.”

Jiwoo gives a sad smile.

“It is, isn’t it?”

It takes several long, hard years until Hyejoo sees Jiwoo and Sooyoung again. 

As predicted, one battle becomes a series of them, which then blows up into a full scale war. The Alliance formally launches a campaign to subjugate the east, and Hyejoo is tasked with leading her own unit when General Yubin is injured and has to direct their troops from a safe distance away from the front lines. Suddenly responsible for more lives than her own, Hyejoo finds herself grateful for all those strategy lessons Sooyoung once forced upon her. They serve her well, combining with her own affinity for combat to bring her victory after victory as the months go on. 

At some point, Jiwoo begins sending Hyejoo letters. They’re simple messages and updates regarding her daily life including charming anecdotes about the youngest foal in the stables or the latest gossip from the kitchens. It’s quite mundane compared to being on a war front, but Hyejoo does appreciate these letters for what they’re meant to be, a breath of fresh air away from all the death. 

Sooyoung also starts to send correspondence after a while. Her first message is rather stilted and awkward, and she makes a point to mention how her queen all but forced her into this. She writes with surprising honesty about how she misses Hyejoo though, a feeling Hyejoo begrudgingly admits is mutual. Sooyoung’s subsequent letters become less and less stiff over time, devolving into outright sappiness in the end, and every single one includes a prayer for Hyejoo’s safety. 

I await the day you no longer have to be my blade. Until then, may Aegis shield you and bring you back to us. 

True to Jiwoo’s promise and Sooyoung’s wish, Hyejoo’s mighty steed does indeed protect her until she’s able to return to their side. By that point, Aegis has carried Hyejoo from one side of the land to the other several times so she can suppress various rebellions and shut down all the upstarts still trying to fracture the young union of states. The Eden Alliance holds strong in the face of all these challenges, and even with the growing pains of a burgeoning country, its constituents remain loyal to each other and to their queens, forcing its detractors to finally concede defeat and accept it as a legitimate authority. 

Hyejoo is summoned to the new capital before the ink on the last peace treaty gets a chance to dry. 

Even partially constructed, Haen Castle is as majestic as Jiwoo described, its magnificence meant to be a testimony to the Alliance’s glory and strength. It’s quite intimidating, actually, and Hyejoo knows she’s not the only soldier feeling woefully inadequate as she rides up to an elaborate gate in her dull and dented armor. She barely has time to marvel at the contrast when a page arrives to usher her away to the throne room.

There they sit, High Queen Sooyoung and Queen Jiwoo.

Time has treated the both of them fairly well, all things considered, the two of them bearing the weight of their crowns like they were born to do so. Maybe they were, Hyejoo thinks, for she doesn’t need to remind herself that Sooyoung and Jiwoo are royalty now; they look every bit the part, regal and reserved, dignified and distant as they look down upon their returned warrior. 

Jiwoo rises from her seat as soon as their last attendant leaves the room. In a flash, she crosses the gap between her and Hyejoo with Sooyoung hot on her heels. 

“Welcome back!” Jiwoo cries as she flings her arms around Hyejoo. She throws her whole body into the action, and Hyejoo almost loses her balance thanks to the force of Jiwoo’s emotions. 

A hand reaches out to steady her. 

“Welcome home,” Sooyoung smiles. 

Hyejoo doesn’t have the heart to point out how a castle she’s never lived in couldn’t possibly be home. 

That feeling of displacement remains even as another winter comes and goes. Try as she might, Hyejoo can’t seem to shake off that peculiar, persistent pressure on her shoulders. Moments with Sooyoung and Jiwoo do stave it off just a bit, but the two are often busy with their neverending obligations as rulers. Hyejoo’s own duties as a soldier are no longer as burdensome during this rare intermission of peace, and so she spends her free time roaming the snowy lands of the capital with Aegis as her only companion. 

“I wish there was more we could do for you,” Sooyoung says during a well-deserved afternoon off. “You’ve done so much for me, for us, for the Alliance…”

Hyejoo shrugs. 

“Is there anything you want?” Jiwoo asks as she feeds her wife with grapes. “Another horse, a fancier halberd, a title, some land, a castle of your own… Just say the word, and Sooyoung and I will handle it.”

Hyejoo shrugs again. 

“I can’t really think of anything,” she says. 

Sooyoung frowns before reaching over the table to pat Hyejoo’s head. 

“Think about it, okay?” she murmurs. “When we say anything, we mean anything.”

In the end, Hyejoo settles for requesting a new set of armor. Her old one is worn out and somewhat unsightly despite repairs, and it’s like killing two birds with one stone when Sooyoung stops nagging her about her offer. 

“You’re going to love this,” Jiwoo says excitedly the day Hyejoo is to be presented with her gift. “We had Haen Castle’s best smiths work together to create the most amazing thing ever!”

“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?” Hyejoo asks. 

It turns out that Jiwoo isn’t. Even Hyejoo is floored and at a loss for words when she sees the black armor that greets her. It’s arranged on a stand like a dark sentinel, its burnished steel both reflecting and consuming the light. A cursory glance is more than enough to reveal the quality of each piece and the immense skill it must have taken to forge the entire set, leaving Hyejoo almost too hesitant to even touch it. Her fingers linger inches away from the helm that stares back at her, that’s meant to be hers. 

“Go on,” Jiwoo encourages. “It’s all yours. I know it’ll serve you well, Ser Hyejoo.”

“Wait, what?” Hyejoo blinks. “I’m not a knight.”

“Not yet,” Sooyoung says as she walks into the room. She’s carrying a sable sword, one that’s clearly meant to be paired with the armor. “You aren’t a knight yet. But I think it’s about time. You’ve done so much for me and the Eden Alliance, so it’s only fitting that you be recognized for that.”

“I didn’t do it for the recognition,” Hyejoo mumbles. 

“I know,” Sooyoung nods. “Which makes you even more worthy of becoming the High Queen’s most honored knight.”

“I…”

“Kneel,” Sooyoung says, and although Hyejoo knows this isn’t a command, she sinks to her knees all the same. 

Hyejoo is twenty-one when she is finally knighted.