The leaves crumbled under the quick footsteps of the dark figure. A small, faint breeze stirred and trailed behind as it weaved through the naked trees. Darkness. Silence. Even the moon hid behind smoky fluffs in the sky as the figure passed by. Not a sound to be heard. Not a soul in sight. A mother bear nudged her cubs towards the safety of their cave. Nothing dared to interfere with the menacing aura surrounding the shadow as it climbed up a tree and hopped from branch to branch in a nimble and light manner. Its thin arms fell behind its slim body. A wave of dark violet cloth flowed behind.
Stop. The figure kneeled down on one branch, looking towards the dim light just beyond the small hill. A bright flash of light lit the sky. Drops of tears began to fall from the heavens. Another flash lit the face hidden in the black night. The amethyst eyes of the young woman were burning in the night sky. She lifted the hood from her somewhat tanned face. Her dark auburn hair was pinned back into a neat bun with a chopstick. Her eyes closed as she took in her surroundings, careful of anyone who could be following her. No one. Nothing. Her violet eyes opened once more and her feet pushed against the fragile branches. The wood shivered as she sprang for the next branch. And the next.
Stop. Something was closing in on her. Her hand made an instinctive move to the sword on her back. She paused again. The breathing of the follower was gone. Perhaps it was moving closer. Closer. Another flash of lightning lit the bare trees. The light reflected off the blade as it was whipped out of its sheath and slashed across an incoming figure. A thin line of scarlet lined the edge. One. The shoulders of the woman relaxed a little bit as she pulled out her handkerchief and wiped the red stain of the sword with care. This sword means everything to me, she thought. She slipped her handkerchief back into her cloak in a fast motion and slid her blade back into protection. She pulled her hood back on and rushed towards the light. Faster. Swifter. Her legs carried her down back to the ground as the source of the light came into view. Across the edge of the forest and up the hill she went. The two story buildings beyond the surrounding fortress walls came into view.
Two silhouettes stood in front of the two tall metal gates. She paced herself at a constant speed. There was no urgent need to rush, although most of the household would be blowing out their candles and snuggling in the comfort of their covers soon. She slowed to a stop when the gate was a few meters away. Once again, she closed her eyes and listened to the breathing of those around her. One, two. Two others. Two at the gate. She breezed towards the door, but did not confront the guards. Instead, she climbed up a nearby tree with extreme caution. She took a glance to the left, making sure the guards were looking the other way before leaping across and landed on the top of the walls without a sound of a footstep. She slid down the rough bricks in a whisk and landed on one hand and one knee into what appeared to be a garden with medical herbs and artificial rivers. She sprang back up onto both feet and looked around.
“I have been expecting your arrival,” a voice came from behind a tree. The moonlight shined down onto the earth as the figure stepped out of the shadow.
“Like starlight hidden behind frozen clouds,” the girl responded.
“This painful confession ends with my tears,” the figure recited. The girl got down on one knee and rested her arms on it.
She lowered her head, “Iris, reporting for duty.”
The second figure motioned for the girl to stand, “Others will know you as Serena Jung. Come. The family has been waiting.”
Serena followed the figure in silence as it flowed across the bridges and between the rows of plants. They weaved through the labyrinth of buildings within the high walls she jumped past. Left, right, left , right. Up the few stairs to a two story building identical to the many others she passed on the way. Lights were ablaze inside. No sound came through the thin paper windows. Serena lowered her head as she headed through the doors and into the blank room. A simple red rug laid in the center of the first floor. There were four or five doors that covered two of the walls. The third held a wooden staircase that led to the lighted upstairs. The two headed up the steps and into the grand room in discreetness. Once again, the walls were blank. A long, rectangular table stretched in the center of the floor. Eight chairs sat around the board, two on the two narrow opposite ends while three sat on each longer side. At the farthest end sat a boy, no younger than Serena was. Perhaps a year or two older. She walked a few steps and halted when the figure stopped. Both people turned towards the boy at the exact same time and bowed their heads.
His legs were crossed and stretched, his feet rested on the tabletop. His raven dark hair had a slight diagonal cut, and would have covered part of his right coal black eye if he had not brushed it all to one side. He did not have a bulky build that was to the extreme, although he did not lack in muscles either. His blue and white tailored suit lacked the slightest of wrinkles, his fluffed up white collar was cleaner than the brightest cloud. One hand laid across his lap while the other twirled around a green leaf. He looked up from his contemplation about the plant. It was obvious that he had no interest in the present situation.
“What is it you that you brought me here for, Lady Choi?” he asked while fiddling with the leaf. His gaze never left the sprig as he twirled it around. Lady Choi, the figure whom Serena followed, turned towards her.
“This is Lord Shin Lee. He is the second son of Emperor Yejong’s personal doctor, Ciel Lee,” Lady Choi explained. “He is responsible for aiding his father in the growing of herbs and creating medicine for the royal family.” Serena’s eyes remained emotionless as she observed this Shin character. As if he detected the presence of a third person at last, Shin turned towards Serena. She lowered her head and gaze in a quick manner.
“And who is this?” Shin muttered, distracted from the leaf twirling. It was like Serena’s aura was reaching the far away space of nothing after a long wait.
Lady Choi once again turned to the lord and lowered her head, “This is Captain Serena Jung of the Infinite Phoenix Society. She will be serving as your personal bodyguard.”
Shin placed the plant into a tea cup in slow motion and brought his long legs down from the tabletop, entertaining himself while swirling the plant inside the glass. His eyes were fixated on the dancing leaf as he leaned against the table, “And why would I need one?”
“My lord, you have a high position in the imperial family’s system of servants and advisors. You must be protected from those who will try to rob you of your position.”
“I can protect those on my own.”
“If I may speak, Lord Lee,” Serena interrupted. She looked up to Shin, who stood up from his elegant chair and headed for a kettle that began to disrupt the silence lingering in the air. In his hand was the cup with the leaf.
“Speak if you must,” he grumbled. He folded a thick piece of cloth several times before using it to grab the burning handle of the kettle. A small stream of smoking water trickled from the nozzle and into the cup that held the leaf.
Serena took in a small breath, “I understand that Lord Lee is capable of protecting the position in the complex system of the imperial household’s servants. However, I am solely responsible for protecting your physical body only, and not your mind and soul, as there are many assassins and spies in this era. If Lord Lee ignores my presence, then I will only appear to be a shadow. Nothing will change in your day to day life.”
Shin placed the kettle back down onto the stove with extreme care and walked back to the table. He placed the steaming cup on the tabletop and stood still.
“Come closer,” he commanded. Serena glided forward, making not even the slightest sound, until she was a few feet away from the lord.
“Closer,” Shin grumbled. Serena took a step forward and stopped. Shin sighed and rubbed his eyes. His eyes opened wide and looked into her own amethyst eyes. Serena resisted an instinctive flinch. The lord’s eyes were not the coal, dull black eyes she thought she had seen before under the candlelight. Instead, they were a brilliant onyx shade. She felt her muscles relax and tense up again as Shin glanced over to Lady Choi, who was quite far from the two, and signaled for her to take her leave. Serena knew that Lady Choi would have bowed to Shin based on the rustling of her uniform. The slow, tiny steps down the stairs faded into the night. Shin’s eyes focused back on Serena’s eyes. She blinked and looked straight towards her, avoiding the lord’s eyes.
Shin placed his hands behind his back in a slow manner and tilted his head to the right. He paced around Serena, observing her as if it was his first encounter with a Martian. After completing one circle around the girl, he stood at Serena’s side.
“You don’t look so bad up close,” Shin spoke. A slight smirk appeared on his moonstone face. Nothing came out of Serena’s mouth. Things such as this should not distract her on her mission. Shin raised his hand from his side and reached for her face. Serena was quick to bring her arm up and brush away his approaching hand. Shin chuckled as he sat back down in his seat.
“Take a seat,” he said. Serena squeezed her mouth shut pulled out a chair next to him and sat down in a careful manner, making sure her cloak wouldn’t be damaged in any way. He pushed the tea cup towards her. The leaf was floating in the water with a careless swim around the cup, as if it was taking a casual warm bath.
“Drink it,” he said. Serena lifted her gaze up to Shin, wary of the content inside the cup. “It is only a mint leaf,” Shin chuckled darkly. “It can only help you.” Serena looked back down at what she assumed to be mint tea and took a small sip. In an instant, her body shivered as she swallowed the warm water. It had been ages since she last consumed something so warm and soothing. No distractions. She placed the dark, sandy tea cup back onto the table. Shin leaned forward, “Done already?”
“Yes, Lord Lee,” Serena nodded in a calm manner. Without another word, Shin rose from his seat and walked towards the staircase in a brisk manner. Serena followed him from a close distance. Shin paused as he began to take his first step down.
“And where are you going?” he questioned.
“Wherever you go,” Serena replied.
“Alright, then I think I am going to take a bath now,” Shin said to himself. “Tell the servants that I want a bath prepared when I arrive at my chamber.” As Shin took a step down, Serena continued to follow him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Shin asked. “Go and tell the servants that.” He waved his hand at Serena as if he was shooing away a fly.
Serena continued to shadow him, “My duty is to protect you, my lord. I am not just another servant for you to play with as you please.” Shin looked up to the ceiling and let out a long sigh.
“Fine, fine. Come along then,” Shin waved to Serena and proceeded down the stairs.