The winter that year was long and cold; the snow came down from the mountains earlier and heavier than most years, and it overstayed its welcome by more than a month. Reports of starvation came from the north, and the south worked itself to the bone making up for the deficit, planting crops as soon as the snow melted and sending any excess to help. Even more serious, to the minds of the court, was the sudden illness of the emperor, which had appeared just as suddenly as the snows, but showed no sign of thawing. The physicians were frantic, and within the machinations of the court, factions were emerging and plans were forming. Such were the troubles on the mind of Alyeong, twenty as of the last new year, illegitimate child of the Marshal of the South with a lady-in-waiting, and bodyguard to the Princess since birth, the product of being reared by the more mundane parts of the Imperial Household. To his mind, the current situation might be likened to skating on rotten ice, unaware of the pitfalls beneath one's feet. Of course, his job was to find pitfalls and steer the princess away from them. He raised a flask, plain copper unlike his father's jeweled silver, to his lips, sipping the wine absentmindedly as he leaned against the wooden screen door to the princess' apartments. It was reasonable to assume that no one would poison an insignificant attendant such as himself. No, any danger in the court generally came late at night, when even guards slept, or at larger occasions, when it was near to impossible to pinpoint the man or woman who slipped poison into a cup. The first was his current concern. Though a pretense of friendliness was still apparent, his instincts had told him that court tensions were rising. The only question he had was who would attack first. He tensed suddenly, startled back to awareness, as a sound reached his ears, the soft and unmistakable click of a sword being drawn, followed by a loud clashing of steel on steel. He dropped the flask, wine spilling everywhere-- should have chosen the black clothes instead of these green ones--, and fumbled for his sword, his mind working furiously. The fight was only about a hundred meters away from him, from a rough estimate, and as the emperor's apartments were on the other side of the palace, the attack could only be meant for one of the heirs. And one guard wasn't nearly enough to fend off multiple assassins and ensure the safety of an imperial heir. No time to think. Alyeong acted on instinct, turning to open the door to the princess' inner apartments. "Your Imperial Highness!" he hissed, speaking as loudly as he dared, sparing a moment to worry about how she would respond to seeing an unfamiliar guard holding a bared shortsword, as well as what her response would be to the impropriety. Hopefully she had already awoken. There just wasn't time for any greater delicacy; he'd estimate that it would take about a minute for assassins to arrive. "Your Imperial Highness, your life is in danger-- we need to leave now!"