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Origin of a Soul

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Origin of a Soul

“If you had a boat and you replaced each part of that boat day by day until all parts were replaced, is it still the same boat?” Sobong had been gazing into the mirror for quite some time now, trying to understand who it was that gazed back. 

Jungjeon mama, you mustn’t be like this,” Hong Yeon begged. “You have not moved for several hours. It is not good for your complexion.”

“I regained my memories,” Sobong said, turning their head to the right and tracing their profile. “But I kept the ones from before. If memories are stored in synaptic connections in the brain, how can I have mine-- Jang Bong Hwan’s-- even when this body is hers? Surely my brain cells didn’t transfer?”

They closed their eyes and dropped their head in their hands. Questions flooded their mind and it infuriated them not to have answers to a single one. 

What was that vision that night of Soyong swimming toward him and kissing him right before the switch? Did she know? She must have. She had run away from home. Sobong did not know what kind of curse or talisman she used but it worked, and by relinquishing the rest of her memories to Sobong, she had let go of herself altogether. Sobong looked up and met the stranger in the mirror. 

Kim Soyong. As the memories revealed themself to Bongwan, they now understood the pain that drove her to suicide. Jumping into the lake was an act of desperation. In order to preserve the last she had of herself, Soyong left everything behind. She was, as far as Sobong new, but a distant memory now.

For the first time since arriving in Joseon, Sobong finally felt lucid. The acquisition, or perhaps return, of Soyong’s memories, completed the transformation of Bong Hwan to Sobong. 

Though they logically knew they, Jang Bong Hwan, had not experienced any of Soyong’s events first hand, they somehow remembered them as their own experiences. They knew what it was like in that damp well, what it was like to ponder her mortality at such a young age. The memories of her father closing the well back up as she begged him to spare the boy inside created a hollow within their chest cavity where helplessness and resentment made home.

The memories were inextricably linked to certain emotions, and, try as they might, they could not possibly review them objectively. It was as if the body, too, remembered and had kept its own history.

They thought of the day she received news of her selection as Queen. As Soyoung stood there with her hands clasped politely and with a smile painted over her lips, the air felt oddly still and their shirt collar felt tighter than usual. It was hard to breathe that day. It was a sensation Soyong’s body knew most-- fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of disappointment, fear of failure. The pressures her father and the rest of society had placed on her manifested in the everyday and Soyong’s body kept score accordingly. Sobong clutched their chest, feeling the onset of a panic attack and tried to think of a different memory. 

They conjured the memory of when Soyong met his Majesty without knowing it. The sweet scent of oncoming rain filled their nostrils and they were transported to the rainy day Soyong had snuck about the palace. The memory was filled with softness, but still left an uneasiness in their chest. Then they remembered the day Soyong formally met the King, how cold those eyes of Cheoljong were. Gone was the warmth he had first met them with. In its place was the loathing he felt for every member of the Andong Kim clan. The palace was awfully large that day, and despite being surrounded by all nobility, they had never felt more alone.

Sobong had expected that once the memories returned, they would fall head over heels in love with the King and they would have to do everything in their power to stop Soyong’s memories from overpowering their freewill, but instead, the thought of Cheoljong conjured a mix of turbulent emotions.

Ah. It was the way the King’s hatred for Andong Kim family festered, the bitterness that poisoned their relationship before it had a chance to begin, the prejudice she faced in each of her interactions with him. The memories presented all in first person, like living in a distant dream, a dream that, no matter how far-fetched, still managed to withdraw the purest emotions from the heart. The original Soyong had simply felt heartbreak, which they felt constricting around their chest. But it was Sobong, on review of these memories, who felt absolutely livid, utter rage on Soyong’s behalf. The rage was directed at Cheoljong:

“Soyong was a perfect woman, perfect at needle crafts, perfect at music, perfect in writing, how could he be so blind?” Sobong fumed through gritted teeth. “I would have married her myself if I weren’t trapped in this body.”

Then the rage was directed at Soyong:

“And you foolish woman-- why do you chase after a man who doesn’t recognize your worth?” Sobong hissed, hitting their chest. “Quit moping for heaven’s sake.”

Perhaps the memories were not built by them, but they owned them now. In fact, it was this very body that experienced the events, this shell that Soyong had once occupied. Was it so fraudulent that Sobong should accept these memories as their own, especially when the body was present and the mind remembered so vividly?

Sobong silently cursed Soyong. Why did she have to give me the memories-- as if leaving me to deal with her mess weren’t already enough? The loneliness they felt was profound, all consuming.

The most grueling question regarding their crisis of identity was that they did not know what made the self what it was. If a person is their thoughts, and their thoughts arose from the brain, and they were in Soyong’s body with Soyong’s brain, how could they be so sure that they were Bong-Hwan with Soyong’s memories and not Soyong with Bonghwan’s memories?

The thought of being the latter was far too horrifying. They shook their head furiously and leaned away from the mirror. “That can’t be it.”

Then again, what were thoughts and memories anyway? The deeper Sobong tried to pick apart the origins of their consciousness, the more futile the effort became. 

“This won’t do,” they said to themself. “In crime shows, people always remember things wrong. The brain has a knack for making up fake memories that feel real. In fact, the memories are the least reliable thing to figure out who I am.”

They stood to pace around the room. “What else besides memories defines a person.... Desires?”

Cheoljong’s face appeared in their mind and they thumped their chest again. “Stop it, woman, stop it.”

Mama, you mustn’t hurt yourself,” Hong Yeon said.

Sobong turned. “Hong Yeon-ah, what would you say makes you who you are?”

Hong Yeon considered this for a while before answering. “My values, your Highness. What I find most important in life.”

“That’s it!” Sobong exclaimed. They pulled Hong Yeon into an embrace.

“You are a genius. Our values are not the same,” they said, plopping themself down at their desk. They whipped out a piece of parchment and a brush. In bold letters up top, they wrote: 

 

SOBONG’S VALUES.

 

Court Lady Choi entered the room and bowed. She wore her usual expression of one part fatigue and two parts despair. “ Jungjeon mama, the King is here to see you.”

Sobong, barely having heard this, held up a hand. “Wait.”

Court Lady Choi and Hong Yeon exchanged worried looks.

    Sobong pulled the tip of their brush along the black ink and dragged it furiously across the parchment. 

  1. Money. With money you can sway anyone. The richest people on earth have the power to fix major problems in the world. Money can sway politics and the fate of millions. Money is power.
  2. Self preservation. You cannot save someone if you cannot save yourself.
  3. Women.
  4. Revenge. I will get revenge on Mr Han.
  5. Ability to adapt. Any change that comes your way, you can handle with strength of will.

 

Sobong smirked proudly at their list.

“My Queen,” a voice said. “What is it that you are writing?”

They did not realize Cheoljong had entered. They peered up to see both Lady Choi and Hong Yeon standing in the corner with pitiful expressions as the King stood ahead. Perhaps Lady Choi had announced it and they simply didn't hear.

“Ah, this?” Sobong slid the parchment over to him. “These are what I call the foundations of my identity.”

“Is that so?”

Sobong leaned forth eagerly. “You see, I’m in a bit of a predicament. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I started off not knowing who I am. I always thought of myself as a man, and just when I’m coming to terms with my identity, I regain all these memories. So now I have to begin the process again with this new information.”

Cheoljong glanced over the list they had written. A small smile formed at the edge of his lips. “'Women?'”

“For now. I’m thinking about expanding my horizons. Affirmative action, if you will. Equal opportunity. Everyone welcome.”

“You will have to explain what those words mean,” Cheoljong said, his eyebrows drawing together in deep concentration.

Sobong tapped on the desk. “The thing is, the memories are back but she’s gone. Soyon-- I mean-- the person from before the lake incident. We are the same person, but different. This used to bother me, but not anymore.”

They slapped the desk, eliciting a startle from Cheoljong. “Like the Buddha says, there is no static sense of the self.”

“Oho-- Jungjeon, I did not know you liked philosophical discussions,” he mused and returned the list to her.

Sobong looked at him-- he who beamed at her. Their breath hitched in their throat and they lost their train of thought. Their gaze trailed down to his lips, the soft pink lips that tasted faintly of jasmine tea on the night they kissed to ward off Byeon-In’s prying eyes. The desperation with which they had grasped onto each other, their battle for dominance waltzing along the hallways, their synchronized performance of a midnight tango. Now having full access of who Soyong was, Sobong realized that the person acting for that kiss was not Soyong. She would have never been so bold. She would have never been so brazen. Sobong had merely used her as an excuse, a diversion, a means to not face their own fears. 

Fuck. Just when I thought I had this figured out.

Sobong cleared their throat. “There is one last thing I need to check, though, regarding my crisis of identity.” Come to Daejeojeon Hall tonight.”

 

“Oh, why, oh, why did I do that,” Sobong said, pacing in their room anxiously.

They had always thought of themself as a cis heterosexual man, only because that was what they had grown up with. Now having been exposed to this new world, they realized that they did not know how they perceived themself. They did not mind being the Queen as much as they ought to. Their qualms about being perceived as a woman were rooted in the way women were restricted by the patriarchy, but not in the identity of a woman in and of herself.

Additionally, their anxieties about not having a penis had less to do with anatomy and more to do with fertility. They wanted biological children of their own, and they feared that losing that part of them meant that they would be impotent and could not ever reproduce. But, as luck or misfortune would have it, they had gotten their period this past week.

They now have endured what half the world’s population endured on a monthly basis and have experienced the cruelest force of nature thrusted upon the female body. Despite all this, it brought them a strange sense of relief to know that they could still have a period, meaning, they were fertile. 

They admitted to occasionally missing their muscular build, but this current body and its small stature were quite agile and served them well. They were lighter on their feet and, with training, they most certainly could be in top form.

The final piece of the puzzle was understanding how this body functioned to the fullest extent. Logically, Sobong knew how it worked. They had engaged with these transactions many times, only never from this side of the story.

It felt taboo. Despite having bedded many people in the past, for some reason Sobong could not bring themself to admit what they were going to attempt to do.

The King's arrival was announced and Cheoljong swept through the doors with his steady, distinctive strides.

"You wanted to see me, My Queen?" He placed his hands on their upper arms. Sobong shuddered and shrugged them off. Too fast, too fast. Cheoljong watched in confusion as Sobong went to the corner to catch their breath.

"Get a grip, we haven't even started," they scolded themself, doing lunges to warm up.

"You make it sound like we will engage in battle…"

They clapped their hands and rolled their shoulders. "Okay," they said, turning and cracking their neck. "Let's do this."

"What are we doing?"

"Science experiment." Sobong marched up to Cheoljong, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled his lips to theirs.

They stayed there for a moment and watched their observations float by. Wet. Warm. Felt like lips.

Was it hot? 

Absolutely not.

Sobong stepped back. See, they told themself. Nothing. No reaction. "Forget it," they waved. "Just wanted to check."

As they marched past Cheoljong to leave the room, they felt him grab onto their upper arm. In one swift motion, Cheoljong spun them into an embrace. He was now kneeling, cradling them in his arms, and their faces were mere millimeters apart. He brushed a calloused knuckle along their jawline.

"You should have told me earlier. I can teach you the proper way to kiss, Your Highness," Cheoljong murmured.

His voice sent an electrifying sensation down their spine and they blinked dazedly. The room was spinning-- perhaps residual vertigo from the turn, or perhaps not. Their blood thundered through their ears. Their lips met once more, and Sobong felt the tension in their muscles easen up. Cheoljong took advantage of this to part their lips with his and gently graze his tongue along their lower lip.

They drank in the musky scent of him like drinking in the dreamy haze of midafternoon sun. Cheoljong's left hand moved from their shoulder, across their chest, and down to their waist where he held them firmly. Using the side of his index finger, he tilted their face slightly upward and observed them with curiosity, eagerness. Sobong gazed back, commiting to memory those warm brown eyes, the shape of his eyebrows, the contour of his lips. Cheoljong knew. They knew he knew. He was merely waiting for the next signal.

A smile formed at the edges of their lips. He clearly understood the assignment.

A hedonist at heart, Sobong loved every sensation the human body had to offer from taste to touch. In their days as Bong Hwan, they had sought these sensations in every way possible through food, drink, women. Bong-Hwan took pride in his performance in bed. Laying here and now with all these experiences under their belt and a new experience to discover, Sobong felt a surge of adrenaline coursing through their veins, running from their core to the tips of their fingers.

They cupped a hand over Cheoljong's ear and whispered, in explicit detail, the secrets to their undoing. Cheoljong's eyes widened. "Jungjeon--"

They turned so that they were on his lap and their knees on either side of him. Beneath the many layers of clothing, they could feel his anticipation beginning to emerge. 

"Are you with me?" they asked as they slowly tugged on the bow and let their jeogeori slide from their shoulders.

“‘All in,’” Cheoljong said absently as his gaze followed the motion of the fine silk against bare skin.

Cheoljong’s lips brushed against their shoulder and moved along their clavicle, pulling them away from their thoughts. One by one, Cheoljong removed the pins from their hair, tossed them to the side, and pulled their hair out of the braided style. A silky black cascade of hair fell over their shoulders, drawing the king further into trance. He idly tucked them behind their ear and brushed stray strands away from their neck. His fingers worked along the nape of neck and brushed upward gently into the scalp in a massaging motion. 

Sobong leaned their head back into his touch. After a whole day of having their hair pulled back into the tight stifling style, the sensation was indulgent. Cheoljong kissed the exposed part of their neck, right where their Adam’s apple would have been on the body before. He gave one definitive tug on the ribbon holding their skit together and let the outermost layer fall. Sobong helped the king with his undressing, first by tossing aside the royal red robe. Piece by piece, they both shed their garments like flowers unfurling in the night until there was but one thin layer left.

At this point, Sobong began to feel rather nervous and vulnerable. Cheoljong seemed to sense this as well and he gave them a reassuring kiss on the lips. With a hand on their back to support them, he turned so that he was now on top. He pulled the blanket over so that it covered them both. Sobong silently thanked him. They didn’t know if they could handle seeing their new body do new things just yet. Under the covers, beneath the layer of secrecy, they then removed the last of their layers. 

Rather than limiting them, the blanket added a new depth of wonder to the process. Sobong could not clearly see the contours of Cheoljong’s body, but they felt the rippling muscles with the tips of their fingers and the light sheen of sweat against skin. Cheoljong’s hand was hot between their legs. Sobong inhaled and arched their back and the gentle caressing sensation his calloused fingers used to part the tufts of pubic hair to reach their folds.

A breath here, a breath there. Sobong soon found themself at his Majesty's mercy, uttering breathless profanities against his shoulder. Every touch they made was art, calligraphy, a stroke of color and fire in the lawless night. And still, Cheoljong would not let them have it. Frustrated and overcome by the ferocity of a thousand lifetimes, Sobong adjusted the blanket and rolled over so that they were on top. 

Cheoljong watched them eagerly as he gently bit his bottom lip. Sobong dragged themself along his length, feeling the textures of his veins and his tight skin between their soft pink curtains. Cheoljong aided them with his hands on their hips. Sobong slowly eased themself down. Their lips parted with a slight gasp as they felt Cheoljong enter. So this is how it felt. Full. Warm. They tightened their muscles out of curiosity and elicited a grunt from Cheoljong.

Their ears perked.

What was that?

They tried the motion again, this time with an additional roll of the hips. Cheoljong gasped sharply and looked at them with a tortured expression. A smile formed along Sobong's lips.

"Jeonha," they breathed against his ear, knowing it would drive him livid.

"Caution, jungjeon," Cheoljong murmured as if under a spell. He traced his hands along the curves of their torso in worship-like gestures. "You may cause the fall of an empire."

Oh, we're hot , Sobong thought smugly. They leaned back and allowed Cheoljong to stretch them and penetrate deeper into them as they rode their waves of desire.

Cheoljong pulled them from behind, encouraging them to take him faster. They could feel him fill their core with warmth and an unbearable lightness of being. Sobong took all of him, yet they craved for more. They angled themself lower, so that their most sensitive parts made contact with his pelvic bone. Each time they met, they saw a glimpse of heaven. They worked at a steady rhythm, taking their time to know every centimeter of each other's bodies.

Cheoljong sat up and cradled them as they led the pace. The blanket had fallen away by now and it lay forgotten to the side, leaving the royal couple with only each other against the flickering of the sinewy candle flame.

Cheoljong kissed their collarbone and sternum. Sobong, delighted by this sensation, grabbed him from behind his neck and guided his lips along the front of their torso. They felt his mouth, hot with hunger, engulf their left breast and a soft wet tongue flicker on the most sensitive tip of their nipple.

Sobong let out a ragged breath and arched their back. Their breathing became increasingly labored, their movements more desperate until they lost their rhythm to a lawless bliss. A beautiful calm dispersed throughout their lower body and a primal sounding grunt escaped Sobong’s lips as they lost control of their contractions. They clung onto Cheoljong, gasping for life against his neck. They wanted all of him and to give a part of them back.

In the brief moment of clarity following release, in that petit mort, they suddenly became distinctly aware of their own body. Their shoulders drew in and they gazed down at their hands. They had enjoyed that far more than they had anticipated. Was it wrong that I took this body to be mine when its original owner had abandoned it? For a moment, they felt an extreme sense of disgust and self hatred. Was this a violation of my morals? Am I an imposter?

The tensing motions of their pelvic muscles drove Cheoljong over the edge, and he continued pulling himself into them until he, too, was overcome by bliss. He buried his face into their neck and let out a whiny moan.

“Jungjeon,” Cheoljong murmured gently in their ear. He brushed a finger along their cheek, removing a teardrop from the corner of their eye. “Have I hurt you in some way?”

“No,” Sobong shook their head. They blinked rapidly and sniffed loudly. “No, I got something in my eye.”

Cheoljong’s expression told Sobong that he knew they were lying, yet he did not press on with the issue. He kissed them on the nose. “You must be tired. Let’s rest.”

He slowly withdrew himself, grabbed their clothes and helped Sobong dress in their undergarments. Sobong sat in silence, still pondering the implications of the night.

The truth was that they liked it. As much as they wanted to blame their feelings on Kim Soyong, it was Bong-Hwan who was present throughout the entire escapade. They were so much in shock that they did not have a single snarky thing to say.

Jungjeon ,” Cheoljong said. “Will you stay with me?” He made space for them beside him. They lied down next to Cheoljong and let him pull the blanket over their shoulders. He stroked their cheek with his thumb and placed a long kiss on their lips. Sobong nestled themself in his strong arms, letting his musky scent and his warmth envelop them.

“Stay here with me,” he said. “By my side. As my queen.”

“Where is this coming from?” they muttered, still distracted. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Cheoljong smiled. “I know. But I feel like I had only just found you and I don't want to lose you.”

“I’m not who you think I am,” Sobong admitted. They could not keep this fact to themself any longer.

“No,” the king said. “You’re not. You are so much more. I am reminded of when I jumped in the lake to save you. You had written that you had come here for nothing. Every night I hope that isn’t the case."

“I hope that you found this place worth your time. I hope you can impart me with your beautiful visions of tomorrow. And, if it isn’t too bold, I hope you find this incompetent king worthy of your love.” He spoke softly, as if uttering sacred players. He spoke as if he believed Sobong was a messenger from the future, here to guide him. His tone was full of reverence and exaltation.

Sobong thought about it. “Would you be hoping this if I weren’t Kim Soyong?”

“I dare hope precisely because you are not her.”

They blinked. Did I hear him correctly?

Seeing Sobong’s apparent surprise, he spoke. “You told me yourself that you were a man, that a woman like you from Joseon could never exist. I know you are not Soyong from the Andong Kim clan. Instead, you are someone the universe had sent to bridge the gap between time, between yin and yang, and I have fallen for you and every one of your contradictions.”

"How long have you known?"

"Since the second lake incident."

"Don't you find me to be somewhat of a thief for taking her place?"

"Perhaps. The Thieving Queen and The Beggar King. Jang Bong Hwan and Yi Won Beom."

Two names that cannot be spoken in public.

Sobong cupped Cheoljong’s face. They observed the unfathomable depth of his eyes, his soft lips, the curve of his cupid's bow. "Yi Won Beom," they echoed.

Cheoljong closed his eyes and pressed his face to their hand, basking in his name-- the name which was once a commoner's name, now taboo on the nation's lips, and yet poetry when uttered by the queen.

"Ne, Bong Hwan-ah."

 

FIN.