“For the last time,” I say, “please leave me alone. I’m not interested.”
Ki-Gun lowers his eyes in a pleading manner. “Come now, Ae-Sun,” he says. “Don’t be that way. We all know you’re just playing hard to get. You can’t resist me.”
I resist and turn away from him.
He falls into pace beside me and continues talking, sweeping his dark hair from his face. “Your father approves, you know.”
I do know.
I say, “Yes, well, my father eats raw meat. That must be why he likes you. Your maturity level isn’t fully done cooking yet.”
Ki-Gun gives me a disapproving look. “My father approves also,” he says, as if that settles the matter. “And everyone else in the village does, too.” He spreads his arms around, motioning at the walls of the caves, adorned with torches to light our pathway.
I step over a crack in the ground and watch, amused, as Ki-Gun forgets the flaw in the stone and trips. In his distraction, I take a moment to study him — he is not wearing his mask right now, which he’d normally be punished for. However, being who he is, he gets away with a lot more than he should. I can’t deny that he’s good-looking: long dark hair tied down his back, and brown eyes that some girls my age describe as “warm” and “delightful.” I would call them arrogant. He’s tall and well-muscled, one of the best fighters in our village of measly warriors, and he has a well-chiseled face that many of the girls would die to wake up to every morning.
He is, in essence, the boy I have been betrothed to since birth — just no one says that out loud. Technically, I still have a choice, but not really.
After all, he’s the son of the first elder, and I am the daughter of the second elder. We are both the same age, born a few months apart. A boy and girl, could it be any more perfect? It must be destiny!
Yes, I’m sure that’s what our parents thought.
Ki-Gun seems to take this in stride, as he does with most of the things in his life, but I despise it with every fiber in my being. I have always been impatient, stubborn, and unwilling to comply with any sort of rules, and marriage the least of all of them.
Refusing Ki-Gun’s advances hasn’t been that hard in the past, but as we’ve gotten older, he’s become more persistent. And now that we’re both sixteen and marriageable . . .
Ki-Gun catches me staring at him and smiles. “See something you like?” he says. He straightens himself, not the least embarrassed by his mistake, and reaches forward to undo the string that holds my mask in place.
I swat his hand away.
“C’mon, Ae-Sun,” he whines. “I want to see your face.”
“No,” I say and my voice comes out strained.
He reaches forward again, but this time he grabs a strand of my hair and twines his fingers through it. I cringe.
Everyone seems to have a weird fascination with my hair. Perhaps because it is blonde, the same color as my mother’s, a color that is not very common in our village. Ki-Gun, especially, takes every opportunity he can to play with the golden locks. Sometimes I wish I could just cut it off, but I know my father would disapprove if I did that. Our women’s hair here is valued.
“Please, Ki-Gun,” I say and I step away from him, trying not to jerk or slap him.
Then, because I cannot stop myself, I turn and start to run.
By the time I stop, my breath is coming in short gasps and my side is straining. I lean against the wall of the cave and close my eyes. I don’t know how far I’ve run. Too far, probably.
For the last twelve years we’ve lived here, I’ve been exploring the mountains. Every day I go a little farther. Dangerous, I know, and my father would certainly be unhappy if he knew. But I can’t help it. The burning curiosity inside me demands it, and who am I to stop it from getting what it wants? I want to see, I want to experience so much more . . . even exploring the mountains is not enough.
Once my breathing has evened out, I glance up. Darkness surrounds me, no torches to light my way now, and I don’t recognize where I am, but this doesn’t worry me. I’ve gotten lost plenty of times in the mountains, but I always seem to find my way back. I’ve come to see the mountains as my friends as much as my prisoners.
Before Ki-Gun cornered me, I was planning on hunting for the village. While we don’t starve, we’re always a little short on food. Most of my free time is spent wandering the mountains, searching for game.
I breathe in deeply once more and let my senses wander around me. I feel just the slightest draft coming from my left, meaning there’s probably an opening that leads out. I can smell the trees and the outside and my heart yearns for it. Living inside the caves is torture for me.
I swing my bow off my shoulders, feeling the familiar roughness of the carved wood, and nock an arrow on the string in case there’s already an unsuspecting animal waiting outside. Then I creep toward the alluring smells of open air and living things.
My eyes having adjusted, I walk along the wall of the cave, following the scent of fresh air, careful of uneven ground, until I see light up ahead. My step quickens just a bit, despite myself. Then — I am outside.
And because it is a stupid habit I can’t stop, I lower my mask from my face to take in the full sight in front of me.
I breathe in and blink a few times, the brightness of the day blinding me. I must have climbed high, because I’m standing on what is almost a sheer cliff. Below me, trees grow at steep angles, roots twisted on the craggily rocks. The sky above is a beautiful cerulean blue with clouds sometimes flitting across the shining sun, sending shadows over the land. A smile widens on my face as gratitude fills me, gratitude for the ability to experience all the wonderful and amazing views before me.
I lift my bow to a more comfortable position and glance around me. Before me, the ground travels a few feet before ending in the cliff and the same on the left, but to the right, if I’m careful, it looks like it widens out and I might be able to find some prey.
I don’t want to go back to the village empty-handed, so I shift my grip on my bow and take a tentative step to the side, testing my weight. Then a few more. More confident now, I begin to watch around me for sight of movement.
There’s a slight noise behind me, almost like a ringing sound, and I spin around, lifting my bow up to aim the arrow at —
I frown, positive I’d heard something.
Shrugging, I decide to move on. Several minutes later, after I’ve climbed higher, the path becomes narrower again. Before me, though, I see a thick copse of trees. If I can just get to that, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of prey there.
The wind gently pushes me backward — good. That means the animals won’t sense me coming. I smile, confident now that I’ll be getting something good, and continue forward.
My eyes catch sight of movement in the trees and I freeze, my hand tightening on my bow.
I crouch down and aim where I’d seen the movement. I pull back my bow a fraction more, squinting to try and identify my target, and —
The ground shakes beneath me and the whole mountain starts to rumble. Flocks of birds erupt from the trees, flapping their wings as hard as they can to escape. Rocks tremble and start rolling down the mountainside, the sound thundering in my ears.
An earthquake?! Now?
While infrequent, they’ve happened before, especially when the mountains are concerned. But the awful timing . . .
I start to move, somewhere, anywhere, but my thoughts are wild, panicked, and I have no real plan or idea of what to do in this situation. I just know I need to move.
The ground, still quivering, suddenly collapses beneath me and I scream as my feet slide out from underneath me, the momentum of the earthquake carrying me down. My bow flies out from my hands and disappears over the cliff and I’m about to, too, if I don’t —
I scramble to find something to hold onto — anything — and my hand grabs onto something that seems to appear out of nowhere.
Instinct fuels me and I pull onto it, anchoring myself. Except whatever thing I’d grabbed apparently wasn’t too secure itself because it falls off into my hand. I scream again as I realize I’m still falling, dirt and rocks scraping alongside me, when someone grabs onto me and pulls me up.
Someone . . .
“Ki-Gun?” I gasp, because my mind thinks of odd things when I’m in danger.
I look up and I see something I’d never truly thought I’d see again.
Sharp, golden eyes, highlighted underneath by two red markings on the cheeks.
When he sees me looking at him, the Seiryuu squeezes his eyes shut. But not soon enough. I’d seen them. I’d seen them again.
An almost giddy thought comes over me. I’d seen them again! Probably not something I should be thinking about right now, considering the situation. But my chaotic mind latched onto the thought:
They’re still just as beautiful as I remember.