Chapter 1: Yeong-shin
Winter is coming to an end.
After settling matters with the new government in Hanyang and ensuring that the former Crown Prince would be counted among the dead, the three of them had traveled back down Mungyeong Saejae with care not to attract the attention of the roving hordes of monsters. When his highness had been safely delivered to Sangju, where he would then claim his inheritance from the late Lord Ahn Hyeon - well, the question became, what next?
Yeong-shin has now lingered in Sangju for two months with them, assisting with the border patrols. But winter is coming to an end. Depending on the day, sometimes the weather is warm enough to render the infected dormant for a few hours so that the cautious can tend to expeditious chores outside the city gates, like Yeong-shin tending to the Sumang shrine. When spring truly arrives, the soldiers stationed here will begin collecting and burning the bodies.
Seo-bi and his royal highness work closely these days, outlining strategies for managing the infection and eradicating every last pocket of the disease across the southern landscape. All of that is over Yeong-shin’s head, or so he tells himself, and he avoids their company, though he wouldn’t admit that he was avoiding them if you asked.
If you had asked Yeong-shin a year ago where he expected to be by now, he might have divulged that he expected to be dead. He had expected to methodically hunt and butcher every last man responsible for what happened to Sumang, until someone put him down. Instead, the disease stole those lives from Yeong-shin’s grasp. Fate then harnessed him again with the yoke of duty that he’d thought he had escaped with the death of his family. Now, there were new people to protect. There was more work to do. Always more work to do.
Here in Sangju, whenever he is idle, he feels that itch that he should be doing something more. Preparing more. So that, the next time a vindictive official lets loose a wave of arrows at innocent children, maybe this time he will be able to save them.
There will inevitably be a next time.
In the early evening, when the golden sun is setting between distant mountain peaks, Yeong-shin returns from his visit to the shrine. Many of Lord Ahn’s men had died, and the mysterious caretaker of the Sumang shrine must have been among them. Now the task has fallen to Yeong-shin alone. At the beginning of all of this, the grief had felt so raw… now it is like a scar, with all the heat gone. Every time he visits, the memories drain him of all his warmth.
From the open gate of the late Lord’s estate, the prince catches sight of Yeong-shin’s approach and rushes towards him. And it doesn’t matter that Lee Chang is no longer the prince, or even that “Lee Chang” is supposed to be dead. Even at his lowest, this man is still nobility, fluidly assuming the identity of Lord Ahn’s heir and the primary advisor to the governor of Sangju. Yeong-shin bows his head in respect, and turns his gaze to the dirt, where it belongs when he is in the company of his betters.
“I haven’t seen you in days,” says the prince, “I couldn’t find you anywhere, and I thought—”
“Sorry, my lord,” Yeong-shin interrupts, “I have been here, but perhaps our paths just haven’t crossed.”
When the prince had been starved for allies, it had been easier to latch on to the intimacy of mutual respect in this alliance, but now that things have returned to normal, Yeong-shin can’t shake the voice in his head reminding him that he shouldn’t be here. Lee Chang is an honorable, courageous man whom Yeong-shin would have gladly died for, but now that the social equalizer of mortal peril has passed… the chasm between their social positions grates at Yeong-shin.
“It is late,” remarks his highness, searchingly, “you haven’t eaten. You should have dinner with me in my residence.”
Yeong-shin ducks his head lower. “I have no appetite, sir. Perhaps another night.”
The prince tilts his head, and he smiles, slightly, like Yeong-shin is some sort of fascinating foreign creature. “You would… reject this invitation?”
This is the sort of offense that would get any other rags-dressed man executed. Yeong-shin used to keep a running tally of moments like this, but then he began spending time around the crown prince, and those moments piled up until there were too many to count.
Yeong-shin isn’t afraid of the stupid and unreasonable consequences of disrespect. Instead it makes him angry, and he lets that show, meeting the prince’s gaze and glaring at him for the implicit threat, challenging him to follow through.
The prince’s face falls into a frown. “Yeong-shin,” he says, “it was in jest—”
Enough of this. Enough of this. Yeong-shin brushes past the prince and towards the guest house.
He may not know what he will make of himself now that his previous path has been spoiled, but there are plenty of trained soldiers in Sangju more qualified to be in the prince’s employ. Yeong-shin will remain loyal to the cause of eradicating this disease because he is always bound to action in the face of human suffering, but he won’t pretend any desire to chain himself to the the orders of one man.
“Yeong-shin!” shouts the prince.
In the guest home, Yeong-shin sits against the wall. The other men who share these quarters are absent, naturally, because it is only sunset and they are likely still busy. They have jobs. Yeong-shin has only himself.
He cleans the musket and counts the paper cartridges remaining in the pouch, and then there is a sound at the door. Instinct has Yeong-shin’s body tensing, gripping the gun tighter, ready to use it as a club. He hears the prince say his name, from the other side of the paper.
Yeong-shin lets out a shaky breath and sets the weapon down.
The proper thing to do would be to stand up and slide open the door, to bow and greet his lord. But Yeong-shin stays seated, and says “yes, your highness” reluctantly, only loud enough to be heard.
In a mournful tone, the prince says, “You are angry with me.”
“No, your highness.”
Through the paper, Yeong-shin can see the outline of the prince standing there, and from the angled silhouette of his hat, his head must be bowed. When he speaks, as always, it is with the carefully selected phrasing of royalty; the awareness that his every word holds weight and power. “Please tell me what I have done that has caused your anger,” the prince pleads, “and I will do everything in my power to rectify it.”
Yeong-shin huffs out a breath through his teeth. What must Chang look like right now, standing awkwardly outside the servants’ quarters with his head bowed like that? Yeong-shin rises out of his crouch to slide open the door, before returning to his seat against the wall.
The prince enters and shuts the door behind himself. Then he looks down at Yeong-shin, with that typical, guileless expression on his face that reminds Yeong-shin how dangerously open the prince is with his emotions.
“I’m not angry with you,” Yeong-shin tells him firmly, averting his gaze from that face.
The prince kneels down on the mats, and then sits with his legs crossed, upright posture. “You certainly seem …”
“I am angry. I’m not angry with you.”
“What is it, then?” asks the prince, but Yeong-shin just shakes his head, because this feeling isn’t simple enough to translate into words. And even as he sits here, the anger is draining out of him again, like there’s a hole in the basin of Yeong-shin’s self that renders him incapable of retaining any feeling.
After a moment, the prince sighs. “On Ganghwa Island, on the beach, I made you a promise.”
Yeong-shin remembers that conversation. It had felt… gratifying, for someone like Chang to acknowledge Yeong-shin’s grief. It hadn’t been the first time they had spoken to one another, but it had been the first time that the prince had spoken to Yeong-shin, instead of only responding.
“But I gave up the throne,” the prince continues, “and I am no longer even the prince of Joseon. I thought you might feel I had betrayed your trust.”
Yeong-shin laughs at that, just a little. “I’m sure you had various reasons for your decision that someone like me wouldn’t understand. And if you had slaughtered that newborn, I’m certain I would have killed you on the spot.”
“That’s… a relief.”
“Is it?” Yeong-shin prods, half-heartedly playful. “Is it a relief that I’m not mad at you, or is it that you find comfort in the thought of my knife in your back?” (That’s another treasonous thing for the pile. Yeong-shin’s tongue is far wilder than the rest of him.)
“The second one,” says the prince, and Yeong-shin’s head whips around.
“Promise me,” Lee Chang entreats, gravely, “if I ever become a man like that, a man who could do something so unforgivable… promise me you will kill me.”
“You…” Yeong-shin starts, and then he looks away again.
Yes, he would have been proud to die for this man.
“You couldn’t become a man like that, not even if you tried,” he says, finally.
In the silence that follows, he can almost hear the prince thinking, and from the corner of his vision he can see the way he is biting at his lower lip. Yeong-shin waits. He expects more prodding about his mood or, worse, more prodding about the promise to kill him, neither of which will Yeong-shin be able to answer.
Instead, the prince says, “Seo-bi believes it won’t be enough to collect and burn the bodies we can find in Gyeongsang during the summer. There will be monsters hidden all over the countryside, and if even one remains, the disease will spread again in autumn. Instead, it is a better tactic to use the transition months in Spring and Autumn to track the monsters during the night and kill them during the day - this way we are less likely to overlook corpses hidden in the wilderness. I have been promised the help of many provincial militias across the south to conduct this mission.
“My task will be to tactically organize these people to maximize our efforts to eradicate the disease, without putting more lives at risk. They will also need to be trained in how to fight the monsters.” Having now delivered his rehearsed briefing, the prince pauses, trying and failing to catch Yeong-shin’s eyes. “I wish to ask of you… please, don’t leave my side. I need your help to repair this nation. I can’t do this alone.”
“There are many men in Sangju better suited to an administrative role than a tiger hunter.”
“I don’t need a tiger hunter,” says the prince. “I need you, Yeong-shin.”
Yeong-shin gives a clipped sigh, keeping his eyes trained on the floor. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I have spent every day of my life surrounded by people whose loyalty could be bought. I’ve had so precious few allies, and even fewer who are alive today.” The prince sounds desperately earnest, his voice tightening around the words. “Yeong-shin, I trust you with my life.”
Yeong-shin’s mind casts back to the prince’s bodyguard. It isn’t safe, sir. We must leave now, sir. There is nothing we can do, we must run, sir. Everyone, protect his highness!
I would never betray you, sir. May I kiss your boots, sir?
“So, you want me to replace your personal guard,” Yeong-shin spits out.
“If… if that title pleases you, then, I suppose so.” The prince is leaning forward, now, trying to get a peek at Yeong-shin’s face. “In a few days we will be leaving for Gyeongju, where I must meet with the three commanders of the militias. Please, you must come with us.”
Is that what all this was for? All that Yeong-shin has abandoned, all that he has sacrificed, for this? The dubious honor of protecting a nobleman’s life? It doesn’t matter that Lee Chang is a good man—he would make Yeong-shin no better than a guard dog.
And the worst part is that Yeong-shin is aching to say yes, because at least if the prince is giving him direction, he won’t have to agonize so much about possibly choosing a less honorable path on his own.
“No,” Yeong-shin says, tightly. “I can’t—”
Someone screams, outside.
In moments, Yeong-shin is back at the gate with his musket in hand. It all happens in a blur. A woman dressed in rags is screaming and pleading with the guards stationed there. “Please let me through!” she begs them, “My son! My son has climbed the wall, my son is out there! Ji-ho! ”
The temperature this afternoon had been warm enough to allow for brief expeditions, but the prince had arranged for the gates to only be open for one hour at most, so that everyone would return quickly and there would be less risk of stragglers falling victim when the monsters awoke. That window of time has long shut by now. The sun is already below the mountains and the whole valley is cast in shadow.
“Do you know only that your son is missing?” the prince demands, “Or did you see him climb the wall with your own eyes?”
She sobs and points shakily at a section of wall near the straw roofs of the market, and after that, Yeong-shin isn’t sure what she says, because he’s already hopping the gate.
Since leaving Hanyang, they have learned much about the monsters, thanks to their trials while navigating all the way down the mountains.
First, the monsters’ best way of tracking humans is by scent, particularly the scent of human blood. To avoid the attention of the wandering infected, it helps to mask your scent in some way, like with perfumes or mud, and cover any open wounds so you don’t create a trail of blood. Additionally, if you know the location of a group of infected, try to stand downwind at all times.
Second, the infected behave like a pack of animals. If one of the monsters discovers a human, the sounds that one makes while it gives chase will attract the others within earshot. When there is only one monster, kill it before one becomes one hundred.
Third, the monsters are not coordinated enough to climb or avoid obstacles. In the worst case, where you are being chased by a hoard, find and climb a sturdy tree, with a trunk at least thicker than a human torso. If it is spring or autumn, and if the tree withstands the assault, you can wait there until morning. If it is winter… well, someone may come save you, if they know you are missing.
It isn’t so different from hunting tigers. If anything it’s easier; after all, a tiger can climb a tree.
The real problem with the infected is their sheer numbers. Over the winter some of the initial corpses have rotted to the extent that they can no longer function as hosts for the worms, but many more have taken their place as the disease spread across the countryside. Still, it is at least lucky that the infected do not have strong memories. When Seo-bi suggested they try burning incense at the walls of the city to mask the scent of the citizens, it helped to disperse some of the crowding of monsters at the gates, who seemed to forget that there were humans on the other side of the wall. Even more effective was the manure, which they tried when burning so much incense became unsustainable.
All this is to say that Yeong-shin has at least a short while to navigate around the citadel walls without attracting the attention of any of the monsters stumbling directionless across the forest floor. He’ll have even longer, if he’s cautious.
But then he hears a child scream, and he starts sprinting.
This is what Yeong-shin was trained for. Everything at speed - the balls of his feet digging into the dense earth and using the tree roots to propel him forward, the foliage whipping by. He navigates the path in front of him without hesitation, and as he searches for monsters between thickets of branches, he unsheathes his dagger from his sleeve. “Ji-ho!” he shouts the child’s name between heavy breaths, “Ji-ho, where are you?”
Then he spots the first monster at the base of a tree, and he launches himself at it, and its neck is sliced open before its body hits the ground.
Yeong-shin scrambles back to his feet and studies his surroundings.
No more monsters. Not yet.
He can hear a child’s hiccuping sobs. The sound comes from somewhere above, so Yeong-shin tilts his head back to find a boy, up there in the tree, not more than six years old, clinging to the branches and sniffling.
For a fraction of a second, Yeong-shin hears “You can’t forget! You promised me!”
He takes a deep breath, and then he lets it out, slow. His feet ache from the uneven terrain, and the sweat at the edge of his hairline drips down the side of his face, but he made it in time. “Are you hurt?” he calls up to the child, but Ji-ho is far too terrified to give a response other than those whimpering, wet gasps. “You can come down, now,” Yeong-shin offers, instead. “I’ll protect you.”
“S-stop!” shouts Ji-ho suddenly, interrupting Yeong-shin’s step forward, “You’ll crush them!”
Oh. Yeong-shin takes a step back, to give space to the small, disorderly pile of harvested flowers that the boy must have dropped in his scramble up the tree. Plum blossoms, pale and white; the delicate first blooms of spring. “Is that what you needed to climb the wall for?”
Little, bare toes slot themselves in the grooves of the bark, carefully descending. “They… they’re for nu-i. 1 They will make her feel better. The nurse said… flowers are the only medicine that will help, so I found them.”
Flowers . If this was actually meant to be medicinal, Seo-bi would have been more specific than just “flowers.” Perhaps that was the point of Seo-bi’s advice. Perhaps this boy’s sister is dying.
Yeong-shin tries to harden his heart to that. He thinks of how awful it would have been, for that mother to lose both children over this, and he lets out a breath. “It was dangerous for you to come out here,” he tells Ji-ho sternly, scanning their surroundings as the boy collects the pile of blossoms. “It wouldn’t do any good for your sister if you died.”
“Oh no!” exclaims Ji-ho, and Yeong-shin’s eyes snap right back to him, and then—
Ji-ho must have scraped his palms on the way up the tree, or down it, and now the blood has stained the flowers he is holding, and Ji-ho is staring down at his hands, at his ruined efforts, with such anguish—
They’re running. The moment he saw the blood, Yeong-shin grabbed Ji-ho’s wrist and they’re running, the boy wailing “Wait, wait!” but they can’t wait, because any infected downwind of them would have already been sprinting towards them and— Yeong-shin can hear them, the monsters. The telltale snap of branches in the forest behind them as the uncoordinated masses trample through.
Yeong-shin tries to lead them up the hill to the wall, but a group of the monsters are charging at them from that direction, and Yeong-shin has to veer off course and away from the citadel, frustrated that his musket is dangling from his shoulder, useless when he doesn’t have the luxury of standing still.
Then Yeong-shin realizes he’s running towards a whole wall of the monsters, and he has to veer left again . When Ji-ho trips, and yelps in pain when Yeong-shin’s momentum yanks on his arm, Yeong-shin shouts “Climb onto my back!” and once Ji-ho obeys they only have a fraction of a moment to escape from the monsters and pick up speed again, and—
They’re boxed in. To the right, to the left, and behind, the infected are charging, and Ji-ho is screaming, and in front of them is a cliff.
If later you asked Yeong-shin what he was thinking, what his plan was, he would admit that there was no plan. There was just a young boy in danger, and that meant Yeong-shin didn’t need a plan. Obviously he would do whatever he could do to save Ji-ho. Obviously he would die trying. It was self-evident.
Yeong-shin might not admit, however, that in the long moments it took to fall, he had been thinking sardonically about the offer from Chang, and how… at least he wouldn’t need to follow someone else’s honorable path, when he had found a perfectly serviceable honorable death on his own.
Yeong-shin remembers the wailing… something changed in Minju, when he moved him to Sumang with the other sick people. He was always crying, and blubbering, and whining at Yeong-shin. Ajumma said it wasn’t all the time, it was only when Yeong-shin was around.2 Maybe it was the only way Minju knew how to get what he wanted from Yeong-shin.
The pathetic, helpless wailing. Yeong-shin chokes, coughs and spits up water that he had accidentally swallowed. His head is in a lot of pain and the wailing isn’t helping, is never helping, “Minju,” he rasps, “stop crying.”
“I’m… s-sorry…” whimpers the boy.
It’s not Minju. Yeong-shin opens his eyes, but he can only make out blurry shadows as first the cold, and then the pain begins to register. The echo of mindless snarling…
“Ji-ho,” he grunts. “Are you hurt?”
“Th-the monsters are... c-coming…” Ji-ho blubbers. Either the frigid cold, or the intensity of his own sobs makes him stammer.
Why does it feel so much colder than before?
After a moment, with the snarling of the monsters getting closer and closer, Yeong-shin finally orients himself. He realizes he’s lying on his left hip, and his whole upper body is propped up on his left elbow, and there are small fingers braced against his right shoulder. Ji-ho may have been the only thing keeping him vertical so he wouldn’t choke on all the… and that’s the other thing, water, the pool of water at the base of the cliff, which has just thawed in the past few days, almost as frigid as ice, and, though it’s only ankle-deep, they’re submerged in it up to Ji-ho’s waist and Yeong-shin’s neck…
“Ji-ho,” Yeong-shin gasps, “Ji-ho, you have to scream for help.” He can’t focus his gaze, let alone lift his head enough to look at the boy’s face, so he hopes he can convey his urgency with only his voice.
“The water will protect us. The water… will keep the monsters away. Now, Ji-ho.”
“H-h- help! Help!”
By now, night has fallen. If there had been no hope for help to arrive, then this would only have been the beginning. They would have had to lay here, in the pool of frigid water, in the dark, surrounded on all sides by monsters… for the whole night. No amount of wishing would have allowed them to survive. The cold of the water would have killed them long before midnight.
Instead, one by one and then all at once, the monsters turn and scramble back up the mountain. In spite of his chattering teeth, Yeong-shin grimaces in relief. He recognizes this rescue plan. Three hundred paces away, ladders have been unfurled from the top of the citadel wall, and three of their men have climbed a few rungs down. They’ve made shallow cuts on their wrists to bait the monsters. The piles of manure just inside the citadel walls will have been covered with mats so they don’t interfere with the scent of blood on the wind.
Then, when all the monsters have been baited towards the walls, their rescuers will emerge from the tunnels.
As soon as the monsters leave, Ji-ho’s body relaxes in relief, but Yeong-shin shoves the boy’s knee with one trembling hand. “Keep screaming,” he orders.
So Ji-ho keeps shouting his boyish voice hoarse, and— “Mister,” Ji-ho says, quieter. His small fingers grip the fabric of Yeong-shin’s vest and shake him. “Stay awake, mister!”
“I’m awake,” Yeong-shin groans. “Keep going.”
It is surreal to be able to rely on rescue.
He has these vague memories of his childhood… when his mother was pregnant, and his father taught him how to hunt small game in the forest outside their hometown so that she would have enough food to stay healthy and have a healthy baby. Someone in the city must have seen Yeong-shin carrying the meat back home, and they reported him. The magistrate ordered him flogged in the public square. He remembers the crowd that gathered to watch, and among them, finding his father’s eyes, hard and without expression. No one was coming to save him.
Years later, when the war began and Yeong-shin watched his father cut down by samurai in that same marketplace and his mother dragged off into bondage, Yeong-shin grabbed his brother and ran. They hid on the mountain, in the forests where Yeong-shin had once learned to hunt, and they watched the city burn. Minju had cried and asked when the Joseon army would arrive, and Yeong-shin held him and shushed him and told him that there was no one coming, no one. It would just be the two of them.
There was no government to help them. All the nobility had fled North away from the invasion, and they took all the grain stores and livestock with them. The invading armies burned fields of crops, forests, orchards. Yeong-shin tried to stay away from the major roads, which were lined with the corpses of famine victims, both to protect what remained of Minju’s childhood, and to stave off the temptation to commit an atrocity if they found a fresh corpse
Then Minju started getting sick. The only one who could care for him was Yeong-shin, and Yeong-shin didn’t know how to treat it, and no one else was coming. In a small village on the side of the road, Yeong-shin got on his knees and begged for someone to tell him what to do, how to help with the fever, where to go. The people of the village took pity. They fed Yeong-shin and Minju stew with real meat (Yeong-shin didn’t ask where it came from), and then they said to go to Sangju. They said there was a village there, where they cared for sick people.
Maybe that’s what Sumang had been before the war. But food rations were tight, and the best doctors were on the warfront, and it was all Yeong-shin could do, to go out every day and hunt for small game, hope to find something to fill their stomachs, and—soon he could only feed Minju, and then he could feed neither of them anything at all, because the mountains had been hunted bare.
There was no one coming to save them.
Yeong-shin was arrested, again, for poaching. Two soldiers caught him on the path from the citadel walls to Sumang. One pointed a sword at him, and the other pointed a gun at his back from behind. This time, he was an adult, and there was a war and a famine going on, so he would be executed. No one was coming to save him.
Yeong-shin has found, over the course of his young life, that despair is easy to accept when you get used to it.
“Are you a decent hunter?” one of the soldiers asked.
The other laughed, and shook the bagged carcass they had confiscated. “If he can hunt and kill a bird with only a knife, I think that answers your question.”
So they told him, if he joined the tiger hunters, he could make money, and send food back to Sumang, and wouldn’t that be better than a public execution? Sure, the tiger hunters did extremely dangerous work and most of them would die, but at least it would allow Yeong-shin to be more useful to his brother than a dead man.
So Yeong-shin said goodbye to Minju. And it was the last time he would see his little brother alive. And the truth is… Yeong-shin couldn’t have expected the Joseon army to save Minju, because no one had ever been coming to save them. The reason Minju died is because Yeong-shin wasn’t there to protect him. Avenging Sumang village was only ever a hopeless attempt to do service to his brother’s memory after death.
Now, years later, when it doesn’t matter anymore, Yeong-shin can rely on rescue. Someone is coming to save him.
Imagine that. What a joke.
“Help! Help, sir, please!”
“Ji-ho, is that you? Come out of the water, good boy, get on my back—sir? You don’t need to go into the… sir—”
“Wake up. Wake up, please. Yeong-shin.”
“Look at his leg, sir, he won’t be able to walk. Let us—”
“I’ll carry him. You, scout the path back to the tunnels, keep the incense burning.”
The water was good. The water froze his body into numbness. And then for awhile after, the cold air on wet skin kept the numbness going.
Then the numbness wears off, and Yeong-shin is blisteringly, painfully conscious. The thing that comes to mind is… sawing through Dan-i’s flesh with a serrated blade, half a lifetime ago, cutting the largest bones into smaller, unrecognizable pieces—it feels like, it feels like someone is trying to do that to Yeong-shin’s left leg and he tries to get away, tries to push out of the grip of whatever is holding him here and—
A deep, familiar voice shushes him, and in a low tone says, “We’re almost to the tunnels. Don’t make noise. We can’t afford being noticed.”
Don’t make noise, but Yeong-shin can’t help the way his breath comes out like a whimper, and his mouth can’t decide if it wants to hang open or grit his teeth tight. It feels like—
It’s someone carrying him. It’s rescue , in the arms of the former prince, and Yeong-shin can’t even think about all the uncomfortable ways he feels about that, because his whole self is completely swamped in the sensation of pain , and each step the prince takes makes the bone grind against something and… He buries his face against the prince’s silk and chants every vulgar word he can think of.
But then he hears the jingle of unwinding the chain from the gate, and then the creak of metal. “In here, sir.” says one of the soldiers. The roof of the tunnel cuts off the light of the moon. When the gate shuts again behind them, Yeong-shin gathers his thoughts enough to focus on something other than the pain, craning his neck to see their surroundings.
Besides the prince and Ji-ho, there are two soldiers. The one carrying the incense has just finished winding the chain shut around the gate, and the other one is carrying the torch. Yeong-shin recognizes both of them, or he thinks he does, but he doesn’t know their names. The one carrying the torch is looking at Yeong-shin… or, rather, staring, with wide and horrified eyes.
These men fought with them to defend Sangju, ages ago. These men know who the prince is. These men are watching Yeong-shin’s puddle-soaked clothing stain the rich silk of a royal.
Mind over matter, Yeong-shin swallows the pain and weakly tugs at the prince’s sleeve, trying not to ruin the silk any further. “Let me down,” he gets out, proud that his voice hardly trembles, “Please, your highness, I can walk.”
“Don’t be stupid, " the prince growls above him. Yeong-shin’s never heard Chang use a word as vile as that, despite many occasions that warranted it. His eyes flash in the torchlight. “Your bone has torn through the skin.”
Yeong-shin’s brow furrows. “It has?” he asks, and he tries to tilt his neck further to see where his legs drape limply over the prince’s other arm, and… Yes, indeed, there is a tear in his pants, and piercing through the skin, the…
All his hastily-structured defenses crack, and the pain of it floods through him once more. Yeong-shin heaves in a breath and screws his eyes shut. The prince takes off down the tunnels and every step is like a metal nail burrowing deeper and deeper into Yeong-shin’s consciousness.
Maybe it wasn’t concern for the social hierarchy putting that look on the soldier’s face.
1 누이 (Nu-i) - An archaic term a male speaker uses to refer to his older sister. Equivalent to the modern 누나 (nuna). [return to text]
2 아줌마 (Ajumma) - Used to refer to a married or middle-aged woman since referring to an elder by name without a title is not socially acceptable. Loosely translates to "auntie" but doesn't actually refer to a family relationship. [return to text]
Hope the footnotes work.
There are lots of original characters in this story, or originally unnamed characters who I have named (like Minju). All the names were pulled from the wikipedia List of Korean given names.
Any Korean words or names included in the text used the Revised Romanization of Korean.
god I know I sound like a weeb but i promise it's going to get weebier. i just have really enjoyed learning so much about korean language + history while i was writing and i'm excited to share some neat primary sources with yall later.
please comment! thanks for reading <3
Chapter 3: Chang
When Chang was eight years old, his mother died in a fire.
This was such a long time ago, he doesn’t have clear memories of most of the aftermath. The burial… he remembers crying at the burial. That’s why the servants put Chang behind the curtain and away from the small gathering. It was his duty as a son to grieve for his mother, but he shouldn’t grieve too publicly, at a time when his mother’s bloodline was such a contentious political issue.
Then he remembers demanding justice , as only a child of the court can demand. Who is responsible? Who set the fire? Was it on purpose? They should be killed! And the head eunuch tried to explain, gently, that there was no one responsible. Lightning had struck the east wing; multiple palace guards, court ladies, and scholars could corroborate witnessing the lightning. Sometimes terrible things happen without cause.
But Chang remembers his father summoning him to the rear garden where, backlit by the afternoon sky, he told his son, “Everyone I have ever loved has died.”
Chang had always thought that conversation was his father commanding him to survive , but lately, looking back at his life and his losses, he wonders if it was also a warning. This life would take everyone away… first his mother, then his father, and Lord Ahn, and Mu-yeong, and… it had always been so difficult to find allies, but maybe that had insulated Chang from the pain of more loss.
Perhaps their bloodline was cursed, somehow. Perhaps some affront to the ancestors had caused this. Perhaps they had long ago lost the mandate of heaven, to rule this land justly.
This evening, Chang had attempted to bend the curve of destiny in his favor, and like a dowel of bamboo, the tension sprung back and ricocheted.
Chang wanted Yeong-shin by his side.
He had hoped, now that he is no longer heir to the throne, that the curse would be lifted. He had hoped to be free to pursue friendship, build mutual trust and respect, without worrying about the pain of loss. But nonetheless, the moment Chang tried to broach the subject and express his desire for Yeong-shin’s companionship... this happens.
He even specifically chose to befriend someone who… Mu-yeong had said that a tiger hunter would do anything to ensure his own survival, so…
They emerge from the tunnels. Ji-ho is reunited with his mother. Onlookers gasp at Yeong-shin’s mangled leg. Yeong-shin’s eyes are open, but when Chang looks down at him, he realizes Yeong-shin isn’t seeing anything, might not be aware of anything at all except the pain, and it makes Chang’s heart ache. “Find Seo-bi,” Chang demands of the surrounding populace, hoping that at least someone will listen, “Someone find the nurse, now!”
For much of the time Chang has known him, Yeong-shin has been this unstoppable killing force, more competent with his body and his weapons than any man Chang has ever met. The only hint of his fallibility was his crude mannerisms and attitude, and even those were more often charming than not. Thus, it is intensely frightening to have that man reduced to this body in Chang’s arms, and to realize… how thin, how small he is. To hear the noises he makes out of pain. To watch his blood seep out the fabric of his torn pants.
They lay Yeong-shin out on the cushioned futon in Chang’s room, and Chang asks a flurry of ten or twenty helpless, worried questions before Seo-bi asks him to locate boiled water and bandages. And Chang complies, of course, but he… he can see her reaction, he knows she’s shaken too. Like Yeong-shin, Seo-bi has always been this unstoppable force, the most competent medic Chang has ever met. But seeing Yeong-shin with a catastrophic injury is frightening.
So frightening, in fact, that after the maid Gyeong-hwa returns to Chang with clean water and bandages, Seo-bi requests that he dismiss her, and shut the door. Perhaps at the beginning of all this madness, Seo-bi would have trusted others more. But after everything she’s seen, especially the spying and the conspiracies… maybe it feels safer with only the three of them in the room.
Still, she maintains her composure, and Chang tries to pull himself together to meet her confidence. She cuts away the rest of Yeong-shin’s clothing on the left leg, and washes the wound with clean water, then flushes it with a liquid she’d had on-hand in her makeshift apothecary.
Yeong-shin is still unconscious. Seo-bi glances over her shoulder at Chang, and he nods back at her, saying, “Whatever I can do to help, tell me, please.”
She nods, and her eyes are shining. “I need you to restrain him, your highness,” she says, shifting to the side to show him where she needs him to place his hands, just above the knee. “Hold both legs, and use your weight to immobilize. He will reflexively try to pull away but if he moves too much, he could do further damage.”
“I don’t want to hurt him,” he says, without thinking.
Seo-bi gives him a stern look. “He will break your grip if you do not use your full weight, your highness. This is important. He will be in more pain if you allow him to move.”
Chang reminds himself that Seo-bi has seen and treated injuries from the war, amputations and bullet wounds, so when she speaks like this, it is from experience that Chang does not have. Grimly, he kneels next to the futon and takes his position. He puts his hands there - direct contact with Yeong-shin’s too-cold skin, muscles thinned from hunger.
Seo-bi, meanwhile, steps around Chang and taps her palm a few times against Yeong-shin’s cheek to wake him. Yeong-shin flinches, and his face contorts into a grimace before he even opens his eyes, but when his gaze finally focuses on her… he settles.
“I need to put the bone back into place,” she tells him.
Yeong-shin shakes his head, foggily, and says, “No, no, no, please, I can’t…” His left knee jumps as if to pull out of Chang’s grasp. Startled, Chang presses down.
“Bite down on this, and shut your eyes.” She pushes a rolled-up strip of fabric into Yeong-shin’s mouth and he accepts it, but his eyes are shining and bloodshot, and he’s breathing harshly through his nose. Goosebumps break out all over Chang’s body. When Seo-bi moves back to Chang’s left, Chang looks over at Yeong-shin’s face, his disoriented expression, the sweat at his temples, the way he’s shaking his head, begging Seo-bi without words not to do it.
“On three,” Seo-bi says. “One…”
She pushes the bone into place. Yeong-shin makes a wretched sound, and his whole torso writhes, his spine lifting off the thin cushion. But Chang held his leg in place. He vaguely registers Seo-bi praising him, and asking him to keep holding there.
Now she pulls from her pouch a metal embroidery needle, and with a special tool to protect her fingers, she leans forward to hold it over the open top of the lantern which is lighting the room. The fire licks around the needle, and the metal heats and glows. When she removes it, she flicks it in the air a few times to cool it faster, and then she strings the needle with silk thread.3 “This is from the supplies we secured in Hanyang,” Seo-bi points out, her voice a bit shaky and quiet. “I imagine you didn’t expect your investment in the citadel’s medical equipment to pay off so soon, your highness.”
Chang shakes his head. He can’t imagine how she can be speaking right now when he feels like someone reached into his throat and tore his voice out. All he can think about is Yeong-shin, trembling beneath him, too proud to sob.
But things settle, after a time. It takes a little while for Seo-bi to stitch up the wound, but by the time she’s halfway finished, Yeong-shin isn’t flinching anymore. He seems to have acclimated to the pain. He pulls the fabric out of his mouth and lets it drop to the floor, and he stares at the ceiling with glassy eyes. Every few stitches, he tenses his jaw and his fingers curl, but he doesn’t move his leg.
Eventually, Chang lets go of Yeong-shin’s knee.
He’s still staring, so when Yeong-shin’s gaze darts over to him, their eyes meet. For that moment, Chang suddenly wants to say I’m sorry, even though he didn’t do anything to warrant saying so. Yeong-shin breaks eye contact just as quickly, in a deferential way, like he has remembered where he is and who Chang is, though Chang wishes he hadn’t.
Seo-bi tightens a stitch, and Yeong-shin whimpers, and, of its own accord, Chang’s hand darts out to take Yeong-shin’s fingers in his own. He squeezes. I’m here, he tries to say.
Blearily, Yeong-shin looks at where their hands are clasped together. “How is Ji-ho, your highness?” he asks, hoarsely.
“He’s with his mother,” Chang answers, unwilling to admit that he doesn’t know more than that because he’d been so focused on Yeong-shin. “You were cornered on that cliff, weren’t you?”
“Kid was bleeding,” Yeong-shin offers as an explanation. “Scraped his hands on the tree bark.”
Chang tries to imagine it, what it must have felt like… to jump.
“I will check on Ji-ho as soon as I am finished here,” Seo-bi interjects, as she cuts the last piece of thread with her shears. When she binds the splints along the path of the leg, Yeong-shin lets out a long sigh, and adjusts the position of his shoulders. His hand goes limp in Chang’s grip without explicitly pulling away, and Chang takes that as a sign, and releases him. Seo-bi continues speaking, almost to herself, “Before bandages, I must apply a salve to the sutures, and then… the pharmacopeia recommends flower petals to protect surgical wounds, but we don’t have any inside the walls, so that will have to wait for tomorrow.”4
A strange expression crosses Yeong-shin’s face. “Flower petals? What kind?”
Seo-bi hums, as she grinds ingredients in the mortar. “Certainly, some species of plants are better than others for this purpose, but any neutral flower with large petals can be cleaned and used to protect the wound from irritation when the bandage is applied. Why do you ask? Do you have certain allergies?”
Yeong-shin laughs, and it sounds so foreign that Chang has to really look at him to make sure he hasn’t crossed the threshold into delirium. But Yeong-shin just smiles, with the fragile placidity of the aftermath of a thunderstorm. “I suppose Ji-ho’s sister must have some sort of wound that needed bandaging?” he asks.
“Sister?” Seo-bi pauses her work and thinks for a moment. “Ah, he is Sang-mi’s brother. Yes, she had a small burn this afternoon from cooking. Oh, I remember he had asked me what he could do to—” Seo-bi gasps, dropping the pestle and covering her mouth with both hands. She looks from Yeong-shin, to Chang, and then to Yeong-shin’s leg. “I swear, your highness, if I had known that Ji-ho would… I would never have told him in the first place!”
“Told him what?” Chang asks, as he is having trouble following this conversation.
“Ji-ho climbed the wall this evening to collect flowers for his ailing sister,” Yeong-shin explains with a smirk. His face is much brighter now that Seo-bi is not currently touching his injury.
If Seo-bi wasn’t already kneeling to be at height with the futon, Chang expects she would have dropped to her knees. “It was just a minor burn! I thought Ji-ho might go out tomorrow during the day with one of the groups gathering herbs, I never thought he would think it was something urgent!”
Like a private joke, Yeong-shin points out, “Brothers are especially prone to foolishness in the name of caring for their siblings.”
“It isn’t your fault, Seo-bi,” Chang says to calm her. “Now that we are beginning to open the gates during the day, young children may not understand why it is safe to go out at some times and not others. I’ll instruct one of the municipal organizers to discuss this with the common people.”
“Thank you, your highness.” After a deep breath, Seo-bi returns to preparing what must be the salve. To Yeong-shin she says, “This will stimulate the blood flow around the suture so that the skin will heal quickly. We will let the skin and muscle rest overnight, and then we can begin healing the bone itself. I will need to reset the bone every few days so that it heals in the right position, but… don’t make that face.5 We will have much more time to prepare and you will feel almost no pain.”
“I hope so…” Yeong-shin sneers, “back in Jiyulheon you tried to make things as painful as possible.”
“Only because you were such a terrible patient,” Seo-bi retorts. But her eyes soften as she listens to Yeong-shin laugh… the dry, scraping sound of it. She is exceedingly gentle as she brushes the stitches with the salve, trying hard not to press against the wound. It still makes Yeong-shin let out a sound, and he isn’t smiling anymore.
Chang swallows down his instinctive revulsion, and forces himself to take a closer look at the wound and the stitching. After so much violence the last few months, he feels somewhat inoculated to the sight of blood and gore, but the stitching… human skin treated like fabric or tarp makes his stomach twist. Nonetheless, it looks so much cleaner than before, so much better than… that walk through the forest and the fear that Yeong-shin would… die in his arms, or something. Just as Lord Ahn had, just as Mu-yeong had.
It strikes Chang, as he compares Yeong-shin with his master and Mu-yeong, that Yeong-shin’s clothing typically hides his malnourished body better than this. Between Seo-bi cutting away pieces of fabric, and the fact that Yeong-shin’s entire outfit is waterlogged and sticking to his form, he looks… Well, maybe Chang hadn’t noticed before, because this was just the way commoners tended to look. It’s different now that Chang is really seeing.
Chang swears to himself that he will do everything in his power to ensure famine relief reaches all the people of this nation, but more importantly… that Yeong-shin will never want for anything that Chang can provide him.
“Your highness,” says Seo-bi, “perhaps you could go prepare hot water for tea?” She looks at him meaningfully when she asks this, as much as one can look at someone meaningfully without actually making eye contact. Though Chang could easily catch Gyeong-hwa’s attention and request the hot water from the maid without even fully leaving the room, Seo-bi is asking him to leave for just a little while, so she can have a private conversation with Yeong-shin.
Chang is surprised by his own reluctance to comply. He chafes at the request. What need is there for privacy? Isn’t it more scandalous for a woman like Seo-bi to be in the room with Yeong-shin half-clothed, than a man like Chang? And what is there to discuss? A terrified, paranoid part of Chang thinks for a moment they are conspiring.
He swallows all of that. “Yes, of course,” he says, and he ducks out of the room and back into the chilly, fresh air of the night, bewildered and worried and self-conscious all anew.
3 I believe we see either Lee Sung-hui or Seo-bi use fire to sterilize a needle at some point during the show, though I can't remember in which scene. [return to text]
4 One example of using loose blossom petals as part of bandaging is quoted in this medical thesis on page 78 where it quotes Ch'en Shih-kung's casebook: "[...] use silk sutures to close the wound and cover the sutures first with loose peach blossoms followed by four or five sheets of cotton as a bandage." [return to text]
5 The trauma medicine and bonesetting techniques described in this story are more-or-less historically accurate for this period. The source I leaned on heavily is about a casebook from 1815, but the practices described therein seem to go back multiple generations, so it should give us a glimpse into the status of trauma medicine in Seo-bi's time.[return to text]
Chapter 4: Yeong-shin
content warning: mentioned suicidal ideation
“Stoooop…” Minju whines, trying to tug away. Kneeling in the dirt, in front of their little tarp shelter in Sumang, Yeong-shin keeps a strong grip on his brother’s ankle as he scrubs at the new wound. The blood is caked on Minju’s skin, dried and black. It was probably caused by a sharp rock or something cutting into the soft flesh of the arch of his foot. Minju hadn’t noticed, again. A new set of bandages to add to the rest.
“Can’t you tell?” Yeong-shin asks, for the thousandth time.
“I know it doesn’t hurt, but couldn’t you feel that at all?6 The wetness, the blood?” He knots the bandages around Minju’s foot, impatiently. Then, Yeong-shin pulls the wrapped piece of ginger root from his pocket, and he uses his knife to cut just a sliver, holding it up to Minju’s lips until he reluctantly accepts the pungent herb. “Ajumma says you’ve been getting sick more often lately; this is why. You have to be more careful.”
Minju coughs after swallowing the ginger root, and then gasps out “I’m trying!” It’s the same thing he said last time he got hurt, and the time before that, and the time before that, and Yeong-shin is getting tired of hearing it. After replacing Minju’s shoe over the new bandages, Yeong-shin pushes that little foot off his knee and he stands. Minju cries out “Hyeong, wait!”7
“I have to go.”
“But you just got here! Please, please stay! Hyeong, please!”
Lately, it feels like all Minju does is whine to get what he wants. “I have to go,” Yeong-shin snaps at him, “What else are you going to eat? Your bandages?”
As soon as he hears the whining tip over into sobbing, Yeong-shin sighs. Now he’ll be even slower to leave Sumang, and the sun will begin setting, and it will be much harder to spot any small game in the woods without the light.
The other residents are staring at Yeong-shin, now. They peer at him from dark eyes between the bandage wrappings, and those who have gone blind turn their faces in the direction of the sobbing, in silent witness. Sun-hui, the caretaker of the orphans whom Yeong-shin calls Ajumma, turns her face away from the crying, refusing to intervene.
Yeong-shin turns back to face his little brother. It feels painful, to watch Minju cry, to watch his face turn red from sobbing and the mucus dribble down from his nostrils to his upper lip. Yeong-shin’s mind reaches for something to say, something other than what he wants to say - stop it, stop it.
Minju chokes out, “I’m s-sorry-y… I’m sor-ry I ate too m-much…”
The other residents, one by one, begin turning their faces away, because it hurts too much to look at. Yeong-shin stares at Minju, his little brother, his only family.
Minju wraps his little arms around himself, keeling over with the force of his sobs. “I don’t n-need it, I’ll eat sl-slow-er… Hyeong, d-don’t leave, don’t go…”
Yeong-shin’s cheeks grow wet. He feels frozen, his body locked in place, until finally he breaks enough to stumble forward on shaky legs and sink to his knees, crushing Minju’s tiny body into an embrace. “Don’t say that,” Yeong-shin whispers against his ear, rocking him as he cries, “Don’t say that. You need to eat as much as you can. You need to eat to be strong. You need to survive. Minju...baby...”
The sharp smell of the ginger brings back these memories vividly, as Seo-bi spreads the salve against his leg. Yeong-shin studies the wood panels of the ceiling, and tries not to remember that night, laying underneath the tarp with Minju, holding him close, telling him it would all be better soon. Someday.
Seo-bi’s fingers stop moving. “Have I caused you a sharp pain?” she asks.
“Your demeanor has changed,” Seo-bi says, with that peculiar, observant curiosity that is unique to her. “Your eyes are watering.”
With the prince gone, Seo-bi’s demeanor has changed as well. She seems more serene, like she is back in the rhythms of Jiyulheon. Yeong-shin supposes she must find this kind of medical work relaxing; after all, unlike the resurrection plant disease or other illnesses, Yeong-shin’s ailment doesn’t require any complicated diagnosis work. The source of the problem is fairly obvious.
While she slips her tools back into their proper places in her satchel, Seo-bi remarks, “I’ve treated men like you before. Soldiers.”
“I know,” says Yeong-shin.
“Have you ever broken a bone before?”
“Once,” he answers, mechanically. “My ribs, when I was very little.”
She shakes her head. There’s something about this in particular that she’s trying to get him to understand, but she isn’t being direct about it like she usually does. “Yeong-shin,” she says, and it’s odd to hear her say that name, when she usually doesn’t refer to him by anything at all. At least he doesn’t think he’s ever heard her say it. “Do you understand that you will need to keep your leg as still as possible, until summer?”
He frowns at her. “Yes, that is generally how that works, isn’t it?”
“It is going to be very difficult for you,” she explains. “It is going to take what feels like a very long time for your body to heal, and during that time you will not be able to do the things that you used to be able to do.”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Yes, I understand. What are you trying to say?”
She lets out a breath, and her eyes are watering too, as she looks away from him. “I think that you haven’t had time yet to realize what has happened to you. But when you do, you will be upset, and you will feel alone. I hope that if I tell you this now, you will know that I am here, and you are not really alone. You will make a full recovery, you only need to be patient.”
Yeong-shin never saw much of real soldiers. His cohort of tiger hunters carried out special missions for the government, but he never saw a traditional battle. He only saw the bodies left behind. And he wonders what it might have been like, to survive a battle like that. Or, to half-survive, with some debilitating injury that would require months or years to recover, if you recovered at all. The whole war still going on around you, while you are immobilized and waited upon. How would that feel? What could it drive you to do? What kind of horrifying thing, that would put this look on Seo-bi’s face years later?
“Seo-bi,” he says. “Thank you, for everything.”
He knows, of course, that she would have done the same for anyone else. That isn’t the point.
She smiles and shakes her head. “You are very welcome,” she says, and then she nods to herself, thoughtfully. “We have survived so many horrible things in the past few months. An injury like this will not bring you down.”
He wakes up in pain.
He usually wakes up at first light, so it’s unsettling to wake in the darkness. Judging by the pattern of moonlight dripping through the windows, it is the middle of the night. He doesn’t remember dreaming. He doesn’t remember where he is. Usually when he’s indoors, he’s with other people, in the servants’ quarters, on the floor. This time, he’s on a soft mattress, with a pillow. He’s in pain. His leg is in pain.
He remembers his leg is broken. Sleepy and confused, he has to remind himself of all of it—the boy, the monsters, the cliff. A recitation of facts to explain it all to the part of himself still indignantly whining about the pain. It hurts.
Just before sleeping, Seo-bi had prepared some tea for him, with herbs that would help with the pain, and they must have worked long enough for him to sleep half the night, but what now? He grinds his teeth.
It’s dark. He wants to light a lantern or something, but he can’t, because he can’t move, and he’s on some sort of puffy mattress in a room whose layout he can’t remember. There’s a huge hole in his pants leg, where the stitched wound is exposed to the chill of the air between the barriers of the splints. He also needs to relieve himself, and he remembers Seo-bi had told him where the… but he can’t find it in the dark, when he doesn’t even remember the general direction of where she put it.
His breathing marks the passage of time. It’s not any closer to light, yet. He tries to fall asleep again but his mind is racing, and he keeps circling back to the pain of it, the ache of his body. The fact that it is inescapable, he is trapped in here with it, like his own body is a prison holding him. And he’s struck, suddenly, by a bizarre whim: if he was dead, he would not be trapped here with the pain.
It wasn’t a serious consideration. It was just a thought, just a stupid thought born of the delirious, childish, angry part of himself that he’s spent the last seven years of his life trying to manage and suppress.
But he does realize Seo-bi was right. Remembering her preemptive counseling makes everything settle in his chest for a moment. He tries to take stock of it all, again.
It hurts. It hurts.
Stop whining, he tells himself. It doesn’t work. He needs to piss. He can hear the sound of the insects, the nocturnal birds, the snarls of some monsters in the distance.
Where is his gun? Whatever happened to his gun? Did he lose it, in that puddle? What would he do if the monsters broke through the gates this moment, and arrived at the doorstep of this house? He would lay here, helplessly, waiting to die.
Unspeakably angry, Yeong-shin tries to push himself up into a sitting position. His arms wobble as he braces his full weight on the wooden carvings framing the bed, and the shift in position makes his leg shift. A sharp burst of pain makes his vision light up in colors. The whine comes out of his body before he can suppress it.
He freezes in place. His eyes shoot to his left, trying to make out the figure of his highness’s body, in the dark. The shadows move in a way that suggests the prince is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. A wave of terror, and nausea, passes through Yeong-shin’s body, as he realizes he’d been completely unaware of the other man’s presence.
Around a yawn, the prince asks, “Did the pain wake you?”
“I… uh...” Yeong-shin tries to say something, but his tongue has grown dull.
“Seo-bi said you may have trouble sleeping.” The prince twists his body to light the lamp in the corner of the room, and they both squint at the brightness of the flame. Then the prince is pushing himself up into a standing position, saying “What do you need? Lay back down; I’ll get it for you.”
Sluggishly, Yeong-shin tries to reacquaint himself with his surroundings. There is a sleeping mat on the floor adjacent to the bed frame. This must be where Chang had been sleeping, and now Chang is standing, towering above like a giant. His feet are bare. The lightweight, white pants of fine-woven ramie cloth hang loosely from his hips. His shirt, the finest quality of rich blue silk, drapes flatteringly against his body. The ties of the shirt must have loosened in the night, because the silk lays open at the collar and all the way down to his sternum, so the prince’s bare skin is golden and glowing in the lamplight.
“What can I get for you?” the prince asks again. “More tea?”
“Don’t—don’t trouble yourself for me,” Yeong-shin manages to say, though his mouth has gone dry.
The prince makes a tch sound, and turns away from Yeong-shin, to kneel by the water jug and pour some into the kettle.
The prince...he… That lovingly-curated list of capital offenses Yeong-shin has committed against the social hierarchy is nothing compared to this. The rightful heir to the throne is half-dressed, so much pristine skin exposed, and Yeong-shin is looking at him, drinking it in. It feels viscerally obscene, to see him like this. Yeong-shin can’t tear his eyes away.
He hears the rustle of paper as Chang consults Seo-bi’s notes, and the clink of him setting the kettle down to heat over the warmer. “I broke two fingers when I was eight years old,” his highness remarks conversationally, from across the room. “I can’t believe I had completely forgotten that. The smell of the willow bark made me remember. I was such a pest about my pain, that my attendants begged the royal physician to give me something more concentrated than the tea. He prescribed plum wine. That knocked me unconscious for the rest of the day, to the relief of everyone involved.”
“I can’t say I wouldn’t prefer wine,” Yeong-shin replies. His voice tilts up at the end, as if he’s unsure of himself, but he’s not, he’s only trying to gather his bearings, and also re-order his thoughts away from—
Chang shakes his head, though he’s still focused on portioning out the willow tree shavings.8 “Seo-bi forbade it. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
What are you doing here? Yeong-shin wants to ask, Were you… sleeping here? Are you afraid for your safety? What good will I do you, in this state?
Instead of asking any of that, Yeong-shin studies the prince as best he can in this lighting. The build of his body, usually hidden by all those layers of richly colored fabrics, is now exposed for scrutiny. He seems… substantial, strong and hale in a way that marks him well-fed and well-housed. Of course, this is what Yeong-shin would have expected, had he ever been thinking about what Lee Chang’s body looks like. But he’d never thought about it, because the prince’s physical form was peripheral to everything. All of the weight of Lee Chang’s presence was in the abstract, was in the air around him. It was his title and his royal demeanor that characterized him; the fact that he had a body, like any other man, was purely incidental.
Yeong-shin was born to two privately-owned nobi, and had to steal someone else’s name and identification tag just to ensure his own freedom of movement across the country.9 Given his low status, it is illegal for Yeong-shin to touch the prince’s royal body, or even to come into contact with the so-called “Lord Ahn Chang” who now stands before him. They’ve touched before, though. The social equalizer of mortal peril demanded it. Still, Yeong-shin had never considered… wanting to touch him, for its own sake. The utterly alien desire to caress, if only to confirm that this stunningly attractive, almost propagandistic portrait of a sage prince is actually tangible and not just a fantasy Yeong-shin’s mind has been conjuring since last autumn.
Chang returns with the tea tray, and sets it down on the sleeping mat still unrolled adjacent to the bed. He lifts the teapot and pours a portion of tea into the neatly glazed ceramic cup. Yeong-shin studies his hands, soft and poised, but proportionally large, too, dwarfing the pottery. The prince is serving him tea.
Their fingers brush, when Yeong-shin accepts the cup from him, and, as before, Chang seems completely unbothered.
“Why,” Yeong-shin asks, raw and quiet, as the heat of the cup warms his hands.
“Hmm?” The prince looks up at him with a direct gaze.
Yeong-shin bites his tongue for a moment, before responding, “This is your highness’ bed.”
“It is.” Chang doesn't blink.
“Your highness is sleeping on a mat.”
“Why wasn’t I moved?”
“Your injury must be kept still to heal.”
“Why was I brought here in the first place, and not to the hospital?”
“You are important to me, and I needed to know you would be safe.”
You are important to me. Revulsion twists in Yeong-shin’s gut, not at the thought of being important to this man, but at the twistedness of the circumstances, being held in high esteem by a royal and powerful man so many years after it would have mattered. Every kindness from him burns. “Why are you not in a guest room? Why are you still here?” Yeong-shin asks, but with sudden clarity he answers his own question: “You were watching over me.”
The prince smiles. “I was.”
Yeong-shin’s wound throbs with pain, and his whole body aches with exhaustion at that realization. The loneliness is gone, replaced with the cloying sincerity of affection and familiarity, yet sinister all the same. He scrapes a fingernail against the rim of the full ceramic cup, and he asks, “Where is my gun?”
Alarmingly, Chang laughs. It’s this loud, joyful sound that bursts out of him. “Has my affection for you offended you so deeply?” he teases, grinning. But his face begins to fall when he sees that Yeong-shin has only stiffened up at this outburst, staring resolutely at the teacup and pulling his elbows close to his sides, waiting for it to be over. Chang leans forward, his voice tender and concerned as he questions, “Yeong-shin?”
“It’s not you,” Yeong-shin reassures him, tightly, just like earlier, “you haven’t offended me. It’s just—”
“It’s alright,” the prince says, with a self-deprecating smile. “I understand why you may not feel completely safe, with only a spoiled prince to protect you. Unfortunately, your gun was in pieces when we found you, and we didn’t have the luxury of time to spend collecting it from the pond. But, I’m sure the local army division would part with one, as a personal favor to me.”
“They can’t afford to take a weapon out of commission just for my peace of mind. What if the monsters breached the gate?”
Chang smirks, and points out, “If the monsters breached the gate, a tiger hunter with one leg would be ten times more effective with a gun than a common soldier with both legs.”
Yeong-shin’s cheeks feel hot. Ten times as effective is a vast overstatement, but at least the prince lauding his hunting skills is concrete, and based on the things Yeong-shin can do for him. It makes sense. It’s real. It feels almost comforting.
“Drink the tea,” orders the prince, “and then try to rest. I’ll go ask for a gun from the armory.”
“Now?” Yeong-shin makes eye contact, “It’s the middle of the night.”
“Yes, and I’m hoping that with it by your bedside, you won’t look so panicked the next time you wake.” Chang stands, and he goes to pull on a coat, and his boots, and his gat, and his sword belt.10
Yeong-shin watches him dress, and he wants to tell the prince to stop, but he knows that the prince will carry on anyway, and… selfishly, Yeong-shin wants just a moment alone. All of this is pressing on him from all sides like the binding of splints: the pressure of memory, the pressure of duty, and the pressure of his own body’s state of weakness.
He sips the tea. It’s just as bitter and earthy as when he first drank it, a few hours ago, but he forces himself to swallow.
The prince stands by the door, with an unlit torch in hand, and he turns back to look at Yeong-shin. “Try to rest,” he says again. “You should be asleep when I return.”
Yeong-shin half-smiles at his own lap, and asks, “if I’m not, will you rethink your prohibition on wine?”
With a little snort of laughter, Chang shakes his head, and exits, shutting the door behind himself.
Finally alone, Yeong-shin finds the chamberpot, which had been within reach of the bed, but still far enough away to be proper. It is not easy to use without hurting himself. But, it would have been much more difficult and humiliating if the prince had been in the room, so Yeong-shin is grateful for his absence.
6 Hansen's disease, or leprosy, causes nerve damage which results in one common symptom called glove-and-stocking anesthesia, which basically means a numbness in the parts of the body which would be covered by gloves or stockings, i.e. hands and feet. I was reading about the history and residents of Sorok Island (a leper colony of the 20th century colonial period, with a history of horrific patient abuse under both Japanese and Korean administration) when I came across this really interesting people-first portrait of the history which included an anecdote that stuck with me and inspired this scene with Minju: "At first, Yong-Duk Kim wasn't ashamed of her illness. She thought she'd been given some wonderful powers that other children didn't have. She didn't feel pain. She could skip barefoot on the cobble-stones until her feet bled, but it never hurt. She thought maybe she was brave or special." [return to text]
7 형 (Hyeong) - This is what the boy calls Yeong-shin in the show. It's what a younger brother would call an older brother. It can also be used by any male to refer to an older male. [return to text]
8 Willow bark would definitely have been found in Seo-bi's pharmacopoeia. It is considered "nature's aspirin" and is still a common ingredient used by TCM practitioners. (But don't ask me if it would be contraindicated by Yeong-shin's internal bleeding. I don't know. I'm not a doctor.) [return to text]
9 노비 (Nobi) - The reason I didn't just directly translate nobi is because neither common English translation ("slave" or "serf") really hit the right connotation to convey the socioeconomic status of this group of people. I recommend just checking out the Wikipedia explanation. [return to text]
Chapter 5: Yeong-shin
For the next few days, Yeong-shin is not left alone for any significant length of time.
Mornings he spends uncomfortably accepting rice and eggs and tea from the prince’s table.
“I know we are no longer rationing food, but this still cannot be a fair portion,” Yeong-shin points out, the first morning, pushing the full bowl of soup back onto the prince’s tray.
“You are right; rationing is no longer necessary,” Chang explains, trying to give him the soup again. “When you can pay for more—”
“If you purchased all this for me, I won’t take it.”
“There are plenty of people in the citadel who need it more.”
“Fine,” says the prince, tersely. He drops the soup on the tray and some of it sloshes up and over the sides of the bowl. “What is a fair portion, hmm? Is it one bowl of rice? Then I will give you that, and we will redistribute the soups and eggs to those who need it more. Perhaps we will find an already starving peasant who has just endured a catastrophic injury, who must eat a variety of foods for his body to heal? Oh right, that’s you. ”
Thoroughly chastised, Yeong-shin ducks his head, and he tightens his jaw as the prince sets two bowls of rice in front of him. If this were anyone else, Yeong-shin wouldn’t allow them to speak to him that way. Since it is the prince, he holds his tongue, if only because… he worries that objecting to little, stupid things may cause the prince to lose respect for him, and then disregard Yeong-shin’s objections to bigger, important things down the road.
If Chang had ever disregarded Yeong-shin’s warnings or advice in the beginning of the outbreak, far more people would have died. Yeong-shin’s ability to get through the prince’s thick, stubborn skull is a critical commodity and he won’t waste it on petty squabbles.
At least, he’ll try not to.
He doesn’t actually manage to eat more than he typically does, but Chang doesn’t say anything about it after that. Yeong-shin’s not sure what a full-blown argument with the prince would look like, but he doesn’t want to find out.
The prince typically leaves after breakfast, and Seo-bi is with Yeong-shin for most of the day.
Checking his pulse and changing his bandages, applying salves and mixing tinctures… it all feels familiar to Yeong-shin, except unlike the time he spent observing from afar as she made her daily rounds at Jiyulheon, nowadays he is the sole recipient of her attention. Every day, with her typical distant professionalism, Seo-bi conducts a thorough review of the leg wound, and any other lingering bruises or scrapes on his body, but she doesn’t push back on Yeong-shin’s reluctance to fully undress. She also cleans the chamberpot twice a day without mentioning it.
She gives him updates about Ji-ho and Sang-mi, about the progress of the weather and the good omens for the spring, about the different herbs she is giving him and why they work. Other times Seo-bi is silent, but it’s not an unpleasant silence.
In the middle of the day, when it is time for the gates to open for their brief hour, she leaves with the other herbalists to gather what medicinal resources she can. During this time, Yeong-shin dismantles, cleans, and reconstructs his new gun, over and over until it feels as familiar as his last one. Then, the boredom takes hold. Sometimes he takes a nap.
In the afternoons, Seo-bi needles him.
“I swear it isn’t going to bite,” she teases him, when he flinches away from the needle the first time. “Haven’t you ever been needled before?”
Eyeing the thin, sharp metal with suspicion, Yeong-shin asks, “When would I have been needled?”
“The last time you went to a doctor, perhaps.”
“The last time I went to a doctor was Jiyulheon, and you definitely didn’t put needles into me.”
“Of course I didn’t; why would I treat you for a fake injury?”
Yeong-shin makes a dismissive sound, but still glares at the needles. His left leg, in the past few hours, has turned a vicious purple color that throbs with every heartbeat, and he isn’t fond of the idea of touching it at all, let alone with needles.
“I promise you this will help you, but it won’t work if you are so tense and afraid of it.”11 Setting aside the needle for now, Seo-bi moves around him to the head of the bed, and she taps the silk pillow. “Come, lay down again.”
He forces himself to trust her, if only because she is now far away from the injury and she doesn’t have the needles with her. If she moves, he’ll notice, and he’ll be able to object before she takes the initiative to stab him, or whatever it is she plans to do. Seo-bi is a good nurse—Yeong-shin knows this, in his head. But as he lays his body supine, he can’t help but tense in anticipation of some kind of attack.
It just… already hurts so much, and has hurt for what feels like so long, that he is animalistically defensive of it. It is his instincts betraying him.
In a clear, calm tone, Seo-bi asks, “May I touch your face and scalp with my fingers? No needles.”
He looks up at her, upside-down in his vision. There is still a tinge of amusement in her face, at his expense, but she isn’t being malicious. Yeong-shin is certain, deep in the marrow of his mostly-whole bones, that Seo-bi has no capacity for malice.
“Fine,” he says, though his voice cracks. “If it will help.”
So she begins massaging his skin, first at the glabella and then up the center of his forehead, then out to just above his eyebrows. Her fingers have been dipped in an oil, a floral scent. Perhaps jasmine oil. Softly, she explains the acupuncture points at junctures where qi flows, and he shuts his eyes, and…
It is… as she said. Relaxing. And it is also achingly intimate. He can’t remember… anyone touching his face in recent memory, not gently, not like this. And it’s not… it’s not soft, it’s not a lovers’ caress. It’s a firm touch, like she is pushing the qi away from the concerned crease of his forehead. Then, from the top of his scalp to the cup of his temples, and then the inner curve of his brow bone.
This… goes on. For quite a while. But really, from that first touch, he felt… different. Loose-limbed. Somewhere between consciousness and dreaming. It’s… someplace pleasant. How long has it been since he felt…?
A long time later, she moves back to the side of the bed. She says she is going to use the needles now, but they won’t hurt, and he… can’t even lift his head to look at her, to supervise. Like laying in a hot spring, everything is… too pleasant to think clearly.
As it turns out, he hadn’t anything to be afraid of. Idly, halfway through the session, he peeks out of one eye to confirm his suspicion, that she is in fact applying needles to his right leg, not his left leg with the wound. “It is about balance,” she explains later, in that same calm voice that allowed him to dream and drift. “You can balance the qi in the left leg, by manipulating the right.”12
The needles may or may not have done anything, but he’s fairly certain the massage turned him into human porridge, and the pain doesn’t bother him at all that afternoon, or even overnight. He feels… his heartbeat, he can feel his heartbeat in his breast and it feels so much slower, unhurried, but healthy and strong.
And it feels even better when she does it the next day, and the next day, and any other time he can convince her to work on him. Yeong-shin isn’t typically one to ask for things directly, and this is no different, but when she reviews his wounds in the mornings and he asks something like, “Will it require needling again this afternoon?” she seems to hear the yearning in his voice, and she always obliges.
It’s all really too much. He knows he doesn’t deserve this level of care and attention devoted to him, especially when the nation is in the midst of a crisis. Every time he tries to express his gratitude it feels like his words come up short, and even were he able to properly express it, it wouldn’t absolve him of taking up resources better used for other people’s welfare. But that is just how things go, the first few days. The discomfort is like a haze hanging over his comfortable bed.
In the evenings, the prince returns with dinner, and tells Yeong-shin about whatever he’d been working on throughout the day—typically it involves arranging infrastructure, repairing things damaged in the first attacks, maintaining roads and buildings. He is also ensuring food reaches the people, and that there are no children or elderly people without adequate care and support.
“Your highness,” Yeong-shin asks the third night, mildly trying to contribute to the conversation while picking at his too-bountiful portion, “when will you be traveling to Gyeongju?”
“Hmm?” hums the prince, who is suddenly fascinated with the designs painted on his soup bowl. “I don’t recall any trip to Gyeongju.”
It’s an odd response to what was meant to be an innocuous question. “A few days ago, before I got hurt, you said you were going to Gyeongju…” Yeong-shin squints, trying to piece together what he remembers of that conversation, “to meet with the provincial militias and coordinate the eradication of the monsters?”
“Ah,” says the prince, uncomfortably. “I have decided to send Commander Min in my place. He will arrive in Sangju in two days to meet with me, and he will be bringing some trusted soldiers from the Royal Commandery with him, so he will be safe on the journey to Gyeongju.”
“Why won’t you be going?” Yeong-shin queries. “Commander Min and his soldiers are more than capable of keeping you safe on the journey as well.”
“They aren’t you.”
Yeong-shin scoffs, gripping his spoon a little too tightly. “I’m sorry I rejected your offer, but even if you had made me your personal guard, you’d still need to trust other soldiers to protect you until I healed.”
“Not all of the tasks I must complete require an armed guard.”
“Oh, yeah? So, what will you be doing instead of going to the meeting in Gyeongju?”
“Still overseeing the welfare of the refugees in Sangju, I suppose.”
Yeong-shin frowns. “The refugees are stable, and you’ve already overhauled the entire local government with more trustworthy ministers who will see to their care. What in Sangju is so important that you need to be here personally?”
In the silence that follows, Yeong-shin chances a glance up at the prince’s face, to find Chang is staring at him with a dry, unamused expression.
“I should think the answer is obvious.”
“You’re here for me? You must be joking.” Yeong-shin’s calves twitch. “I won’t be able to put my weight on my leg until the next solstice. I won’t be able to run until autumn. What use am I to you?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I won’t be your guard. You choosing to waste half a year sitting around in the citadel isn’t going to change my mind. If you really need someone to hold a gun for you that badly, ask Commander Min.”
“This has nothing to do with your skills as a fighter.”
“You need a tracker?”
The prince bares his teeth in frustration. “That’s not it either.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want nothing from you!”
“Then why are you still in Sangju?”
“Because I care for you!”
“So write me a letter!” Yeong-shin growls, “Write me a fucking letter from Gyeongju where you are doing your duty.”
Chang doesn’t say anything. For all his talk about caring, his baleful, furious eyes pierce into Yeong-shin.
Yeong-shin feels himself sweating, at the back of his neck and beneath the knot of his hair. His mouth keeps speaking, still angry and confused and frustrated like boiling water overflowing, “You keep saying you care for me. I still don’t know what the hell that even means. The south is full of monsters, and the people who aren’t infected with the disease are starving to death, but you want to stay here and nurse me? Why are you so obsessed with me? Am I your pet commoner, is that it? Is that what all this food is for, you want to spoil me as the prince’s favorite? Do you get some sick satisfaction out of it—”
“Yeong-shin.” The prince sounds like ice. “Mind how you speak to me.”
A shiver runs up Yeong-shin’s spine. Everything he’s just said is ringing in his ears. He drops the spoon into the bowl.
His hands open and close around nothing.
Half of him feels cowed, ready to prostrate himself the way propriety dictates just to erase what he’s just said. But the prince’s tone also roils up a much older hurt, memories of enforced obedience and floggings.
You have a choice with men like this, Yeong-shin remembers faintly from his adolescence. You can feel weak for submitting to them, or you can feel weak when their guards bind you with ropes for your state-sanctioned punishment. But you can’t get around feeling weak, either way. He still has scars, from all the vulgar things he said to every government official who accused him of poaching. The memory of feeling bound, inescapably bound, and angry, and hurt, and frightened , waiting for the lash to hit.
“Well, I can’t bow for you,” Yeong-shin says, tersely. His voice sounds nasally, from the burning threat of tears in his sinuses. “Can’t put weight on my knees.”
Chang pinches the bridge of his nose, stifling some mild amusement behind his wrist. “That’s good,” he says, quietly. “It doesn’t sound like you’d particularly want to, if you could.”
Yeong-shin sniffs, saying nothing, and looking away.
“What?” he croaks.
Gently, and just a little bit smugly, the prince continues, “would you like anything else to eat?”
He looks at the tray with what remains of his soup, fairly certain he couldn’t stomach any more of it. “No,” he answers.
The prince begins collecting the half-full dishes back onto his own tray. He doesn’t look at Yeong-shin as he does this, but he does add, in almost a whisper, “I’m sorry I’ve upset you.”
That does it. That’s the thing that reminds Yeong-shin who he’s really talking to. When the prince stands with the tray of dishes, Yeong-shin slumps down onto his back again with his head on the pillow, and he throws an arm over his face, all the tension cracking open and melting out of him. Seeing only the crease of his own elbow, he says to Chang, “I’m sorry I accused you of neglecting the people. I know you better than that.”
Chang doesn’t respond immediately, as he’s at the door passing the tray to one of the servants. But when he shuts the door, Yeong-shin hears his footsteps padding across the floor back towards the bed, and the prince makes himself comfortable again, on the mat beside Yeong-shin. When he finally begins speaking, it is only to ask, amusedly, “Do you really find it so disrespectful when someone accommodates your needs?”
Yeong-shin doesn’t uncover his face, instead choosing to make an ambiguous grunting sound. He’s too embarrassed by his outburst, which Chang had really done nothing in particular to deserve.
“ Ahh , my friend,” Chang says cheekily, letting out a long and satisfied sigh as he douses the lamp, then settles his long body on that thin mat on the floor. “Don’t hate me for this, but I must point out one thing to you. This ‘personal guard’ thing that has you so upset—it was your idea, not mine.”
Yeong-shin lifts his arm off his face, to peek over at Chang in the dark. “What do you mean? You asked me to protect you.”
“I asked you to come with me and stay by my side. You decided that meant as a personal guard. I just want you to be a part of this journey. I don’t care what it is that you’re doing specifically, and I certainly don’t want you having to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or restricted in any way.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”
The prince laughs, “What part of ‘I don’t need a tiger hunter, I need you,’ wasn’t clear enough?”
“Heh… so, you really are obsessed with me,” Yeong-shin observes, trying for a light tone. Every time he thinks about the fact that he’s inexplicably earned Lee Chang’s favor, he feels tingly and almost physically ill about it, and this time is no exception, but… it isn’t quite as unpleasant as it once was.
“Maybe I am,” agrees the prince.
11 I wound up reading quite a bit of the 甲乙經 (Jiayijing) as part of my research (or just to sate my geeky curiosity). This point is true - as part of the prohibitions on needling, in Book 5, Chapter 1, part 6, page 266, you'll find the line "If one is terribly frightened or scared, one must quiet one's qi before being needled." [return to text]
12 In the 甲乙經 (Jiayijing) you'll also find information about grand needling and cross needling, both of which have to do with needling one side of the body to treat evil qi in the opposite side. [return to text]
Chapter 6: Seo-bi
Seo-bi had never wanted a family.
As she was orphaned at a very young age, one might think that Seo-bi had spent the earliest years of her life yearning for a family, grandparents and parents and siblings like the local magistrate had. The magistrate was responsible for keeping the home for orphans,13 and sometimes, in those early years, Seo-bi saw his children out with their nursemaids, playing and laughing and cared for and cuddled. At seven years old, Seo-bi thought she knew what family looked like, and it seemed nice, but she didn’t feel particularly bereft without it.
She could have tried to become a girl suitable for marriage. The ambiguous social status of orphaned children meant that it could even have been a path to a higher social class. But the government was recruiting young girls who exhibited notable intelligence to attend the female physician school, and there was never any question for Seo-bi which path she would prefer to take.14
Now, three decades have passed. Seo-bi knows that when she becomes old, she will not have children to take care of her, and when she dies, she will not have children to mourn her. But this does not bother her as much as it seems to bother other people. In sacrificing her hope for marriage she has gained so much. She has spent every day of her life learning, studying, and helping others. She has contained a brutal pandemic, and she is on the way to curing it, saving thousands or millions of lives. She is proud of her life. She is proud of herself.
If you remove lineage and children from the concept of family, well… in that case, Jiyulheon was her family, for a long time. The pain of losing all her sisters at once is like losing one of her senses… the absence is breathtaking. When the crisis in Hanyang was over and the dust settled, it was like waking up from a nightmare, but the damage remained.
Although, she had never asked for a family of that sort, either. She doesn’t need one, and maybe she should never have one again. Even in the midst of the crisis with Cho Beom-pal’s clumsy, charming affection thrust at her, she continued to rebuff. Seo-bi doesn’t need love or affection when her own independence is already an act of love for herself.
But she cares. She cares so much. She doesn’t need the affirmation of love, but she would never withhold it from those around her, not when it bubbles out of her and overflows so easily. She cares easily, and deeply, and sometimes… without trying, sometimes that caring becomes a bond. And she finds herself in the web of family again, without meaning to.
In the early morning of the fourth day, when the fog hangs sleepily among the streets of Sangju, Seo-bi goes to the kitchens to find In-suk, the elder servingwoman who prepares the meals for the estate. In-suk has been an invaluable resource to Seo-bi, helping her familiarize herself with the city and its people, and this time Seo-bi needs to ask her what sorts of alcohol are available on the estate in preparation for this afternoon’s bonesetting, but then Seo-bi nearly collides with Chang himself. Already dressed in his boots, coat, and gat, he has evidently made the short walk to the kitchens as well, and he nods at Seo-bi to greet her. Seo-bi ducks her head in respect. As In-suk uncovers and stirs the large pots of broth and rice, clouds of steam billow and drift into the air between them.
“May I ask why you are awake so early, my lord?” Seo-bi says.
His highness smiles to himself, just a little bit sleepy around the edges. He says, “I have been spoiled, sleeping on comfortable mattresses and pillows all my life. I suppose it will take more than just four nights, to get used to this.”
“Sleeping on mats on the floor is good for the spine, but the benefit is negated if you are unable to sleep through the night. Perhaps you could use a mattress from one of the other bedrooms?”
The prince shakes his head. “I don’t think he would appreciate that.”
Seo-bi isn’t quite sure why Yeong-shin would object to his highness sleeping on a mattress, but she doesn’t say anything about that.
Instead she stands with the prince in silence as they watch In-suk work, because they know how In-suk typically reacts to questions like is it ready yet? and when will it be ready? According to her conversation with the prince when they first began living here, Seo-bi knows that In-suk has been working for Lord Ahn’s estate her entire life, so she has known Lee Chang since he was a boy, and she isn’t afraid to take a wooden spoon to his greedy fingers. Seo-bi has also found herself on the wrong end of In-suk’s spoon once or twice, before she learned the rules.
After some time passes, and the prince doesn’t seem hurried or bothered by the wait, Seo-bi reiterates her earlier question, “But why are you here, your highness? Won’t Gyeong-hwa bring breakfast to your quarters?”
Around a yawn, he replies, “I’m awake already, so there’s no need for all of that. Besides… I must limit how many dishes are served, to avoid offending my guest.”
“It has offended him?” she asks. Grimly, the prince nods. Seo-bi sighs, and says, “I see. It is not an uncommon response to famine. I have treated many patients over the years who have gone through so much hunger that when there is sufficient food, they do not trust it. Especially during the spring.”
The prince frowns, and links his hands behind his back, thoughtfully. “The barley hill, the period of spring austerity.15 When last years’ harvest has run out, but the barley crop cannot be harvested until summer. I’d learned of this. Requests for government food relief always peaked in spring.”
“Jiyulheon was a government hospital. We didn’t farm the land ourselves; instead we received shipments of rice every few months, but sometimes if we had more patients than usual, our stock ran out early. When the new shipment eventually arrived, even I was hesitant to take any, though I knew that I needed to keep myself healthy in order to help others.” She brings her index finger to her lip, thoughtfully. “I suppose I already knew that Yeong-shin is the same way, though I didn’t make the connection until now.”
“How do you mean?”
Quietly, so that In-suk will not hear over the boiling sounds in the kitchen, Seo-bi explains, “You remember that… the infection began when the people of Jiyulheon cooked and ate the flesh of a diseased corpse, passing it off as regular meat. The only reason I didn’t get sick was because I always served the patients their meals first. But Yeong-shin was a patient too, and he was just as hungry as the rest of them.” So hungry that he would butcher a human corpse, Seo-bi thinks to herself but doesn’t mention aloud. “Yet he didn’t catch the disease… meaning he too must have served others food while abstaining himself.”
At this moment, In-suk lifts her thready voice over the roar of the pots. “Okay, my lord,” she says, with a tinge of impatient fondness, and when he doesn’t immediately answer she snaps, “Well, what are you waiting for? Tell me your breakfast order! I will get it for you! Lazy boy…”
If it had been only Seo-bi and the former prince on this journey, to contain and eradicate the disease from Gyeongsang province, she would not have called that a family.
Seo-bi certainly cares about the prince. He is a good man, and she would like to see him happy and healthy for a very long time. There were a few occasions in the early days of the outbreak that she treated his wounds, in private, and it was easy to tell that the minor scrapes and abrasions were only superficial, and there was a much deeper hurt in his soul that Seo-bi couldn’t quite understand yet, let alone attempt to heal.
If it had been only the two of them on this journey, she would have tried to make time for that. She would have tried to comfort him and help him work through all the ways his spirit was blocked and stifled. At least… she thinks she would have. It is hard to make time for these things, when there are so many people with much more critical, physical ailments. And if it had been only the two of them… well, as soon as they got to Sangju, their paths might have diverged. Seo-bi would have been treating refugees, studying the resurrection plant, taking notes on the disease in her records. The prince would have been… doing whatever governmental things he is doing. Maybe they would have continued working together, to the extent that Seo-bi would provide expert testimony on the properties of the disease and the ways to cure it. But maybe they would not have spent much time together at all.
Yeong-shin, though… Yeong-shin came with them. Maybe he had his own reasons to come back to Sangju, or maybe there was a part of him that knew that the three of them needed to stick together. Yeong-shin is the glue, which turned their ad-hoc alliance into something much more substantial, an unspoken bond that tethered them to one another. Yeong-shin’s injury only made that tethering more obvious.
“When I was with the army, they used to say the confucian scholars were so half-witted, they had to take a class just to learn how to drink soju!” Yeong-shin declares, grinning sharply. In private company he is usually a soft-spoken man, but evidently two cups of hard liquor have already loosened his tongue.
The prince laughs heartily, leaning back so far he has to brace himself with his arm on the floor, and even Seo-bi smiles from her seat across the room where she is updating her inventory notes. “That one is actually true,” the prince admits, “there was a class every autumn at Yeonggi Academy to teach proper drinking etiquette.”16
“Etiquette? Proper drinking etiquette?” Yeong-shin snickers, and starts lightly shoving the prince’s arm just like Cho Beom-pal always does, “Show me, show me! Teach this lowly commoner how to drink his soju!”
“Alright, alright!” the prince concedes, grinning as well. He pushes the porcelain carafe and the extra cup into Yeong-shin’s hands. “We’ll say you’re my superior; pour me a cup and hand it to me.”
Originally Seo-bi had planned to give Yeong-shin his “medicine” herself, in preparation for bonesetting, but as soon as the prince had heard about Seo-bi deeming it medically necessary to get Yeong-shin drunk, he’d eagerly inserted himself into the proceedings, clearing his afternoon schedule for it. Seo-bi was pretty sure that Yeong-shin wouldn’t require any convincing to get drunk on his own, but given the prince’s insistence she was happy to let him act as dispensary while she tended to other tasks. It is hard to focus, though, when the two men are goofing off together. Seo-bi can’t stop smiling.
“So I take the cup with both hands, with my left hand on the bottom, and I bow to you, and then I… turn around and drink it really fast like a secret!” the prince narrates in a burst, downing the cup in one go and spinning back around to grin at Yeong-shin, who has completely broken down into a fit of giggles.
“A secret!” he brays, “What kind of secret is it? I just handed you the drink myself, and now it’s gone!”
The prince tsks him, and says “It’s rude to drink where your elders can see you,” almost managing to keep a straight face, and Yeong-shin loses it again. The prince grabs the carafe back from Yeong-shin and pours him another cup, saying, “So, won’t you show me how a tiger hunter drinks? It’s only fair.”
Yeong-shin sits up straighter, his flushed face lighting up in recognition, “Oh! Oh, we had a joke for that too!” he says, taking the third cup from the prince and downing it. Then, with a raspy voice, he recites, “How does a tiger hunter drink? He says Sake wa dokodesu ka? before bashing the Japanese’s head in, and then he grabs the sake on the way out!”17
Yeong-shin crumples back into laughter, but the prince’s smile fades a little bit at the vicious soldiers' joke, and he glances over at Seo-bi across the room with an expression of mild discomfort. With a clipped sigh, Seo-bi interjects, “Perhaps my patient has had enough to drink.”
“Whaaat?” Yeong-shin whines, “You said five shots!”
“I said three to five , and you are so skinny, and you’ve barely eaten anything today.”
“But I’m a man! ” Yeong-shin shouts wildly, gesturing vaguely to the crown of his head and his perpetually-unravelling topknot,18 before he starts insistently tapping the prince’s elbow again, “I can handle my soju! Come on, come on, sir, give me another.”
“Fine, only one more and then I’ll cut you off,” says the prince, passing Yeong-shin a final shot. “You’re really a pest when you’re drunk, do you know that?”
“I’m not drunk!”
“Yes, sure, I’ll believe that when your face doesn’t look like a hot ember.”
“You are so mean,” Yeong-shin pouts after swallowing. “Seo-bi is going to break my leg again, and it’s going to hurt like hell because you were stingy with the liquor.”
Seo-bi chuckles a little bit, as she sets down her papers and returns to her patient’s bedside. “I’m not going to break it, weren’t you listening at all? I’m just going to make sure it is healing properly, and if the bone is misaligned, I’m going to move it back where it should be.”
“But you wanted me to be drunk, so it’s definitely going to hurt a lot,” he reasons.
She waves a hand at him dismissively. “I’m sure the prince will find a way to distract you, as usual. Now lay back, and keep your right leg still, I’m going to needle it just a little. Yes, I said lay back, all the way. There you go.” On his back and with even more blood rushing to his face, Yeong-shin settles down just a little, peering up at the prince and deliberately averting his eyes from the needles.
Seo-bi does expect the bonesetting to hurt quite a bit, and she understands that his wildness while drinking was partly to cover up his worry about the pain. After enduring four days of the healing pains already, the wound is probably tender, and it makes sense that he would be afraid. She feels sorry for him, empathetic to his anxiety, especially because it’s Yeong-shin, and she particularly hates for him to be in pain. The shallow needles at the proper points of his right leg might help slightly, but she doesn’t expect it to help much with pain this sharp.
“Perhaps his highness is willing to massage your forehead a little bit,” Seo-bi suggests, “I know you like that.”
The prince’s eyes shoot up to Seo-bi, nervously. “I... probably shouldn’t, I’m sure I would do it wrong…”
Seo-bi smiles at him. “It isn’t too difficult, and you won’t do any harm if you miss the proper qi points. Just do the same as I did for you, in Hanyang.”
When the prince still looks hesitant, Yeong-shin cuts in, crooning, “Of course he will! After all, his highness cares for me very much …”
Seo-bi isn’t sure she knows whatever that is in reference to, but the way Chang glowers down at Yeong-shin’s grinning face makes her think it must have been some sort of teasing. Still, it seems to have changed something in the prince, who reaches out carefully with one, and then both hands to touch Yeong-shin’s flushed-red face, gently stroking his forehead with both thumbs. As always, the intimacy of the first touch melts away any cheekiness left in Yeong-shin’s features.
Seo-bi smiles a little bit to herself. Knowing what she’s learned about Yeong-shin’s nature the last few days, she knows this will distract him almost as well as the drink. Now that she is more confident that she’s done enough to protect her patient’s well-being, Seo-bi begins studying the placement and shape of the tibia and fibula in Yeong-shin’s right leg, using her fingers to press deep into the muscle to feel the bones, so that she will have a better idea of how it ought to feel in the left leg.
“Seo-bi,” the prince calls quietly, nervously, “is this correct…?”
She glances over at them. Yeong-shin’s pleased face, half-shut eyes… if he were a cat, he would be purring. “That’s perfect, your highness. Please continue.”
Then Seo-bi begins touching the left leg, very carefully, just below the fracture and then around the fracture site itself, careful to avoid touching the still-healing sutures. Some of the bruising has run its course by now, but other places the sickly purple-yellow colors remain deep in the flesh, and unfortunately, given the way the bone feels off-centered at the fracture site, this process will likely result in more bruising.
Yeong-shin is whimpering softly at the light manipulation, and his eyes are shut from the pain. And Seo-bi can hear… well, she can’t make out the words, and the prince is speaking so quietly that it must be something private between the two men. But the low murmur of the prince’s voice sounds soothing.
“Are you almost finished?” Yeong-shin asks Seo-bi, with a strained voice.
“I must make one adjustment.” She glances up at the prince’s face and their eyes meet. Without words, she tries to communicate to him that, for this moment, he should please just do whatever he can think of to distract their friend.
She places her thumb at the top of the break, and the rest of her fingers around the bottom, and, in one sharp movement, she twists her wrist. The yelp from Yeong-shin is far more muted than she expected, but she ignores him for a moment so she can check that the bone is aligned now properly—thank goodness, it is.
Then she notices, at the head of the bed, the prince is bent over, his face hovering just a hand’s breadth above Yeong-shin’s, and the both of them are staring into each other’s eyes, panting slightly, wearing matching bewildered expressions.
“...what was that?” breathes Yeong-shin.
Whatever just happened, Seo-bi is relieved to conclude that it had nothing to do with the operation, and she doesn’t have to get involved. Instead she says, “It’s all finished.” She gives Yeong-shin’s right knee an affectionate squeeze as she removes the needles. “Good job staying still, thank you for being such a good patient.”
Still looking utterly dazed, Yeong-shin smiles weakly at Seo-bi. “And you never have to touch it ever again?” he asks, hopefully.
“Not for another few days, at least,” she explains. “Then we will check again, but hopefully it will be aligned properly, and we can get you moving around on crutches. For now, however, I believe it is time for me to leave the two of you to your dinner. Your highness, please make sure my patient eats enough to soak up all the liquor—”
“Seo-bi,” the prince interjects, with an incongruous note of urgency to his voice. “Stay and have dinner here, please. I actually must leave for a meeting with the governor that I have already delayed, so I cannot be here, but, please, the food needn’t go to waste...”
One unique quality of the prince’s speech patterns is that he always seems to be prepared for the end of a sentence before he begins it. This thing he is saying now… doesn’t sound like that at all. It sounds like a lie, though Seo-bi can’t imagine why he would be lying about any of this, except that it must be the same reason Yeong-shin is staring at the prince’s back with some sort of wonder painted in the glint of his eyes.
“Well,” Seo-bi offers, with trepidation building in her stomach, “I suppose I could stay…”
Yeong-shin keeps shifting in his seat. As he watches the prince leave the room, and then as his gaze keeps jumping from one wall to the other as he thinks, his knees keep flinching, like there’s a part of him that wants to stand up and pace.
Obviously, pacing is not an option. Seo-bi receives the tray of dishes from Gyeong-hwa at the door, and then she sets it down on the floor near Yeong-shin, but instead of tending to the food she decides she must tighten the splints around Yeong-shin’s leg—after all the trouble of re-setting the bone, it wouldn’t do to let him jostle it out of position again.
It’s like he doesn’t notice what she’s doing until he feels the pain of the compression, and he yelps, wide-eyed, and tries to shove her hands away. “What are you doing?”
She puts up her hands, placatingly. “I only needed to adjust the splint. What has made you so jumpy, suddenly?”
“He kissed me!” Yeong-shin exclaims. “He kissed me! Didn’t you see? He…”
Ah. A kiss, that was what happened. Seo-bi’s mind casts back to many, many years ago, learning to read in the nursing academy. Most of the time they would use medical texts to study, but the library at the nursing school had a small collection of poetry as well, and that was a favorite of some of the other students, who would push and argue for their turn to read from those scrolls. A kiss, a romantic declaration, a gesture of love. Seo-bi has never been kissed, and she’s about as concerned with seeking a kiss as she is with seeking a marriage or children, which is not at all.
If she had been unexpectedly kissed, however, her face might match the way Yeong-shin’s looks right now. He looks startled and uncomfortable, and his brows are knitted together like he is really struggling to figure out what has just happened, and why. Her soul twists a little in empathy for his confusion.
“That is a little strange, isn’t it?” Seo-bi asks, curious if this is the thing that has ground Yeong-shin’s wit to a halt: “You are both men.”
“Yes, but he, is that—” Yeong-shin sputters, “Does he think of me like a woman? Does he wish to treat me like a woman—is that what all this was about?”
“All this? What are you referring to?”
“He keeps telling me how much he cares for me, how much he wants to keep me around, and I…” He covers his face with his hands. “Fuck this. Fuck all of this. This is too much. This is exactly the—he’s so entitled. He could have me killed, or he could do this, and what the hell am I going to do about it?”
In the beginning of the outbreak, when Seo-bi dragged Yeong-shin into the apothecary to confront him about what he did to Dan-i, Yeong-shin had said so many horrible things with such rock-solid conviction. Now, Seo-bi knows that Yeong-shin is very good at convincing himself about things that aren’t necessarily true. I will do whatever it takes to ensure my own survival, he says, before turning around and throwing his life into danger to save others. They’re just meat after death, he says, despite abstaining from actually eating the stew, and then readily helping Seo-bi show as much respect as possible to Deok-i’s body. I’ll never forgive you if you stick me with that needle, he says, and by the next day he is practically begging for more needling treatment.
Seo-bi thinks he truly believes these things when he says them. After all, it is hard to question your own beliefs, when you have spent so many years of your life alone. Seo-bi doesn’t know much about Yeong-shin’s past, but she at least knows this, written clearly throughout his whole being: he has been alone for a very long time.
“You know his highness would never want to hurt you,” she points out.
He flops back down against the mattress, with his face still covered by his hands, and he doesn’t say anything.
“And you know that he likely does not see you as a woman.” She smiles slightly at him, knowing he can’t see her, and she continues with a teasing lilt, “I think it would be very hard to mistake you for a woman.”
He makes a sound behind his hands, somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
“You really ought to try to eat something,” she presses, gently. “It will help you think clearly.”
“I don’t want to eat anything,” he says, muffled and miserable behind his palms, “I feel nauseous and I’m afraid it will just come back up.”
“Would you like some ginger to settle your stomach?”
"No! Please… no, just let me… think, I just need to think for a moment.”
Respecting his wishes, she leaves him be, and instead she catalogues what she has on hand, if he really were to get sick. Nausea isn’t an idle threat when it comes to alcohol. If he changes his mind about the ginger, the root is within reach near Seo-bi’s satchel, and if things really go poorly, the recently-emptied chamberpot is within his reach. She hopes it doesn’t come to that, for a few obvious reasons, but especially because Yeong-shin looks absolutely pathetic right now, and she just doesn’t want to see him knocked down any lower.
Seo-bi uncovers some of the bowls on the dinner tray. There is some plain white rice, and a bowl of soup that she could strain for him so he could just try the clear broth. Good options, if she can convince him to try it.
The warm glow of the oil lamps reflects in the sheen of sweat on his forehead, and his breathing is uneven, almost strangled behind his hands. Seo-bi moves closer to the head of the bed, and Yeong-shin blearily meets her eyes through the cage of his fingers.
Seo-bi always cares deeply about her patients and their welfare, but there are certain patients that evoke this urge to nurture which runs deeper through Seo-bi’s soul. Oftentimes she has a soft spot for children, especially orphans. They are all innocent, and deeply afraid, but they try so hard to be brave; how could she not feel drawn to protect them? Then there is Yeong-shin, who is far from innocent, and capable of such cruelty. But he is also deeply afraid, and trying to be brave... and she thinks, if she ever had a sibling, she might feel about them the way she feels about Yeong-shin. He can be infuriating sometimes, but she has grown deeply fond of him, and she wants him to be well.
Gently, she runs the backs of her fingers against the clammy skin of his forehead, brushing back stray locks of his hair. This isn’t qi manipulation. This is just touch, familial and warm. “It doesn’t have to be a crisis,” she says to him, about the kiss, in the hopes that maybe she can release him from this mental cage he’s locked himself in. “If you didn’t like to be kissed, then just tell that to him. You know him, you know he would never wish to make you uncomfortable.”
“But… what does it mean?” he asks, in a whisper. “What is it that he wants from me?”
“You must see the symptom clearly before you see the whole disease—not a very nice metaphor, but you understand what I mean?” She takes his wrist in her fingers, to gently pull his hands away from his face so she can see him. “Focus first on the kiss. Did you dislike it? Then tell him. Otherwise, there is no harm done.”
“I… I don’t…” he pulls his wrists away, “I don’t think I...disliked it. What does that mean—is there something wrong with me?”
“Stop thinking about what things could mean. Focus on what you know is true. He kissed you, you didn’t dislike it, and that is all there is!” She returns her hands to her lap and gives him his space. “You will drive yourself mad trying to look for patterns and divine what someone’s inner thoughts could be. If he has something to tell you about his feelings, he will have to use his words.”
“You sound so sure of everything,” he says, almost laughing at the end. “Why can’t you just tell me what he was thinking, too?”
“Ah, my powers are not that strong,” she jokes. “But on a serious note, I can guess one thing—his highness is probably just as confused as you are.”
17 お酒はどこですか (O sake wa dokodesu ka) - Translates as "Where is the sake?" (note the dropped particle when Yeong-shin says it, more like "Where is sake?"). [return to text]
18 A boy becomes a man when he is married and his hair is put up into a sangtu knot. Learn more about the politics of hair here. We'll hear more about Yeong-shin's topknot in the next chapter. [return to text]
Chapter 7: Yeong-shin
Yeong-shin falls asleep that night before the prince returns (four shots of soju on an empty stomach will do that to a person). When he wakes in the late morning, the only new company he has acquired is that of his splitting headache.
Near his bedside is a tray, and on the tray is a small ceramic jug. Next to the jug is a loose piece of paper with writing on it, and after he focuses his hangover-addled mind long enough, he recognizes the characters of his own name, just as it is written on the stolen identification tag. Beneath that is a series of pictograms which even a child could parse to mean “drink this; it will make you feel better.”
For a moment, he feels embarrassed that Seo-bi not only knew he was illiterate, but went to the trouble of inventing pictograms for it. Then he realizes that Seo-bi has treated almost exclusively commoners during her tenure as a nurse, and she probably just uses the same pictograms for any written prescription. So he crumples up the paper, plugs his nose, and drinks whatever is in the jug.
It’s not nearly as unpleasant as he expected. It certainly used to be tea, and is now some sort of room-temperature watery-herbal drink, but its flavor isn’t so bad. There is some honey, ginger… it’s sweet. He also then discovers, on a different tray near the foot of the bed but still within reach, a dish is on a warming plate. It must be leftover from breakfast, and he does not hesitate before devouring it all.
Eventually he lays back down, with sated hunger and a slowly abating headache. In the last few days of being hopelessly bedridden, this is the first time Yeong-shin’s relief and satisfaction at having his needs met has outweighed his discomfort with being waited upon. It won’t last long, but it is a brief moment of respite from the anxiety and frustration.
With his eyes shut, and the bright spring sun beaming down on the bed from the window and warming his body, Yeong-shin suddenly remembers the kiss.
He tries to remember the last time he’s been kissed, but nothing comes to mind. At the age when other children were making friends, confessing affection, entering engagements… he was caring for his mother, and then he was caring for his brother. He remembers, vaguely, feeling romantic inclinations towards girls when he was very young. But he’s not young anymore, not really, and he’s spent the majority of his life under the assumption that romance and sex and kissing were for other people, not for him.
For him, there was survival.
He thought he’d be dead long before he ever had a chance to feel the absence of romance in his life. When he stole the name Yeong-shin , he also started wearing his hair up in a sangtu knot, because he figured, if he was going to invent a new identity, he may as well invent himself as a full-grown man. It was a declaration of his own adulthood and independence, despite the conspicuous absence of a wife.
Now, he’s been kissed for the first time, and by the former crown prince of Joseon no less, which is intensely surreal.
After years of abuse at the hands of the state, his instincts are telling him that the threat of the stick means he can never trust the carrot. But, as Seo-bi had calmly reminded Yeong-shin, it is self-evident that the prince would never hurt him. It is an incontrovertible fact of the prince’s character, fundamental to his being, that he is unselfish, and would never take for himself what others do not freely give. Only that fundamental truth is what allows Yeong-shin to even consider the possibility of…
Well, he’s not sure he enjoyed the kiss. Not exactly. It was so brief, and he was so stunned with pain at the time, and kissing, the act of kissing, is so strange, their mouths pressing together for that fraction of time, the softness of the other man’s lips and the tender press of his palm holding Yeong-shin’s cheek. To accurately determine whether he enjoyed it, Yeong-shin would obviously need to try it once more.
Watching the ever-more-familiar ceiling of this room, Yeong-shin sighs. The prince had probably returned to the room last night and left again this morning, and Yeong-shin hadn’t gotten a chance to confront him about any of this. Maybe it’s for the best, because if he had the prince here, and he determined that he did like the kissing, he’s not sure what he would do next.
He remembers a winter, a bedroll, a little camp in the edge of the forest just outside the Japanese occupation, too close to feel safe lighting a campfire. The branding was still sore on Yeong-shin’s left shoulder. There was Dal, the man who gave him that brand in the first place, spreading both their blankets over Yeong-shin’s shivering body and holding him close throughout the night. Dal’s mouth, Dal’s hands...
It’s not that Yeong-shin has never been touched before. There are things he has done besides kissing. He knows what it’s like to be stroked to climax, the ecstasy and vulnerability of pleasure. But does he want that with Lee Chang?
His cock fattens slightly against his thigh. Groaning, he adjusts himself, unwilling to indulge in anything like that in the middle of the day in a place where he isn’t guaranteed any privacy.
Does he want that with Lee Chang? Yes, of course. That isn’t the question. The question is whether he wants it too much. A part of him aches for it, the same part of him that aches to get on his knees for the prince, because it will give him direction and purpose. But that’s why he’s pushing back against it, for the same reason he’s pushing back against the idea of being the prince’s guard:
If he looks back at the trajectory of his life and everything he’s given up, and at the end of that path he finds himself sucking the crown prince’s dick, then he will be disgusted with himself.
At least, so he tells himself. The problem is Seo-bi’s voice in his mind, reminding him that there’s no need to focus on anything but the path directly in front of him (Did you like to be kissed, and would you like to be kissed again?), and also reminding him that the prince is a good man. Lee Chang may be holding the stick, but he’s never once swung it in an unjust manner.
And, on top of that, in contrast with the issue of becoming the prince’s personal guard, it may be more difficult for Yeong-shin to outright reject his own sexual desires, because… he’s weak, he’s so weak to touch. With only the brush of another’s fingertips against his skin, his mind empties. If taking the stupid guard job made him feel the way touch makes him feel, he might have given in to that, too.
Suddenly, Yeong-shin’s unforgiving grip on his own mind slips, and his imagination floods with images of everything he wants, all the things he wants to do, to feel. Memories of Dal and the other tiger hunters mix with memories of Chang’s bared skin in the lamplight, and the sound of his breath every evening, a warmth, a presence, a connection. He wants so much he aches, like a tree with every piece of bark whittled away until there is only the core, pale and sticky and raw.
He shuts his eyes. He sits up in bed. He adjusts himself in his pants.
Mechanically, he takes apart his gun, reconstructs it, and takes it apart again.
Early in the afternoon, Gyeong-hwa comes to take away the dishes.
She is a woman in her late forties, dressed in clean, plain clothing similar to Seo-bi’s, and she works as a maid for the estate. This is all Yeong-shin knows about her. He’s met the male workers; he’s slept in their quarters with them. But, before his fall, he’d been living apart from the women (as was proper), and after his fall, with Seo-bi and the prince both so involved in his caretaking, he hadn't actually met the maid. Meeting someone new after being isolated for so long should be something like a relief... but it isn’t, because… it’s one thing when Seo-bi is inconvenienced by him; it’s another thing entirely to inconvenience a stranger.
He sits up straighter when she enters the room, and he sets the gun aside so as not to frighten her. She smiles when she sees the empty bowl. “I see you have regained your appetite; that’s wonderful news,” she says as she consolidates the dishes onto the tea tray.
A part of him had been prepared to jump in with please, don’t call me ‘sir’, to remind her that, just because he has been placed here in the nobleman’s bed against his will, it doesn’t make him any less of a lowborn. But she hadn’t even said it, and the shame of that burns slightly worse than if she had. Evidently, no matter where he is, other people have no illusions about his social status.
“Lord Ahn will be busy all afternoon with the Gyeongju project and he may not return before nightfall. Seo-bi said to encourage you to spend the day resting, because she won’t be around either. The warm weather means she will be outside the walls for a few hours this afternoon, and then she plans to treat patients among the refugees. She will check on you this evening,” Gyeong-hwa explains. “Do you need anything? You can shout for me if you need anything later, but depending on where I am, I may not hear you immediately, so let’s prepare you with whatever you might need for the next few hours, alright?”
Yeong-shin hesitates, still processing the fact that he will be alone for most of the day. He’s gotten soft from all the attention and proximity, and the pang of disappointment he feels makes him deeply uncomfortable with himself. He doesn’t know what to ask for. “Some polish, if you have it?” he tries mildly, half-gesturing at his gun.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think we have any,” Gyeong-hwa says. “The late master and his retainers didn’t use any guns. I could ask around next time In-suk and I head to the market, but that won’t be until tomorrow morning.”
Oddly, Yeong-shin’s mind chooses this moment to recall the prince walking all the way to the armory in the middle of the night just to get Yeong-shin a weapon he wouldn’t need. That act of caring was far outside the bounds of typical courtesy. Here, Gyeong-hwa is trying to be courteous, even though she doesn’t know Yeong-shin at all, and she has plenty of other duties to attend to. Something about this makes Yeong-shin shift uncomfortably in his seat. A lifetime ago, was this how his mother spent her days? “It’s fine, thank you anyway,” he says, “I’ll be fine for the afternoon until the others return.”
“I’ll at least leave you the pitcher of water, in case you become thirsty.” Balancing the tea tray on her hip, Gyeong-hwa then studies the room with a furrowed brow. She nods at his gun, asking, “Is that all you have with you to occupy yourself?”
“Yes,” he admits, “but it’s fine—”
“I could get you something from the library?”
He shakes his head.
“Do you perhaps play an instrument? The late master kept a small collection.”
Silently, Yeong-shin shakes his head again. The last time he gave any thought to music, it was to entertain Minju, so that was years ago.
It’s embarrassing to realize how limited his skills are. He can kill things; he’s very good at killing things. He can track things to kill, he can improvise weapons to kill, and he can use knives and guns to kill. For everything else under the sun, he only learns enough to get by.
Gyeong-hwa sets the tray down atop one of the cabinets, and out of its drawers she produces a wool blanket. “It’s the start of spring, and the weather is nice today. Tuck this around your legs, and I’ll leave the door open for you, so you can at least see out into the courtyard, and get some fresh air.”
Obediently, he takes the blanket. She reminds him that he should shout for her if he needs anything, but he’s… not really ready to speak anymore. He gets out a “thank you,” before she leaves, and she smiles at him, and she leaves the sliding door open to the whole brightness of the sunbathed courtyard.
Yeong-shin realizes that he has not left this room for five nights and five days. He has not left this bed for that long. The only other time in his life he has stayed in one location for so long, he was in a prison cell. The world outside feels so much closer, somehow, with the door open. He would only need to move five paces forward, to be outside again. But he can’t move, and he can’t see more than the view directly in front of him.
Seo-bi had said, if the bone is still in the proper position a few days from now, he will be allowed to move around on crutches. The impatience itches under his skin. Ever since waking up that first night of the injury in such a panic, he’s been trying to suppress any thoughts about feeling trapped, so he doesn’t get worked up again. It won’t do any good to be upset about the situation. It won’t make his bones knit together any faster.
But freedom of movement has always been Yeong-shin’s most cherished asset. He could always stay ahead of the law, or ahead of the Japanese, or ahead of the infected, if he just kept moving. His downfall has always been the ties that bind him down. He would never have been caught by the law in his youth, if he’d been able to abandon his family and run for the hills the moment the guards started chasing him. He would have been able to outrun the war with Minju if Minju hadn’t gotten so sick, tethering them to Sumang.
His complete independence in the tiger hunters, with their every man for himself philosophy, was the only reason he was alive today. Luck and speed meant he was the lone survivor of some of the most dangerous missions.
The courtyard is a haze of sun. He can only make out the pale dirt and the other buildings across the yard, including the guest house. He knows there is a waist-high stone fence to the right of his view, separating the lord’s residence from the rest of the buildings on the estate, but he can’t see it from this angle, nor can he see the parallel fence with the covered gate on the right side. That is the direction where the mountain rises far above Sangju. Yeong-shin can’t see it from here. He can hardly see any movement at all, except for the slight swaying of a beaded talisman hanging from a rooftop corner across the yard.
Even if he leans his whole body over to the right, he can only catch a glimpse of the far corner of the fencing on the left side, and vice versa. The gate is completely lost to him. If someone were to come into the courtyard he wouldn’t see them until they were directly in his line of vision.
It’s stupid to be anxious about this. For five days, he hasn’t seen the outside at all, and now suddenly he’s worried about sightlines and defensive positioning? But the patterns and angles are so ingrained in him, he can’t help it.
He fidgets with the hem of the woolen blanket. He fidgets with the gun. The idea of dozing off, here, with the door open, is suddenly impossible.
It doesn’t matter that the last few months when he was sleeping in the servants’ quarters, other men came and left the room at all hours of the night and it didn’t bother Yeong-shin then. It doesn’t matter that he’s slept in the middle of a forest before, completely exposed to all manner of predator.
This time, he can’t run, and that seems to make all the difference.
Eventually, Yeong-shin tears open a bullet cartridge and loads the barrel.
He even leans over to tug the lantern a little closer to the bed, so if he needs to light the matchcord in a hurry… He knows this is reckless and stupid. He tells himself he won’t get too jumpy, won’t risk shooting a friend. It’s just for his peace of mind, so that he will be ready with at least one bullet if something or someone were to rush him.
Of course, nothing comes. He spends half of the afternoon just sitting there, with the gun ready in his lap, watching the courtyard. A bird swoops down between the buildings but he only catches a flash of it, vivid and orange, before it’s gone from his view. Later, he watches Gyeong-hwa enter the guest house with some brushes and a bucket. When she leaves that house, she waves at Yeong-shin from across the way, and he waves back, and then she is gone to another chore.
As the afternoon approaches, the sun angles lower. The panel of sunlight from the doorway reaches the blanket, and the heat of it slowly climbs up Yeong-shin’s covered legs and to his waist. The gun is still loaded but it feels heavy in his lap. He’s just waiting, now, just waiting for Seo-bi or Chang to return home so he can finally drop this hypervigilance that has lodged itself between his spine and the base of his neck.
A shiver runs down his shoulders. Yeong-shin flinches, gripping the gun closer and trying to make out the new sounds coming from outside the courtyard. Boots crunching against the dirt… men’s voices.
He can only make out bits and pieces of their conversation. Has the prince…? in one voice. Careful… assassins, says another. What happened… gate? asks a third.
Yeong-shin lights the matchcord. He didn’t even consciously decide to, his hands simply moved in the familiar motions. He doesn’t know these people, but it’s probably nothing. It’s probably—
Then a voice is close enough to hear clearly, though they are still outside his field of view.
“Over here, commander. This is where Lord Ahn used to live, so his highness is probably in—”
Yeong-shin suddenly realizes what they are going to see, a moment before they actually breach his field of vision. He realizes what this is going to look like, and dread drops like a cold stone into his stomach.
Chapter 8: Chi-rok
Four days ago, in Hanyang, in Second State Councillor Cho Beom-pal’s bed, Chi-rok was roused from post-coital dozing by the sound of a servant announcing the arrival of a letter.
After yawning and wrapping an arm snugly around Chi-rok’s waist, Beom-pal projected his voice so it would reach the other side of the shut door, saying to the servant, “It is so late in the evening and I am terribly busy… can this not wait until tomorrow?”
The servant said, “It is a letter from Sangju, your excellency.”
Chi-rok met Beom-pal’s eyes, both of them suddenly alert. “Oh,” said Beom-pal.
“It is a letter addressed to Commander Min, your excellency,” the servant clarified.
“Oh,” Beom-pal said, with more alarm, and a touch of blush (cutely) creeping into his cheeks at being found out.
So they put themselves back into a respectable state, and already, the moment he was out of Beom-pal’s bed, Chi-rok felt himself slipping back into the rigidity of his post. Beom-pal pulled out the table and lit the reading lamp while Chi-rok went to the door to accept the letter. “Thank you for being discreet,” he said to the eunuch, who nodded with a conspiratorial smile and went on his way. Then, together, Chi-rok and Beom-pal unrolled the very small scroll—small enough that it could be delivered by bird, of course, as there was no longer any mail service to the quarantined Gyeongsang region. The handwriting was very small and precise to compensate.
Commander Min Chi-rok,
Let me first allay your concerns—the walls of the citadel remain intact, and the people are safe. I am sure you were not expecting to receive a letter so soon after our most recent correspondence, but there is no new emergency.
As I reported in my last missive, I have secured the cooperation of three provincial militias in the south to conduct the monster eradication. I had been planning to meet with them in Gyeongju on the 18th day of this month, and then spend five days organizing and educating them so that they could begin culling the monsters before the vernal equinox.
Unfortunately, complications have rendered my companions and I unable to leave Sangju for the time being. Thus, regretfully, I must ask a favor of you.
I know it would be unorthodox for such a high ranking officer of the Royal Commandery to leave Hanyang, especially during such a fragile political period, but there are no other men in this world I could trust to complete such a critical mission. It is for this reason I humbly ask if Hanyang could spare you for just twelve days. Or, if you must remain protecting the palace, if you could at least send a trusted cohort of officers I would be deeply grateful.
If you accept, please come to Sangju on the 14th of this month, and please be careful to approach the city during the warmest part of the day when the infected are dormant.
With sincere respect,
Lord Ahn Chang
Chi-rok’s mind immediately supplied five names as candidates for this mission, before realizing they were all dead. The sharp pain of remembering again each of their deaths, like garish paintings on the inside of his skull, rendered Chi-rok silent.
“I… I suppose you’ll have to leave… the morning after tomorrow,” Beom-pal said, “to reach Sangju by the 14th.”
“No,” said Chi-rok. “I am needed in Hanyang. I must continue training the new soldiers of the Royal Commandery, and the shrine at Naesonjae is almost finished—”
“It is only twelve days,” Beom-pal said, and he shifted closer, the warmth of his body almost startling Chi-rok (whose mind wasn’t yet comfortable mixing work with pleasure). “And isn’t… isn’t ending the plague more important? And his highness requested you specifically…”
Chi-rok didn’t look at Beom-pal. His thoughts were tangled.
“I think you should go,” said Beom-pal.
That was four days ago.
Three days ago, Chi-rok hand-picked two officers to accompany him to Sangju. It would have been suicide to go completely alone.
Two days ago, the morning of his departure, Chi-rok stood across from Beom-pal in the Second State Councilor’s chambers. Chi-rok stood very stiffly—it was always difficult to discern how to behave around Beom-pal when they were both fully clothed, halfway between their public and private lives. Beom-pal was crying, sniffling, and altogether making a fool of himself, which was completely bewildering to Chi-rok, because this had been Beom-pal’s idea in the first place.
“Be safe,” Beom-pal croaked out, but it sounded like begging, and there was a deep fear in his eyes. “Please, you must be safe and come back to me.”
“I will,” said Chi-rok, because he wasn’t sure how to ask all the questions that were suddenly tumbling through his mind.
From his sleeve, with trembling fingers, Beom-pal produced a long, thin parcel wrapped in deep red silk. “T-t-this is for you,” he said, with his face all flushed red with tears and heat. He pressed the parcel into Chi-rok’s hand. “P-please, don’t read it until… until you’re outside of the city.”
Then, impulsively, Beom-pal stepped forward and threw his arms around Chi-rok’s body, tightly embracing him. Chi-rok did not embrace him back, because…
Does he not want me anymore? Did he grow tired of me, and this endeavor was a convenient way to eject me from the city? Have I become too difficult? Have my nightmares exhausted him? Has my wit been too dull? Was my body too stiff and unwelcome? Are the tears faked, only to spare my feelings at being sent away? Is the letter his way of dismissing me while sparing my dignity?
Too gently, lovingly, Beom-pal’s lips pressed against his cheek, and Chi-rok felt himself make a noise without meaning to, like a part of him was wounded, fragile, dying.
He kissed Beom-pal, then. On the mouth. He kissed Beom-pal’s soft lips, because… even if it was over, even if Beom-pal no longer wanted him, Chi-rok still felt… at peace, even grateful, at having been loved by him for just these few months. It was more love than Chi-rok had felt in a long time. Beom-pal’s affections had been the only thing keeping Chi-rok afloat during the second-darkest month of his life.
He shut his eyes and tried to sear unto his mind the memory of this moment, their final kiss.
Then, he bowed and bid Beom-pal goodbye.
That was two days ago.
Yesterday evening, he and his officers made a temporary camp on the cliffs of Mungyeong Saejae, protected by a stream on one side and empty air on the other. They would camp overnight, waiting for the air to be warm enough that the distant snarling of the monsters became silent. In the meanwhile, in the chill of early spring with the stars glittering above the valley below, Chi-rok offered to take first watch.
He was sore, from riding so far. His eyelashes were sticky with exhaustion. This was the first time in more than six years that he had left the capital province. The letter was still unopened, in the inner pocket of his coat, pressed against his heart.
It had been difficult to give Beom-pal his full attention, in the private moments of their relationship, for so often was Chi-rok distracted by intrusive memories of the dead and all the millions of pieces of shattered lives he had yet to gather and venerate. It was so strange, though, that now that Chi-rok wanted to focus on anything other than Beom-pal, he could not seem to turn off his thoughts.
But that was okay, wasn’t it? He had to accept that Beom-pal’s affection was no longer his, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t… fondly remember, and comfort himself with those memories?
It was painful, but it was good, and there were so precious few good things left.
With resignation buttressing his soul against the pain of loss, Chi-rok lit a torch for reading, and removed the parcel from his coat. He unwrapped the red silk, and unfurled the little scroll filled with Beom-pal’s densely packed handwriting.
Then Chi-rok read the first line, and all of the walls he built to protect himself from heartache cracked. It was not a rejection. This letter was not a rejection, and his eyes darted down the page, picking out the character for love so many times his eyes began to burn with tears, suppressed affection blossoming into aching tenderness once more.
I am not an eloquent man. My tongue is dull and my thoughts are disordered, and I am grateful for all the times you have been patient with me while I found my words. As I write this, our evening together has just been cut short, and you have gone to prepare supplies and personnel for your journey to Gyeongsang. I decided to push you to go on this mission. I would have explained my reasoning verbally, but after seeing the pained look on your face when I urged you to go, I could not bear the thought of misspeaking. Too often, I have said things wrong and inadvertently hurt people. I care for you far, far, far too deeply to risk that. Thus, I will try to explain in writing.
When I was younger, and my parents were still alive, other people would struggle to find something flattering to say about me to gain my father’s favor. With my cousins it was easy, for they could be described as sharp-witted, or courageous, or clever, but I was always gullible, cowardly, and dumb. (Perhaps not much has changed.) They often called me “diligent,” as a synonym for obedience, which was the only thing that made me useful to my clan.
In contrast, you have taught me diligence is its own virtue when in service of goodness, justice, and truth. Every day I watch you honor the memory of your fallen comrades by restoring order to the palace and the Royal Commandery, and every night I watch you putting to rest the memories of the women of Naesonjae, collecting their stories and finding a place for them in the venerated ancestral fabric of Joseon. You exhaust yourself with work. If I accomplish nothing else with my life but provide a soft place for you to rest your head, it would be enough.
Lately it seems that all of your diligent work is in service of the dead, which worries me. This work is worthy, and I would never ask you to stop, for it would be asking you to be someone other than yourself. But I also know, personally, that when one is entirely consumed in service of the dead, parts of oneself die too. The dead cannot tell you when you’ve done enough, they cannot allow you to rest, and so you keep working.
Last night, you cried in your sleep. I know you don’t remember this, or you would have needlessly apologized for it, like you always do when I catch a glimpse of you being human. You hide it so well, but this isn’t the first time I’ve held you and found what remains from all those sorrows you absorb. I feel so helpless. If my lips could ease this burden from your shoulders, I would spend every moment of my life kissing you. But the benign influence of my love is dwarfed by the might of your moral convictions. If it is the right thing to do, you will never stop chasing ghosts.
This is why you must go to Sangju, and fulfill Lord Ahn’s request. The opportunity to do work in service of living people will do more to ease your spirit than my bed and my love ever could. You are such a kind person, capable of doing many great things, and honoring the memory of those lost souls will be among them. But you are also able to protect what is still whole. This work you do in Gyeongsang will save countless lives, and at the end of it when you return to me, I hope you will feel lighter for having done it.
Anyway, perhaps I should ask you not to read this until you’ve left the city, because I know you will object, and tears will start pouring out of me like from a crack in a teacup if we discuss this face to face. Sometimes just from seeing your face I wish to cry, because I am so undeserving, and I adore you so fervently. Even now, when you are only across the courtyard, my soul strains towards you. I’m sure it will feel odd, when you are far from me in Gyeongsang, to have my heart oriented southwards all the time. It will certainly make it easier to navigate the still unfamiliar streets of Hanyang, with my lovesick spirit like a compass.
I love you. I think I will keep loving you as long as I live. Please return to me swiftly, and in one piece.
As he reached the bottom of the letter, the places already stained with Beom-pal’s tears now bore the addition of Chi-rok’s own, from overwhelming happiness.
That was yesterday.
Today, Chi-rok and his officers cautiously led their horses down the cliffs, following the stream and burning incense to ward off the infected. They were only spotted twice, and both of those times, the single stray monster was easily dispatched with an arrow through its eye.
Unwilling to move past the treeline towards the city while the monsters were conscious, they lingered for some time by the base of a waterfall, waiting for their surroundings to warm in the heat of the early-spring sunlight. Byeong-jun, the younger of the two officers, fed snacks to the horses, and led them to the stream to drink, while Utae, the elder, stood to the side of Chi-rok and studied the commander in respectful silence.
Almost every member of the Royal Commandery died in Hanyang during the outbreak, so when it came time to rebuild, the Minister of War had ordered men from other branches to transfer to the Royal Commandery, so they wouldn’t have to train new soldiers from scratch. Of those thirteen officers and fifty soldiers who had been transferred, most had later requested to be transferred back to their original posts for the unspoken reason that they thought Min Chi-rok was soft, and they didn’t want to serve under him. Chi-rok gave signed approval to all of those requests, because with everything else going on, he didn’t have the time or the patience to change their minds. Only five officers and twenty-five soldiers remained with the Royal Commandery—two of those soldiers were shortly promoted to officers, and they were the ones whom Chi-rok invited on this mission to Gyeongsang. Second Lieutenant Bak Byeong-jun and First Lieutenant Gim Utae were less experienced than the other officers, but they weren’t incompetent, and they weren’t unfaithful, and that was enough, for now.
They weren’t chatty, either. That was a big part of Chi-rok’s fondness for them.
After a few moments standing silently by the water, Utae said, “May I ask a question, sir?”
“Of course,” said Chi-rok.
“Do you know what time of day it will be warm enough?”
Chi-rok shut his eyes, and breathed out through his nose. “No, I do not. Previous reports from Sangju said the timing varied day-to-day, and it depended on the local weather patterns. We may be waiting here for quite awhile… perhaps it is time for a late breakfast.”
Each of them took a share of dried meat from the saddlebag of Byeong-jun’s horse, and eventually they sat down beside the water, to quietly listen for the sounds of far-away snarling while they chewed coarse rations of jerky.
Before this journey, the last time Chi-rok had eaten rations was four years ago, before he was promoted to a high enough military rank that his food was always prepared fresh. The texture of the jerky was almost nostalgic, causing little ripples of sense memory to gently splash against his conscious mind, like the way the ripples on the water broke against the shore near his boots.
Years ago, during the war, there had been one other day like this; a day he woke feeling content, loved and self-assured. In the intervening years, the memories surrounding that day had been blocked behind the pain of grief, but… today, with the assurance of Beom-pal’s love tucked safely against his breast, Chi-rok was finally able to remember… chewy rations, whispered confessions, a fellow soldier’s kiss, and a sense of peace in the midst of chaos.
His outlook on the world today felt so familiar, but distant, from the man he was at the start of the war. Everything was so much clearer now. Even with the unprecedented threat of the pandemic, this love he shared with Beom-pal felt… so reassuringly stable that Chi-rok could cry. Beom-pal loved him, and would continue loving him. It was written right there on the page. It was real, and permanent, and it made Chi-rok feel so… protected, just to be able to look at the page and see Beom-pal’s words, and remind himself that it was all real.
The sun rose higher in the sky. Utae and Byeong-jun spoke a little bit to one another, but not enough to drown out the noises of the infected. After a time, Utae stood to brush the horses. Byeong-jun used a stick to idly poke at the water’s edge, looking for little fish hiding among the rocks and broken branches. Chi-rok only listened, waiting for the silence that would free them to approach the citadel.
When the horses lost their patience for Utae, the first lieutenant returned to stand near Chi-rok. Eventually he spoke, sounding oddly hesitant as he asked, “Sir?”
“I hesitate to ask this, for I don’t wish to offend you,” said Utae.
“As I hope is evident from my treatment of your former colleagues,” Chi-rok said with a measured tone, “I am not easily offended, Lieutenant.”
Utae sighed, and knelt down next to Chi-rok on the bank, but still did not ask his question. Byeong-jun, who was clearly listening attentively, said nothing, and kept his eyes trained on the water.
While rebuilding the Royal Commandery was mostly a bleak, mournful project, there was still the unique novelty of having subordinates who were actually frightened of him. Chi-rok tried not to let on how much that amused him. He set his hands in his lap, and ducked his face lower, so perhaps his companions would not be so intimidated. “Well?” he asked them, breaking the silence, “What is it?”
Utae swallowed, and then said, “Last night, sir, when you were the lookout, we heard… sounds, outside the tent, like someone weeping.”
Ah. Chi-rok kept his face neutral, and didn’t look over at Utae. Instead, he prompted again, “What is your question, Lieutenant?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Chi-rok caught the frantic exchange of looks between Utae and Byeong-jun. “Well…” said Utae, “perhaps, of course, it was nothing—perhaps just the sound of the wind.” He paused, then, waiting for the commander to agree with him and dismiss the matter entirely.
“Perhaps,” said Chi-rok.
“...but,” Utae cautiously continued, “if it wasn’t nothing… I was wondering, is there, um…”
Chi-rok’s curiosity overcame his attempt at a nonthreatening posture, and he met Utae’s gaze.
Utae asked, gently, “Is there anything we can do to help?”
Chi-rok felt himself smile, reflexively, and he turned his gaze back to the water and considered how he would respond. These men… he didn’t know them very well, yet, and they weren’t the same as his old unit. But even a member of his old unit might not have asked him such a bold question, drawing attention to something so personal instead of averting their eyes. It was adorably naive of them to think that someone in Chi-rok’s position would ever share personal insecurities with a low ranking officer, but it was also a sign of deep empathy, and empathy was too often in short supply.
“You are correct. I was weeping.” Chi-rok admitted, carefully choosing what information he was willing to share as a reward for their courage. “Please don’t worry, though. It was for a happy reason, and it is unrelated to our mission.”
The smile just wouldn’t abate. He felt so warm, the scroll in his pocket like a bright piece of starlight buoying his heart. After a moment, Utae smiled as well, in relief, and backed away, saying, “I’m glad to hear that, sir. Sorry for bothering you.”
Soon after the conversation ended, their surroundings dropped into silence. They could no longer hear the monsters. Chi-rok stood.
On horseback, they approached the citadel, and along the way they encountered cheerful commoners who had just exited the city to gather firewood or other resources from the outside. The prince’s nurse, Seo-bi, was among this crowd—she recognized Chi-rok, and bowed respectfully to greet him, calling up to him, “It is good to see you well, Commander!”
“Thank you, it is good to see you as well,” he responded. “Do you know where we should find Lord Ahn?”
Seo-bi put a finger to her lips thoughtfully. “I’m almost certain he is busy with the governor at the moment. You could go to his residence instead, to wait for him. Rooms have already been prepared for you. Do you know where Lord Ahn’s estate is?”
Chi-rok did not, in fact, know where the estate was. But Byeong-jun cut in from nearby to say, “I served under Lord Ahn Hyeon some years ago; I believe I can lead us there, sir.”
So, they bid their goodbyes to Seo-bi and entered the gates of the citadel.
Now that they have finished stabling their horses, Byeong-jun leads them to the estate. They take a relaxed pace through dirt roads, past well-constructed houses with ornaments hanging at the corners of roofs and flourishes in the carved wooden panels—it’s always interesting to see which royal architectural fashions the provincial nobility try to emulate. Despite the austerity measures, and the refugee crisis in the other parts of Sangju, this section of the city reserved for the nobles still feels untouched by the crisis, with its sturdy stone walls, gates, and empty courtyards.
“Commander,” says Byeong-jun, when there are no strangers within earshot. “Has the prince truly inherited Lord Ahn Hyeon’s estate, or was that just a convenient cover?”
Chi-rok explains, “My understanding is that it was always Lord Ahn Hyeon’s intention to bestow the land if his highness was prevented from inheriting the throne… but in that situation, as with the one in which we find ourselves presently, such a thing would need to be hidden behind false identities and pretense.”
Byeong-jun nods slowly, and scans their surroundings once more. Chi-rok also takes stock. Sometimes it is easy to relax in busy environments of peasants, where nothing is particularly hidden from the eye except by the bodies of the crowd. Here in the noble quarter, however, he and his officers are surrounded on all sides by the impassable faces of buildings, and a sense of restlessness pervades the space. The street feels almost… abandoned.
Utae asks, “Is the reason for the false identity only to secure the inheritance? Or…”
“His highness still has many political enemies,” Chi-rok answers the unspoken question in an undertone, and then, a little louder so Byeong-jun can hear, he says, “I would be careful not to refer to him by his former title in public. We would do him no favors by attracting political assassins.”
Byeong-jun and Utae both glance back at Chi-rok with unease written clearly on their faces. All of them, trained soldiers with honed instincts… something about the atmosphere of this sector of the city feels wrong. Why is there no one here?
“What happened to that gate?” asks Utae as they approach the final courtyard. Wooden signposts suggest that this is Lord Ahn’s residence, and there is a stout stone wall with a covered gate at the center… but the gate itself is missing. Hinges for doors are still nailed to the structure, but the doors themselves are gone.
While Chi-rok and Utae examine the structure for signs of forced entry, Byeong-jun continues forward towards the main building on the left. One of the sliding doors is opened, and as he approaches it, Byeong-jun says, “Over here, commander. This is where Lord Ahn used to live, so his highness is probably in—”
From that moment, everything happens all at once.
A gasp. Chi-rok and Utae grip their bows. Byeong-jun jumps to the side, behind one of the posts and out of view of the doorway, and draws his own weapon. From Byeong-jun’s reaction it is clear he saw someone inside, someone who shouldn’t be there. “Put the gun down!” he demands, but the intruder is already shouting something back that gets lost behind Byeong-jun’s words.
Utae curses. Chi-rok grabs Utae and pulls him closer to the building but at a more difficult angle for the gunman. Gunmen? He whistles at Byeong-jun and receives one finger in response, indicating a single gunman.
Chi-rok and Utae already have their bows drawn. Chi-rok’s heartbeat is in his ears, and a frantic part of him remembers the letter, and his promise to Beom-pal.
“Who are you?!” shouts the man inside, sounding panicked and aggressive, and the first gut reaction from Chi-rok is fear, and then his mind is calculating the velocity of a bullet, and time it takes to reload a musket, and he thinks, if they can entice the gunman to shoot at something else, he’ll be rendered defenseless, but what of the others? No one sends a lone gunman for a political assassination. Either they send someone disguised as a servant to bring poison, or they send a whole group of armed mercenaries, and likely this is only the lookout, and the whole courtyard is surrounded by an army of men concealed behind paper walls.
“Put the gun down!” shouts Byeong-jun again.
Chi-rok, with his eyes trained unblinking on the doorway, asks Utae quickly, “visually, do you see any signs of other intruders in the surrounding buildings?”
After a beat, Utae whispers, “No, sir, but all the other doors are shut and there are no lamps inside to see silhouettes—”
The gunman is shouting, “You’re not from Sangju! You’re not—don’t come in here, don’t touch me! Stay out! I’m supposed to be here! I’m supposed to—”
“Put the gun down,” demands Byeong-jun, still outside the door and braced behind the post. His armor might protect him from one bullet, but there could be archers, swordsmen… a piece of Chi-rok’s soul cries out in agony at the idea of having to bury Byeong-jun. He refuses to let another person die on his watch.
Byeong-jun declares, “You’re under arrest for civilian use of a military firearm—”
And something isn’t clicking in Chi-rok’s head, he knows he’s missing something, he knows he should have noticed something important, but his instincts are screaming to neutralize the threat, and protect his highness, and you promised you’d get back to Hanyang alive, not get tangled in a trap meant for the prince.
“ I’m supposed to be here!” the gunman screams , hysterical, full-throated and painful, “Stay out! Don’t touch me!”
Then it clicks.
A single gunman in the former crown prince’s residence, whose voice, despite the screaming, is itching at the corner of Chi-rok’s memory?
Chi-rok lowers his bow. “Yeong-shin?” No response—he didn’t say it loud enough to be heard over the tense back-and-forth with Byeong-jun. “Stand down, Lieutenant!” he barks at Byeong-jun, and then towards the doorway he calls, “Yeong-shin, is that you?”
No response but the sound of a sob, and a still frantic, “Who are you?!”
The tension floods out of Chi-rok, as he bypasses Utae and rushes towards the doorway, brushing Byeong-jun aside. Chi-rok isn’t so reckless as to directly walk into the gunman’s line of sight, but this close he at least lowers his voice to a respectable level, taking Byeong-jun’s place behind the nearest cover. “Yeong-shin, this is Commander Min Chi-rok of the Royal Commandery. We’ve met before, in Hanyang, where we were allies. You are not under arrest, and I deeply apologize for the alarm we’ve caused; this was a terrible misunderstanding.”
“Don’t come in here!” shouts Yeong-shin. The words are just as sharp as before, a lack of recognition plain in his fear. “Don’t come in here, I’ll shoot!”
“Sir,” says Byeong-jun, voice quavering, “are you sure you know this man?”
Chi-rok nods. He’s certain, at this point. Even if he doesn’t know Yeong-shin particularly well, he is sure he recognizes his voice, and this makes far more sense than the idea of some lone mercenary assassin crouched in the middle of the prince’s residence, wielding a military-issue musket instead of a simpler, quieter weapon.
“If this is your man, perhaps he isn’t thinking straight,” suggests Utae, “perhaps we must give him space to calm down.”
“That isn’t an option,” Chi-rok tells them in an undertone, “because we can’t be sure he is alone in the residence. If a servant emerges from a back room and startles him, he could kill them.”
He can smell the burning of the matchcord, now. The scent is unmistakable. And Chi-rok curses himself for not knowing more about the man on the other side of the doorway. All of that month they’d spent in the periphery of each other’s lives, cleaning up the palace and counting the dead, and Chi-rok had never once asked where this commoner had learned to shoot a gun. Such a question had been the furthest thing from his mind.
“Yeong-shin,” Chi-rok repeats himself, firmly, “I am Commander Min Chi-rok of the Royal Commandery. I came to Sangju to see his highness the prince. We are allies. May I come in?”
“Sir, you can’t—” Utae objects, but a sharp gesture from Chi-rok shuts his mouth.
After a beat, the gunman responds dazedly, “Commander Min?”
“Yes. May I come in?”
“You know me!” Yeong-shin exclaims, relief warring with his panic. “Tell them I didn’t do anything, tell them I work for his highness!”
Crestfallen at Yeong-shin’s misunderstanding, Chi-rok turns to look at Byeong-jun and Utae. Byeong-jun ducks his head, ashamed of the harm he’d accidentally caused, and Utae looks pained in sympathy for both his colleague and for Yeong-shin. “I’ve told them,” Chi-rok calls out. “It’s alright now. May I come in?”
“Oh,” he says. The panic is gone, replaced with bewildered calm. “Yeah, okay.”
“You won’t shoot me?” Chi-rok clarifies.
“No,” Yeong-shin says, laughing sheepishly, “no, I wouldn’t shoot you.”
Slowly, Chi-rok steps out from cover, making his every movement obvious. When the sightlines finally allow him to see into the entrance, he finds it is indeed Yeong-shin, dressed in commoner clothing, sitting atop a nobleman’s mattress, silk pillows and all. This explains why Byeong-jun immediately thought Yeong-shin was an intruder—to begin with, he looks like he doesn’t belong, and the addition of the weapon made him seem like an active threat. A woolen blanket covers his legs, and in his lap rests the military-issue musket. The matchcord is still burning; he hasn’t extinguished it. He appears disoriented, and exhausted, but calm enough that he doesn’t look up from his lap when Chi-rok crosses the threshold.
Under different circumstances, Chi-rok would have removed his boots before entering. Instead he continues his slow pace forward, waiting for an objection. Softly, he says, “Hi, Yeong-shin.”
Yeong-shin lowers his head respectfully, and though his voice is hoarse, he says, “It’s good to see you, Commander. I suppose you and your soldiers were looking for his highness, but… as you can see, he’s not around right now.”
Chi-rok reasons that Yeong-shin must have learned to use a gun during the war. That much is clear from just looking at him, now, with his head hung low, wracked with full-body tremors; this is a man who has seen war, a man who has seen too much death. Chi-rok lowers himself to the floor next to the bed, and when there is still no objection, he places a hand on Yeong-shin’s shoulder. Gently, he asks, “May I have that matchcord?”
Head hung low, Yeong-shin shrugs, and holds out the gun for Chi-rok to take the cord. Chi-rok does so immediately, and extinguishes the slow match against his boot. With the gun disarmed, Chi-rok lets out a breath, his pulse finally slowing. He catches sight of Utae and Byeong-jun outside, lingering in the courtyard and watching their commander from a distance, but with more relaxed postures than before.
“I wouldn’t have shot you, really,” Yeong-shin says dully.
“I know,” Chi-rok says, though the burning matchcord hadn’t filled him with confidence.
“Soldiers and police have no reason to listen to what you’re saying unless you point a gun at them first,” Yeong-shin defends himself, bitterly. “What would your man have done to me if I was unarmed?”
Chi-rok is fairly certain that Byeong-jun would not have jumped to the same conclusions about Yeong-shin had the gun been absent from the equation, but he withholds his objections. Instead, he further studies the room, the bed, the silk pillows, the woolen blanket, and the scent of Yeong-shin’s sweat. He doesn’t remove his hand from Yeong-shin’s shoulder. From experience, Chi-rok knows such a thing can be grounding.
Yeong-shin lets out a long sigh, and scrubs his face with one hand. He laughs, and says, “Damn, you all scared the shit out of me.”
“I sincerely apologize. I take full responsibility for our mistake, and I’m relieved no one was hurt.” Chi-rok’s gaze lingers on the mattress, the blanket, and Yeong-shin’s out-of-place clothing. What exactly was Yeong-shin doing here in the first place? “Did we wake you?” he asks, standing back on his feet and offering Yeong-shin a hand to help him up from the bed.
“Oh,” Yeong-shin says, tilting his head at the gesture but making no movement to stand. “No, I wasn’t sleeping—didn’t his highness tell you what happened?”
Chi-rok drops his hand. “What do you mean?”
Yeong-shin pushes the blanket away from his legs. There, on the left leg, Chi-rok sees bare skin and bandages running all the way up the shin, with old bruising around the knee and calf. Splints hold the leg in place. “I fell,” Yeong-shin offers as an explanation.
“I see,” Chi-rok says. “You have my sympathies. So, this is the ‘complication’ which rendered his highness and his companions unable to leave Sangju?”
Yeong-shin snorts. “Is that how he worded it? Well, then he must really know it’s horseshit, if he’s trying to talk around it. Sorry you had to come all this way.”
“It seems reasonable that his highness wouldn’t wish to journey to Gyeongju without his personal guard.”
With some amount of derision, Yeong-shin says, “I’m not his personal guard. I don’t work for him.”
Chi-rok furrows his brow. This is... completely inconsequential, but an inconsistency like this would itch at Chi-rok long after the conversation was over, so he can’t help but point it out immediately: “You just said you work for him, a few moments ago. You asked me to tell my officers that you work for his highness.”
“Well, it’s complicated,” Yeong-shin grumbles, dismissively.
They are interrupted by a woman’s voice from the courtyard. It seems a maid from the estate has greeted Byeong-jun and Utae. “Are you from the Royal Commandery, sirs? Lord Ahn told me to expect your arrival. Please, let me bring you to our guest house, and when you are ready I will escort you to the governor’s house where you are invited for dinner.”
Chi-rok’s gaze drifts back to Yeong-shin, who is forcefully wrapping the gun in its cloth cover.
Chi-rok has spent the last few months feeling dreadfully guilty about things he could not control. Looking at Yeong-shin, he also feels guilty—for intruding on him, intimidating him, and drawing attention to the inconsistencies in his story at a moment when such cross-examination was truly unnecessary. But the guilt is so much milder. It’s no less real, to feel guilt for the sake of a living person rather than for the sake of the dead. It’s no less important to make amends. But it feels like a completely different quality of emotion.
Guilt for the dead is oppressive like being pinned down by a boulder, inescapable and heavy.
Guilt for the living is only a motivation to pursue restorative justice.
This feeling is what presses Chi-rok to carefully examine Yeong-shin. He notices the way the tremors have slowed but not yet stopped, the way his fingers still grip the gun through the cloth, the way his breath is still hitching on the exhale. Chi-rok asks, “Will you be alright on your own?”
Yeong-shin looks up at Chi-rok, and their eyes meet. Then, his features twist into a disbelieving smile, and he says, “Commander, I think you are the only person who has ever asked me that question.”
“And what is your answer?”
“I’ll… be fine. Thank you.”
Chi-rok nods slowly, and then he stands, and turns to leave. But when he steps through the doorway, he turns back to look at Yeong-shin, whose eyes are trained on Chi-rok, and whose hands are still gripping the gun through its cover. Chi-rok asks him, “Would you like me to shut the door for you?”
Yeong-shin hesitates, and then nods, with a small, grateful smile.
“Gyeong-hwa,” Byeong-jun asks the maid, as she leads them to the governor’s estate, “We were wondering earlier: why are the streets so empty near Lord Ahn’s residence?”
Gyeong-hwa doesn’t break her brisk stride, but she sounds friendly nonetheless when she answers, “Those homes were reserved for my late master’s retainers, but almost all of them lost their lives defending Sangju from the monsters. A couple of months ago, Lord Ahn Chang arranged for the widows and their families to move temporarily into a communal home down the road, where he provides for them financially. The hope is that the communal living will alleviate some of the stress on the widows, and help the children process the trauma better. For the time being, the residences near the estate remain empty.”
“And what about the gate?” asks Utae, “At the courtyard, the gate was missing.”
“Oh, I don’t even notice the missing gate anymore,” Gyeong-hwa laughs. “They took down that gate months ago; they used it at the beginning of the outbreak, as part of the barricade near the river. Lord Ahn Hyeon told the men to take any wood they could find for the barricade, even from his own estate.”
“He wasn’t afraid of people sneaking onto the estate?”
“No, of course not,” Gyeong-hwa says. “He was a beloved public figure. Besides, even with a gate, the fence isn’t very tall. A dedicated intruder could simply climb over it.”
Hi everyone, thanks for reading! Just a reminder - I'm going to post up to and including chapter 10, and then I'll take a short break before continuing. Thank you for all your comments, I really appreciate it! :)
Upon their arrival at the governor's residence, they are separated. Utae and Byeong-jun are invited to dine with the governor's retainers, while Chi-rok alone is led to a more private room. “We expect the master and his guest will be joining you shortly,” a servant explains. “Please, make yourself comfortable, and feel free to partake in the wine.”
So he sits at the dining table, cross-legged on the floor cushion. It reminds Chi-rok of how things used to be in Hanyang, whenever he was scheduled to meet with the Minister of War. They would make a precise appointment, and then, after arriving on-time, Chi-rok would still have to wait an hour sitting straight-backed in the Minister’s library, because the Minister always got roped into last minute questions and discussions with others. Such was the life of a prominent government official.
Alone, Chi-rok looks at the shut door of this room, and then to the wine which he will not touch before the arrival of the others. He looks once more to the door.
He pulls the letter out from his shirt, and unrolls it on the table.
After that strange feeling of lightness when he was making things right with Yeong-shin… he keeps thinking about what Beom-pal said. The opportunity to do work in service of living people will do more to ease your spirit … Beom-pal had seen right through him, to the marrow of his bones, to a truth that Chi-rok hadn’t even known about himself.
How many times has Chi-rok heard Beom-pal call himself foolish and stupid? His rebuttals and reassurances are always so futile against the magnitude of Beom-pal’s self-hatred. But this, written on thick parchment and signed with his love’s tears… perhaps upon returning to Hanyang Chi-rok can bring this letter back to Beom-pal. Look at this, he could say, My heart, you are so wise. I think you are the wisest man I’ve ever met.
And then, indulgently, Chi-rok rereads the last lines, the recitation of Beom-pal’s love for him. And again, once more. After the day he’s had, in this one moment alone, he lets the most fragile part of his ego out to breathe.
“After two months, I expected a more enthusiastic greeting.”
Chi-rok is lucky the letter is made of parchment, or he would have torn it in his scramble to hide it from the prince who, somehow, materialized behind his shoulder without him noticing. “Your highness,” he says, hastily rolling up the scroll and thinking how much did he see? How much did he read? If his highness saw… Belatedly, with the letter tucked away again, Chi-rok tries to reconfigure his body into the shape of a bow.
The prince dismisses him, and takes the cushion across the table from him. He looks well, and the deep blue silk of his hanbok shimmers in the lamp light. “It is good to see you, Commander. Though, if that was a display of your battle-honed vigilance, I am unimpressed.”
Chi-rok ducks his head. “My apologies, your highness, my mind was elsewhere—”
“I am only joking, my friend!” says the prince, giving Chi-rok a wry, knowing smile. “You could not have heard me coming if you tried. I am very sneaky.”
The Royal Commandery is a division of the military specifically tasked with protecting the royal family. Despite being the head of the Royal Commandery for three years and an officer for three years before that, Chi-rok had never really interacted much with Prince Lee Chang. Not directly. Yet, now, the prince calls him “my friend,” and looks at him with such unabashed affection and… something else. Something predatory like a prowling cat; the kind of look Chi-rok used to see on the late Cho Beom-il’s face.
“The governor won’t be joining us,” says the prince, with a flippant and vaguely sinister tone. “Something has come up with the distribution of the refugee provisions, so he is busy sorting it out.”
“He is doing this personally?” Chi-rok clarifies.
Still smiling, the prince looks wistfully at the closed door. “Personally,” he confirms. “Do you know, I stripped him of his title three months ago during the outbreak? He was going to lock out the refugees and let them be eaten. Such a man could not be trusted to protect the lives of the people.”
Chi-rok frowns, confused. “If he doesn’t hold the title, then who does?”
“Well, the municipal code states that the title returns to the previous governor, if he is still alive and in good standing, until the royal court can make a suitable appointment. The previous governor was Lord Ahn Hyeon, so he was made the acting governor. But he passed away. And when a governor passes away, the title is passed to his first-born son.” The prince’s smile turns devilish. “So, I suppose the current acting governor is technically Lord Ahn Chang.”
“But you have not claimed the title,” Chi-rok infers from the fact that they are both guests in the governor’s estate, “and this other man is managing the distribution of refugee provisions?”
“I suppose I’m willing to let him demonstrate to me that he has learned how to serve his people. Perhaps, then, I will ask the Second State Councillor to restore the governor’s title.”
The door opens, and two servants enter with trays stacked generously with dishes of meats and fish and noodles. One of the servants begins apologizing profusely to the prince that “the master will not be able to attend dinner this evening, but he has bid that his guests please enjoy the meal!” and the prince smiles graciously and assures them it is quite alright, and perhaps he will reschedule his appointment with the governor for tomorrow.
When all of the dishes are laid out neatly on the dining table, the servants retreat, and the door shuts once more.
“Please, enjoy,” the prince entreats him, pouring wine for Chi-rok. “I warn you that the fish may not be of the best quality, but some of us haven’t eaten fish since the solstice, and it tastes exquisite when you’ve gone so long without.”
The man sitting before Chi-rok is a complete reversal of the austere figure to whom Chi-rok had sworn his life and sword during the outbreak, and Chi-rok’s stomach twists with doubt. He makes no move to feed himself. Instead he asks, “Did you engineer the governor’s absence for any reason other than to eat his food?”
The prince’s face falls into a pout. “You make it sound like I did a bad thing.”
“I would never question your highness’s intentions,” Chi-rok says, averting his gaze respectfully.
“There was an issue with the refugee provisions,” the prince whines. “All I did was suggest it merited his full attention.” But then the prince’s demeanor turns a little more sober, and he relaxes his posture until he is leaning back, with one hand braced on the floor behind him. Thoughtfully, he remarks, “I did wish to meet with you in private, Commander… though, partly it was because I hoped you would be jovial with me, and share with me your good humor.”
“Respectfully, your highness… I am not known for my good humor.”
“Is that so? I should have known Beom-pal’s letters were as uselessly effusive as ever.”
The gentle fondness in the prince’s tone does nothing to ease the knot of defensive instinct forming in Chi-rok’s chest, disdain for Beom-pal? How dare… but Chi-rok stifles it.
“But…” the prince continues, aimlessly examining the food, “the other reason I wished to speak with you… well.” His eyes flicker up to meet Chi-rok’s gaze. “What… was that letter you were reading, just now?”
Chi-rok stiffens. “It was nothing, your highness,” he says, and because he has never had the stomach for intentionally telling lies, he continues, “Only a missive from the Second State Councillor.”
“May I read it?”
Chi-rok freezes. He doesn’t say anything.
“I see,” says the prince, unsurprised. He sounds disappointed. He sounds… like he already knows what was written there. Like he saw enough of it.
The dishes remain on the warming plate between them, untouched by either party.
“Commander,” continues the prince, softly, almost bashfully, “I don’t… have anyone else in my life to whom I could turn for advice, anymore. My mother, my father, my master… Mu-yeong… all of the ministers… there is no one left. I suppose I could still ask Minister Gim, but the last piece of advice I received from him was to murder a newborn child, so I do not count him as a pillar of wisdom.”
Chi-rok tilts his head, and finds his voice again to ask, “You… would turn to me, your highness?”
“Well, yes, I… you were already on your way to Sangju when this question became an issue, and I know you are a well respected man from a noble clan, and Beom-pal has praised your moral courage many times during our correspondence, and... so I was going to ask you a very personal question.” The prince sighs, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I was, but… are you still loyal to me?”
Chi-rok’s mind casts frantically in the dark for a moment, trying to piece together what the prince is really asking. “Of course I… sir, my loyalty is not impacted by—”
“—by any private messages between yourself and the Second State Councillor, of course,” the prince finishes, skeptically. And then he drops his face into his hands. “I’m sorry, Commander,” he says, weakly, and it sounds like the first genuine vulnerability he has expressed since entering the room, “I am so paranoid, these days, and I can’t…”
Chi-rok wants to console him, but the accusation of disloyalty still grips him with fear, and each precarious display of emotion from the prince is more indecipherable than the last, and—
“But you are a good man,” the prince says, in a private whisper, “you are a good man, and so is the Second State Councillor, and if I cannot trust you, I cannot trust anyone… I must trust someone, I am lost alone…but, if you would betray me...”
“Your highness,” Chi-rok chokes out.
In a burst of words, the prince asks, “Can a man love another man?”
He’s never heard anyone say it aloud, in such a reckless tone. The implicit threat hangs in the air. Chi-rok looks down at the food, the spoils of political machinations against a man whose personal humiliation amused the prince.
And now Beom-pal is involved. And Chi-rok might have taken a gamble on the prince’s discretion if it was only his own career at risk, but if it is Beom-pal too...
He speaks very carefully. Stoic as ever.
“Your highness,” he says. “I believe with my whole being that you are the rightful king and the moral father of Joseon. But, if you think to use that authority to condemn and desecrate the most dear happiness this life has ever given me, then perhaps you should have done so before rescinding your claim to the throne, because I will not yield to this, and neither will the Second State Councillor, and you hold no power to compel us.” His hands form fists at his sides. It is done. He has drawn his line in the sand. If the prince was looking for disloyalty, well, now Chi-rok has shown it to him.
The prince blinks at him. “What?”
“There is no point in discussing this further,” Chi-rok grates out. “You have my loyalty as long as you never speak of it again. So ask your question, or don’t.”
“Chi-rok,” says the prince, laughing in disbelief, “that was my question.”
Chi-rok’s mind goes blank for a beat. He looks at the prince’s face. He asks, “pardon?”
The prince is grinning, his eyes sparkling with a mixture of mirth and tears, and his hand is pressed against his chest like he’s catching his breath, and he says, “I thought you were conspiring against me! I thought you had secret instructions to betray me!”
“What?” Chi-rok asks, still unsure if the prince is his enemy, but trying to correct the record nonetheless, “No, I… we wouldn’t…”
“I thought you were hiding the letter because… but it is a love letter? You love him?” the prince asks, eagerly, his voice cracking.
“I… yes…” Chi-rok confirms, bewildered.
“And you hid it because you thought I wouldn’t approve… Oh, Chi-rok… my friend, this is wonderful, this is just…” The prince covers his mouth with the back of his fist, and tears begin to flow down his cheeks, and he makes a broken sound.
Oh. Oh. Chi-rok is piecing it together, now. He lunges for a cloth napkin and passes it across the table. “Your highness...”
“I was going to ask your advice about my situation, but,” the prince gasps, and wipes away at the tears, and, when that doesn’t work, he buries his face in the napkin, and says, muffled, “now I’m far more interested in hearing about yours.”
“There… there is nothing to tell,” says Chi-rok.
“No, no, there is everything to tell! I thought…” The prince pulls the napkin away from his face and takes a shaky breath, his cheeks flushed and damp. “I was feeling such longing, such strong emotion, but I thought that it was not possible… maybe there could be the bond of loyalty, of friendship, maybe even something carnal, but never… but of course, a man can love another man, cherish him, write him love letters, I just needed to know, I just needed to ask someone, I just needed it to be true…”
Chi-rok doesn’t know what to say, he is so off-balance in this conversation, but… moved, by the heartbreak in the prince’s voice. He knows he needs to be here. There is a duty here that he must fulfill, not in his role as a military commander, but as a human with another human. “Your highness…” he tries to say.
“Please, call me by my name, just, just in this room, please, Chi-rok. I am your student. Please, you must teach me everything you know. Please. I beg of you…” Surreal and backwards, the prince moves back onto his knees, and presses his brow to the floor.
First, they drink the wine. Chi-rok shores up his courage, and promises to himself that as soon as this night is over he will forget all of it, but that, for now, he must let go of his rigid conception of social order and allow the prince to be a vulnerable, human man. A young man.
For the entire meal, in the privacy of this room, Chang asks a great many questions.
“Who plays the role of the woman?”
“Neither of us. Both of us. I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Do you sleep in the same bed? Do you…”
“We do all the things that lovers do.”
“But how? How do two men—?”
Blushing, and covering his eyes with his hands, Chi-rok explains this very quietly, and then answers all sixteen of Chang’s extremely detailed follow-up questions.
“How did you know all of this?”
“We have both had past relationships with men.”
“But how did you know that Beom-pal would respond positively, and not think you were—?”
“It was Beom-pal who took the initiative. He is, in some ways, more courageous than any soldier I have ever met.”
Chang laughs, then stops. “Oh, you’re serious?”
“Ah. I have underestimated Beom-pal.”
“How long has it been since this relationship began?”
“Almost three months.”
“Only—?” Chang cuts himself off. “Well, what happens if something goes wrong?”
Chi-rok shuts his eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
When they have each eaten their fill, the conversation turns to the subject of Chang’s own epiphany.
“I kissed him, yesterday.”
“Yeong-shin. I… and I haven’t spoken to him since. I’m so afraid of what he will say.”
“You have met him. Do you think he… do you know, if he would…?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think one can know these things without asking the person directly.”
“He will hate me. I think he already hates me. He has accused me of perversion already.”
“After you kissed him?”
“No, long before that. We were arguing. He didn’t mean it.”
“How did he react when you kissed him?”
“I don’t know. He was very drunk and in a lot of pain.”
“Your highness—Chang… that does not sound like the ideal time to confess your feelings to a person.”
“I had to distract him, somehow. From the pain.”
“But… it doesn’t matter, really, because I’m sure he hates me. How can I convince him to love me in return? How do I explain to him that a man can love another man and—why are you shaking your head?”
“Do you love him?”
“What does that mean, to you?”
“It means… It means I care for him deeply, and I want to protect him, and be near him all the time, and kiss him, and make love to him, and…”
“How do you want him to feel?”
“The same, I suppose?”
“No, what I mean is… how do you want him to feel, as a result of your love for him?”
There is a long silence, as Chang thinks. Then he says, “...safe. Cherished. Comforted?”
“And how will he feel, if you try to convince him to love you?”
Chang says nothing.
“I hope you are lucky enough that he will return your feelings. But you must prepare yourself for the possibility that he will not.”
“I know.” Chang’s tears return. “I know. I have been thinking about this. I know. You are right. Oh, I’m so afraid of this.”
“It would hurt,” Chi-rok agrees, remembering how it felt to ride away from Hanyang convinced that Beom-pal was rejecting him. “You have survived worse. It would pass, eventually. You can only do your best to cherish him, and respect his wishes, and be satisfied with that.”
“Yes…” says Chang, wiping his face. “Yes.”
They finish the meal. The servants return to clear the dishes away. The prince drinks some water, and also splashes it on his face to abate the heat of crying so much. “I am so grateful to you, Commander,” he says. “You have given me much to think about. I am deeply indebted to you. I know that this conversation cannot have been easy for you, and I appreciate that you have endured nonetheless.”
“My officers and I will escort you back to your residence if you wish, sir.”
“I would be grateful, yes...”
But they are interrupted when Byeong-jun, seeing the door left open for the servants, stumbles into the room, red in the face, and Utae is behind him trying to corral him back into the hallway, trying to apologize on Byeong-jun’s behalf for the interruption.
Alarmed, Chi-rok tries to do the same, but Byeong-jun is too fast, dropping to his knees and prostrating himself in front of the prince, “Your highness!” Byeong-jun sobs, drunkenly, “I am so sorry for trying to arrest your guard! From his clothing I thought he was a commoner! I was mistaken! I’m so sorry...!”
Chi-rok pinches the bridge of his nose. “Lieutenant, please…” he reprimands, mildly. There was no need for his highness to be informed of that embarrassing altercation, especially not when it would upset him unnecessarily, but it was too late now.
”You… tried to arrest Yeong-shin?” asks the prince, in alarm, turning to Chi-rok. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It was only a miscommunication, your highness. Yeong-shin is fine.”
“Did you hurt him?!”
“No, we did not even enter the residence, your highness. I did not mention it because it was a non-incident. Lieutenant Bak, please get up off the floor.”
But Byeong-jun is still crying, and Utae is trying to pick him up. And the prince… storms right past them, down the hall, and out of the governor’s residence entirely.
all the stuff about the succession of governors is made up, for the record :)
He is reminded, vaguely, of the livestock markets, back when merchants could afford to raise animals for meat—back when they could afford to raise animals at all. In the livestock markets, poultry farmers would bring live birds into the city, in bamboo cages stacked one atop the other, each cage holding a few chickens fat enough for slaughter. The birds were loud . The movement and noise around them riled them up into a frenzy of noise, cawing and screeching and pecking at the air and each other. But when a poultry farmer would lay a blanket over the cage holding his livestock, all the birds would quiet down. The chickens were simple, stupid animals. Blinded, they felt safe.
Maybe Yeong-shin, too, is a simple, stupid animal. After Commander Min shut the door, the anxiety emptied out of him. Surrounded on all sides by thin paper, he felt safe again. Even as the sun set and the surroundings darkened to night, and he was still alone, it didn’t bother him. He laid down in the bed and shut his eyes, and tried not to think about how close he had come to shooting one of the nation’s highest military officials in the face.
Gyeong-hwa brings him a simple dinner. “I ran into Seo-bi on my way back from the governor’s house,” she says. “She wanted me to tell you how sorry she is that she’s not going to be back until late tonight. Something went wrong with the refugee rations, and many people became ill with food poisoning. The governor himself is involved, now, trying to put together a new stock of rations. It sounds like quite a crisis.”
“Okay,” Yeong-shin replies, quietly. “Thank you for telling me, and thank you for the food.”
He remembers how anxious he had been this morning, told he would be alone for the whole day. Now, the disappointment is flimsy and unimpactful. He’s more tired than lonely. Or maybe he’s just re-acclimating to something that has always been familiar to him.
Gyeong-hwa leaves, and shuts the door. Yeong-shin eats in silence, and though it is still early, he douses the oil lamp, and lays down again in the dark, and thinks about being kissed.
Maybe the prince’s avoidance today means he has come to his senses. Maybe the prince has realized it was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.
But Yeong-shin thinks about being kissed. He thinks about how it would feel, if he died tomorrow, and at one point in the course of his brutal, miserable life, the crown prince of Joseon had kissed him on the lips. Strange, lovely and tender.
He’s so tired. It’s impossible to make sense of anything anymore. In a few days, if he is lucky, he will be on crutches, and things will feel more normal when he is able to move around. He will be more like himself, and less like this helpless castaway set adrift on the ocean.
If he sleeps, time will pass faster.
An indeterminate amount of time later, the lamp beside Yeong-shin’s bed is lit again. Even through his eyelids, the brightness of it burns. Between dreaming and waking, Yeong-shin groans, and turns his face away, squeezing his eyes shut to keep the light out.
Then, someone’s hands roughly tug on the fabric of his shirt. Yeong-shin grumbles out “I’m sleeping, stop it,” but that doesn’t seem to dissuade the person, and finally, when he feels them undo the knot of his shirt, he concedes and opens his eyes.
It’s Chang. He looks furious. His concentrated effort pulls open Yeong-shin’s clothing, allowing the cool air of the evening to nip at his bare chest, and now he bodily moves Yeong-shin into a sitting position so he can pull the shirt down and off his arms.
“The fuck are you doing?” Yeong-shin asks without thinking. The fear he usually feels when he speaks rudely to the prince seems to be the kind of superior reasoning that only occurs to Yeong-shin when he’s fully awake. In its absence, at this moment, his mouth is perfectly content to curse without restraint. He stops cooperating, pulls his left wrist out of Chang’s grip, and tries to rub the sleep from his eyes.
Undeterred, Chang shifts and pulls the fabric down and off Yeong-shin’s right arm, and then he’s working on the left wrist again. “They thought you were an intruder,” Chang growls. “It was my fault; I should have never put you in this bed without giving you something decent to wear.”
“Hold on, fuck, I can get dressed by myself, let go of me!” Yeong-shin yanks his arm back, but Chang has already finished with the shirt, and now he’s going for Yeong-shin’s pants (what’s left of them, after Seo-bi cut them apart to treat him). Before Chang can undress him entirely, Yeong-shin pins the prince’s wrists firmly to the wooden frame of the bed. “What the fuck?”
Chang’s eyes are wild, enraged. “I’ve brought you into my life and into my residence, and yet from looking at you, people assume you don’t belong here. If I don’t dress you in a way that signals you are a member of my inner circle, then your presence by my side will invite unto you constant danger or constant disrespect, and I refuse to allow either. Don’t fight me on this.”
“Can we discuss this like adults instead of you ripping my clothes off of me? The hell is wrong with you?” This question finally seems to break through the barrier of the prince’s anger, and Chang blinks, like he’s just realized what he was doing. His eyes, which had been staring at Yeong-shin’s face, now flicker down to his collarbones, his chest, his stomach... all the bare skin, old scars, and newer teeth-wounds from the battle in Hanyang. Yeong-shin flinches, and lets go of Chang’s wrists to pull his arms back around himself to shield his nakedness from that gaze. “Stop it.”
After a beat, Chang tears his eyes away. “Sorry,” he says, “I really was just trying to dress you in something different, I didn’t mean to—sorry. That was rude of me. Here.” He passes a bundle of fabric to Yeong-shin.
It’s silk. Dyed blue or black, hard to tell in the lamplight. Silk. Smooth under Yeong-shin’s fingers.
Silk. How many days of food is a full silk garment worth? More than a year?
“If you’re about to start denigrating yourself and telling me you don’t deserve to wear something as nice as that, don’t. I’m not in the mood to listen to such horseshit.”
Yeong-shin lifts an eyebrow, but doesn’t comment on the prince’s vocabulary. Instead, holding the bundle of clothing with the tips of his fingers, he points out, “I haven’t bathed in six days. I’ll ruin the fabric.”
“It can be washed,” grits out Chang. “I don’t care. Put it on.”
“Why are you so angry with me, all of a sudden?”
“I’m not—” Chang breaks off, and then lets out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. “I am angry. I’m not angry with you. Sound familiar?”
Yeong-shin lets out a breath, slowly. He hadn’t really felt like the prince was angry with him, but… given all the manhandling, he’d just wanted to make sure. It’s good to hear that reassurance. He’s not sure how it would feel, to know the prince was actually angry with him—he only knows how eager he is to avoid it. “If not me,” he asks, “then, who are you angry with?”
“I’m angry with myself.”
“Why?” Yeong-shin drapes the silk bundle over the bed frame so he doesn’t have to hold it or touch it, and then he wraps his arms around his naked abdomen again. “Because you didn’t dress me up nicely? Don’t be ridiculous. I understand that maybe seeing poverty for the first time has made you feel guilty for all the wealth and power you possess, but giving me nice things doesn’t erase that. I’m not your convenient proxy for the lower classes.”
Infuriatingly, Chang chuckles, and another layer of that anger seems to peel away from his demeanor. “That’s not it,” he says. “No… it’s just, during my conversation with Commander Min, I realized that, all this time, I have been neglecting you, and this incident with the Royal Commandery is proof of that. So, that is why I am angry.”
Yeong-shin frowns, grumbling, “Your highness, there are many words I could use to describe the way you’ve been treating me the past few days, but neglectful is not top of mind.”
“I’m not talking about your injury. I’m talking about the way I’ve been treating you since my abdication,” says Chang. “Hear me out.”
Resolutely topless, and with his old shirt just out of reach in the prince’s grasp, Yeong-shin doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. “I’m listening,” he says.
Chang smiles. His own silk clothing ripples in the light as he leans back, bracing a hand against the floor. His remaining anger seems to dissipate into a soft contentedness, wind-battered calm after a storm. He begins to explain, “I have these feelings for you. You know this; I’ve told you already how deeply I care for you. When all was said and done in the capital, those feelings rose from my soul to the forefront of my mind. But it was so strange—I had never felt this way about another person before. I never had the luxury of thinking of anything but ensuring my own survival. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Are you following me so far?”
As always, the emotional declarations make Yeong-shin’s throat tighten, with frustration or nerves or whatever else. In the chill, with goosebumps rising across his bare shoulders and up the nape of his neck, that discomfort is magnified. But he nods anyway.
“This evening, I realized that if everything had been the same, but you were a woman, it would have been obvious what to—”
“I’m not a woman,” Yeong-shin interjects.
“I know, I’m not trying to upset you,” Chang reassures him after half-rolling his eyes at the comment. “But listen, if everything had been the same, but you were a woman, then from the moment of my abdication, I would have been giving you things.”
“Things?” asks Yeong-shin, looking over at Chang, and then at the bundle of silk on the bed frame. “Things like silks?”
(The look that crosses over Chang’s face, for only a heartbeat, is that special, patronizing expression unique to very wealthy men. But then it disappears, and Chang simply says, “Not only silks.”)
Then he leans forward and places his hands in his lap. “Of course, you likely would have refused such gifts, just as you try to refuse any special consideration. But I think that, with my persistence, I at least could have coaxed you into better clothing; something that wasn’t so stained and ragged. And when the Royal Commandery soldiers saw you, they wouldn’t have jumped to such terrible conclusions.”
“All this, if I was a woman?” Yeong-shin clicks his teeth. “Your story doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t have been a tiger hunter, so none of this would have happened.”
Chang whines, “Please suspend your disbelief for the sake of my argument!”
“Typically I can follow your more academic monologues, your highness, but you’ve lost me on this one.”
He continues, sourly, “The point is that, had you been a woman, it would have been a very natural consequence of my feelings to court you.” Then he stops, and some of that anger from earlier clouds his face. “But, you are a man,” he explains, “and lowborn at that, so I didn’t know how to treat you. You were so important to me, but I had no idea what to do with that feeling. I didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t particularly urgent to express it regardless. After all, I assumed that my trust in you and the respect I had shown you, far above your station, was plenty enough incentive for you to stay by my side indefinitely.”
Anger flares up in Yeong-shin. The challenge is on the tip of his tongue, all the rigid self-defense of his own dignity. What do you think I am? A stray dog, eager for any scrap of food or attention? But he bares his teeth, and he says nothing, because from the irony in the prince’s voice, Chang already knows how far off the mark he had been with that assumption.
“I took advantage of you.” Chang says, firmly. “It wasn’t my intention, but I did. I had these special feelings for you, but there was no obvious framework to try to express that, and there was so much else going on. It was easy to simply treat you the way I would treat any other who happened to be in your position. So, I treated you like a loyal soldier, and I treated you like a nobi. ”
“Wait, what?” Yeong-shin yelps, feeling a sudden whiplash, first wanting to defend his own dignity, and then wanting to defend the prince’s honor instead. With his arms still crossed in front of his chest to conserve warmth, he leans forward to try to catch the prince’s gaze. “That’s a fucking lie. You’ve been decent to me from the start.”
“Have I?” counters Chang, harshly. “Don’t answer. Think.”
“There’s nothing to think about!” Yeong-shin tells him. “For all the things I’ve said and done to you, you could have killed me a hundred times over!”
“I’d like to think I can be held to a higher standard than not executing you.”
I would have noticed, Yeong-shin’s mind is chanting, I would have noticed if you’d been taking advantage of me. Grasping for a counterexample, he tosses out, “These past few days, since I’ve been injured. You wouldn’t leave my side—”
“Because I realized how easily I could lose you! My friend…” Chang’s voice turns tremulous, “I am so afraid of losing you.”
The prince’s sudden earnesty makes the room feel quieter. Yeong-shin’s mouth closes, and he doesn’t say anything in response. The only thing that came to mind, "I was never yours to lose,” is too needlessly cruel to mention.
Chang faces the lamp instead of Yeong-shin. The firelight casts a warm glow on his face, twinkling in the reflection of his eyes. “From looking at you, how could anyone think that you are important to me?” he asks. “I am a very wealthy man, and here is the man I claim to care about more than any other living person, dressed in dirty rags for clothing.”
“That’s because I don’t take handouts,” Yeong-shin claims. “Even if you’d offered—”
“Yes, Yeong-shin, you are fiercely independent. But, this?” The prince holds up the old shirt in his fist, “This is filthy. The only time it was ever washed was when you jumped off a cliff and into a pond while wearing it. If you could afford to, you would have replaced it, no? And how might you have gotten the money to replace it? From working for the—” he chucks the ragged fabric across the room, “—working directly for the damned prince for three months, that’s how. I’ve never even given you a wage.”
Yeong-shin stares at the floor. The wage—he hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t thought about it. He followed the prince because he believed in the mission, not because he was looking to get anything out of it personally. But, should he have expected compensation? Did he deserve it? “You don’t pay Seo-bi, either,” he points out.
“Seo-bi receives a government stipend as a nurse, and, while we were in the capital, she and I made sure that stipend would continue even though Jiyulheon no longer exists. We made no such arrangements for you. What have you been living on, these past few months?”
Yeong-shin hugs himself tighter; the chill is getting worse, or maybe it’s only the embarrassment, heating up his face at the expense of the rest of his body. Why does it feel so humiliating, to have the prince draw into the light the fact that Yeong-shin is so inoculated to his own poverty that he doesn’t even notice it anymore? “You feed me,” he points out weakly, and it sounds strangely like a confession. “You keep me armed. I don’t need anything else.” I’ve survived on far less, he doesn’t add.
Chang’s voice turns gentle, when he says, “No wonder you had so much trouble believing me, when I said I cared for you. My actions directly contradicted my words.”
Is that it? Is that why Yeong-shin’s instincts kept screaming at him that Chang’s affections were sinister, and why he kept belittling himself for wanting them to be true? I care about you, Chang keeps saying, over and over again, and every time it hurt, because Yeong-shin wanted… wanted what? What does he want? There are too many layers of guilt and subliminally hurt feelings for Yeong-shin to keep track of, and he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t care about the why. “Ugh,” he grunts, finally, “I’ve had enough of this.”
“What does it mean, huh? What’s the point, what does any of this mean? You’ve been making declarations like this for the past month and all it does is piss me off, because—”
“Because I never follow through.”
Yeong-shin closes his mouth, and a shiver runs up his spine.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Chang asks, shifting closer. His fingers find the bundle of silk, on the bed frame, and gently he lifts it. “Yeong-shin,” he murmurs, “Let me follow through, this time. Please.”
Chang drapes the dark silk shirt around Yeong-shin’s shoulders. His chest is a hand’s breadth away from Yeong-shin’s face, Yeong-shin can smell him, and Yeong-shin hesitates with the shirt, not yet putting his hands into the arm-holes. The texture of satin silk on his bare skin—this texture has become more familiar to Yeong-shin recently, either because of the prince wearing it, or because of the satin-wrapped pillows and mattress of this bed. But to be completely enveloped in satin is surreal, especially on such sensitive parts of his body as his spine, his shoulders, and the nape of his neck. “No undershirt?” he questions.
“It would be too big for you.” Chang explains. “Actually, this silk shirt will also be too big, but at least it will serve its intended purpose until I can have something tailored for you. Treat it like a dressing gown.”
Until I can have something tailored for you, says the former crown prince of Joseon, and Yeong-shin feels strangely brittle. “Was this yours?” he asks, unsure what answer he would prefer to hear. His fingers pinch the front of the shirt closed, and the sleeves hang empty over his shoulders.
“Yes, from when I was much younger. I kept a wardrobe here in Sangju, when I was living with my master. This was… commissioned after my growth spurt, of course,” explains Chang bashfully. Then he sits back on his heels to peer at Yeong-shin, asking, “Won’t you put it on fully?”
“I… I will,” Yeong-shin says, and he tries to convince his hands to move. Between the pads of his fingers, the fabric feels deceptively heavy, like water. The way it reflects the glow of the lamplight isn’t ostentatiously shiny; instead it glimmers and ripples, giving a rich and deep luster.
He finds the arm-holes, and stiffly slots his body into the shirt.
“I wanted to give you this one because I thought it would feel nice to wear, even without an undershirt,” Chang says, and he winces to himself before admitting, “As a spoiled young man, I demanded my tailor line the inside with the silk satin as well, instead of just a cotton lining. It feels nice, I hope?”
Yeong-shin nods, wordlessly. ‘Nice’ is an understatement. It feels like a caress.
It hangs open against his front, with his chest and torso still bare. Chang sits up on his knees, so he can help Yeong-shin tie the ribbon. Again he must come closer for this task… his face is thrown into blue shadow, his eyelashes dark against his cheeks. Loose strands of hair rest limply against his temples, having escaped from the topknot during the course of his long day.
Yeong-shin notices all of these things, and nothing else. He possesses no other thoughts. His mind only recognizes the texture of silk on his skin, and the sound of Chang’s breathing, and the scent of him, the herbal, earthy smell of incense mixed with the sweat and musk of a man.
So he kisses the prince. Before Chang has even finished tying the ribbon, they are kissing.
Then, for a long time, Yeong-shin’s mind is entirely empty.
Only the press of their lips, the tiny sounds between their mouths, the breaths, gasping, the taste of Chang’s tongue, and the way his soft hands abandon their work to find and caress Yeong-shin’s face. It is so dark in this room. There is no one here but them. There is nothing else. Yeong-shin can melt into this, there is nothing to stop him, no reason to keep himself from this intimacy he wants more than anything—
With a desperate, needy sound, Chang’s mouth finds Yeong-shin’s cheek, and his jaw, and then his throat, and those hands find his chest, his sternum, a firm grip on his hips, and it’s all… greedy, this hunger from Chang, and…
Yeong-shin catches a glimpse, in his mind’s eye, of himself spending the rest of his life in this bed, dressed in nothing but this silk shirt, an ever-open invitation, waiting to be ravished, wearing love-suckled bruises, and always conditioned lips.
“Stop,” he gasps out. His hands tremble as he finds Chang’s shoulders, but it takes no force at all to push him away. Chang looks at him, eyes half-lidded but attentive. His mouth is red, and wet, and there is a flush high in his cheeks, and he looks so beautiful it hurts to behold him. “Stop,” Yeong-shin says again, weakly, though Chang has already backed away.
“Take a deep breath,” Chang suggests, his voice roughened from the kissing.
Yeong-shin does, filling his lungs as much as he can manage, but not breaking eye contact with the prince. Some of the jittery anxiety leaves with the exhale. His fingers curl into loose fists. He feels tired, and excited, and frightened. “I can’t,” he says, not knowing where the sentence will end when he begins it, “I don’t… trust you.”
Chang nods, wildly and fervently. “I know. You shouldn’t. I haven’t earned your trust,” but his eyes glimmer with something like bittersweet relief, and his voice wavers when he asks, “but I am not alone in my... desire for you?”
Yeong-shin shakes his head. Brittle, brittle, like one more touch would crack and shatter him. Is this how intimacy always felt? He doesn’t remember it terrifying him this much before.
“I—” Chang’s voice chokes off with emotion, and he smiles, and his mouth trembles. He ducks his head low, halfway to the floor, almost a full bow for Yeong-shin, and he says, “I promise I will make myself worthy.”
After that, Chang prepares tea for them both. Evidently it wasn’t very late in the evening, and since they will not spend the time before sleep on intimacy, they must fill it with their usual patterns. Yeong-shin still feels too dazed from the kissing to say much. It is a strange sensation, to feel like one’s mind is racing, but without any substantive thoughts to show for it.
At least he manages to tie the shirt ribbon closed on his own. It doesn’t look as flat and neat as when the nobles do it, but it covers his chest, and that’s what really matters. Even including times when Yeong-shin has actually been nude, he has never felt more naked in his life than in this past conversation with Chang. As he accepts the cup of ginseng tea, and the silk brushes against his arms, Yeong-shin feels that nakedness again, acutely.
The tea is good, though. Inhaling the steam clears away the scent of the prince’s skin—but not the memory of it.
Mercifully, Chang doesn’t say anything. He only sits there, on the mat beside the bed, already unrolled in preparation for sleep. Too near to pacify Yeong-shin’s paranoia, and too distant to sate Yeong-shin’s hunger for his proximity.
When Seo-bi returns from the front lines of the refugee hospital, later that evening, it is evident how exhausted she is, but she brightens slightly when she sees the new clothing. “Oh, Yeong-shin, what is this? You look so handsome.”
He blushes, and says “it was a gift from his highness.” Will it be typical, now, for him to receive compliments for the gifts from his highness? Pessimistically, he wonders how long he’ll be able to stand it before blowing up at Chang and ruining the whole thing.
Seo-bi examines Yeong-shin’s leg in a cursory fashion, while Chang debriefs her about the status of her refugee patients. To Yeong-shin she says, “Your stomach will settle overnight and you will be fine tomorrow,” and to Chang she says, “Their bones look good and they’ll require crutches in a couple of days.” Then she shuts her eyes, and sighs, and wearily corrects herself: “Wait, reverse those. You know what I meant.”
Chang grins, and remarks, “I believe our intrepid medical researcher may require some sleep.”
“That is a very astute prescription, your highness,” she agrees, rubbing her face with the heel of her hand. To Yeong-shin she asks, “Is there anything you need from me, tonight?”
Last night, when he had relied on her for help processing the first kiss, he had been drunk. Tonight, he is sober, and he’s sure he couldn’t verbalize his feelings even if she had been alert enough to help him. So he shakes his head, while smiling in what he hopes is a reassuring manner. “I’m fine. You should go rest. Thank you for everything.”
She grabs his face in both hands and kisses his forehead right at the hairline.
Chang laughs. Yeong-shin makes an affronted sound, pushes her away, and whines, “Was that medically necessary?”
“Yes, of course,” Seo-bi declares, as she goes to leave. “It was a treatment for how adorable you looked.” Just before the door, she turns back around and bows slightly. With more sincerity, she wishes them both a good night.
“Goodnight, Seo-bi,” they respond in unison.
Then they are alone, again.
There is only the distant sound of Seo-bi’s footsteps crossing the courtyard, and the wind that whistles between the shingles of the roof, and the proximal whisper of the prince’s breathing. Yeong-shin imagines he can feel the puff of the prince’s breath on his skin. Will they kiss again, now? Should they?
Chang’s gaze is sharp and perceptive, even in this warm and lazy moment before sleep. He remarks, softly, “You are tense, again.”
“I’m sorry,” says Yeong-shin, automatically, without looking at him.
“Don’t be sorry. What can I do to help?” Chang moves onto his knees again. “Would it be better if I slept in a guest room, tonight?”
Is Yeong-shin’s unease really so transparent? He thinks about how it would feel if the prince left. Would Yeong-shin spend all night awake, thinking of Chang’s mouth? Would he touch himself? Would he stare at the darkness of the ceiling in blank, unthinking terror until morning? He can’t make his mind work. “I don’t want you to leave,” he breathes. “I don’t want to be alone.”
With an affectionate tilt of his head, Chang lifts the corner of his mat from the floor, and says, “In that case, my sleeping mat is yours to do with as you please. Where would you have me?”
Yeong-shin swallows. “Just… just a few more paces away.”
Chang nods, and stands, lifting the mat and stepping away from the bed. Three paces, and he asks, “Here?”
Yeong-shin pictures it in his mind’s eye… sitting up in the middle of the night, and looking over at Chang, not near enough to touch, but not so far that the dark would obscure him. The safety of having the prince nearby, and the safety of having his own personal space. Most importantly, the distance would reassure Yeong-shin that his own half-awake self wouldn’t reach for Chang’s hand or try to touch him, try to kiss him again. He can’t risk himself making those kinds of decisions when he isn’t awake enough to protect himself from the potential consequences.
He nods, and Chang spreads the sleeping mat on the floor.
Yeong-shin douses the oil lamp, and lies down. When his eyes adjust to the darkness, and the beams of moonlight scattered from the window, he looks at Chang, laying there, out of reach, halfway across the room. Chang looks back at him.
For a long time, they only stare at each other. Why does everything feel so different now? Since they first met, Yeong-shin has spent so much time watching the prince from afar, and trying to figure him out, trying to support him and protect him. Now, the prince is watching him back, and Yeong-shin feels seen. It is equal parts mortifying and intoxicating.
In the blue shadows, Chang’s mouth curves up in a small, sweet smile. Without words, it almost seems like a ‘Hello.’
This first block of chapters marks the end of part 1. The second block of chapters will come out shortly I hope; they're mostly already written, but I'm still editing them and finishing up the final chapter which will hopefully resolve the remaining romantic tension and turn it into a somewhat healthy relationship. The positive responses to this story are really motivating me to keep going and finish the full story, even the planned part 3! Thank you all so much for reading and for sharing this journey with me <3