the first time yeong thinks he’s overthinking things, but by the fifth time he catches the king staring at him that monday afternoon, he knows something is up. when the palace secretary has bowed herself out for the evening, yeong comes up to gon’s desk.
“what is it, your majesty,” he says.
“i trusted you, yeong,” gon says, his eyes suspiciously bright. “since i was eight.”
yeong waits for the punch line, but gon doesn’t continue, just looks petulantly up at him.
“i protect your majesty with my life,” yeong answers, after a brief pause. “and i always will. was there something else you needed—?”
“i thought my unbreakable sword kept no secrets from me,” gon stands, coming around his desk to stand in front of yeong. “is there something you’re not telling me?”
“your majesty, i don’t think i understand?”
gon huffs, leans in. “how could you not tell me you’re seeing myeong seungah?”
yeong blinks, then frowns. “how did—”
“nothing escapes me,” gon says, clasping his hands behind his back and eyeing yeong. “how long has this been going on?”
now that yeong thinks about it, he isn’t sure, himself. he forgets time when he’s with her. it’s dangerous. “it’s been awhile,” he admits honestly, even though palace staff are not technically permitted to date.
“all those surreptitious little touches in the hallways of the palace, right under the king’s nose,” gon grumbles. “are you getting married this year?”
“of course not,” yeong says, rather more vehemently than he would have liked. “i mean—we don’t—”
“did i ever tell you jo eunseob and myeong nari are now married?” gon crosses his arms, raises his eyebrows at him.
“they are?” yeong finds his lips pulling involuntarily into a smile, as happiness for his doppleganger spreads like warmth through his chest.
“yes, so you should—”
“i’m happy for them,” yeong says, and he really, really is. the happiness is almost bursting out of his chest, and it reminds him of the way he feels, sometimes, when seungah smiles up at him.
“it’s a beheading for you, for interrupting me,” gon snaps playfully, without bite. “as i was saying—”
yeong is thankfully saved by a knock at the door of the office, and court lady noh bustles in with purpose.
“i’ll take my leave, your majesty,” yeong says, bowing and beginning his retreat.
“don’t think you’ve gotten away with it,” gon yells after him, as yeong closes the door behind himself. he glances down the hallway, and catches a glimpse of a familiar figure in a pearl suit just disappearing around the corner. speak of the devil.
before he can stop himself, he brisk walks down the hallway and turns that same corner, catching up to seungah.
“captain jo,” she says, surprised, and smiles up at him. she really has the prettiest eyes, but yeong would take a bullet in the arm before he would admit that to the king.
“i’ll help you,” he says, reaching out for the box of files she’s carrying. “where are you headed to?”
seungah frowns, but yeong tugs at the box and she reluctantly releases it. “back to the royal public affairs office, then i’m done for today,” she says, turning back down the hallway, and yeong falls into step easily beside her. “how was your day?”
it’s something she always likes to ask, but even after all this time, yeong is still never quite used to being asked about his day.
“today went well,” he says, awkwardly. “how was yours?”
“it’s been busy,” seungah sighs. “the king’s birthday is coming up, and there’s still so much to do for the festival preparations.” she holds open the door of the empty royal public affairs office, and yeong angles himself through the best he can with the box in his arms, and sets it down on a table.
“you shouldn’t be carrying such heavy things through the palace on your own,” he says. “get one of the guys in your team to help you with that next time. i’m not always around to help.”
“i’m stronger than you think,” seungah reaches out, pats him on the arm. “but thank you.”
yeong catches her hand as she moves to turn away, and she pauses, looks up at him.
“i’m…” he hesitates, rephrases. “you’re not thinking of getting married yet, are you?”
seungah laughs, taking his hand in both of hers and squeezing it. “what brought this on?”
“nothing.” yeong says, squeezing back. “just thinking.”
“just so you know, i’d say yes,” seungah smiles up at him. “for your future reference.”
“how are you so sure?” yeong wants to know.
“i’m as sure as the summer flowers, that they will bloom in their season,” seungah says.
it’s only later, alone in his room, that yeong realises seungah hadn’t answered his question.
yeong scans the table once, twice—seungah is conspicuously missing, even though this is the final prep meeting before the king’s birthday festival.
“looking for someone?” a familiar voice says to his left, and yeong stiffens, turns to meet court lady noh’s smiling eyes.
“ah, i was just wondering where myeong seungah was.”
“i hear she’s unwell,” lady noh nods. “called in sick this morning.”
yeong has never known her to take a sick day. he resists the urge to check his phone, even though he knows he has no unread messages. “i see.” he looks down at the table.
“it’s urgent,” yeong says stiffly and rather unnecessarily to the guard he unfortunately encounters on patrol duty outside the royal staff quarters edging the palace grounds. “regarding the king’s birthday festival.”
“of course, captain,” the guard dips his head, but very conspicuously eyes the paper bag yeong is carrying. yeong presses his lips together, resists the urge to deck the guard, and enters.
with her room number in mind (which he may or may not have not gotten with his authority to access royal staff records), he quietly makes his way through the hallways, which are thankfully deserted this late in the morning. he finds her door, taps at it quietly, taps again when there’s no response.
“coming,” croaks a voice, and a few moments later the door opens a sliver. yeong only gets a brief glimpse of seungah in pink silk pyjamas and bed hair before the door suddenly slams shut in his face.
“what in the world?” yeong is about to knock a third time when the door cracks open again and seungah peers owlishly out at him, this time with her spectacles on.
“it really is you,” she says, mildly hoarse. “what are you doing here? how did you get in?” she opens the door wider, and puts a hand out to pull him in.
yeong waits until the door has closed behind him to reply. “i have my ways. i heard you were sick,” he says, putting the paper bag he’s carrying onto a nearby table. “i brought you soup. why didn’t you tell me you weren’t well?”
“i thought it was just a bad cold, but i didn’t want to risk getting the rest of the team sick as well, it’ll be a very busy week ahead for them,” seungah says, as she bends to take a look into the paper bag. “i’ll be fine. i didn’t want you to worry, you’re busy enough as it is.”
“you only made me worry even more, by not saying anything,” yeong says, as he reaches out to touch his palm to her forehead, which is warmer than usual and clammy with cold sweat. “did you see the doctor?”
seungah shakes her head. “i took some medicine. i just need a little more sleep, and i’ll be back on my feet by tomorrow. thank you for the soup.”
“you should eat, and get a little more rest,” yeong sighs, smoothing her ruffled hair. seungah nods, and is about to respond when shuffling footsteps stop outside her door, and there’s a knock.
“seungah-ssi,” court lady noh’s voice comes through the door. “are you awake?”
yeong and seungah stare at each other in horror, and yeong glances quickly about the room, surveying first the space under the bed, and then the wardrobe.
“if you don’t mind,” he whispers, opening the wardrobe door, and seungah all but shoves him in as lady noh knocks again.
“my shoes,” he hisses as he squashes himself into a whole row of neatly pressed pearl suits, just before she closes the door on him. in the darkness, he listens to the dull thud of seungah kicking his leather shoes under her bed, then the click of the door opening.
“court lady noh,” he hears seungah say.
“i brought you herbal medicine,” court lady noh says, and there’s the sound of clicking heels and a tray being placed on the table, presumably by the assistant lady noh has with her. “it’s good for clearing heatiness in the body. are you sure you don’t want to see the doctor?”
“thank you for this,” seungah says. “and no, that’s fine, i just need a little more rest—”
yeong is beginning to realise that the whole wardrobe smells like seungah—the heady, light floral scent that always seems to waft about her, and resists the urge to inhale deeply.
“—captain jo was asking about you today,” yeong snaps back to attention at the sound of his name. “he seemed concerned.”
“oh… did he?”
“i wasn’t aware the two of you were close,” lady noh is saying.
“oh… we’re okay. he’s always been very helpful.”
lady noh sighs, very audibly. “well, get some rest. and take the medicine while it’s warm.”
the door shuts and as the footsteps fade, seungah pulls the wardrobe door open. “are you okay? i’m sorry, it must have been a tight fit.”
“it’s no problem,” yeong says, stepping out and grimacing at her now-wrinkled suits. “sorry about your clothes.”
“nah, that’s fine,” seungah says. “at least you didn’t get caught, of all places in the women’s quarters.”
yeong nods. “i shouldn’t—i can’t stay. i just came to see if you were okay. you shouldn’t even be out of bed. take your medicine, and go back to sleep.”
“thank you for coming,” seungah says, slipping her arms around his waist and resting her cheek on his chest. he always feels so strong, so dependable under her touch. “i feel better just seeing you.”
“nonsense,” yeong says, but he pulls her close, and she feels his lips gently touch the top of her head. seungah lets herself relax in his arms for a moment, then reluctantly pushes him away.
“you should go,” she tells him. “i don’t want to be spreading this cold bug to you.”
yeong cups her face, her cheek small and soft under his callused palm. “i don’t fall sick,” he says, and leans in to kiss her.
seungah is standing at one of the palace terrace overlooking the beach, which gives her a bird’s eye view of the revellers in the distance. official festivities for the king’s birthday have ended, but the party often goes on late into the night.
she feels him, before she even hears or sees him, a warm, steady presence by her side. she doesn’t turn, and they stand together in silence for awhile, until the distant laughter and popping of firecrackers slowly fade into white noise.
“you’re feeling better,” yeong murmurs. it isn’t a question. he reads her well.
“thanks to you and court lady noh,” she smiles up at him, but his eyes are schooled into the unreadable expression he wears whenever they are in public together. “i was very well cared for.”
“still, it can’t be the same as if you had your family here with you,” yeong says. “i’ve always been curious—why did you leave them to return to corea alone?”
“i’d always wanted to work at the royal court,” seungah says, large eyes misty as she looks back out into the beach. “with our background where money was never a problem—i was privileged enough to be able to want to work not for money, but for public interest. the larger, better good. politics and government isn’t my thing, and i’d always been fascinated by the royal court growing up. so it’s been a pipe dream, of sorts, since i was small.”
“does it feel like you’re living your dream?”
“it does,” seungah waves a hand at the revellers below. “knowing i played a role in this, and watching it happen… it always feels like a dream come true, even if it gets difficult at times.” she looks at yeong, standing ramrod straight, his profile grecian in the wavering, fragile beams of light thrown by both the lamps and the moon. he looks back down at her, eyes piercingly dark.
“you have the prettiest eyes,” he says. “i tend to stay away from you at work. you distract me.”
“my worst distraction, my rhythm and blues,” seungah hums in english.
“would you like to marry me?” yeong asks.
“what?” seungah blinks up at him.
“i don’t quite know how to explain it.” yeong turns to face her. “there’s this pull you have on me. with you around it makes it easier for me lose my train of thought. i forget time. it’s dangerous. but you make me feel—a strange sense of contentment, just by being by my side.”
“and so you propose to me on impulse?” seungah teases.
yeong cuts his eyes to her. “i think my decisions through very thoroughly,” he says. “you know i’m not good at big, romantic gestures, but i promise to do my best to make you happy.”
“i know,” seungah says, and reaches out to take his hand. his hand is tense in hers for a few moments, before he relaxes, curls his fingers about hers. “look,” she murmurs. “the lotuses are blooming.”
“the first of the summer flowers,” yeong says.
“i told you so, didn’t i,” gon mutters conspiratorially to the little old lady standing on his left on the gwangyeongjeon balcony, from which they have a distant view of yeong and seungah holding hands out on the terrace. “since when am i ever wrong?”
“that’s all well and good,” court lady noh says. “but when will it be your turn, your majesty? the royal ancestral shrine cannot wait forever.”
gon slips his hand into his right pocket, absentmindedly fingers the small green velvet box inside. “when the universe aligns,” he says.