Interlude: Branch of Chaos

Chapter 1: Order Restored

Namsoyoo was permitted to review the extensive guest list for the coronation, but expressly prohibited from removing any important people. There were to be royalty and ambassadors, actors and singers, philosophers and tycoons, professors and... even the Hongmoon Hero was deemed good enough. She was glad-- after all they'd been through, she considered the Jyansei a close friend, though she doubted they felt the same way. It seemed right to have them there. Besides, Namsoyoo didn't have much surviving family, and her half-sister was an entirely different issue.

But "family" wasn't just blood, no matter how much people insisted that her lineage was the only worthwhile thing about her. She scanned the list one more time as an idea blossomed in her mind. There were people missing-- people she thought about every day but never mentioned, people from another life, people she had desperately wanted to escape for so long.

A small smile escaped her lips. "Can our pigeons reach Bamboo Village?"

Chapter 2: The Royal Treatment

Ang Hondu caught himself pacing with excitement. He forced himself to stand still and straighten his posture.

Come on, Hondu. You're the Imperator, not some dewy-eyed cadet.

Even so, he couldn't help but smile as he glanced down the newly renovated hallway outside the Imperial Quarters.

It wasn't long ago that this same corridor had filled him with nothing but apprehension. He remembered all too well the gnawing tension that would strain his stomach every time he trudged his way to yet another futile argument with the Dowager. Those were dark times. The Empire had started to fall apart and Hondu had let himself fall apart with it.

But now, the Empire was moving out of the twisted shadows of the Dowager's reign and into the dawn of a new era. The recent renovations brought new color and brightness. The very air felt lighter, and Ang Hondu could stand tall as he breathed it in. He had the soon-to-be Empress Namsoyoo to thank for that along with the person who had made all this possible, the one who had rescued her and defeated the Dowager, the champion who traveled to the Divine Realm to save their own, the fighter he had called on when all seemed lost...

 Hearing footsteps, he straightened his stature. A restless maidservant carrying a bolt of blue cloth gave Ang Hondu a slight bow as she rushed past. The Imperator laughed at himself as she walked out of sight.

Relax, Hondu. The Hongmoon Warrior will be here soon enough.

Chapter 3: Missing Pieces

Captain Dochun watched Namsoyoo as she greeted her guests. He could tell she was nervous. He had seen it before, the way she clasped her hands together, the slightly exaggerated exuberance in her laugh. Yet, despite her nerves and the weight of the occasion, she remained poised and patient as she greeted the rest of the Talus delegation. Adorned in jewels and ornate silks, she looked every bit the princess. No, not a princess, an empress. In fact, he was struck by how much she looked like her mother, Empress Namsolyn.

Thinking of Empress Namsolyn, Dochun was taken back to the words she had said to him so many years ago. She was desperate and distraught, surrounded by flames and assassins bent on taking her life, yet thinking of nothing but her daughter.

"Protect her!" the Empress had pleaded. "Keep my Soyoo safe."

 Moments later, Dochun emerged from the burning structure holding Soyoo's tiny body close to his, grateful for the cries that meant she was breathing and indifferent to the throbbing of his own wounds and burns.

"Keep my Soyoo safe."

The girl in his arms was tiny and yet she was the heaviest responsibility he'd ever carry. What seemed like a momentary request extended into years. Keeping her safe meant giving her a home and raising her as his own. Now, at last, Namsoyoo was where she was supposed to be. Now, at last, she was ready to know where she had come from.

Namsoyoo glanced across the room, and for a moment her eyes met his. She gave him a subtle smile that seemed to communicate a multitude of things at once: gratitude for his presence, guilt for past betrayals, and an uncertain hope for the future. Dochun could only smile in return. In spite of everything, the only thing he felt was love.

Chapter 4: The Coronation

Namsoyoo waited backstage. She clutched Namsolyn's pendant, careful not to crush it but also deathly afraid of letting it out of her sight. She'd been nervous for days, wide-awake for nights, and shaking every moment she was left alone. She thought of her half-sister, Yunma Fei, and wondered if she ever worried about these things or if Namsolyn had taught her the secret to keeping her composure.

Once, Namsoyoo would have welcomed the attention, the glamour, and the prestige. She had been eager to leave her backwater village and grab all the power and freedom she could; she had always been sure that she was meant for more.

But now...

Namsoyoo peeked through the slat of the backdrop, careful not to bump her hairpiece. Dochun sat with his hands in his lap, frowning to himself as his hardened eyes glistened with held-back tears. She wanted nothing more than to hold him one more time.

But he was so far now, and she had a duty to fulfill.

Chapter 5: Lights in the Night

Dodan worked foolishly, recklessly, to build his reputation. He imagined himself becoming a respected and wise leader just like his father. He fought men twice his size, infiltrated the Blackram base, and climbed the Silverfrost Mountains, all in the hope that someone would say he was a hero.

No one ever did. After Namsoyoo disappeared, he no longer sought commendation. He knew he was no hero; he couldn't even protect his sister.

Gradually, the world chilled and darkened around him. It stayed that way for a while.

But things were different now. He brought no weapons to Gunwon. He didn't need to fight anymore.

Dodan stood anonymously in the bustling crowd under the glowing lanterns, feeling the energy and the joy in the air, reminding himself that this was real. He laughed as a fire grew in his heart, practically glowing in his chest. He was determined to spread its spark.