Jisung was born blind. He was also born the crown prince of the Han Kingdom, which created a problem.
A blind king could never rule. He couldn’t fight, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t go anywhere without guidance. His parents had been trying and failing to have children for years. They knew that the chances of having another were slim. Jisung was their only hope.
So weeks after he was born, they arranged a marriage with his fifteen-year-old second cousin, Han Iseul. He was their blood, and he was strong and smart. He would be a perfect king. Jisung would sit by his side-as a symbol, mostly-while Iseul would produce heirs with a noblewoman. They would need heirs, and nobody knew if Jisung’s blindness might be passed down to children. It was the perfect arrangement.
In the years before Iseul arrived, Jisung lived a decent life. His parents didn’t have much time for him, but he was tutored in several subjects-music, history, mathematics, philosophy, languages. He learned how to read Braille and how to walk without supervision or a cane. He was even taught basic self-defense.
Jisung loved learning. He knew that it was all he would ever get. His destiny was to be a figurehead. He’d only met Iseul a few times, but he knew that his cousin-more than twice his age-was brusque and cruel. Jisung didn’t want to live with him, but he had no choice. His wedding was set for a week after his sixteenth birthday.
It seemed like the whole kingdom turned up. Jisung knew that was an overstatement, but the knots in his stomach made it hard to be realistic. He was led down the aisle by a servant, said his vows when prompted, and then his husband kissed him. Jisung felt a rush of sadness. So this was his life.
Life with Iseul wasn’t so much different. He was cruel to Jisung in private, but around his parents and in public, he pretended love. Their wedding night was a nightmare, but luckily they didn’t repeat it many times after. Jisung was relieved, but he knew it could only last so long. His father was growing old, and he frequently became ill. And his mother had always been fragile. If the king died, she would surely follow soon after.
In the end, it didn’t even matter. One night after dinner, when Jisung was nineteen, he was reading a Braille book in the library when someone knocked frantically on the door. “Come in!” he called.
The person entered quickly. “Your Highness,” she said before quickly correcting, “Your Majesty. The king and queen are dead.”
Jisung dropped his book. “What?”
“They both collapsed minutes ago,” the servant said. “At almost the same time. We suspect poisoning, but we don’t know how. If you’ll come with me, you can speak to the doctor.”
Jisung stood and held out his arm. The servant took it and guided him gently out of the room and down the hall. He counted his steps as he walked. He’d long since memorized the layout of the castle. There wasn’t much else for him to do some days. They arrived in the medical wing in a couple of minutes.
“Your Majesty,” the doctor said. “Their pulses have stopped. I tried to revive them, but they’re gone.”
Jisung felt a lump in his throat. He swallowed and nodded curtly. “Please find out what killed them, and try to find who. The army is at your disposal. Is my husband here?”
“No,” the doctor said. “We have sent a servant to notify him, but he hasn’t arrived.”
“Please tell him to come to my room,” Jisung said. “We need to discuss some things.” He strode away to his room on his own.
Iseul hit him for the first time that night.
They arranged the funeral and the coronation. All through the preparations, and then the ceremonies, Jisung didn’t shed a single tear. He had never really loved his parents, as they had never really loved him. He wasn’t sad.
He was terrified.
Iseul held all the power now.
Jisung’s life quickly deteriorated. He was naturally a strong-willed and persistent person, but Iseul didn’t like that. He tried to strip Jisung of his independence in every way possible-rarely allowing him to speak or read, assigning a bodyguard to him who led him everywhere and didn’t let him leave the castle, or even a room if Iseul told him not to.
But most of all, Iseul believed in physical enforcement. Sometimes he gave reasons for it. If Jisung played his part well when they were in public-if he could be the loving husband, the blind, powerless king-Iseul was less likely to hit him. It didn’t stop him, though. As time went on, Jisung became better and better at doing exactly what Iseul asked of him, but Iseul just hurt him more.
Iseul rarely slept with him. Jisung always dreaded the nights when he did, but most of the time, his husband slept with servants and let him know about it. He had slept with a variety of noblewomen and was waiting for one of them to announce pregnancy. They still needed heirs, after all.
As awful as it was, Jisung’s life didn’t really reach its lowest point until a year or so after his parents died, when Iseul discovered the cabinet.
There was a whole bank of cabinets built into a wall in Jisung’s room. One day, Iseul decided to try something new. He shoved Jisung in one of the cabinets and held the door shut. Jisung’s reaction pleased him enough that he had a lock installed on it. Eventually, it became his favorite punishment.
It was hard to explain why it terrified Jisung so much. It was a small space. He had to fold himself up to avoid hitting his head or limbs on the sides or ceiling, and sometimes he had trouble breathing. But as awful as that was, the worst part was the loss of control. Iseul would leave him in there for hours. Sometimes he would stay for a while and listen to Jisung’s sobbing, but sometimes he would go and only return when he decided to let Jisung out. And that was what terrified him: the fact that if Iseul wanted to, or if something happened to him, he could be there forever. No one would know. He would die alone in a cramped cabinet, and that made him panic. No matter how many times it happened, the effect never faded.
Jisung became used to that life. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t escape. He was a king, and he was blind, so he was trapped.
He hated it. There was nothing he wanted more than to kill Iseul with his own hands and rule. But for the sake of his kingdom, he couldn’t, even if he would have been physically capable of it. He had to put up with it.
He was twenty-one when the Park Kingdom invaded.
It had been a fairly normal day. Jisung had been studying Japanese in his room when Iseul stormed in and grabbed him by his collar, dragging him off his chair. Jisung stumbled to get his feet under him.
“Damn you,” Iseul snarled. “You useless bitch. Why the hell’d I have to get stuck with you? You can’t do anything. You’re a waste of space. How am I supposed to govern this whole damn kingdom by myself?”
Oh. Jisung was kept in the dark about things, but Iseul had been tenser and harsher than usual lately, and Jisung was pretty sure it was because of political tension. He would be surprised if Iseul was a good king. He certainly was no diplomat.
“I wish I could just kill you and find someone helpful to marry,” Iseul continued. “But I’m stuck with you. A trophy husband, good for nothing but status and looking pretty. I wish I could kill you!”
He heaved Jisung over to the cabinet, opened the door, and threw him in. Jisung heard the click of a lock and Iseul’s heavy feet stomping away, not even waiting for Jisung to start crying.
It took a while for it to sink in. First, Jisung thought about the word “useless.” It wasn’t true, was it? He wasn’t useless. He spoke six languages, and he could read Braille. He knew more than anyone in the palace about history, philosophy, and math, and he could hold his own with the generals in war strategy. He had hundreds of poems and songs memorized. He could sing and play two instruments. He knew the layout of the entire castle by heart. He could tell some people apart by their footsteps, and he could tell just by someone’s voice who they were, where they were from, and how they were feeling. He even knew basic self-defense. And he was strong. He put himself through this torture for the sake of his kingdom. He’d certainly been through more than Iseul ever had. So what if he couldn’t see? It changed nothing of his worth.
Unfortunately, when he had finished thinking about that, his mind turned to something else Iseul had said: “I wish I could kill you.”
How easy would it be for him to just leave Jisung here for days? Yes, he’d said he wouldn’t, but maybe he’d change his mind. Maybe he’d tell everyone that Jisung was sick and needed isolation. He would only last a couple of days without water. He was totally at Iseul’s mercy right now, alone in a locked cabinet, with Iseul having the only key.
As much as life hurt, he didn’t want to die.
The tears began to pour.
Bang Chan hated going to war. It meant death and destruction and fear for his elite force of seven plus himself. It might have been ironic. He had been chosen by King Park Jinyoung himself to handpick and lead his own small force. He was one of the best fighters in the kingdom. But that was just it. He loved fighting-the rush of adrenaline, the easy language of hand-to-hand and knife and sword and shield and spear and bow. War was something else entirely.
But he served the king as a fighter, even if he wasn’t in the main army. War was part of the job description.
Luckily, the king didn’t often get involved in wars. He thought of them as a waste of money and manpower. But sometimes, he had to. The ruler of the Han Kingdom had shown hostility to them, breaking a trade agreement they’d made with the previous king and moving troops to their borders. Finally, he’d sent a letter with an outright threat, and King Jinyoung had snapped.
“It’s an in and out operation,” he’d told Chan. “Nayeon is only leading a small force. Our intel suggests that most of the kingdom is unsatisfied with Han’s ruling, so you probably won’t face too much resistance. You just need to kill him and leave the rest to the kingdom. He doesn’t have any heirs. But… There is the problem of the other king.”
“The other king?” Chan had asked.
“The ruling king-Han Iseul-was not actually born into the throne,” King Jinyoung had said. “His husband, Han Jisung-his second cousin-was. But Jisung was born blind, so soon after he was born, he was engaged to Iseul, who was fifteen at the time. The king and queen died when Jisung was eighteen of suspected poisoning, and Iseul became the king. Although Jisung is also technically the king, he does nothing but assure Iseul’s power. But although Iseul’s public rating is low, Jisung’s is much higher. Maybe because he’s actually a born royal, maybe because he’s blind and many people pity him.” He’d shrugged. “Anyway, I have no idea what to do with him. I trust you to make a good decision.” And then he’d dismissed Chan.
It wasn’t much of a war, really, just an invasion: get it done quickly and be done with it. Still, Chan looking wasn’t looking forward to it.
Nervous anticipation bubbled in his stomach, as it always did before a fight. Back when he’d been alone, it had translated into excitement. But now that he had people he cared about and looked after, it was fear. Any of them could die at any moment. Their lives were in his hands.
He reached for his knives and counted them, both his nervous habit and his pre-battle ritual. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven: Minho, Seungmin, Jeongin, Hyunjin, Felix, Woojin, Changbin. If anything ever happened to one of them in the field, Chan would slay their attacker with their knife.
Nayeon called to him. “You ready, Chan?”
“As I’ll ever be, General,” Chan responded.
Nayeon nodded to him and shouted to her troops, “Let’s go!” Chan looked back at his own group. They all nodded at him, determination in their eyes.
They rode out.
It was easy enough. Most of the soldiers they encountered surrendered to them-because they hated Iseul or because they knew they had no chance, Chan didn’t know. They subdued those who didn’t, killing as few people as possible.
The Han Kingdom was much smaller than the Park Kingdom. It was barely a day’s ride before they reached the crown city. The palace was small, but ornate.
Nayeon pulled up and nodded at him. “Do your thing,” she said. “We’ll be out here.”
Chan nodded back at her and swung off his horse. He could hear seven pairs of feet hitting the ground behind him. Feeling for the knives at his sides-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven-he strode to the front door and heaved it open.
Their path to the king was mostly unobstructed. They met a few soldiers who tried to attack them, but they had no problems with taking them down. Chan had no idea where the king was, so after a few minutes of fruitless searching, he said, “Let’s split up. Changbin, go with Minho that way. Hyunjin, you and Felix go that way. Seungmin and Jeongin, go over there… And Woojin, you’re with me.”
“Aye aye, captain!” Minho said cheerfully. They separated.
Chan and Woojin walked briskly through the hall, checking every room and finding nothing. If Chan was a looter, he’d be screaming in glee, but wealth meant nothing to him. King Jinyoung gave him everything he could ever need or want.
After a while, they found a room that piqued Chan’s curiosity. It was sparsely furnished-a bed, a tall wardrobe, a desk and chair, and a bank of cabinets against one wall-but everything was of beautiful quality. The only personal effect was a book lying open on the desk. When Chan got closer, he saw that there were no words on the pages, just a series of raised dots.
Woojin frowned. “Do you hear that?”
Chan shook his head and listened closely. After a moment, he heard it: a soft, pathetic sound.
“Is that crying?” he asked.
Woojin nodded. “I think so. Where is it coming from, though?”
Chan listened carefully and followed the noise to one of the cabinets. Now that he looked at it closely, he saw that it had a lock on it, the only one that did. Looking around, he didn’t see a key, so he stuck the point of Changbin’s knife into the lock and jimmied it around until it popped open. He opened the door, and someone fell out, practically onto his lap.
He was tiny, only a little taller than Changbin and much less bulky, definitely younger than him. His clothes were fine, but dusty. And he was crying desperately.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry, I wish I was better, I wish I wasn’t useless, please don’t kill me, please, Iseul-” He opened his eyes and looked in Chan’s general direction. Chan did a double take. The boy’s eyes were clouded over and vacant, not seeing anything. Oh. The sparse room, the book, the blind boy, Iseul-this was Han Jisung, the blind king.
Chan bent down and said, in the calmest voice he could muster, “It’s okay, King Jisung. Iseul’s not here. He’s not going to kill you.”
Jisung shook his head frantically. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry I’m useless! Please. I’m sorry I’m blind… Just, please don’t kill me.”
“No one’s going to kill you,” Chan said firmly. He’d been wondering what to do with Jisung, but his heart was hurting. He’d felt this way seven times before, and each time it had led him to something good. He couldn’t ignore it. “It’s okay. We’re going to help you, Jisung.”
Slowly, Jisung’s tears stopped. He sat up straight, wiped his eyes, and said, voice thick, “Who are you?”
“We-” Chan swallowed, nervous. “We’re from the Park Kingdom.”
“Oh,” Jisung said, sounding resigned and almost amused. “My husband’s not a very good king, is he.”
Chan smiled. “No, he’s not.”
Jisung sighed. “Okay. Is he dead, then?”
“Umm...yes,” Chan said.
“Oh,” Jisung said. “What are you going to do with me, then?”
“Um…” Chan looked back at Woojin, who shrugged, looking totally lost. “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
Jisung scoffed. “What does it matter? It never has.”
Chan sighed. “Well,” he said. “There is your kingdom, with the acting king dead and no heirs. They still have a king. Would you want to rule?”
“It’s not that I want to rule,” Jisung said. “It’s that I think I should. I’ve studied politics and history all my life, and I actually have a heart. And I would certainly be a better diplomat than him. But who would accept a blind king? It’s as if everyone thinks that my sight is equal to my ability or my worth.”
Chan stared at him for a moment, open-mouthed. Then he shook his head and said, “That may be, but you have the right to the throne. Prove to them how strong you are, and they won’t be able to doubt you anymore.”
Jisung frowned. “Hmmm. So you’re not going to kill me?”
“No,” Chan said. “Be a good king, and don’t threaten us, and you’ll never have to worry about us again.”
“All right,” Jisung said. “Th-Thank you. For killing Iseul, and for getting me out of there.” He pulled himself to his feet and bowed deeply. “Thank you, brave warrior.”
Chan bowed back, even though Jisung couldn’t see. “You’re welcome, King Jisung. Good luck.” He turned to Woojin and waved his hand. The two of them left the room.
“What just happened?” Woojin asked as they made their way down the hall.
“I had a good feeling about him,” Chan said.
Woojin raised an eyebrow. “Oh, a feeling.”
Chan rolled his eyes. “Yes, a feeling. I get them sometimes. Like, every time I met one of you. I knew that I could trust him, and that he’d be a good king.”
They reached the front doors. Woojin opened his mouth, but was interrupted by Hyunjin saying, “Hyungs! Are you ready to go? Felix killed the king.”
Changbin, standing with the others, said, “Where were you? You were in there for a long time. We were about to send someone in after you.”
Woojin and Chan exchanged a look. “We got caught up,” Chan said. “Let’s go.”
Four years later…
Jisung carefully got dressed in the outfit a servant had laid out for him and went through his hair with experienced fingers, patting it down in all the right places. He’d been acting king for four years now. It had been hard to prove himself at first, but soon enough, his people had realized that he was a much more levelheaded and compassionate king than Iseul could ever be. Now they loved him. He settled his crown-so small it was more of a tiara-on his head.
He was nervous today. One of the first things he’d done when he became acting king was reinstate the trade relationship between the Han and Park Kingdoms, which had ensured friendly relations between them. Recently, the nearby Kang Kingdom had been increasing pressure on both of them. Jisung had invited the Parks to discuss war strategy, and today, King Park Jinyoung’s party was set to arrive at the Han palace.
Jisung walked through the halls, knowing that the path would always be clear for him. They’d been preparing for King Park’s arrival for two weeks. Eleven people would be staying for a week-the king himself, his deputy generals Sana and Jeongyeon, and the eight members of an elite task force Jisung had heard legends about.
He was used to this by now-discussions about diplomacy and war, entertaining guests from all over-but this was a special occasion. It was the Park Kingdom. Iseul had been killed by the Park Kingdom, and he’d been let out of that cabinet by them, and he’d decided to be king because of them. He owed them a debt. He didn’t know if the man who had let him out would be there, because although he knew their conversation by heart, he’d never gotten a name. But whether or not he was there, Jisung was still tense.
“Your Majesty,” a servant said. “King Park’s company was spotted entering the crown city. They will be here in minutes.”
“Thank you,” Jisung said, striding towards the front gate. He knew it was unconventional not to welcome guests in the throne room, but he rarely used it. He found it stuffy and overly formal, and as the blind king, he didn’t care much about tradition. It didn’t serve him.
He heard horse hooves on stone. King Park had arrived.
A hand landed on his shoulder from behind. Sooyoung-the servant who usually acted as his eyes when he needed her-whispered, “The king and his entourage are dismounting. They’re walking towards us...Alright, bow.”
Jisung bowed low-one, two, three, four, five seconds-and then straightened up. “King Park,” he said. “Thank you for coming. It’s an honor to host you.”
King Park’s voice was deep, almost soothing. “Thank you for having us, King Han,” he said. “Shall we discuss business?”
“Yes, let’s,” Jisung agreed. “Thank you, Sooyoung.” The servant girl’s hand left his shoulder. “If you’ll follow me to the meeting room?” He turned and walked through the door, hearing footsteps behind him. His head general, Taehyung, was waiting for them in the largest meeting room. Jisung’s favorite thing these days was blowing other people away with his knowledge and skill. And the Park Kingdom knew very little of what he could do.
A smile crossed his face. Yes, this would go well.
The week passed quickly. Chan was astonished from the start, but his awe only grew as time went on. Jisung was smart. He spoke well, and he easily kept up with and even led their discussions of military strategy. He could walk around the castle without any assistance, he was kind to everyone, and he didn’t really bother with tradition. He often ate and spoke informally with students, helped anyone who came to him personally, always thanked anyone who did anything for him, and never entered the throne room. Chan might not have known he was the king, if not for the respect everyone treated him with, his regal air, and the tiny golden crown he always wore, even when he otherwise dressed casually.
Practically every night, there were a handful of travelers eating with them. Jisung laughed and chatted with them, often switching between several languages with ease. (Felix had asked about it. Jisung said he spoke six, including English, which made Felix light ip and converse with him excitedly.) King Park wasn’t especially formal, and his daughter-Nayeon’s fiance and the future queen Jihyo-even less so, but this was a whole other level.
Chan had asked Jisung about it once. The first time they talked, Jisung had frozen in place before bowing almost to the ground and saying, “Thank you.” After that, they’d spoken often.
When Chan had asked Jisung why he was so informal, he’d thought for a moment before saying, “I’m not what most people think of when they hear the word king. I can’t fight very well. I can’t see. And I’m still quite young, although that doesn’t matter as much as the blind thing.” He’d paused. “You know, I was thinking once...I was unlucky to be born blind, since I was the prince. But as a blind person, I was quite lucky to be born a prince. I was able to learn Braille, and languages, and I’ve lived in a mostly safe environment.” He’d winced.
“That’s why I want to help people. My subjects have no use for a cold or distant king. They need someone who will listen to them and not drag them into unnecessary wars. I also want to choose my heir, find someone who will do a good job. Blood means nothing.” His face had darkened for a moment. “Anyway. Tradition is useless. I’m not going to throw parties while people are starving right outside. And traditionally, a blind man would never become king. If I’m defying tradition by my existence alone, why would I follow it in any other way?” His empty eyes had burned with a ferocity that Chan admired.
Chan remembered how Jisung had looked when he’d first seen him, shaking and sobbing. He remembered how fiercely he’d felt for him and how surprised Woojin had been by it. He remembered how he’d told King Jinyoung who he had chosen as king, and how his eyebrows had shot straight up into his hairline before he’d said, “Well, I trust you, Chan.”
He felt almost like a proud father. Jisung was probably the best king he’d ever seen. King Jinyoung was good, but Jisung was a whole different class of ruler. He didn’t care about expansion. The only war he would allow was one of self-defense. He was a diplomat and preferred to make allies, not enemies. But he was no pushover. He had an iron will. Above all, Jisung loved his people. He would do anything for them. He had a heart of gold, and he could never resist someone in need, perhaps because he saw himself in them.
So Chan was impressed with him. It was hard not to be. When the week was up, he was almost loath to leave, but he knew the Park Kingdom needed him. Jisung and King Park had worked out an alliance, so no doubt he would see him again.
On the day they left, Jisung gave him a knife. “I know they’re your weapons. So I thought you might give you one.” He smiled, almost shyly. “I’ll see you again, Chan.”
It was a simple knife, but beautiful in its simplicity. The blade was unadorned, the hilt wrapped in leather. Chan held it in his hand, testing its weight. Perfect.
He slipped it into his belt, next to his other knives, and counted them: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Minho, Seungmin, Jeongin, Hyunjin, Felix, Woojin, Changbin, Jisung.
He’d felt something when he met each of them. Was it destiny? He didn’t know. All he knew was what he felt, solid as a dagger’s blade. And he felt that Jisung and he were intertwined.
A smile crossed his face. Yes, they would meet again.