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even the weariest river

Chapter Text

 

 

I.

 

The first time Taehyung is forced to attend court after the war ends, it’s for a trial. He doesn’t know what to expect, besides the hushed whispers of the servants and guards; mumbling about prisoners, and more death. There’s a silk shirt laced all the way up his throat to hide yellowing marks, a heavy robe tied over his torso to give him some kind of protection. A vicious bruise blooming over his left cheekbone, just a few hours old.

How clumsy of me, he murmurs to the open jeering of the courtiers, as he makes his way to his throne. I must have tripped.

He expects—maybe—a few traitors. The last prisoners of war brought out for violent entertainment, his country’s favorite kind. He doesn’t expect—near twenty people, dressed in the fashion of Bayul nobility, shackled and gagged and held at spearpoint on the floor.

They’d won the war, Taehyung repeats in his head. He settles heavy into his throne, four seats to his father’s left, and feels the sickness enter his stomach and lodge there with dragon’s fingers.

When the first lord is dragged in front of his father’s throne, Taehyung holds his breath. The man’s face is dirty, fine gray clothing torn and streaked with red. There’s a wet gash through his left earlobe, where a ring may have been ripped out, dripping blood down his neck in a sluggish line Taehyung can’t make himself look away from.

“Kang Hajoon,” the king drawls, and takes a long drink from his goblet. The lord glares, spits out a muffled curse through the coarse strip of rope that gags him. Taehyung’s father leans forward, wine dripping down into his neatly trimmed beard. His leather armor groans as he shifts, loud even above the tittering of the court. “You stand accused of high treason to the crown of Odai, of aiding and abetting our enemies, of murder and disturbing the peace and all those other things.”

The court titters. Taehyung’s stomach heaves, when Taeho next to him snorts so hard he pitches to the side.

Lords of Bayul have never been beholden to Odai’s laws. Taehyung knows the war had been won, but not—not like this.

“How do you answer these charges?” The king asks with a mocking, wine-stained smile. The lord glares, and receives the butt of a spear to the back of his head. The gash on his ear hasn’t stopped bleeding. “Speak up, traitor.”

The court laughs. At the center of the bound cluster of nobles, a man surges forward and is caught with a sharp backhand to his cheek. His eyes are dark with hatred, his arms and legs extensively bound. There’s a boy at his side, no older than a teenager, who presses their foreheads together when the man sags back.

Lord Kang says nothing through the gag. He tips his head up, and refuses to bow even when the soldiers strike him flat to the floor. The king sighs, and gestures for his goblet to be filled.

“Very well,” he huffs. Then, raises his voice and his cup to the courtiers in silks and pearls, clapping along at the new game. “What’s his sentence, ah?”

The answer is unanimous. Taehyung sinks back into his throne, knuckles white against the gilded armrest. Some of Bayul’s last noble lines have started to weep. The man who had struggled refuses to look away from the scene, the boy’s face pressed tight against his chest. The boy’s eyes are squeezed closed as he tries to muffle sobs.

“Oh, all right,” the king simpers. “If you all insist. Kang Hajoon, the crown of Odai sentences you to die. Any objections?”

Lord Kang closes his eyes. A tremor wracks through his body, as the soldier to his right lifts his sword. In the midst of the crowd, the Bayul man sets his jaw, and does not look away.

Blood spills across the floor of the great hall, and doesn’t wash out for a very long time.

 


 

 

There are twenty-three nobles held prisoner in their hall, and not one survives until the fourteenth.

“Wait,” Taeseok murmurs, as a lady is dragged forward. She collapses, braces herself on her hands in the centimeters-thick blood that has long since started to smell, even with the walls of windows propped open to let in the late winter air. It seeps into the torn hem of her skirt, the trailing ends of her loose hair. The king pauses, leans forward to look down at his line of sons.

“Who’s that?” He asks. Taeseok sits forward, a little half-grin stuck on his face, and points at the lady.

She’s small and furious, rope biting bruises into her cheeks. Taehyung’s breathing hollows out as a soldier yanks her up, shows her off to the court.

“I want her,” Taeseok decides. A courtier whoops loudly, and a few others break out into pleased laughter. The girl shrieks when she’s dragged away, and the man in the crowd tries to struggle again, and is slammed back to the floor by the bindings on his arms. There’s a resemblance between him and the boy next to him, who bows above his form and doesn’t seem to have any tears left. Brothers, maybe.

Taehyung presses fingers against the bruising on his wrist, and holds his breath as the next lord is brought to be sentenced.

The deaths, at least, are quick, even if the taunting of the court and the king and the princes is not. The pool of nobles dwindles, dwindles, and still Taehyung refuses to look away.

There’s never been a mass killing like this, in all the history books in their library. Taehyung looks at the boy and his brother, and tries not to think about the two sons Bayul’s king had left behind when he’d died on the battlefield. Blood sprays a tablecloth, and the hem of a lady’s skirt, and the count falls to three.

Finally, terribly, it’s just the brothers left. Bayul’s sons, Taehyung finally lets himself acknowledge, as his father settles back on his throne, and kicks his feet up on the wooden ledge that separates them from the rest of the hall.

“Let’s get this over with,” he rumbles out, wine-happy and satisfied.

The guards reach for the boy. The older son, the heir to a country whose name is being erased from maps as they speak, screams out something indecipherable through the thick cloth gag shoved in his mouth. He struggles like he’s been saving his energy for this one moment, as one soldier holds him down with a heavy boot pressed against his ribcage. As another soldier drags the boy forward, into the wading pool slaughterhouse of the great hall.

“Park Jihyun.” The king is almost slurring. Just to his right, Taeho’s fist clenches, eyes narrowed in delight, a sick little smile twisting his mouth.

Bayul’s second prince glares up from the ballroom floor, blood trickling down his jaw. His whole body is shaking, hands pulled tight against his chest, bound from elbow to wrist. Taehyung doesn’t want to look, doesn’t want to see the look in Jihyun’s eye as the king leans forward, as Taejoon at his right hand leans to whisper into his ear.

“Only one spare, huh?” The king snorts, gestures with one hand down the line to his left—the four of them, all in a row, the heir to his right.” Stupid. Always good to have a few stashed away, huh?”

The court titters. Jihyun’s chest heaves, face still set with rage and pain but body betraying the terrible fear. An echo of it curdles in Taehyung’s gut, panic clenching his fingers tight in the hem of his shirt, stained as blue as the ground is red.

“Well,” his father sighs,”I suppose dead kings don’t have to worry about that sort of thing anymore.”

Bayul’s heir thrashes against the soldier pinning him, drawing the king’s eye. “Lift that one up. I want him to see.”

A gloved hand fists in the heir’s dark hair, drags him up with the point of a sword at his back. Taejoon cracks his neck from side to side, eyes fixed on the princes, one hand playing at the hilt of his sword. Slowly, so slowly, he descends from the dais. Footsteps muffled by the thick carpet of blood, the shine of his boots coming away red.

Taejoon crouches in front of the prince, and reaches one hand up to brush mocking fingers against his jaw. Taehyung flinches at it, keeps his hands from flying up to his cheek.

This time, when the soldiers have to restrain Bayul’s heir, they draw blood. This time, he sags against the hand in his hair, held up by the cruel grip, and shudders through sobs that heave through the near-silence of the hall.

“Interesting,” Taejoon murmurs. His gloves are rich leather, well-worn. The impact of them is as familiar to Taehyung as the court itself, as the voices of the nursemaids who raised him. He settles back on his feet, wipes his fingers against his trousers as he finishes his inspection, walking in a slow circle. “Weren’t there talks of an engagement with him?”

The king hums thoughtfully.

“Always preferred the older,” he offers casually. “The portraits never did him justice.”

Jihyun shudders, as Taejoon pushes his hair away from his forehead. When he strokes along the coarse gag, he flinches back. If they keep drawing it out, Taehyung is going to be sick.

The heir has started pleading. It’s muffled nonsense through the gag, but he strains toward the high throne with everything he has, brow creased, eyes red and puffy with tears, blood thick at his temple and cheek and the very corners of his mouth.

Please, Taehyung thinks he hears.

The sound of Taejoon’s sword is sharp in the stillness, an ugly contrast to Jihyun’s whimpers, his brother’s sobs. He inspects the blade with disinterest, runs a leather finger over the sharpest part of it. There’s a moment of quiet contemplation, one that makes Taehyung remember all of the worst things that had happened after one of Taejoon’s silences. After one of his moments of unsettling stillness, the warning before the attack.

Taejoon strikes.

Steel flashes red with blood.

Park Jimin’s scream, something guttural and horrible and anguished like Taehyung has never heard before, sears itself into his memory, branded hot and painful like an iron against his ribs.

Silence shudders through the hall, broken only by the soft footsteps of servants as they rush to refill goblets, wine dripping thick in the air. The only sound is the prince’s sobs, heavy and ugly in his chest, the golden haze of the afternoon turned cold.

Taehyung’s hands shake, white-knuckled in his lap. Taejoon crouches down again, to the body collapsed on the floor, and nudges idly at its ribs with his boot.

“Disappointing,” he sighs. He wipes the blade of his sword off on his shirt, staining green silk dark with copper.

Bayul’s prince keens, an aching sound from deep in his throat, as Taejoon shoos away servants trying to collect the body. The soldiers holding him up barely have to struggle; he’s more dead weight in their arms than anything, head dropped to his chest, blood and dirt smeared wet and ungainly on his cheeks.

“Bring him,” the king grunts. He’s leaning forward again, another goblet half-empty; a servant tips a pitcher into Taeho’s cup, hesitates for him to half-drain it, and pours again.

When the soldiers try to move him, Park Jimin refuses to move. He lifts his head as they drag him forward, bound legs fighting for any kind of traction on the smooth marble. At the coldness of his stare, pinned with vicious intensity at Taejoon as he settles back into his throne, Taehyung is glad for once to be the farthest from his father’s side.

His father’s heavy sigh echoes through the hall. The court has stopped tittering, struck into fear or awe or quiet pleasure at the destruction.

“Prince-killer,” Taejoon muses, as a servant refills his cup, loud enough to echo against the arched rafters. “Maybe that’s what they’ll call me when I’m done.”

There’s rage spelled through the blood on Jimin’s lips, the bruising that litters his cheeks. Everyone is watching, waiting, as he’s forced to his knees next to his brother’s broken corpse.

Their father stands, rings on his fingers clinking against the silver of his goblet. He steps forward, keeps the barrier between him and Jimin as he takes in the scene, the brutality of it. The pleasure in his eyes isn’t all drink, Taehyung knows. For as long as the war has been raging, the king has always appreciated the blood of it.

“Take that out of his mouth,” he says, more sober than he’s seemed through all the trials. A soldier scrambles to comply, nicking Jimin’s cheek with his blade as he cuts out the wad of rope and cloth. It falls to the floor tinged with blood, like everything else in the room.

Park Jimin does not speak. His breathing is jagged, jaw set with the tension that ribs the room, eyes fixed on the sword that hangs at Taejoon’s hips.

Taehyung feels as powerless as the dead. They’re crowding around him, bodies long dragged out to avoid the worst of the stench, and yet suffocating as he thinks more—each one, the youngest barely a teenager, tried for fool’s crimes.

“Nothing to say?” His father’s joviality is gone, anger heating his face, roughening the timbre of his voice. Taehyung tries to close his eyes, and sees behind his eyelids the shape of the young prince’s body as he fell.

Jimin refuses to respond in even the twitch of his eyes. A boot lands heavy in his ribs and he chokes out something that might be a laugh, mangled and ugly, as his cheek hits the floor.

“If you’ve nothing to say,” the king says, as cruel as knuckles dug into Taehyung’s lungs,”Maybe you’d like to listen.”

The court murmurs, some trance broken by the sight of Jimin collapsed onto his side, strings cut until he’s hauled upright again.

Stop fighting, Taehyung remembers being told, years ago. When you fight, they have more fun.

“I said we should’ve killed him first,” Taeil says, voice clearer than the rest. He’s never been much for wine, and all the more dangerous for it. “Bet the younger would at least squeal a little.”

“Please,” Taejoon replies. “They all try to be stoic. You should have seen his father. Kept pretending dignity when he pissed himself on the field.”

“You hear that?” Their father’s voice is louder, pitched to echo. Taehyung’s whole body braces for impact at the tone, eyes trained on the twitch of ringed fingers, only restrained by the low barrier separating them from the bloodbath. “You’re the last of your line, Park. You’ll be in the histories for this, you know. Watched them both die, and all you did in battle was run away.”

Jimin shudders, and breathes, and drips blood down from the cut corners of his mouth, to add to the puddle seeping into his pants. Taehyung can’t see the stains, through the black cotton of Bayul’s royalty.

Taejoon’s fingers are itching again toward the hilt of his sword. Jimin’s chest heaves, breaths rattling wet in the quiet echo, jaw clenched in pain that reads as defiance. He’s braced, Taehyung thinks, like he’s ready to take a dozen more hits. Like he’s ready for the sword, this time, instead of a fist or a boot.

In the stories—the histories and mysteries and far-fetched romances—Bayul’s men are revered for their loyalty. Taehyung tries to imagine watching his brothers fall, tries to imagine any desire to fall with them. They wouldn’t return the favor, he’s sure. Wouldn’t put it past one of them to be holding the knife, at the end of it.

“What should we do with you,” the king hums. “Brat.”

“Pretty brat,” Taeil remarks lazily. “Let’s get some more blood on him, hm?”

A soldier yanks at Jimin’s hair. Taejoon sits sprawled in his throne, lazy like only a predator could get away with. His eyes track down the long line of Jimin’s neck, the smear of blood along his collarbone, shirt torn open where bruising peeks out behind black cloth. A boot plants itself heavy between his shoulders, and shoves until his face lands in the mess. Taehyung watches Jimin retch, and hold it back with firmly pursed lips, and close his eyes with red staining his eyelashes.

“Pretty,” Taeho mumbles, heavy with drink. Taehyung tries to reframe it in his head, to see the image like a picture; the drips of watercolor he could use, the way Jimin seems to be blurring at the edges with rage, and grief, and a pain Taehyung can’t fathom.

The picture smears when Taejoon stands again, bows briefly to their father.

“With your blessing?” He asks.

Taehyung hasn’t looked away from Jimin’s face. His eyes are shut tight, lips pressed even tighter to keep the blood from between them. Taehyung hasn’t looked away, and so he might be the only one who sees the relief that shudders though him, as the king gives Taejoon a nod, and a smile, and a cheerful clink of their cups.

When he was young, Taehyung had gone with two brothers on a hunting trip to the north. The farther they’d ridden, the colder it became, the tighter he’d had to pull his fur around himself as they started passing what looked like glaciers to a child of ten. The first boar they tracked was tricky for its size, and the hunt lasted longer than it should have, and halfway through Taeil had gotten bored.

He’d pulled his horse astride Taehyung’s as they moved, waited until they were passing past a frozen-over chunk of ice almost as wide across as the great hall, and cut the strap of Taehyung’s saddle with a heavy shove to his side.

It’s what his chest feels like now, he thinks; like that great sheet of frozen ice, splintered with the weight of impact.

One courtier cheers when Taejoon starts down the steps of the dais. Another whistles. The heel of a boot grinds into Jimin’s spine, another rests lightly on the side of his head, forcing his face harder against the stone.

“Pick him up,” Taejoon says, when he gets close enough to touch. His hand tangles in Jimin’s damp, dark hair, for a moment so short Taehyung might have missed it, if he could bear to look away. “I want him to see me.”

But Jimin doesn’t open his eyes. His breathing is wet, his brother’s blood dripping from his face and clothes and bonds.

“Open your eyes.” It’s almost private. Taehyung only hears it because the dais is so close. It’s not for the courtiers, when Taejoon lets his cruelty loose like a trained falcon. “I want you to see my face, your highness. It’s the last thing your brother saw too.”

Jimin screws up his face, yanks forward against the soldiers’ grip, and spits in Taejoon’s eye.

It all feels surreal; the panicked humor at the look on Taejoon’s face, the scandalized gasp of the court, the drunken sound of his father’s annoyance. Like Jimin is a bothersome puppy, something to be gotten rid of. Taehyung almost laughs, until he sees the glint of steel—not the sword, but something more vicious.

And then everything is too real. Thrown into startling contrast against the fog of the late afternoon, filtering in through stained glass to paint the scene in comical splashes of blue and green and violet.

“You’re going to feel it,” Taejoon promises. The tip of his dagger, a gift from their father, rests gently at the hollow of Jimin’s throat.

At the corner of Jimin’s lips, a smile blooms in crimson and blood.

The ice in Taehyung’s chest cracks. Groans. Splinters under the weight of panic, until it feels like he’s submerged to the throat in the frozen water of a mountain lake.

“Wait,” he says blindly, and doesn’t realize he’s spoken until the room falls silent and still. Even the murmur of ghosts, hovering blurry and vague in the corner of his eye, quiets to a buzz that might just be the sound of his own veins. “Hyung, wait, I want—”

It’s moments like this that make him panic. The open derision on each courtier’s face, the scorn of his brother as he turns from his prey. The slit of Park Jimin’s eyes, just barely open and dark and hateful, as Taehyung swallows and squares his shoulders and says—

“I want to claim him.”

And the court stays silent. For the first time, Taehyung is not asking. Not sitting silent on his throne, trying to track the shifting alliances of generals and lords and provinces. He feels, abruptly, like a prince.

“Aw,” Taeil coos, saccharine enough to needle. “Little Taehyungie wants a new toy.”

The moment breaks. Taehyung keeps his spine straight, refuses to look away from the barely-lowered point of Taejoon’s dagger. Taejoon snorts, and straightens, and pulls the blade away from Jimin’s throat.

Hesitant laughter rises from the courtiers in his brother’s pockets. They’re taking their cues from the amusement in Taeil’s smirk as he leans forward, just at their father’s left, looking down the line of brothers.

“Really?” Taeseok groans.

“Yes,” Taehyung says. “I want him.”

It feels like he’s trying too hard, to sound like the rest of them. Everyone in the hall knows this isn’t him—or knows what they’ve been told, mocking whispers passed to distant cousins from his brothers’ lips. But Jimin doesn’t know that, and the venom in his eyes strips Taehyung of grace, of anything but the cold whispers of ghost-breath against the back of his neck.

The soldiers glance between Taehyung and Taejoon and their father, silent in the middle of it all, and Taehyung waits and tries not to choke, so cold he’s almost numb.

“Our little son wants a pet,” the king finally mumbles. He stares for a long moment into his goblet, then turns his gaze to Jimin. Calm, assessing, more still than he’s been since the trial began.

And finally, Taehyung’s father tilts his head back and laughs, raucous and echoing against the gilded rafters.

“Oh, let him have it,” he chokes, voice thick with mirth. Taejoon’s dagger snaps back into its sheath. The toe of his boot finds purchase just beneath Jimin’s ribs. “A pet prince for our little useless Taehyung.”

Jimin’s eyes slit open again, and Taehyung knows—

Jimin won’t forgive him for this.

Taehyung doesn’t think he’ll ever deserve it.

 


 

 

Jimin doesn’t open his eyes again until he’s submerged in frigid water. The hands tending to him are careless, as detached passing over the spots of violent bruising as they are when they rinse through his hair. Jimin blinks through the soap-stained water until his eyes burn, holds his breath until someone drags him up by the hair.

They don’t want him to die, he assumes, so that their prince can have his way.

He’s grateful for the cold because he can pretend it’s the only thing he’s trembling from. Can imagine that his body isn’t spasming with the memory of pain, with recalls of a dagger sharp against his skin. With the memory of how welcome it had been, cool metal on his throat and warm blood soaking into his knees.

The girls washing him look terrified. The baths are sunk deep into the ground for the most part, Jimin’s smaller, more private, to give them easier access. His clothes are piled haphazard on the white stone floors, a smear of blood still dripping from where they’d been soaked.

Jimin closes his eyes, sees—the first moment, Jihyun’s eyes wide and terrified—and chokes down acid.

“Rinse him,” an attendant finally snaps, after what feels like hours. Jimin hasn’t moved, has let the servants wash every inch of him and douse him with oils that make his nose itch, has held his breath no matter how much he wanted to let the water into his lungs.

He doesn’t know why he’s surprised, when the attendant tells a maid to burn his clothes. The girl reaches for them slowly, eyes wide at the rivulets of dirty red that drip down her hands when she picks them up. Soldiers haul him out of the bath, and Jimin closes his eyes again lets himself vanish into the dark so he doesn’t have to see the roam of their eyes, the cruel delight as he’s tugged into silk and gauze that feels foreign to his skin.

When the clothes are on, half his chest bare, pants hemmed loosely at his calves, Jimin slits his eyes open to watch the soldiers clamp golden cuffs to his wrists and seal them shut. They look wrong against his bruised wrists, though it had only been months ago that his father was confident enough that Jimin had worn gold bangles at a lunar feast.

His father. Jimin shudders hard against a sob as the collar goes on, and a soldier drags him a few steps forward with the chain fastened to the dip in his throat.

“I think you’re prettier in blood,” he murmurs. “And wearing a lot less.”

Jimin turns his face away, and weathers the sting of a heavy hand against his cheek for his trouble.

He should be in mourning. Should have been a week ago when his father had fallen, when they’d retreated to camp and been surrounded, ambushed. When the last of their court had been dragged into chains, at first all Jimin could think about was his father’s body, and how they’d never get to bury him like he deserved.

Now, the funeral rites feel like the least of his problems. He’s yanked into motion, stumbling along behind his guards like a disobedient dog. Jimin can’t force himself to open his eyes to memorize the path, because he knows there’s no escaping it.

When he touches me, Jimin promises himself and the procession of ghosts lighting his footprints. I’ll kill him.

In the great hall, Jimin had been ready to die. If the Goddess has any justice left for him, at least now he’ll be able to drag one of Odai’s sons down with him.

 


 

 

In the prince’s chambers, Jimin’s chain is secured to the floor. The soldiers look reluctant to leave, even with his hands curled against his chest, less than a foot of give between them, collapsed heavy on his knees despite the chaise of gilded wood and velvet pressed close against the wall.

Jimin doesn’t blame them for being wary. There’s just enough chain between his wrists to strangle a royal throat.

Eventually, though, they’re shooed out of the room by maids too scared to look in Jimin’s general direction, the room haphazard in a way that makes him think they weren’t expecting their prince to return with—with a pet after the massacre. They adjust the furniture in an unnatural kind of silence, the three of them occasionally tapping another’s hands and exchanging looks Jimin doesn’t have the energy to decipher. He’s sagged in the absence of the soldiers, nausea brewing low in his stomach at the weight of the collar around his neck.

The maids leave with looks thrown over their shoulder at him, an older one ushering the youngest out of the room with a hand pressed to the dip of her spine. Jimin finishes his fall, relishing in the ache of his ribs as his back hits the rich carpet, the dull sting of his scalp and the cuts on his face. The sun is low in the sky now, the arched window to the balcony letting in the golden haze of light.

Jimin can feel the pull in his bones that means the moon has risen, the tide shifting and pulling him along with it.

The rites, he thinks numbly. The first meal—the prayer. He doesn’t want to think about where he’ll be when the sun sets; on his knees for his country’s killer, or worse.

There’s no way to perform the burial, waded up to his knees in the ocean, floating his brother’s body out past the horizon line. The priestess is dead, he’d watched her slaughtered as they swarmed the camp. Jimin closes his eyes against the though of what’s happening to the bodies of his friends, confidantes, cousins. Wonders blankly if they’ll get any kind of closure at all, over being dumped in a mass grave for their ghosts to trail hopelessly around the foreign palace.

The door clicks open, soft footsteps press into the carpet, and Jimin curls his fingers around the chain locked around his neck and wonders blindly if he has time to choke himself with it. He braces himself to be touched, tries to rationalize that he can’t follow the rites anyway, that one more violation of mourning shouldn’t matter.

The footsteps get closer. Jimin wants to hide his face against the rich velvet of the chaise, wants to hunch his shoulders and beg whichever prince had claimed him to get it over with. Instead, he keeps his chin raised and eyes closed and aching body as regal as he can manage.

A soft whisper of fabric breaks the silence. Something heavy rests on a rich wooden table, just next to the chaise. Whoever it is doesn’t speak, and Jimin doesn’t know if that eases or worsens the terror struck deep into the cracks between his bones.

Any moment now, the prince will grab him. Jimin can hear his own pulse in his ear, forces himself to breath evenly and deeply as warm silk slides across his chest.

Footsteps fade. The door opens again, and Jimin hears the deep murmur of a familiar voice, the whisper of a girl in return. It’s hard to separate the noises now, of movement and soft voices and below it all the sound of sturdy footsteps fading into the next room, heels tapping over hard stone.

“I’ll do it,” a girl whispers, thick with the Odai dialect, and Jimin’s eyes snap open. He struggles to adjust in the low lighting, the glare of a hung lantern flicking candlelight against the fading sun, and watches one servant break off from the huddled group of three.

She’s holding a small key, and a bundle of white cloth.

Jimin holds his breath as she unlocks the chain connecting his wrists. She’s shaking, eyes carefully averted as she undoes the intricate fastenings holding the gauzy fabric of Jimin’s stained-blue shirt and slips it off his shoulders. Jimin would fight but for the collar pinning him down—but for the blank whiteness of the shirt she slips on him after; softer and lighter than what Jimin’s used to, but white nonetheless.

She lets him pull the pants on himself, shame ignored in favor of the tears choking his throat, the desperation clawing at his lungs to start the prayer before the sun disappears over the mountain, before it’s too late and Jihyun wraps himself around Jimin’s lungs and never lets go.

The chain clips back between Jimin’s wrist, and the girl flees without a second look back, and Jimin hardly waits for the door to the chambers to close before he re-orients himself to the window. The sun has just touched the mountains, the West-facing balcony overlooking the range that borders in Odai, at the center of the basin. He drops his head to his hands, breathes out a choked apology to the Goddess, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t open them again until he’s recited the whole prayer, voice raw from screaming and now whispering, tongue parched and stomach running on empty.

The room is dark now but for the lamp, and in the sudden silence Jimin thinks he can make out the whisper of pages turning from the next room, under the soft notes of the wind chime hanging on the balcony. He sits up on his knees, and tries to rub the stubborn ache from his eyes.

Jimin had resigned himself to missing the first mourning prayer, and being cursed with his brother’s ghost. The freedom is relieving and terrifying all at once, the pain still frozen in his heart like ice splintering through wood. It feels like he’s trapped at the seafloor, tons of water pressing down on that singular point in his chest until he cracks.

He turns, and sees the bowls and pitcher on the small table, and swallows down sobs when he sees the broth, the rice, the spring water frigid against glass.

It could be drugged, it could be poisoned, but Jimin risks death or worse for the fasting meal. It all comes with a price, he knows, as he picks slowly at the rice, grain by grain as his half-starved stomach adjusts. The prince will want payment for the mourning clothes, the time for prayer, the fulfillment of Jimin’s rites, and he steels himself against it.

The moment Kim Taehyung reaches out a hand, Jimin won’t hesitate to kill him. He eats as the last orange of sunset fades from the sky, and leaves the bowls empty on the floor next to him.

There’s enough give on his leash to make it onto the velvet lounge, but the thought of touching it makes Jimin’s stomach sick, already uncomfortable after the scraps they’d had to live off during the journey. He’d always made Jihyun eat first, no matter how weak he’d gotten.

Appa wouldn’t want you to go hungry, Jihyun had mumbled, quiet enough that the Odaian soldiers wouldn’t overhear. Jimin had pressed his lips together, always so conscious of his friends, his court around him as they traveled to their deaths. He’d only given in when Jihyun had finished half the fist-sized chunk of stale egg bread, and even then he’d saved most of the rest to share later.

It aches to remember. Jimin swallows down the meal that’s threatening to come up again, and curls in on himself, presses closer to the ground. From the next room over, he can hear the sounds of shifting; the creak of a bedframe, the heavy sound of blankets being pulled back. An attendant slips out the front of the chambers with a heavy glance in Jimin’s direction.

For hours, Jimin waits for the prince to come.

For hours, the unfamiliar intricacy of Odai’s palace sleeps, and Jimin jolts through fitful bursts of rest, and watches the sword pierce Jihyun’s ribs over and over until the sun rises in the sky, and his prayer begins again.

 


 

 

Jimin is awake the first time the prince walks through the lounge. Has been awake for hours, now, voicelessly mouthing the words of meditation, after the dawn prayer. He hears quiet footsteps behind him, back turned to the rest of the chambers in favor of watching the sky. The balcony faces West, so he’d had to estimate, but it’s better than nothing.

The footsteps are difficult to track, sinking deep into velvet carpet. It’s the one thing his knees are grateful for. Closer, closer, until Jimin’s hands are shaking where they’re folded in his lap. His ribs ache every time he breathes in, slow and measured, trying to resist the urge to panic.

If the prince grabs his shoulder, Jimin will yank him forward and flip him, and pin him on his stomach, and choke him with the slack between his wrists. If the prince goes for his hair—well. It might get uglier, but he’ll get fingers around a delicate throat one way or another. From what he can tell, there are soldiers stationed outside, and if he can get it done fast enough—

The body behind him shifts. Jimin’s shoulders lock into place, waiting—waiting for breath hot on the back of his neck, remembers the hot wet drag of a soldier’s tongue on the journey here.

For a long moment, the prince hovers. Jimin is so tense it hurts, given up on projecting any kind of ease. He can hear the prince breathing, can remember the hopelessness that made him want to scream in the great hall, when he’d been claimed as a pet for Kyunghwan’s youngest son. The humiliation of it sticks, twisting through the rage until there’s tears stinging his eyes, the words of the prayer gone still on his tongue.

A deep breath, from the prince. Jimin wraps his fingers around the chain between his wrists, braces himself for the rough handling, and—

Odai’s youngest walks away. The soft pad of his feet against the carpet has Jimin flinching at the crunch of velvet, the heavy slide of the door.

The prince leaves, and plunges the apartments back into silence, and Jimin shudders through the last of his prayer as the palace starts to come subtly alive around him. Swords clash from somewhere beyond the balcony; servants slip into the prince’s bedroom with a guard at their heels to keep him from trying anything stupid.

It’s pointless. Jimin doesn’t bother turning around; there’s not many people in this palace worth killing; none save for one he could plausibly get his hands on.

Time passes hazily, when there’s nothing to do but wrack his head for the words of the prayers, trying to remember the priestesses’ formations in the waves, water up to their waists. It’s been so long since a royal funeral—so long since they’d buried his mother, when he’d stood barely up to his father’s chest, Jihyun still small enough to be held in his arms against the brutal crash of the tides.

Letting go isn’t supposed to be easy, Jimin remembers from the rites. But the ocean is supposed to be there, to help him carry the grief away.

His tongue trips over the prayers, whole sentences forgotten as morning falls to early afternoon. Jimin sits back on his haunches, re-tests the ugly bruising on his knees, presses his hands against his burning cheeks to stave off the tears. He won’t cry here.

He misses, forcefully, the softness of his room at home. The white cliffs by the sea, the open plan of their manor, the white paper dividers that filtered in sunlight and the salt from the sea. The huge expanse of his bed, laid out on the floor, that he’d woken up in with Jihyun pressed tight against his front more often than not.

If there were any fairness, Jimin would be with him now. Maybe not resting, trapped in the claustrophobia of Odai’s stone capital for the rest of time, but—they’d be together. Here, collared and bound in a mockery of his own mourning, Jimin can’t even feel the tide in his bones. For the first time, it’s like the Goddess has abandoned him; left him adrift and drowning and dried out all at once.

The door creaks open again, hours after the prince had left. Jimin shudders, almost too exhausted to be afraid.

But no touch comes this time, either, and the relief is enough that Jimin breaks posture, unfolding his aching legs. His knees hurt to touch, one swollen and aching to put weight on for days now, but he tries to the soreness out of them anyway, gentle over bruises as servants scurry to attend their prince, as they converse in low whispers he doesn’t care enough to try and overhear. The prince’s voice is distinctive anyway, as deep as his father’s, deceptively rich even when he whispers. Jimin leans his head back against the dark red paint of the wall, wonders how much the cuts on his face blend in with the decoration.

“Haseul-ah,” the prince says, loud enough that Jimin doesn’t have to strain to hear. “Where are Daeun and Soobin?”

Jimin’s pulse stutters. The barest hint of breeze from the opened balcony doors winds itself under his shirt, sends cold fingers trembling down his spine.

Of course. Of course there’d be other pets kept in the prince’s chambers. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised—Odai has long been known to keep concubines for its royal family. The link his chain is locked to is dulled with age, long since set into the floor. Jimin wonders with a sickening lurch if this prince keeps all his pets chained from the same ring.

“Ah,” a girl says, from the doorway of Jimin’s parlor. She sounds uncomfortable, uncertain. “I thought it might be best—you’d probably want time?”

There’s a pause. Jimin is thankful for once for the fast—there’s nothing in his stomach now to throw up.

“Bring them back in two days, please.” There’s the rustle of cloth Jimin can assume is a deep bow, and then:“And tell them I miss them, please.”

“Of course,” the servant says. There’s smiles in both their voices. “They were pouting at me all morning.”

Jimin swallows down his disgust, and the nausea pooled low in his throat. If anyone tries to touch him like a dog, he’ll bite off fingers. If two more pets return to their chambers, loyal in some sick way to this prince, Jimin’s chances plummet down as far as the cliffs of his home.

It doesn’t matter. Jimin rests against the wall for the rest of the afternoon, and keeps his eyes closed whenever he hears footsteps approaching. If the prince wants acknowledgment, he’ll need to touch—or at least address him directly.

But no one touches, and no one speaks, and Jimin bows with his head to the floor as the sun starts to set over the mountains, even if he can’t quite remember the words to the second night’s prayer.

 


 

 

The last two days of mourning pass in a blur of hunger and discomfort. Jimin sips carefully at the beef bone soup left out for him at each sunset and lets the prince’s chambers fade into the background of his awareness, kneels until the soft carpet strands feels like hard grains of rice pressing more bruises into his skin. When a prayer calls for the sea—a breath held under the water, a family member’s blessing—Jimin curls into himself and wishes the balcony faced East, even in the mountain-rimmed basin of Odai’s capital.

On the morning of his third day chained to the floor, all but inhuman, a guard unlocks Jimin’s chain and yanks him forward until he chokes.

“Let’s clean you up,” he murmurs, a hand toying at the wrap-around tie of Jimin’s shirt, the other holding him down by the neck in a mockery of a bow.

Jimin bares his teeth, and rams his head into the guard’s stomach.

In the bath, shrinking servants rinse off blood dripping from the re-opened cut on his cheek, and Jimin tips his head back and stops caring about the pain, the shivering cold of the basin.

This time, they dress him in pale yellow, a shirt of some thin cotton weave that slips off his skin like water. Jimin watches a girl collect the mourning clothes, hardly dirty, and grits his teeth to let a different guard reattach the chain between his wrists. From just underneath the golden cuffs, Jimin can see the slight pink chafe of his skin, just a little raw.

The attendant looks him over critically, prods at a bruise on Jimin’s jaw just to see him flinch back. They hold him down for paint—some kind of ointment smeared along the worst parts of his face, gold lines drawn over his eyelids and cheekbones.

“He’ll like that,” the man painting him comments, and Jimin almost spits in his face. There’s rage coiling up in his bones, his hands trembling with the effort to restrain himself. If these people think a collar and leash will stop him, they’re more stupid than he’d hoped. “Minseok, bring me the cup.”

A boy scrambles to the attendant’s side, bowing low as he offers out a small tin cup. Jimin jerks back, watches the look the attendant gives the soldier behind him, and feels a rough hand clamp around his neck.

No, he thinks blindly, as two fingers pinch his nose shut. No, no

Jihyun’s ghost flutters, after so long wavering in the corner of Jimin’s vision. He’s just a blur; faceless, shapeless, helpless as Jimin shuts his eyes and pulls his hands tight against his chest and chokes around the bitter drug the attendant tips down his throat.

“Hm.” The man frowns when he steps back, bringing a thoughtful finger to his lips. “Should have painted him after.”

Jimin heaves, jabs back at the guard behind him with his elbow, and gets a hand clamped over his mouth for the trouble. The attendant yanks on his collar hard enough to have him buckling, the guard keeps his airways closed, and Jimin thrashes as he swallows down the vomit gurgling at the back of his mouth.

They let him go and he collapses. Chest heaving, eyes wet, hands braced against the water-slick floor. The attendant sighs, and Jimin goes limp as he’s dragged back up by the hair.

“Now I have to redo all of it,” he mutters, and pinches Jimin’s inner arm hard enough to bruise.

As Jimin sits through another humiliating round of the brush light against his skin, his vision starts to blur. He barely realizes that he’s sagged almost completely to the floor, the guard’s fist around his leash the only thing keeping his head tilted up.

It’s almost like being drunk. Jimin bites down on the hysteria clawing at his ribs, his chest heaving with sharp breaths that scrape at the back of his throat. Everything feels heavy, sensitive in a way he’s not used to. There’s something flickering in the corner of his eye, something he can’t quite catch. He turns to look and it darts away, and the attendant tilts his face back forward with a mean little laugh.

“Cute,” he scoffs, and Jimin furrows his brow, focuses just enough to remember wanting—the chain on his wrists, wrapped around someone’s throat. He blinks and the thought drips away like thick honey, leaving just enough residue that something about it sticks. “Let’s get him back to his prince.”

When Jimin can’t keep pace with the attendant’s brisk stride, the guard at his back wraps an ungentle arm around his waist. He gags at the touch, at the slip of fingers under the loose fastenings of his shirt, but can’t fight as he’s hauled forward by the firm grip the attendant has on his leash. There’s tar clumping in his veins, his own heartbeat drowning out the chimes of hanging glass from the weeping trees in the courtyards, the scuff of the guard’s footsteps, the latch on the chamber doors. Jimin blinks, and shudders, and collapses onto the floor as the attendant re-fastens his chain to its familiar hook.

“Get up,” the man says, dripping in disdain, nudging at Jimin’s thigh with the toe of his slipper. “Act human.”

There’s a cruel twist of amusement in the words. Jimin barely feels human, right now—feels miles above his body, feels like there’s an ant colony living in his heart, marching underneath his skin. Disgust crawls through him with lead on his tongue as he shakes through the motions of standing, swaying, perching himself on the edge of the velvet lounge until the attendant rolls his eyes.

The links of his chain clink together like the seaglass Jimin had hung in his window when he was a teenager, enamored with the way light had filtered in against the streaks of blue and teal. He closes his eyes, the whole world swimming underwater, his torso swaying like kelp in a current. Somewhere near the door, the guard snorts at whatever he looks like, panic trying to claw up but trapped underneath a hazy sheet of forced contentment.

By the time the door opens, Jimin has done his best to resign himself to whatever might happen. It’s easy to feel all right when he can hardly feel anything at all—and still something flutters frantically in the corner of his eye. Still he aches from somewhere deep in his chest, and feels nausea thick and settled in his stomach.

“What’s this?” A low voice asks. Jimin knows that voice. Knows what it means for him, and thinks slowly about retching, about floating away on a high tide and forgetting his body altogether.

“Your highness,” the attendant simpers. “I was sent to get him prepared for you.”

Jimin blinks his eyes open, looks through vision blurred with strange tears at a scene he can’t quite make himself feel a part of. The youngest prince stares back, a crease in his bow, hands clenched into fists.

Jimin sways. Prince Taehyung blinks wide, dark eyes, and turns back to the attendant.

“What did you give him.”

His dialect is thick. Jimin has to think about the cadence for a long moment while the attendant sputters out an answer, the drawl of vowels and cut of consonants so different this far West. They had shared the language, once, but—so long ago, barely even the Goddess remembers. Now, Odai’s words are shaped differently, and Jimin’s mind trips over syllables that remind him too much and not enough like home.

“Ha-ssi,” the prince says, cleanly cutting off the attendant in the middle of a fumbled sentence. “You have a son in the army, correct?”

There’s a stiff pause. Jimin stares down at the pink skin of his wrists, the sliver of abrasion from when he’d struggled so much earlier. He doesn’t think he could move his arms now if he wanted to.

“Yes, your highness,” Ha says. His shoulders are drawn up. The prince looks coiled even tighter, Jimin thinks—like some kind of graceful predator. There’s a ringing in his ears that won’t go away, no matter how much he tries to block it out; it’s hard to tell where the effects of the drug end, and the numbness of terror begins.

“I’m sure you’re proud to have such a decorated warrior returning home next month, hm?”

The dread building in Jimin’s gut gets heavier. It’s one thing to have a cruel prince—to have someone who keeps concubines and thrives in Odai’s vicious court. It’s another entirely to have a smart prince, one who knows too much for anyone’s good and uses it accordingly.

“Yes,” Ha says again, stilted. “Your highness.”

The prince takes a step closer, into Ha’s personal space. He leans forward, looks off toward some fixed point, murmurs into Ha’s ear just loud enough for Jimin to be able to understand.

“If you ever step foot in my chambers again, by my brother’s orders or otherwise, I’ll have your son transferred to the ugliest lines of border defense, and kept there for the rest of his service.”

It’s cruel. Worse than that, it’s smart. Jimin closes his eyes again, and lets the drug drag him under until somewhere through the haze of mindlessness he hears the door shut again. There’s a moment of stillness, then the quiet shift of fabric, and Jimin—forgets how to breathe.

He doesn’t know how loud he gets, panicked breaths shrieking out of him as he fights to control himself and finds that he can’t, finds that the looseness of his muscles means that he can’t even lift a hand to cover his mouth and hide at least some of the humiliation. If the prince were to tap him on the shoulder, Jimin would topple backwards, helpless to even try to lift himself back up.

He loses himself, in the terror, and it’s the worst thing he’s ever known.

“Hanseol-ah,” he hears, from miles away. “Please get the physician—I don’t know what they gave him.”

Jimin shudders his way back down to the floor. It’s a welcome coolness, the stone chilling his spine, the ceiling drifting as far away as the moon herself. There’s a streak of light falling through the balcony door that slashes warm across his face—the only grounding thing. Jimin would wrap his wrist in it if he could, would replace the weighted gold with something lighter. Jihyun always liked mid-morning; liked to race the senators’ boys to the jagged outcroppings of rock a hundred meters out into the sea and fling himself off, no matter how many times they were warned about cracking their heads open.

He thinks the prince paces. There’s the soft sound of slippers against stone, the soft crumple of a pale blue outer robe to the floor. Jimin blinks in and out, until heavy footsteps crowd into the room, and ungentle hands haul him up by the shoulders. He hears the prince murmuring something, the harsh response from an older throat, but—words pass through his head without any real meanings. It’s nice to not have to think.

“Open his eyes,” the physician says. Thumbs peel Jimin’s eyelids back, there’s a hiss as a match is struck. Jimin flinches on animal instinct away from the heat; light sears itself into his vision, the white-yellow burning of the candle gone in an instant as the physician blows it out. Jimin’s eyes slip back shut, the hands move to keep his head from tilting back like a rag doll’s. “Unresponsive. He might be lucid enough...”

A hand smacks sharp against his cheek. Jimin flinches again at it, the pain removed but familiar enough that his body knows to cower, to keep himself loose and his knees pulled in close to his chest.

“Don’t hit him,” that voice cuts in again. Maybe a little sharp. “If he can, he’ll answer.”

A short hum.

“Hey,” the physician addresses him. Informal, curt. Jimin opens his eyes for a short second, sees the blue embroidery on the old man’s collar, decides the effort isn’t worth it. “How did they give it to you, hm?

Jimin swallows. He doesn’t want to talk. One hand inches up, drags the other with it in a clink of chains, presses soft-smelling pads against his cracked lips. He frowns at the sensation, the strangeness of touching himself gently after his skin had long adjusted to the brutality.

“Thought so,” the physician says. “You’re familiar with mongsang root, highness?”

The subtleties of tone are lost like this, but Jimin’s trying to hold on to what he can. It’s important, he thinks, though he’s not quite sure why. He wants to be left alone, wants to curl up in his patch of sun and forget where he is. Maybe he’s on a sea-cliff somewhere, surrounded by the crashing waves, the eroded stone beneath him a product of thousands of years of tides beating against its roughest edges.

“Yes,” the prince breathes out, voice trapped somewhere low in his throat. “And the dose wasn’t dangerous?”

“Please. It’ll wear off before the evening, for sure.” There’s a clear dismissal there, that Jimin can’t help but hold on to.

Nothing to worry about. It echoes in his father’s voice, just the way he’d said it years ago, when Jimin’s mother had first gotten sick. He’d spent hours reading to her until his voice got hoarse, and all his favorite stories had been exhausted, and she and Jihyun had been curled up in bed together in a moon’s circle of quiet comfort.

“Thank you, Master Shin,” the prince says. Jimin curls his fingers, unsure when they’d fallen from his lips.

“My pleasure.” The answer is mild. “If you’d like me to do a full inspection while I’m here...?”

There must be an answer Jimin doesn’t catch, because whoever is holding him steady begins to unhook the simple fastenings at the side of his waist. The shirt slides open and he shivers, curls into himself, makes a weak noise of protest low in his throat. The assistant laughs, and shifts to accommodate whatever struggle Jimin can make himself put up.

His legs are pinned to the floor, spread enough to fit the physician on his knees between them, helpless and shameful and humiliating as wrinkled fingers press gingerly across every handspan of bruising on his torso. Some of it is more than a week into uncomfortable healing; there’s a scabbed-over slash just beneath his ribs where he’d fought back during the initial raid.

He’d tried to fight, until a helmeted Odaian soldier had dragged Jihyun out of his cot by the hair, and pressed a knife against his neck, and Jimin had dropped his sword and fallen to his knees.

Jimin groans when fingers prod at the scab, cool with some kind of ointment. The fingers move on after that, to the crescent-shaped gashes at the side of his neck from a different soldier on the journey; then up to his face, and the cuts on his lips and cheeks and brow. There’s not an inch of him that doesn’t sting or ache or twinge, by this point.

“They sure weren’t pulling any punches,” the physician murmurs.

There’s a pinch digging into the barest traces of fat at the bottom of Jimin’s upper arm, as the assistant hisses out something that can’t be amusement. Jimin chokes down a sob at the helplessness of it—at the revulsion for himself digging deep like the blade of a knife between his ribs.

If his father could see him now—

“I wouldn’t either,” the assistant mutters. “My uncle died in that war. All his sons, too.”

When they’re done with his face, and the assistant has checked over his back, the physician’s fingers move down to his hips, the cloth belt of his pants. Jimin feels the tug of the knot undoing, and his limbs jerk on instinct, helpless to the hands pinning him down.

“No,” he slurs, voice thick, eyes still resolutely closed. “No, no—”

“Stop it,” the prince bites out. “Ah, he said no. Leave him alone.”

There’s a pause. The hands retreat, but Jimin doesn’t relax, every inch of his body tense and coiled tight. His breaths are panicked again, wet and rattling, cheeks hot from shame.

He can’t even fight back. It’s the worst part, maybe.

“Your highness,” the physician says, carefully diplomatic. “If you’ve taken him, I should check to make sure there’s no lasting damage.”

The words land heavy. Jimin heaves through the tidal waves rolling out from his lungs, curls into himself in every way the assistant’s grip allows him. In the overwhelming rush of it, he can’t remember anything except how good it had felt to have a blade pressed against his skin. How easy it could have been to die. How much anything would be better than this, even bleeding out next to Jihyun’s corpse. Next to the thing that had once been his brother.

“I said no.” There’s not as much inflection in the prince’s voice as some of the others Jimin’s heard. Something is terrifying about the flatness of it; something is dangerous about him. “Master Shin, he said no. Thank you for your service this morning.”

After the silence passes, Jimin is dropped unceremoniously back against the wall. His head collides lightly with the wood and plaster of it, and his whole body throbs with the pain.

“Very well. I can’t find anything too severe, so I suppose you’re free to do with him what you like.” The words are arching, the meaning clear. Jimin tries to remember the feeling of buoyancy that comes with floating atop the water, waiting for a wave to come crashing down.

“I’ll have an adequate tip brought to your chambers this evening,” the prince says, in a clear dismissal. Jimin breathes through the physician bowing himself out, through the heavy sigh the prince heaves as they’re left, as far as Jimin can tell, alone.

This time, he doesn’t react to the footsteps. This time, they come all the way to his side, and Jimin wonders if the prince’s morals only let him touch a war-captive concubine once he’s been inspected by a healer. Wonders if this is it; if maybe the last few days have been nothing but a game to make it feel so much worse when the pain finally comes.

“I’m sorry,” Prince Taehyung finally says, crouched down low to meet Jimin face to face.

And Jimin opens his eyes.

This close, Taehyung looks like any town boy Jimin might have spent an evening with back at home. His fine, gold-patterned robe has been discarded, leaving a silken undershirt clinging to his shoulders; his lashes are long, his nose softly rounded, his lips downturned in concern or displeasure.

He reaches out, and carefully refastens the ties of Jimin’s shirt. A key glints in his hand, metal clinks together, and the chain between Jimin’s wrists falls away.

The collar and cuffs stay, and the prince settles back onto his heels, and looks at Jimin like there’s words resting on his tongue that he doesn’t know how to say; that might never leave his lips, because there’s nothing they could accomplish.

Through the awful haze of the drug, Jimin remembers. The chain in Taehyung’s hand, wrapped tight around his throat.

“I’ll kill you,” he rasps. Taehyung’s eyes widen, just enough.

For a long moment, they sit. Jimin thinks with as much presence as he can all the ways he could end it between them, but his limbs refuse to so much as twitch. Taehyung’s gaze shifts down to the chain in his hands, before he looks back up with something hard in his eyes, something Jimin might recognize from the massacre.

“I know,” Taehyung says, and pushes himself up.

He leaves Jimin alone, with the numbness of his skin and the useless, steaming rage sitting heavy on his chest.

 


 

 

Jimin holds his head up until he can’t anymore. The tremors start long after the slant of light has shifted away from his face, his hands trembling hard in his lap even as he clenches them shut. Jimin sweats and breathes deep through nausea and finally slinks back down to the floor.

It feels like giving up, his forehead pressed hard against cool stone to make himself remember how to feel, his arms shaking when he tries to adjust himself to accommodate the bruising on his ribs. There’s no one left in the room to see him, to try and touch him, but the memory of humiliation twists deep in Jimin’s gut even as he drifts above his body, thoughts hazy and memories blurred.

Sleep is easier than fighting, but it doesn’t come easily. The late morning sun dapples the room in light, glass chiming from the trees outside. From far below comes the faint clash of swords, and it’s enough to make Jimin reach up blindly for a pillow, his grip unsteady enough that he more pushes one down than grabs with any strength.

He covers his head to block out the light, and the noise, and the sickening knowledge that he’s going to die here like a chained dog abandoned by its master.

What must be hours later, the light in the room slanted in long backward shapes, Jimin blinks open his crusted eyes and rattles in a dry, tremulous breath. There’s a silver pitcher resting on the floor next to him, too full to even think about lifting with his shivering muscles, but Jimin dips in his fingers and drags them down his face.

If he closes his eyes, and imagines the taste of salt on his lips, it could almost be comforting.

His fingers come away smeared with the remnants of gold paint. The pillow over his head has slipped, propped up against the nape of his neck. If he could move without aching he would take it, would hold it close to his chest just to have something to ground himself with.

From the next room over—maybe a library, he’s not sure—comes an ominous-sounding thump. It throbs through Jimin’s head and he winces, curls into himself to escape from the soft murmur that drifts through the open doorway. If he thinks hard enough, he can remember—someone was supposed to come today. Two more pets, maybe, loyal to their master.

There’s no evidence that anyone has been brought to his corner, though—besides the jug of water, the small plate of foreign-looking fruits, the bowl of plain rice he can see if he looks farther to the left. No other chains attached to his hook, no agitation of the furniture. It’s almost enough to make him relax, the last effects of the drug urging him into numbed compliance, the taste still bitter on the back of his tongue, dried with sleep.

From the study comes a child’s shrieking laugh, and Jimin’s heart grinds to a steady halt.

Over the long years of war, Jimin has heard too many stories about Odai’s brutality. He’s seen firsthand the wreckage of border towns raided, has held orphaned children in his arms as his father made arrangements to find foster families in the capital. He knows Odai takes concubines, knows they savage them and throw them out like broken dishes, but—

Children.

There’s another shriek, a gurgling thing that tapers off into giggles. The bitter taste of the drug is tempered by bile, now, and Jimin presses his cheek against the floor and hopes he’s hallucinating.

A knock sounds from the wooden frame of the main door. Jimin flinches back from it, each knock pounding at his head. The laughter quiets, and Jimin hears the prince’s low murmur. Footsteps, coming back toward Jimin’s parlor, a childish attempt at shushing.

The prince steps out of the parlor with a child perched on each hip, a soft smile on his face as the boy, no older than two, babbles quiet incoherence.

“Your eomma’s here, Soobin-ah,” the prince singsongs. The girl on his other hip is older, maybe five, and she pats his cheek like he needs reassurance, her lips pinched purposefully, seriously.

“We’ll be back, though,” she says. Jimin blinks through bleary tears, keeps every inch of himself still. He can’t tell what’s going on—the children’s clothes are rough, yes, but carefully mended and colorfully dyed. Their pale arms are clear of marks, their comfort authentic and cheerful. The boy looks content nestled against the prince’s neck, batting aimlessly at the ties on his undershirt.

The prince slides the door open with his foot, and one of his servants—the maid, Haseul, who sometimes manages to call him oppa as she cleans around the study—smiles through exhaustion at the children. Her children.

“They didn’t give you any trouble?” Haseul asks quietly, as the prince drops the girl to the floor. She wraps her arms around her mother’s hips, presses a cheek into the dark brown cloth of her uniform. The prince hugs Soobin tighter to his chest, and presses a smacking kiss to the top of his head.

“They were perfect,” he promises. “As always, Haseul-ah, really.”

“Oppa likes us,” the little girl mumbles. “We aren’t bad.”

“You’re not!” The prince crouches down, toddler still pressed tight to his chest. “It was very nice to spend time with you, Lady Daeun.”

Daeun sputters, and goes pink, and hides her face in Haseul’s skirt with a shriek of delight.

It’s the first time Jimin has heard Taehyung laugh. He closes his eyes against it, burns with anger that Odai’s princes can laugh and spend their days in leisure when Jimin’s people are being conquered, when he’s chained to the floor without any dignity left, when his brother is dead and rotting in a mass grave miles away from the sea.

“And they didn’t...” Haseul trails off. Jimin slits his eyes open just enough to see her glance nervously in his direction, as the prince hands off the sleepy toddler.

“Of course not,” the prince consoles. “Everything’s okay. You know I’ll keep them safe, no matter what, right?”

She smiles. Soobin reaches out toward Taehyung, and the prince catches his chubby hand and presses a kiss to the top, the soft outline of his nose visible through the blur of Jimin’s tears and eyelashes. It’s such a gentle scene, something that makes him feel like he’s intruding. There’s a hundred different explanations for this—that Taehyung is the children’s father, that he preys on his maids instead of war prisoners, but all he can think is that—

This is what Jimin had lost, when his father had fallen on the battlefield. When their troops had been slaughtered by the thousands, when he’d called for a retreat to save every one of them he could. This is what he’d lost when he’d woken to Odai’s soldiers in their camp, and a knife to Jihyun’s throat.

It’s a new kind of cruelty to be able to watch what had just barely slipped through his fingers.

The door slides shut on its dark wooden track, and Taehyung turns to look quietly at whatever pathetic picture Jimin paints on the ground, curled up like an ascetic with no blanket, no mat, nothing to hide the way he’s starting to shiver from the late afternoon breeze.

The last thing he wants is the pity of this country’s prince. The last thing he wants is to be seen like this—by anyone, especially an enemy. Jimin shifts just enough to turn his back to the scene, to the closed door sealing him in.

When he closes his eyes, he pretends he can feel the ocean wind spray against his face, and float as high on the breeze as a seabird, loose and unchained.

 


 

 

In the quiet boredom of the prince’s chambers, it feels like the only thing Jimin can do is sleep. He can’t keep his eyes open for longer than an hour, some kind of defense mechanism shutting his body down into spurts of uneasy, dream-plagued sleep and brief moments of awful lucidity. It’s been another day, marked by the golden sunset across the mountains and the slow seep of light in through the windows the next morning.

He never sees anyone leave him food, but at least twice a day it’s there when he wakes up. It sparks uneasy tension in Jimin’s chest; that an unknown someone is near enough to touch, that he’s most defenseless of all when he sleeps yet it’s the only thing his body is telling him to do.

It’s hard to be awake for the dawn prayer. Even during the war, on the front lines, they’d been on the east side of the mountains—close enough to see the ocean as they gained ground, and slowly, inexorably lost it again. Waking up now to watch the light filter through the sky from the wrong angle, over the mountains he’d never seen before they’d been marched into the valley, feels so wrong it hurts. His chain isn’t long enough to reach the open doors anyway—it’s not like he could sit under the moon as it set.

The boredom worsens, and it gets harder to hold onto the anger, the certainty he’d had even a few days ago that he would die for killing the prince who’d claimed him. The longer he waits for something that never comes, the more the grief bleeds heavy into his lungs, drowning him from the inside out until sleep is the only escape he gets from the emotion so strong it turns his stomach. And then—

Jimin wakes up two mornings after the rites had ended from a fitful burst of sleep, and finds a stack of three cloth-bound books stacked next to his meal.

He doesn’t touch them for two long hours. He leans back against the wall familiar to his weight and watches the prince step quietly out the door without a glance in Jimin’s direction, watches the maids and page boys trickle in to complete their chores, stepping around Jimin’s corner like there’s a barrier between them. None of them have spoken to him; few have managed to look him in the eye.

Jimin wonders idly what his reputation is in this city, that all the servants are afraid to be with him in a room, even as chained as he is.

When the sun has gotten higher, nearing its peak, Jimin’s resolve breaks. He’s not as sore anymore, slowly healing from the brutality of their march through the foothills, and there’s so much energy thrumming through him after his recovery from the adrenaline bursts that his limbs twitch with it.

Books aren’t a sword, or a training course, or a current to fight against until he lets it carry him back to shore, but—it’s something to do, and Jimin hates himself for it as he drags the books into his lap.

They’re all in his language. It’s the first thing he notices—the characters on the first page arranged familiarly, words he recognizes pressed into the page with dark ink. Jimin blinks, half-expects to open his eyes to watch the books crumble into dust, a cruel invention of his imagination.

They don’t. Jimin turns the page, skims down the first line with something hard stuck high up in his throat. It’s a romance, something he’d seen in his family’s library before he was old enough to care, and after war kept him too busy reading about tactics and strategy to have time for something so light. The second book is a collection of folktales from the border region, over a century ago. The third is more of a textbook, with careful diagrams of what was known about the seafloor maybe thirty years ago. Jimin traces the names of the authors, the names ringing familiar from what he knows of the researchers back home.

It’s an awful reminder of everything he’s left behind. His home might have burned to the ground by now, his citizens scattered, everything they’d built lost to the war. And the people—everyone he should have died with.

Jimin closes his eyes, and tries not to think about all the lines of defense the Odaian soldiers would have had to cut through, to get to him and Jihyun that night. Tries not to think about Hoseok and Jeongguk in yet another mass grave, the tattoos on their chests rotting with the rest of their flesh.

He puts the books down. Pushes them away with the tips of his fingers. They rest against the seam where the carpet begins, and Jimin turns himself away. Waits for the now-familiar routine of the prince returning to the chambers, stripping himself of formal training clothes, greeting Haseul’s two children with a beaming smile and a kiss on the cheek for all three of them.

Jimin is exhausted. His body is healing, but every moment he spends awake is a spiral of anxiety and deep hatred for the collar around his neck, the pointlessness of staying alive.

Sometimes, he wishes the leash were long enough for him to hang himself over the balcony.

He sleeps, until the door slides open again. It’s that strange time in late morning when the apartments are empty, in between servants and the prince and the children. Jimin blinks his eyes open against the warm, late winter sunlight, and turns his head.

It’s not a servant. Not an attendant or a page boy or the youngest prince of Odai.

“Hello, pretty,” the second prince leers. The door shuts behind him, the hollow sound of the wood muffled with the prince—Taeil, Jimin knows from the portraits and the massacre—between them.

He steps forward. Jimin is glad for once to be pressed against the wall, even seated on the floor; he won’t give Taeil the pleasure of seeing him flinch.

“Oh, don’t be shy.” His lips pout out mockingly, only the barest hints of Taehyung present in the height of his cheekbones, the jut of his ears. Odai’s royal line keeps their secrets well, every son’s name and age past the second kept close within the palace walls, but—everyone knows their princes come from different mothers, different wives or servants of the king. “Why don’t you say hello, pretty?”

The pet name makes Jimin’s skin crawl. Taeil comes to a stop just before him, and Jimin looks away so he doesn’t have to see the cruel arrogance in his eyes, the twist of his lips.

A foot comes up, casual as anything, and presses down on Jimin’s leash. Not hard enough to pull him if he resisted, but—if Jimin resisted, the prince would fall, and he’d be killed for no other reason than having a spine.

Jimin bows. He lets Tail drag him down until his forehead touches the floor, inches away from the gold embroidery of his slippers.

“Has our Taehyungie been treating you well?” Taeil croons. His fingers brush along the back of Jimin’s neck. Jimin trembles with the force of repressing the anger pricking hot at the back of his eyes, forces himself to keep still, to resist the urge to throw himself at Taeil’s knees and knock his head against the floor where the crushed velvet bleeds into cool white stone. “You’re healing so nicely. It’s a wonder he hasn’t kept you bruised up with how nice it looked, though”

Jimin shudders. The hand at his neck tangles into his hair, yanks him up and on his knees so Taeil can inspect him like merchandise, detached and cruel and all too pleased with himself.

“The collar was a nice touch. Much more fitting than a crown, with lips like that.” A thumb drags across Jimin’s cheek, presses down at his bottom lip. He clenches his teeth and struggles not to snap, bite down, hear that perfectly smooth voice shatter into a scream of pain. “Answer me, pretty bitch, or you won’t like what’s next.”

“Don’t touch me,” Jimin growls in his own language, teeth still clenched. The mocking amusement on Taeil’s face deepens. Like he’s looking at a cutely disobedient pet; a particularly stubborn puppy.

“Oh, pretty,” he says. Bends down farther, so their noses could almost brush. “I’m excited to see what party tricks little Taehyungie has taught you.”

It’s an exercise, Jimin can only assume, designed to humiliate him. And it works, the burn of Taeil’s words landing exactly where they’re supposed to, the lash as firm and heavy as a sword hilt in his ribs.

Jimin doesn’t want to look at him. He remembers staring down the king, dripping with wine and rubies on his throne as he had Jimin’s people killed one by one. Remembers this prince to his left, refusing to let servants hand him a cup. He’d said something, after Taehyung had claimed him, but Jimin can’t quite remember what. That long stretch of time from the throne room to the drug in his veins feels blurry. Detached.

“I wonder,” Taeil says, voice deceptively soft. He trails warm fingers down Jimin’s neck, lingering on the collar, to pinch at a bruise showing from under the low neck of his shirt. They’d bathed him again just yesterday, under Taehyung’s orders, and this set of clothes is a fine blue, so pale it’s almost white. Jimin gasps at the reminder of the pain, the hand wormed down his shirt to dig bare fingers into his ribs. “Yes, those took quite a lot. Want to let me see, pretty pet?”

Jimin doesn’t get a chance to answer. The door to Taehyung’s chambers slams open, wood rattling in its tracks, and Taehyung sweeps in with something like panic wide in his eyes, before Jimin blinks and his face clears, brushed into careful neutrality.

“Hyung,” he says, that flat voice so precisely measured into respect. “What are you doing here?”

Taeil simpers. He stops touching Jimin, hands up sweetly, defenselessly. When they’re this close it’s easy for Jimin to see the difference between them in age. The records say that Taeil was born thirty-six winters ago. When he looks now, paired against Taeil’s sparse flecks of greying hair, the firm shadow of a beard at his jaw, Jimin can’t believe Taehyung to be any older than himself.

“Can’t a brother stop in to say hello?” Taeil asks. Not quite the picture of innocence, with the way Jimin’s crumpled behind him, wary of putting up too much of a fight.

“Hello,” Taehyung says. “Now I’m sure you have much more pressing things to attend to.”

“You overestimate my schedule.” Jimin can only see him in profile now, but it’s enough to see that Taeil’s expression isn’t nearly as guarded as Taehyung’s. His eyes are obvious as he looks Taehyung up and down, discomfort tight in Jimin’s stomach as he watches Taehyung fidget his hands, then clench them tight at his sides. It’s like watching a horse skitter before seeing the flash of scales in the grass. “I wanted to see your new pet, Taehyung-ah, is that so bad? Just to take a look at what you’ve done to him.”

“These are my chambers. You have no right.”

Taeil steps forward. There’s something sickening about the scene as his fingers brush gently against Taehyung’s cheek. Adrenaline hums in Jimin’s veins, the slow danger of the predator in the room lighting his nerves on fire.

“I think you know I have every right. You barely deserve what you have, hm?”

Taehyung’s eyes dart down, meet Jimin’s gaze for such a brief moment that it’s easy to believe he’s imagined it. It’s easy now to catalog the conversation, to add the nuance to what he knows about such a secretive dynasty. There’s so much he’s missing, but he knows—the politics of Odai’s courts are based so much in reputation. He can’t help but wonder what Taehyung’s place in it is, seated all the way down from his father’s left.

The backs of Taeil’s fingers tap gently against Taehyung’s cheek. Taehyung’s eyelashes flutter with each soft hit, his hands firmly held behind his back.

“After all,” he murmurs, pitched loud enough that Jimin knows it’s a show. “You must have so much stress to work out, darling brother. You’re always so repressed these days. I was just wondering how your new toy was holding up against it.”

Taehyung’s jaw clenches. His eyes avert to some fixed point in the distance, as Taeil’s fingers trail down to needlessly straighten his robe.

“Don’t break this one too soon, hm?” He stage-whispers. A cold shudder goes down Jimin’s spine.

“Please leave.” Taehyung’s voice is flatter than ever. Jimin wonders what it masks.

Taeil makes a soft, considering noise. Steps back just far enough that he can rake his eyes up and down Taehyung’s body again, smile widening at the deliberate flatness of Taehyung’s expression.

His hand flies up, poised ready to backhand, and Taehyung flinches.

It’s instantaneous. Jimin’s heart flies to his throat, Taehyung’s shoulders curl inward, his cheek turns away and down. Taeil drops his hand and laughs, hearty and deep in his chest. He turns without another word, leaves Taehyung standing and ready to take whatever hit that was never going to come, and crouches down to meet Jimin’s eyes.

“I’m just worried about you, little prince,” he whispers. “If you decide you’re sick of this view, feel free to let me know. I have some lovely rooms that could be all yours, though—I almost wish I could have kept your brother too. It was so nice to listen to him scream.”

Rage whites out something inside him. Jimin spits, sends a gob of it trickling down Taeil’s cheek. He’s trembling with the force of keeping himself still, strained as far forward as he can until the collar chokes off his breaths, and still Taeil grabs his chin and hauls him closer, makes him struggle and gasp for whatever thin thread of air he can manage. His other hand wraps around Jimin’s wrists, holds him in a bruising grip just above where the cuffs begin.

“Look at him,” he mutters, jerks Jimin’s head toward Taehyung. He’s watching, eyes wide, hands clenched into fists at his side. He looks almost as tense as Jimin feels, as he struggles like a child to land any hit he can. “Our Taehyungie looks so sweet, doesn’t he. Have you made him angry yet, sweetheart?”

Jimin retches. It’s dry, more a product of the collar around his neck, and Taeil laughs. Drops him to the floor like a child’s doll, brushes off his hands like Jimin’s not worth touching.

“I bet he was much more obedient when I had him drugged,” he says, full volume filling the parlor. “You might want to take a page out of my book, Taehyung-ah.”

Taehyung looks like he’s going to be sick. Taeil steps to his side, appraises him for a long minute.

Stomps hard on his foot, grinding in his heel enough that Taehyung’s posture falters, crumpling in on himself with a wince before he stands back up.

“Teach your pet better manners,” he hisses, eyes narrowed. “Or I might have to do it myself.”

The door shuts behind him quietly, respectably. Jimin gasps, lungs adjusting to the inflow of oxygen. Taehyung waits until the sound of footsteps have faded from the hall behind the opaque screen, before he covers his face with both hands and breathes out long and tremulous. Jimin almost feels bad for him, until—

Have you made him angry, he remembers, and wonders—what it would take, if he hasn’t already.

He crawls back to his corner. He can see Taehyung watching him, arms now curled around his own torso, mouth open like he wants to say something.

Jimin spares him a long moment of eye contact, and hopes the disgust in his face is as easy to read as the shock in Taehyung’s. His mouth closes, his fingers dig into the silk at his waist. Jimin scoffs, and turns his back, and breathes through the frantic, adrenaline-fueled panic of his heartbeat.

He doesn’t move until he hears the clamor of the children arriving that afternoon.

“I heard,” Haseul murmurs at the doorway. “He came here. Are you—?”

“I’m fine, Haseul-ah,” Taehyung murmurs. Jimin can hear the smile on his face, like nothing had ever happened. “You don’t all need to worry so much about me. I can take care of myself.”

“If you say so,” she replies, with just a touch of humor. “Soobinnie is learning all about swords from his grandfather, so I hope you can for your own sake.”

Taehyung laughs, and the door closes, and it’s back to the usual routine.

Except Jimin can’t help but glance over at the books he’d pushed away what feels like hours ago, and can’t stop remembering everything about Taeil’s visit—the way he’d known exactly which nerves to press down on, the way Taehyung had flinched away from a hit that never came.

He curls into himself on the floor, and tries to wish himself to sleep.

It almost works. Jimin floats for a while, in a way he’s come to associate with being rocked by waves; resting on the surface, lulled into a place where he doesn’t have to exist or think or wonder about what comes next.

He floats until he hears the unsteady footsteps wobbling toward him. Until the little boy totters around him, and plops down just in front of Jimin’s face, and squints down with a pout on his tiny lips and an ink stain on his left hand.

And suddenly, it’s all too much.

Through the blur of tears, Soobin’s round face fades into something more familiar. Jihyun, the first time Jimin had watched him walk; the way he’d pulled him around everywhere as soon as he could make it more than a few steps on his own. The way they’d slept in the same bed every time Jihyun had a nightmare, even well into adulthood.

Jimin shudders in a gasp, a sob, and cries for the first time since he’d seen the sword burst out from the fragile skin of his brother’s back.

Soobin sits in front of him, warbling a tiny song through thin, pursed lips, and reaches out with sticky hands to pat the tears on Jimin’s cheek. Jimin heaves once, twice with the effort to keep himself quiet, but it feels like he’s being strangled again with the collar around his neck.

A stubby finger pokes his cheek. Jimin doesn’t have the strength to push it away, so he lets the wandering hand explore his face, pet through his hair as gently as a toddler can manage. Eventually, like anything, it’s easy to tune out; he loses himself in the force of the tears, lets himself believe that there’s someone, at least, trying to comfort him.

“Soobin?” The prince calls, from the study. He calls again, and again, gets more and more frantic, until Jimin hears him at the open doorway. He imagines long fingers curled around the frame, eyes wide at the sight of Jimin curled into himself, trembling so hard it’s hard to stay still, with Soobin cross-legged in front of him, clumsily wiping away Jimin’s tears with the sleeve of his rough little shirt.

“Hey, Soobin-ah,” Taehyung murmurs. He approaches slowly, carefully. Jimin keeps his eyes closed and concentrates on breathing, on trying to ignore the humiliation creeping over him like a rising tide. “Don’t scare me like that, okay?”

“Okay,” Soobin agrees happily. He doesn’t move, though, just rocks in place on his heels. Jimin holds his hands close to his chest and grits his teeth, wills himself to stop crying, and another hot wave of tears wets the deep hollows under his eyes. Taehyung’s footsteps get closer, inching around Jimin like he’s scared of being lashed at. It serves him right, but—Jimin couldn’t make himself. Not now, not with the pat of chubby palms against his cheek.

“Come on, buddy. Come on up.”

Taehyung hauls Soobin up and close to his chest and Jimin sighs with the loss. Something loosens in his heart, something else aches to reach out and tuck the toddler into the curl of his body.

As Taehyung walks away, murmuring quiet into Soobin’s ear, Jimin hears the last clip of conversation.

“But hyungie,” Soobin says, a pout in his voice. “He’s sad.”

There’s a heavy sigh. The sound of a soft kiss pressed to skin—maybe a forehead, maybe a sweet-stained cheek. Jimin bites down hard on his lip until he tastes the smallest tang of blood against his tongue. The pain is familiar, and almost welcome by now.

“I know,” Taehyung says. So softly Jimin wishes he hadn’t heard it. “I know, buddy. Let’s not bother him, okay?”

Soobin warbles his agreement. Footsteps crush over velvet, a hand smooths over a wooden frame, and the voices vanish back into Taehyung’s study.

Jimin pulls an overstuffed pillow tight against his chest, and muffles the loosened sobs that break out of his chest like crashing waves until the tide pulls him under, under, and finally back to sleep.

 


 

 

The next morning, Jimin wakes with the sun. his eyes burn from the tears, his voice cracks when he hums the sleep from his veins, but—he feels, at least, a little alive. It’s the first time he’s woken this early since the rites, and it’s early enough that there’s no food and water sitting out for him just yet. He pushes himself up, and mourns the ever-present ache in his spine from refusing the comfort of the chaise, and bows with his forehead to the floor toward the ever-open balcony doors.

He’s never seen the doors shut. Even with the night chill, they stay open, sun-bleached curtains snapping in the wind. Jimin hates it sometimes for the cold, but more often he’s grateful for the fresh air, even if it’s thinner than he’s used to, less marked by sea-spray. He recites the morning prayer, and sits back on his heels, and presses his first two fingers to his lips.

When the servant comes, bearing a heavy wood tray with Jimin’s breakfast, he’s sitting quietly cross-legged, one of the books he’d pushed away spread open on his lap.

The servant stares. His eyes are wide, feet skittering like there’s a curse keeping him out of Jimin’s space. Jimin looks up, and bows his head deeply, and murmurs a quiet word of thanks in careful Odaian dialect when the servant tentatively sets down the tray.

The servant flushes, and bows—then catches himself bowing and straightens rigidly, sputtering like he doesn’t know what to say. Jimin offers the closest thing he can manage to a smile, and pours a cup of frigid water from the pitcher that will last him through the day.

As he flips slowly through the romance, savoring the taste of words on his tongue as he mouths them silently in the next few hours, Jimin tries his best to make eye contact with each of the prince’s servants. Most of them look away instantly. A few keep glancing back, eyes wide or narrowed, mouths pursed or gaping. A few older ones look with sympathy; a few younger ones, barely teenagers, gawk in horror.

When Haseul passes through from Taehyung’s bedroom, hands smoothing nervously down the front of her apron, Jimin sits up straighter. He puts the book aside, each page turned slowly to keep himself from finishing too quickly, and tries to catch her eye.

For a long moment, he thinks it won’t work. Haseul avoids him as much as she can, a younger girl trailing on her heels as they go through the mostly symbolic movements of cleaning the prince’s chambers. Jimin watches; careful, attentive, trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. They take away the empty rice bowl, and leave the half-finished fruit behind without looking at him once.

Just before she leaves, Jimin looks up from the careful splay of his hands in his lap, and finds Haseul watching him. Her eyes widen when she sees, but she doesn’t turn away, the girl tugging anxiously at her sleeve.

Jimin closes his eyes, and bows his head respectfully. He won’t hurt her children; enough of them have already died in this war. Even years ago, when there were still only rare, pointless border raids, too many children died. Jeongguk had lost a brother, and—he doesn’t want to think about Jeongguk. How he’d let Jimin rest a head on his shoulder as they made their retreat, one arm slung around his waist. How Hoseok and Dawon had kept Jihyun pressed tight between them, arrows drawn and cocked at any foreign movement.

The door slides closed. Jimin presses his hands to his face, and forcibly clears his mind.

He’s mourned them all. He’s done everything he can, despite the endless loops of what-if that run through his head whenever he starts to think too much. It aches, hurts deeper than he could ever imagine, but—it’s worth it to know they might be at peace, somewhere.

Today, when the children run screaming into the room, Haseul meets Jimin’s eyes behind Taehyung’s back. That’s the most he gets, but—

Things change. Slowly. It’s stifling and awful to be stuck in the same corner, dragged out to the baths every other day to be stripped and scrubbed until Jimin no longer flinches at the leering of the guard, at the rough stone the servants use to scrub at his skin until everything is raw. The collar and cuffs chafe even when he lies without moving, until there’s a ring of red around his neck and wrists each that always feels seconds away from splitting open. No one talks to him, though the servants seem to understand that he won’t kill them for breathing too closely.

And the books keep coming. They’re always there when he wakes up, a system established in the few days that cycle by without incident; Jimin finishes a book, pushes it away, and in its place the next morning is a new one. He doesn’t know where they come from, why they’re here. Sharing culture has never been a strong point between their countries.

Every morning, Jimin struggles to wake up earlier. It’s hard without the routine of home; the gongs that had sounded through the city’s streets to tell of the first glow of sunrise. He manages it once; wakes up with the sky outside the balcony dark, the only pinpoints of light the stars and the glow of a low fire from the bedroom, a new book placed carefully by his side, close to the pillow he’s reluctantly started using to ease the worst pains in his neck.

It’s frustrating. Of all the things he could be raging against, could be struggling to escape or get his hands around Taehyung’s delicate neck, it’s the books that frustrate him. The thought that he’s letting someone get close to him almost every night—close enough to touch, to slip another drug down Jimin’s throat—nags at him until he can barely concentrate enough to read.

He’s stuck in an awful limbo—beached with his feet in the water, waiting for something else to happen. It feels like it’s been months already, like the throne room was an awful shadow of his own nightmares, like—like he might be here for years, with nothing changing, with no one left to speak to or cry with or mourn.

Jimin tries not to think. It’s easier, that way.

Almost a week after the mourning rites had ended, Taehyung pushes open the door to his rooms an hour earlier than usual with a shaking hand, and every servant in the room sweeps into a bow. Jimin startles, snaps the book in his lap shut, tenses his shoulders like a wary street cat.

It doesn’t last long. Taehyung’s chest is heaving tight against the heavy fabric of his robe, his eyes wide even with the controlled mask of his expression. Jimin blinks, can’t stop himself from staring, and Haseul jerks up from her bow and rushes to his side.

And it’s like they’ve forgotten he’s there. Jimin watches without moving, almost too afraid to breathe, as Taehyung drops his shoulders and presses his knuckles to his lips, and Haseul gently pushes up the other sleeve of his robe. If he looks closely, Jimin can see—a red mark, raw and new, around his lower forearm. Higher, hiding a purple bruise in the shadow it casts.

Mostly, Jimin had tried to avoid thinking about the mostly-healed cut on the prince’s cheekbone. The slivered scabbing on his lips, the limp he’d walked off in just a few steps after Taeil left the apartments. Now, though, it’s hard to ignore. That he’s been claimed by a prince with a target painted on his back, one pinched and prodded in ways that would make any man angry, no matter how well he might be able to hide it.

Jimin watches Haseul fuss briefly over the mark, less formal than he’s ever seen her, and feels the cold, familiar dread seep into his chest.

So repressed, Taeil had said, and Jimin believes it. Taehyung waves Haseul away with a smile, and a gentle squeeze of her hand, and the tight panic on his face has faded back into that mask of contentment. Jimin strokes his finger down the rough paper of the page as Taehyung passes through to his study, the familiar creak of what might be his favorite chair loud in the servants’ silence.

The noise and gentle bustle pick up again, but Haseul keeps glancing toward the study, and Jimin’s eyes skid off the page like water from oil.

It haunts him through the afternoon, through the evening’s moonrise greeting he murmurs with freshwater dripping from his lips, through the tug of his apathy drawing him back into inevitable sleep.

Jimin sleeps restlessly. It’s the kind of sleep he’s too aware of, eyes always half-open in the fading dark of the parlor; he shifts at every noise, each brush of gossamer curtains against the wall. The nights are warmer now than when the last of their army had camped in the jagged mountains, a week’s journey by foot away from the Gangneung fort—their final stronghold, he remembers, though the army had marched from the capital and picked up troops along the way.

They’ve been fighting for ten years, with only three major battles before the sudden onslaught that had pushed their forces back, and back, until his father had ridden out with Jimin at his side and Jihyun at his back, and with them the last of the capital troops. Ten years, and in just a few months they’d lost—and lost everything.

He’s already awake enough, worried himself into a bleary kind of alertness, that it’s impossible to miss when the prince slips out of his bedroom. There’s the telltale sound of his slippers, the brush of fabric, a soft metal noise that Jimin can’t identify. He tenses, waits, slows his breathing down enough that he can hear the deliberate slowness of the door opening. The gentle tap of wood as it closes again, the near-silent footsteps retreating down the hall.

Without the sun, there’s no way for Jimin to tell time. He doesn’t know how much of the night he spends not moving, barely breathing, waiting for the prince to return as the fire dies in the next room. Sleep dances in front of him like a taunt, exhausting spotting black in his vision as he blinks out at the white curtains of the balcony doors, the only thing he can quite find the shape of.

What feels like hours before the sun rises, the prince creeps back into the rooms. It’s just as silent an entrance, wood thumping soft, but this time his breathing is more jagged. This time, footsteps creak toward the study, and Jimin listens to the heavy muffled sounds of cloth binding, the quiet flip of pages. He keeps his eyes shut, tries to loosen out his shoulders, and waits.

Taehyung approaches him slowly. Each step is audible, but barely so; Jimin has to strain to hear each movement over the heavy breathing—like he’s been running, or training. Or fucking.

Jimin wonders if it’s every night that the prince sneaks out like this. To meet some secret lover, when everyone must think he’s bent Jimin over each surface in his chambers by now.

In his mind, Jimin entertains the cruelest fantasies. He’s thought long and hard about strangling Taehyung, about watching him bleed out slower than the deaths of his kinsmen. He’s thought about lining up the princes of Odai and slitting their throats one by one. He doesn’t quite know what to do with the idea that one of them might be showing him mercy.

The new book is set delicately on the ground. The old one is picked up. Jimin is angled just right, so he slits opens his eyes, adjusts to the clearness of the moonlight, moves nothing but his gaze further and further to the side.

Taehyung has the cloth cover of the book open in his hands. His lips mouth the words of the title, hair tousled and damp with sweat. The clothes he’s in are nearly as light as Jimin’s, sticking wet to the slight curve of his waist, the long shape of his legs.

A sword sits sheathed at his belt. His sleeves are pushed up to expose the shadow of vicious bruising to the moon herself, bright and half-full in the sky.

Not a lover, then.

Have you made him angry, Jimin thinks. Sees how easily Taehyung’s stance has adjusted to the weight of the sword. Wonders just how often he trains in the middle of the night; who it is he might train with. Whether it’s his brothers who get to see the violence he hasn’t shown to Jimin yet.

Taehyung closes the book with frightening care. He holds it far away from his body, as if to avoid dripping sweat onto the pages, and glances down at Jimin just once.

With his hair over his face like this, Jimin’s eyes must not be visible. Taehyung looks long, and careful, eyes tracking over the way the shadows have fallen heavy over Jimin’s face. His face is open, brows tilted upward and lips barely slack. Like the town boy he could have been, standing over Jimin in the moonlight.

For the first time in a long several days, Jimin expects Taehyung to touch him. Looking itself feels like too much, a violation. Like Taehyung could see his soft spots and pick them out like a vulture at a rotting carcass. One by one, until Jimin has none of the self that laughed and danced like the tide was on his heels left.

It scares him, how angry he is. Taehyung walks away without looking again, slips back into his bedroom with the book gripped carefully between his fingers.

Jimin seethes, and tries not to falter, and does not sleep.

 


 

 

Now that he knows to listen for it, Jimin hears the prince leave the chambers nearly every night. Every time he comes back in he leaves a new book, and takes the old into his bedroom. Jimin sleeps through most of it, uneasy enough to wake at the sound of the door sliding shut but exhausted down to his core.

Jimin hates the routine as much as he’s grateful for it. He’s started stretching in the long intervals of silence in the chambers; his muscles wince and ache at the abuse, after nearly a fortnight of existing in the same circumference of floor space. The collar limits what he can do, his usual warm-ups for the ritual dances too much space to perform on the leash. But the other things are doable—more than doable.

It starts to keep him sane. His flexibility starts to come back, each day his fingers reaching a little farther past his heels when he sits and reaches. There’s less to do about the muscle he’s lost, but he’d lost more than muscle in the starving journey here, and mostly just savors not having to pick scraps of trash out of the dust to pick at until his stomach got used to the taste of rotten food.

He stretches in the morning, after the prayer and a few bites of rice to wake his body up, and again in late afternoon when Soobin and Daeun run wild through the apartment. They’ve taken to poking their heads into the parlor, shrieking with glee or fear as they sprint—or toddle—into Taehyung’s bedroom.

Taehyung always chases them, and scoops up one in each arm, and carts them back to their games in the study with a tiny song sung as he goes.

That’s the thing that makes it hardest to hate him. Jimin listens to Taehyung sing and read and talk to the children for hours nearly every afternoon, and never once does it grow more bearable. To see the way he dotes on them, and leaves Jimin chained to his floor with less privacy than a dog.

And almost every day, Jimin gets a fresh reminder that he doesn’t have nearly as much protection as he would like. Almost every day Taehyung returns with a refresher on the mark around his wrist, sometimes a cut on his lip or a bruise on a stinging red cheek.

Jimin hates him. Hates that he’s starting to crumble, that the silence is starting to wear down on him like nothing has before. Even during the worst days at home, there was —Jihyun. Jeongguk. His father, who was never quite busy enough to turn Jimin away when he knocked, when he didn’t know who to ask for advice.

Some princes never speak to their parents, he knows. Had met with a spare from the North, journeyed down for diplomacy, who only ever saw his queen mother outside of weddings, funerals, and executions. The only words he’d heard Odai’s king speak to Taehyung were mocking. But his father—they could talk for hours, without agreeing on half their topics. Jimin’s world was never silent, never absent of speech, until a soldier had tied a gag around his head so tight it split the corners of his lips, and forced him into the great hall, and everything changed in the amount of time it took to run a sword through a boy’s chest.

The silence aches, and as it endures Jimin wonders if it might be the worst thing Taehyung could do to him. Not to hold him down, not to yank him around predictably by the chafing collar, but to leave him surrounded by people and yet so desperately, terribly alone. The longer it lasts, the less real he feels, without an anchor to remind him that—he exists, as a person instead of a pet.

Jimin makes it through four more trembling days, before he breaks, and doesn’t even know he’s going to do it.

It happens when Jimin can’t sleep. The excess is starting to catch up with him, the bizarre routines and schedules throwing him out of balance until he’s blinking up at the ceiling in the middle of the night, waiting for the prince to slip back into his chambers like a married man back into his wedding bed.

He’s taken to wrapping himself in the blanket folded at the end of the chaise, though he can’t bring himself to sleep on it; the nights are cold, and Jimin’s endurance is wearing thin. It’s easy, too, to pull it up to his nose and shake his hair over his eyes and watch as Taehyung flips through a few pages of each book he picks up, lips mouthing silently over the words.

Tonight, Jimin waits longer than usual. His legs ache from the barest amount of work, the exercises he’d forced his trembling muscles through, the divot worn into the carpet pacing the outline of his cage with a limp from his worse knee. The collar is starting to chafe in earnest. He’d pulled his fingers away dotted with blood before curling up to sleep, one of the raw lines of skin finally split under the insistent rub, and it stings when he closes his eyes, shifts his head even just to ease the worst of the pain.

It gets so late that Jimin closes his eyes, gets as comfortable as he can, and tries to slip back under. The tension refuses to slip out of his limbs, though; when he tries to breathe deep, his ribs echo with the ghost of pain.

The door rumbles open loud as thunder, and Jimin’s hands curl into fists.

There’s the familiar sound of Taehyung’s breaths, jagged from strain, too exhausted to be kept quiet. They’re the only ones in the rooms, Jimin thinks. Maybe a guard stationed outside the door, but—he doesn’t think so, somehow. Has never heard anyone shift or cough or murmur outside. It makes him wonder, quietly, about Taehyung’s status.

In the quiet dark, even the soft sound of the prince’s slippers echoes. Jimin doesn’t think he’s breathing. Spots of colors dot the space behind his eyes, closed for the first time as Taehyung approaches since the nights where he slept through the terrible moments of closeness.

There’s the familiar rustle of Taehyung’s outer robes as he bends. Probably picks up this book as delicately as he’s touched the others. There’s no room for thought in Jimin’s head, just a whited-out blankness that scares him as much as the gaping hollow in his chest.

Jimin sits up. Slits his eyes open, until he can see through the moonlight the way the prince fumbles with the book, snaps it shut looking like a guilty child.

“You’re not as quiet as you think you are,” Jimin says. It’s meant to sound harsh, but—his throat closes around the words, raw from disuse. The last time he’d spoken more than a few words—

It’s the only blank spot in Jimin’s memory. His throat burns, the memory of the way he must have screamed—

It doesn’t matter. Taehyung flinches back from where Jimin’s sitting now with the blanket fallen to his lap, the chill of the air winding its way around his chest. There’s something warm trickling down his neck, past the hollow between his collarbones. The collar sits heavy and unforgiving, just underneath the bob of his throat.

Does it make you uncomfortable, Jimin wants to spit. Wants to force Taehyung back another step, can’t stand to have him so close. Watching him is infuriating, the way his mouth gapes open, his eyes dart back toward the door. There’s something tight and horrible and ugly in Jimin’s chest, something that makes his hands tremble in fists at his lap. The thing wants to call the prince a coward, wants to lock him in a collar and cuffs and make him sleep and eat and piss in the open like less than a beast, wants to leave him alone and unspoken to for days until he cracks like Jimin has, open and raw and shivering on the floor.

“You won’t even—talk to me,” he says, and hates that his voice cracks. That it misses the mark of vicious and falls into pathetic, so much that it hurts to look as it registers in Taehyung’s eyes.

Most of all, Jimin hates that it works.

“I don’t know what to say,” Taehyung says. There’s sweat dried down the sides of his face, oily and just visible enough in the moonlight. He licks his lips, twists his hands in the fabric of his overshirt. “I’m—I’m sorry.”

Jimin tips his head back. It makes solid contact against the wall, a familiar ache.

“You don’t get to be sorry.” It comes out weak, whispered. Jimin focuses his eyes, narrows his glare, and tries again. “You don’t deserve to be sorry.”

The unfamiliar dialect tastes bitter on his tongue. Taehyung’s eyes are wide, hands white-knuckled against the binding of the book.

“I just.” Taehyung says. Takes a deep breath, looks helplessly at the thin line of blood seeping into the pale yellow of Jimin’s robe. He seems to lose the words on his tongue, stutters around the shape of them. His hand twitches, his whole self tugged forward as if to stifle the flow of it, and Jimin bares his teeth like the animal he’s trying not to be and pins Taehyung back with the rage he hopes is palpable as the stench of rot.

“Don’t you lay a finger on me,” he says. Slow and deliberate. “If you wanted to pin me down and fuck me, you lost your chance as soon as that drug wore off.”

Taehyung looks like he’s going to be sick.

“I don’t want to,” he says, like he expects Jimin to take him at his word. It sets that thing inside him to boil, and Jimin closes his eyes and tries to hide his trembling hands and feels like he’s been treading water for weeks, now, and is losing the last of his will to stay above water.

He laughs. Reedy and miserable and small.

“What’s the point?” He says. Sounds as awful as he feels. “Then what’s the—fucking point. You’re just going to keep me chained up in here until I die and won’t do anything about it.”

Taehyung swallows. “They’re asking me to bring you to court.”

And Jimin goes still. Pictures it behind his eyelids: the arching ceilings of that hall, the king, the cruel twist of the crown prince’s sword. Imagines being pinned down in front of the court that had laughed as his people were slaughtered for sport. His face pressed against the stone still warm from the thick, congealed layer of blood that had settled as they were killed.

“I won’t,” Taehyung says, when Jimin fails to respond in any way but the shudder of horror. “I promise, I’m doing what I can.”

His sleeves are pushed up. The bruise on his arm has darkened into something ugly, the scabs from where nails broke skin starting to fade. Everything about this court makes Jimin recoil; the casual cruelty, the depravity of their amusement. If this prince hasn’t learned to play the game well enough—that’s not Jimin’s fault.

“Coward,” Jimin whispers. He looks up, at the drawn sickness on Taehyung’s face. “You’re a coward.”

A beat. Jimin leans forward, watches with sick satisfaction the way Taehyung’s posture shifts subtly into defense. He waits for that elegant hand to let go of the book and drift down to the sword at his waist—he wants it, more than he ever thought he would.

“You’re too weak to use me like you’re supposed to.” He hates the person he’s become. Caged and violent. Proud of the way his words sting, the way Taehyung gnaws on his lower lip and can’t quite keep his hands still. “I doubt you’re brave enough to kill me here, aren’t you?”

“I could,” Taehyung says back, and his voice is low and steady. Jimin fixes him with a look, tilts his head back to expose the line of his neck, the cut of his collar.

“Then do it,” he spits. “Before I get to you first.”

Taehyung stares. Jimin wonders how he must look in the moonlight; primped and dressed like an expensive doll, glittering with gold and half-faded bruises and that one cooling line of blood. Pretty and delicate and broken enough to be inches away from crying for no reason he could speak.

“I won’t,” Taehyung says. Low, deliberate. His breathing looks shallow. He takes a step back.

“Coward,” Jimin says again, and hates that his voice breaks sharply, wavering off into silence. Taehyung holds the book close to his chest, a cheap mystery that Jimin had finished in a few hours at most even trying to pace himself.

“I’m sorry.” He sounds like he means it. If Jimin had anything to throw he would, but there’s nothing left around him but for the half-full pitcher of water; not even the last of the books, held in the prince’s hand without a replacement. Taehyung backs away farther, his features slowly obscured by the darkness.

Jimin watches as the night swallows him. As Taehyung vanishes back into the shadowed door of his bedroom with the book held steady in his hands, and the soft yellow glow of the fire builds higher, the echo of warmth lingering in the familiar wood-burnt smell.

He doesn’t sleep again, that night. He sits up, and waits for the sun to rise, and listens to the soft turn of cheap pages from the next room over.

 


 

 

The day is miserable. It dawns overcast, the sky clouded over long before the sun rises. The light is diffused and ugly, and Jimin feels hollowed out with the vanished promise of spring. He makes the empty motions of smiling at Taehyung’s servants, their nods coming easy now that he hasn’t lashed out to kill any of them, and Haseul’s eyes dart down to the trail of blood down his neck, dried tacky and uncomfortable in the hours that have passed.

Her mouth opens, closes. She sets down another pitcher of water and gathers up the old one fumblingly, eyes still caught at the ring of raw skin underneath the collar, the blatant chafing of his cuffs. Something in her brow sets, and she takes a hesitant step forward.

“His highness can call a physician,” she says softly. The younger maid who follows her around is staring with wide eyes, scrubbing at the same spot on a silver lamp she’s been working on since Haseul approached him.

Jimin smiles tightly, shoulders set, and shakes his head. The subtle concern on her face doesn’t ease, though she does take that step back.

“He’s very kind,” she says, haltingly. Like she’s not sure she should. It’s the first time any of them have spoken to him directly, and Jimin’s heart reminds him of it with a pace that makes him feel faint. “The prince. If you need anything, I’m sure—he’d do anything to help us.”

I’m doing what I can, Jimin remembers, and can’t think of it as anything but selfishness. An attempt to spare himself the humiliation of a court Jimin can infer to be set against him, perhaps bought by an older brother or three. That he treats his servants with courtesy can’t explain away the fact that he’s made no attempts to relocate Jimin, to give him an ounce more privacy or decency than what he has now.

He inclines his head in a bow, instead of responding with commitment. Haseul looks at him one last time, eyes narrowed in thought, before she bobs a tiny bow of her own and steps back to the basic tasks of maintenance. Her assistant meets Jimin’s eyes, flushes furiously, and moves on to the next lamp.

Jimin spends the rest of the day carefully blank. There’s nothing left to do in the absence of reading, in the way the chambers empty of servants until the prince returns in the afternoon. Daeun and Soobin liven up the study, but—it’s not enough to keep him present. The fog of the sky fills up his lungs, and pins him down as surely as the heavy weight of his chain.

It’s enough that he barely bothers to stretch. Instead, he digs thumbs and knuckles into the aching muscles at his shoulders and thighs, bites down his lip to stifle gasps when he has to work through bruises, brings fresh blood to the surface of yellow-green skin. It’s satisfying to watch them bloom again, tender reminders that he hasn’t been trapped in this room all his life, that his body exists as a thing that can be hurt and not just neglected.

The pain keeps him grounded, but the hours slip by like seaweed slick through his fingers, and the sky is too hazy to watch the moonrise, and his tongue trips over the few lines of prayer.

Jimin doesn’t want to think about the nagging reminder that he can barely remember his father’s voice, after so long surrounded. That he remembers Jihyun too much, can’t bear to think of him as was, but—whenever a memory bobs to the surface, it’s distorted by the wet sound of his lungs as he’d died.

He curls up with the blanket draped loosely over his hips, the pillow secure under his head, face angled toward the open balcony doors. He watches the shift of clouds over the moon until his eyes drift shut, and the Goddess blesses him with darkness, cool and complete and finally safe.

Tonight, Jimin sleeps, and does not dream.

 


 

 

Taehyung hasn’t slept well in two hideous weeks. Instead of sleeping fully and deeply, he’s been startling awake at any noise: the pop of a log in the hearth, a door closing two floors below his open window. Park Jimin, chained to the floor of his parlor, shifting in his sleep.

It hadn’t been Taehyung’s decision. The hook in the floor has been there since he’d been moved to these rooms as a child, covered by the chaise the servants had then pushed against the wall in anticipation that the newest member of the household would use it. For the first week, he’d tried not to look; the hatred reflected back at him every time he tried made it easy, the chafing reminder of his own cowardice made it impossible.

Coward, Jimin had known to call him. Taehyung wonders if there’s something about him that makes it so easy to see what strips him of every defense he’s spent his whole life building up. He sighs quietly, and shifts on the massive bed he’s never quite gotten comfortable on, and watches the fire die as the last of its logs crumble to ash. He should get up, should rebuild it, but—it feels impossible to move.

Every night, since his restless energy started wearing holes in the mat, Taehyung has been slipping out the door to escape to the training yard. It’s abandoned this late at night, soldiers and guards and brothers alike to busy sleeping for otherwise to bother spying.

Some nights, Taehyung wraps his hands and jabs at the sand-filled hanging bags until his arms ache. Others, he goes through each carefully-memorized position with his sword balanced between his outstretched hands, until he’s trembling with exertion. The strain feels good, the extra hour or two on top of his mid-morning routine pleasantly challenging. Most nights, it’s enough to push him to the brink of exhaustion he needs to send him crashing into bed as soon as he returns. Others, it’s enough to blank his mind so that when he traces over Bayul words, no other thoughts cloud out his efforts.

Tonight, though, after Jimin’s desperate hostility, the last thing Taehyung wants is to leave his room. He doesn’t want to have to face that again—doesn’t care that it makes him a coward, makes him weak.

It’s been two weeks, and the ghosts mobbing his vision haven’t disappeared. The brightest of them never wavers, and creeps so close to the foreground like it’s trying to scream at him—like Taehyung doesn’t know already what he’s doing wrong. They don’t let him rest, and Taehyung thinks he agrees that he doesn’t deserve it.

He’d saved the prince. Saved him from bleeding out with the dignity of a butchered stag on the floor of the great hall, and then—what? Kept him chained to the floor like a dog. Been too afraid and ashamed to speak to him, too concerned with his own image to sit down and try to explain.

Jimin hates him. Taehyung doesn’t fault him for that, when any death, even as unceremonious as a smile drawn across his throat with a dagger, might have brought more peace than this.

He worries himself into a doze. It’s fitful and half-aware, the awful kind of rest that won’t ease any of the ache in his eyes or temples, but Taehyung clutches onto it like a glimpse of sunlight in midwinter. The sound of the castle at least is familiar, the small clink of hanging glass strung from even the highest branches of trees, the groans of generations-old wood shifting with the tone of the earth.

There’s a sharp, quiet metal noise from below his window. Distinctly out of place in the silence; four floors from the ground, in the absence of swords clashing from various training squares. Taehyung’s eyes peel open of their own accord, like he’d never slept in the first place.

It comes again. Again. Taehyung waits, breath caught silent in his lungs. An owl calls lowly, perched somewhere on a distant roof. Propped up on one elbow, he angles himself toward the window, the wall shared with the balcony in the parlor.

And then, so quietly he almost doesn’t hear it, Jimin gasps.

Taehyung is out of bed before he realizes. Sleep robe tied tight around his waist, a sliver of chest peeking out mottled in familiar pinched bruises, feet bare and cold against the floor. His heart pounds high in his throat, panic throttling any inch of rational thought that isn’t busy drawing up the worst things—assassins, hired swords. Taeil, or any of the rest.

He’s halfway to the door when he hears something heavy hit the ground.

Jimin, he thinks, and curls his fingers around the smooth wood frame of the open doorway. Taehyung pulls himself around the corner and stops, wishing he had thought to take his sword from its place on the wall, until—he sees.

Jimin stands silhouetted by moonlight, one hand rubbing at the other’s wrist. Something gold glitters at his feet, his head lifts to pin Taehyung with wide eyes. He looks calmer than Taehyung has ever seen him, even caught in sleep. He only has a moment to take everything in, though; the way the chain sways lightly, still hooked to both floor and collar, the way his eyes dart to something just behind Taehyung, shadowed in darkness.

It’s the only warning he gets before a knife presses cool and sharp against his throat.

Taehyung doesn’t even think to scream. There’s pressure against his shoulders, the curl of another hand to threaten at his windpipe. The tip of the knife digs into the underside of his jaw, and Jimin watches with trembling hands and no glint of remorse in his eyes. Taehyung’s breathing shallows, the breath hot against his ear the only thing he feels.

“Should I kill him now?” A voice asks, low and hot in Taehyung’s ear.

Jimin breathes, and Taehyung watches, and wonders if Jimin had known all along. He can’t believe that, though; not with the way Jimin’s hands shake as they wrap tight around the chain holding him down.

Taehyung waits for the nod. For the sharply whispered yes. He closes his eyes, and wonders if this is how Jimin had felt with Taejoon’s knife pressing into his jugular. The panic churning hard in his gut, the way the cold point of contact just barely keeps him from jerking out in blind helplessness.

There’d been once, a long time ago now, that Taeho had pinned him face-down in the dirt of the training ring and pressed the tip of his sword to Taehyung’s spine, digging in sharp enough to leave dull holes in his clothing. The bruise left was a point of constant pain for days, aching each time he stood or sat or twisted. As he’d lain with his cheek pressed to dust and sand and gravel, Taehyung hadn’t been sure—half-expected Taeho to laugh, and lean just a bit harder, and push the sword through skin and muscle and heart.

It wasn’t the first time Taehyung prepared himself to die in this place. It wasn’t the last.

But at least he’d known the names of everyone who might have killed him. The cold fear now is less for the inevitable cut of the knife, and more for what comes after: without a name of the killer, he’ll wander these halls until he fades. Until he’s forgotten.

Those bright ghosts flicker in the corner of the dark behind his eyelid, like candles blown near hard enough to go out.

Just say it, Taehyung almost begs. The waiting is unbearable, listening to the breaths of the man behind him and the gentle noises of the chain keeping Jimin bound to the floor. He won’t say he doesn’t deserve it, but—he’s shaking, now, panic caught hard in the adrenaline burst he forces himself to keep down.

“Not yet,” Jimin finally says, voice rough and tight like he’s holding himself back.

Taehyung sags where he’s trapped, and the pressure of the knife lifts just enough to let him breathe fully, and he opens his eyes to find Jimin watching him with a cold kind of hatred.

“But—” The man behind him says, and Jimin glares at him and strains against his leash.

“I said no.” Then, after a small pause, he falters. Swallows hard, lips pursed to keep them flat. “Just get me out of this thing.”

Taehyung breathes out hard, and doesn’t resist when rough rope is looped around his wrists behind his back. When it’s forced between his teeth like a bit and pulled tight enough that it stretches and strains the corners of his mouth.

Nothing more than he deserves.

The man shoves Taehyung down to his knees and steps around him and softens instantly, the drop of his shoulders heavy as he steps up close. It’s only then that Jimin’s gaze wavers; his eyes snap to the man’s face as he works tools into the pinhole lock of Jimin’s collar. He doesn’t look like he’s breathing.

Taehyung feels like an intruder in his own rooms, but—he’s felt like that for years. This is different, to watch the way the stranger’s hands fumble with the delicate tools until the lock clicks, and the thin seam parts, and Jimin shudders out a breath that sounds like a sob.

The collar hits the floor with a noise that makes Taehyung wince.

For a long moment, Jimin stops. The stranger’s hands are still raised, hovering uncertainly like he’s not allowed to touch. In the darkness, Taehyung can barely see the rubbed-raw skin of Jimin’s neck, the small curved scab from the night before. Jimin breathes deep, and blinks hard, and reaches out carefully. He wraps his arms tight around the man’s chest and pulls him in close, presses his face into his shoulder, slow and deliberate and shaking the whole while. A hand comes up, so careful it hurts to watch, and tangles itself into Jimin’s hair, and broad shoulders tremble, and something sharp and cruel stabs into Taehyung’s chest when he realizes—they’re crying.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, the tone of his natural dialect sharp and desperate. “I—Guk-ah, I thought—”

He breaks off with a choked noise that might be a laugh.

“Hyung,” Jeongguk replies, so soft as to almost whisper. His cheek is pressed to the side of Jimin’s head, turned away so Taehyung can’t see. “I’m so—I’m so sorry. Everyone said you were dead, I tried to follow but they wouldn’t let me—”

“It’s okay,” Jimin shushes. He pulls back, and presses their foreheads tight together, one hand clasped at the back of Jeongguk’s neck. “Hey, I’m okay. I’m alive, it’s not your fault.”

There’s a pause, quiet but for the sound of their breathing. If he tried hard enough Taehyung could scream, and—there’s a bow strapped to Jeongguk’s back, a dark slim quiver full of arrows, and he’d be shot dead in a second flat. But a guard standing outside Taeho’s chambers might hear and come running, and the two of them might be caught. And killed. And strung up as an example, and one last trophy of war.

“And,” Jeongguk says. Quiet, hesitant, like he knows but doesn’t want to ask. “And—Jihyun?”

Jimin flinches. Closes his eyes and twists his face like he’s going to be sick. When he looks again, his eyes are narrow and pin Taehyung to the wall like a stuck butterfly’s wing.

“What,” he replies, sharp and bitter. “You didn’t see him hanging on the city wall when you rode in?”

The noise Jeongguk makes is wounded and cut-off. Taehyung swallows at the image—it’s where his father orders the bodies of criminals to be hung, bodies left until they start to rot to make an example of them. He knows it’s where most of Bayul’s court had gone, feels sick when he thinks about it, but—

He makes a soft noise, looks back at Jimin with as much urgency he can muster. Jeongguk turns, and Taehyung sees his face for the first time. More childish than he’d pictured, with wide eyes and thin lips, but contorted in an anger that makes him want to shrink back and away.

“Let me kill him,” Jeongguk says. It’s almost a plea, his hand wrapped tight around the hilt of the knife strapped at his thigh. Jimin’s hand on his arm stops him, a gentle pressure that keeps him back, though the threat still hangs.

“Now you want to talk,” Jimin says. He looks at Taehyung like he’s not worth thinking about, and Taehyung forces himself to keep his spine straight. There’s little Jimin could say to him that’s worse than what the court has been saying since before he was born.

Taehyung nods. They’re going to kill him, Jimin is going to escape, the war very well might start again, but—it’s worth it to try. To at least give Jimin this, after all the pain of the last weeks. Jimin glances toward Jeongguk with a curt nod, and Taehyung grinds his teeth into coarse rope to stop himself from flinching when the knife slides out of its sheath.

He almost gets distracted by panic when Jeongguk leans down over him, the memory of firm weight on his hips only eased when the rope falls away from his mouth, when Jeongguk steps away with disgust written clear in his eyes. Taehyung takes a deep breath, and shudders out the words as quickly as he can manage, his tongue fumbling over each syllable spoken in the Bayul dialect.

“He’s not on the wall,” he blurts, no time for finesse as Jimin clenches his jaw. “I’m sorry, it’s not your custom, but—I had him cremated. Paid for a burial. So they couldn’t—I heard what they would do to the body.”

It had been a joke, he thinks, something Taeseok had said with a drunken laugh over the feast that night. Stuff its head and mount it, he remembers, with the sick twist in his gut, and Taehyung hadn’t wanted to risk bringing the ashes back to his rooms. Didn’t know if Taeseok was joking, but knows all the cruel ways they all have learned to make a spirit linger after death. The brightest ghost, the one who’s never left Taehyung’s sight, flickers and dances and surges forward only to fall back.

He’d failed, even in ensuring the ashes their rites and trying his best to give Jimin the mourning rituals, but he doesn’t want to say it. If he started, the apologies would never end.

Jimin looks ill. Jeongguk looks murderous. Taehyung tugs against the rope around his wrists to feel it burn and looks away.

“Let me kill him,” Jeongguk says again, quiet in his rage. Taehyung stops fighting it, then; the tension bleeds out of him like sand from a stuck bag, his shoulders curl forward. Now he knows the name, can only hope that his father bothers to honor his body, doesn’t have to wander out of guilt for never having told Jimin this last thing. He doesn’t know the coordinates of the grave or he’d give them, just knows that it’s in one copse of oak trees among hundreds bordering the city, knows the winding path away from the outer wall almost by heart.

This time, Jimin has to say yes. It’s almost relieving.

But—

“No,” Jimin says. Taehyung opens his eyes and looks, at the way Jimin’s posture has settled, at the careful way he holds himself. Like a prince. Like—a king. The last of his line.

I’ll kill you, Jimin had said, eyes blurred with tears from the monsang root.

“He’s a prince. And we need all the leverage we can get.”

It hits Taehyung like a fall from the window. What Jimin plans to do. Jeongguk’s eyes widen, his fingers let go of the knife that falls to click into the place of its sheath.

“You mean—” he says. Taehyung shudders out a breath, and meets the unwavering cold of Jimin’s eyes, and watches the slow, deliberate nod with the knowledge that nothing, after this, will be the same, except for one thing. He doesn’t doubt that one day, Jimin will kill him for what he’s done. But until then—until then.

“We take him with us,” Jimin says, and it sounds like the tolling of funeral bells.