Yunae’s life dripped cerulean from the end of a perfect-white quill. She dipped her pale hand, wrist set but without any strain, like a violinist playing a slow fugue. The ink evened to a perfect density upon the tip, which shimmered with spotted azure hues cloaked amidst the black. Each drop was precious. The result of seven days of labor, it was mixed with crushed jade and blessed by the three priests of the temple. The liquid was imbued with everything Yunae was and ever had been; a life’s chronicle made manifest. To lose even a speck was to lose herself, cast into the shadow of forgotten people and days past.
She vowed that she would cheat death of its true prize, for in memory she could live eternal, conjured back each time history invoked her name. It was a costly endeavor, in both material and spiritual value. Even now she strained to maintain her strength as it was pulled out of her arm, into the downy feather and onto the page. But in success she would have immeasurable returns. Everything she had ever wanted was on the table before her.
Outside she could hear the sounds of battle growing closer, reverberating through the palace as steel clashed with deadly force. Shouts and screams marked the death of nameless soldiers on both sides, mourned by so few. They were destroying what she had built. Statues and paintings, buildings and the seneschals that carried her word. It sent a shiver through her, but she was safe for now.
It was a small library, but the books were Yunae’s prized possession, filled with stories of gods, heroes, and kings. In the center sat a marble table carved from a solid piece of stone, padded with silks and soft pillows. Yunae sat with pen to parchment, looking fragile but intent. So different than the warrior she had been just a day before.
It took all her might just to hold her hand in place, scratching it across the prepared skin surface that Hae’chi had retrieved. She was afraid to ask him its origin, and had left the topic to rest. Instead she focused solely on the task at hand, before the insurrection could reach this place, her final sanctuary. She pulled the sleeve of her flowing gown back, orange and red and dazzling in brightness of the Empress, to prevent it from muddling the dread calligraphy. The characters seemed to draw themselves as they formed in her mind. Each one a story unto itself.
Yunae felt light headed as she completed another symbol was completed. It was if she were there once again; the bridge at Kushu. Her hand felt warm as blood flowed down onto the hilt of her jian, buried in an enemy. Her breath was mist in the chill air. The smell of smoke. The blade catching on bone and rattling her arm as she pulled it back out. The stabbed man fell, alive a moment longer. His eyes were searching but empty as she stepped to the next opponent. Hae’chi was there too. He pushed her ever forward and gifted her martial skill from the throne of her mind, ensconced like a warlord on his chariot.
The feeling faded and Yunae was back in the library, colder than she had felt in her vision and shivering with exertion. She could just make out her reflection in the smooth tabletop, drawn and aged before its time. Her sight dimmed and she could hear the flush of blood through her head, beating a loud but tired march. Another dab of ink, and the quill was even heavier, pulling her arm down as if it was carrying the weight of the world. Still, she willed it into place and released more of her story onto the page.
This time she was a hero, welcomed home as the conqueror of the South, to parades and blaring horns. Colored bits of paper fell from windows along the Grand Walk, filling the sky with festivity. She had been watching only their fluttering shadows, lost in thoughts of the farm and her mother. Children laughed – it was so clear now, like tiny bells. Something which would never have come to her in simple memory. Everyone sang, and smiled, and cried for their savior.
She visited her mother later that night, ignoring the calls of her comrades. Xihe was alone in the quiet farmhouse. She was huddled in her simple rocking chair, staring at the wall with hollow eyes. She did not recognized Yunae. She was so small and pitiful. Yunae felt her own tears. She excused herself abruptly and left her soldier’s wages on the table. She hated this memory more than any other, but the ink would tell nothing but the entire story. And so it would all be included.
More and more of her life was imbued into the page, each time sapping more of what she was and the dwindling life that remained. Every tale was there. Every success and failure, joy and embarrassment, love and hate captured in jade-blue lettering that contained vast reservoirs of tales. Far beyond what should be possible. The chronicle neared its end and Yunae was tired, and felt that she could be blown away by a gentle breeze. The din of combat roared now, just down the hall of her Imperial chambers, and Hae’chi appeared at her side. He stood by the marble table, carried to her by a thought. He was dressed as he always was: green noble long-shirt and pants, with a jian buckled at his hip. His face, at least this time, was plain and peasant, though elongated just enough to be noticeable. When he flashed a quick smile his teeth were pointed and hooked like a dog’s. A constant of his many forms.
Yunae finished the last of her calligraphy and turned her heavy head to face her old companion. She considered once again that she could be angry at Hae’chi; for bringing her to this point, coaxing fate along such dark paths. But it was quickly forgotten. Yunae had everything she had wanted, and Hae’chi had given it to her. She had lived a full life, one for which there was much to answer, yet she had been the director. Hae’chi had simply offered a way to get here. His motives were no more complex than the waves washing against the shore.
“You called for me, Your Eminence?” He didn’t bow like her other subjects. He was far too terrible a rank to show such submission. She nodded and set the quill in the empty well, eyes drooping with exhaustion.
“Hae’chi, I have one last task for you, old friend. All these pages I have written, the sheets you brought me the other night. Make sure they are taken somewhere safe. Somewhere where they won’t be burned and lost like everything else in the palace. It’s all I have left. Would you please do that for me?”
Hae’chi smiled again, but this time there might have been some small sadness in that fiendish grin.
“I will do this for you, Your Eminence. Then I will come back, for we have one last trip left to take.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Yunae said, her breath soft and ragged now. “The parchment,” she cried with the last of her vigor, “Hae’chi, I can’t see it any longer, is it there? Please, make sure it is safe.”
“I have it, now,” he assured her, picking up the pages of carefully prepared skin that were now out of sight to his mistress, “You are tired. Why don’t you put down your head. It is time for rest.”
“Yes, you are right. I need a rest,” she slouched over onto the cool marble as her eyes closed of their own accord, “Thank you, Hae’chi. You are my only real friend.”
Yunae drew a last, shuddering breath and was still.
Hae’chi arranged the last of the parchment and stood by his mistress for a moment, brushing a strand of hair from her face, lost in thoughts only he could know. He stood that way for a long time until turning and facing the doors just before the first crunch of impact sounded. From the other side, soldiers forced their way in. Even the massive wooden barriers did not last long against the rage that was applied to them by the men. Soon they were inside the library, weapons drawn and face to face with the Demon of the Palace. “That is Hae’chi,” they whispered amongst themselves, anger and fear keeping them rooted in place. Their leader was a handsome young man, the hero of the rebellion, Bang Junghwa. He saw the Empress lying at the table and stared balefully at Hae’chi.
“She is dead then? Yunae is dead?”
Hae’chi gave one curt nod.
“Then it is done,” Junghwa said, though he did not lower his dao. “And what is it you will do now, creature? I will kill you myself if I must.”
“That will be unnecessary,” Hae’chi said, baring his jagged teeth, “I only ask one thing of you, Bang Junghwa. These are the last words and story of my mistress, Yunae Rah. Take them and read them; in exchange I will go far, far away. You will never again find trouble with me.”
“No trick?” Junghwa asked.
Junghwa considered, then sheathed his dao, “Fine, give them here. You will take her where she deserves, I assume. Where you come from? Those are the rules, yes?”
“I have broken many rules for her in the past,” Hae’chi answered, grinning in anger or perhaps frustration. “Though some rules are immutable.” He handed the writings over. As soon as they were in Junghwa’s hand, Hae’chi had vanished as if never there, along with the body of the Empress, heralded only by a gentle breeze that fluttered the sheets in his grip. The men were thrown into a brief panic, but Junghwa calmed them with a sharp word and a raised hand.
“Victory!” one of the men yelled, “She is dead, long live Junghwa!” The tension had eased and transformed into gaiety and delight. “We will burn this damned palace to the ground,” they all agreed.
“What will you do with this book?” Junghwa’s friend, and second in command asked, gripping the General’s shoulder.
“Burn any trace of her away!” the soldiers advanced as if to do it themselves, but once again Junghwa stopped them.
“No, I’ll read it first,” he stated, though his distaste was evident, “I will keep my promise. Afterward – then I will decide what to do with it.”
Later that night, in the glow of the burning Imperial Palace, he began the story.