“Do you ever wonder what our fate would have been, if you had really been Hong Sam Nom, a eunuch of the royal palace?” As they sit by the palace pool, Lee Yeong casts the words out idly, like a fishing line with no hook.
That’s what he seems to want Ra On to think, anyway. “You mean, would we still have been lovers, if I’d really been a man?”
From her side, the answer is simple: Lee Yeong has been the centre of her world since shortly after they met, and changing her sex wouldn’t alter that. From his side, it’s more complicated: he’s the crown prince, and for all his playfulness, he takes his responsibilities seriously.
Would he have allowed himself to love a man? Does he find real men desirable?
She’s been questioning this herself, lately. She’s seen the way their Kim hyung’s gaze follows the crown prince when he thinks no one’s looking, and she knows very well that the two are closer than friends. When she was Sam Nom, it was often the three of them together, eating and laughing, and she can’t help thinking of those times with great affection.
These days, she has to be respectable so the king can sanction her relationship with his son. She can’t sleep over at Repentance Hall and ask Kim hyung questions all night, anymore. She’s not Sam Nom.
She tried calling Kim hyung “oppa” once, but it felt altogether wrong on her tongue and made him even more silent than usual. Kim hyung is his rightful name. She doesn’t want him to think of her as a girl, if it makes things awkward between them.
Her book is selling well. Traders have carried it to every corner of the kingdom, and together with her grandfather’s salary from the palace, they’re making enough money to live comfortably. Wheels are in motion to extend her royal pardon to her parents, and she hopes that by autumn, her whole family will be able to live together, working and laughing. That her father and Lee Yeong will find accord—about the new world they both want to create, and about her. In the meantime, she’s made friends of her grandfather’s neighbours, gives them counsel in their love affairs. She enjoys the freedom to be herself, whomever that may be.
And after reading her tale, several young men—all quite short, with suspiciously smooth jaws and delicate noses—have travelled from distant towns to meet her. To meet the author who wrote of a woman living as a man in the palace.
She greets them with a friendly smile and the offer of tea.
One of these youths brings his wife, the two of them shyly holding hands, obviously very much in love.
Ra On starts another book, this one a fairytale of her own invention.
She still has enemies. The nobles were none too thrilled at her being pardoned for her crimes, and although their influence has waned with the execution of the former prime minister, they still have money and connections. Ambition is in their blood.
So after a certain amount of badgering, Kim hyung agrees to teach her swordsmanship in secret lessons outside Repentance Hall, so if she’s ever accosted again, she can defend herself.
She changes into her men's clothes in the hall, preferring the freedom of movement they offer. When she comes outside, Lee Yeong is always there, chatting with Kim hyung in the shade of the tree, or pretending to read, and he stays for the lesson, watching with a clear gaze and offering the occasional word of advice. Sometimes he springs up to demonstrate a particular thrust or parry himself, every move graceful and confident.
When the lessons started, his focus was on Ra On, and if she achieved a particularly difficult move, he would smile. But lately, he watches both of them with a proprietary air.
Today, when Kim hyung declares the lesson over, and Ra On drops, panting, onto the ground, Lee Yeong stands, and he and Kim hyung dive into a series of advanced forms in a fluid display of prowess. Their blades glint in the sunlight. They are perfectly in tune.
When they finally cease and come to sit beside her, Ra On’s arms are still tired from wielding her heavy sword. “It’s a very useful art, but it does make one’s arms ache,” she tells them. “Truthfully, I prefer a pen.”
“You’re more proficient with a pen, too.” Kim hyung looks to the prince. “We should find her a smaller weapon. Perhaps a long knife.”
“You’re right.” Lee Yeong casts Ra On a teasing glance. “Hong Sam Nom could have worn a sword, if he hadn’t been a eunuch, but for Hong Ra On… it would only get tangled in your skirts.”
A few days later, back by the palace pool. The sun is shining, and they recline under the royal parasol. Ra On stops mentally planning the next chapter of her fairytale and instead picks up the conversation from the other day. “You asked if you and the eunuch Hong Sam Nom would have fallen in love. If you recall, when you found out my real name, I was already precious to you, Jeoha.”
“That is true. Your smile was just as bright when you were a man, and your propensity for getting into trouble just as insistent…”
She flicks a Chinese fan open between them and turns her head away in reproach, a maidenly trick she’s only recently mastered, and he laughs and takes her hand in his, folding the fan away.
After a second or two, she relents, meeting his gaze and laughing with him. Then she sobers, though she’s careful to keep a teasing gleam in her eye.
“You know what I wonder? If, when you discovered the truth about my sex, you were shocked. Or even disappointed for a second.”
“You never disappoint me, Ra On,” says Lee Yeong. “Such a thing is impossible.” But he is wary behind his smile.
She turns to him, takes both his hands and addresses him, with the sure certainty that, whatever else he may feel, he loves her deeply. “We’ve already concluded, haven’t we, that emotions you can’t control are neither right nor wrong?”
His eyebrows twitch in surprise, colour touches his cheeks, and she can see the misconception form, that he thinks she is proposing further intimacy between the two of them, even before the question of their future together has been settled.
It makes her blush too, so she adds hastily, “I’m not talking about your feelings for me, Jeoha. I believe I’m not the only person you hold dear.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” His tongue slides out to wet his lips, and she realises this might be why he raised the question in the first place—to gauge her reaction or to ask her permission—and that he never thought she’d welcome it. He still doesn’t. His feelings are knotted up in silk.
“Forgive me, Jeoha.” She should stop. It is criminal to suggest such a thing to the crown prince, and definitely disreputable, but she’s spent her whole adult life playing matchmaker, and she wants her people to know true happiness. “It is only that I know how devoted your most loyal servant Kim Byeong Yeon is to you, and you to him.”
“‘I am going to try it once, that wicked love.’ That’s what you said to me, that time.”
“But in the end, there was no need for such extreme measures.”
“Yes, well, I don’t think it is extreme… or wicked.” Ra On remembers the smooth-skinned youth and his wife, so happy together. She smiles at Lee Yeong. “Your Highness’ heart is warm and generous; it makes those of us who love you want to be generous in return.”
The crown prince draws his hands away, and for a moment she can’t tell what he’s thinking. “You’re asking me to divide my love between the two of you?”
“Not at all, Jeoha. I’m proposing you multiply it by us both, not for my sake but for your own.” She can provide the impetus, though, if that’s what he needs. She leans against him, in the pleasant shade of the parasol. “I trust you.”
“Evidently much more than one would expect.” The prince still seems perplexed, as if he feels he should make a show of disapproval.
“Well, say I was really Hong Sam Nom,” says Ra On. “Say you had kept me by your side as your secret lover. As the crown prince, you’d still have to marry—and I hope you would have done your hypothetical queen the courtesy to hold her in regard.”
Lee Yeong lets out an unprincely snort. “That’s not the same thing at all, and you know it.”
“I do know it. It’s not the same, because I would have been jealous of the queen. Just as Kim hyung—even while he’s happy for us—is perhaps a little jealous of me.”
Lee Yeong rises to his feet and offers her a hand up. They stroll to his private garden, the one that was his mother’s. It takes a long time for him to speak, and when he finally does, he takes her hand. “Every day, I think how much luckier I am than my father: I have two people I care about, whose counsel I value, whom I would trust with my life. My father has no one but his own reckless son.”
“Yes, Jeoha, it’s true,” Ra On teases solemnly. “The king’s son is such a hothead, I can see how he might sometimes be more of a burden than a comfort.”
Lee Yeong’s indignation echoes through the garden, soon followed by laughter from them both.
The attack comes a few days later, one afternoon near the market. Two men dressed as bandits. Ra On drops her purchases and starts to run back to the crowded street, hoping they won’t dare follow, but two more cut her off.
Her blood turns to ice, and her hands are shaking, but wonder of wonders, she’s wearing her knife—a shorter, slimmer version of the sword she practised with, procured for her by Lee Yeong—and she manages to slash the arm of one of her assailants, blood blooming through the cut in his jacket. He falls back a step, but her blade bounces uselessly off the next man’s tunic when she tries to stab him in the chest, miscalculating the angle.
There’s no time to strategize—it’s hard enough to catch her breath. She needs to manoeuvre her back to a wall, as Kim hyung taught her, so she can at least keep all four of her attackers in view, but there are too many men, too many deadly weapons. The man with the bleeding arm growls and kicks the knife from her hand, sending it flying, sending a jarring pain up her right arm. She cradles the arm to her chest. All is lost.
It’s too beautiful a world to leave. She has too many reasons to stay: Lee Yeong’s smile; her mother and grandfather; her father, who she has yet to get to know; the book she’s writing, still unfinished. Masked men loom around her like nightmare monsters, closing in, and Ra On’s old acting instincts take over. She spies a gap in their semi-circle and, without warning, dives through it.
Something jagged and bright catches at her shoulder, but she doesn’t stop. She runs and runs, taking a left turn, a right. Their boots pound the ground behind her. A cloud covers the sun. And then, as if from nowhere, Kim hyung launches himself into the fray, his sword at the ready. He fights ruthlessly, despatching the foremost attackers with two simple thrusts. The men at the back stagger to a halt, startled, but they don’t turn and run.
The one on the left is small and a little clumsy, and Kim hyung deals with him easily. The man on the right, though—he’s tall and broad, and obviously skilled. And he’s angry. His arm drips blood where Ra On slashed him. He charges at Kim hyung with a snarl.
Kim hyung leaps into the air, twisting, and their blades clash and scrape.
Ra On, to her own later disgust, shuts her eyes. It’s not so long ago that Kim Yun Seong threw himself in danger’s path for her, and her eyes sting. Not again. Please, not again.
The slash and thuds and swish of clothing stops, and there’s silence but for harsh, heavy breaths. Either Kim hyung or her assailant is still standing. She makes herself open her eyes.
The attacker is sprawled on the ground, as lifeless as his friends. Kim hyung is standing, but only just. His tunic is cut. There’s blood.
Ra On’s alarm quickens, and she hurries to him. “Are you all right? Kim hyung, please be all right.”
“I’m fine.” But he staggers, and he’s so pale. It can’t be good.
She pulls his good arm across her shoulder to steady him and looks around to get her bearings. Her house is closer than the palace. “This way.”
The neighbour’s son runs to the palace with a message, and Ra On grabs a cloth and presses it to Kim hyung’s upper arm. The cloth soaks with blood, her hands turn red, drips stain the floor, but Kim hyung’s still conscious, and he insists on sitting rather than lying down. “I’ve had worse injuries at weapons training.”
Ra On doesn’t know whether to believe him. Thankfully, Lee Yeong soon arrives, sweeping inside in an urgent swirl of robes. On his heels, Ra On’s grandfather with his medicine bag.
“Ra On.” Lee Yeong crouches next to her. “Tell me you’re not hurt.”
Grandfather chivvies them aside so he can see to Kim hyung. He removes the wad and narrows his eyes thoughtfully as he inspects the wound.
Lee Yeong draws Ra On to her feet and keeps hold of her hand.
“Thanks to Kim hyung, I’ve barely a scratch, Jeoha,” she promises. She’s still focused on Kim hyung’s more serious injury, but Grandfather rummages one-handed in his bag and tosses Lee Yeong a small jar of salve to apply to the cut on her shoulder, which he does with the gentlest of touches. At first it stings, and there’s a strong smell of herbs that makes her head swim, but then it soothes—or perhaps that’s Lee Yeong’s presence.
“Four men dressed as bandits,” Kim hyung reports to Lee Yeong. “All dead now.”
Grandfather has applied his own herbs, and he starts to bind Kim hyung’s arm. “It’s nothing life-threatening. With rest, you’ll be good as new in a week.”
“I told Ra On she was making a fuss about nothing.”
Grandfather rises and confers with the crown prince. They agree that Kim hyung will spend the night—“He mustn’t exert himself,” says Grandfather; “It’s as safe here as at Repentance Hall right now,” adds Lee Yeong, overruling Kim hyung’s objections—and Grandfather gathers his medicines and leaves to arrange for palace guards to watch the house, and representatives of the Royal Investigative Office to go and draw the faces of the dead men and try to learn their identities.
At last, the three of them are alone: Ra On starts to heat water for the tonic Grandfather prescribed; Lee Yeong sits beside Kim hyung and tells him, “I want to scold you for running into danger, but I can’t. I can only scold myself for allowing such a danger to occur.”
“Do you think you can prevent every evil thought and deed with the force of your royal will?” asks Kim hyung ironically.
Lee Yeong looks momentarily affronted, then softens and sighs. “I wish it were so easy.” He clasps Kim hyung’s good arm. “Byeong Yeon, I lost you once. I don’t think I could bear it a second time.”
Ra On’s heart skips a beat. She wants to stare, to gauge each of their feelings—and her own—but she turns and busies herself with the tonic, giving them privacy. For a long moment, no one speaks. She steals a glance and finds them both watching her, Kim hyung wistful, Lee Yeong uncharacteristically uncertain.
Ah. So she is the stumbling block. She offers them a smile for reassurance.
That’s enough for Lee Yeong, at least. He smiles back and turns to Kim hyung. “You know how dear you are to me.”
“But not like that.” Kim hyung glances at him, then away. “You don’t think of me like that.”
“You love Hong Ra On, Jeoha.” He says it reprovingly, as if they’re arguing and that simple fact should settle the matter.
Lee Yeong’s lips twitch. “That’s true.”
“It was my suggestion.” Ra On brings Kim hyung the bowl, kneels to give it to him. “I think our dainty scholar’s heart is big enough for two, don’t you? That is, if you’re prepared to share him.”
“I… Jeoha.” Kim hyung flushes. “I’m not worthy. I held a sword to your throat.”
“With me, it was a knife to the chest,” muses Ra On.
Lee Yeong laughs. “Appearances to the contrary, it seems I do have a type: loyal, fierce, selfless, beautiful—”
Kim hyung shakes his head.
“—stubborn.” Lee Yeong stops teasing. “Byeong Yeon, as your friend, I want to give you your heart’s desire. With all due modesty, I hope that’s—myself.”
Kim hyung swallows. “Jeoha.”
“If not, I understand. I realise I’m not to everyone’s taste.”
The crown prince’s blatantly false diffidence makes Ra On want to snicker, but she hides her grin out of respect for Kim hyung’s confusion. She doesn’t want to distract them at this delicate moment. They’re so close.
Kim hyung licks his lips. “No one could ever know.”
“Who would guess at such a thing?” There’s a hopeful light in Lee Yeong’s eye now. He leans closer.
Ra On is warm with shared secrets. “We would know. That’s all that matters.”
“Then—I live to serve you, Jeoha.”
A frown mars Lee Yeong’s countenance, and he pulls away. “No, not like that. Only if your heart wants it too. Only then.”
“If such a thing is possible…” Kim hyung drops the formalities, his voice low. “Lee Yeong.”
“That’s better.” Lee Yeong’s frown clears, leaving him as smug as ever. “My Byeong Yeon.”
But for all his self-satisfaction, his hand trembles as he touches his fingertips to Kim hyung’s jaw, tipping his face. Their lips meet and press and linger. Ra On’s pulse races. Her cheeks grow hot, but not with embarrassment, nor regret. It’s their intensity. Just that simple kiss could outshine the sun. To witness it feels truly intimate.
After a long moment, they draw apart, their gazes still tangled. There might be tears in Kim hyung’s eyes.
“Come now, he’s supposed to be resting,” tuts Ra On. “You’re getting him all worked up, Jeoha.”
Kim hyung groans and shakes his head despairingly. “Now I’ll have both of you teasing me to death.”
“Nothing new there, surely.” Lee Yeong’s mouth curves.
“Never to death. Merely to happiness,” Ra On promises. She clasps his good shoulder for a moment. “My dear friend.”
Kim hyung’s expression is warm with this new understanding between them, then he turns plaintive eyes on the prince. “I suppose I might hope for a few moments of peace, here and there?”
Lee Yeong and Ra On burst out laughing.
“Perhaps one or two,” says Ra On. “Now and then.”