CH 23 Secrets
The gates rumbled as the pounding continued, shaking the very ground beneath everyone's feet. Soldiers were desperately trying to support the doors to prevent a breach. Even some of the Joseon troops began to help out. All they could do now is wait and hope for the best. Zhao Meng secretly glanced back towards the two Men of Joseon with nervous eyes. Yul did not seem very happy nor did Seulgi. The subject matter is you. Zhao Meng shivered. What could they possibly have to say about her? Why did they leave the main group to talk in secret? Were they discussing some very negative thoughts about her? Some rumors perhaps?
Zhao Meng was immediately reminded of how she told Seulgi her past trauma. No. He would never. She may not know everything about the man, but she could tell he was not the rumor-spreading type. She felt her cheeks blush light pink. Maybe it had something to do with them becoming… visibly close. They were considered enemies outside of the castle after all. Yes. That had to be it. Yul was probably drilling Seulgi about how fraternization between enemies were a horrible mistake. Zhao Meng moved her fist to her heart subconsciously. It wasn't that big of deal, was it? Under normal circumstances, she could see the danger in such interactions, but in this case- with what was going on in the castle- she doubted they mattered as much as life or death.
She noticed that their secret talk was over and began to wonder what Seulgi would have said had this subject matter been brought up. Curiosity truly tormented her in those few agonizing minutes. When they walked away earlier, Zhao Meng tried getting Guan Liang to answer that question earlier but that masked woman shook her head in response. Speaking of which, that woman was really freaking her out. For one, she never spoke a word since she got there, but held a lot of influence over Yul's troops. Guan Liang was included. She'd never seen a man so frightened with just a simply glance.
"Sorry for the wait. We finished our little conversation," Yul sighed, coming up behind Zhao Meng with crossed arms over his chest. He was visibly displeased with what transpired in his conversation with Seulgi, but there was a hint of finality that came along with it. Zhao Meng peered behind the man quietly to see Seulgi talking to a group of soldiers by the stairs. He was avoiding eye contact as soon as he realized that she was looking at him. Zhao Meng felt slightly nervous with his reaction, but decided to leave Seulgi alone. She turned back to Yul and gave a weak smile, "So…what did you talk about?"
"Stuff," Yul grunted. Something about that answer did not seem right with her. He was hiding something. They were talking about me. Zhao Meng fretted in her head.
"Anything I need to worry about?" Zhao Meng asked, wanting to know some details to their conversation.
Yul breathed a sigh of exasperation. What would he say? He assumed that Zhao Meng had no knowledge with the investigation that Seulgi was conducted and wondered how well she'd take it. Not well, Yul determined in his head. Those two may be somewhat acquainted due to mutual conflicting forces but Yul felt this knowledge would lead to dangerous outcomes. A few days of friendship could easily be erased by this.
"No," Yul shook his head. He hated lying but this was for her own good; for Seulgi's welfare as well. He continued, "I just had to remind him that as an officer of Joseon, he is not exactly welcome here. I mean, we are enemies, are we not?"
"Given these circumstances, I think we can save the fighting until after this is over," Zhao Meng said, feeling tired with saying the same thing over and over again. Were all officers this paranoid? Yul nodded slowly, "I suppose so. Will that gate hold?"
"So long as the zombies don't gain a conscience," Zhao Meng shrugged.
"How's that?" Yul barked a short laugh. She has a sense of humor, this one. He could respect that.
"Well the gates open out towards the zombies," Zhao Meng explained, "They won't get anywhere with just pushing against them. They won't do anything that way."
Thank you for that information.
Zhao Meng felt her heart sank as she heard the all too familiar voice of the demon-woman. Yul looked around himself confused, searching for the source of the ominous voice. It was child-like in pitch. He groaned. Why did it have to be demons? But that was not what concerned them the most. The pounding had stopped.
"Um…what?" Yul held his breath.
"Don't tell me," Zhao Meng muttered with wide eyes.
Yup. The soldiers heard the door rings being pulled outwards. Alarmed, the soldiers began an effort to counter this movement by pulling on the doors from their side. Zhao Meng slapped her forehead, growling in frustration. She snapped, "Me and my big mouth!"
"So…zombies with a conscience," Yul breathed out slowly, "Never thought I'd see the day."
He pulled his ssangsoodo Zhèngyì (Virtue) off his back and grunted, "Please tell me we have a plan."
"Other than survive? Not really," Zhao Meng shrugged with ill ease. The Shaos were inspecting their weapons in front of the doors and were arguing amongst themselves. This was getting worse by the minute, she thought to herself. Where was the General in all of this? Surely he knew what was happening at this point. Zhao Meng looked at the staircase, heart pounding against her ribcage. He should be down here with them to fight this strange enemy.
Bao He was wondering the same exact thing, his eyes staring down the doors as they were being pulled back and forth in the intense struggle. He could hear the groans of the undead getting clearer as the soldiers began to tire and give way to their enemy's actions. He ran up to the gates and began to pull them towards him himself. He could not afford to die nor let anyone else lose their lives to some mystic force. He felt a tap on his shoulder.
Bao He turned to stare at a grinning Soo-Won. The former whaler asked, "Need some help 'ere?"
"Yes, please," Bao He would have called the man stupid but felt it unwise. Soo-Won nodded and began to add his strength into the struggle.
While this was happening, Seulgi was talking to some soldiers tending to their wounds. He recognized them as the ones that tried to escape the ramparts. He asked, "Are you alright?"
"Depends on what you consider alright," one of them grunted, tying a sling around a fellow soldier's neck.
"The man leading you," Seulgi let the question hang in the air. The soldiers all shook their heads. He did not make it after all. Seulgi felt his spirits fall, but was determined to not let it show. At least he was able to save some of them. He said, clapping a hand on one's shoulder, "Don't worry. We'll get them back for every one that they've taken."
"Hell yeah," the soldiers all agreed with firm eyes and hands around their weapons.
Seulgi nodded at their heightened spirits and was satisfied that he was able to encourage them. With these zombies suddenly gaining a conscience, they needed to keep their morale up.
You know it is hopeless.
The demon woman's voice was echoing in his head. He grabbed his temples with the sudden intrusion and clenched his teeth. Demons had no sense of privacy.
Your friends will all die here. She continued with her childlike voice, You can try and defeat my horde but even you understand the futility in fighting a force that is already dead.
"Why are you doing this?" Seulgi muttered under his breath.
Why do we need a reason to do anything? The demon asked. It's a question that cannot be answered with a simple word or phrase.
"No riddles," Seulgi growled, "Show yourself!"
Find me and I'll tell you.
"Why these childish games? What do you want from me?"
Do you not remember anything? The demonic voice seemed to drop low in volume. Seulgi was slightly surprised. Was she sad? Have you forgotten everything? Have you forgotten me?
"I think you've gotten me confused with someone else," Seulgi shook his head, wondering if the demon could even see him, "I have never been to this place before."
Yes, you have. The voice seemed really sure. I never forget a face. I certainly would not forget you.
Okay. The way she said the last sentence felt heavy with nostalgia and sorrow. Seulgi determined that either she was really delusional or he reminded her of someone very close to her. Extremely close for that matter, it would seem. Seulgi had a thought that he wished to confirm.
It was… the voice paused with an audible "uh". Was it a decade? No…it couldn't have been. It had to be…now that you mention it, you look awfully young for your age, Cheol-won.
He knew it. There was some connection between Seulgi's ancestor and this demon. Belefidas said something about Cheol-won brought to this palace to slay a demon. This had to be that demon he spoke of.
"Remind me," Seulgi decided to see how this would play out if he pretended to be his ancestor.
You really did forget, the voice sounded very depressed to the point where he could almost see tears.
"I'm sorry," Seulgi felt odd in trying to comfort the one responsible for trying to murder them with a horde of undead soldiers. He felt a tap on the shoulder and nearly jumped out of his skin with a grunt. Alarmed, Seulgi looked around himself with wide eyes. He caught sight of soldiers looking at him with amused if not awkward stares, whispering who knows what to each other.
It was Zhao Meng. Gods. Of all the people who it could have been, it was her. She was giving him a raised eyebrow and was trying hard not to curl her pink lips into a smile. Her brown head was shaking from left to right and she said, "You were talking to yourself again, you know."
Who is this?
Uh oh. Seulgi felt a bead of cold sweat run down his face in hearing the sudden hostile pitch in the demon's voice. Not only was this demon insane, she seemed to be very possessive. He could see its thought pattern. Zhao Meng came at a very bad time.
"Zhao Meng," Seulgi said flatly, his eyes staring her down with a cold glaze coating his brown pupils. He hoped that it would be enough to scare her away. Mission failed. However, Zhao Meng stepped back in confusion. What was wrong with him? Then she noticed the sweat on his brow and heard the demon woman too.
Who is this, Cheol-won?
Cheol-won? Zhao Meng looked around her in search of a face who could possibly own that name. After some moments of thought, her mouth formed a silent "o". Were this any other situation, she would have laughed, but this was serious. For some reason, the demon was calling Seulgi by another name. Either "Seulgi" wasn't really the Man of Joseon's name or he was trying to do…something. Her head hurt so she decided to ask the obvious question.
"Seulgi, why is this demon calling you by another name?"
Seulgi gave her an even colder stare and shook his head violently. Zhao Meng suddenly felt stupid. There was obviously something the demon was going to tell him, and she just interrupted their conversation. Wait. Wasn't that a good thing? She was confused all over again.
Is this why you've forgotten me? The demon woman's voice was rising in volume, getting dangerous in pitch. The floor shook slightly beneath them. The troops were alarmed, looking up as dust came down on them from the floor above. They could not hear the voice unlike Zhao Meng and Seulgi, and therefore they thought that the enemy was coming in from above. Zhao Meng looked around her as chaos began to spread through their ranks, troops rushing around with weapons drawn towards every little movement.
You found another woman?!
Another woman? Zhao Meng and Seulgi met eyes and saw that they bore the same surprised uneasy face. They were not even thinking about what the demon was implying. The simple fact that this demon was insane was enough to keep their minds off such things. Zhao Meng cursed. She should have kept quiet like Seulgi demanded of her. Meanwhile, Seulgi was wondering what the relationship was between this demon and his ancestor. They were lovers? He shuddered. What kind of women did he like?
"What do you mean?" Seulgi asked, his eyes wandering towards every wall and crack on the floor, "I had a…relationship with you?"
Relationship. The word felt heavy as it left his mouth and brought an ill taste with it. Seulgi had no intentions of making such ties with anyone at the moment, and felt that it should be kept that way. I only bring bad luck to those around me, he thought to himself bitterly.
Enough! The voice's tone dropped pitch and was layered in dark overtones. This was the true voice of the demon, he thought. The child's voice from earlier was but a mask; a method of disguising what she sounded like. You will hurt me no longer! You have until dawn to find me.
"And if we don't?" Zhao Meng asked, not liking the omen one bit.
You will all die. The voice said flatly, before its heavy presence lifted from their minds. Seulgi struggled to maintain foothold, his eyes darkening for a brief moment. He luckily caught himself before anyone else could notice. Well…anyone but Zhao Meng, that is. She rushed up to him and laid a hand on his arm, eyes brimming with bright concern.
"Are you okay?" She asked a very rhetorical question, but she did not care.
"I'll be fine," Seulgi grunted, a hand reaching up caressing his temples. He shrugged off her hand, giving her a hard look.
She watched him silently as he was trying to find his bearings. She chewed her bottom lip nervously, wanting to ask another question. Seulgi waved her on. He knew she had questions and would not leave until they were answered.
"What was that all about?" She put her hands on her hips to emphasize her point.
"You mean with the demon?" Seulgi grunted, "She was spouting something about us all going to die and stuff."
"Really?" Zhao Meng raised an eyebrow, "So why was she calling you by another name?"
Seulgi did not answer right away, pondering about what he should tell the woman. He had up until this point was able to keep his personal ties with this place a secret. Was it wise to keep it a secret still even though she heard the name of his ancestor? Zhao Meng rolled her eyes. There he goes again. Calculating.
"Never mind," She huffed, "Not like you are going to tell me anyway."
Seulgi was taken back. What was with her sudden attitude? There was something bothering her and he guessed it had something to do with him. Seulgi cleared his throat, "Zhao Meng, I-"
"So what were you and Yul talking about?" She interrupted him with a sharp tone. Okay. There was something definitely wrong. Seulgi narrowed his eyes slightly.
"Why do you wish to know my conversation with Yul?"
"It was about me, wasn't it?" Zhao Meng ignored his question. She felt as though it was about her and now, seeing his face, she was able to confirm it. Her heart throbbed knowing that he was trying to keep secrets from her and words that were obviously concerning her. What sort of words were they?
"Yes, it was," Seulgi answered slowly, watching her face with caution. There was no use hiding that from her. It sounded as though she already knew somehow. Denying that fact would only make the situation more awkward and that was something Seulgi did not want. The demon sounded as though she was planning something even more devious; which was saying something considering she raised the dead with little ease.
"What did you talk about?" She was clenching her fists hard in the hopes of resisting the urge of attacking Seulgi. He confirmed it and by the sound of his voice, there was not a very good exchange of words.
"Yul is worried," Seulgi shrugged, "He suspects that there is something more to our talks."
Zhao Meng felt heat rise up her body in realization to what he was entailing. Yul was on the same page as General Zhu then. She turned her face to the side to avoid eye contact with Seulgi. The situation only grew more awkward with each passing moment and the atmosphere thickened with suspense.
"Well?" She asked. It felt like the word was being coughed out her throat.
"Is there something…more to our talks?" Zhao Meng's brown eyes shimmered as they gazed sidelong at the Man of Joseon. Seulgi took a instinctive step back and his face became flushed with embarrassment. He took in a deep breath and began to rub the back of his neck fiercely. Seulgi knew that his emotions were grabbing a hold of them both. You have to tell her. He nodded. He had to.
"There is something I need to tell you," Seulgi said, his eyes serious and unwavering.
Zhao Meng gulped nervously. This wasn't a confession of feelings, she knew. He was changing the topic entirely. She had a feeling that Seulgi was trying to push them apart from each other. She steeled her resolve. Whatever it was, she would not waver in her standing with him. Zhao Meng felt that she knew him well enough that these next words would not disturb her.
"Do you know of Prince Wei?" Seulgi asked.
Prince Wei? She frowned, sifting through her memory in order to recall where she heard that name before. Zhao Meng asked, "He's a Ming prince right?"
"He was a respected figure and had good standing with both sides of the war," She continued, "And he was…he was…"
She covered her mouth with realization. She whispered, "He was assassinated along with his wife, right? It was that Prince Wei, wasn't it?"
"The same," Seulgi answered grimly.
"But," Zhao Meng's mouth suddenly felt dry and her breath heavy, "Why…why are you bringing this up? What does this have to do with your talk with Yul?"
"Because I am being charged with the investigation of his murder," Seulgi blurted out.
Zhao Meng took a few steps back, her wide eyes scanning Seulgi's pained expression. Investigation? A hobby of mine or rather, a profession. When I am not out in the field, I tend to help out with local cases or even court situations. He had said to her earlier. No. It couldn't be. How far can you shoot? Can you hit that? Judging distance is not my strong suit. I'd say maybe…around 400 meters? Oh gods. The man was shot. She moved her hand further up her face to cover her nose, suddenly smelling the stench of blood around her.
"It wasn't by some stroke of luck for me to have captured you, was it?" She said, her mind in a daze as the pieces began to click into place.
"Zhao Meng." Seulgi started gently.
"Was it?" She asked with more heat, her eyebrows furrowed and her mouth twisting into a deeper frown.
Seulgi shook his head, "No. It wasn't?"
Zhao Meng let out a quiet moan, putting all her will into not shedding tears. She whispered, "You were investigating me."
"I was," Seulgi nodded, his voice just as quiet and his eyes falling to the floor, "You were apparently the prime suspect for the murder and I was given orders straight away to find you. Plus…he was a friend. A good friend, in fact; he had no equal in the court."
"What were your orders?" Zhao Meng's stomach began to churn violently. This revelation made her sick. Then was everything a lie? His personality and his words up until now; were they all for the sake of his investigation? It couldn't be. There was no way. But he hid this from her. No. No one could create a persona as real as this; this man was what the real Seulgi is like. He was explaining the situation to her. What sort of investigator for a regicide tells the prime suspect such sensitive information? Zhao Meng's head began to hurt from the conflicting forces in her mind; so much that she hugged her chest.
"To find you," Seulgi hung his head quietly.
"If I found you to be guilty of the crime," He stopped himself. This was too much. Seulgi could not continue. He was hurting her. So? The voice in his head rung clear as a bell. If you hid this from her any longer, the situation would escalate to even more extreme measures. I don't like how personal you are making this, but I believe this is the right decision.
"What?" Zhao Meng knew what was coming but wanted to hear it straight from Seulgi.
"I would be forced to either take you back alive…or dead," Seulgi said, his voice hoarse and despondent. He looked away from her quietly, "I should have told you sooner."
Told her sooner? Despite the terrible revelation, Zhao Meng felt a small glimmer of hope rise from the depths of this bottomless pit. No covert investigator in their right mind would tell a suspected murderer, an enemy at that, the crime she was being accused of. Were it anyone else, she felt that they would have already taken her away or killed her on sight. But this man…either he was patient with his target or…No. She believed in the Seulgi she had come to know in the past few days; conflict could bring out the most genuine of a person under the looking glass. She would trust him, but in the back recesses of her mind, she prayed that she was not making a terrible mistake.
She glanced around her and took in the scene around her; the madness in the hall. She took in a deep breath and closed her eyes in the attempt to calm her nerves. Zhao Meng had to be strong. She could not let the men see her emotions overcome her and lose heart. Even more so that the men would think that Seulgi was no longer to be considered an ally in this supernatural attack should they see her depressed during their conversation. The men before herself; it was just a repressed thought up until now.
Zhao Meng looked back towards Seulgi. Although she felt hurt and betrayed with this sudden information, if what he was saying was true, then he already decided her fate. She was still standing so there was hope. Zhao Meng doubted he would have hesitated to take her down.
"What good would that do?" She grunted, "I doubt telling me earlier would have made me feel any better. 'You are a suspect in a regicide and I was sent here to investigate you. Sorry if I deem you guilty.'"
She looked over him critically but with some amusement hidden away in her eyes. Unfortunately, her positiveness was not as well hidden as she thought. Eyes aflame, he growled, "Is this some sort of joke to you?"
"Hardly," She shook her head, eyes darting left and right. No one could hear their conversation thankfully, "My life is on the line, Seulgi. I tend to behave in this matter when I am stressed. Sorry if you misinterpreted it as me not taking this seriously."
There was a brief silence between the two of them, both people staring awkwardly off to the sides. She cleared her throat and asked, "So?"
"So what?" Seulgi was monotone now and looked visibly worn. Inside, he felt as though a terrible weight was lifting from his shoulders; no matter how wrong the outcome could turn up as.
"What's the verdict, Seulgi?" She rolled her eyes, miffed that he did not catch on to what she was applying. He was distracted, she could tell. This was possibly harder on him than her, Zhao Meng realized. She waited patiently for his answer, the man silently staring off into space. He took in a deep breath and shifted his eyes towards her. With a firm voice, Seulgi uttered only one word.
"Innocent of what, exactly?"
Both warriors turned to see a tall broad man approaching them surrounded by guards on either side. It was General Zhu. Zhao Meng, Seulgi, and everyone within in proximity all bowed in respect to the General. He was not pleased; he could not even hide it behind his magnificent beard. His eyes were fire and his eyebrows furrowed.
"You have a lot of explaining to do, Zhao Meng."