- Alternate Universe
- Time Travel
Hwa Ta was a legendary doctor, who was divinely gifted. Hwa Ta could sense the pains in the human body, diagnose and treat them in ways that were unheard of on the earth. Hwa Ta’s specialty was surgery. Hwa Ta was able to cure an ambitious but twisted Guardian named JoJo, who then threatened death if Hwa Ta, did not agree to be his personal physician and Guide.
Hwa Ta did not agree. And something astonishing happened, something that is still spoken of to this day. The sky grew dark but a bright light came and opened a door to Heaven.
Hwa Ta walked through that door and was never seen again. His legend grew over the years, and he became known as Heaven’s Doctor, coming back to the world of Men when need cried out or he understood the situation to be dire. The door he used opened the path to Guides and Guardians in the kingdom that would come to be known as Goryeo, for Hwa Ta was a Guide, and Hwa Ta’s search for a Guardian passed into legend.
Ages passed, and the knowledge of Guides and Guardians faded, though their like still lingered in surprising places.
Choi Young, the commander of the Woo Dal Chi, sighed and grimaced into the soggy sky. Yes, he was Daejang—a general, admiral, high commander—in his country of Goryeo. He had served and would continue to serve until, at last, this last mission was complete. He had to get King Gongmin and his wife, Queen Noguk, away from China and back to the palace in Goryeo. He had been promised that this would be his last mission…the former king had said so.
Choi Young drew his hood more closely over his head and turned in the saddle to see his second in command. “What?”
Bae Choong-Sik guided his mount to pace his general’s, step by step, before leaning in and whispering, “We are being followed, Daejang!”
He knew that. He always knew. So, he nodded and tried not to frown into the rain that saturated not only the road, but also the spirit. He was so tired, but he had to keep alert, to know where the threats were, to keep his limbs in readiness. “Right. Send Dae-Man ahead to secure the boats. We need to be on the water tonight.”
“Yes, Daejang!” Choong-Sik was off and Young put that concern out of his mind for the present.
He could instead keep his senses alert for other concerns. It was fiercely annoying to have to lead two carriages in this weather, on such bad roads. Why the king and queen could not travel in one was beyond him. But the king and queen rarely spoke to each other, using intermediaries, and when they did speak, their words were cold and stiff. The king was young and had not spent enough time in Goryeo to be a good king; he would bring Yuan with him in all his ways and Choi Young was not pleased about that. Still he did his duty. His final mission.
They plodded on, until the minister who had been serving King Gongmin while the young man was still living in Yuan gasped in that ridiculous, dramatic way he had. Young was tempted to ignore the minister, but he was in a position of authority and his opinion, alas, carried weight with the new king.
“Hwa Ta!” Minister Jo Il-Shin gasped, pointing with a trembling hand.
Annoyed almost to the point of snapping, Young nevertheless followed the minister’s pointed finger and saw what appeared to be a glowing cloud formation on a hill not far away.
What, under the Heavens, was so remarkable about that? And who was Hwa Ta, anyway?
He couldn’t be bothered to find out; he had to get the king and queen to the river so they could cross and get to the palace. Then, his mission would be complete and he could leave the palace and live in peace. Finally.
There were no boats to be had at the river, Dae-Man reported.
“They knew we were coming, Daejang,” the younger man murmured, his head close to Young’s as they stood on the ground in the irritating light rain. “I suspect someone is preparing an ambush.”
“So do I. Is there an inn?”
Dae-Man dragged his hands through his already shaggy hair and screwed up his expression to an astonishing degree. “There’s only one, Daejang.” He grimaced. “That’s not good, right?”
“Right. It means they know we’ll be there.” He frowned and stared at the problematic pair of wagons he was compelled to keep safe and secure until they reached the palace. “We will prepare for an ambush. Say nothing loudly, not even to the Minister,” he instructed. Dae-Man took off with his characteristic leap that made even the baji of his uniform flutter with the air he displaced.
Choi mounted once again, and beckoned to his second in command as the company began their plodding, mud-sucking route to a harbor that was empty and an inn that was almost surely being watched. “Bae.”
“Take three men with you with Dae-Man to the inn he found. Investigate it.” He thought for a moment before reaching behind him into his traveling pack and removing a pouch with plenty of local currency. “Clear the inn, regardless of who is there. Offer the innkeeper this in compensation.”
Bae took the heavy pouch and weighed it with a decisive nod. “Yes, Daejang.”
“Do not inform the Minister,” Choi directed, regathering the reins in one hand. “And if he asks, tell him you are riding ahead for security. It’s true, if not complete.”
Bae made a clicking sound in his mouth and his horse stepped out of the way to take the rider back toward the following line of horses, men, and wagons.
From his saddle, Choi Young tapped respectfully on the exterior of King Gongmin’s wagon. It was an elaborate thing, but also quite small for a man who was to be ruler over the great land of Goryeo. Young smoothed his expression and wished with all his being that Minister Jo Il-Shin would go elsewhere, but…no. The bothersome man had his nose and fingers in everything.
The general’s instincts were high against the Minister. They had been from the first moment they’d met at the border between Yuan and Goryeo. The man had some kind of strange odor that seemed to seep from his person; the slippery smell of betrayal. Discreet inquiries over the past few days had only had his men looking at him as if he needed to rest.
Which was true enough, Choi knew. He was exhausted. Still, he indicated with a wave of his arm that his men should keep the line moving even while he talked to the king.
“Your Highness, General Choi Young of the Woo Dal Chi.”
The window opened and the sullen face of King Gongmin appeared. “Yes, Daejang?”
“Sir. My scouts report that there are no boats to get us across the river today. We will be spending the night in an inn.”
The younger man frowned, but mostly with his eyes. His expressions were slight, as if he had learned long ago to show nothing on his face, but was relaxing that a little now that he was away from the court of Yuan. “Is it normal for transportation to be lacking when the king has required it? Is that the way things are done, here?”
“Oh, no, Your Highness!” Choi refrained from rolling his eyes as the dramatic notes in Il-Shin’s voice. “It’s a disgrace! It all is. You should have an army as an escort, a fleet of ships at your command. It is humiliating! Why, if—” He cut off his tirade and wrung his hands until he slipped sideways on the back of his horse and had a moment where his arms seemed to spasm before he found and held the reins once more. This mishap fortunately left him quite behind the king’s wagon by the time he was steady.
Choi watched before turning back to the king. “Your Highness, it little matters how things were done before; today, this is how it is and we will have to do what is necessary. Which means you and the queen will be staying at an inn. Say nothing as we go. We will do our best to disguise your presence, so that you will not be targeted for overt attention.”
“Tell the queen,” the king commanded before closing with the window with an abrupt motion.
The queen was traveling in her own wagon, accompanied by two court ladies who were, as Choi Young had already discovered, adept fighters in defense of the princess of Yuan who was now Queen Noguk. With an inner sigh, the general repeated his statement to the young woman and was answered with an abrupt nod and closed window.
Having seen to the necessary duties, he then felt it incumbent upon him to ride point on the road he knew would lead to the harbor, in the full security that Dae-Man would have someone waiting to guide him to the inn.
Bae Choong-Sik knew they were being watched, and he felt a resolve harden within him. Protecting the king and queen should have been of foremost importance, but really, he was invested in supporting his commanding officer, Choi Young. Since the day the gifted warrior had arrived in their barracks seven years before, Choi had been uniquely compelling. Solitary but inspirational. Fierce in battle, he would sleep like a sluggard for days at a time. Choi was Bae’s model for leadership and as he investigated the road and landscape around the only inn in proximity to the empty harbor, he tried to do it as his general would.
His conclusion: there would be an ambush. Bae’s task: prepare for it.
When the attacking numbers were unknown, it was best for the stationary troops to be prepared for more than anything expected. With quiet words and authoritative gestures, he gathered his small detachment to him.
“We saw footprints going up the rise with the three trees looking over the river,” one of the men said. “They’re careless.”
“Maybe they think they don’t need to worry,” Bae posited. “They’re confident.”
Dae-Man shook his head. “They shouldn’t be. Daejang will destroy them.”
Bae suppressed a smile; Dae-Man and the general went back a ways and everyone knew that. “Well, we’ll help.” Despite the tension, the men all nodded and smiled. “So, this is what we’ll do. As soon as the others get here, get all the weapons stashed in the upper rooms. And we’ll need the phosphorous.”
“You think they will wait until full dark then.”
With a nod, Bae said, “I do. Right, then, I’ll see to getting the inn emptied. Make sure the road to the inn is clear for the king and queen.”
Bae retrieved the money from inside his robes, the heavy, dark blue of the Woo Dal Chi that he and the others wore. It might have been onerous to wear in the warm season, with the rains, but it was their uniform and it was tailored to fit under their armor without chafing. Eyeing the door to the inn, he stepped firmly up to the entrance, imitating the upper palace servants he had seen throughout the years.
“Innkeeper,” he called. “My lord is newly married and he and his wife would like…seclusion.” All of which was in fact true, if it came down to it.
The keeper of the inn, who wore a harried expression, nodded. “Of course. What can I do to provide this?”
“Empty the inn. This should compensate you for your time and trouble,” Bae said, handing over the money pouch. It jingled a little in the transfer.
The innkeeper hefted it, eyes wide. “Yes, of course.” Without even taking a breath, he turned and called, “Everyone out! Out, out. Clearing the inn, yes. Now, yes.” He encouraged his guests to leave by taking their food from them and nudging them out the door.
They were not pleased, but Bae Choong-Sik was relieved. As soon as the inn’s ground floor was empty, he sent two of his men up the stairs to make sure the rooms were clear and to check lines of sight for fighting, later. Windows were secured as well. Bae smiled in satisfaction to hear wooden shutters snap closed with shallow bangs all around the inn.
“What room would your lord and lady like? How may my staff serve?” the innkeeper asked, bowing even before a “servant”. After all, the man had brought money!
“My men and her ladies will see to them, but we thank you. You do have a roof of your own that is not here, do you not?”
Looking uncomfortable, the man weighed the bag of coins in his hand again. “Yes,” he allowed on a breath. “Will you need the inn for more than one night?”
Bae doubted that they would.
Relieved to see the back of the innkeeper, Bae hurriedly scouted any smaller spaces on the ground floor before he left to make sure someone had ridden to meet the general.
He caught his breath when he saw a flicker of movement in the trees opposite the inn, and a flash of metal reflected the setting sun.
Who was seeking to ambush them? The king had to be the target, didn’t he? That made sense, but who would seek to do him harm? He hadn’t done anything yet to make an enemy!
Bae Choong-Sik, second in command of the Woo Dal Chi, rested his hand on hilt of his sword and waited.