Mae-Jin sits at his desk, signing countless reports and notices. He lets his mind wander as the stack slowly shrinks. He's almost done. Finally.
Just as his pen tip touches the final paper, Mae-Jin's door opens. He looks up from the paper and sets his pen down.
"Your Highness, the Queen and King request your presence."
Mae-Jin turns to face the aide, nodding. The aide leaves, leaving Mae-Jin alone to wonder what his parents want from him. He sighs, knowing that it would be rude to leave them waiting.
He stands from his desk and speedwalks to the throne room.
Before Mae-Jin stands his parents in all their glory. His mother is intimidating with her height and long flowing blonde hair, and his father, while small in comparison, has a kingly presence with short cropped dark brown hair.
"Maeji," his mother begins, smiling in the way only she can, "you have a lot of work to do by yourself, right?"
"Yes, I do. Why?” Mae-Jin answers, cautiously. Although his parents are good people, the question fills him with unease. His parents share a look, and his unease grows.
“We’re hiring another informant, but unfortunately he didn’t accept the position until after we agreed to hire his friend too. But, we don’t need his friend, so we thought that maybe…” his father trails off.
“You thought that I could use him,” Mae-Jin finishes. They both nod. He purses his lips. It figures that something like this would happen.
“When should I expect this friend to arrive?” he inquires dryly. His mother’s face scrunches up. Mae-Jin tenses apprehensively, not wanting to know why.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, nothing. He’s arriving next week for the interview. It’s up to you how it goes,” his mother laughs. Mae-Jin narrows his eyes.
“Alright. Is there anything else I need to know? You know, like a name perhaps?” Mae-Jin prods.
“His name is In-Soo. He’s twenty-one years old. There’s no other significant information that you won’t find by reading his file,” his father explains. Mae-Jin nods and turns to leave the room.
“I’ll have his file delivered later this evening. Right now, your father and I are reviewing it,” his mother offers.
Mae-Jin turns to his parents once more and bows his head respectfully before leaving the room.
As promised, an hour later, an aide delivers the file. They bow quickly to Mae-Jin and zoom off to finish their work. Mae-Jin holds the file in his hands. It’s surprisingly light. Usually, there’s all sorts of information on people. He sits on his bed and uses the headboard to lean against.
He opens the file cover and a drawing of a person’s face, most likely In-Soo’s, stares back at him. The drawing is black and white, but somehow it manages to appear full of life. The expression on his face is happy. His hair is drawn back into a ponytail with hair falling over his shoulder. Mae-Jin blinks and turns to the next page. There isn’t a lot on the page besides a short list of In-Soo’s skills. Interesting. It says that In-Soo was good at dealing with people, but he also has combat training.
Mae-Jin turns the page. The next page is filled completely. The header reads, “Past Work.” He skims the page, his stomach dropping with each word. By the time Mae-Jin finishes the page, he feels sick to his stomach. What kind of person hires an eight year old to be their bodyguard?
He turns the page. He reads it, his stomach dropping even more. He tears his eyes from the paper. Who would force a person to do these things? When he finishes the page, Mae-Jin sets the file down on his bed. His stomach churns as he lays down, using his arm as a pillow.
Mae-Jin shuts his eyes briefly, somewhat tempted to fall asleep right now, but if he does, he’ll have to finish the file later. And he already agreed to go into town with Yoon and feed the homeless. Mae-Jin doesn’t need to feel sick to his stomach while doing that. Ugh, but he doesn’t have the energy to read anymore.
Mae-Jin sighs before sitting back up. He flips to the next page. Bile rises in his throat. After what feels like a lifetime, he finishes the page. Mae-Jin warily looks at the next page. Thankful is his first feeling when he realizes that it’s list. Dread is the next after he reads the title. Infractions. What sort of trouble would In-Soo have gotten in with a past like that?
Mae-Jin reads the list. His brows furrow. Most of the infractions are violent, just short of murder. Assault, stealing, poisoning, but none has ever resulted in death. And, Mae-Jin notices, the last recorded infraction was dated two years ago.
He closes the file, a pit of nerves settling in his stomach. He sets it down on his nightstand and blows out the candle before laying. As the darkness engulfs him, Mae-Jin could almost imagine what In-Soo would be like. Maybe he would be like Saeyoung, feisty, but deadly. Or maybe, he would be nice, like Lili, and the only reason his file is so dark is because most of his major life events were dark. Or maybe, he would be some combination.
Mae-Jin yawns, exhaustion pulling his eyelids down until he slowly drifts off to sleep, like a raft lazily floating in a calm sea, with his new hire being the only thing on his mind.
The next week passes slowly as Mae-Jin nearly drives himself mad preparing for the interview in between his other duties. Three days in a godforsaken row, he has to meet with the royal advisors. Naturally, because they're stiff and close minded, they advise against hiring In-Soo. He decides that he will hire him, if only just to spite them. After meeting with the advisors, Mae-Jin meets with Saeyoung and Hyun to discuss what would be the best course of action for interviewing In-Soo.
“First off, Mae-Jin,” Saeyoung begins with humor dancing in his eyes, “don't talk yourself down to try and forge a connection with him. When I surveyed him and Kyo, he seemed to understand social statuses. Instead, try and find common ground that people can enjoy regardless of position of power. Like dogs, or food, or sleep.”
Mae-Jin nods, tempted to write notes, but then remembering that Saeyoung is here and would laugh at him for being so invested. Hyun rolls his eyes at his husband, an action which is ruined by the fond smile on his face.
“Your Highness, while my dork husband has a point, try start with being professional. If you two hit it off, then find common ground,” Hyun suggests, facing Mae-Jin with an intense sincerity that only someone like Hyun can possess.
“Why does it sound like you're giving me advice for a date?”
Saeyoung raises an eyebrow and winks comically. Hyun almost glowers.
“You can't date a man you haven't met yet, Your Highness. It's not wise to have feelings for mere words on a paper. He could be a dick,” Hyun advises ever so eloquently. Mae-Jin loves Hyun and Saeyoung, he really does, but they give the worst advice when they're together.
Yoon sits across from Mae-Jin with one leg crossed over the other. The chef exudes an aura of swagger and importance that can't be matched by actual royalty. If he wanted to, Yoon could declare himself king and Mae-Jin probably would be too intimidated to deny it. Luckily, Yoon is a loyal man. He has said on multiple occasions that he would die before lifting a hand to harm Mae-Jin. And, he was wise beyond his years.
“Maeji, just ask the normal questions. It's stupid to overthink this. And if you're really desperate to get him to like it here, just bring him to the cafeteria. I can assure that no one's ever said no after eating my food,” Yoon laughs at his own joke. Yoon is loyal, a good cook, and mostly good company, but the tradeoff is that he’s almost self obsessed. Almost. The only things he cares about more than himself are food and sleep.
“I’m not that desperate, Yoon. You just seemed more helpful than Hyun and Saeyoung.”
Yoon smirks, holding his head up with his palm. His brown eyes are light and full and full of fire. If it wasn't for the fact that Yoon is sorely against romance in general, Mae-Jin might have been attracted to him.
“Alright, alright. But I still wanna meet this kid, Maeji,” Yoon.declares, sitting up. He looks at the doors leading to the kitchen and stands up.
“Break’s over?” Mae-Jin asks.
“Yeah. I can't leave my baby to other people too long. It might get hurt.”
“It's a kitchen.”
“Oh, like you don't call soup the love of your life.”
With that last word, Yoon turns on his heel and saunters away, hand on hips. A fond smile spreads across Mae-Jin's face.
After a moment, he stands and leaves the cafeteria. The walk back to his room is slow and relaxed. On the way, a few aides and advisors come up to him to give him reports. He takes the papers with a thankful, but fake smile. More work. Wonderful.
Mae-Jin sighs when he enters his room. The bed is big and pushed up against the wall to give him as much space as possible. Against the opposite wall is his desk. Stacks of paper fill it with only a space in the center. He glowers at the stack of unfinished work. With a heavy sigh, he begins to work long into the night until the pile diminishes to nothing.
Mae-Jin forces his eyes open. He sits up and winces as his shoulder throbs with a dull incessant pain. He grits his teeth and ignores it. His eyes feel like sandpaper as he surveys the mess of haphazardly stacked papers that he finished looking over in the dark confines of early morning. How many hours has he slept? He squints at the clock that hangs over his desk. Seven in the morning. It’s still far too early for Mae-Jin to be awake. He lays back down and turns onto his good side, facing the wall. Maybe, he could get away with a couple more hours before the advisors started yelling at him.
Mae-Jin closes his eyes again and drifts off in the comforting warm recesses of sleep.
When Mae-Jin next opens his eyes, it’s because of a furious pounding on his bedroom door. He sits up and looks blankly at it before processing the noise.
“Your Highness! The new employees are about to arrive! Appear presentable in five minutes otherwise we will have to postpone!” one of the Royal Advisors yell.
“Alright! Sorry for causing trouble!” Mae-Jin calls back. The knocking stops and quick footsteps shuffle away. Mae-Jin lets out a long, exasperated breath. What's the point of postponing if they were already here?
He stands from his bed and faces his closet. He opens the door and stares blankly at the clothes that hang in there. Mae-Jin chooses the most professional outfit that he can comprehend at the moment.
Mae-Jin dresses and rushes to the entrance of the castle where his parents wait with a serene smile.
The chill of the morning air finally reaches Mae-Jin, and he shivers. He turns towards the gates. They’re open, and the sounds of a bustling morning carries through them. Smells of baking bread and coffee waft in with trotting of horses. Mae-Jin looks at his parents, who nod at him.
“Do you know when they’ll get here?”
“On the hour,” his father laughs and turns back to face the gate.
A quarter hour passes before Mae-Jin hears the sound of horses nearing the castle. He stands up straighter and watches the gate.
Soon after, three horses trot into view. Every second brings the three people closer. Mae-Jin squints, trying to pick In-Soo out of the three of them, but they're still too far away to see clearly.
As the horses get closer, Mae-Jin notices that all three of them are wearing worn and tattered cloaks. All of their hoods are up and there are mud stains along the bottoms. To be honest, they look more like they should be coming here to ask for help, rather than being invited by his parents. Mae-Jin feels a flash of guilt at the thought. He really has spent too much time with the Advisors. The people pause at the gate, and two guards come forward to check their belongings.
Once they're clear, the three get off their horses and walk through the gate. They stop a few feet away and bow. Mae-Jin feels vaguely uncomfortable. He's never really liked people bowing for him. A few moments later, they all stand straight and take off their hoods.
”Queen Mei, thank you for this,” the oldest one utters almost fervently. Their ash colored hair streaked with a stark white. They're standing in front of the other two. Mae-Jin looks at his mom. She's smiling fondly.
”It's been a while Eunji. Why don't you stay for a few days, so we can catch up?”
The person smiles before shaking their head. “Usually, I would accept, but I've been away from my girls too long as it is. Although, the horses do need rest. I'll stay until lunch. Is that suitable, Your Majesty?”
Mae-Jin notices that the other two are whispering. He glances at his dad, who nods. He takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. Before he says anything, Mae-Jin looks In-Soo over. He’s small, no more than 5’4, and his hair, a striking and strangely familiar red, is tangled and ratty. His skin is a darkish brown, not as dark as Saeyoung, but more so than Mae-Jin himself. He can't tell the color of his eyes, but they’re striking, even from a distance. Mae-Jin clears his throat.
”In-Soo,” he begins, watching as the other man flinches, “if you'd please come with me, we can begin your interview.”
In-Soo nods without a word, glancing at the other person. He smiles at them, and walks up to Mae-Jin. He’s so obviously nervous that Mae-Jin almost feels bad.
"Well then," he starts to break the awkward silence before it begins, "we'll start with a tour of the palace while I ask you some questions. Is that amenable for you?"
"Yes, Your Highness," In-Soo answers quietly. His voice is smooth, but kind of raspy. Mae-Jin thinks it fits him.
He begins walking towards the entrance. When Mae-Jin gets there, he stops, watching as In-Soo catches up.
"This," he gestures to the wide wooden doors, "is the entrance of the palace." What we're in currently is the courtyard. It's usually open to the public for festivals, or, if someone has an audience with one of the royal cabinet, they wait here until It's time."
They enter the palace. Inside it's business as usual with aides and guards bustling about.
Mae-Jin stops at Lili's office first.
"This is our palace doctor's main office. She oversees the health of all employees with her medical team. Her name is Lili, and should you get hurt, she'll take care of you better than most," Mae-Jin explains. He peeks in the office. It's empty right now, so Lili's most likely in the infirmary.
"Okay," In-Soo mumbles. He doesn't talk a lot, Mae-Jin's noticed.
"So, on the topic of health, how's yours? Any serious injuries or conditions that limit what you're able to do?"
In-Soo opens his mouth before closing it again. He looks conflicted. He finally sighs.
"Not that I'm aware of? But, sometimes, it gets hard to breathe," In-Soo admits.
"We can get that checked out soon," Mae-Jin assures him.
They move on to and from the garden, the kitchen, the library, the meeting room, until they finally get to the armory and training grounds.
Mae-Jin sees Kyung-ja, the military commander, watching and instructing the trainees. She looks up and Mae-Jin waves. She nods at him before calling out, "Good work today. His Highness needs this space, so let's wrap it up."
Once they all clear out, Mae-Jin walks to the sparring mat. In-Soo follows him.
"Why are we here?" In-Soo asks. It the first time that he's spoken without being prompted to.
"I only have a few more questions. I thought the best place to ask them was here," Mae-Jin explains. He stretches his arms over his head, almost wincing when a flash of pain shoots through it.
"Okay. Sorry for speaking out of turn," In-Soo mumbles.
"There's no 'speaking out of turn' with me, so don't worry about it. Anyways, let's get to it."
"So, what's with all the assault on your record?"
In-Soo exhales through his nose.
"You know I was a sex worker, right?"
"Well, I'd have to defend myself if any of those assholes ever tried something they didn't pay for," In-Soo practically spits out. Mae-Jin nods solemnly. That's what he figured.
"Thanks for telling me. I have one more thing to ask," Mae-Jin informs him.
In-Soo nods. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Spar with me."