Post

Region: Arkonos

Brothers and Sisters: Part I

Copost with Riddenheim

Seungjing, Provincial Palace, Main Lounge

Gyeji reclined on a lavish wooden seat, fumbling with soft, slender fingers a scroll detailing provincial affairs and news. She sighed impatiently, eyes darting at the slightest possible noise. Her deep blue hanbok contrasted magnificently with silver embroidered highlights running down the piece’s sleeves and length, culminating with the Seungjing Gi’s clan emblem on her front and back. The beams of the morning sunlight softly piercing the paper windows of the room bounced splendidly off of these highlights, scattering bits of light throughout the empty room. Her hair, braided and twisted in an astral spiral, resembled a small galaxy with jewels and pins as stars against her jet-black locks.

The door to the lounge slid open. Gyeji’s eyes darted immediately before her as she straightened her lax posture into something more befitting of the province’s governess. Inside the lounge came Yang Sohye, having traveled from Malpyeoro considerably north of Seungjing. Even across a few provinces, the variance in Ryeongsean fashion between the two was starkly apparent—at least, to Gyeji. Sohye was dressed in a more rugged yet still elegant hanbok, a simple duo of amber and deep maroon offset by her own highlights of silver. Malpyeoro Yang’s crest emblazoned Sohye’s front as well. What was more interesting was Sohye’s inner garb poking out from underneath her dainty silk dress, a cotton undershirt with hints of leather overwear, the most noticeable being Rolesian leather fingerless gloves poking through the ends of her draping sleeves.

Sohye dropped to the floor with mechanical respect, pressing her sleeved hands to the wooden floor and holding her head only a hairlength above them in a bow of respect. “I offer my greetings, Governess,” Sohye briefly introduced with full honorifics before Gyeji waved her hand of acknowledgement.

“I didn’t know you like to spar,” Gyeji mused as Sohye stood from her bow.

“Governess?” Sohye dumbly responded.

“Please, we’re going to be involved in the diplomatic degradation between two Bantry nations; call me Gyeji, Sohye,” Gyeji smiled. She stood from her seat and glided over to Sohye, taking Sohye’s wrist with a firm hand and wrapping back the sleeve to reveal the glove in its entirety.

Sohye blushed with quiet mortification. “I had little time to change before my arrival.”

Gyeji narrowed her eyes and nodded, continuing to grin. Sohye seemed to be more embarrassed of not changing out of her martial attire rather than wearing it at all. The girl took pride in fighting.

“Is your father here?” Gyeji asked, releasing Sohye’s arm as she circled back around to her seat, picking up her scroll.

“No, Governess Gyeji,” Sohye responded with quiet professionalism, still hanging onto her honorifics. Quite formal, but Gyeji supposed it was better for such a noblewoman to be so uptight. “He manages business in Malpyeoro while I speak for my own matters concerning Seungjing, Ryeongse, and Riddenheim.”

“I can see why.” Gyeji sat and read a bit from her scroll leaving Sohye to stand awkwardly for a while before continuing, “You seem to be a responsible girl. You know what you’re in for, unlike Ah Daeja from Woncheung.”

“You know Daeja?” Sohye probed with perplexity.

“I’d be a fool not to, given our ‘business’ in the north,” Gyeji sighed, putting down her scroll on a table beside her and standing again. She led Sohye to a low table with mats on either side, sitting both herself and her guest. “You prefer tea or coffee?”

“I’m okay, thank you,” Sohye quietly answered.

“Two coffees, please,” Gyeji called outside the lounge. “Anyway,” she resumed, pressing her hands together and leaning forward, studying Sohye’s face. Gyeji supposed she was coming off a bit strong; it was not the best idea to intimidate her partner in Bantry diplomacy. “You’re bright too, if you know Daeja as well.”

Sohye smiled. “We played together as girls.”

“Good to have that connection with her,” Gyeji acknowledged. “It would’ve been nice to play with other girls. I only had my idiot brother,” she chuckled.

Sohye smiled again, to Gyeji’s delight. Despite Gyeji’s attempts to appear professional before the coming task, such exchanged laughter was more calming than what any pipe could bring.

Professional? Gyeji made this “task” seem more than it was: marriage. Getting children. News had recently reached Ryeongse that Daeja was with a child in Volgaro. Given how far the distant country was, Daeja could have already given birth by now. Even such a crude act as sleeping with a man brought weighty consequences for the stability of Volgaro, Riddenheim, and Ryeongse, especially in tandem with each other.

“Daeja went in over her head, if I have anything to say about the matter,” Gyeji clarified, pressing her lips together in distant disapproval. “What she considered her story of fairy-tale romance holds drastic consequences for the balance of power in the Bantry Bay. Even now I’m sure she faces some sort of prejudice. Even if our faces are human rather than dsen or monsu, we’re still a symbol of ‘Tong imperialism’ or ‘Tong puppetry.’ Such sentiments disgust me, but they’re a reality, something we’re going to have to face with what’s before us. Balancing the delicate relationship between Volgaro, Riddenheim, and the other players in the north is something that’s out of our hands directly, but we still can do something to affect it. That’s why we can’t mess this up. If Daeja really is with a child, she must know what consequences that brings. Anything we do yields consequences. You must know that.”

Sohye said nothing, taking it all in with apprehension, with fear. Gyeji sighed a bit. Perhaps she was coming off a bit strong and blunt.

“Are you scared at all?” Gyeji asked, more softly and dropping her earlier show of power.

“A bit,” Sohye blushed. “I wonder if my suitor finds me acceptable.”

“You mean the looks bit or the addiction to warfare bit?” Gyeji teased.

Sohye was silent, hints of tears beginning to well in her large, dark eyes.

Gyeji sighed, extending her hands for Sohye to take them, which she did. Gyeji rubbed the backs of Sohye’s hands with her thumbs in a sisterly way, taking Sohye’s eyes into her own as well. “For the first part, you’re a beautiful young woman, and any man who has a problem with how you look has no sense or justice. Secondly, from what I hear, Riddenheim’s a hellishly freezing land of brutish warriors. Surely you’ll have more luck with men accepting your expertise in warfare there.”

Sohye smiled back her tears and nodded in gratitude. “And you?” Sohye spoke up after swallowing her fears and insecurities down enough.

“Oh, I’m terrified,” Gyeji answered nonchalantly. “My suitor better have good fashion taste. I lie awake at nights dreading how those less fortunate than us in Ryeongse dress, what they consider acceptable to put on their miserable little bodies. He also better speak Gogwihan-eo, or be willing to. He’s marrying into my family, not the other way around. The only thing worse than a man with horrid fashion sense is one who’s also stupid.”

Sohye chuckled a bit, more at ease now thanks to Gyeji’s banter.

“What kind of languages can you speak, Sohye?” Gyeji questioned, while on the subject. “You’ll need to be a polyglot for marriage afar.”

“I can speak Uyut, Segh, and Kostuan fluently,” Sohye answered. “I studied for three years each in Uyuti and Rolais.”

“Is that so?” Gyeji mused, impressed. “I can only manage a handful of phrases in Kostuan; if the boy wants to have me so bad, he’s going to have to learn my tongue.” She sighed. “What I’m a little more frightened of is messing up. I’m sure you and Daeja have a much bigger task ahead than me, but despite how much war is in our blood as Ryeongseans, it’s not great.”

Sohye nodded in grim agreement. A servant slid open the door to the lounge, bowing slightly while placing the tray of coffee, in small jade cups, on the table and leaving. Gyeji picked up her cup and plate and sipped with calm apprehension. “Perhaps tea was the wiser move,” Gyeji licked her lips. “I don’t need more cause for jitteriness.”

Soyhe picked up the other cup and plate and sipped as well. The drink’s sharp bitterness caused Sohye’s lips to shrink in response. “Better than having too little nerves rattled,” Sohye supposed. Still, perhaps calm was the wiser attitude to embody. Good thing that dozens of sleepless nights in her studies abroad and training nullified the effects of the coffee even today. From how Gyeji’s makeup flawlessly masked bagged eyes still perceivable through her cosmetic skills, Gyeji had a similar familiarity with—and resistance to—coffee’s curse.

The door slid open once more. A palace attendant bowed at the two noblewoman before announcing, “The delegation from Riddenheim has arrived and is waiting in the provincial hall.”

{{==========}}

Along a sun blasted and dust covered path a column of eighteen riders passed steadily. At the rear of the column trundled along a heavy wooden carriage, its sides gilded with copious amounts of gold and silver. The riders kept a constant pace, curtly shouting to any peasants or travellers before them to make way in the language of these lands, their broken pronunciation and heavy accents limiting all interactions. Those who refused or shouted out their anger quickly grew silent when the men flashed their swords and gripped their hilts.

At the head of the column rode a giant of a man, his golden hair trimmed short to his scalp while his beard grew long and free. Over his body he wore a padded aketon, finely embroidered with gold and silver colored lengths of silk, the full majesty of their beauty was hidden by a layer of chainmail, itself covered by a well worn cuirass, its once elegant beauty hidden by layers of dents and cuts into the steel. His name was Erich Kassal, second son to the Grand Prince of Marchnau, Romarich Kassal.

The riders were his, and were under his command as a mercenary Captain. He had handpicked these men to serve as a sort of honor guard, in truth he chose these men because he had known each of them to be lighthearted and cheerful, and made long journeys easier to bear. Only two among this procession did not answer directly to Erich, the first being an elderly priest named Alexi Korozov the men brought along for spiritual advice and to pursue the vain hope of finally outdrinking him and his legendary liver, their hopes of southern drink finally beating him being dashed on the first night they had entered Ryeongse. The second man was the only one of their party who could even attempt to compete with the priest, Erich’s own brother Leo Kassal.

Leo was the youngest son of their father. As the third son he was not expected to ever inherit, and thus spent his days wandering between the many taverns and alehouses of Marchnau. He was dressed far more extravagantly than his brother, His silk kaftan was embroidered with real lengths of gold, the pattern they formed being extremely intricate and reminiscent of the patterns found on Iskrenite churches.

The party rode on steadily, keeping a quick and constant pace through the countryside, the men chatting between themselves about every topic their bored minds could conjure, from the weather being a curse laid upon them to the quality of the native wine, to the people themselves and their odd customs. Erich did not contribute or even listen to the small talk of his men, instead he had spent his day mumbling to himself in a tongue he could barely comprehend.

“It is an honor and a… a…” Erich spoke in broken Gogwihan-Eo, before angrily shouting in his native Masenov, “Greatest damn it all! I can’t understand a damned word in this infernal tongue!” A short laugh erupted from the mouth of his brother, who rode beside him. Leo called out in much more complete Gogwihan-Eo, and his voice carried a mocking tone,

“It is an honor and a delight to make your acquaintance, noble lady.” While his pronunciation was much more complete than his brothers, his thick accent still bled through in every word he spoke. He reverted back to their native language to insult Erich, “It’s been four months since father first proposed the offer of marriage, three since it was accepted, one since the final arrangements were made and we’ve spent two weeks traveling from Marchnau, yet you’ve only begun to practice your Gogwihan-Eo for these past four days.” Erich opened his mouth to speak but instead turned away from Leo, who smirked in victory. He quickly rallied his bruised ego and spoke again,

“I’m not so much a savant for these things as you are.” He smiled then, and rode close to his brother as he responded in a jovial tone, “You surprise me Leo. Here you mock me, yet after last night at that tavern, I expected you to be holed up in the carriage, groaning and puking out your guts!” He laughed and Leo recoiled, his hand darting to his temple as he rubbed it and spoke quickly,

“Not so loud, damn you. It’s bad enough the sun taunts me with no clouds in sight, but I don’t need you to shout and pretend you’re funny.” He massaged his forehead for several moments before speaking again, “I’d rather we finish the ride in silence. I’ve much to think about.” They rode for several more yards before Erirch shouted curtly, his joking tone faded from his voice,

“Enough with your bluster Leo, speak honest to me. Are you afraid?” Leo eyed his brother with a pained expression before turning to the road the precious few miles they still had to ride. He was silent for a moment, before he inhaled deeply and spoke,

“Yes damn it, of course I’m afraid. I’m leaving everything I’ve ever known in this life for a woman I’ve never met, whose culture and way of life is completely alien to me. Wouldn’t you be afraid if you were in my position?” Erich rode his horse parallel to his brother and placed his hand on his shoulder, speaking in a reassuring voice,

“Yes, I believe I would be. But look on the positive side. Your new bride is the governor of these lands, so you’ll never want for wealth or luxuries, and she’s a beauty, if the portraits they’ve sent are anything to go by.” He gave his brother a playful punch on his arm, but his strike was too powerful and left Leo rubbing his shoulder. Erich continued, his voice somber,

“And if that’s not good enough for you, you’ll finally be rid of Aimar and father.” Now it was Leo’s turn to laugh, and he turned to Erich and smiled genuinely as he spoke,

“Ah, now that I shall truly be glad for!” They laughed together as they crested a hill and saw the city of Seungjing sprawling beneath them. Leo sighed deeply before mumbling, “Let us proceed then.” Erich nodded solemnly before cocking his head back to their retinue and shouting,

“We’re almost there lads! Soon we’ll be sleeping in actual beds and drinking the finest wine this pitiful nation has to offer!” A cheer rose among the travel weary riders, and they rode the last leg of the journey eagerly and swiftly. Before formally entering the palace, both brothers took a moment to enter the carriage, where apart from the various valuable gifts that would be a part of a dowry were stored, was the brothers wardrobes. Leo merely changed into a near identical kaftan as the one he already wore, though this one was free of the dust of the trail. Erich abandoned his armor and put on his own kaftan, much less extravagant than his brothers, as it only depicted their house’s crest. He picked up his bearskin cloak and reminisced about the hunt he had organized with several minor nobles from Marchnau that had awarded him with such a fine prize and pondered about wearing it. Leo deduced what his brother was thinking and spoke as he opened the door to leave,

“No furs, I would think. They’re quite unfashionable around here.” Erich nodded before tossing down his cape and exiting after his brother. At the gate was a contingent of men and servants, who led the brothers into the palace, while others led their retinue towards stables for the horses and accommodations for themselves.

{{==========}}

Seungjing, Provincial Palace, Main Hall

If the growing glow of the sun piercing through the paper windows indicated anything, noon was approaching. Even with both the winter’s chill and the shade of the hall's roofs, Sohye felt on the edge of breaking out into a sweat. She noiselessly cleared her throat and began to slowly inhale through her nostrils and out through pressed lips, just as her father had taught her for years on end. Although she was mainly taught such breathing techniques to prepare for duels, a task like meeting her betrothed was close enough.

With little time to change before the guests’ arrival, signaled by faint chatter outside the palace doors growing louder and louder, Sohye had just barely managed to wear a delicately embroidered outer coat with the Malpyeoro Yang’s family crest emblazoned on the back. Its trailing sleeves hid the Rolesian fingerless combat gloves she still had on. Her hair was hastily pinned into place, hideous to a lady’s eyes but, thankfully, clandestine to a man’s.

Sohye stood next to Gyeji, who was sitting on her modest yet still lavishly carved and polished wooden throne. It was remarkable to Sohye how quickly Gyeji could put on different attitudes so quickly, almost as if they were more of a piece of clothing than the hanbok she had on. In addition to her dark blue hanbok, Gyeji also had an outer coat with sleeves trailing past her hands, which she tucked neatly into her gown’s many layers. Her hair was even more stellar than before, as if that spiraling galaxy managed to only grow in size. Through it all, however, what caught Sohye’s gaze the most was Gyeji’s own, a steely, deeply curious and slightly condescending peer ahead at the unmoving gates.

Unmoved until now.

The palace’s doors swung open with groaning speed, thudding gently in place as Sohye and Gyeji, at the end of the hall, and everything in between, was bathed in the wintry sunlight of Eastern Sokos. The sunlight draped across the long halls, past several black granite pillars, shadows belonging to the palace guards, a palace attendant, and the Riddenheimic party.

“Announcing for His Majesty’s Provincial Governess Gi Gyeji and Lady Yang Sohye, brothers Erich and Leo Kassal of Riddenheim!” the court attendant heralded, standing aside and bowing at the waist before turning and standing in waiting at the walls of the chamber. The thin column of palace guards lined the columns leading to the provincial throne, subtly gesturing for the Kassal brothers to, as hastily instructed before entering the hall, go, stop halfway to the throne, and bow as they wished.

Both brothers bowed in the traditional Riddenheimic way, they took their right fists and held them over their hearts before bowing deeply then rising. Erich made to speak but a quick jab to the chest from Leo silenced him, and the two waited for their host to speak.

As the two Riddenheimers approached and bowed, Sohye took in each carefully, studying her betrothed, Erich, under more scrutiny. The man, in stark contrast to his more formal kaftan, appeared gruff and stoic, like a bear, with a bearded mouth that looked like it housed mighty roars. His clean-shaven head, almost reflecting the winter’s sunlight just as the doors behind the brothers began to close, made him more intimidating. Years of warfare and experience lay active underneath his skin. Sohye’s fear only increased from before, seeing a big a man as Erich for the first time, not to mention him as her future husband, but she also felt at peace. War was a language understood by all, and Sohye could read the faces of those skilled in it without them saying a single word. She appreciated, even desired this within Erich; not only did he seem a good fighter, but he seemed to herald a greater future in store for Sohye in far-off Riddenheim.

Gyeji also studied the brothers carefully, glancing instantly between the older and younger. Both their kaftans were of high quality, relative to Riddenheim. As plain as they were, they were well-cared for. Caring for one’s clothes also signals caring for others, Gyeji seemed to notice after years of self-proclaimed fashion connoisseurship. Still, even with Leo’s relatively balder face, both seemed unkempt, even savage. Long voyages yielded little excuse for caring for one’s face. Perhaps Gyeji was jumping to conclusions, yet again.

“At ease,” Gyeji’s voice, still speaking in Gogwihan-eo, pierced softly yet powerfully throughout the chamber. “Welcome to Seungjing. I hope you have enjoyed your visit so far. I assume you already know who we ladies are, and we know all about you two. Your… friends to the back, I did not anticipate but appreciate nonetheless.” A palace attendant to Gyeji’s side, opposite to Sohye, repeated Gyeji’s words in adept Kostuan.

Sohye, meanwhile, kept quiet.

Erich eyed the two women closely. He held his gaze on his betrothed Sohye for a moment longer before nervously breaking the state and looking in between them, disguising his face in an expression of stoicism. Behind his mask he panicked as his worst fears were confirmed. She was beautiful. Erich had faced down hordes of barbarians and sorcerers, terrible berserkers who had screamed to their dread gods for his head, and he faced them down with nary a sweat broken in fear. But no amount of battles or slain foes could prepare him for this new battle, a battle for the affections of a woman.

Leo maintained a much more genuine smile as he made contact with Gyeji. He did not break his gaze as he raised his voice and spoke to the whole hall,

“It is an honor and a privilege to finally meet you in person, noble ladies. I believe I speak for both my brother and myself when I say the tales of your beauty could not hope to match with meeting you face to face.” Flattery was an art Leo was all too skilled in, and he smiled as he nudged Erich again, the elder brother turning to one of their retainers in the grand doorway, the retainer leading three men into the hall, each of them carrying large chests.

Erich turned back to Leo and nodded slightly to his brother, before facing straight again and stealing another glance at Sohye. Leo gestured and the three courtiers placed the chests on the floor and opened them, revealing their continents. Gold and jewels just Barry contained by the heavy wood of the chest spilled forth and fell heavily on the floor, loud thuds being proof of their authenticity. Leo again gestured and a courtier ran up with two identical bracelets, made of gold and engraved with dozens upon dozens of diamonds, the centerpiece of the pieces being a massive blue sapphire. Leo passed one bracelet off to Erich and spoke again to their betrothed,

“These treasures we give freely to you, though they pale in comparison to your own beauty.”

Sohye met Erich’s gaze, glancing towards the treasure, at the jewelry each brother held, and back to Erich.

Gyeji chuckled, “Quite the dowry you’ve brought us. It feels like some lost Tylosian treasure you have dug up and presented.” She eyed each bracelet, studying them with narrowed eyes. “Certainly managed to catch my attention. Plus, you seem to have a way with words. Useful.” She smiled. “I accept your dowry.”

Sohye bowed at her waist. “I accept your dowry as well,” she added softly, in frighteningly adept Rolesian Kostuan.

She stood from her throne, descending the platform on which it stood. She came eye to eye (or, eye to shoulder, at the Riddenheimers’ size) with Leo, beckoning Sohye to stand before Erich. Sohye did so, keeping her eyes modestly glued to the floor. “Sohye’s father had already given his blessing for her to be married, but he does wish to see you, the bigger one, with Sohye before you head off to Riddenheim. So, let’s do this: Sohye and Erich, you two set off to Malpyeoro by the end of the day. Get Yang Donman’s final blessing before you continue to Riddenheim through Tírelloch. As for me and Leo, the marriage will be arranged in Seungjing within the season.”

Before anyone could interject, and while the translator was still trailing her statement in Kostuan, Gyeji summoned a court attendant. “Arrange for these two a palanquin to Malpyeoro. Form an entourage with the Riddenheimers returning to their homeland,” she ordered with a hopeful smile, grabbing Sohye’s and Erich’s hands and putting them together. “Let’s not waste any time; the sooner both pairs are married,” Gyeji raised her eyebrows, “the better.”

========

Seungjing, City Limits

The sun reached the fringes of the mountains to the west, dipping the sky into a rich, gold shade. The wintry gales swept idly at the towering, crimson-red city gates of Seungjing, its pointed green shingles still wet with retreating snow.

Gyeji patted down Sohye’s unruly hair, taking a finger to her tongue to line some rebellious strands in place. Affixing some jewels (from her personal collection, at that) onto Sohye’s round head, Gyeji then propped up Sohye’s clothes, tightening her hanbok’s many ribbons and decorative sashes as well as straightening crumples on the hanbok’s outer coat. To Gyeji’s joy, Sohye had managed to find time to fully dress out of her combat clothing, purely in aristocratic garb now.

Sohye stood still, restraining her impatience as Gyeji’s micromanaging came to a close. She took a brief glance at the Kassal brothers, standing some horselengths away talking amongst themselves.

“You have to take more care of your clothes and your look, you know,” Gyeji fussed melodramatically. “These folk have weird fashion. Intriguing, but weird. You’re the sole representative of Ryeongse’s culture in Riddenheim, fashion and all.”

“I understand, Sister,” Sohye caught herself from nodding; Gyeji’s hands still danced about her hair.

Gyeji paused, retreating her hands.

Sohye’s eyes widened. “I-I deeply apologize if that was improper or offensive!” she stammered panickingly, breaking from her quiet professionalism. “Please forgive me!”

Gyeji chortled, loud enough to briefly interrupt and catch the gaze of both Kassal brothers. “You’re so funny, you know that?”

Sohye bit her lip shut, blushing horrendously. “I-it’s just that this… will be the last time I will be seeing you.” Resuming that quietness again, Sohye began to wring her hands together in apprehension. “Although we have not known each other for as long as I would have liked, it was nice nonetheless…”

“I agree, Sister,” Gyeji smiled. She reached over and gave Sohye a hug.

Sohye began to well up a bit. “I don’t have any siblings. Thank you for being mine.”

“I wish I didn’t have any siblings,” Gyeji mused. “Brothers can be something else. It’s nice to have a younger sister for a change, though.” Still in their embrace, Gyeji sighed. “Try not to kill your betrothed in a duel,” she began to list. “Don’t speak unless spoken to. Please don’t always keep on those hideous gloves; you’ll catch eyes. And—”

“I understand, Sister,” Sohye responded calmly, trying not to show signs of asphyxiation from Gyeji’s hold.

“Don’t interrupt me; this last one’s important,” Gyeji snapped. “And remember you represent Ryeongse in Riddenheim. Act as Ryeongse would act: polite, honorable, humble, yet fiercely determined, stubborn, and valiant. Try not to start a scandal.”

“I understand, Sister,” Sohye repeated. Gyeji let Sohye go and squeezed her cheeks, to Sohye’s mild chagrin.

The brothers spoke in their native Masenov as the retainers and guards around them made the final preparations for the journey to Malpyeoro, and then Riddenheim beyond.

“..And you’ll see to it that my personal belongings are brought safely over the Eternals?” Leo asked idly.

“Aye, I’ll see it done personally.” Erich responded. Leo nodded, then moved to break away from his brother before the elder grabbed him by the arm and spoke again, “Hold on now, I’ve something to say. I never got the chance to say this back home, but out of all three of us, you’re the only one with a scholar's mind and the ambition to make a difference in this world. Back home you were stifled by father, but here you have a chance. Don't waste it.” Leo chuckled before replying,

“I’ll keep that in mind, though I wonder how much, if any, influence I may hold. In any event, good luck, may your marriage prosper and try not to get your head caved in by a barbarians ax.” Erich laughed deeply as both brothers embraced for several moments, and parted with Leo beginning to recite an old Iskrenite departure saying,

“May Iskren guide you…” “And may The Greatest keep you.” Erich finished, and the brothers smiled at each other one last time before departing.

Sohye turned her head as the brothers said their goodbyes. She bowed to Gyeji at the waist. “Stay in peace, Sister,” she softly bade.

“Go in peace, Sister,” Gyeji responded with a solemn half-smile. Sohye nodded in acknowledgement and walked towards Erich, passing Leo as he approached Gyeji. Taking Erich’s outstretched hand, Sohye climbed into the spacious palanquin. The polished wooden doors closed with a click, signaling dsen bearers to gently hoist the vessel on their shoulders. The palanquin paced away, to the east, towards the setting sun, with its Riddenheimic party and mixed Ryeongsean cavalry escorts riding at its pace.

“And now everything really starts,” Gyeji whispered to herself, winking insinuatingly at a flustered Leo.

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