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Ever since she was a little girl, Go Ha Jin had been regaled with tales of soulmates. Her parents had found each other in university, reaching for the same book in the library. Their hands brushed together, and they immediately separated as if electrocuted. Pictures emerged on their skin then, a rose blooming along the back of her father’s hand and a nightingale taking flight along her mother’s knuckles.

Ha Jin remembers tracing their marks over and over, begging them to tell her the story of how they met every night before she went to sleep. They would laugh and indulge her, time and again, the romantic in her flourishing under a household full of love and affection.

“When will I find my soulmate?”

“When the time comes, sweetheart. Trust in fate.”

Ha Jin holds those words to close her heart as the years come and go, watching as those around her discover their other halves, trying so hard to be patient.  

She wants to meet the one person in the entire world, just for her.

But in a world populated by soulmates, there’s always that edge of anticipation when coming across someone new, only to be disappointed when there are no fireworks, no change on skin. It’s hard to deal with the hope and heartbreak every time a potential partner turns out to be… not.

Ha Jin believes in soulmates. But the more time passes, the more she thinks she won’t ever find hers.

Why did this happen?

Ha Jin huddles on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest, and takes in the unfamiliar surroundings.

Instead of her scattered make-up collection and magazine piles, there are hand-painted chests and thickly-bound books. Gone are the photographs of lush scenery, replaced with hanging scrolls of calligraphy she can’t read. The doors have paper screens and the bed she’s sitting against is low to the ground with an intricately carved wooden frame.

The young woman who had shown her an escape route from the bathing pool said this was her room.

None of this is mine.

Everything is strange and new – old, she corrects dimly. She remembers how she ran out into the courtyard earlier to find buildings made of wooden beams and stone instead of steel and glass. How the people were dressed in hanboks instead of pants or skirts. Some even bowed to her. The two frantic women who had followed her kept calling her by a name she didn’t know.

Hae Soo.

There’s movement out of the corner of her eye. She starts, turning swiftly, only to lock gazes with her reflection in the small rounded mirror. She looks younger, skin clearer, hair black with no traces of the auburn dye she had grown fond of in recent months.

This isn’t my body.

The person staring back is her and yet not. Years have melted away.

Did I… did my soul… travel back in time?

As impossible as it seems, she can think of no other explanation for what happened to her.

Is fate punishing me?

Back home, Ha Jin had finally given someone else a chance. He was nice, charming even, and she enjoyed spending time with him. She could see herself falling for him.

Turned out her best friend felt the same way. Ha Jin could maybe forgive them if they had been soulmates, but no. There was simply an attraction they acted on, choosing to go behind her back. If that wasn’t enough, he had embroiled her name in a scheme, cheated her out of her home, and sent creditors chasing after her.

I should’ve waited.

Ha Jin had pushed away her doubts, her fear of being alone outweighing her reservations about taking a chance. Back then, she had a sinking feeling she would be one of the few who would never find their soulmate. She had wanted to experience love and romance, the side of life she had only glimpsed through books and TV.

Now I might never find him.

How is she to find her soulmate now, in an era a thousand years in the past?

Tears well up in her eyes, her emotions spiraling further downward at the hopeless thought.

There’s a commotion outside the doors, hushed voices talking with concerned tones. Scared, Ha Jin wipes her face and makes herself as small as possible when the door is forced open.

“Hae Soo.”

I’m not Hae Soo!

She feels like screaming, but the man’s expression is soft and unassuming. Her defenses wane. When he extends a hand to her, an irrational hope flickers alive in her chest.

Could he be…?

Ha Jin holds her breath as she reaches out.

Nothing happens.

Ha Jin finds out soon after that the kind man is Wang Wook, husband and soulmate to the equally kind woman named Myung.

She feels foolish and more than a little embarrassed.

Am I so desperate that I would wish for the first man I see to be my soulmate?

Myung tells her in gentle tones that she is her cousin, that she – Hae Soo, not me – came to live with her once she married, to be her companion. Ha Jin learns that, while part of the prestigious Hae clan, she has no immediate family. Her parents died and she is their only child.

She doesn’t remember them, of course she doesn’t, but the thought of Hae Soo’s parents reminds her of her own. She tries to curb the loneliness that returns tenfold, nodding mutely when Myung asks her if she’s alright.

Later, once the hubbub regarding her accident dies down and the compound grows quiet, Ha Jin stares up at the wooden beams in the ceiling. The silence unnerves her.

Here she is, in a strange new world, so far away from home. Never has she wished for her soulmate more.

You’re out there, aren’t you? Where are you?

Ha Jin slips out from under the covers and pushes open the lone window to stare up at the night sky. The moon beams down on her, an oddly comforting sight.

It’s enough to make her wish, even if it is a futile hope.

Please find me.

Of course it isn’t enough that Ha Jin has to deal with being flung in the past – in someone else’s body no less – but she has to deal with perverts too!

When she catches one of the so-called princes peeking into a room reserved for female servants, her frustration at her own situation only fuels the fire of her indignation. This she can at least do something about.

He denies any wrongdoing and Ha Jin has no trouble giving the cheeky little brat a piece of her mind. Their confrontation escalates from heated words as they slap at each other, pulling each other’s clothes and hair. The prince stumbles backwards, landing on the ground, and Ha Jin literally leaps on the opportunity. Kneeling above him, she grits her teeth.

A flash of the mysterious rider from earlier flickers through her mind, her ire reaching new heights.

I’ve had enough of men disrespecting women!!

Ha Jin rears back to deliver a mighty slap to the peeping tom when an iron grip halts her.

“….!”

She cries out, wrist burning. Whoever took hold of her immediately lets go, but the pain doesn’t stop. At first she can’t process what’s happening, why it feels like someone took a hot poker to her skin. But even as she clutches her wrist, something else accompanies the pain. A strange sensation that seeps into her very bones.

Before she can dwell on it, Ha Jin notices the pain has faded to a dull ache. She looks down, uncurling her fingers, and breathes in sharply. Disbelief takes hold, heartbeat a sudden thundering in her ears.

A running wolf is inked into her skin, something rising in the background.

A moon? A sun?

Ha Jin looks up into a gaze as stunned as hers. His dark eyes, though wide with shock, manage to draw her in. One word emerges, clear as crystal in her mind.

Soulmate.

The elation that bubbles up quickly grows cold when a voice cuts in.

“Hae Soo?”

Ha Jin thought whenever she found her soulmate, she would jump into his arms and never let go.

Instead, she runs.

Ha Jin had recognized her sou– that man the moment she laid eyes on him. Of course she did. It’s still fresh in her mind, the sight of a black stallion galloping towards her in the street market a mere hour or so earlier.

She had been frozen to the spot, and before she could even think to move, a fleeing pedestrian knocked into her, upsetting her balance. She flailed, arms reaching out for any kind of safety net, when a blur appeared in the corner of her vision.

A strong arm caught her around the waist, saving her from a nasty tumble into the riverbed below.

It must have been only seconds, but it felt like a lifetime the moment Ha Jin looked up into the dark eyes of the rider. Half his face was hidden behind a crude mask, but it did nothing to conceal the intensity of his gaze. Then she was swept up onto the horse’s saddle without further ado.

Startled, Ha Jin had clutched at the stranger’s shoulders, unable to tear her eyes from his. He broke the connection first to turn his attention to the road. She looked down, but couldn’t help from stealing glances at his profile.

There was something about him, something mesmerizing, and it wasn’t just the mysterious aura that surrounded him.

The masked stranger slowed the horse to a standstill. Curiosity bubbled up when he looked at her once more.

Who are you?

Then he abruptly pushed her off.

The memory has her rubbing her backside unconsciously even as she hurries away to hide. Irritation flares up amidst the disbelief and joy warring inside her. He is no knight in shining armor.

But still.

With or without the mask, Ha Jin would recognize those eyes anywhere. Doubt once again rears its ugly head before her thoughts can linger on her soulmate.

Not yours.

Her traitorous mind whispers to her, even though Ha Jin can feel his presence. She wants to reach out into the void, but uncertainty stops her.

Hae Soo’s.

Ha Jin runs and runs, half-hoping half-dreading that he will follow her.

I don’t even know his name.

She doesn’t stop until she reaches the prayer stones, falling to her knees beside the carefully built piles. She gulps in heaps of air.

I should’ve at least gotten his name.

Ha Jin looks down at her hands – my hands, but not – and she can’t stop herself from gazing at the running wolf, frozen in mid-motion along her inner wrist. The pain from before is all but forgotten. She is only aware of him, a phantom at the edges of her perception.

“Soo, my dear, is it true?”

Blinking, Ha Jin looks up to find Myung standing beside her, gentle features creased in concern. She offers no answer and Myung continues, “Your soulmate is the Fourth Prince?”

“The Fourth Prince?” she repeats dumbly. In all the commotion, Ha Jin had forgotten that tidbit of information she learned from a commoner who had warned her in the street market.

My soulmate is a prince?

Ha Jin tries to wrap her head around the notion as Myung takes her hands in hers. She guides Ha Jin to her feet and speaks quietly. “Prince Wook told me what happened. Why did you run away? Is something wrong?”

Ha Jin is afraid to give voice to her uncertainty, but one look at Myung’s calm, unassuming face has the words escaping her. “Ever since my accident… I have had nightmares,” she lies, “that this body isn’t my own. That I don’t belong here.”

She wonders again about Hae Soo, fearing that she is merely a thief in this world.

She squeezes Myung’s fingers, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “What if he’s not mine? What if he doesn’t belong to me?”

“Soo, foolish child. Do you think fate so ignorant?” However, there is no reproach in her smile, only kindness. “The marks may be on our bodies, but don’t forget that they reflect our souls.” Her cousin pats her hand in a comforting gesture.

“His Highness’ soul recognized yours, just as yours recognized his.”

My soul…

The hope she had tried to stifle due to her uncertainty flickers to life, burning low in her chest.

“And then you were Marked.” Myung glances down and Ha Jin closes a hand around her wrist. “Fate brought you to my husband’s household so that you would meet the Fourth Prince today. You have been blessed.”

Her cousin’s words run through her head again and again. All Ha Jin can do is echo her. “Blessed…”

“I can’t claim to know the Fourth Prince, but you must be patient with him,” Myung advises in her soft voice. “He has… endured much.”

“What do you mean?”

“He has been in Shinju for many years. His Highness was sent there when he was very young, and has only returned to Songak a few times since.”

There’s something her cousin doesn’t want to say. Ha Jin tries to remember her old history lessons and the possible reasons for why members of prominent families would usually send their children away, why a king would send away a prince.

A hostage.

The thought leaves her cold, and her heart aches. If true, she can’t imagine the kind of childhood he had. She remembers how the crowd in the street market had cowered or fled from him, how the same woman who told her he was a prince commented that she was lucky to be alive. His reputation must be fearsome.

What happened to him?

When atop his horse, Ha Jin had been unable to get a read on him. She can feel it even now. He is holding himself back from her.

“Is that connected to why he wears a mask?”

“Even if I knew the reason, that is not for me to divulge,” Myung replies. “Some say he is dangerous. He may be hard to approach, but Fate chose him for you for a reason.” She regards her quietly. “The Soo I know wouldn’t have run away from her soulmate.”

If I were truly myself, back in my time, I wouldn’t have either. Ha Jin regrets giving into an impulse spurred on by fear. “I’m sorry… I just didn’t know what to do.”

Myung shakes her head. “I am not the one you should be apologizing to.”

Ha Jin tries to locate the Fourth Prince, but there is no trace of him even though she searches the compound high and low. She finds the courage to ask her cousin-in-law; however, he’s unaware of where his brother is as well. She notices the Eighth Prince glancing at her wrist, but she’s grateful when he merely sends her off with a smile.

Somehow, I’m not surprised that I’d chase my own soulmate away.

She can feel him on the fringes of her consciousness. Soulmates can use their bond to find each other, but it feels wrong to use the bond in any way right now, not when she ran from him. Not when she doesn’t even know his name. She could’ve found out the answer easily enough, but she wants to hear it from him.

Before Myung left her, she reminded Ha Jin that fighting with a prince was a serious offense. She didn’t know if Ha Jin would be punished, especially with the revelation of her being a prince’s soulmate. However, no matter her status, she is still at the mercy of the king’s will.

Ha Jin had been so preoccupied with her life-changing discovery that she forgot she had tried to extract an apology from the peeping tom of a prince. She wonders perhaps if she should try to go back, to go home.

Maybe I should return to the Damiwon, back the way Chae Ryung told me about.

Thoughts of attempting to go home fade from her mind as she closes her eyes, keenly aware of the existence now present in her mind. The threat of punishment that looms over her for striking a prince pales in comparison. After all these years, she finally found him.

“The marks may be on our bodies, but don’t forget that they reflect our souls.”

Ha Jin may not be the Hae Soo originally born in this era, but if the girl whose body she’s in is a previous incarnation… then their soul is the same. Hae Soo must have drowned in the bathing pool.

That’s how I’m able to be here when she isn’t. I took her place.

She can’t leave. She doesn’t want to, either.

If I want to live in this time, with him… I have to take her name.

Ha Jin – no, I’m Hae Soo – opens her eyes and traces the outline of the wolf racing across her inner wrist.

She doesn’t reach out, but she can still feel the pull of the bond, wanting to be complete.

He’s here.

Soo smiles, really smiles, for the first time in days.

The following day Soo isn’t allowed to accompany her cousin to the palace. Myung cites her recent accident as a reason, concerned that she may display odd behavior that could offend the queens or even the king himself. Part of Soo is relieved; she’s not quite sure she’s ready to face the ruler of Goryeo just yet. A larger part of her is disappointed at the lost chance of talking with the Fourth Prince.

She had fallen asleep the night before outside his room. When she woke up, it was to a worried Chae Ryung shaking her shoulders. The servant had hurriedly ushered her back to her room, but not before Soo noticed the blanket she certainly didn’t have when she first decided to wait.

Chae Ryung’s excited gasp tears Soo from her memories. She lowers her arms – she had wrapped them around herself, mimicking her position from earlier that morning when she had clutched the blanket, refusing to turn it over to her servant.

“My lady! Where do you want to start? There’s so much to see!”

Chae Ryung is eager to enjoy the festival, unaware of the suspicion lingering in Soo’s mind as to who showed her a kindness. However, it’s not long before Soo is swept up in her enthusiasm. Vendors are out hawking their goodies, as performers stroll down the streets. When night falls, Soo watches in awe as the festival is lit with paper lanterns. Larger lanterns crafted into the shape of animals are situated along the boundaries of the revelry, some even sent floating along the lake’s surface.

She’s enjoying spun candy when she feels it – the surge of adrenaline. Stopping, she clutches Chae Ryung’s arm. She only vaguely hears the servant asking after her as she gets flashes of emotions from her soulmate for the first time.

The spike of pain stuns more than it hurts. It almost has her in a panic, but all too soon it’s followed by a flicker of hope, though that’s quickly doused by disappointment and hurt.

What’s happening? What’s going on? Is he alright?

Soo takes off towards the palace, where the princes are performing for the king, as question after question crowds her mind.

“My lady?! Where are you going?! My lady!”

She spares Chae Ryung an apologetic glance, but doesn’t slow down. The crowd is thicker in the midst of the streets, and she ends up jostling her way through even as the people around her start to complain and grumble.

“I’m sorry, but please move! I have to-”

A flicker of red has her head snapping up just in time to see the Fourth Prince dashing across the rooftops in pursuit of something or someone. She immediately changes course, trying to both keep her eyes on his fleeing form and not bulldoze into innocent civilians.

Once she’s finally free, she manages to catch a glimpse of him as he drops down to the ground. But before Soo can breathe a sigh of relief, the prince disappears into the woods.

“Can’t he stay still for one second?!” Soo mutters.

Hardening her resolve, she hikes up the skirt of her hanbok and heads into the dark forest after her soulmate without a second thought.

Stupid, stupid Ha J- Soo! Why did I just go in half-cocked?!

Soo berates herself internally while trying to figure out a way to extract herself from her precarious predicament.

She had lost the Fourth Prince in the forest, and had cheated slightly using their incomplete bond to find him. She had been determined not to use it, not until they talked properly, but her combination of worry and trepidation had her leaning on her one source of comfort. The prince’s emotions were once again closed off to her, but she had been able to sense where he was if she concentrated hard enough.

When Soo finally spotted him, her relief was so great that she hadn’t bothered to check their surroundings. She had run towards him, and noticed too late that he was currently in a standoff with a fully masked enemy.

The foe had used her sudden appearance to his advantage, grabbing her in the brief moment when the prince had been startled to see her.

And that’s how she found herself in her current situation, stuck in an enemy’s iron grip while her soulmate reveals nothing of what he’s thinking. He simply holds out his sword, and Soo instinctively knows that he’s more than capable of using it despite his relaxed stance.

The bastard holding her raises his sword towards her and she stiffens, locking eyes with the Fourth Prince.

Please. Please don’t let him kill me.

Soo swears she sees his fingers twitch, but she has to wince when the razor sharp edge presses into her throat. A jolt of fear runs through her but it’s not her own-

Don’t move.

She feels as much as sees the message in his gaze. Soo braces herself, going as still as possible.

All she feels next is a slight wind and the hold on her vanishes. Blinking, she looks behind her and finds the would-be assassin with a blade in his forehead. The Fourth Prince’s other arm is outstretched, leaving no doubt as to what happened.

Relief makes her knees weak and she stumbles forward, away from her attacker. The prince catches her with the arm he’s still holding out.

“Th-thank you…”

There’s a flash of something unreadable across his face, like he was surprised by his own actions. “I didn’t do it for you,” he replies, tone gruff. He lets her go without warning.

Soo manages to steady herself before she can fall flat on her face. “I don’t believe you,” she shoots back. She can feel it – his emotions belie his words.

“I don’t care what you believe.” He dismisses her with a look, crouching down to inspect the body. He curses moments later, and surprises her by storming off.

Soo runs after him and manages to grasp his cloak, digging her heels in the dirt. Oh no, you don’t!

He stops. “What do you want?”

“I thought we should talk.”

“I have nothing to say to you.” He still doesn’t turn to face her.

“But…” She expected him to be mad, but not cold. His feelings are once again closed off to her. “… we’re soulmates.”

“Soulmates?” He scoffs, locking eyes with her from over his shoulder. “I don’t believe in fate.”

“Can’t you feel it?” Even incomplete, Soo can feel the bond on the edges of her consciousness. The anxiety she had felt since she first ran away from him eases in his presence.

“Feel what?”

“You’re lying!”

“I don’t know you. I certainly won’t trust a girl who goes around starting fights with princes, and then wanders by herself into a dark forest,” he comments blandly, facing forward. “I have more important things to take care of.”

“Your Highness, wait! Please.” Soo tightens her grip on his cloak before he can move away. Judging from his frosty reception, she’s not going to get anywhere with him tonight. “At least- at least, tell me your name.”

He levels his gaze on her again, this time with disbelief. But when she simply looks at him guilelessly, his expression turns more considering.

“Please.”

“… Wang So.” He yanks his robes out of her grasp and stalks away.

“I’m Hae Soo!”

Soo calls out after him, and she thinks she sees him pause, but she can’t be sure. He’s already blended into the black of the night.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.

Soo is woken in the middle of the night by a wave of intense emotions engulfing her. Pain, anger, shame… they cycle through her over and over, overwhelming her. She gasps, clutching her chest.

Something’s wrong.

She hurries out of bed, still in her sleeping hanbok, grabbing a cloak for good measure. She runs out into the cold night, following where her senses lead her. She doesn’t know what’s happened, but she knows one thing for sure.

He needs her.

Soo finds Wang So by the prayer stones, screaming and destroying them. Dismayed, she rushes forward and grabs one of his swinging arms.

“Stop! What are you doing?” She holds onto him, even as he struggles against her.

“Don’t touch me! Let me go!!”

Soo glimpses the red splattered across his face, feels the moist fabric underneath her fingers. Her concern, however, outweighs any fear that might’ve materialized were she not privy to his emotions. Gone is his usual cool composure, no trace of the man who had done everything possible to not cross paths with her since their encounter in the forest. She had only been allowed glimpses of him before he disappeared on her. If not for his constant presence in the back of her mind, she would’ve started to think she made him up.

For all his outward rage, Soo knows that even if they weren’t connected, she would’ve been able to tell that this frenzy is more than just skin-deep.

Soo tightens her grasp on his arm, pulling the limb towards her. “You’re hurt!!”

The words seem to sap away some of his anger. He goes still. She takes the opportunity to check him over, trying to find any visible injuries. All she can find is blood.

“It’s not mine,” he states with an almost gleeful tone. “I killed people today. I killed them without thinking about it twice.”

Soo sees the blood, the dirt, the crazed look in his eyes. But she also sees past it.

“Are you okay?”

The Fourth Prince blinks, returning her concerned stare with one of disbelief. “Didn’t you hear me? I killed people,” he repeats himself.

“You say you did it without thinking twice, but I think you had your reasons. I don’t know what happened, and I can’t claim to know. But I know that this tim- this world,” she corrects herself, “is not so simple as right or wrong, black and white. Sometimes you have to do awful things to survive.”

She thinks back to the water, to the unknown force pulling her under, even as she fought to escape it. “It’s not a crime to want to live,” she murmurs.

Soo makes sure to hold his gaze, even as his stunned, wet eyes tear at her heart. “You may not be forgiven… but I understand you.”

Wang So looks away first. “You shouldn’t touch me,” he says at last.

Soo feels him try to pull away, but she only holds onto him tighter. “I won’t let you go.”

The promise in her voice has So looking back at her, searching her gaze for any hint of falsehood. She doesn’t blink. Instead, she moves her hands down his arm to cup his right fist. Ever so slowly, she tries to unfurl his fingers.

Guessing her intent, So keeps his fist clenched, preventing her from seeing his Mark. “Don’t.” It comes out as a raspy growl that sends a shiver down her spine. He pushes away from her.

“Your Highness!”

Soo wants to run after him, but she can sense any more advances by her would be unwelcome.

I’m not giving up on you.

“You have a pesky tendency of getting into trouble.”

Soo wants to retort, but a part of her begrudgingly admits he’s right. Perhaps charging in to save the Fourteenth Prince from a group of incensed villagers wasn’t exactly the brightest idea, but she couldn’t very well let his arm get cut off either.

“Better to get into trouble than none at all,” Soo says, raising her chin defiantly. “At least I’m willing to act.”

Amusement flickers across Wang So’s face, but it doesn’t feel condescending. In fact, he seems impressed. Soo feels her cheeks warm.

“Besides –” She looks in the direction of where the villagers had fled. “– revenge isn’t justice.”

She notes how Prince Jung doesn’t bother acknowledging his older brother, even though he was the one to save them. He had only to use the mere threat of his presence. Not a single drop of blood was shed.

Soo tries to make eye contact with the younger prince, but his mouth is set in a stubborn line. Fine, she thinks. If he won’t do it, I will.

“Thank you, Your Highness.” Soo bows respectfully to the Fourth Prince, who is still seated atop his horse.

The flicker of surprise between them makes her blink, but when she straightens, his expression is set into the apathetic one she has unfortunately grown used to. Briefly, she wonders if no one has ever thanked him before.

Soo takes a step toward him, but the Fourteenth Prince’s sudden grip on her wrist stops her. She turns towards him and he doesn’t look pleased. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

Prince Jung hesitates, but seems to make up his mind in the next second. “He doesn’t deserve you,” he blurts out.

Soo stiffens, fully aware that the Fourth Prince can hear his brother clearly. “He just saved us, Your Highness,” she says.

“Probably for some nefarious reason!”

Soo doesn’t know who poisoned the younger prince’s mind, but if the rumors had any ring of truth to them, she knows that Queen Yoo is no fan of her middle son. She is able to glean that much from gossiping servants. She hasn’t forgotten why the villagers were after the Fourteenth Prince either.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but Prince So has been more of a prince than you today.”

Soo gently pushes his grip off her and walks up to her astonished soulmate. She reaches out a hand to him.

“Please take me home.”

The Fourth Prince escorts her back to the Eighth Prince’s residence. He’s silent the entire time, even with her back pressed to his body as they ride through town. He seems annoyingly unaffected, and she can’t see how, especially with how loud her own heart is beating.

The bond is a live thing, crying out to be completed. Their proximity allows her to be the most relaxed she’s been in days. At the same time, it hurts being near him when he doesn’t care to acknowledge her. It hurts even more when it seems like he isn’t struggling at all.

Maybe he’s not feeling what I’m feeling.

The prince brings the horse to a stop in the middle of the main courtyard. Soo grabs his wrist before he can dismount, hugging his arm to her waist. She sucks in a breath at how much touching him soothes the ache in her.

“Don’t turn away from me.” She glances at him from over her shoulder. “Why won’t you give me a chance?”

Prince So clenches his jaw. “You’re the one who ran away from me.”

It occurs to Soo that in their too few encounters, she had never apologized for what happened when their Marks formed. “I didn’t mean to! I was scared-”

She realizes too late that it’s the wrong thing to say as his gaze closes off. “You put on a brave face the other night, but it seems you show your true colors. Everyone is scared of me.”

“I’m not!”

“You just said it!” he snaps. “You were horrified to find out I was yours!”

“I was afraid that you weren’t!” Soo holds onto him tighter when she feels him ready to move. “Why won’t you believe me? I’m your soulmate.”

“Soulmates aren’t a guarantee of anything.”

But Soo still feels him tremble, can hear the lie in his voice.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she replies firmly.

“You will.” The resigned certainty in his voice shocks and saddens her. “Once you see this cursed face of mine.”

“Then show it to me now,” Soo challenges him. “Show me everything and I’ll prove to you how wrong you are.”

So yanks her back against him, and she gasps sharply at the iron grip of his embrace, at the feel of his muscles even through their layers of clothing. Desire courses through her, their incomplete bond thrumming even louder between them.

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Hae Soo,” he growls harshly.

That’s the first time he’s ever said my name, she thinks, a quiver running through her. I want to hear it again.

Her mind clears enough for her to respond. “This isn’t a game to me.”

Soo wants his arms around her forever, but instead, his warmth disappears from behind her back. Bereft, she looks down to find him staring up at her. His eyes bore into her and she reaches for him before she even realizes it. The Fourth Prince grabs her around the waist and she rests her hands on his shoulders. He assists her off the horse and as he sets her down, their bodies press together, her front dragging down his.

“What are you doing to me?” she murmurs once her feet touch the ground. She moves to cup his face, the side with his mask, but he intercepts her wrist. He’s careful to use the hand without his Mark.

“What are you doing to me?”

So begins to lean down and Soo’s eyelids flutter closed in anticipation. His presence is but a breath away when he pauses. In the next moment, he’s gone. Soo’s eyes snap open in time to see the Fourth Prince galloping out of the courtyard.

Soo stumbles back, placing a hand over her heart, but instead of feeling disappointment, all she feels is elation.

He just proved that he’s not as unaffected as he seems.

“You will marry the Fourth Prince.”

Any nerves Soo is feeling from meeting King Taejo for the first time is blown away by his impromptu decree after the formal greetings are out of the way. She is not adverse to marriage, far from it, and even as a little girl, she had always dreamed of marrying her soulmate.

But Soo is far from where she wants to be with Wang So. She’s making progress, little by little, but it still isn’t enough.

Soo bows deeply. “Respectfully, Your Majesty, I cannot do so.”

“Are you refusing an order from your king?”

“I have nothing but the greatest respect for Goryeo’s king.” Nervously, Soo straightens and bites her lip. “But I cannot marry someone who does not want me. The Fourth Prince denies our… connection.”

“I see.”

“Your Majesty, please… give me time.” She holds out her wrist for the king to see. “This Mark ensures that we are connected, but I cannot bind him to me if he refuses it.”

“You have a strange sense of honor, child.” King Taejo regards her with inscrutable eyes, and Soo can see where So gets that mysterious look of his. “Do you love my son?”

Is this love?

“Your Majesty, if I am to admit this to anyone, I would like your son to be the first, if you so permit it,” Soo replies carefully. “But please know that I care for him deeply.”

A flicker of a smile crosses the king’s face before it smooths over into a more neutral expression. “I have spoken to your guardians, my son Wang Wook and his wife Hae Myung. I’ve informed them that starting tomorrow, you shall be placed under the care of Court Lady Oh. She will teach you the ways of the palace, so that you will be best prepared for your future.”

Soo looks at him in question, wanting to ask questions but unwilling to push her luck.

“Until your lessons are complete, you will live in Damiwon and you will be engaged to the Fourth Prince Wang So.”

The Fourth Prince storms into her new quarters at the Damiwon the next day, clearly having heard everything.

“What did you do?” he demands, towering over her crouched form.

Soo bristles at the accusation. She stands from where she had been unpacking her chest of clothes. “I didn’t do anything. His Majesty ordered this.”

So narrows his eyes. “Why did you agree to it?”

“Who am I to go against the king of Goryeo?” It’s true that she’s no one in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps she should feel regret for not fighting it more.

She doesn’t.

“You would let these Marks dictate our lives?” So holds up his hand. For the first time, Soo sees the peony blooming across his open palm, the same moon or sun on her own Mark in the background of his as well.

Not dictate. Guide. “I would at least want to see why fate bound us,” Soo says aloud.

“I would not bind someone to me unwillingly, no matter what the heavens supposedly say,” So shoots back. “And you – you would never choose me if you saw this face of mine.” His touch flits over his mask.

“That is the second time you’ve said that, and that excuse remains unconvincing,” she replies firmly. “I don’t care what you look like.”

“You can say that because you don’t know!” So exclaims, somehow infuriated by the lack of reaction he expects every time he mentions his covered face.

“How shallow do you think I am, Your Highness?!”

Soo steps into his personal space, persisting even when she sees him flinch. “I care about who you are in here,” she says, placing a hand over his heart, “not what defines you out here.”

Just as it is every time, his nearness fills her with both joy and yearning. She wants to hold him, kiss him, feel him.

If only he would let me.

“You… are…” So’s words come out shakily.

Yours.

So abruptly leaves before she can repeat herself aloud, tearing himself from her touch.

A pout adorns her lips. That man has a will of iron.

Everything was going so perfectly. Why did things have to go wrong?

Soo rushes out of the Damiwon in pursuit of her upset soulmate. She had made a mini-celebration for the Tenth Prince’s birthday, and things were going swimmingly. She was disappointed when the Fourth Prince had left after she sang to all the princes, but Prince Baek Ah had brought him back to her.

Unfortunately, Soo caught on to Prince Yo’s plan too late and had been unable to stop Prince Eun from making his rude request. She had watched with bated breath as Wang So complied, slowly removing one of the half-masks he wore at all times.

A scar ran down under his left eye, crossing up across his cheek and nose, and then all the way to his forehead. She could hear the others gasp, some looking away and a couple even smirking. She was frozen, staring at her prince.

When he locked eyes with her, Soo saw his anguish and shame before a wall shuttered over his expression. Then he simply turned around and left.

Soo had left the other princes and the princess to talk amongst themselves. There was only one person she cared about right now.

Soo hurries across the pavilion, trying to catch a glimpse of the Fourth Prince.

Knowing him, he misunderstood something, she thinks. I have to talk to him!

This time she has no quibbles using their bond to find him. She knows him much better now, though even she’s surprised when she finds him stalking into his prince’s quarters, the ones he hardly used. So had moved into the palace the same time she had moved into the Damiwon. She knew from the many times she deliberately ran into him that he prefers the astronomy tower.

I guess he wants to be where people would least expect to find him.

“Your Highness! Your Highness, wait!”

Soo rushes into his room even as he slams the door behind him. She closes the doors much more gently, watching as he paces back and forth in front of his raised bed.

“I told you, didn’t I? That you wouldn’t want me once you see this face of mine?” So laughs bitterly, chucking his mask against the furniture. His nails drag down his face.

“Stop!” Soo runs to him. “Does it look like I’m afraid of you? Does it look like I don’t want you?” She reaches out towards his face, but he grabs her right wrist with his left hand.

Even in his anger, he still makes sure not to use his Marked palm.

“Do you feel sorry for me?” he snarls, lips curling into a self-deprecating smirk. “Is this pity?”

“How can I feel sorry for someone always uttering death threats?”

Her retort makes him blink, but he still waits for her answer.

“You stubborn, arrogant idiot.” Soo uses her free hand to push his chest hard and, taken off guard, he releases her and stumbles back against the far wall. “I want you. What will it take for you to believe me? I see past your scars, I see past that guard you put up for everyone.”

She takes a step toward him. “I see you.”

Then another. “I want you.”

Why won’t you let me in?

Soo reaches up again to touch his scar. He flinches but she doesn’t. She traces it lovingly with her fingers.

“Why are you doing this to me?” His gaze turns unsure and painfully vulnerable.

“Because I am yours,” she breathed. “Only yours.”

Soo places her hands on his shoulders, using them as leverage, and goes up on her tiptoes to kiss him. She doesn’t think it’s possible for him to freeze even more, but he does.

Please. Please…

Determined, she keeps moving her lips. When she feels a faint movement, she sighs into the kiss, pressing herself up against him, twining her arms around his neck and pulling him closer.

Soo feels the precise second he gives in, his arms tugging her in close by the waist. His response to her kisses grow fiercer, more passionate in the space from one moment to the next. He lets go, but she wants more. She wants all of him.

The bond sizzles between them, a livewire activated by their physical proximity and the surge in their emotions. The ache of the incomplete bond is like a gaping wound in her chest. She wants so much to give him all of her, if only he’ll take it.

“You… what are you doing to me?” Wang So gasps, breaking away from her, just enough to breath, just enough to get his bearings. They rest their foreheads against each other, panting.

Desire threatens to overtake her, though affection already has. Her mark itches, it burns.

“Your Highness…”

“Do you know how much I’ve been holding back?” So murmurs, voice deepening with hunger. “How I’ve wanted you… how I longed for you… But not knowing if I could trust you…”

She gasps out his name as his mouth trails down the side of her neck.

So...

He groans, fingers tangling in her hair as he pulls her towards him again, claiming her lips.

Soo pulls back after a while, to take in gulps of air and to also look deep into his eyes once more. “Trust me,” she whispers.

So still seems uncertain, but before she can say anything else, he takes her right wrist with his right palm. Their Marks meet for the first time since they formed, skin on skin, and the contact has them both moaning. Their pleasure is heightened immeasurably and she clutches him to her body.

“Too much,” she gasps, breaking away from his lips. “It’s too much.”

So loosens her jeogori, exposing her collarbone to his ravenous gaze. “It’s not enough,” he whispers fiercely.

With her hanbok already in messy disarray, and her fingers working to do the same to his, Soo has no objections as her prince lowers her to the bed. Instead, she loses herself in him and everything she’s ever wanted from the moment they first locked eyes by the riverbed.

I was already yours back then. Did you know?

Soo can feel someone watching her. She stirs, blinking away the sleep. The first thing she sees is his eyes, the deep dark brown tracing over her face in wonder, his own face bare to her.

When So sees that she’s awake, he smiles at her tentatively. She smiles back, the soul bond clear and strong and beautiful. All her life she felt empty, like she was missing a part of herself.

Now the bond hums between them, alive and comforting. Complete.

“You’re not a dream,” So murmurs.

“Neither are you.”

“You were meant for me.”

“Yes.” Soo leans forward and kisses him. “We were meant for each other.”

So looks at her like he can’t quite believe she’s real. Then, with a grin, he grabs her and rolls her over until she’s beneath him. She flushes as their bodies press together, skin on skin. She can feel every inch of him.

“You’re insatiable,” she says with a raised eyebrow.

His roguish grin only widens as her fingers dig into his hips. “I’m not the only one.”

She smiles, long and slow, enjoying the way his pupils dilate when she arches up against him. “I never said you were.” Her hand wanders between them and she bites her lip when he inhales sharply.

“You…”

So swallows her laugh as he kisses her, changing her giggle into a moan as he presses her down against the bedding.

This is my kind of morning wake-up call.

Life after Soo and So complete the bond is more than she ever dreamed. When he’s not tending to his duties checking the military supplies and she’s not at the Damiwon, they spend most of their time together. They walk around the vast palace grounds, and sometimes she even manages to drag him out to the market with her. He doesn’t like mixing with the citizens, but she won’t let him be afraid.

And almost every night they make love, their marks pressed together, reaffirming their soulbond over and over. She sneaks away to see him, and Astronomer Choi doesn’t say anything when the Fourth Prince moves to his quarters that are rightfully his as a prince.

She had heard stories, read the studies and others’ personal experiences, but nothing could ever prepare her for what it felt like. She had found the missing part of her. He slotted into her life like he belonged there all along.

It’s thrilling, having him all to herself. Finally, finally. He’s all hers, he accepts her, their bond.

They don’t have to hide anymore.

Sometimes it breaks her heart when he stares at her like she’ll disappear, like everything will simply go up in smoke. How long has he gone on without any real affection?

Waking up next to him is the best feeling in the world, and it’s no walk of shame for her when she has to sneak back to her quarters at the Damiwon when the sun is peeking out over the horizon.

She can’t wait until they’re allowed to be like this with no judgment from anyone else. She won’t bring up marriage now. This is more than enough.

Just having him is more than enough.

Soo lives for the moments when she can study him as he sleeps before kissing him goodbye. How his arm tries to keep her there with him until she softens him with another kiss. The kisses more often than not wake him, but neither of them mind. She murmurs words of affection in his ear and he holds onto her a little tighter before she wiggles away. She dresses quickly, blushing all the while, aware of him watching her.

Just before she leaves, she always looks back at him and blows him a kiss. The first time she did it, it startled him so much that he laughed. She hurried away then, embarrassed, but still does it every time when she has to leave him.

Soo notices he smiles more, especially when in her presence, and the love she has for him grows and grows. She’s not sure it will ever stop.

But all good things can’t last forever. The kingdom has been suffering from a drought, and because of the king’s weak knees, another prince is picked to lead the rain ritual. The Crown Prince is unable to do so, since he’s away tending to the matter of bandits raiding the roads in and out of Songak.

Her prince is chosen, but the citizens are mistrustful. Hateful. They throw mud and stones and she wishes she had watched from the market and had not waited for him with the rest of the royal family.

Soo feels his hurt before she sees him. Before she can run to him, he’s already there, stumbling through the gate. His pristine white robes from that morning are now caked with dirt, same as his hair and face. His expression is shocked and vulnerable, and her heart stutters in her chest.

Lost, So seems unsure of where to look before he manages to lock eyes with her. She sends love and comfort his way.

It’s okay. It’s okay.

He shudders and stumbles away. She runs after him, heedless of the voices that try to stop her.

“Your Highness!”

The Fourth Prince doesn’t stop, his strides long and angry as he stalks to the astronomy tower. Finally, she catches up with him on the highest floor, just in time to see him throw off his dirtied outer robe to the ground.

“So!”

Finally, he stops and when he looks at her, his face is stony.

“So.”

She doesn’t bring up what just happened. Instead, she reaches out to cup his face, wiping away the dirt from his uncovered cheek.

“Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Soo takes him by the hand and leads him to the Damiwon. The court ladies quickly lead her to the outer bathing pool, the very one where she had first emerged. When they are finally alone, So’s expression crumbles. Soo takes him in her arms, uncaring of dirtying her hanbok, caring only about him.

“I won’t go through such humiliation again,” he vows through clenched teeth.

“Please don’t blame them. The citizens are scared,” she says. “You are merely the scapegoat they threw their frustrations at.”

“Must I simply endure it then? Is that all I’m good for?”

“No,” she replies immediately.

He doesn’t seem to believe her. “Am I a monster, Soo?”

“No, you’re not.”

“I have blood on my hands.”

Soo remembers finding him that night, destroying the prayer stones, covered in blood. His rage, his hurt had nearly brought her to her knees.

“Then you must do all you can to wash that blood away.”

A thought occurs to Soo. What if it actually rains when he performs the ritual? She knows that no one person can control the heavens, but if the heavens were on his side…

“Your Highness… if you make it rain, you will become second only to the king.”

Soo says nothing after that, leaving him to ponder, and leads him down to the step just above the bathing pool. They sit side by side, their feet dipping into the water. She helps him get clean, first washing the mud from his face. Setting aside his dirtied mask, she delivers a comforting kiss to his scar – the source of his trouble, but that which had been ironically protected.

So holds her to him tightly, breathing her in. “… I will do it again tomorrow.”

“I will protect you.” She returns his embrace.

“No. I want you to stay away from the people. I won’t have you hurt.”

If Soo can’t be by his side, she will make sure none can raise a complaint against him. “Then let me give you a shield.”

After she helps the prince bathe and change, Soo takes him to her modest quarters in the Damiwon. She pulls out her collection of plants and herbs as well as other tools she may need. The prince watches her curiously as she experiments with different combinations, grinding and mixing together concoctions.

“What are you doing?”

“You’ll find out soon.”

His longing comes out to her and she turns her head to smile at him.

“You can sit closer.”

So scoots over to sit behind her, stretching his limbs on either side of her so she ends up sitting between his legs. He wraps his arms around her waist and rests his chin on her shoulder, watching what her hands are doing curiously.

“You’re very knowledgeable about plants, aren’t you?”

“I am quite smart, Your Highness.”

“I never would’ve guessed.”

She turns her head slightly to glare at him, but his lips are already there to kiss her cheek. To her ire, her annoyance subsides. Blushing, Soo turns back to her task as his chuckle sends a shiver down her spine.

After quite some time, Soo lets out a squeal of delight when the color, texture, and consistency are exactly what she wants. She rubs the concealer on her skin with a proud smile.

“That is…”

Soo turns and sits on her knees to face him. “The shield I promised.” She takes the newly created concealer and begins to apply it to his scar. Under her skillful hand, it disappears bit by bit before it seems to be gone entirely.

“There.” She smiles, holding up a mirror for him to see.

“You…” Shock and awe color his expression.

“I dare them to say anything now. How can you be cursed when you have no scar?”

So caresses her cheek. “You’ve done it now, Lady Hae Soo,” he whispers quietly. “I can never let you go.”

“I keep telling you. I don’t want you to.” She leans forward so that their foreheads touch. “Show them who you really are.” Without moving away, Soo reaches out to lightly trace where his scar should be. “This has given you such pain, so I will take it away. But I want you to know I accept all of you.”

So breathes in shakily. She’s not sure if he believes her or not, but she will say it again and again if she has to until he does. She takes his right hand and runs her fingers over the peony along his palm.

“You are worthy.”

The next day, as the crowd cheers and pleads for So to bring rain, Soo can’t help the pride that swells in her chest as she watches him ascend the steps to where the ritual is to take place.

When he looks back at her, finding her in the crowd, he smiles. She smiles back.

Then her vision abruptly goes red, an image of him later in life overlapping with the present. His future self is dressed in black robes, a dragon on his chest and a crown atop his head. And his face – his face is cold as he lets out a small smirk.

Gwangjong.

Shock freezes her to the spot, her history knowledge enough that she remembers one of Goryeo’s bloodiest kings. No, no. It can’t be.

So must feel her despair because he turns quickly, looking for her again. She shakes her head, giving him a strained smile. He takes a step toward her, but she sends a wave of reassurance his way and he pauses.

I’m fine.

He looks at her carefully, but it’s not until she nods again that he turns back around. She watches him complete the ritual as her emotions war inside her. She does her best to shield him from her inner conflict.

But she can still see it, the vision replaying over and over in her mind.

He won’t be a bloody king. He won’t.

It’s too much.

Soo takes one more look at So’s back as he bends onto his knees, then flees.

It would be impossible to hide from him forever and Soo doesn’t want to. She’s not surprised when he finds her by their spot below the pavilion, one that overlooks one of the many lakes on the palace grounds.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” So wastes no time.

“I… I had a vision, Your Highness.”

He frowns. “Vision?”

“You become king,” she whispers so, so quietly. “You become a bloody king.”

He stares at her for a moment, then bursts out laughing.

Her mouth drops open, indignation outweighing her dread for a moment. “Why are you laughing?! I’m serious!” she exclaims, pushing him in the shoulder. “I’m not lying!”

“I know you’re not, I know.” So stops laughing to grab her arms before she can hit him again. “I believe you. But I want you to believe me.” He looks at her fondly. “I have no desire to become king, so your vision will never come true.”

“You don’t?”

“I have wanted a lot of things, dreamed a lot of things. Life has told me again and again that I will never get them. That I’m undeserving.”

“But you…” So tucks an errant lock of hair behind her ear. “The heavens sent me you. And you are all I need.” He leans in to kiss her sweetly, and wraps his arms around her.

“Just you.”

It is his embrace more than his words that soothe her. Soo doesn’t know why she received such a vision, but she does know this – she trusts him implicitly.

A few days later, Soo is summoned to Queen Yoo’s chambers. Her knee-jerk reaction is to refuse, though she knows that won’t go over well at all. In the end, Soo sucks it up and prepares herself as best she can before she’s led to an elaborately decorated room.

King Taejo’s second queen is as intimidating as ever, dressed extravagantly with many rings, necklaces and hair ornaments.

Doesn’t her head feel heavy? The snide thought relaxes her. The queen is human, too.

Soo bows respectfully, keeping her pose as she waits for the queen to say something. She can feel her looking her over with a critical eye. Soo does her best not to fidget.

Untouchable, but still human.

“You are… Hae Soo, yes?”

Soo nods, straightening. “Yes, Your Majesty.” She has had limited contact with Queen Yoo, but she’s seen and heard enough of her reputation to know not to treat her lightly.

Besides, this is the woman at the root of So’s pain. For that, Soo can never forgive her.

“Sit. Have some tea.”

Another unexpected invitation, but Soo can only nod once more. “You are too gracious, Your Majesty,” she says.

Taking a seat across from the queen, Soo accepts the tea cup the servant pours for her. She hesitates only slightly, but it is enough for the queen to notice.

“Is there something wrong with the tea, Hae Soo?”

Soo looks up and catches the smile that plays along the queen’s lips. It is eerily reminiscent of her soulmate’s, though the cold sharpness in it sends an unpleasant shiver through her. Her uneasiness must’ve reached So because the next thing she feels is a wave of worry and comfort.

I can’t let him worry about me. Not now.

She responds with reassurance, pulling from that iron will of his to boost her own courage. She smiles at the queen, letting no trace of unease show.

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” she responds smoothly. “I was just taking in the lovely aroma.” She brings the cup to her lips, taking a sip. A part of her is relieved when she detects nothing wrong.

She waits for the queen to speak. There must be a reason for her summons, and it isn’t so the queen can get to know her.

“I wanted to commend you on the job you did for the Fourth Prince,” Queen Yoo finally says. “He almost seems like a man now, without that hideous imperfection for all to see.”

Her bluntness throws Soo off guard. “Almost?”

“No matter what tricks you use, you cannot change who someone is. And make no mistake. He is a beast.”

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” Soo says, putting down her tea cup. The smile on her face has become tight. “I don’t understand why you called me here.”

Did you just want to insult my soulmate to my face?

“You do not seem stupid. A bit blind, perhaps.” The queen wrinkles her nose ever so slightly. “Because of your interference, he may be seen as a contender for the throne.”

“The Fourth Prince has no desire for that seat.”

“Even if he does not, it may very well appear so.”

A chill settles over her at the silky way those words leave the queen’s mouth. “What do you mean?”

“Appearances are everything, child,” Queen Yoo replies. “As you well know.”

“Your Majesty… why are you telling me this?”

“The ninth day of the ninth lunar month... either the Crown Prince or the Fourth Prince will die.”

That is only a week away.

“I am not a heartless woman. I wanted to give you a choice.”

“That is no choice at all!” She wants to take out at least one of her son’s obstacles to the throne, Soo thinks, trying to keep a lid on her panic so as not to alarm So. “Aren’t you afraid I will tell someone?”

“If you do, I will say that I did it for that child, to make him king, because he wanted me to. He will be implicated.”

How can anyone believe that? Everyone knows how much the queen hates her middle son. Yet the queen speaks with such confidence that Soo knows. The court is in her pocket. What can Soo do? She isn’t even So’s wife yet. Her status as his soulmate does not hold nearly enough weight as it should within the eyes of the court.

The queen gives her a cool look. All the frills and jewelry may make her shine, but Soo sees that her heart is ice.

“Make no mistake – that beast may have risen, but I am higher still.”

If I tell, So will be implicated and die. If I don’t, she could still target him. Either way, he dies. Soo trembles. Unless I choose.

“You hold no true power within these walls. You think that Mark of yours means anything to me? It simply means you are the same as that beast.”

“If you tell your soulmate–” The queen lets out a snort of digust. “– of our conversation, then I will assume you made your choice. And that you don’t truly care for him at all.”

I can’t keep this from him.

Queen Yoo must read her thoughts because she scoffs. “You are naïve. And you will be his downfall.”

“Why are you doing this?” Soo asks, cursing the hitch in her voice.

“My son must become king.”

Wang So is your son, too. Soo bites her lip before the words can escape her.

“The Crown Prince and the Fourth Prince both enjoy drinking tea.” The queen casts a disinterested look at the plate of sweets set out before her. “It would be such a shame if one brew didn’t agree with them.”

She’s going to poison the tea of whoever I choose.

Her throat is dry. “… prince.”

“Speak up.”

Her soul seems to shrivel, but it is her heart that persists.

I cannot lose him.

She clears her throat, licks her chapped lips. “The Crown Prince. I choose… the Crown Prince.”

“I thought you might.” Queen Yoo considers her with sharp eyes. “You really do care for that monster. Tell me, how can you stand to have him touch you when he has that face?”

“I count myself lucky every time he does.”

The queen gives her a patronizing, scathing smile. “You are dismissed.”

It only takes a moment to leave her chambers, but it is a moment too long for Soo.

Shakily, Soo makes her way back to the prince’s chambers. She doesn’t know if he’ll be there or not but she needs to see him. Relief floods her when she finds him waiting for her, pacing back and forth.

The moment she enters, So takes her by her elbows, looking her over as if expecting the queen to have physically hurt her.

“Soo! Did she do anything to you? Say anything?”

I sealed your brother’s fate.

“She mostly criticized us,” she says. A half-truth, but she can’t tell him the whole of it. Soo stares at him, taking in his worried countenance.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I’m just wondering how a woman so cruel gave birth to someone as good as you.”

He blinks, staring back like she’s sprouted another head.

Soo brushes his bangs away from his eyes. “You are a good person,” she whispers.

So takes her in his arms suddenly, tightly, and she returns his embrace.

I will protect you.

The ninth day of the ninth lunar month comes all too soon. Individual tables are set aside along the raised pavilion, two rows facing each other as the King and two of his queens are seated at the front. Soo and her cousin Myung are allowed to attend, reflecting their special status as soulmates, and they are seated beside their respective princes.

The festivities go by with much laughter, but Soo is hardly paying attention. She watches Crown Prince Mu like a hawk, making note of everything. When he finally requests for tea, she stiffens. The Crown Prince smiles and nods as Prince Wook converses with him.

I can’t do it.

Soo can’t let the sweet Crown Prince, who is so much like an older brother to her, die. Even if in exchange for her prince, she can’t live with the death of an innocent life on her conscience.

She feels the queen watching her.

I have made my choice.

Soo steels herself.

And I choose neither.

Her eyes linger over So’s face one last time. When he looks at her, she smiles and she can’t help from squeezing his hand under the table. She loves that he automatically smiles back at her now.

I wanted more time.

At a lull in the conversation, a court lady brings in more tea. Chae Ryung.

“Your Majesty, if I may,” Soo speaks up. “I have something to say to my future brother-in-law, to thank him for his support.”

The king nods. She stands and faces the Crown Prince. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches Chae Ryung pour the chrysanthemum tea in the prince’s cup.

“I know we are not particularly close, but I would like three drinks from you to strengthen our kinship.”

Surprise ripples through the pavilion. No one expects such a request from someone not yet a royal, much less a woman.

“Hae Soo, you are truly a unique woman indeed.” The Crown Prince laughs. “I shall gladly do as you request. However, it is tea, not alcohol.”

“With the mood that I am in today, I think even tea will get me drunk.” Soo walks over before the prince can motion for the court lady to bring her the tea. She doesn’t want So to see her face. It’ll give everything away.

I can do anything if it means shielding So from pain. She lets the thought boost her resolve, strengthening a mental wall between their bond. So would never suspect it unless he tried to pull at her.

Triumph gleams in the cold queen’s eyes. She wanted to get rid of at least one of them.

I was a target too, she thinks, because of what I did for him. For taking off his mask.

Soo doesn’t want to leave him. But if she can save both him and the Crown Prince…

She knows him. He’ll save his brother.

She’ll save them both.

“First, I will drink to your longevity.”

She drinks the first cup, hiding her grimace as the liquid touches her tongue. With an iron will she didn’t know she had, Soo digs in deep to keep her expression neutral. Unthinkingly, she draws strength from their bond, taking what So has to offer.

So’s stare burns into her back.

Soo accepts the second cup, fingers shaking.

“Second, I have known your kindness as you welcomed me to the royal family. I will drink to your wisdom…”

She pauses as she feels the poison’s effect already taking hold. Ah, I’m glad So can’t see my face now. I must be giving everything away.

“… and benevolence. May you become a judicious and fair ruler in the future.”

Another wave of pain rocks her body just as the liquid from the second cup touches her lips. She locks her muscles in place, trying to get a grip on herself.

“STOP!”

A voice thunders behind her and then the tea cup is knocked out of her grip, shattering on the floor.

I wasn’t strong enough. I wanted to be strong enough.

She’s roughly taken by the shoulders, and turned around. Her heart sighs as her view is filled with that of her soulmate’s face.

This soulbond is a bit tricky.

“Soo! What are you thinking, you stupid fool?!”

She wants to respond, but instead of words, something else trickles out of her mouth.

So’s eyes widen, and panic sweeps her body, but it’s not hers.

She wants to reach up to touch his face, but a cough wracks her slight frame. The coppery taste of blood taints her tongue, pouring out of her lips. Her body grows weak, her remaining strength leaving her. The wall she constructed tumbles down and she sees the moment it hits So all at once. He flinches, her pain becoming his own.

I’m sorry.

So takes all her weight, falling to his knees as he cradles her body against him.

“Soo! SOO!”

I never told him.

“It’s… okay…” Soo shakes her head weakly. “I… lov…”

“SOO!!”

She catches a glimpse of his soulmark before her eyes close completely. It’s grown dull and grey.

Looks like… my time is up.

An agonized scream fills her ears and then all she knows is darkness.

Pain. Her heart aches with the undeniable weight of it. The strange thing is, it’s not her own. It’s someone else’s pain, someone else’s grief that’s threatening to drown her.

This can’t be the end.

Soo is only aware of the void, a blackness no matter where she turns. It’s hard to move, like her limbs are stuck in goo.

I wanted more time. Much more time with him.

“Soo… You have to fight.”

A voice drifts in, louder and then soft, but with the same pleading tone.

“Please… you can’t leave me. You can’t die. You don’t have my permission.” She swears she can hear a sob.

I don’t want to leave you.

“Not when I finally…”

Soo struggles to move through the inky darkness, to find some way out.

“Soo… please…”

So!

She tries to fight her way forward, but the more she struggles, the deeper she seems to immerse herself. Her consciousness begins to fade.

“… don’t go…”

I’ll fight. I’ll fight! I promise!

The next time Soo becomes aware of her surroundings, she has enough strength to open her eyes. The first thing that greets her is a familiar ceiling. Blinking against the light, she tries to turn her head. There’s a weight on her stomach and when she glances down, all she sees is black hair.

Ah. Her heart sings at the sight of him.

Weakly, she lifts her left hand and places it on his head, patting him gently. He stirs and turns over to face her. He blinks, and then his eyes snap open, suddenly wide awake.

“Soo!”

He sits up, looking down at her and cupping her face.

“Hey,” she whispers, giving him a lopsided smile.

The prince’s face doesn’t even twitch at her informal words. His relieved face quickly turns angry. “You foolish, idiotic, stupid woman.”

His outward anger is nothing compared to the overwhelming relief she feels from him. “Your Highness…”

“You are cruel.” His voice cracks, his thumb caressing her temple. “What if you hadn’t been able to tap into my tolerance for poison? How am I to live without you?”

“I don’t regret it. I couldn’t let you die.” She mirrors his gesture and touches his face weakly. “I would do it again.”

“Don’t,” he murmurs fiercely. He grips the hand she has placed over his cheek. “I won’t ever forgive you if you do.”

Soo confesses everything in the end. Her meeting with his mother, the unspoken ultimatum.

The Fourth Prince rages, determined to confront the queen but she stops him. “You can’t, Your Highness. Your mother holds too much power, she will find another way.”

“She is not my mother.” Though he spits out the words, she can see the torment in his eyes.

Soo curls her hand around his, hoping her touch will calm him. It works only slightly as the tension eases out of his shoulders.

“Stay here with me,” she murmurs. She brings his hand to her lips, kissing the back of it.

So sits beside her on the bed, crushing her to his chest. “Always, my love,” he gasps out. “I will never leave you.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

When he gives her a puzzled look over her modern phrasing, Soo simply smiles and snuggles against him.

Recovery takes longer than she’d like, but her soulmate is there to take care of her. He doesn’t mention his mother to her again, even though his anger is still there, simmering beneath the surface. She can feel it whenever she reaches through her bond and does her best to send him love and comfort when she can. She knows he feels helpless.

When she’s finally allowed out of bed, Soo begs So to take her out for a walk. He obliges. She takes his arm as they traverse along the paths near their lake. They don’t talk for a while, but there’s a comfort in their silence. She enjoys having his presence by her side. The simple fact that she can rest her head against his shoulder warms her heart.

Suddenly, So stops walking and she lifts her head. “Your Highness?”

“I can’t lose you.” It’s a statement she’s heard over and over since she woke up.

“You would’ve been okay,” she says, like she does every time. “You would’ve survived without me.”

Soulmates can live without each other, it’s true. But some don’t want to.

“How dare you ask me to. How dare you think I can,” he hisses. But any anger in him is swiftly replaced by determination. “I will take you out of this prison.” He holds both her hands in his, raising them so he can kiss her knuckles. “We will be free.”

Soo shakes her head. “This is your home.”

“No. YOU are my home. I see that clearly now.”

So holds her gaze, staring into her very soul.

“Marry me.”

Soo fights the sudden urge to giggle. Despite the confidence on his face, Soo feels his nervousness through their bond. She smiles at him fondly. “… we’re already engaged, don’t you remember?”

“Is that a yes?”

Soo places her wrist on his palm. The familiar elated rush runs through her as their Marks meet.

“Yes.” She jumps into his arms, taking him off guard. He stumbles back but steadies himself, wrapping his arms around her and catching her. Always catching her.

So stares up at her like she’s his whole world, and she leans down to kiss him, conveying as much of her love as she can.

“Yes.”

Their wedding is set to be held in two months. Soo would much rather they elope, but her soulmate is a prince and there’s protocol and tradition that must be followed. She’s not looking forward to the pomp and spectacle, or the many eyes set to scrutinize them.

But if it means I can be with him, Soo thinks, then I will gladly endure anything.

When Soo gets the all clear from the royal doctor, she doesn’t waste any time. She corners her soulmate in his quarters, intent on showing him how much he means to her.

“Soo, why are you already out of bed?”

She wipes the worried and exasperated look off his face when she wraps her arms around his neck, going on her tiptoes to grace him with a kiss.

“I’m so glad we found each other,” Soo whispers, smiling against his lips. She feels more than sees the reddening of his cheeks. Laughing quietly, she pulls back to look into his eyes. “Do you believe in Fate now?”

“I believe in us.”

His hand wraps around her wrist and they both gasp when their Marks touch, a surge of energy passing between them, amplifying their desire.

“No matter what happens, no matter who tries to come between us,” Soo vows, “you will always have me.”

So kisses her then, deeply, searing himself into her heart, into her soul. She returns the sentiment, pouring all her love into their bond as she moves her lips against his, over and over until they’re both gasping for breath.

I am bound to you, Wang So. Now until forever.