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Grace

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It's not unusual for the emperor to call Minseok to him. When Minseok was a child, they rarely spent time together outside of special occasions, but since Minseok came of age, the emperor has taken over the duty of preparing him for the throne from Minseok's mother, the emperor's younger sister. The strict lessons of Minseok's childhood are long since over, and the emperor has always been disinterested in providing Minseok with formal education on his future role, but Minseok often observes him as he goes about his duties. More rarely, the emperor or his husband, the high consort, meet with Minseok privately to discuss the state of the empire or plans for the future.

Minseok expects that he's being summoned for a conversation today, as it's early for any audiences and he's not aware of any visitors expected to arrive today. It is somewhat unusual for the emperor to call for him first thing in the morning, before he's even had his breakfast, but there are many demands on the emperor's time, and Minseok is expected to make time for him whenever he's called. That's all part of the respect an emperor is due, even from the crown prince.

When the guards let Minseok into the room, he bows deeply. "Greetings, your highness. You called for me?"

"Yes. Come join us." The emperor is in the middle of his own breakfast, alone with the high consort.

Minseok acknowledges that with a smaller bow and takes the extra seat at the table. The high consort smiles at him, but the emperor only watches coolly as Minseok sits down. Minseok expects nothing else; the emperor is his uncle by blood, but their relationship has never been and is not expected to be one of familial warmth. Minseok takes a sip of the tea a servant puts in front of him and politely nibbles at a rice cake, waiting to find out what the emperor wants with him.

A minute or two passes in silence before the emperor finally says, "Let us discuss your future."

"My future, your highness?" Minseok's future is clearly defined: when the emperor dies, he will ascend to the throne to take his place. Until then, he will live in the palace as the crown prince, learning and assisting the emperor where he can. What is there to discuss?

"Yes." The emperor exchanges a look with the high consort. While the emperor is always difficult to read, the high consort is a little more open. His expression seems to say, in a deferent sort of manner, that the emperor should get on with it. "I have decided that it is time for you to be married."

"Married?" Minseok isn't supposed to question the emperor, even to this extent, but the announcement startles him. He's twenty-five years old, well of age to be married if he were a commoner, but crown princes and princesses tend to marry late, unless they assume the throne at a young age. There's no need to rush a union that will never produce children. The emperor did assume the throne quite young, but if he was concerned that history would repeat itself, Minseok would have been married as soon as he came of age. To the best of Minseok's knowledge, the emperor is healthy and has no reason to expect that Minseok will replace him any time soon.

"Yes." The emperor has a talent for scolding Minseok with a single word, reminding him that until he becomes emperor, there is still one person he has to obey without question. As much as he wants to understand why he's to be married, he can't ask. He can't refuse either, but he has no particular reason to. He's always known that he would marry someone the emperor chose sooner or later. It makes little difference to him that it's sooner. He's surprised, that's all.

The emperor doesn't volunteer any further information, but the high consort jumps in, "Your husband-to-be is a soldier, a general stationed at the eastern front. His highness has sent word for him to come to the palace, and you will be married in two weeks' time." The eastern border is four days' journey on horseback from the palace. If the messenger was only just dispatched, this general will be married almost as soon as he arrives at the palace. Minseok wonders, briefly, what he'll think of the matter—but of course, he has as little say in the marriage as Minseok himself.

"Thank you, your highness." Minseok can't bow sitting down, but he dips his head politely. "Is there anything I should do to prepare myself for the wedding?"

"No," the emperor tells him. "Everything will be taken care of."

-

The emperor is right, though the efforts of the servants to prepare for the wedding do interfere with Minseok's routine in the days that follow. The royal tailor comes to measure him for his wedding garments, measuring and remeasuring to be absolutely sure that there will be no mistakes. A number of servants work quickly to clean and arrange the suite of rooms occupied by crown princes and princesses after marriage. Some of Minseok's things are moved in immediately, with the rest to follow during the wedding so everything will be ready by the wedding night.

There is a great deal of other hustle and bustle as the castle prepares for the celebration, constant reminders of what's to come. Minseok isn't bothered by it, but it's strange to think that in a matter of days, he'll be married to someone he's never met. The emperor didn't even tell him the name of the man he'll be marrying, so he had to learn it from the servants, who always know the palace gossip. His husband-to-be is named Lu Han and he's a career soldier, but no one knows anything else about him.

"I asked some of the soldiers and they had heard his name before, but they could tell me nothing except that he has a reputation as a good soldier and he was named general quite young," Jongdae, one of Minseok's personal servants, tells him. "He must have spent all his time at the border for the soldiers here to not know him."

"Is your grace excited to be married?" asks Baekhyun, another servant.

"It's not for me to be excited about," Minseok answers, putting some sternness into his tone so his servants remember to not be too familiar with him. He doesn't mind so much, but the emperor has emphasized the importance of keeping a respectable distance from even the guards and servants who spend every waking moment with them. "This is what the emperor has chosen for me."

"Yes, your grace," Baekhyun and Jongdae both murmur, appropriately chastised.

If Minseok were to answer honestly, he would say that he's not excited. It's only been a few days, so it hardly feels real yet, but it wouldn't matter if it did. This is an arranged marriage to a stranger, nothing to be excited about. There have in the past been crown princes and princesses who married for love, with the permission of the current ruler, but Minseok has never expected that, nor longed for it. That would suit his sister more; she has a female lover, but her position as second born requires her to marry a man, most likely from another empire, in order to produce the next heir to the throne. For Minseok, love has never occupied an important place in his mind.

He hopes that this Lu Han, whoever he is, will be a good choice as his consort. He's seen how the high consort complements the emperor, providing good insight to help him make decisions and offering support in difficult times. The high consort is well liked, his reputation for kindness softening the emperor's hard image without weakening him. That's what Minseok needs, a man who will be a good partner in running the empire when his time comes. Anything beyond that is unnecessary.

He does feel something, not quite nervousness, but uncertainty. This wedding is so sudden and unexpected, and he doesn't know what to make of that. Lu Han is a soldier in their own army, so it's not a matter of alliances. (Crown princes and princesses almost always marry within the empire, while later children have the more political pairings.) Is there some sinister motive behind the emperor deciding to have him get married now? Is he concerned that he'll die young, leaving the throne to Minseok soon? Or is there some external danger he thinks marriage in general, or Lu Han in particular, will be able to guard Minseok against? There are too many questions Minseok has no answers to.

As the crown prince, Minseok is always alert to potential threats. The list of those who want to hurt him is long, and the list of those who want to manipulate him to serve their purposes is far longer. The emperor himself is on the second list, and sometimes Minseok suspects the first as well. He has his personal guard to protect him from violent threats, and he'll watch out for the more subtle kind, including from Lu Han. If there is some danger connected to this wedding, he'll be as ready for it as he can be without knowing more. That's all he can do.

-

Lu Han arrives late in the morning nine days after Minseok was informed of their engagement. Minseok doesn't see him at all that day, and his servants can only tell him that he's being fussed over in one of the guest rooms, presumably being physically and mentally prepared to be the future prince consort. The following day, there's a dinner to introduce Lu Han to the emperor and Minseok and a select group of other people worthy of meeting him before the general public. Minseok's parents, Princess Minjung and Prince Daehyun are there, his sister Minah, his uncle Prince Yinjie and several more distant relatives, along with the heads of the most prominent families in the capital, a gathering of a great deal of power and influence.

Minseok's first impression of Lu Han is that he doesn't look like a general. That's understandable considering that he's been dressed up for the occasion, but it's more than that. He has a delicately pretty face that his short military-style haircut does little to take away from and a slim build. He must be strong if he's a longtime soldier, but any muscles are obscured by the loose drape of his palace clothing. He's also visibly nervous, which isn't surprising when it's his first time in such illustrious company, but it makes him look weak; that's something he'll have to get past quickly if he's going to survive here.

Once they're all gathered, the emperor says, "Rise, Lu Han." He gets to his feet, glancing up briefly and then back down, clearly unsure of whether he's supposed to look people in the eye. "I present to you Lu Han, who will marry the crown prince in four days. Lu Han has distinguished himself as a strong and loyal soldier on the eastern front and I believe he will make an excellent consort for the crown prince. Join me in welcoming him to the capital and to the palace."

Lu Han bows almost low enough to hit the table and says, "Thank you, your highness." His voice doesn't quite tremble, but Minseok thinks it sounds strained.

"Be seated," the emperor says. "Let us eat and become acquainted with each other."

Lu Han is seated next to the high consort, while Minseok is in his customary place beside the emperor, so there's little opportunity for Minseok to interact with or even watch him. It doesn't matter what he thinks of Lu Han—they'll be married regardless—but he would like to get to know his future husband better, to determine whether he's a threat, an asset, or simply a man in way over his head. Whatever he is, he'll be by Minseok's side for the rest of their lives, and Minseok would like to find out what he can expect of that.

For now, he turns to his sister, seated beside him tonight. Minah lives in their family home, outside of the palace, and while Minseok sees her regularly, they haven't spoken since his marriage was decided. "I wish your grace well in your marriage," she says. (Minah normally calls him by his name, but at formal occasions like this, they observe the appropriate protocols.) "I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the news."

Minseok smiles politely and doesn't say that he was also surprised. He's sure Minah can guess. "I am thankful that the emperor has chosen a match for me." He can see Minah studying his expression, trying to read between the lines to determine how he really feels about his marriage. He offers her a more real smile to show that there's nothing to worry about. Unlike her, he has no reason to object to being married, however unexpected it may be.

"And I have no doubt he will be a good match. I hope to be able to get to know him better soon."

Minseok follows her gaze over to Lu Han, who is speaking to the high consort and Princess Minjung. "As do I," he says, letting just a hint of wryness sneak into his tone.

-

That opportunity doesn't come the next day, but two days later. With two days remaining before the wedding, Lu Han comes to greet Minseok. There's no formal tradition in the Hederam Empire of the partners in an arranged marriage meeting before the wedding day, but the presence of Junmyeon, the junior steward, suggests that this is not intended to be a casual encounter.

"Come in," Minseok says once Junmyeon announces Lu Han. "Please sit."

Lu Han sits in the chair Minseok indicates, and the servants who accompanied him arrange themselves around the room. Junmyeon stands by the door, watching but not interfering. Minseok, for his part, takes the chair opposite Lu Han and looks him over, considering what to say. His husband-to-be looks less nervous today, though Minseok suspects that may be because he's hiding it better. He sits stiffly in the chair, fidgeting a little as though he can't decide the right position for his clothes or his general circumstances.

"Thank you for coming," Minseok says, carefully polite. "I have been hoping to have an opportunity to speak with you."

"I have as well." There's a hint of a suppressed accent in Lu Han's pronunciation and intonation, as expected of someone from the east. He'll have to work on that to fit in here in the capital. "I have heard a great deal about your grace, but I look forward to becoming personally acquainted."

Minseok nods as he takes the opportunity to study Lu Han. The nervousness and lack of polish make him seem more genuine and therefore like less of a potential threat. On the other hand, he could be pretending, and an unpolished soldier from the east could be a threat as easily as a well-spoken noble from the capital. Minseok won't let his guard down until he's very sure that he can trust Lu Han, which likely won't happen until well after they're married.

"Is this your first time in the capital?" Minseok asks when the silence has stretched out for as long as can be forgiven.

"I was born here," Lu Han answers, "but I left when I was quite young. I scarcely remember it."

"Did your family move away?" Minseok is curious, but he also wants to find out more about Lu Han's background and any connections he may have outside the palace. There's a chance connections could prove useful to Minseok, but also that they could be exploited to control Lu Han.

"My parents died and I was sent to the Eastern Military Academy." Lu Han's voice is even, no hint that he's lying, or that he feels any particular emotion in describing his situation. Perhaps that's reasonable if his parents died when he was too young to remember it.

"I see. I understand that you became a general at a young age." It's not unusual for orphans, even very young ones, to be taken in by the empire's military academies, but not all of them succeed to the extent that Lu Han has.

"Yes, I had that honor." There's a blankness to Lu Han's face that suggests he's not happy with his military career being put to an end by this marriage.

Welcome to the royal life, Minseok thinks without much sympathy. He'll learn to make peace with his position soon enough. "I hope you will also consider becoming the prince consort an honor."

Lu Han's eyes widen. "Of course! I..." For the first time, Lu Han hesitates; Junmyeon must not have given him any guidance on how to respond to a comment like that. "I must admit that I was surprised when I was told that I would marry your grace, but that is because I am only a humble soldier. I do consider it an honor."

He does seem sincere, though Minseok suspects he's understating how surprised he was. There are no restrictions on who a crown prince or princess can marry, but consorts tend to come from noble backgrounds more often than not. That Lu Han was taken to a military academy indicates that he is not of noble birth, so however much he may have distinguished himself on the battlefield, he is, in fact, a humble soldier. Again, Minseok wonders why the emperor chose him of all people, and why now.

"You should no longer consider yourself humble," Minseok tells him. "Once we are married, you will be the prince consort. Your previous background is no longer of any importance."

"I understand, your grace."

They talk for a while longer, and Minseok learns that Lu Han is the same age as him, and some details about the eastern front that are unimportant right now, but gains no further insight as to why he's marrying Lu Han or whether his future husband is trustworthy. He wonders what Lu Han has learned about him, whether meeting Minseok has changed his opinion of this marriage for better or worse.

After about half an hour, Junmyeon steps forward. "As the crown prince has duties to attend to, we will stop for now. Your grace, I am told there will not be time in either of your schedules to meet tomorrow, so your next meeting will be at the wedding ceremony."

"I understand." To Lu Han, Minseok says, "I enjoyed our conversation. I look forward to many more." That's not really true, but at least he can say that his impression of Lu Han is positive enough so far. This conversation was too formal and distant to enjoy, but perhaps one day, they will be able to truly enjoy each other's company, the way the emperor seems to enjoy being with the high consort. Perhaps, if Lu Han isn't here to hurt him and palace life doesn't change him into someone very different.

"I do as well. Until our wedding day, your grace." Lu Han bows, only a little less deeply than he did at the dinner.

"Until then," Minseok says.

-

Junmyeon was right to say that there wouldn't be time to meet Lu Han again before the wedding. In addition to the usual activity of the palace, there are clothes to try on and the details of the wedding ceremony to learn, so that there will be no embarrassing mistakes, and a seemingly endless stream of important guests coming to congratulate Minseok. They'll all greet him and Lu Han again tomorrow, but powerful nobles and longtime friends of the royal family, many of whom have known Minseok his entire life, are granted this extra opportunity.

Some of the guests are people Minseok likes well enough, but many are not, thanks to the endless feuds that surround the royal family. There's the distant relative who resents that he's too distantly related for him or his children to ever have a chance at the throne. There's the noblewoman whose family has kept its name but lost its money who resents that the emperor won't help her refill the family coffers. There's the representative of the neighboring kingdom of Alcea, where Minseok's uncle by marriage is from, with which the alliance has grown more and more tenuous in recent years. And on and on, from minor grudges to people who might well be a danger to Minseok if not for his well-armed guards. Through it all, Minseok smiles and greets everyone politely, because that's what it means to be the crown prince.

There's a dinner that night, but Minseok and Lu Han are not invited. It's tradition for the couple to be married to spend the night before the wedding alone in their separate rooms, fasting and finding inner peace or, more likely, contemplating what's ahead. Accordingly, Minseok settles on a chair, alone with his guards and servants. "Is there anything your grace needs?" Jongdae asks him.

"No," Minseok says. "Let's begin." From now until his wedding, no one is supposed to speak to Minseok, and he's not supposed to say a word through the many long hours ahead of him. His servants won't tell on him if he sleeps through some of his vigil, but it's still early for that, so there's nothing to do but sit and think.

Minseok wonders how this will go for Lu Han. As a soldier, he's likely used to being active, so sitting around in quiet contemplation will be difficult for him. What will he think about, alone in his unfamiliar room? Is he thinking about Minseok or about something else, perhaps the life he was abruptly forced to leave behind? Is he eagerly anticipating being married, or angry about it, or afraid? Does he want to marry Minseok? They scarcely know each other yet, but some ambitious people would appreciate the power that comes with marrying the crown prince. Is Lu Han like that, or would he rather stay a soldier? Is there someone else he would prefer to marry if he had the choice?

Minseok can't even imagine what that's like, to fall in love and want to marry someone. It's not impossible for royalty—his sister has found someone, after all, though she can't marry the person she loves like he could—but Minseok has been too caught up in his duties as crown prince to meet any prospects. That's never particularly bothered him, and it still doesn't, but preparing to be married makes him more aware of what he has missed, and will now forever miss out on. There is, of course, a chance of finding love in an arranged marriage, as he thinks the emperor and the high consort have done, but there are no guarantees. Is Lu Han someone he could love someday?

Right now, he can't even trust Lu Han. It's not that Lu Han has done anything to make Minseok suspect him, but that's what it means to be a crown prince and later an emperor, to be always looking over your shoulder. He knows for a fact that there are many people who would wish him dead. There are those who want to destroy the entire imperial system, who made an unsuccessful attempt on Minseok's life three years ago and successfully killed his cousin, who was next in line after Minseok and Minah. There's his sister's lover, Ara, who knows that the only way they can stay together is if Minah becomes the crown princess, which requires Minseok to die. She hasn't attacked him herself, nor would she, but Minseok suspects she's behind at least one failed attack. He doesn't think Minah knows, or that she wishes him any harm, but he can't be entirely sure.

Minseok also suspects that his uncle, Prince Yinjie, has had it in for him his whole life. His wife was the second child in the previous generation and their children should have been the ones to succeed the emperor, but his wife died in childbirth, along with their infant son, only a week before Minseok was born. He's never forgiven Minseok's mother, the younger sister, for surviving, or Minseok and his sister for being born. Minseok is even wary of the emperor, who has become paranoid after so many years of treachery and so many attempts on his life. The high consort holds him in check, but there's always a chance that he could turn on Minseok.

There are probably other people in the empire who want him dead, and plenty more outside of it, both known and unknown. Minseok has good guards who will protect him against all comers, but the fact remains that the list of people he trusts completely is painfully short: he knows he can trust his parents, and against his better judgment, he trusts the high consort, though not without the knowledge that he can only go against the emperor to a certain extent. If he can't even trust his own family, how can he trust Lu Han, a stranger the emperor chose for him? Perhaps that will change, but it will take time, much more than four days, and it will take Lu Han proving that he's not part of some plot against Minseok.

One way or another, by this time tomorrow, Lu Han will be Minseok's husband, their fates tied together for the rest of their lives. It's too soon to say if that's a good or a bad thing, but Minseok can't help feeling hopeful. It's very isolating being the crown prince. He doesn't need love, but he hopes against hope that Lu Han will be a good companion, a good person who will make Minseok's life feel a little less lonely. That's all he can ask.

-

Minseok dozes off during the night, and his servants silently wake him at dawn, before anyone who would object to him sleeping through part of his vigil can see. In uncharacteristic silence, they help him bathe and get ready for the wedding. A prince on his wedding day is supposed to be perfectly put together, the envy of everyone who sees him, so there are scented oils for his body and colors to paint onto his face. The crown prince and his consort wear purple for special occasions, so there is a flatteringly draped garment in deep purple over white pants. Finally, there is the crown, the heavy weight of it familiar on Minseok's head.

The servants can't compliment him, but they make approving faces that make Minseok smile. It doesn't mean much coming from them, but he appreciates the moment of levity in an otherwise solemn day. He thinks about Lu Han and wonders how he's doing, without the same familiarity with the servants that has kept Minseok's silent morning from being uncomfortable. He's probably not used to people dressing him either, especially not so elaborately. It must be a strange experience, to go from being a commoner to becoming royalty.

Minseok waits, perching carefully in a chair so as not to wrinkle his clothes, until Junmyeon comes to fetch him for the ceremony. He bows in greeting but says nothing, gesturing for Minseok to come with him. The corridors are silent but lined with servants observing the solemn occasion. The guests will already be in the great hall, and if everything is going according to plan (as it by all accounts should be), Lu Han will have joined them by now. Minseok will be the last to enter, at which point the silence can end and the ceremony can begin.

Outside the door, Minseok stops and gathers himself. As the crown prince, he's played a role in many important ceremonies, but this feels different. Normally, he is there to support the emperor, always taking a secondary role, but today is his wedding. For the first time, the focus will be on him—and on Lu Han, but the crown prince is the center of the wedding ceremony. The emperor will conduct the wedding, and it's a simple enough ceremony, but it's important for Minseok to acquit himself well. It's been years since he came of age, but marriage is the next major step toward one day becoming emperor; it's essential that he make a good impression.

At a silent command from within, the doors open. The great hall is packed with guests, all standing, quietly waiting for Minseok. Looking straight ahead, he walks down the aisle to where Lu Han and the emperor are standing, with the high consort and the steward flanking the emperor. He's careful not to rush, to appear dignified and to draw everyone's attention to him. This showy aspect of being crown prince doesn't come naturally to Minseok, but he's had many years to grow accustomed to having all eyes on him, and to learn how to make the appropriate impression.

Lu Han turns to look at him, and Minseok sees that he's in a pale purple, his face painted to complement it and accentuate his features. He looks even less like a general like this, especially with his short hair covered by the simpler crown of the prince consort. He is, objectively speaking, beautiful, and Minseok would be more inclined to believe that he was plucked from a brothel than from military barracks (though someone like that would never be allowed to marry a prince). His expression is carefully neutral and Minseok wonders if he's nervous, if he finds the attention as overwhelming as Minseok himself used to.

There's no time to dwell on that because Minseok reaches the front of the room, and he and Lu Han both turn their attention to the emperor. "I trust you have both thought deeply about the covenant you are about to enter into," the emperor says gravely. "Do you have any objections?"

"No, your highness," Minseok and Lu Han murmur almost in unison. There's no other possible answer.

"Are there any objections to the marriage of the two before me?" the emperor asks the assembled guests. Dead silence follows the question, as expected.

"Then you shall be married according to the laws of our great Hederam Empire," the emperor continues after a suitable pause, "and remain married until separated by death. Take these vows in their full force, and do not dishonor them."

Minseok bows, and Lu Han does the same beside him. He's been well-prepared for the ceremony.

"Do you swear to be a respectful and loyal partner to the crown prince and the emperor he will become?" the emperor asks Lu Han.

"Yes, your highness." There's no hesitation in Lu Han's response, but Minseok had no reason to expect that there would be. Once again, there's only one possible answer to the emperor's question. Lu Han is here, and so he will be marrying Minseok; that's all there is to it.

"Do you swear to fulfill your duties as prince consort and one day high consort, with all the honor these roles deserve?"

"Yes, your highness."

Minseok has attended the weddings of some nobles who added questions about love into their vows, but there's none of that in a royal wedding. What is demanded of Lu Han as Minseok's consort is very simple. With that taken care of, the emperor turns his attention to Minseok. "Does our crown prince swear to be a respectful and loyal partner to his consort?"

"Yes, your highness," Minseok answers immediately.

"Does our crown prince swear to remember his loyalty to the Hederam Empire above all else?" Minseok has already sworn to fulfill his duties as crown prince and eventually emperor, so for him, the second question is different. It's a reminder that while Lu Han owes his loyalty to Minseok as his consort, Minseok does not have the same obligation to him. Minseok's loyalty to the empire is expected to supersede any connection he has to Lu Han, however close they may become.

"Yes, your highness."

"Very well. Steward, the glass." The steward, Jihun, steps forward with a purple glass. He bows as he hands it to Minseok, who carefully takes it with both hands. "As the crown prince bestows his grace on the prince consort, so he shares this wine on their wedding day."

Minseok and Lu Han turn to face each other. Minseok takes a small sip of the wine, then holds the glass to Lu Han's lips, gingerly tipping it so he won't spill. When he sees Lu Han swallow, he withdraws the glass. "The grace of a prince or emperor is a rare gift," the emperor intones. "Appreciate what has been given to you." Lu Han bows to Minseok and then to the emperor, then turns back to Minseok. His cheeks are lightly flushed, Minseok notices, which can't be from one sip of wine. He must be nervous under all this pressure to follow the ceremony perfectly.

"As a symbol of your connection, you will bind each other's hands." The steward offers Minseok a strip of silk the same shade of purple as his clothing. Lu Han holds out his right hand, and Minseok wraps the silk around his palm. He keeps his eyes on Lu Han as he crosses the silk over the back of his hand and ties it around his wrist. When he's finished, he presses Lu Han's hand between both of his for a moment, then releases him

Then it's Lu Han's turn with a strip of pale purple silk. His hands are bigger than Minseok's, and his fingers are rough where they brush Minseok's skin. How long will it take those callouses to go away, now that he's living a coddled palace life? Minseok only thinks about that for a moment, distracted by the flutter of Lu Han's eyelashes under lids painted with gold and black. It's over soon anyway, Lu Han's hands holding Minseok's briefly and then releasing him.

Lu Han holds out his bound hand, and Minseok puts his on top of it, catching Lu Han's wrist on top of the silk. Lu Han's fingers wrap around Minseok's wrist, lightly holding him. "Let this remind you of the unbreakable commitment you make today." The emperor holds his hand above theirs. "In my power as the emperor of the glorious Hederam Empire, I pronounce you married. Lu Han will henceforth be the prince consort, with all the rights and duties that entails. Present yourself to the court."

There's only one thing left to do. Shifting his grip to hold Lu Han's hand, Minseok turns to face the guests. "As crown prince of the Hederam Empire, I present to you my husband, the prince consort."

Everybody in the room, from the princes and princesses at the front to the guards at the door bows to them. The emperor doesn't, but he's behind Minseok and all he sees is people everywhere bowing to him and his new husband. It's a heady feeling, and Minseok can only imagine what it's like for Lu Han.

"Congratulations to the new couple!" the emperor says. "Let us all celebrate their new union."

With that, the ceremony is over. Still holding hands, Minseok and Lu Han walk out together. Minseok would like to say something to Lu Han, though he doesn't know what the right thing is to say in this situation, but almost as soon as they're out the door, they're whisked off to the banquet room and installed in chairs to receive guests. Lu Han manages to catch Minseok's eye and flashes him a small smile. Minseok's not sure what he's trying to say with that, but he smiles back. He still has his doubts about Lu Han, but for the moment, at least, it feels like they're in this together.

The stream of well-wishers is endless, and Minseok is tired and hungry, but he keeps a smile on his face and responds politely to everyone, as a crown prince should. Lu Han lets him do most of the talking but echoes his thanks every time and answers if anyone addresses him. It's better if he doesn't talk too much, since his accent is still showing through. Minseok catches his eyelids drooping and thinks that Lu Han probably didn't sleep during the night. He'll just have to push through it until the end of the celebration, when they'll no longer need to keep up appearances.

Only at the end do the emperor and the high consort come to pay their respects. "My congratulations," the emperor says without much feeling. "Treat each other well."

"Yes, your highness," Minseok and Lu Han respond.

The high consort, as usual, is warmer. "I wish you well," he tells Lu Han first. "As someone who has been in your position, know that I am happy to meet with you if you need advice or simply to speak to someone who understands.

"Thank you, your grace," Lu Han says.

"And as for your grace, congratulations," the high consort says to Minseok, with a wide, genuine smile. "We need not be so formal. Let me give your grace a hug." The high consort has always been kind to Minseok, but they rarely touch; Minseok immediately starts to suspect that there's an ulterior motive. He still gets up and lets the high consort hug him, but he's not surprised, though a little disappointed, when the high consort whispers to him, "Keep your eyes open tonight."

He pulls away immediately, and Minseok says, "Thank you," as though he whispered something congratulatory instead of a warning. The vagueness of the warning frustrates Minseok. Clearly the high consort thinks there's a danger to him tonight, but what good is knowing that if he has no indication of where the danger will come from? He should be safe tonight, in a well-guarded room with Lu Han. Is the high consort suggesting that Lu Han is dangerous after all? Is that why he whispered it for Minseok's ears alone?

He gets nothing else, only a smile as the emperor and the high consort leave and Junmyeon comes over to lead Minseok and Lu Han out, closing the party. They make their exit with a sizable entourage of guards and servants and head toward the rooms they will now be sharing. With the high consort's words echoing in his mind, Minseok is nervous. He's unarmed, and tradition dictates that princes and princesses are not taught to fight, nominally because fighting is beneath them, but in reality to minimize the threat they pose to the emperor or empress. Lu Han, on the other hand, is a trained soldier. The guards should be able to keep Minseok safe, but if Lu Han somehow manages to get them alone, Minseok will be as good as helpless against him.

At the entrance to their rooms, Junmyeon informs them, "By our traditions, your graces will spend tonight and tomorrow alone before joining the royal family for dinner tomorrow. I bid your graces goodnight, and congratulations."

"Goodnight," Lu Han says automatically, noticing too late that Minseok doesn't respond. He flushes slightly, but no one comments. He's done so well, for someone unfamiliar with the ways of the palace. It's all right for him to slip up a little now that they're out of the public eye.

Once Junmyeon leaves, the servants help Minseok and Lu Han remove their crowns and wash their faces. They remove their formal attire and change into nightclothes, and then they're ushered into one of the two bedrooms in the suite. The guards and servants stand by the door, and Minseok sits down at the foot of the bed. Lu Han stays standing opposite him, looking uncertain now that the carefully planned ceremony is over.

Minseok is uncertain too, though he hopes he hides it better. He doesn't know what to think after the high consort's warning. Is Lu Han the threat, or is it someone else? The servants dressed Lu Han, so he can't be hiding any weapons, but who knows what he can do with his bare hands? But even if he is here to hurt Minseok, surely he wouldn't be brazen enough to do it on their wedding night. There must be some other explanation for the high consort's words.

For now, Minseok focuses on something that he can understand and control. Assuming Lu Han doesn't kill him tonight, they'll be spending a lot of time together. He wants to clearly set the boundaries between them, so that Lu Han, who is still largely unfamiliar with palace etiquette, will know what Minseok expects of him. "There are some things I would like to discuss."

"Of course, your grace," Lu Han answers. He's standing stiffly, like a soldier at attention. With his face bare and his head uncovered, in nightclothes that give slightly more indication of the shape of his body, he looks more like a general than he has so far, but still far too pretty to fit Minseok's image of a soldier. He shouldn't let that cause him to underestimate Lu Han, though. The Eastern Military Academy knows how to raise good soldiers, and he wouldn't have been promoted to general for nothing.

"For one," Minseok begins, "you need not to address me as 'your grace' now that we are married."

"No?" Lu Han asks, surprised.

"You should continue to address the emperor and the high consort by their titles, but as I am your husband, titles are not necessary between us. Do still refer to me as 'his grace' when speaking to other people, however. You also no longer need to address other princes and princesses in that manner, though they are unlikely to object if you do."

"I see." Lu Han sounds a little overwhelmed, which Minseok can understand. Politeness is a complicated thing in the palace, especially for someone in the middle of the royal hierarchy. "Then what should I call you?"

"You may call me by my name." Lu Han's eyes go just wide enough to give him away, and Minseok has to smile. "Do you know my name?"

"I apologize," Lu Han says meekly. "I have only ever heard you referred to as 'the crown prince.'"

"I understand," Minseok assures him. So few people call him by his name that it's no wonder Lu Han hasn't heard it. "My name is Minseok."

"Minseok," Lu Han repeats.

"You'll find that in private, the rules of politeness may be somewhat relaxed," Minseok continues, consciously shifting into the slightly more informal language he uses in private with his family and the servants who know him well. "It's important for you to be comfortable speaking well, but when it's only the two of us, you don't need to be so careful."

Lu Han glances over at the door, no doubt not used to the way in the palace, "only the two of us" usually includes several servants and guards. "I understand, but I fear that my speech is still too clumsy to handle switching back and forth. It may be best for me to continue speaking formally until I become more comfortable with it."

In spite of his worries, Lu Han's wry comment makes Minseok smile. "As you please," he says. "That's all for now, but feel free to ask me if there's something you're unsure about. I understand that life in the palace must be very different from what you're used to."

"It is," Lu Han ruefully agrees. "Thank you, your—thank you, Minseok."

Having said his piece, Minseok falls silent, and Lu Han shifts awkwardly. He opens his mouth as if he wants to say something, closes it again, and then after a long hesitation, says, "I must admit that the instructions I was given for today ended with the celebration. Are we expected to...?" He looks at Minseok hopefully, but Minseok doesn't understand what he's trying to say. Reluctantly, he clarifies, "Are we expected to consummate the marriage?"

Minseok is tempted to laugh at Lu Han's awkward question, but he has better control than that, and besides, it's not such an unreasonable thing to think. "No, that's only required for marriages for purposes of procreation," he answers, noting the relief in Lu Han's expression. Is he relieved because he doesn't want to sleep with a man in general or because he doesn't want it under this circumstances? It makes little difference, but Minseok is curious.

"I see." Lu Han looks confused, so Minseok waits until he asks, "Then...should we sleep?"

This conversation provided a momentary distraction, but now the high consort's words come back to Minseok again. He's tired, having slept for less time than usual last night, but he doesn't expect to sleep much tonight either. Whether the threat the consort warned him of comes from Lu Han or someone else, he can't let his guard down. "I prefer to sleep alone," he tells Lu Han. It's not a lie, exactly, only that until now it hasn't been his choice to sleep alone.

"Oh." Instead of looking relieved, Lu Han looks unsure again, like he's afraid he offended Minseok. That's not ideal, but Minseok's safety is more important than establishing a comfortable relationship with Lu Han. "In that case, I will take the other room. Goodnight, yo—Minseok."

"Goodnight, Lu Han."

Lu Han looks startled by Minseok using his name, and then a smile spreads over his face. It's a bright, genuine smile, and it makes it hard for Minseok to believe that Lu Han is his enemy, but he can't let himself be convinced so easily. Lu Han will have to prove himself if Minseok is to trust him, and that won't happen for a long time.

When Lu Han is gone, Minseok walks up to one of the guards at his door. Jongin is a longtime member of his personal guard and Minseok knows he can trust him. "Do you have a knife?" he asks.

"Yes, your grace." A slight furrowing of Jongin's brow is the only indication that he finds the question surprising.

"And you have enough weapons besides that, yes?"

"Yes, your grace." Some confusion sneaks into Jongin's tone now.

"Give me your knife, then."

"Your grace?" Minseok can't blame him for being confused. He's never asked for a weapon before, trusting his guards to protect him. He still trusts them, but he's on edge tonight, and he thinks having a knife as a last resort will help him feel better.

"Your knife," he orders, leaving no room for argument.

"Yes, your grace." Jongin pulls a knife strapped to his ankle and hands it to Minseok, hilt first. Minseok takes it gingerly, then grips the hilt, weighing it in his hand. He doesn't know how to fight, with a knife or anything else, but he thinks he can figure out where and how to stab an attacker, if it comes to that.

Without a word of explanation, he returns to the bed, propping up some pillows so he can sit at the head. He sets the knife next to him and readies himself for a different sort of vigil.

-

The night passes uneventfully, and as dawn approaches, Minseok begins to accept that if there was any threat to him, it won't come tonight. New guards arrive to take over at dawn, bowing to Minseok but not speaking to him. Although they're not doing well at it so far, he and Lu Han are supposed to be spending this time together, with minimal interruption, and that means no unnecessary conversations with anyone else.

Servants come from the kitchen with breakfast some two hours later, and the smell brings Lu Han out from the other bedroom. "Good morning," he says somewhat uncertainly, whether because he's not sure the pleasantry is appropriate or because he's worried after Minseok sent him away last night. That was perhaps not the best note to start their married life on, but until Minseok knows Lu Han won't kill him in his sleep, he can't very well share a bed with him.

"Good morning," Minseok responds, smiling to reassure Lu Han. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you." Lu Han studies Minseok's face for a moment and frowns. "Did you? You look tired."

"I didn't sleep much."

"Is something wrong?" Lu Han asks.

"There's nothing for you to worry about." It's the truth, in a way. This is not for Lu Han to worry about, only Minseok.

Tired as he is, Minseok is in no mood for conversation over breakfast, but he's had politeness drilled into him from a young age, and he can't very well let them sit here in awkward silence. "Tell me about your life before you came here," he says, hoping to get Lu Han talking so he doesn't have to speak much. "I know so little about the life of a soldier."

"It is quite different from the palace," Lu Han says. "The majority of the soldiers come from humble backgrounds, so anyone can rise to a high rank—though in the same vein, there are no guarantees of success without skill and effort. As a result, although politeness to those of a higher rank is expected, there is a certain feeling of equality, I suppose."

"That sounds nice." In truth, Minseok can't imagine the situation Lu Han is describing, having been raised in an environment where birth is everything and formal politeness is strictly enforced. "Did you have many friends among the other soldiers?" That may not be the best topic to bring up, given that Lu Han has been separated from any friends he has, but Minseok is curious.

A frown flickers over Lu Han's face. "Yes, I did. Many of the students in the Eastern Military Academy were orphans like me. We had no one else in the world, so we became very close."

Would you have stayed with them if you had a choice? Minseok thinks but decides against asking. It's too soon to ask Lu Han such a loaded question, and besides, it doesn't matter; Lu Han doesn't have a choice.

"Did you—" Lu Han starts when Minseok doesn't say anything more, then hesitates. "May I ask you questions?"

"I did say you could be less concerned about politeness with me," Minseok reminds him. There's a lot he's not ready to talk to Lu Han about, and some things he would never say in front of the servants, but he doubts Lu Han will dig too deep.

"I apologize," Lu Han says meekly. "There seem to be many rules in the palace. I feel as though it would be very easy to make a misstep."

"I'll tell you if you do," Minseok assures him. "Don't worry too much."

Lu Han smiles, though it looks restrained. "Thank you. In that case: did you grow up here in the palace?"

Minseok shakes his head. "I lived with my family when I was young. I only came to the palace once I came of age."

"I see. Then your childhood was not so isolated, was it? Did you have friends among noble families?"

Lu Han's innocence is almost laughable. He has no idea what it's like, being the crown prince. "I was very busy with my studies," Minseok answers vaguely, "but I did have my parents and my sister."

"What does a crown prince study?" Lu Han asks, turning the conversation to a safer topic.

"All subjects, but with a focus on the history and culture of our Hederam Empire and surrounding countries."

Lu Han smiles sheepishly. "I fear I could never measure up."

That's probably true, at least as far as education, but then, Lu Han must know much more about fighting than Minseok. "We all have our strengths," Minseok says."

Minseok is relieved when breakfast ends, but what was the point of staying up all night if he falls asleep in front of Lu Han now? On the other hand, making it through a formal dinner tonight will be a struggle if he's already so tired. It must be very obvious that he's exhausted because Lu Han says, "If you need to rest, please do."

"We're supposed to be spending this time together," Minseok reminds him.

"There will be more time to spend together," Lu Han says gently. He seems sincere, which makes Minseok think that perhaps he misjudged him. He's sure Lu Han could hurt him if he wanted to, but that doesn't mean he will.

"Very well, then." To the servants, Minseok says, "If I'm not up two hours before dinner, wake me up." There will be awkward questions if he looks like the just rolled out of bed. He nods to Lu Han, then goes back into the bedroom. He hid Jongin's knife under the bed, and he picks it up now and puts it under his pillow. The guards at the door can see what he's doing, but they say nothing—as if they would. Minseok is still worried, but he's exhausted, and with his hand on the hilt of the knife, he finally manages to fall asleep.

-

Minseok is disoriented when the servants wake him for dinner. For a second, he grips the knife in his hand, but he remembers where he is before he does anything foolish. He feels much better after sleeping, though his worries haven't disappeared. Then again, for someone in his position, there will always be reason to worry. He can't spend every waking moment anticipating the worst.

Lu Han is talking to Baekhyun and Jongdae when Minseok comes out of the bedroom and he notices, before Lu Han breaks off mid-sentence, that he seems much more relaxed with the servants than with Minseok, though he hasn't known them any longer. It's understandable that he wouldn't be comfortable with royalty yet, but it makes Minseok feel a little lonely somehow. Lu Han does smile at him, at least. "Welcome back. Were you able to sleep?"

"Yes," Minseok says. "Thank you."

They pass an hour on idle talk and then get ready for dinner. They dress again in their wedding outfits but forego the make-up and crowns. Even without that, there's a doll-like prettiness to Lu Han. Minseok doesn't generally spend much time thinking about how people look, but it's hard to ignore with Lu Han. Should he count himself lucky because his husband is attractive? But that's hardly of primary concern for a crown prince.

They were given no particular instructions on how to make their entrance to the dinner, but Minseok takes the initiative and offers his arm to Lu Han at the door. This day together was intended to allow them to become closer, so it should appear that they are. Lu Han looks slightly surprised, perhaps because Minseok has barely touched him so far, but takes his arm without question. Like that, they walk into the banquet hall.

"Welcome to your new life as a married couple," the emperor says. "Congratulations once again. Now come, join us."

The crown princess of Scill, the most honored guest present, is at the emperor's side along with her husband, a distant cousin of Minseok's. (In Scill, opposite sex unions are the norm for all princes and princesses.) Minseok nods a greeting to them as he sits next to the high consort, with Lu Han beside him today. "I hope you had a pleasant day," the high consort says.

"We did, thank you," Minseok answers. It's not true, but Minseok is hardly going to admit that he spent the day sleeping alone after staying up all night worrying that Lu Han might try to kill him. He wishes he could ask the high consort about his earlier warning, but there are too many people around them for that.

If the high consort suspects that he's not being sincere, he doesn't show it. "I expect no one informed you of the excitement last night?"

"The excitement?" Minseok asks.

"There were two arrests," the high consort explains, "a man and a woman who we believe wished you harm."

"No, we had not heard," Minseok says. So there was a real danger, if not from where he expected. "Were they working together?"

"It appears not. The woman is a citizen, while the man is a mercenary who claims no homeland but speaks as if he is from Merten."

"I am relieved to hear that they were captured." Minseok looks at Lu Han and finds him wide eyed at the news. You didn't know what you were getting into, did you? he thinks. This is nothing.

"And I am pleased that no harm came to you." The high consort smiles at Lu Han. "I should hope that it will never be necessary, but I trust that you are capable of protecting the crown prince from any threats."

"I will do my best, your grace," Lu Han says, to all appearances sincere.

So then, unless there's some undercurrent to the high consort's comment that Minseok is missing, he doesn't consider Lu Han a danger to Minseok. That doesn't guarantee that he isn't—the high consort is not infallible—but it's a positive sign. Could it be that that's the reason Lu Han was chosen as his husband, to help keep Minseok safe? But why now? There have been threats to Minseok's life for as long as he can remember. Besides, as last night's events demonstrate, the palace guards are capable of protecting him. Why would he need Lu Han's protection when he has them? With so many unanswered questions, Minseok won't let his guard down just yet, but he has some hope, at least, that he'll be able to trust Lu Han in time.

Minseok talks to the high consort and to some nobles from Scill seated on Lu Han's other side, until over dessert, the emperor turns to him. "Prince Yixing of Alcea has come to the Hederam Empire for the first time to attend your wedding, and I have invited him to remain in the palace for another day. You and the prince consort will spend tomorrow with him, showing him the palace and telling him our history."

"Yes, your highness." Minseok has heard of Prince Yixing, though he hasn't met him beyond a brief greeting at the wedding. He's two years younger than Minseok, the fourth and youngest son of King Honglei.

"I trust that you will ensure he has a favorable impression of our great empire," the emperor adds.

"Of course, your highness." Minseok understands that Alcea, which borders the Hederam Empire to the north, is an important ally and it's important to treat their prince well. He's also well aware that Yixing and any other princes around his age are potential suitors for Minah. It will be King Honglei's decision to agree to or refuse an engagement, but it would no doubt help if Prince Yixing likes what he sees here. Minseok wonders if he's been introduced to Minah yet, and what they think of each other. For Minah's sake, he hopes an engagement isn't imminent. For his own sake, too, considering that his life will be in grave danger if his sister's lover becomes desperate to stop her from marrying someone else.

Minseok and Lu Han are introduced to Prince Yixing at the end of the dinner. He's a clean-cut, polite young man who seems, at least at Minseok's first impression, quite different from his bombastic father. If that's his true personality and he's not merely putting on a front, he would probably not be a bad man for Minah to marry, aside from the fact that she loves someone else. Minseok will have to take advantage of this time to see if his first impression is correct, though he has no more say in his sister's marriage than he did in his own.

Back in their rooms, Minseok considers how he should spend the night. He's less concerned about Lu Han after their conversation with the high consort, but that doesn't mean that he trusts Lu Han enough to sleep beside him. Besides, he's very used to sleeping alone. There's no need to rush in adjusting to married life.

After they change out of their finery, before Minseok has come to a conclusion, Lu Han makes for the other bedroom. It seems he took Minseok seriously when he said he prefers to sleep alone. In that case, there's no need to make a fuss. "Goodnight, Lu Han," he says.

Lu Han smiles far more widely than Minseok thinks the simple greeting deserves. He doesn't understand it, but it's nice. There are never enough genuine smiles in the palace. "Goodnight, Minseok," Lu Han responds. "Sleep well."