When I got back, Grandma was stirring a pot of bubbling porridge over the fire, its scent filling the hut with a warm yet sticky scent. I wrapped my arms around her waist from behind and gave her a quick squeeze.
“Oh!” She cried out, turning around with a squint, her towel armed and ready. She lowered her weapon with a sigh of relief when she caught sight of my happy grin. “Kkachi,” Grandma admonished, shaking her finger, “Child, you startled me.”
“Sorry, Grandma,” I said, blinking innocently, “I didn’t realize.”
“Well,” She said, turning back to the pot with a slight raise of her brow, “I am much to old for frights. Or to be tackled as if I was a bear for that matter.”
I grinned mischievously. “But Grandma – think of the bright side. At least it’s only me. What if I had been a young man?”
“What of it?” Grandma asked slowly, glancing suspiciously at me over her shoulder.
I threw up my hands helplessly. “I would have been done for,” I proclaimed loudly, “I would have become so overawed by your beauty and filled with such strong emotions that I wouldn’t be able to control myself.” I took her hand and grasped it close to my heart. “One desire alone would have existed – to make you mine and whisk you away from here.”
Grandma snorted and smacked my hand with her ladle. “Such nonsense,” She huffed. But I glimpsed a hint of smile on her face as she turned back to the stew. Then, all of a sudden, she whipped right back and grabbed my face. “You’ve been fighting again child!” She exclaimed, turning my head from side to side.
“How on earth did you get such a bruise?” Grandma cried, “It practically covers your entire right cheek!”
I put my hand up to my cheek self-consciously. It did feel swelled and a bit more puffy than usual. I couldn’t help wincing a little as Grandma put a cold compress over it.
“Well?” She asked.
“I honestly can’t remember, Grandma,” I said, frowning as I tried to think. “Perhaps I tripped and fell?”
“Likely story,” Grandmother huffed irritably, “You’ve got a cut too under all this dirt. Honestly child! What am I to do with you?” She stepped away, making me hold the cloth as she went to her medicine cabinet and took down a green paste. She cleaned away all the crusty dirt and blood that had patched itself across my face, before spreading the herbal paste along the cut.
I hung my head remorsefully. “I’m sorry for causing you extra trouble, Grandma,” I murmured, keeping my gaze low as I picked at a loose string in my jacket sleeve.
“Yes, well … you’re one of a kind Kkachi,” She replied, her voice softening, “You’ll give me a heart-attack one day. If only you’d give up such disgraceful behaviour and become a proper young lady. The kind who knows how to mind her own business.”
“Tch,” The old woman clicked her tongue, “Doesn’t matter now. I just worry that one day I’ll find you lying on my doorstep and there won’t be a thing I can do to help ‘cept bury you!” She finished and lifted my chin. “How are you to get a nice young man with scrapes all over your face?” She asked.
I laughed. “That won’t happen with my scar.”
“You’d be surprised.” Grandpa said, coming into the kitchen and dropping into our conversation, “Men see pretty girls all the time. But a girl with a scar – that catches their attention.” He winked.
“That scar,” Grandma sighed with pity, lightly tracing the line of tissue that ran from my left temple and across the bridge of my nose with her fingers. “I’ve used every herb I can think of,” She muttered, “It’s not deep and all trace should have disappeared by the time you were six.”
“But I like it Grandma,” I declared urgently.
“Because it’s a part of me,” I said, pulling back my shoulders, “It’s who I am. And it makes me feel like an old veteran warrior.”
“What ever made you come to that conclusion?”
“All great warriors have scars and wounds from their battles,” I explained, eyeing Grandpa who rested against the wall, smoking his pipe with a smile. “They bear them as trophies to prove that they had lived to vanquish their enemies. I’ve been bearing my scar since I was four and I’d like to make-believe that I am the youngest warrior of them all,” I ended with a chuckle.
“Well,” Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and started putting away the paste, “That is an optimistic, if rather a man’s way, of facing one’s troubles.”
“Yes, Grandma,” I agreed, trying my best to look chastened.
“Right … now, you must go and bathe child.”
I glanced down and gave myself a once over. “I’m not that dirty,” I protested, “I can still wait for my turn tomorrow.”
“No, you will not child,” Grandma said firmly, “You must be presentable for when the Emperor comes.”
“Oh, did I not tell you?”
I shook my head vigorously.
“Oh dear.” Grandma rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes as if she felt a headache coming on. She then looked me straight in the eyes, a pained look stretched across her face. “The Emperor requests that all women of the ages sixteen to twenty be present at the market square tomorrow.”
“Why,” I asked breathlessly.
Grandma looked at Grandpa. To my surprise, her eyes had started to well up with tears. “I suspect that His Imperial Majesty is looking for something. Or someone,” She said softly.
“Who?” I asked.
Grandpa coughed. “Probably the Lost Princess,” He muttered, banging his empty pipe against the frame of the door.
Now I understood why Grandma would cry. It was heartbreaking to see the Emperor trying for so many years to find his daughter – all the while never losing hope. So many years had passed since his wife died and the princess went missing. His Majesty searched everywhere, looking all over the entire Empire, from the highest, snowy peak of the Blue mountains in Yosae to the darkest, bubbling swamp of the Noxious Forest in Baesinja.
But he never found her. Everyone believed the girl to be dead and called her the ‘Lost Princess’. Nevertheless, the Emperor kept looking for his daughter, certain that one day she would appear.
“The poor man,” Grandma sniffed, “Just last year His Majesty traveled all over the Kingdom of Yosae. He stopped in every village, town and city. Had every girl close to the Princess’ age inspected.”
I nodded my head in sympathy. “What time must I be ready,” I asked.
“You have to join the other girls in the marketplace by the afternoon,” Grandpa said.
“Great, I’ll have time to . . .” I trailed off as Grandma eyed me.
“To – what?” She prodded.
“Time to make myself presentable,” I finished lamely.
Grandma nodded, satisfied. Grandpa squinted at me, not fooled by my excuse. After breakfast, I pulled him aside.
“I have to meet with the boys tomorrow,” I whispered, “Can you cover for me ‘til I get back?”
“Are you sure you’ll be able to make it back in time,” Grandpa asked.
“Yes,” I assured him, “The boys and I just have some planning to do for our next mission. Nothing’s set in stone yet – so it will only be preliminary.”
Grandpa nodded. “Just hurry. I can’t bear the brunt of that woman’s fury as long as I used to. I’m an old man.”
“You’re as strong as an ox,” I exclaimed, slapping his arm, “You just pretend your bones ache so that Grandma won’t have you do more chores.”
“True, true,” Grandpa replied with a wink.
The day passed by calmly. No calls came demanding Grandma’s attention for a sick patient, so she was able to take some much-deserved rest. I helped her finish the mending and fix some herb adhesives for various coughs or colds.
After the supper dishes were done, we all stepped outside since it was such a fair night. We sat comfortably on the porch in silence, listening to the breeze rustling through the grass, making them bend and ripple like the waves of an ocean.
After a time, Grandpa took the pipe out of his mouth. “Wear your best clothes tomorrow,” He grunted.
“Aren’t you coming?” I asked.
“No,” Grandpa answered quietly, looking up at the dark sky, “I think it best not.”
I thought that a little strange, and looked over to Grandma hoping that she’d noticed. However, she had her mouth pressed hard in a firm line and kept her head bowed over the sock she was stitching.
Grandpa continued to behave strangely, not saying a word until it was time for me to go to bed.
“Night Grandpa,” I said about to step inside.
He grabbed my hand, pulling me back down beside him. “No matter what happens tomorrow,” Grandpa whispered seriously, “Never forget that we care for you, your Grandma and I.”
“I know,” I said, patting his wrinkly hand with a smile.
“Good.” He chucked my chin. “Remember that – and all I taught you about what makes a true warrior.”
“Honor, virtue, and loyalty,” I recited.
“That’s right.” Grandpa smiled softly and kissed my forehead. “Goodnight, my child.”
With that, I went to bed. I fell asleep dreaming about tomorrow, with Grandpa’s words echoing in my brain – ringing as sounds of farewell.