138 A Little Maid Pt.1

    The first thing that Gyuri noticed was that the days were becoming cooler.

    Ever since the rain had fallen a week ago, something in the air had changed. The dry, auburn grass had started to flourish in rich greens and the breeze that passed by was slowly dropping in temperature. Were the seasons changing? Gyuri wasn't sure. Either autumn was coming, or she was starting to feel the beginnings of a cold.

    A shiver ran down Gyuri's spine as she finished hanging the sheets.

    Hoisting the wicker basket to her hip, she noticed that the jade ring had fallen out of its hiding place. Threaded through a piece of string and hung around her neck, Gyuri inspected it closely as if she was seeing the ring for the first time. With sunlight filtering through the clouds, the jade's deep hues caught the light brilliantly. Her smile was small as she fiddled with it between her thumb and forefinger.

    "This ring will bring you back to your roots. It will bring you back to where you belong."

    Gyuri clenched her fist around it. "But how?" she sighed. "How will it bring me back home?"

    Over the past week, Gyuri had tried to figure out how the ring was related to the time-slip. Even though she had it in her possession, she still couldn't understand what she needed to do to return home. She had worn it, tapped her heels together like Dorothy from 'The Wizard of Oz' and even chanted the magic words, but like her other attempts, nothing happened. It felt like she had taken one step forward only to take three steps back.

    "Ye do not need to understand everything right now. Just trust that there is always a reason why things have turned out the way they have."

    Gyuri frowned as the old woman's words echoed in her mind. While the intricacies of the time-slip had baffled her, the mystery surrounding the ring eluded her more.

    "Who was that old woman?" she murmured to herself. "And why did she have grandma's ring?"

    With her brows knitted together, Gyuri attempted to conjure an image of the elder's face. There were only a few details Gyuri could recall with clarity. The elder's silver hair and singed clothing remained engraved in her mind but the most puzzling detail of all was the obscure flower tattoo that she spotted on the old woman's wrist. She bit her lip as she recalled a similar design branded on someone else.

    "There's no way a kind old lady like her can be an assassin..." Gyuri muttered to herself, but part of her couldn't help but worry.

    What if the old woman was related to the scruffy servant from the attack?

    Gyuri let out a tired sigh as she focused her attention on returning to the maids' quarters.

    The more Gyuri tried to uncover, the more confused she became. With each passing day, her list of questions grew alongside her unshakeable anxiety. All she knew for sure was that the ring was somehow related to her sudden appearance in Saim.

    And... something else.

    Gyuri stopped in her tracks as she ran her finger along the inscription that was engraved inside the ring. The characters were too complicated for her to decipher, but its uncanny resemblance to a certain someone's own jewel gave her some cause to remain hopeful.

    "I need to see Chim Chim," Gyuri spoke resolutely, "he might know something about the ring." She eyed the inscription once more. "And what this says."

    Gyuri stowed the ring safely back inside her robe and pressed her hand against it. There was something about having the jade close to her bosom that comforted her like the warm hearth of a fire. Not only was it a reminder of home, but also her lucky charm; a symbol of hope that one day, she would meet her family again.

    Wait for me, Dad, Yoongi.

    No matter what it would take, Gyuri was determined to return.

    With a tenacious gait, Gyuri continued toward the maids' quarters, her mind already thinking of other ideas she could try regarding the ring. While crossing the main courtyard the sound of shifting gravel suddenly caught her attention. Gyuri halted.

    That's weird, I don't remember seeing anyone come in here.

    Made curious by the noise, Gyuri crept over to a hidden part of the household where the sound was loudest. She peeped behind the wall.

    Clad in worn, dark clothes and armed with a sword in each hand, an unfamiliar man moved fluidly across the yard. He glided from one position to the next without hesitation; sabres swinging with such speed and synchronicity that it almost looked like they were an extension of his arms rather than separate entities.

    Gyuri watched in amazement as the stranger moved elegantly, his loose robes trailing after him like a dark train. Like a seasoned dancer, the stranger leaped from one position to the next, his obsidian eyes focused and his expression unreadable as if he was lost in a world of his own. As he lunged and sliced at his invisible opponent, Gyuri chased after his profile, oddly mesmerised by the incongruency of his movements.

    How could one execute such lethal and yet graceful strikes with such ease?

    It was only when she managed to get a good look at his face did she realise the stranger was, in fact, someone she was already acquainted with: it was Seokjin- the elusive Kim brother.

    A loud clatter rang through the air. Gyuri gasped at the abrupt noise. Enthralled, she had momentarily forgotten about the laundry basket in her hands and accidentally dropped it.

    "Who's there?"

    Gyuri immediately ducked her head, a string of curses parting her lips as she hurriedly picked up the fallen object. But before she could make a run for it, the sound of nimble footsteps was already fast approaching.

    "Oh," she heard Seokjin say in a flat voice, "it's you."

    Gyuri slowly glanced up and saw Seokjin with his brow arched.

    "You're the wench from before."

    A nervous chuckle escaped Gyuri's lips as she hastily stood up. "Greetings, Master Seokjin."

    The dark-clothed man observed as Gyuri refused to meet his eye. He let out a curt laugh. "Master, huh?"

    Gyuri dared to peer at his direction and saw that his expression was solemn. Up close, she noticed Seokjin's unkempt appearance, leading her to conclude that the eccentric man was still sleeping outdoors. With a leaf stuck in his wild, raven hair and his jawline sporting a full beard, Seokjin hardly resembled an aristocrat at all. Unlike the other Kims, he neither spoke eloquently nor did he dress in illustrious silk robes. In fact, Gyuri almost mistook him for a merchant because of his manner of speech and simple attire.

    "What're you doing here?" Seokjin asked, frowning slightly. He glanced around as if to confirm she was alone. "Were you following me?"

    Over the past week, the elusive Kim brother had been the topic of conversation for the maids. He inspired both fear and curiosity; a previously exiled Kim whose past remained unspoken like a dark fable. However, despite the notorious rumours that surrounded Seokjin, many of the maids were still keen to be his personal maid. After all, he still belonged to one of the most powerful families in Saim.

    "No, Master Seokjin. I was doing the laundry."

    Seokjin eyed her dubiously.

    After the cremation of Lord Hyesung, Seokjin had witnessed the spotlight shift to his direction. Having lived a decade away from the household, he was unaccustomed to a luxurious way of life: how easy it was to request for someone to do his bidding; how everything he desired just fell onto his lap. He no longer had to starve, no longer had to worry about being ambushed, and no longer had to feel powerless. It was laughable how his strength as a man paled in comparison to the weight his family name bore. But in exchange for the privileges his name brought was the constant limelight, something he did not enjoy despite his contradictory behaviour.

    It was exhausting, maintaining his guard.

    In the last few days, Seokjin had contemplated whether life in exile was any different from the household. While his banishment was full of perils, it was simple- he was free. In contrast, life in the household was complex. Everything he did was subject to scrutiny, every word he uttered, every step he took- everything he did was observed with a watchful eye. He could not so much as move without having calculated the implications of his actions moments before executing them.

    Seokjin quickly learned that life as an aristocrat offered a different type of challenge, one that threatened to break his independence, the very core of his personality. If he succumbed, it would shape him into someone he didn't want to be: a puppet under the Kim household.

    "As much as I'm flattered by your interest in serving me," Seokjin uttered with forced politeness, "I'm afraid I must decline."

    Gyuri watched as Seokjin sheathed his dual swords before running a hand through his damp fringe. While doing so, Gyuri caught a glimpse of his left ear- it was pierced- something she found unusual given none of the male aristocrats she had come across wore earrings. An involuntary grunt escaped Gyuri's lips taking Seokjin aback.

    "Well, that's a relief," she replied without thinking, "because there's no way I'd want to serve you."

    A long pause ensued as Seokjin watched Gyuri's eyes grow wide in mortification.

    "Oh?" Seokjin hummed amusedly as he cocked his head to one side. "You don't wish to serve me?"

    "I- I-" Gyuri surveyed her surroundings as if searching for inspiration. "I'm sorry, I- I didn't mean it like that-"


    Gyuri looked up and found Seokjin grinning at her.

    "You're the first of the maids to say something so impudent to my face."

    Gyuri rubbed her neck nervously. "I didn't mean to offend you, Master-"

    "No worries," Seokjin interrupted with a tight-lipped smile. "It's not your fault that your eyes are defective."


    Noticing her bafflement, Seokjin elaborated, "Not only did you injure my leg through your carelessness, but it appears that you're also blind to the handsomeness before you." He gestured to himself. "So many of the maids in this household have already fallen for my charm. Some have practically begged to be my personal maid. Your disinterest in me must be because you're blind." He scoffed. "It all makes sense now."

    Irked by his arrogance, Gyuri laughed dryly. "I'm not blind." Her brows knitted together as she retorted, "And it wasn't my fault you hurt your leg. You weren't looking at where you were going."

    "Still insisting that, are we?" Seokjin's tone was playful. "You were fortunate that nothing happened to my face. If so, I wouldn't have let you off so easily."

    "Even if something had," Gyuri rebuked, "it's not like it would have changed anything." Before she could stop herself, she added bitingly, "You're not as attractive as you think."

    A look of surprise crossed Seokjin's features. "A maid that is blind and sharp-tongued." Gyuri blushed as she realised her mistake... again. "How refreshing."

    "I'm sorry!" Gyuri hastily apologised while internally berating herself. "I swear it won't happen-"

    "Well, it seems this household has taken in a feisty cat."

    Seokjin's eyes twinkled with mischief as he leaned in, catching Gyuri by surprise. He was so close to her that she could feel his warm breath on her face. Gyuri tried her best not to stare at his lips but without warning, he suddenly tilted her chin up, forcing her to meet his stare.

    "I just hope this cat doesn't end up biting the hand that feeds her."

    With lips curled into an impish smile, Seokjin watched as Gyuri grew flustered by his touch. The way her cheeks bloomed into a rosy shade disappointed him, but he didn't let it show. What was I expecting? He thought. In the end, all women are the same. He was about to tease her further when suddenly, Gyuri backhanded Seokjin's arm away causing the man to recoil. He blinked.

    "Don't touch me."
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