Prince Yixing comes by after breakfast the next morning. "Thank you for taking the time to show me around the palace today. I have heard a great deal about your grace," he says to Minseok, "and I look forward to learning more about the new prince consort." He smiles at Lu Han, a restrained, princely sort of smile, but seemingly genuine. Lu Han smiles back, but he looks uncertain again; socializing with another country's royalty is another new experience for him.
"It is our pleasure to spend time with you, prince," Minseok says. "I suggest that we begin with a tour of the palace itself and then spend some time in the gardens. They are very pleasant at this time of year."
"That sounds lovely," Yixing says.
Minseok takes the lead of the conversation as they begin to walk. He's not a naturally outgoing person, but he's spent the better part of his life learning to interact with people in an appropriate princely manner, so it's not difficult to find the right thing to say. Besides, he knows enough facts about the palace and its history to fill an entire day, if not more. Yixing also asks questions and responds with interest to what Minseok tells him. Lu Han doesn't say much, but he looks interested too. Minseok doubts he's had a palace tour of his own yet, considering how little time there was between his arrival in the palace and the wedding.
"How is your grace enjoying palace life so far?" Yixing asks Lu Han after a while. "I understand you have only been here a short time."
"Yes," Lu Han says. "The palace is very nice and everyone has very kindly helped me adjust." His accent is stronger now, probably from nerves, but he's trying very hard to speak politely.
"Was your grace raised in the city?" Yixing asks.
"No, I have lived most of my life near the eastern border."
"I see," Yixing says. "Then it must be a significant adjustment indeed."
"Yes, it is."
Lu Han looks a little panicked at having to speak so much, so Minseok jumps in to point out the portrait of the late empress, their eighteenth ruler. The current emperor is the nineteenth, and Minseok will be the twentieth. The empress died before Minseok was born, so he doesn't know what she was really like, but in her portrait, she looks stern and imposing. The emperor's portrait looks similar, so Minseok imagines they make everyone look like that. He'll likely look equally humorless in his own official portrait someday.
When Yixing has seen everything in the palace that's worth seeing and appropriate for guests to see, Minseok takes him out to the gardens. They eat a small lunch in the gardens, then walk around. It's the perfect time to see them, far enough into spring that the flowers are all in bloom but early enough that it's not too hot.
"Beautiful," Yixing says, looking around with great enthusiasm. Lu Han does too, stopping to admire or smell various flowers. Minseok has spent many springs in the palace, so the gardens are less exciting to him, but he does appreciate the beauty too.
They sit on a bench surrounded by flowering trees, and Minseok plies Yixing with questions about Alcea. He's learned about it, of course, but it's interesting to hear Yixing's perspective on his home country and its ruling family. (Minseok is certain he's not being entirely honest, but that's to be expected. What he chooses to share is revealing in its own way.)
They've been sitting there for perhaps an hour when a servant comes out. "The emperor has suggested that your graces join Princess Minah for dinner tonight," he says, though they all know it's not a suggestion.
"Of course," Minseok says. "Call us in when it comes time to prepare ourselves for dinner." After the servant leaves, Minseok asks Yixing, "Have you met my sister yet, prince?"
"We were introduced at the wedding banquet," Yixing says. "She is a very nice woman." He sounds perfectly sincere, but his smile is so deliberately bland that Minseok reads it as wry; he must be aware that he and Minah are being intentionally pushed together.
"It will be a good opportunity for her to meet the prince consort as well," Minseok comments. "We scarcely had time to speak to anyone at the wedding or last night's dinner."
"Yes," Lu Han agrees. He needs to learn to hide his emotions better; it's painfully obvious that the prospect makes him nervous.
Yixing sees it too, commenting, "I imagine it must be intimidating to be so suddenly thrown into a world full of royalty."
Lu Han looks startled by that. He must not have realized how easy he is to read. "It is a change," he ruefully admits.
"Your grace is lucky to have the crown prince at your side through this transition."
"Yes." Lu Han darts a glance over at Minseok, and this time, Minseok can't tell what he's thinking. Perhaps he feels that Minseok has been distant, not helping him as he should. If that's the case, Minseok will have to do better. He may not be able to trust Lu Han yet, but Lu Han should be able to rely on him for help in adjusting to palace life.
They go inside to rest briefly and make themselves presentable an hour before Minah is due to arrive. Lu Han and Minseok sit in the central room of their suite, and Lu Han comments, "Prince Yixing is very kind."
"Yes, he is," Minseok agrees.
"May I ask..." Lu Han grimaces slightly, looking embarrassed, before he catches himself. "You address him differently than he addresses you..."
"Each country has different customs. He addresses us according to ours and I use the form of address of Alcea."
"Calling him prince?" Lu Han asks.
"Yes. I apologize that I didn't think to explain that to you beforehand. After today, when we have more time, I'll ensure that you receive instruction in these matters so that you can comfortably speak to our allies."
"Thank you," Lu Han says, visibly relieved. "That would be very helpful."
When Minseok and Lu Han arrive at dinner, Minah and Yixing are already seated and talking. Minah is smiling, but Minseok knows her well enough to see that it's fake. She's well aware of what this dinner is about and she's not happy. He wonders if Ara knows yet, and if perhaps they fought about it. He hopes not; it's hardly Minah's fault that she has no choice but to be here.
Minah stands to greet them, Yixing also standing after a moment. "Hello, your graces," she says. To Lu Han, she adds, "I am pleased to have this opportunity to get to know the prince consort better." Now, at least, her smile is real.
"Yes," Lu Han says. "I am too." His brow furrows as he realizes that sounds strange, and Minah stifles a laugh.
"Prince Yixing was just about to tell me about his brothers," Minah says as they all sit down. "I imagine it was very lively growing up with three brothers."
"It was, but I enjoyed it," Yixing says. "Although the crown prince is ten years older than me, so there were rarely four of us together."
"Does your grace have any brothers or sisters?" Minah asks Lu Han.
"No, but I spent most of my childhood living with other students at my school, so it was also lively."
"What school was that?" Yixing asks.
"The Eastern Military Academy."
"Oh, I see. I understand your grace was a general?"
"Yes," Lu Han says.
"That is quite an accomplishment for someone your grace's age," Minah says.
Lu Han flushes slightly. "It is kind of you to say that."
"I have heard that in Alcea, princes lead the military," Minah says to Yixing. "You must be an accomplished solider yourself then, prince."
"Hardly so accomplished," Yixing demurs, "but I have received military training. The crown prince is the leader of our army, and I have a battalion that I am responsible for training." Minseok can't imagine what that's like. He fleetingly wishes he knew how to fight so he could defend himself, but he's the crown prince of the Hederam Empire, not Alcea, so that's impossible.
They continue talking, carefully dancing around dangerous topics like the potential for a marriage between Yixing and Minah or the tensions between their countries at the northern border. Minah loosens up, unable to hold onto her anger when Yixing is so nice, but Minseok doesn't fool himself into believing that that means she's ready to accept a marriage. She'll do as the emperor commands, but Minseok hopes it won't happen for a while. Yixing wouldn't be a bad partner, better than some of the other prospects Minseok has met, but he's not who Minah wants.
They linger over dinner for so long that it's time to say goodbye to Yixing by the time they finish. "I have enjoyed spending time with all of you. I hope I can return some time, or host you in Alcea." He offers Minah an extra smile, which she somewhat reluctantly returns.
Back in their rooms, Lu Han asks, "Did I understand correctly that Prince Yixing and Princess Minah were being set up?"
Minseok smiles. "You could put it that way. I expect Minah will be married in the next year or two, and Yixing is one of the prospects."
"He seems to be a good prospect."
"That he does," Minseok agrees. There's no need to introduce Lu Han to the complications of Minah's love life, at least not yet.
"Did...did you have any other prospects?" Lu Han asks hesitantly.
Minseok shrugs. "Crown princes in our country don't have political marriages, except perhaps to prominent nobles, so it's a very different process. If there were other prospects, I wasn't told of them."
"I see. I wonder..." Lu Han breaks off, thinking better of what he was going to say, which only makes Minseok curious.
"You may speak freely," he prompts.
"I only wonder why I was chosen," Lu Han finishes, looking down.
"You weren't told anything?" Minseok asks. It's not surprising—the emperor doesn't owe anyone an explanation for his decisions—but if Lu Han's telling the truth, that means he's not part of any nefarious plot, except perhaps unwittingly.
"No," Lu Han says, "only that I had been chosen to marry the crown prince and I should come to the palace immediately."
"I'm afraid I wasn't told anything either." He almost asks if Lu Han regrets it, but it's not as if he'd say it if he does. Regardless, it makes no difference what either of them thinks of this marriage. Instead, he says, "But you needn't be concerned that I had someone else I would have preferred."
"Oh, I..." His words fluster Lu Han; many things seem to fluster Lu Han.
Minseok smiles to show he doesn't mean anything by it. "Let's sleep, then. Goodnight, Lu Han."
For the third night in a row, that makes Lu Han smile widely. "Goodnight, Minseok."
On the second afternoon, Minseok returns from a meeting with the ambassador to Scill to find Lu Han throwing punches at nothing. He must have been at it for a while, since he's worked up a sweat. The servants are watching from a safe distance away, bemused by the unfamiliar behavior.
Lu Han is facing the wall, but then he executes a sharp half turn and sees Minseok. He drops his arms abruptly, relaxing out of his fighting stance. "You needn't stop on my account," Minseok says. He isn't supposed to learn to fight, but it's not unusual for those who marry into the royal family to have some training, and no one would expect anything less of a former soldier.
"This is not the place for exercising," Lu Han says sheepishly, "but I am not accustomed to such inactivity."
"I think we can find you a better place, but for now, go ahead," Minseok says.
Lu Han looks self-conscious, but he continues what he was doing, performing a series of kicks and punches. His clothes aren't ideal for this activity either, loose sleeves flying with every punch, but he manages well enough. Every motion is sharp, and Minseok thinks he must be very strong and well-trained. No wonder, when he's spent most of his life fighting or preparing to fight.
After a while, the punches and kicks give way to swings and thrusts as though he's holding a sword. Minseok watches curiously, imagining doing the same thing himself. He's never even held a sword, but Lu Han moves like he knows exactly how his sword would fit into his hand, and how it would move with each swing. Minseok feels a little sorry for him; all that work to become a skilled fighter and he's reduced to this.
Eventually, Lu Han tires, or else he gets bored or too self-conscious to continue. He sits down, sweaty and breathing hard, but smiling. "Is this how you usually practice?" Minseok asks him.
"Usually I have a sword and an opponent." Lu Han's smile falters slightly, thinking about that.
"Perhaps I can arrange for you to have at least one of those," Minseok says. An opponent, most likely, though Lu Han may be allowed to borrow a sword for a short time now and then, only for exercise purposes.
"I would appreciate that," Lu Han says.
For a few moments, the only sound is Lu Han's heavy breathing, and then Minseok says, "I imagine there are many things you miss from your old life. Some can't be helped, but some we may be able to do something about. Do tell me if there's something that would help you be happier here." He doesn't have to do that, but there's no harm in it, and it's better for everyone if Lu Han is happy here, or at least not too unhappy.
"Thank you," Lu Han says.
Now, Lu Han is often by his side as he moves around the palace, and usually there in their rooms whenever Minseok is. He doesn't get in Minseok's way much, but he sticks close to him, partly because he's still unsure of himself, and partly, Minseok thinks, because he likes having company. Lu Han, Minseok suspects, is not at all used to being alone. In the same way that Minseok is having to adjust to having someone constantly around, Lu Han is having to adjust to having only Minseok and the servants for regular company.
Lu Han is pleasant enough company, Minseok finds. He smiles and laughs easily and rarely complains, and that only when Minseok pushes him to tell the truth when it seems something is bothering him. It's obvious to Minseok that there are aspects of palace life that are difficult for him, but he does his best to learn and change. Minseok doesn't complain either, but while Lu Han hasn't learned to read him enough to tell when he needs it, he tries his best to be quietly supportive in general. Minseok counts himself lucky that the emperor chose Lu Han for him to marry, or he would if he wasn't still unsure as to whether he can trust Lu Han or not.
A week after the wedding, a week of Minseok and Lu Han constantly in each other's company, passes uneventfully. There are always guards around, and they sleep in separate rooms and Minseok still has a knife hidden under his bed, but there are opportunities for Lu Han to hurt him, or at least to try. It's possible that this is more of a long-term effort, that Lu Han is getting close to him, trying to make Minseok trust him so he can get him alone without the guards. It's possible that Lu Han is waiting for the right moment and it hasn't come yet. For Minseok, there's always the possibility that anyone around him might be a danger to him, but it's looking less and less likely that Lu Han is.
It's not just that Lu Han passes up opportunities to attack him. The more Minseok sees of Lu Han, the harder it is to suspect him. He's so easy to read that it's difficult to believe that he's hiding anything. Beyond that, he seems like a good person, however fumbling. Even good people could be coerced or otherwise pushed into becoming a threat somehow, but Minseok struggles to hold on to any significant suspicion of Lu Han. He's not prepared to let go completely, though; he can't take that risk.
At the end of that week, they have dinner with the emperor and the high consort, only the four of them. Minseok has eaten alone with the emperor and the high consort before, but it's much more common for them to have guests with them, other members of the royal family, nobles, or distinguished visitors from outside of the capital and abroad. This is Lu Han's first dinner without any guests to distract attention from him, and his obvious nervousness, which has faded somewhat over the course of the week, is back in full force. Minseok can't fault him for it; the emperor can be intimidating even after a lifetime of experience with him.
"How are you enjoying life in the palace so far?" the emperor asks Lu Han.
"Very well, your highness." Lu Han's voice shakes slightly, poor thing. Minseok hopes he can get past that quickly, so as not to embarrass himself in front of the emperor.
"I imagine it to be a significant improvement over life at the eastern front." The emperor laughs.
"Yes, your highness," Lu Han agrees, but Minseok doesn't think he means it. Life at the palace is more refined, no doubt, with better food and better lodgings, but surely it's not as simple as that for Lu Han.
The emperor catches Lu Han's lack of sincerity, unfortunately. "Do you mean that?" he asks.
Lu Han quails, so Minseok comes to his rescue. "After living his whole life on the eastern border, I am sure there are things the prince consort misses, however well he likes palace life."
Thankfully, the emperor accepts that readily. "True, true. Tell me, then, what do you miss?"
Lu Han still looks mildly panicked, but he manages to answer this time. "I miss my friends most of all." He hastily adds, "Not, of course, that everyone in the palace has not been very kind to me, but..."
"You must have grown up with many of the other soldiers there," the high consort puts in.
"Yes, I did."
"I see," the emperor says neutrally. Minseok thinks he might let it go with that, but then he presses, "Is there anything else you miss?"
"Well, I..." Lu Han starts, but then he trails off nervously and darts a glance over at Minseok.
After a moment, Minseok realizes what he must be thinking of. Lu Han has still been exercising in their rooms, as Minseok hasn't found an opportunity to ask about making arrangements for him. "As a former soldier, the prince consort is accustomed to a certain level of activity. We wondered if it might be possible for him to be allowed a place to exercise for some time each day."
"What kind of place?" the emperor asks.
Minseok looks at Lu Han, who says, "Any open yard would do."
"Not for the prince consort," the emperor says, sharply enough that Lu Han flinches. "We can set up an enclosed area for you to do as you please."
"Thank you, your highness," Lu Han says meekly.
Minseok would like to ask about an opponent for sparring, but the emperor already seems irritated by the request, so he decides against it. "Your highness' forbearance is appreciated," he adds instead.
The emperor says nothing further, so the high consort changes the subject, asking Minseok, "And how is your grace adjusting to married life?" He smiles, making it clear it's a friendly question.
Friendly though it may be, a negative answer, however honest it might be, would never be an option. "We are doing well," Minseok says. "I am enjoying the company of the prince consort."
"I am pleased to hear that." The high consort studies Minseok, trying to judge the honesty of his response. It's not a lie, though not the whole truth either. Minseok does enjoy Lu Han's company well enough, but he is unavoidably wary of him, and after only a week, they still scarcely know each other. They may never know each other fully; it's difficult to be open with anyone in the palace.
Back in their rooms after dinner, Minseok tells Lu Han, who still looks nervous, "That's how the emperor is with everyone. Don't take it to heart."
Lu Han looks skeptical. "I thought perhaps he found me wanting."
"He chose you," Minseok reminds him. "He may well see some flaws in you, but he chose you because he thought you would be a worthy husband for me."
"And what do you think?" Lu Han's eyes go wide as soon as the words are out of his mouth, as though he didn't mean to ask such a direct and potentially awkward question.
"My opinion is not the one that matters." Minseok smiles disarmingly as he dodges the question.
"I only wondered..." Lu Han flinches slightly. "I apologize. Forget it."
He looks a little pathetic, so Minseok says, "I meant it when I said that I enjoy your company." That's all he can say right now, but it's the truth.
Lu Han smiles, relieved. "I enjoy your company too. I hope..." He hesitates before concluding, "I hope that in time I will prove myself to be a worthy match."
Minseok doesn't answer, only smiles. He can't say what makes someone worthy, but he hopes Lu Han will indeed prove to be a good match for him.
Minseok isn't comfortable with anyone like that. The closest is his sister and his parents, but even with them, there's always an awareness that he's the heir to the throne, destined to be apart from them. Besides that, they're all royalty and they've spent their entire lives operating within the strict rules of formality that go with that. That formality is so ingrained by now that they're hardly even aware of it many times. For all he knows, to Lu Han, he seems incredibly stiff and distant.
He would, to some extent, like to reassure Lu Han, but it's also important for Lu Han to understand that he's part of a different world now. It no longer matters whether he was born into this or not; he's the prince consort, not an ordinary soldier who can casually interact with others. Just as he's trying hard to adjust his way of speaking to suit the palace, so he needs to adjust his overall behavior and his expectations of how people will respond to him.
There's also the fact that Minseok has his doubts about Lu Han. In time, if he continues to give no indication that he's a threat, Minseok will come to trust him more, but it will be a long time before he's sure. He may never be entirely sure that Lu Han is so firmly on his side that he can never be compromised. Lu Han had a life outside the palace for twenty-five years. He has other allegiances that someone unscrupulous could potentially take advantage of. He has other people who are at this point surely more important to him than Minseok, and they may always be more important, however long they're separated.
So for now, at least, Minseok can only give Lu Han so much, but he does try to be warm and kind when they're alone, and to help Lu Han out when he struggles in his public interactions. He smiles and says a sincere goodnight, noting how Lu Han smiles when Minseok uses his name. They're not partners yet, not really, but he tries to make it clear that he's an ally, someone who wants to see Lu Han smile like that from time to time.
On their eleventh night together, Minseok bids Lu Han goodnight as usual, adding a "Sleep well."
As usual, Lu Han smiles happily. "Goodnight, Minseok," he responds.
For just a moment, as Lu Han turns to go into the other bedroom, Minseok entertains the thought of suggesting that Lu Han join him instead. There's no requirement that he and Lu Han ever share a bedroom if they don't want to, but something tells him that Lu Han would appreciate the gesture, the indication of trust involved in letting him sleep beside Minseok. But then Minseok thinks of the knife still hidden under his bed, and of the high consort saying, "Keep your eyes open." He thinks of how many times people have tried to kill him, and how even his own family members can't be trusted. He's not ready to risk sharing a bed with Lu Han.
With that decision made, he turns away and goes into his usual bedroom. He recognizes the guard standing outside the door, a man named Yeongjin who has guarded his room several times since the wedding, but the one inside his room is unfamiliar. The overnight guards change over more often than the ones who follow him during the day, as they get promoted to more desirable daytime duties. "Is it your first time here?" he asks.
"Yes, your grace," the guard says with a small bow. "I was just called up from working as a gate guard."
"Your name?" It's not essential that Minseok learn the name of his guards and servants, but it's more comfortable for him if he establishes a certain rapport, and the high consort told him that it can be good for morale if those working for Minseok see him as a person. It's best if they see him as someone they want to serve and protect, though something like that can't be forced.
"Junseo, your grace." Another bow.
"Thank you for your service, Junseo," Minseok says. The guard bows even deeper in lieu of responding to Minseok's unexpected thanks.
With that, Minseok gets into bed, sneaking the knife under his pillow. Doing this each night is a new development, and it makes him a little worried that he's become excessively paranoid, but he sleeps better feeling that he has some defense against the world, not just his guards, but something he can personally do. With a hand on the knife hilt, he curls up in bed and quickly falls asleep.
"Help!" Minseok yells. His voice is hoarse, and he clears his throat. He remembers his knife too late, but getting off the bed seems more important than going back for it. He scrambles to his feet and tries to look around, but he can't see a thing. Where are the guards? Did whoever's in his room manage to take them out? If he's up against someone capable of sneaking into the palace and defeating at least two well-trained palace guards, he's in big trouble. "Help!" he yells again. There must be someone around who can come to his rescue, even if the guards can't.
"He's by the bed. Get him, quick!" Minseok thinks he's heard that voice before, but he can't place it. He doesn't waste time trying to figure out who he's hearing, diving under the bed. He crawls out from the foot of the bed, hoping to make a run from it, just as the door bursts open.
By the light from the center room, Minseok sees one person run in, and then three more, silhouetted against the light. "Your grace, come here!" That's Jongin, who was guarding Lu Han's room tonight. Minseok runs only two steps toward him before Jongin jumps forward and knocks him out of the way. He understands why a second later when a sword hits the ground where he was standing only a moment ago. "Stay back, your grace!" Jongin calls as he engages the attacker. It's Junseo, Minseok realizes with a shock, who is supposed to be guarding him.
"Your grace, look out!" another voice yells. It's the servant on night duty, Kyungsoo. Minseok looks around, but there's no immediate threat to him that he can see.
"What are you doing?" At the sound of Lu Han's voice, Minseok realizes that the warning was for him. The question is directed at the other man who was guarding his room with Jongin, Siyan, who is now attacking Lu Han. Yeongjin is also going after Lu Han, who is unarmed and dressed for bed and now facing two opponents without help. What is going on?
Minseok tries to get up and go for his knife, but Kyungsoo stops him. Not him too, Minseok thinks, but no, he says, "It's too dangerous, your grace."
"There's a knife under my pillow," Minseok explains, keeping his voice low. "Can you get it?"
Kyungsoo is no fighter, but he's aware of the stakes. He nods and makes his way carefully toward the bed, trying not to be noticed. Minseok stays where he is, watching and feeling helpless. The room isn't large enough for five people to swing their swords around, and that's to Lu Han's advantage. He's tackled Yeongjin to the ground, moving around too quickly for Siyan to get at him without risking hitting his ally.
Meanwhile, Jongin is fighting Junseo, and he manages to get him away from the door. "Your grace, get out!" Jongin calls without looking back at him. Minseok doesn't want to leave, but he's useless here. If he gets out, he might at least be able to get help. Besides, he may not like abandoning the others, but he understands that his life is more valuable than that of guards and servants, or even the prince consort. He only hesitates for a moment before darting out the door.
No one manages to come after him before he gets out into the hallway. There's another guard at the outer door and Minseok desperately hopes he's not part of this conspiracy too. He looks shocked when Minseok bursts through the door, which is a positive sign. "Your grace?" he asks, concerned.
"Help!" Minseok gasps. "Go in there and help."
"Yes, your grace."
The guard immediately goes inside, and Minseok takes a deep breath and yells, "Help!" as loud as he can. The more men come, the better the odds; this conspiracy can't be so large, can it? But it shouldn't have been able to get to this point, where three out of four guards were a part of it, without being found out.
He calls for help a few more times, running down the hallway. Two more guards come around the corner, and then a third, followed by two servants. "Go to my quarters and help the prince consort," he tells the guards, who obey without wasting time on questions.
"Is there something we can do, your grace?" one of the servants asks. Her name is Sooyoung, Minseok thinks, or maybe Sunyoung.
"Go inform the emperor that I was attacked by three members of my guard."
Both servants' eyes go wide, but they only say, "Yes, your grace," before hurrying off down the hall.
Alone in the now quiet hallway, Minseok starts to register what happened: his own guards attacked him. People he should have been able to trust with his life tried and only narrowly failed to take his life instead. When he left the room, it was three armed guards against one guard and two unarmed men, only one a trained fighter. Is Lu Han skilled enough to turn the tide with at most one small knife? If not, the would-be assassins may yet succeed in killing one member of the royal family, if not the one they wanted.
He thinks about Lu Han running into his bedroom with Jongin and Kyungsoo, coming to Minseok's defense in his bedclothes. He didn't hesitate, and he didn't seem afraid. That's his soldier's training, of course, but he didn't have to fight here and now. That he did says a lot about whether Minseok can trust him, assuming he survives. Minseok tries not to consider the alternative; he's only known Lu Han for a short time, but enough that the loss would be personal. He would also hate for Lu Han to die because of his association with Minseok, because he helped Minseok when he could have stood back like royalty is expected to.
That train of thought is interrupted by a sudden wave of people coming around the corner. Minseok starts and prepares to run when he sees the high consort just behind the leader of the palace guard, Yunho. "Your grace!" Yunho calls.
"Is your grace hurt?" the high consort asks.
"Only a scratch, but Lu—the prince consort..." Minseok realizes through his shock that he's shaking, the combination of being suddenly awakened and the fear of the attack taking a toll on him.
Yunho and some of the other guards go to Lu Han's rescue, leaving a sizable contingent with Minseok. "What happened?" the high consort asks after they go. He puts a gentle hand on Minseok's arm, but Minseok is so tense that he jumps.
"My two guards and one of the prince consort's were working together. They attacked me in the middle of the night. If I had not woken up just in time..." Minseok has been attacked before, but no one has ever come so close to succeeding in their goal of killing him. If he had woken up a few seconds later, or if he hadn't thought to move when he did, he would be dead now.
"And the prince consort?" the high consort asks.
"I called for help and he and the fourth guard came," Minseok says. "When I left, he was fighting."
"The guards will protect him," the high consort says, as if it wasn't also guards trying to kill him.
"Who could have turned three royal guards?" Minseok asks. Guards are carefully vetted before they're allowed into the palace, and more so before they're allowed anywhere near him.
"We will determine how this happened and ensure that it never happens again." The high consort's voice softens. "Your grace is safe now."
Minseok nods, but he can't stop worrying until he sees that Lu Han is safe too, and until he learns how this could have happened. If his guards can be turned against him, he'll never be safe.
It seems like an eternity before Yunho rounds the corner, accompanied by Lu Han and Jongin. Two guards are leading Yeongjin behind them, but Minseok doesn't see Kyungsoo or Junseo or Siyan. Jongin's arm is bleeding, and there's blood on Lu Han's clothes too, but Minseok can't see where it's coming from. It feels miraculous that he's alive at all, under the circumstances, but Minseok is concerned that he's badly hurt. At least it's some comfort that he's standing on his own two feet.
"Report, captain," the high consort commands.
"Two of the three attackers are dead," Yunho says. "The prince consort and the guards present were able to defeat them before we arrived."
"And Kyungsoo?" Minseok asks.
"The servant? He was injured. I sent a guard to escort him to get treatment."
"Is it serious?" the high consort asks.
"He should recover in time," Yunho says. That's a relief to hear.
"I commend his bravery in defending the crown prince." The high consort turns his attention to Lu Han. "Is the prince consort injured?"
"Nothing serious. This isn't my blood." Lu Han, in sharp contrast to how Minseok feels, sounds steady and sure of himself, more so than usual. It makes sense, Minseok supposes, that his training prepared him well for situations like this, better than for everyday palace life.
"I am glad of that," the high consort says. "Very well, then. Those of you who were involved in the fight should come with me to report to the emperor. You as well, captain."
"Yes, your grace."
The high consort sends one guard to bring the emperor from his hiding place—guaranteeing his safety is essential, of course—while the rest of them go to the audience hall. "I'm glad you're all right," Lu Han tells Minseok as they walk. He's forgotten all about speaking properly, his accent coming out strongly, but under the circumstances, Minseok doesn't care. "I thought the worst when I heard you yell."
"I..." Minseok's voice wavers. He's frustrated with himself for looking weak when Lu Han is taking his first assassination attempt so well.
Lu Han doesn't look judgmental, only concerned. "We'll talk later," he says quietly.
When the emperor comes to the audience hall, anger is plain on his face. Less obvious, but still visible to Minseok, is fear; this attack shows how vulnerable they can be, no matter how careful they are. "Tell me what happened."
Minseok starts, going as far as when the left the room. Lu Han speaks next, explaining that he happened to be awake, and he went into the center room and saw that the door to Minseok's bedroom was closed and there was no guard at the door. The emperor raises an eyebrow, and it takes Minseok a moment to understand that he's reacting to Lu Han revealing that they're sleeping in separate bedrooms. Right now, he doesn't care what the emperor thinks of that, but he may hear about it later.
Lu Han, seemingly oblivious, continues speaking, explaining how he called Minseok's name, concerned, and a short time later, he heard Minseok call for help. He tells how Kyungsoo attacked Junseo with Minseok's knife, giving Lu Han the opportunity to relieve him of his sword. In front of the emperor, Lu Han is back to sounding nervous and stumbling over polite language, but he stands straight and tall, looking rather like a general even in his bloody nightclothes.
When the emperor is satisfied with Lu Han's account, Jongin explains that he was a last-minute substitute for guard duty tonight, replacing a lower ranking guard who was sent to fill in for a sick man at the west gate. "Find him," the emperor orders, and Yunho quickly dispatches guards to bring the possible co-conspirator in.
The emperor questions Jongin and then Yunho, his voice rising. "This cannot be allowed to happen!" he snaps. "You must get to the bottom of this attack and ensure that none of your other guards are compromised.
"Of course, your highness." Yunho is, or at least appears calm in the face of the emperor's anger. "I deeply regret that my men put the crown prince and the prince consort in danger and I will not allow it to happen again."
"If I may, your highness," the high consort gracefully cuts in before the emperor can yell more than would be seemly. "If your highness has no further questions for them, perhaps the crown prince and the prince consort could be allowed to go and rest. They have had a trying night."
"Oh, yes." The emperor looks at Minseok as though he's only now remembering that he's the one who was attacked. "You may go. We will speak more in the morning."
"Yes, your highness."
Yunho sends a larger than usual contingent of guards out with Minseok and Lu Han. Back in their rooms, Minseok finds Baekhyun and Jongdae there to replace Kyungsoo. They usually work during the day and were clearly woken up to come here, but they smile and express their relief that Minseok and Lu Han are safe. Jongdae cleans the minor cut on Minseok's shoulder, while Baekhyun takes Lu Han into the bedroom to bandage his wounds.
"Is there anything else I can do for your grace?" Jongdae asks when he's finished, but Minseok shakes his head. There's nothing to be done for what happened. The shock has faded, and the fear that followed it has diminished significantly, but he still feels tense and uncomfortable, and the guards arrayed around the room no longer make him feel safe. He doesn't expect to sleep anymore tonight.
When Lu Han comes back out, only the end of a bandage peeking out of his right sleeve shows that he fought for his life not long ago. He sits next to Minseok and lets out a sigh. After a moment, when Minseok doesn't speak, he says, "I do not wish to upset you, but I think... I think there are some things I should know." Minseok nods, giving permission, so he asks, "Are such attacks common in the palace?"
"Not such attacks, but assassination attempts are not uncommon." At least Minseok's voice is steady now, but he still feels small and helpless.
"On you?" Lu Han sounds surprised. A soldier shouldn't be so naïve about threats to the royal family, but then, those must have been distant, perhaps irrelevant concerns out on the eastern front.
"Yes," Minseok says. "And the emperor. The high consort as well, and sometimes other members of the royal family. My cousin was killed last year by a group that hopes to eliminate the entire royal line."
"Oh, my condolences," Lu Han says reflexively.
Minseok shakes his head. His cousin lived outside the capital and they were never close. There's a brief, awkward pause before Lu Han returns to the topic at hand. "You must be used to this, then."
"No," Minseok admits. "Attackers are usually stopped before they come near me."
"I see," Lu Han says weakly. Minseok can't blame him for not knowing how to respond. There's been a lot to take in tonight.
"Someone may come after you too," Minseok says. It feels cruel to frighten Lu Han, but it's the truth. "Perhaps an attack like this, or perhaps something more subtle like poisoning. You have to be careful. And you know, you're royalty now. You can't run into danger and risk your life."
"Not even for you?" Lu Han asks quietly.
"Not if you can help it." Minseok doesn't want Lu Han to be in danger because of him, but it does give him a certain sense of...comfort, perhaps, to know that Lu Han would, and in fact, did risk his life for Minseok. He came to Minseok's rescue without hesitation tonight, and probably saved his life by calling out and waking him up. That goes a long way toward telling Minseok that he can trust Lu Han not to hurt him.
"I understand," Lu Han says without much conviction.
"Lu Han." Minseok thinks better of his impulsive request before he even makes it, aware that they're far from alone.
"What is it?" Lu Han asks when Minseok hesitates.
"Would you...?" Minseok frowns and looks around, and Baekhyun and Jongdae and all the guards pretend to be temporarily deaf. "Would you teach me to fight?"
"Do you not know how to fight?" Lu Han asks, surprised. He grimaces slightly a moment later, realizing that surprise is not a very tactful response. "I know royals do not fight in the military but I somehow assumed..."
"Fighting is considered beneath princes," Minseok explains. He doesn't mention the reduction of the threat to the emperor, not in front of all these unfamiliar guards. "But I feel that under these circumstances, I should learn enough for self-defense."
Lu Han nods. "I have learned many styles of fighting. I should be able to teach you something that will be of use to you."
"Thank you." They lapse into silence, and Minseok thinks back to earlier. He remembers Lu Han speaking in front of the emperor, the self-assured way he held himself. Lu Han has been clearly struggling to adjust to palace life, but tonight, Minseok saw a different side of him. For the first time, he caught a glimpse of what Lu Han must have been like as a general, confident and quick thinking, sure of himself in a way he isn't in the palace. It seems a waste to have him here instead of out on the battlefield where he belongs, but then, it's because he's here that Minseok is alive now.
Thinking about what Lu Han said to the emperor, Minseok recalls him saying that he happened to be awake in the middle of the night. He had more pressing concerns before, but now it occurs to him to find that odd. "Why were you awake before?" Lu Han starts slightly at the abrupt question. "You woke me up when you said my name," Minseok elaborates, "but why were you awake at that time of night?"
"I had trouble sleeping. I was tired of lying in bed, so I got up to stretch my legs." Lu Han's mild tone makes it sound like nothing, but he's too obvious about it to fool Minseok.
"Was anything wrong?" Minseok asks.
"No, I..." Lu Han frowns, back to being uncertain again. "The palace is very quiet at night. I am accustomed to sleeping in barracks with many other men, so the silence is jarring."
"Even generals sleep in barracks?" Minseok asks. He's not very familiar with military hierarchy and customs, but he would have assumed that a high rank conferred certain privileges.
"I have been..." Lu Han pauses, a frown flickering over his face and then disappearing. "I was a general for only seven months. Even then, I slept beside the barracks, and there was always someone around moving during the night."
It surprises Minseok to hear that Lu Han spent such a short time as a general, though he does understand that Lu Han was young to hold such a position. He wonders how Lu Han became a general, and how he feels about earning such a high rank only to lose it in less than a year. He doesn't ask, though, only says, "I see."
Lu Han darts a glance over at him, then quickly away, and doesn't try to continue the conversation. The silence stretches out this time, and after perhaps half an hour, Lu Han dozes off. He must have really been sleeping poorly to fall asleep so easily after what happened—but then, perhaps to him, it's unremarkable. Outbursts of violence are common in the disputed lands at the eastern border, and Lu Han was a soldier, after all. He wouldn't get much sleep if near-death experiences were enough to shake him.
Lu Han wakes up when servants bring in breakfast, and they eat in silence. Lack of sleep and the stress of the previous night have left Minseok exhausted, but there's a full day ahead of him, with various duties to attend to in addition to dealing with what happened the night before. The emperor may choose to cancel some planned meetings, but if he doesn't, sleep deprivation is no excuse for Minseok to not attend.
They've barely finished eating when a servant arrives and announces that the emperor has called for them. That's to be expected, but Minseok grimaces internally. It's unlikely that the emperor's mood has improved much from the middle of the night; Minseok doubts he slept either. Nonetheless, there's nothing to do when the emperor calls but go to him. Minseok and Lu Han make their way to the audience chamber, accompanied by more guards than usual. After last night, the presence of guards doesn't make Minseok feel as safe as it once would have, but he consoles himself with the thought that they're unlikely to attack him in broad daylight, if nothing else.
Yunho arrives at the audience chamber at the same time as them, along with several guards. He bows and greets them, waiting for Minseok and Lu Han to enter first. The emperor, surrounded by his personal guards, looks crabby and tired, but he sits up straight and puts on a more imperious look. He nods to Minseok and Lu Han and then immediately tells Yunho, "Report."
"We have questioned the surviving attacker, as well as the other guard who was originally scheduled for duty last night, but they refuse to say whose orders they acted under. Both claim that Siyan, one of the guards who died, was their point of contact. Through him, they were recruited to seek guard positions with offers of payment, and more for their families if they died during the assassination."
"And you believe that? That they were willing to kill without asking any questions?" The emperor sounds distinctly unhappy, which Minseok can understand. If they can't find the culprit behind this attack, what's to stop another one from following it?
"I am afraid I do, your highness. All four guards involved come from very poor and struggling families. It is not unexpected that they would turn on the royal family, even at risk their lives, for sufficient payment."
The emperor visibly bites back an angry response before asking, somewhat more calmly, "If it is so easy to turn guards traitor, what will you do to prevent a repeat of this incident?"
"All current guards are being questioned, with an emphasis on newer recruits." Yunho's voice is steady, but he's tense. That this happened under his watch is grounds for him to lose his position as leader of the palace guard, or even face punishment himself. Minseok suspects that the only reason he hasn't been replaced already is that he's good at his job, and the emperor knows he's as trustworthy as anyone can be in the palace. "I have gone over the schedule myself and adjusted it to ensure that my most trusted guards are assigned to direct guard duty. We are also implementing more thorough vetting at the recruiting stage and before guards are promoted from gate duty."
"Very well," the emperor grudgingly responds. "Continue to question the prisoners to determine whether they have any information at all that might be useful. I will send Hwayoung to assist you." The official title of Hwayoung's role is master of information, but in reality, she is the emperor's spymaster. Minseok pities the prisoners if she is getting involved, but only slightly. He can't spare much pity when he would be dead if they had their way.
The emperor turns his attention to Minseok and Lu Han. "You were both injured last night, but you seem well."
"Our injuries were minor, your highness," Minseok says. "Your highness' concern is appreciated."
"Good." The emperor looks at Minseok for a long moment, and Minseok tries and fails to read his expression. He wonders how the emperor would feel if Minseok had been seriously injured or killed. Would he be sad to lose Minseok as a person, or only regret the loss of the crown prince? Minseok can't begin to guess, but it's silly to think about such things regardless. "We will ensure that you are well-protected tonight and moving forward," the emperor continues as though he never stopped. "Attacks like this cannot be allowed to happen in the palace." He looks sharply at Yunho, who bows on reflex.
"Of course, your highness," Minseok agrees.
"Dismissed, then, all of you. There remains much to do today."
Minseok makes it through the day on autopilot, and he can barely keep his eyes open by bedtime. He groggily eyes the guards posted tonight, relieved to see that they're all familiar faces who have guarded him well through many nights. He's not foolish enough after last night to believe that that means he's safe, but he's as safe as he can hope to be. He and Lu Han change for bed, and Lu Han says his usual, "Goodnight, Minseok." He's smiling already, perhaps because Minseok looks very obviously sleepy.
Minseok is about to respond as usual, but he pauses, thinking. The primary reason he chose not to share a bed with Lu Han is out of fear for his safety, but Lu Han was not the threat to his safety last night. Rather, Lu Han is the reason he's still alive. It's possible, he supposes, that it was all some elaborate set up to get him to let down his guard around Lu Han, but he's not paranoid enough to believe that yet. He can't trust Lu Han with everything until they know each other better, but he can trust that Lu Han won't murder him in his sleep.
Lu Han looks at Minseok questioningly, confused by his silence. "I think we'll be safer sleeping in the same room."
"I thought you prefer to sleep alone." Lu Han's surprise is obvious.
"I'll learn." Minseok wonders too late if his invitation sounds like more than it is. He's offering to let Lu Han sleep beside him and nothing more.
If Lu Han thinks anything else, he doesn't say so. "All right, then. I..." He hesitates slightly before concluding, "I would like that."
It is only an invitation to sleep in the same bed, but as they walk into Minseok's bedroom together, it does somehow feel significant. It feels as though a wall between them has fallen, and although they're still far apart, the distance is surmountable in a way it wasn't before. Perhaps it's only that Minseok is tired and thinking foolish thoughts, but it makes him feel that he's a little less alone than before.
The bed is large and there's plenty of space for them to lie down without touching. Lu Han waits until Minseok chooses a side to sleep on and then lies at the other edge of the bed. "Goodnight," he says again once they're settled.
"Goodnight, Lu Han," Minseok responds. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, he can see Lu Han's usual smile.
Minseok's knife is nowhere to be found after last night's fighting. Even without it, whether because of the comfort of Lu Han lying beside him or only because he's too tired to worry anymore, he falls asleep quickly.