131 Only in Name Pt.1

    "It looks like it's going to rain."

    Gyuri stared at Pho from across the storage house, where Pho was gazing outside the window. With the sky a melancholy grey, Gyuri couldn't help but feel unsettled. She knew she should be used to drab weather, having grown up in the UK, but something about the dark clouds didn't seem right to her.

    Their presence was like an ominous sign.

    "At last, the drought is finally over," Gyuri heard Pho say as she sauntered over to help with unpacking the basket of food. "It's a shame we might get caught in the rain," she added while setting some vegetables aside. "Maybe we should return early before the rain falls?" Pho glanced at Gyuri after a few moments had passed and she hadn't replied. "Gyuri?"

    "Hm?" Gyuri turned toward her.

    Noticing the somewhat dazed look on her friend's face, Pho queried, "Is something bothering you?"

    Gyuri shook her head. "Erm, no- no..." She fixed her gaze on her hands as she started organising the bowls.

    Pho was unconvinced. "You don't have to worry about those thugs returning," she reassured.

    Gyuri flinched at the mention of them.

    "The imperial guards," Pho continued, "they took care of them already." Pho watched Gyuri shuffle on her feet. "We're safe here," she reiterated. "So, there's no need to be anxious."

    "I- I just can't help feeling uneasy..." Gyuri eventually confessed.

    Pho observed how Gyuri refused to look up.

    "It was scary, Pho." Gyuri shuddered as she suddenly envisioned a sharp sword pointed at her. "I was lucky I didn't get hurt but Chim Chim he..." She looked up and Pho finally saw the dark shadows under her eyes. "What if more of them come back?" Her voice was small. "What if they come back and try to hurt us again?"

    "They won't," Pho confidently answered. "Not when the imperial guards are around."

    Gyuri searched the storage house but found no sign of Jimin or Zeren. Apart from a few peasants, the storage house was practically deserted.

    Pho cleared her throat. "Even if the imperial guards aren't here today, we'll be fine." She picked up one of the bowls and started filling it with broth. "And besides, you could have stayed at the household today if you weren't up for it. Madam Zhou would have understood."

    Again, Gyuri shuffled on her feet. With thoughts of Namjoon suddenly floating into her head, her cheeks burned. "I- I would've stayed if I could..." she murmured. "But I didn't want to let people down," she hastily explained. "Not when they depend on the soup kitchen for their daily meal."

    Pho hummed doubtfully as she eyed Gyuri's flushed expression. But instead of pursuing it further, she replied, "Well, there's no point in us worrying about what might or might not happen." As if on cue, the door opened, and more peasants entered the storage house. Pho gestured to them. "We have mouths to feed."

    Following Pho's lead, Gyuri readied a bowl of stew and served it to the newcomers. But while she watched her hands serve the stew, her mind wandered to the deepest part of her thoughts.

    Everything feels surreal.

    Only yesterday, she had escaped death by the skin of her teeth. If it weren't for Jimin and Zeren, Gyuri may not even be in the storage house at all.

    Chim Chim... Zeren... where are you?

    Gyuri glanced over her shoulder and out the window as if expecting the pair to make an entrance. She knew it was unlikely that they would, but part of her wished that they did. After all, ever since they had rescued her from the burly man, they had been coming to the soup kitchen almost every day. And after weeks of being by her side, Gyuri had gotten used to their presence. Not having to deal with Zeren's flirtatious advances or hearing Jimin's curt responses almost felt foreign to her- it was like a part of her was missing.

    "Do not ever scare me like that again."

    A pang of guilt overwhelmed Gyuri as she suddenly recalled Jimin's words. His bruised face peppered with cuts were painful to look at. Blotches of red stained his turquoise uniform like flicks from a paintbrush. And knowing that it was her who was the reason for his injuries made the knots in her stomach constrict.

    It's my fault.

    "Little Madam?"

    Hearing someone address her, Gyuri looked up and found a peasant waiting.

    "Sorry," she mumbled, before serving him his portion.

    Uneventfully, the hours spent at the storage house passed by, and Gyuri soon realised that Pho was right: even without Jimin and Zeren, things would be fine. In fact, it almost unsettled her how everything seemed to go on as normal as if the previous day hadn't happened at all. If it weren't for the bruise she found on her neck, Gyuri may have deceived herself into thinking that yesterday was all a dream.

    "There weren't many people again today," Pho observed as she cradled the pot of scraps.

    Gyuri let out a sound of acknowledgement as she locked the door behind them. Having little else left to do, the pair had decided to pack up early.

    "I guess it's a good thing," Gyuri replied with her back turned. "We might be able to make it before it starts pouring down with rain-" She suddenly froze upon spotting the pot of scraps. Her voice was edgy. "Are you... going past the dumping ground?"

    "Well, yes, of course," Pho answered, unaware of Gyuri's worries. "I have to throw these away before we-" Pho stopped when she noticed Gyuri's expression. "Oh. Would you rather not go?"

    "N-no," Gyuri bravely replied. "It's okay. I'll- I'll go with you."

    "Are you sure?" Pho stared at Gyuri sceptically and noticed how her hands were quivering. "You don't have to."

    Gyuri forced herself to smile. "I- I think I'll be fine."

    With a slight shrug, Pho marched ahead as Gyuri trailed slowly behind. Gyuri had hoped that Pho would be more insistent on her not coming but Pho hardly ever contested Gyuri's words. After all, Gyuri hardly ever showed her vulnerable side to anyone. She knew it wasn't Pho's fault that she couldn't see through Gyuri's brave pretence. Ever since she arrived at Saim, Gyuri had been concealing her feelings, unknowingly mastering the art of deception. It was times like these she wished her dad and brother had encouraged her to be more open with her emotions.

    Begrudgingly, Gyuri stared down at her feet. I want to go back home...

    As the pair continued ambling down the dirt path, the anxiety that churned in Gyuri's stomach grew stronger. Cold sweat collected on her palms, making them clammy, while her heart drummed against her chest.

    She took a deep breath.

    With each building they passed by, memories of her dreaded encounter with the burly men resurfaced. Their wicked smiles and pungent scent were ingrained in her mind while the bruise on her neck suddenly tingled at the memory of having nearly been strangled.

    Gyuri placed her hand at the base of her throat as her breathing shallowed.

    Despite knowing that there was nothing there, her airways tightened as if she was still trapped within the beefy man's grasp. All too vividly, she remembered the choking sensation and how she almost saw stars because of the lack of oxygen. His repulsive scent: a mixture of alcohol and body odour, attacked her nostrils almost making her gag.

    Gyuri trained her eyes on Pho's back so as not to suddenly black out. She reached out to her.

    "Heavens be damned!" The lass jumped as Gyuri suddenly grabbed onto her shoulder. "You scared me, Gyuri!"

    "Sorry," Gyuri panted as she tried to regain her balance.

    Pho sighed as she picked up the bones that she had accidentally dropped. When she faced Gyuri again, she frowned. "Are you sure you're alright?" She took a step closer. "You're very pale."

    Gyuri grinned wryly. "I'll take that as a compliment."

    "Seriously, Gyuri," Pho's tone was firm. "You need to tell me if you're not feeling well." She glanced around the floor to see if she had missed any bones. "With the plague at large, the last thing I want to learn is one of my friends suddenly falling victim to it."

    "You don't have to worry," Gyuri reassured, her strength finally returning. "I'm fine... I- I just want to return as soon as possible." Gyuri caught a glimpse of the stone trough and she involuntarily shuddered. They were almost where she and Jimin were attacked.

    "Are you definitely sure?"

    "...Yes," Gyuri hesitantly responded. But just as Pho was about to continue walking, she blurted, "But..."

    Pho turned around again.

    "...there is something I wanna ask you."

    Pho nodded to show that she was listening.

    With reluctance making her voice seem small, Gyuri asked, "How do you- how do you cope with it all?"

    Pho was befuddled. "Cope with what?"

    "Living here."

    "I don't understand, Gyuri. What do you mean?"

    "This place," Gyuri explained, her eyes fixated on her feet. "So many things can happen here." She looked up and Pho saw the weariness in her eyes. "At first I thought things were okay. I thought I could learn to live here- I had no choice- but I just..." Her voice cracked. "I just can't. It's just so... so different."

    Pho approached Gyuri as her profile started to tremble. "Gyuri, what are you talking about?"

    "Everywhere we go, I can't help but feel that we're always in danger. We're always on edge. As soon as one thing is resolved, another problem comes our way." Gyuri whispered, "How do you deal with it...?"

    Pho lowered her voice. "Deal with what?" She stared at her friend, confused as to what she was hinting at. "Tell me, Gyuri."

    Gyuri averted her gaze as she murmured, "...Death."

    Pho was quiet for a moment.

    Gyuri dared to look up and found that Pho's eyes had dulled with resignation.

    Eventually, the lass mumbled, "You just do."

    Her answer surprised Gyuri. "Huh?"

    "Look around you." Pho gestured to the streets. "People die all the time."

    Gyuri glanced to where Pho was pointing at and witnessed many homeless people squatting. Some appeared to be asleep, but their bodies were very still.

    "No matter what we do, we cannot escape it," Pho spoke solemnly. "Death can come in the form of disease, old age or even man." She eyed Gyuri. "We can try our best to avoid it but one day, it will come to claim us. So, why be afraid of the inevitable?"

    Gyuri tightened her grip on the basket she was carrying. "Because this way of life- it isn't normal."

    Pho was confused. "How isn't it?"

    Gyuri blinked and eventually realised her mistake. "No... nothing, ignore what I said."

    "I understand that you may be overwhelmed with what happened to you yesterday," Pho said softly. "But you and I, we're one of the fortunate ones." She directed her attention towards a peasant who was begging for alms as a wealthy merchant passed by. "We have clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads and a meal waiting for us when we return."

    "But don't you just get tired of it all?"

    Pho turned to face her again. "Of course, I do."

    "Then, why don't you just run away?" Gyuri asked. "Why do you choose to stay here?"

    Pho scoffed. "Where would I go?" She met eyes with her friend. "Without this position, I'm just a peasant girl."

    "You could just go somewhere better-where it's safer- where you'll be free."

    Pho laughed causing Gyuri to frown. "There's no place like that in Saim. If you're a peasant, you will always remain so wherever you go."

    "But what if you're wrong? What if there is a better place out there?"

    Pho pursed her lip. "Gyuri, why are you thinking about these things?"

    "Because I don't know how anyone can live like this!" Unable to contain it any longer, tears sprang from her eyes, surprising Pho. Gyuri sniffled, dropping her basket as she hastily covered her face. "I'm just so tired of it all, Pho... I'm just so tired..."

    Growing up in London, Subin had never been exposed to the true harshness of life. While she didn't live in the wealthiest part of the city, she had always had everything she ever needed. She had a doting father, a supportive brother and dependable friends. But being in Saim alone had taken a toll on her both physically and mentally. She was surrounded by unfamiliarity. Death and disease lurked in every corner and at the tender age of fifteen, nothing in her life prepared her for the situations she found herself in. There was just too much suffering. Suffering that, even if she wanted, she couldn't turn a blind eye to.

    How could anyone ever live like this without losing their sanity?

    "Gyuri..." Pho reached out to comfort her but before she could, Gyuri suddenly swatted her hand away. Startled by her reaction, Pho recoiled backwards.

    "I- I'm sorry," Gyuri stuttered. She took a step back, too stunned by her own actions. "I-I'm sorry-I- I have to go-"

    Without a moment longer, Gyuri turned tail and ran in the opposite direction. She needed to escape. She ran as fast as she could, the desire to leave Saim growing stronger with every step.

    "Gyuri!" Pho shouted after her. "Gyuri! Where are you going?"

    But alas, Gyuri didn't hear her. For while Pho continued to shout, Gyuri kept her sights fixated on the long dirt road ahead.

    There was no turning back now.
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