Ah Ri’s lips part with a caught breath.
Dark eyes wide, she scans over the open boxes scattered on the desk a second time. A third. Her brown eyebrows scrunch close in a wrinkled stupor.
Where is it?
She stands so still that she can hear the palpable tolling of her own heart. She bites her lips. Thinks. Blinks. Paces in the dark.
Where? Where? Where?
Ah Ri puts a curled finger to her grit teeth. She studies the room again with her hands on her hips and she takes a deep breath. Calm down. It has to be in here somewhere. This is the only place I ever leave it. Ah Ri spots a small red box squished between two thick tomes in the corner of a bookshelf: the only unopened box left in the room. She pulls it out and unclasps it.
Her face blanches of color. Why is it not here? Ah Ri’s hands tremble.
If the Commander finds out about this…
Ice gores through Ah Ri’s chest. She clenches her hands to stop the shaking. No.
She won’t find out.
Ah Ri springs to the bookshelves, yanking books, battle records, military strategy booklets from their places. Histories. Biographies. Maps. Anything. Come on… please be here somewhere. Her trembling fingers open each, page-flipping growing more desperate by the second. She scowls mid-way through the battle glories of a man she does not know and slams his biography back into place with a silent fuck.
She rests her head against the shelf, sighing. One job. One simple job and she couldn’t even do that!
Ah Ri clenches the shelf top with a hand. Okay, okay, okay… This is still fixable. She swallows a hard breath. The Commander shouldn’t be back for three more days. That should be plenty of time to find—
The office sliding doors scrape open.
Ah Ri clenches her teeth. What now? She stoops to pick up some fallen maps, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity. “Yes? Can I help you with something?”
“Are you sure you can help me with something?” Answers an amused masculine voice. “You look like you need help more than me.”
Ah Ri straightens immediately at the familiar voice.
The man who enters is clean-shaven, elf-slender in frame, and pale as most young Kim Clan men are, and he dons the blue tunic of the Tiger Fury Guard. Her lantern’s light carves him away from the darkness, like a divine relief cut into a temple, not fully belonging to the wall or the living realm.
Lord Sada Ham. A younger officer who shares her rank, or rather…she thought shared her rank. Ah Ri can’t help but notice a bear-rank emblem on his antlered mogwan that he certainly did not have the last time they spoke.
Not taking her eyes off the bear, Ah Ri forces herself to give a polite bow. I suppose anyone can be a high-ranking officer in the Kim Clan these days. She busies herself toting her sheaf of maps. “Good evening, sir.” Her gaze slides to the five guards behind him. Then to the blades at their waists. Her muscles tense. She forces her breathes to remain steady. “Is there something wrong?”
“Not at all. Just returning from patrol,” Sada Ham says. “We were just looking for Commander Eun Hae.”
Ah Ri stares at him, stiff-browed, wondering if the man came to stir a fight. Do you have feathers in your head? “The Commander hasn’t returned from her trip, sir. She is not due to return for three more days.”
Sada Ham’s lips curl into a faint smile. “Oh? Have you not been told? Commander Eun Hae was seen at the Temple of Winds some time ago. I merely thought that she might have stopped by.”
Temple of Winds? How odd. That was where the Hand of Time resided, and it wasn’t where a member of the Hwarang typically paid a visit. What would the Commander want there? Immediately, Ah Ri’s mind starts to race again. Falling River Compound is a mess. The drakehorse stalls haven’t been cleaned out. I don’t have time to clean this all before my patrol.
Ah Ri’s train of thought stops there. Why didn’t the Commander send word?
She clearly remembers the Commander telling her that she’d arrive in the middle of the month. What cause would she have for arriving early? Surely if it was an emergency, she’d tell someone? Eyes narrowing, she studies Sada Ham’s face in the low lantern light. “She is truly here?”
The square-faced guard behind Sada Ham dips his head. “I saw her with my own eyes. If you do not believe me, go scent the temple yourself.”
“If you saw her, why didn’t you speak to her then?” Ah Ri asks, putting her papers down. “How am I to know that?”
“I thought she might’ve spoken to you already by the time we finished our patrol,” Sada Ham says with a shrug. “But that is no matter. I think I know where she is.” He looks around the office. “Do you need help cleaning up? We can clean up here for you. I’m certain you have other things you want to get in order before your Commander gets to your compound.”
Ah Ri’s face burns as she remembers the mess she’s made of the whole office. It burns even more at his sincerity. She’d been thinking nothing but unkind thoughts when Sada Ham hadn’t even set so much as a toe out of line! Ah Ri touches the back of her neck, hesitant to meet his eyes. “You would do that for me?”
Sada Ham waves a hand. “I know how your Commander is about cleanliness in the compound. I’d rather you not get in trouble while you still have time.”
Ah Ri dips her head, lips tight together. She mutters a quiet, “Thanks.”
“Think nothing of it.” Sada Ham stands aside to let Ah Ri out of the office. They each bow their heads politely in a cascading wave as she passes.
An almond-eyed guard at the back of the line watches Ah Ri disappear down the stairs. Once she’s out of sight, he quickly locks the door. “She’s gone, sir.”
Sada Ham’s eyes narrow. “Search everything.”
The Tiger Fury move like one body: one moment as men, the next as beasts. Huge wolf-bear creatures with thick forelegs, twin tails, and wide bearish forepaws turn over every piece of furniture. They thrust their muzzles into every corner, every shelf, every nook, every cranny while the tribal animals tattooed on their backs flash to life. Roosters, oxen, monkeys, horses, and tigers pace across their owner’s pelts, looking where their owner’s eyes cannot see, bright forms rebelling against the office gloom.
The whole office quivers under the unified growls of the Tiger Fury, their determined sniffing, their paws thumping the floor, and their tails slapping furniture in disregard. Glowing feebly, the tiny flame of Ah Ri’s toppled lantern shrinks back close to its wick like a child frozen at the face of their own nightmare.
Before long, the five subordinates turn back to the white wolf-bear Sada Ham has become. A wolf-bear with an ox across his back says, “Nothing.”
Sada Ham’s ears twitches. “I expected as much.” He eyes a brown-furred wolf-bear with a dragon in his fur. “Ha Jong, you are certain Ah Ri is part of Panthera Black?”
Ha Jong flattens his ears. His dragon spits tattooed flames in shared frustration. “She has to be! I found the Triple Fang here in the office.”
A gray wolf-bear with a tiger tattoo bares his teeth. “That is not conclusive! They could’ve found it from their own investigation.”
Ha Jong bristles back. “I know it’s her. It had her smell all over it.”
The gray wolf’s ear flicks. “Or she was just the last one who touched it. I’ve stashed away stuff from confiscation before. I’m not the only one here.”
“But it’s here and it’s the real deal! That has to mean something.”
“Peace you two,” Sada Ham snaps. “Having the Triple Fang is victory enough.”
“And besides…” Ha Jong sits on his haunches. “Did you see Ah Ri’s face when we walked in? She looked plenty guilty enough to me.”
“We can’t take her into custody on looking guilty,” The gray wolf-bear says. “The Wings of Heaven will not stand for unjust accusations. The Pak Clan will jump at the chance to fight if we are in the wrong. We can’t afford to fight them, especially not with the Gayans, Baekche, and the Darkborn pressing on us.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain, Wol Chun. Baekche has not moved at all in quite some time,” Sada Ham says.
“Yet. It’s almost time they started trouble,” Wol Chun says. “They always do when it’s time for trainees to come out.”
“It is our duty to fight battles when they happen, not look for trouble where there is none yet,” Sada Ham says.
Ha Jong paces the floor. “So what then? We stand around like rabbits while Silla falls apart around us?”
“Of course not,” Sada Ham says. “We’ll keep an eye on Ah Ri’s movements and the other Pungwolju of course. But for now we should look into the other matters Queen Seon Deok inquired about: Dae Wong’s heirs in Gaya and the Magus Panthers. Ha Jong, you have Gayan family, don’t you?”
Ha Jong’s ears droop slowly. “Eh…They tolerate me?”
“So do we,” says the gray wolf-bear, earning a glare from Ha Jong.
“Good, then see the scent fitter and have a sniff around,” Sada Ham says. “As for the rest of us, that pin could mean that some Magus Panthers might still be operating in secret, possibly even mobilizing as we speak. We’ll need to keep the ones in the registry under surveillance. And keep an eye out for new ones lest we have a repeat of Dae Wong’s mistake.”
“But sir, won’t Commander Bo Jong say something if you’re giving all of these orders?” Ha Jong asks. “”
Sada Ham snorts. “Only if he is a fool. The only time he has ever held real power in this guard was when Dae Wong was still king, and look at how long ago that was.” He shifts back to his human form. “ Sada Ham pads toward the door. “Clean this room. I need to return to the manor to see about a few things.”
The wolf-bears dip their heads. “Ye!”
As they turn back to clean, Sada Ham slips out of the office and into the dark snowy night.