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For the Downfall of My Beloved

10

Chapter 10

1

“How could I not love?”

Every time Juya drank, she murmured these words as if casting a spell. Even though she was a drinker by nature, whenever she felt the warmth of alcohol, she would firmly tie up her red hair and look around her.

No matter how small or insignificant the life, Juya’s eyes would sparkle when she looked at the small creatures of the White Flower Kingdom, the scurrying animals, even the insects clinging to the ground.

“Princess, look at these. Aren’t they just adorable? What should I do? I’m afraid I might crush them if I hold them.”

To Juya, every wildflower on the road and even the ants underfoot embodied loveliness. Her sharp eyes would dissolve into radiant smiles, beaming brightly with pure joy.

Rohwa spoke as she lay on Gion’s lap, watching Juya handing a squirrel a nut. She poured cold water on Juya’s warmth. “But Juya, they don’t reciprocate your affection. How can you love them? Don’t you feel resentment?”

Juya frowned as the squirrel scurried away. She made an angry voice, like a four-year-old child throwing a tantrum. “Ah! I don’t care! I like them. What can I do about it!”

Watching Juya flop down on the grass, Rohwa shook her head in disapproval. “There she goes again,” she said.

Juya was the chieftain of the Phoenix tribe. With her power over the fire element, she only used her abilities for good. That would include disciplining bandits who hunted indiscriminately, warming the floors of every villager’s home for children suffering from colds, and lighting fires in caves to keep animals warm during cold days. She even used her fire to speed up the village women’s laundry drying by the riverside.

Finding a living creature in the White Flower Kingdom that hadn’t received Juya’s help would be difficult. However, those who received Juya’s help didn’t think much of her.

At first, many admired Juya, but this quickly deteriorated. Most people took Juya’s help for granted, seeking her only when in need. When Juya suffered from a fever due to overusing her abilities, no one noticed, and people only complained about her absence. Animals were no different. They feared her fire element but still took the food she offered.

While Juya never stopped helping others, Rohwa thought such behavior seemed foolish. “Juya, why don’t you pour your affection on those who will love you back? Everyone takes nonstop kindness for granted. That’s just human nature.”

Gion looked at Rohwa disapprovingly. Rohwa rolled her eyes and continued scolding Juya, saying, “Being generous can sometimes even make you a target for attacks. In the end, you’re the one who gets hurt.”

Juya understood that Rohwa didn’t want her to get hurt. She said, “Why does our rabbit-like princess talk like she’s seen the whole world?” Juya playfully pinched Rohwa’s lively cheeks and said, “It’s not just about receiving in return.”

“Huh?” Rohwa said.

Juya said, “I don’t give kindness. I give love.”

“Whatever.”

“No, really. Their smiles are my reward, and that reward motivates me to help someone else… It’s just that simple. I don’t need anything in return. Just because I give love doesn’t mean they’re obligated to love me back.”

Juya glanced at Gion, and a smile flickered on his lips.

“See,” Juya said, “Gion understands what I mean.”

Gion didn’t respond, but he knew precisely what Juya meant. He had diligently trained every moment, vowing to protect the people in any way possible. It was impossible for him not to know.

“Really, Gion? Do you understand?” Rohwa was clueless in this regard. Or maybe she was pretending to be. Gion awkwardly avoided her gaze, fearing his feelings might be exposed.

But Juya seemed to think it was time to stop teasing. She pulled off Rohwa’s hands, which were playfully clutching her sleeves, and said, “Someday, our princess will also understand how priceless unconditional love is.”

Juya’s smile shone brighter than anyone else’s. While intoxicated or sober, she radiated happiness as if she was the happiest person in the world. She declared, “There might be something better than love you’ll discover someday. But it’s not valuable enough that I’d prefer to live knowing it.”

After that day, Rohwa began to pay closer attention to her surroundings. She even attempted to mimic Juya’s actions. On rainy days, when she used to sulk, Rohwa started admiring the droplets on leaves. She used to dislike birds for their erratic fluttering, but after the rain, she found herself watching them fly in the sky for a long time.

Gion smiled at this, finding Rohwa’s appreciation of Juya endearing. He chose to remain silently by her side.

***

“Why do you do that?” asked Gion, looking down at Juya, sprawled carelessly.

Without even glancing at Gion, Juya muttered, “Do what?”

“Why did you love something that doesn’t deserve to be loved?”

Juya struggled to stand up, her body wavering and trembling, and she struggled to maintain balance. Eventually, she managed to steady herself. “There’s nothing you shouldn’t love.”

She gazed at the mountain, now a barren wasteland. There were no wildflowers, animals, or villagers that Juya used to love here, so it made it easier for her. She said, “True love originates from within, not from external objects. That’s why it’s possible to harbor love for everything in the world.”

Juya spoke excitedly. “Animals show love towards humans, and humans show affection for plants, life loves nature… No matter the recipient, if it’s bound by love, it’s all part of ‘us.’ I’ve always told you that.”

Where was she looking while speaking? The depth in Juya’s eyes was unfathomable.

She had always kept her eyes open, breathed, and responded because she had to. But there was usually no sign of life in her. Even when she met one of her comrades whom she had fought alongside a century ago, there was no emotion on her face. The person who once believed that love was the most valuable thing in life now seemed incapable of feeling any emotion.

There were no words left to say but these: comfort comes to those ready to receive it.

Pouring water on Juya, who was burning herself like a flame, would only make her burn brighter. And Gion was not about to be hypocritical. The words Gion had to say to Juya were meant to shatter her love.

“Where is the Seventh Chime?”

The White Flower Kingdom had become a stronghold for demons. Those demons oppressed the people, preventing humans from living lives fit for humans. At the top, the Chimes commanded these beings. Amidst this, one of the five guardian tribe chiefs, a human, fell in love with a demon.

Abandoning one’s responsibility to protect humanity is not only problematic but also a betrayal of all that is good in the world. The Seventh Chime and Juya would never be able to be together, despite their wishes. And surely Juya knew this. That’s probably why the one who used to give love so abundantly was now so broken. The saying that love could make a person strong implies that love could also make a person weak.

“Why are you curious about the Seventh Chime’s whereabouts?”

Juya seemed to snap out of her daze and showed emotion for the first time in response to Gion’s question. She made a slight frown, barely noticeable, but the furrow on her brow stood out starkly since she usually wore no expression.

“I’ll hide you.”

“What…?”

“I’ll tell you of a place where you two, not as a human and a demon, but as ‘us,’ can live.”

Time seemed to halt for Juya for a moment, but it indeed flowed. In her eyes, which had seemed so hollow, a flicker of hope passed, albeit briefly. It was like the sensation of rusted gears engaging and turning.

But soon, it faltered and came to a stop.

Juya grabbed Gion’s wrist. “You want to use me to kill the Seventh Chime?”

***

“Your wound has healed.”

Juya observed the large burn scar adorning the man’s arm. She quietly said, “It seems that once you become a Chime, the recovery speed is faster.”

The man, one of the Chimes, casually replied to Juya. “How long do you plan to keep drinking?”

There was silence.

“Human lifespans are short. Life ends in the blink of an eye. You should try to live a bit longer.”

Juya’s gaunt figure made the Seventh Chime frown. It had been a while since they last saw each other, but asking why he came seemed pointless. It was the kind of relationship where it wasn’t strange for him to show up. That’s how they were.

“Does it really have to be this way?”

It was an abrupt question thrown without any context, but the Seventh Chime knew precisely what Juya was asking.

“The demons in the White Flower Kingdom were mobilizing to exterminate the five guardian spirits. Only a Chime and the Demon King can control them.”

“Why did you do it?”

“If I hadn’t become a Chime, the demons would have killed even you. I had to do it to keep you alive.”

“I didn’t die, but everything I loved burned to ashes.” Juya listlessly gazed at the puddles gathered around the Seventh Chime, then fell silent.

The last time they faced each other unfolded vividly: the day a man, who was just one of the demons, suddenly became a Chime and invaded the Phoenix tribe’s mountain. The demons were devouring the tribe members while the water energy swept away the villagers Juya had been protecting from the mountain.

As Juya unleashed a massive blaze to evaporate the water, the Seventh Chime immediately retracted his energy. Leaving Juya in the burning mountain, he left with the other demons, his last silhouette disappearing.

“You know why I did it,” The Seventh Chime said, his tone implying no regret. It couldn’t have been any other way for us.”

Juya stared at the Seventh Chime, her eyes unfocused, trying not to miss even a fleeting moment by blinking.

Silence enveloped them like a thick fog. Footsteps shattered the stillness, drawing closer to the Seventh Chime. He trembled as he saw the origin of the noise in the distance. “Juya, how could you…”

Juya didn’t respond to the Seventh Chime’s words. With the White Qi flickering around his form, Gion slowly advanced—one step, then another.

“How could it be you of all people... why did it have to be you…” said the Seventh Chime to Juya in anguish.

Gion continued to approach, but the Seventh Chime’s gaze was fixed solely on Juya. Something even more pressing was at play than the menacing advance of his own death.

“Why did you abandon me?”

Was he capable of showing expressions of regret? The Seventh Chime, completely still as if not a single drop of blood would spill even if cut by a sword, asked in a desperate tone. Tears gathered in his vacant eyes, forming puddles, yet they seemed dry.

Juya, who had been unemotional until now, broke down and trembled her lips slightly as she said, “I love you.”

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