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For the Downfall of My Beloved

2

Chapter 2

1

Twelve years ago unfolded like any other day, marked by the simplicity of routine.

It began with the cheerful sounds of a younger sibling at play in the yard, the warmth of a greeting exchanged with tender-hearted parents and was to conclude with a session of martial arts practice after breakfast, followed by a midday snooze.

However, the day took an unexpected turn when Gion received a summons to White Dragon Castle, instigated by the king’s decree.

“Seeing only the children of military officials gathered here… is the rumor true? Is that why I’m here?”

Young warriors gathered in front of White Hall in White Dragon Castle, buzzing with conversation.

Today was the celebration of Princess Rohwa’s fourteenth year.

When the king inquired about her desired gift, Rohwa promptly expressed her wish for a personal guard. She would handpick a guardian who would valiantly risk his life for her protection and comfort.

The most important quality of the guard was his age—it had to be her own.

Thus, the king summoned all the children of military officials in the White Flower Kingdom.

A young warrior asked another, “Being the Princess’s guard would bring glory to our family, wouldn’t it?”

The other warrior said, “But doesn’t the Princess already have excellent warriors for protection? Why us?”

“Whatever the reason we’re here, this is an opportunity for us! It’s a rare chance for a warrior to rise to increase their ranking. Plus, we would get the chance to see the beautiful Princess every day.”

“Stop it. We all know who is going to be chosen.”

The eager young warriors turned their gaze. A boy stood in silence, his hand tightly gripping the sheath of his sword.

“What are you looking at?” Gion said, frowning. The young warriors nervously looked away at the gravitas of the boy’s speech.

“Gion?” a warrior asked. “Why such a grim face on this good day… Among the young warriors of the White Flower Kingdom, you’re the strongest. Obviously, you’ll be chosen to be the Princess’s guard.”

“I didn’t dedicate myself to martial arts to become some pampered princess’s lackey guard.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the Princess already has excellent warriors for protection. So why pick someone who’s young?”

To Gion, the decree sounded like a request for a playmate to cure the Princess’s boredom.

Another warrior paled as he protested their circumstances, trying to silence Gion. “Keep quiet!” the warrior whispered.

White Hall fell suddenly silent. The captain of the guards said to the warriors, “You’ve all worked hard coming to White Dragon Castle.”

The girl’s mere presence at White Hall’s entrance commanded the entirety of the atmosphere. The warriors, taken by her aura, momentarily lost themselves, and Gion was no exception.

She is indeed the most beautiful in the world.

Princess Rohwa, though small in stature, appeared magnificently noble. Her youthful face, not yet rid of baby fat, was so exquisitely featured that her fine silk clothes and ornate accessories seemed insignificant. Her blue eyes and white hair, glimmering in the light of the hall, were only enhanced by her already stunning appearance.

The young warriors, momentarily forgetting Gion’s earlier words, were visibly smitten, their faces flushed and expressions dazed. Amidst them, Gion was the only one looking at the princess with indifference, his arms folded on his chest. He stared at her with a cold gaze. By appearing not to care, he convinced himself that he would not be chosen.

The king had raised Rohwa like a flower in a greenhouse. Not a drop of rain nor a gust of cold wind had ever touched her.

The people also called the Princess ‘The Lady of Spring,’ a figure to be protected. She was loved by all, and she would surely not choose a guardian who bore the slightest semblance of resentment towards her.

Rohwa scanned the warriors and locked eyes with Gion.

Gion scowled. What?

A smile spread across Rohwa’s previously expressionless face. “I like that boy.”

Rohwa’s finger pointed at Gion.

From that moment forward, Gion’s life was unrecognizable compared to what it had been before.

***

“Do you really dislike me that much?” Rohwa, sitting by the pond, looked up at Gion standing behind her. Gone was the demeanor she displayed in the White Hall. When alone with Gion, Rohwa’s manner of speaking was like that of an ordinary child.

Gion replied with an expressionless face. “Yes. And more.”

His circumstances were humiliating. A warrior should dedicate all his time to martial arts, not wasting it like this. Fifteen days had passed, and Gion could sense the diminishing effectiveness of his covert dawn training sessions. The rigor and challenge he experienced sparring with his father were irreplaceable. With the lack of practice, he could feel his muscles tensing, growing unaccustomed to the lack of combat. He clenched his fists tightly.

“…Pfft.”

Gion glared at Rohwa as she let out a small laugh.

Before, she was trying hard to suppress her chuckling, her lips tightly pursed.

“Oh, sorry. I’m just happy.”

What could she be happy about? Was she happy that a young man who fancied himself a warrior openly disliked a princess of the nation?

Princess Rohwa was two years older than Gion, the same age as his older sibling. While Gion could easily read his sibling’s thoughts, Rohwa was different. Every word she spoke was incomprehensible.

Gion said, “You look pleased. Do you want to scold me?”

“You wish to be scolded?”

“I was prepared for it when I spoke.”

Rohwa laughed at Gion, the silly boy he was.

Gion just stared blankly at the pond, defeated. Asking more questions would only lead to more from Rohwa. She had a knack for steering conversations into playful banter.

“You don’t have to stay by my side all day. There are other guards besides you.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. You can also use the training grounds in White Dragon Castle whenever you want. If you need a sword, just ask. If your uniform tears, tell me. Oh, and if you get injured, I’ll call a physician. So don’t secretly train at dawn. It’s dangerous.”

She had accurately read Gion’s thoughts, even how he lived his life. And yet…

“You appointed me as your guard, yet you suggest I need not act like a guard?”

Gion always felt like he was dancing in Rohwa’s palm. What sin had he committed to deserve this fate? Young Gion felt defiance rising within him. Or youthful audacity.

“Since everyone in White Flower Kingdom loves you, my dislike must intrigue you.”

Gion raised his voice. “You don’t need a guard, yet you brought me here. Do you need a conversation partner whenever you’re bored?”

The words carried an edge, hinting at a person harboring a streak of meanness.

“Why do you never answer my questions? As the future ruler of White Flower Kingdom, shouldn’t you listen to the people’s concerns?”

His words painted the image of a person steeped in pride and self-regard.

Rohwa’s blue eyes flickered momentarily like a stirring wave on a tranquil pond.

Rohwa stood up. “Gion.”

Gion simply stared at her.

Who had called this princess ‘The Lady of Spring,’ a figure needing protection?

The princess had a gaze that alone could devour a person.

“Do you think you are someone important?”

A subtle tension crept into Rohwa’s posture, signaling that she was on the verge of finally reprimanding Gion. But Gion had no regrets. He could endure being slapped or verbally abused, but he couldn’t endure unfairness.

Gion bowed his head, ready to be struck. But instead of the expected impact, a tiny warmth settled on his head.

It was Rohwa’s hand.

“That’s right.”

She smiled gently, responding to his earlier question. Gion, puzzled, simply blinked in confusion.

“You are important. That’s why I chose you to stay by my side among all those young warriors.”

“What do you mean?”

“Among the blushing young fighters, you were the one who dared to look at me sternly.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You saw not just a beautiful princess but one spoiled by luxury. Then, perhaps, you might see something deeper?”

Gion couldn’t fully grasp her words. He was bewildered, seeing a vulnerable girl speak. Rohwa, adopting her playful demeanor once again, tousled Gion’s hair.

“Oh? It’s softer than I thought.”

Gion’s face flushed red amid his tangled emotions. “What are you doing!”

Rohwa burst into laughter. Cunning and unnervingly astute, she possessed an uncanny ability to disrupt Gion’s solemness

Rohwa’s laughter finally ebbed, and she regained her composure. “What you said was all wrong.”

What could possibly be wrong?

Everyone in the White Flower Kingdom loved Rohwa. She was destined to inherit the scepter.

Indeed, she hadn’t responded to his questions and had merely indulged in idle conversation. His accusations held merit.

Gion harbored a multitude of questions yet found himself unable to press on. Though Rohwa wore a smile, a faint tremor betrayed her eyes. It was only a brief moment, but he caught it.

“Do as you wish. If the role of a guard doesn’t suit you, feel no obligation, nor is there a necessity to accompany me. However—” Rohwa faced Gion. “Call me Rohwa. That’s what you need to do.”

A guard addressing a princess by her first name was unthinkable. If the king knew this, it could spell doom for Gion and his family.

“Better you strike me down than for me to listen to your demands.”

“Do as you please. Oh, and you must still train hard. You’re my guard, after all. I know you will without me saying, but still.”

Rohwa sat on the edge of the pond, creating ripples with her fingertips.

“You’ll do all I ask, right? I have already obtained permission from my father to employ you.”

“It’s an order from your princess.”

It was a voice Gion had never heard before. It sounded like a command, yet it felt like a plea or a humble request. Faced with this, Gion could only muster one response.

“…Understood.”

“Rohwa.”

“Understood, Rohwa.”

“Yes!”

Rohwa’s eyes sparkled as usual, vibrant and unspoiled.

Gion couldn’t understand why, but it was difficult to look into Rohwa’s beautiful eyes, the ones everyone yearned to have focused on their face. The spot where her hand had touched his head felt tingly, and his heart raced, whether from anger or something milder.

They sat by the pond for a long while. Gion’s gaze mirrored the gentle ripples on the water’s surface—subtle yet unmistakably troubled. As moments passed, understanding dawned upon him, reflected in the steadying of his breath and the softening of his features.

***

“Lord Gion! Quickly, this way…!”

Urged by the pale-faced maid, Gion hastened towards where Rohwa was. He learned a few things in his six years at White Dragon Castle. Firstly, contrary to his initial thoughts, Rohwa was transparent, innocent, and had a fragile side.

“Rohwa!”

Gion opened the door to see Rohwa teetering on a windowsill, a sharp dagger at her throat.

The king and queen helplessly watched. But Rohwa didn’t even glance at them but commanded Gion. “Gion. Tell them you won’t go.”

Secondly, Rohwa, or The Lady of Spring, was far more intelligent than anyone expected.

“How can a general refuse to go to battle?” Gion asked.

“That battlefield is next to the Valley of Snow in Biryu, isn’t it?” Rohwa yelled out. Gion knew what that meant.

The survival odds were slim for anyone returning alive from the Valley of Snow, infested with night demons, and Biryu, a mountainous border region under invasion from Japanese forces.

When Gion remained silent, Rohwa glared with wide eyes and turned her head towards the king. “Father! If you intend to take Gion away from me, then prepare for my funeral!”

“How dare you say such things to your father!” the king said.

“If you have no intention of passing on the throne of White Flower Kingdom to me, then my existence is meaningless, isn’t it?”

The king looked dazed, as if he had been struck on the head. He hadn’t expected Rohwa to know that much. Shivering with anger, the king started to speak, but Gion intervened, unable to watch anymore.

“Don’t speak harshly to the king. You’ll regret it.”

Rohwa was unable to speak, her mouth gaping and her eyes vacant.

“Princess, there are many who will protect you besides me.”

“I told you to call me Rohwa!”

The third fact that Gion learned: everyone loved Rohwa, but she was the one most starved for affection. Nobody truly saw her for who she was–not as a pretty daughter or a beautiful princess, but as Rohwa herself. She often acted out because of this unstable affection. And sometimes, Rohwa’s feelings were hurt too.

When Gion first realized this, the words he had once spat out at Rohwa by the pond came back to haunt him. He regretted it, so he lingered around her more. Understanding the reason for her defiance made him feel sorry for Rohwa. Sometimes, he wanted to see her childlike, guileless grin more often, and his heart sank whenever she showed that smile to him.

And so, he suffered for a full six years.

“Gion, I told you to refuse to leave.”

A few strands of Rohwa’s ethereal white hair, gently swaying on her nape, were severed by a sharp dagger and drifted to the ground.

Gion’s features twisted with anguish. “Rohwa? Doing this won’t stop me from going to the battlefield. Don’t act like a child.”

Biting words escaped him. He understood her desperation to resort to such measures. Still, her disregard for her own well-being ignited a fury within him. Yet, his anger was fleeting, eclipsed by Rohwa’s sudden sobs.

“Why are you so cruel?”

Tears welled up in her blue eyes. Seeing this, Gion’s lips quivered. It was his turn to regret his harsh words. Slowly, he approached Rohwa.

“I will return alive. I can do it.” Rohwa stood silently. Gion could hear her breathing slow and deepen, punctuated by an occasional sniffle.

“Have I ever broken a promise I made to you?”

Rohwa shook her head gently. Gion, renowned as the most formidable general of the White Flower Kingdom, was said to rival even the chief of the five guardian spirits that safeguarded the White Dragon. Moreover, he was a man of his word, never committing to promises he couldn’t fulfill. Extending his hand towards Rohwa, he spoke softly.

“Calm down. And give me that damned dagger, too.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Rohwa surrendered the knife and accepted his hand. Her eyes remained glistening with tears. Gion knelt, his gaze lifted to meet hers.

“Forgive me.”

“I won’t.”

Even as she said that Rohwa stroked Gion’s hair, she knew too well. Gion would have gone to the battlefield even without the king’s command but for the glory of the White Flower Kingdom. For its people and the royal family, who should enjoy that glory. And for her. No matter how much she struggled, she knew he would not change his mind this time.

“Come back alive,” she said.

And Rohwa’s words remained as a promise, saving Gion numerous times on the battlefield.

***

The war, thought to last only two years, finally ended after five years. For another year, Gion was in the Valley of Snow, a place abandoned by the king. It was a miserable six years, a stark contrast to his time in White Dragon Castle.

“You… came back… you’re alive…”

Every moment of the war, Gion had imagined how he would face Rohwa upon his return. Would she cry like the time she held a dagger to her throat? Would she smile brightly? Maybe she would command him to bow his head and then stroke his hair. There were many scenarios, but one thing was certain.

“I came back because you told me to.”

He had never wished for a moment like this. After fighting for five years and wandering for another, Gion and Rohwa finally faced each other after six years.

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