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a year and two lifetimes

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            After the wedding, Shin asks his grandmother how long they have. She tells him a year and he thinks that’s more than he was ever granted and still not even close to enough. He asks her this while they watch Chae-Gyung flirt with the baker’s boy behind the counter. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, but still it happens. The pouty lips, the quickly fluttering eyes, and then the big, bright smile when she finally gets what she wants, a large loaf straight from the oven instead of from the shelf.

            He thinks, That’s my wife in there.

            He thinks, That’s the former Crown Princess of Korea. The idea is enough to make him laugh out loud on the sidewalk where he stands with his grandmother. The two servants standing behind the Dowager Queen look at each other nervously, but his grandmother understands what the great cosmic joke is and joins in. They’re still laughing when Chae-Gyung leaves the bakery. She breaks off a piece of the loaf for everyone there, including the guards trying their best to look both nondescript and menacing, and when she hands him his portion, warm and soft, she gives him a hopeful look as though asking to be let in on the joke.

            He takes her hand and pulls her forward. He kisses her on the corner of her mouth, where a crumb sits, evidence of her sneaking a bite before bringing the loaf out. Shin isn’t one for indiscretion, but who is here now? Who, among the passersby looking curiously at the foreigners kissing, could suspect who they are? And if they do, what of that? Let them take their pictures and print their stories. He has a whole year of freedom ahead of him.

            When he leans back, Chae-Gyung asks him, “What were you and her majesty laughing at?”

            He leans down to look her in the eyes, the same eyes he’s looked at for years, bigger and brighter than anything else in his universe.

            “Me,” he replies before indulging in another kiss. Just one more. Since the servants and the guards were already looking away. Just one more. And another. And another.

            “We were laughing at me.”

            Yes, a year isn’t nearly enough, but what a treat it’ll be. Warm bread and kissing in foreign streets where few people would recognize them.

            And Chae-Gyung, his Chae-Gyung, his fiancée of over a decade. She will still be there when the year is over and that is more than enough.

---

            He met Chae-Gyung when she was ten and still an ugly duckling. Her parents dressed her up to bring her to the Palace for the first time, but they couldn’t hide the awful bowl cut or the scrape on her cheek. His mother informed him of the engagement the day before as she informed him of all his growing duties, with distance and no room for argument.

            “The former King took it upon himself to choose the next Crown Princess. The Dowager Queen thinks, and I agree, that it would be best for you to spend some time with her before your formal engagement.”

            She said the former King and the Dowager Queen as though they weren’t his grandparents. Though he had only been Crown Prince for a few years, he knew not to ask questions and just nod. He put it out of his mind and a week later, there she was, a girl in messy hair and a bright yellow dress bowing in front of his family. Her parents stood behind her with their hands held in front of them them and when Chae-Gyung slipped in her bow, Shin saw her mother instinctively reach a hand forward before snapping it back.

            “She’s funny,” Hye-Myung whispered to him as the adults went over the details of her stay in the next room over. Chae-Gyung sat across from Shin and his sister, her legs swinging back and forth as her eyes wandered around the room. She has no discipline and that dress is ugly, Shin thought. It was tacky and too big for her, the large skirt and multiple layers of frill threatening to swallow her up with every swing of her legs.

            “You should go over and greet her,” Hye-Myung whispered again, giving him a slight nudge in the ribs. Only a few years older, Hye-Myung was nearly twice his height, having hit her growth spurt early, and her slight nudge was enough to send him stumbling off the settee. The sound of his shoes hitting the tiled floor caught Chae-Gyung’s attention from where it was wandering among the priceless paintings and vases. Not knowing what else to do, Shin bowed and, seeing that, his future bride stumbled off her seat and bowed as well.

            He felt foolish, getting caught so off-guard by a stranger, and told her, “Your dress is cheap and ugly.”     

            She looked at him in horror and, for a moment, he thought she was going to do something violent like throw her shoes at him. Instead, she burst into tears.

            That’s how Shin met the love of his life.

---

            They go to Paris first because Chae-Gyung wanted to see the Louvre. In her exile since the falling out at the Palace, she was confined to the small European town the officials assigned. While picturesque and quaint, the town had little to offer in terms of museums and, though she hated operas and was bored by the theatre, Chae-Gyung loved art museums. In all their time together, Shin never had a chance to learn that and discovering it now, as he follows her from painting to painting, comes as such a reward for years of silence and misunderstanding.

            They’re in their disguise and though there are still a few necessary guards following them, it still feels like a wonderful little secret. Shin has on jeans and a hat, with his glasses on instead of contacts, while Chae-Gyung is in a pale yellow summer dress. Sometimes, they would stop in front of a painting and Chae-Gyung was stare at it with a slight frown. The first time she does this, Shin follows her gaze and sees a portrait of an aristocrat.

            “What are you looking at?” he asks because the portrait, while proficient, is certainly not moving. It was most likely finished as payment for a debt, a way for an artist to honor the patron who supported him while he worked on greater paintings.

            “Do you see that spot there, where her hair settles on her collar?” Chae-Gyung traces the air with her fingers, her hand as graceful and precise as a dancer’s body. “How did he know to do that? The original sketches looked different.” Her hand carves a different pattern in the air.

            Chae-Gyung asks, “How did he know to change it? That it would look better like this?”

            The summer they met, Shin thought he knew everything about her, this common girl who came to stay at the Palace. He thought he could guess her every thought before she had it, but by the time the leaves started to change color and she had to return home to her real life, he knew differently. In a life where all is known and everything is planned, where the intentions of strangers are as easy to spot as clouds on a rainy day, Chae-Gyung is a constant surprise, the unexpected bit of sunlight peeking through, the playful breeze on a stifling afternoon.

            When she looks too long at a painting, Shin plays with the skirt on her dress to get her attention. She looks at him and the lines of concentration on her face smooth over, making room for a silly little grin. He likes all her surprises, all the various facets of herself she reveals, but he likes her most like this, with all her attention and joy focused solely on him. He thinks that’s why he treated her the way he did as they grew up, a constant shifting of hot and cold. He wanted her all to himself or not at all and negotiating a compromise between the two nearly tore them apart.

---

            Shin realized he was in love with Chae-Gyung when he was sixteen and she ran into him with her bicycle.

            She wasn’t supposed to be riding it, but the servants learned to look the other way. They made an exception for the bicycle in the same way they made exceptions for eating directly from the kitchen and blasting pop music loudly from the stately, centuries-old garden grounds. They made exceptions for Chae-Gyung because everyone did, including his own family. She came with the heat and the long days at the beginning of every summer and left just as it began to get cold. Try as his mother might to educate her in royal etiquette, not much seemed to change Chae-Gyung, who could regale his grandmother for hours with her reinterpretations of melodramatic television dramas and send the guards into fits of laughter with her antics. Where they treated the Crown Prince with respect and formality, they loved and doted on Chae-Gyung. She was their little ball of energy whizzing through the quiet Palace halls and Shin would have resented her if she let him.

            She didn’t let him.

            Chae-Gyung followed him everywhere. He couldn’t avoid her and, after that first summer, he found that he didn’t want to. She burst into his room while he was reading, dancing and showing him her latest art project. She cheered loudly from the sidelines while his instructors taught him how to ride a horse and play official games. She brought him little cakes she baked that tasted terrible and little trinkets she made that he would never wear. What amazed the servants was not that she did this, despite the Crown Prince’s reserved and taciturn nature, but that he let her. Shin, who spent so much of his time alone, dismissing servants whenever he could, let his small fiancée follow him around like a second self, listening as she talked his ear off.

            Then she hit him with her bicycle and everything changed.

            The front wheel hit his side and they both careened onto the ground. Shin caught her as they were falling and that’s how he found her on top of him when he opened his eyes, with a face too close to his own and a big, sheepish grin lighting her features. With a will of their own, his arms tightened around her waist and pulled her even closer.

            “Sorry, Shin-Gun,” she chirped and he wanted nothing more in that moment than to kiss that stupid grin off her face, to push her onto her back in the grass and ruin the beautiful dress her servants picked out for her, a dress meant for demure sitting at a luncheon and not for reckless riding. It wasn’t the first time he wanted to do this, but it was the first time he thought he wouldn’t be able to resist.

            The servants ran up to them then and Shin held on for a moment longer, hands tightening even more, enough to make Chae-Gyung ask, “Are you hurt?”

            Yes, he wanted to say. Yes, I am. Look only at me. Send them away. Stay here.

            But she was already off of him, hands searching his sides desperately looking for injuries. Furious and frustrated, Shin brushed her off and stood up.

            “Don’t follow me,” he yelled as he walked away.

---

            They meet her twin in Rome. They walk into a café holding hands and Chae-Gyung gives a little gasp of surprise. The barista behind the counter is older and has shorter hair, but she looks uncannily like Chae-Gyung. She’s scowling at the customer on the stool in front of her when they walk up to the counter.

            “I wasn’t flirting! I was helping a customer. I don’t even know how to flirt. Aish!” she says to the man in Korean and he shoots back, “Is this what you do instead of studying? You don’t know how foreign men are. If they tell you you’re pretty, just shout at them that you have a boyfriend.”

            “Excuse me,” Chae-Gyung interrupts and they both turn to her.

            “What?”

            Their eyes widen when they realize who she is. When they begin to bow, Chae-Gyung plops down on the seat next to the man and drags Shin down with her.

            “Oh please don’t. We’re in disguise,” she tells them.

            The couple look at one another and the barista asks, “Your Highness, aren’t you supposed to be in Hong Kong right now?”

            “It’s to divert the press. We’re on our honeymoon. Well, our second honeymoon,” Chae-Gyung answers. “Do you mind if I ask who your parents are? It’s just — we look really smiliar.”

            “I told you!” the barista crows at the man in front of her. Then, to Chae-Gyung, she answers, “This is Choi Han Kyul and I’m Go Eun Chan. We’re not related, Your Highness. My mom and sister looked it up when your engagement was announced. Besides, you’re far more beautiful.”

            Han Kyul looks to disagree, but Shin knows the barista is right. Sitting next to someone with her exact features, Chae-Gyung shines brighter, her beauty carrying a quality both incandescent and inimitable. For Shin, there is no contest and if there were, the only criterion would be who is most like Chae-Gyung.

            With that standard of measurement, his wife always comes first.

---

            Shin had a plan.

            He would marry Chae-Gyung as was required of him and, after five years, they would divorce. She would go her way, with all the perks of being a former royal without any of the trappings, and he would go his. He would be free from another marriage and, citing heartbreak and minor disgrace, with the sympathy of the nation on his side, would earn himself a few years of freedom before resuming his duties as Crown Prince. It would have been a flawless plan if not for one minor sticking point.

            He was in love with his fiancée.

            When he discovered this, he ran. For the first time in his life, Shin packed a small bag of clothing and snuck out of the Palace without his guards. He caught a train out of Seoul and that was how he met Hyo-Rin, who looked the way he felt.

            She was sad and had a beauty soft and contained, easy and comforting to look at. As he spent the day with her, Shin wondered about the nature of prisons and all the myriad forms it could take. She was a dancer and all her movements, like his, carried with them a strict deliberation. All her words were carefully chosen. His attraction to her was without urgency or fear of heartbreak. Theirs was a smooth relationship, without jealousy or tears.

            Chae-Gyung wasn’t allowed to acknowledge him at school, but when she heard that he was dating Hyo-Rin, she cornered him in an empty classroom. Her lips were pale and her eyes looked as though they had been crying. Shin wanted both to hug her and scold her.

            Don’t look at me like that.

            “Is it true?” she asked.

            Don’t look at me as though I betrayed you.

            “Are you — are you dating that girl from the dance department?”

            I didn’t make that promise. My grandfather did. I didn’t ask to be your fiancé and I didn’t ask to be the Crown Prince.

            “It’s okay if you are.”

            You get to walk away from this. Do you understand? I don’t, but you do.

            “I just wanted to know.”

            I won’t be able to let you go if you marry me.

            “Yes,” Shin replied. “I am.”

---

            Chae-Gyung loves New York. If not for her insistence, Shin would have hid from the endless crowds in libraries and the quiet corners of Central Park. She drags him onto the bustling sidewalks and, with linked arms, they take in everything the city has to offer. One night, they stumble into a nightclub. When Shin hears the burst of loud music and sees the mass of pressed bodies, he makes his way back out the door. Chae-Gyung grabs his hand and drags him to the dance floor.

            “Shin-Gun, please,” she mouths. He can’t hear because the music is too loud, all bass and sultry voice sending innuendos into the crowd.

            “I don’t think this is a good—” he begins, but then her back is pressed up tight against his front and her short jean skirt sways his hips to the music. When she rests his hand on her stomach, her shirt rides up a little and he can feel her skin. He leans down and breathes into the nook where her necks curves into her shoulder.

            Shin has wanted many things in his adult life — a film career, a better relationship with Yul, the support of his country, a smile from Hyo-Rin who so rarely smiles — but nothing, no, nothing, more than this.

            He places a soft kiss on Chae-Gyung’s shoulder, a promise of everything to come.

---

            On their first night together as a married couple, Shin sat with his back to the wall and ordered Chae-Gyung, in her elaborate bride’s gown and heavy hair, to stay on the other side of the room.

            “But Shin-Gun, it’ll be so boring,” she whined. “We can at least play a game.”

            “No,” he barked. “Stay on your side.”

            He didn’t care that the servant girls sent each other knowing glances. He just wanted to be able to sleep and put this long day behind him. Hours later, he was still awake while the servants all slept on the floor between him and Chae-Gyung. He snuck past them and sat down in front of the newly minted Crown Princess, who was leaning onto the wall in her sleep and ruining the expensive paint with her drool.

            He thought briefly of responsible Hyo-Rin, who rejected his proposal, and of Yul, who had a curious, disconcerting affection in his voice when he learned that Chae-Gyung was the Crown Princess. He thought of Yul’s mother, who he never liked and who might be returning, and of his own parents. He thought of all the potential trouble ahead for him and for this silly girl who agreed to marry him.

            He thought of all that and still could not stop his heart from beating quick and loud in his chest. Thought of all that and still could not stop the inexplicable surge of happiness and relief rushing through his veins. Thought of all that and was still grateful, so very grateful, to his grandfather, who gave him a teddy bear and a loud, funny girl with a generous heart and a quick laugh. Who made sure he would never be alone again. He could do this, he could hide from her for a bit longer, but not much longer. He hoped she would forgive him when she found out.

            “Hey, hey,” Shin whispered and poked her cheek with a finger. She stirred and grumbled. He poked her cheek again.

            “I’m sick, oma. Don’t make me go to school,” she mumbled.

            Shin chuckled and stretched out on the floor in front of her. His mother was going to have a fit when she found out, but even that thought made him smile.

            Maybe he’ll call her oma and stun her speechless.

---

            Their year is nearing its end and Shin has spent the past few weeks considering how best to tell Chae-Gyung that they’ll have to go back. Even though Hye-Myung is now next in line for the throne, he is still a prince and must resume a prince’s duties. There is a small part of him that fears that, after everything that’s happened and all that she had to go through, Chae-Gyung will decide not to go back with him.

            They’re eating dinner on their hotel balcony in Buenos Aires, listening to the symphony of the cicadas, when Chae-Gyung asks, “Do you know what I miss?”

            “What do you miss?”

            She moves the food on her plate around with a fork and says, “I miss my oma’s cooking.”

            Chae-Gyung looks up at him then.

            “Let’s go home, Shin-Gun.”

           

            She thinks she would still be able to find him after two millennia and several lifetimes have passed. She tells him this every few years, the words spilling out of her in private moments. She tells him when they’re in bed together, in the hospital after their first child is born, after his father dies and his sister is crowned Queen, after they accept bows during their oldest grandson’s wedding. Tells him over and over again that, no matter what happens, she would be able to find him.

            He always replies, “You won’t have to. Don’t you know? I’m never going anywhere without you.”

            Shin’s grandmother gave them a year, but his grandfather gave them a lifetime. He wasn’t always meant to be the Crown Prince, but she was always meant to be the Crown Princess and though neither of them hold those titles anymore, they have each other.

            That’s more than enough.