Jihoon doesn’t really mind being part of a six-membered family, albeit the scarce dinners and limited coin bags for tuition—but when his little brother Chan sloshes a bucket of cold water on his face, he reconsiders the sentiment.
“Breakfast,” Chan announces simply, standing by the foot of his bed. He hangs the handle of the bucket around his arm. Downstairs, he can hear his other siblings rumble, utensils clanking against each other and the smell of fried egg sifting through his senses. Jihoon wonders where his parents got the food. “This wasn’t my idea,” Chan says, referring to the bucket. “Seungcheol hyung’s orders.”
“I’ll be down in a minute,” groans Jihoon, back aching as he sat up. If anything, he should be at least thankful for the cold water. The summer heat beats down the walls of his small home—to the point where he and all of his siblings sleep without any top on. “I’ll just put a shirt on.”
Minutes later, after dressing up, he slides to his usual chair, staring at the platter in front of him. Eggs, tomatoes, and the meat he stole from the market last night. Eggs and tomatoes are really expensive, worth a week of salary if you worked for the factory. And as Lows, it’s already a feast.
“Seungcheol just got recommended for the army. His conscription is next week.”
Jihoon raises his eyebrows. He looks for his eldest brother. Seeing as he was the one who ordered Chan to pour a bucket of water on him, he should be here. Thinking about the army makes him shudder, ears recalling stories from the elderly who talked about their time at the front. It’s a mandatory service, especially if you aren’t paying that much tax and you live by the outskirts of the factory district.
Mandatory service is different from being recommended. The latter proves how competent a person is and that they can go great service to the kingdom instead of being just a bait. It also means advancing to a higher position than a Private, and from what Jihoon can remember, a higher position means a higher pay. Maybe they can even be a Middle.
“He went out to fetch more vegetables from Old Man Jung,” his Dad inputs before he could open his mouth to ask where his brother was. “We should be thankful of our Seungcheol, really.”
Jihoon holds no grudge against Seungcheol. Maybe envy is in the equation, but he decides not to dwell on it—both of them are still contributing something to the family, except Seungcheol, even as a Low, is honorable. Unlike him, who just steals from Middles and Nobles in the marketplace or wherever’s convenient.
Seungcheol arrives a few minutes after. This time, he brought a friend along. Seungkwan struggles with the basket of green vegetables, grumbling something about being bullied by Seungcheol all the time. Seungkwan’s a Middle but has a heart of gold—unlike the majority of their class, who had a knack of bragging despite only being a step ahead. Though sometimes, Jihoon can’t help but wonder why he almost always hung out with them.
“Old Man Jung was very generous today. It’s a parting gift, I think,” Seungcheol jokes lightly, pocketing his weaved coin bag. Seungkwan hands the basket to their Mother.
“You didn’t tell me you were recommended,” says Jihoon, hinting his betrayal. They’re brothers. They tell each other everything.
“You were out last night. You were beat the moment you came home.”
“He’s been running away from officers, that’s what,” Junhui says over his shoulder, washing the dishes before the water in the pipe dries. “He stole meat from the Middle marketplace this time.”
Stealing isn’t something Jihoon is proud of. He can see the slight disappointment in his Mother’s eyes sometimes. Usually, he’d drop the bag of goods by the chair, personally hands the paintbrushes to Chan because if it stayed compressed with the other materials, it might break for its too thin, the tips withering, body coated with dry paint. He then sleeps after a quite mumble of a good night—sometimes on the couch, rarely on his bed.
Being honorable is enough to be higher than Nobles. It’s a famous quote amongst the Lows and the Middles. But still lesser than the Royals, who ruled the land with gold and graft.
Jihoon should hate the system because obviously, the government was abusing their power. But with the classes, they have no other choice but to stick up to it.
Seungcheol, however, ignores the underlying meaning of the quote and takes it as it is. He, like Chan, blends well with the Nobles, having their jobs at the higher marketplace, where the younger sells paintings and the older has two or three jobs. Junhui, the second eldest, works as a bartender. Some female Nobles from the North travel far just to see his face, placing extra tips on his pocket with a wink and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek.
Point is, all of his siblings have honorable jobs, and all of their salaries cover their tax gauge. In fact, they could be a Middle, but maintaining the status is what makes it hard. Because if they couldn’t, then they would be charged as fraud and would spend jail for more than half of their life.
So Seungcheol’s conscription is very important.
His salary as a soldier can amount to twice of all of their salaries combined, meaning, they could maintain the Middle status for as long as they want, for as long as they need to.
“I always steal from the Middles,” mumbles Jihoon, wiping his mouth with the end of his tattered sleeve. He stands up as their Mother fetches his empty plate, placing it on the sink. “Work.”
His Dad shares a look with Seungcheol, who then relays it to Seungkwan. Jihoon pretends to be oblivious of the action, but alas, Seungkwan clears his throat, fumbling for a rolled piece of paper in his pocket.
“You won’t get to steal anything from the market today,” Seungcheol says, taking the paper from Seungkwan. “Almost everyone is at the other side of the town, where the salons are.”
Jihoon, confused, takes the paper from Seungcheol’s hand and reads—
Wide Assembly to be held next week at the King’s Garden—will our Prince finally find his beloved? Open for the Lows, the Middles, the Nobles and the Royals.
“No way,” breathes Jihoon, reading the poster over and over again.
“Yes way,” confirms Seungkwan, nodding. “Each family has to bet one son or daughter for the Prince.”
“So if Jihoon hyung gets chosen, then he’ll be a Royal?” Chan asks, a small grin playing his lips. The idea itself is too good to be true.
“Who says I’ll be the candidate?” Jihoon isn’t really honorable. If he appeared in the King’s Garden, right at the middle of the trial itself, then maybe he’d get caught for all his wrongdoings. He bets almost all of the officers will recognize his face.
“There’s no harm in trying, sweetheart,” his Mother says, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Your Father, siblings and I have already discussed this.”
“Chan is a better candidate,” Jihoon suggests seriously, analytically. If he gets caught, then maybe it could even affect Seungcheol’s conscription, which can probably damage his family’s potential future in living in a higher district. “I mean, I could do it, but I think we have a better chance of being a Royal if we had Chan as the candidate.”
He leaves it as that or at least tries to. He isn’t surprised, really, because he’s sure that Chan was the initial first choice. Maybe they had only given him the opportunity because amongst his siblings, he was the only one without any honorable contribution. After all, he’s a thief. And once a thief, always a thief. Just like how constant pickpockets are.
Jihoon doesn’t speak nor interact much with people—his only friend is Seokmin, who is a thief like him and occasionally joins him in his escapades. He had always been the silent one in the family, awkward when he isn’t bargaining in the black market. He doesn’t have a proper posture either and his features aren’t fit for a Royal—much more if they looked for a natural-born one; one with freckles, splashed across their face like stars.
“Think about it carefully,” whispers Seungcheol, resting his hand on his shoulder. “Do it for us.”
“There’s a bigger chance if it’s Chan. You know that. Or maybe even Junhui,” he looks for his knapsack. “I’m going to the market.”
Seungcheol sighs, running his hand through his hair. “Fine but you won’t really get to steal anything. It’s an open area for now. Almost everyone is prepping themselves up for the trial next week. It’s the first time the kingdom is opening the selection for all classes after all.”
Seungcheol is right. The marketplace is unusually spacious for a Sunday. By this time of the week, the farmers have already delivered fresh stocks of fruits and vegetables whereas the Middles and sometimes even the Lows have just gotten their hard-earned salary. It is, by a common villager’s definition, a miracle because they wouldn’t have to walk horizontally, itching their way for a breathable space—but for Jihoon, it’s quite a curse.
For precaution, he keeps the tattered handkerchief covering his mouth on, the ends, where the tie met, digging onto his nape. There are a few officers roaming around. He’s not so sure if they’ve always been that many, since the marketplace was usually crowded enough to camouflage them.
He walks at a regular pace, one that he had expertly honed from keeping a low profile as he stuck apples to his knapsack almost every other day. That is, if an officer shouts his offense, subsequently causing almost everyone in the crowd to shake their heads left and right in hopes of finding him, the thief, the suspect. He runs fast enough and loses them at the end though. Jihoon blends just fine with the crowd.
The marketplace isn’t actually empty per se, because a few elders still roamed around, scratching their long beards, drinking rum by the pub at the end of the hill. Jihoon knows a few of them, since he frequents the place as well—and connections give him an advantage, a benefit. He wins on the receiving end. Though sometimes, he gives back, complies to their conditions without any form of hesitation. What could the elders want from him besides a good ol’ joke and massage?
“The Prince’s face still remains a mystery, though, and isn’t it quite disheartening that every single thing in the kingdom wants to marry him despite not knowing who he truly is? Despite not loving him genuinely?” the old lady ponders behind the counter, giving Jihoon a glass of juice. He doesn’t really drink anything from the pub unless it’s free, but he’s got a bag full of gold coins in his pocket and a whole lot of apples in his knapsack. It was a lucky catch, because the owner of the fruit-stand stupidly left for a quick errand, probably exchanging paper money with coins with the owner of the neighboring stall.
“Who’s not in love with gold anyways?”
“Yeah, you’re right. If I was twice as young as my age, then maybe I’d volunteer myself, run up to the front row and pout my lips,” the old lady chuckles. The way she carries herself is still quite youthful, hair dyed black, and posture just right. “Which reminds me, who did your family choose as candidate?”
“It was supposed to be me, but then my little brother should be chosen instead. With him, we have a better chance,” he takes a sip. There must be a pinch of booze in his drink, because it melts on his tongue, the sensation burning his throat. Beside him, a boy right about his age shuffles, sleeves up to the joint of his fingers. He stares pointedly at his drink, ears twitching. The boy looks at him then, narrow eyes scanning him from head to toe. He must be a Middle—no—perhaps a Noble? His boots are made of leather, and leathers are usually very expensive in the black market despite the halved price.
“Jihoon, you’re attractive enough for the Prince. I mean, you look better than those goonies prepping themselves up on the other side of the town. They’d be covered with powder, wigs while you walk around with natural beauty! I think anyone in the right mind would prefer that,” she slams her fist on the counter, right in front of the boy sitting next to him. “Right, young man?”
“Y-yeah,” the boy stutters, gripping the cup tightly. He’s wearing knuckle gloves. Hurriedly, he scrambles, knocking off the cup before he could stand up. “I-I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” the old lady blinks. “Your payment?”
The guy cups his chest, his pocket, and nervously chuckles. The old lady crosses her arms, frowning. Jihoon rolls his eyes but digs a coin in his pocket before the old lady could yell. He flips it with his thumb, which the latter instinctively catches.
“You got lucky,” the old lady grumbles at the boy, who thanks Jihoon with a hushed voice. “It’s a good thing our Jihoon here is feeling generous today.”
Jihoon finishes the drink and says, “I have to go. See you around.
“You too,” she smiles and then sneers at the boy. “And you, boy.”
When Jihoon exits the pub, the boy of course, follows. He’s taller than him by a whole lot and smells faintly nice, smoke etching the fragrance attached to his clothes. He wonders what a higher class like him is doing in their slum. Sightseeing? A field trip?
“Thank you so much,” the boy brisk walks behind him, hesitating to reach for his arm. But he does eventually, which left Jihoon raising his eyebrow. This time he’s the one scanning the other, wriggling out of his soft grip. “You’re the first person I’ve—”
“Save it,” Jihoon cuts him off. Like a flower. He smells like a flower. “I would suggest that you go back to your own district. Someone like you won’t last here in the slums.”
The boy pulls back, lips pressed into a thin line. It conforms into that of a sly smirk, one that resembles a cunning fox. Jihoon, alarmed, digs for his left pocket and finds it empty, scoffing when the boy holds it by the thread.
“Better keep your eyes open next time,” the boy throws him his coin bag. “And thanks for the treat.”
“What are you?”
“Shouldn’t you be asking for my name first?” the boy laughs, walking past him, Jihoon following him. The person before him went from a meek boy to a confident man with a smug smirk in a span of minutes. And no one really ever gets past Jihoon, especially when it comes to the ‘profession’ he does so well. If so, then he should at least respect the person who bested him. “It’s Kwon Soonyoung. Middle.”
“Lee Jihoon. Low.” He takes the handshake. He’s not the one to befriend a Middle, though, seeing as their class have trampled on the Lows countless of times. They share schools, almost all the facilities the kingdom provides for them—from hanging by the fountains at the square that connected their districts and to health stations, but only when the materials in the Low’s are scarce and the patients have enough gold.
“What brought you here in the slums?” they start to walk together. “Middles don’t usually hang out here.”
“I know but if it can lead me into meeting a beautiful person like you then maybe I should visit more often.”
Jihoon kicks him on the shin, shocked of the statement. No one compliments him on a first meeting, much more from someone who came from a higher class. He scoffs, walking away. Behind him, footsteps follow, and then he’s turned by the arm. “I’m sorry. I just—I overheard your conversation with the lady a while ago.”
“Eavesdropping is something I really don’t appreciate.”
“Yeah, well, the lady asked for my opinion eventually.”
“And you acted like—”
“Like I was a no good, meek little guy? Yeah, I did. It was to get you to treat me. It worked, didn’t it?”
It obviously did, but he keeps his mouth shut, convincing himself that the heat radiating off his cheeks was from the bare sun. “Aren’t you something.”
“Of course I am,” Soonyoung grins proudly. He takes Jihoon’s wrist. “Come with me I’m going to show you something.”
“One funny move and I’ll slit a knife up your throat.”
They were taught proper decorum. Do not, in any way, follow strangers to a dangerous place, but something about the way Soonyoung held his wrist, pushes him to follow. Besides, Soonyoung had offered to give him his knife, seeing as he was uncomfortable with the whole ordeal. Jihoon takes it of course and holds onto it until they’ve reached the outskirts of the Middle district. No one really suspected Jihoon of being a Low as Soonyoung stood by his side all the time.
They walk further, deeper into the woods. After a few minutes, a clear opens, revealing a lake he has never stumbled upon on. Soonyoung throws him a boyish grin. He looked refreshing under the sun, his curly dark brown hair a halo. “Look at the water.”
“I’m going to stab you if you push me off.”
Jihoon squats and does so, staring at the lake. He blinks. He has only ever seen himself once or twice a month, having no luxury to purchase a mirror. His reflection stares back at him and it just confirmed how long his bangs were growing. He touches it and blinks once again.
“See? If I were the Prince, I’d choose you,” Soonyoung says, smiling. “You’re really pretty.”
Kwon Soonyoung came crashing into his life like a wave, and Jihoon lets himself get pulled away with the current.
He and Soonyoung then meet at the pub every day. At first, it was a coincidence, and the at the second, there was hope lingering at the back of their minds.
Jihoon then adamantly makes up his mind to not attend the assembly as a candidate but as a mere spectator only, hoping that his little brother will get picked. Their parents are delighted of how the situation came to be and buys Chan different sets of clothes worth a month of salary. It’s a huge risk, but then Seungcheol’s conscription is nearing, so they wouldn’t really have to worry about gold. As reckless as it might be.
Jihoon has never been in love. A crush, maybe, whenever Seokmin would glance at him, but other than that—nothing. Soonyoung, however, when he tells Jihoon different pieces of Literature, and when he holds his hand, leading him to different places, Jihoon thinks that maybe this is what the elders call romance.
He thinks about it at night, thinks about Soonyoung’s infectious smile, wishing it wasn’t so evanescent. He thinks about how quick he had fallen for a Middle. When he tells his older brother, the latter just pats his back and leaves it at that.
He hoped to meet Soonyoung by the pub again, but then he remembers the Assembly is today, and the latter had told him to attend even if as a spectator the night before. Jihoon had asked him if he volunteered himself as a candidate, but then Soonyoung just chuckled and replied with a vague hum of acknowledgement.
If so, Jihoon wishes he wouldn’t get picked.
The King’s Garden is large enough to hold the Lows, Middles, Nobles. The Royals, those born with a purpose in the kingdom stand tall by the higher balcony, peering over them as if it metaphors their power.
The Garden resembles an amphitheater. By the seats, the other classes group themselves accordingly. From afar, the contrast is apparent. The Royals are wearing shiny gowns and uniforms, the Nobles clad themselves in fair dresses and suits, the Middle in casual attire, and the Lows in leftovers, but since it’s a special gathering, their clothes are cleaner and sewed.
Right in the middle is a wide field and there stood the candidates. The Royals have an advantage because they stood by the very front. Even if they didn’t, they would still be as noticeable since they were only a few and their freckles were pretty. The Nobles and Middles follow, and then of course, the Lows. Jihoon spots Chan. His little brother’s hands are folded on his lap, posture straight as he sat by the cramped bench. Soon, trumpets blow, declaring the presence of the royal family.
Their King stands before them, raising his hands up. They stand. Jihoon, on his tippy toes, squints his eyes to search for Soonyoung among the candidates, but alas, with the fair amount of people in the crowd, he couldn’t spot him.
All of them crane their heads to look for the Prince, whose face is still a mystery. He should appear soon, anticipation biting every stomach of those who are curious. His existence holds such importance to the kingdom that the royal family had to keep his physical attribute a secret, like he’s a gem, a diamond—too sacred to look at.
“It could be a huge stepping stone for us if Chan gets chosen,” whispers Seungcheol. “But still. I hope the Prince is not some snotty asshole. It’s marriage we’re talking about.”
Jihoon silently agrees. The King starts his opening remarks and Jihoon’s head pounds. His words ring in the air: we are born to our class, and as our Kingdom is a fruit of numerous wars, we’ve subjected to change. The change to conform yourself into another class, into another life. We believe that birth is something we can’t control…
And then, after a few seconds, a representative steps up and announces: “for the first time in years, we are allowing a different class to marry our Prince. And also, for the first time in years, we are going to reveal who he is, let his face be known among his people. He is the fruit of our victories, our future King, and with that, everyone—stand, bow and honor.”
They all follow. It’s as if their hearts pounded in anxiety as one when the Prince steps into the balcony, chin high. Jihoon lifts his head and—
“Prince Kwon Soonyoung!”
The people cheer loudly but Jihoon can’t hear anything, his eyes not straying away from Soonyoung. His Soonyoung, who wore a military-like uniform, medals adorning the left part of his chest, prince.
He has freckles.
Perhaps Soonyoung had covered it with powder whenever they’d meet. Jihoon’s heart leaps out of its chest, and its reason is a mixture of frustration and anger, but at the same time, longing and desperation.
“The Prince will now conduct his trial. We will start by class.”
Soonyoung takes the microphone from the representative. “Unfortunately, there is no need for that.” His voice takes the citizens by surprise as if it’s a song. “I’ve already chosen my beloved.”
He doesn’t know how, but Soonyoung, in the sea of people, finds his eyes. He gives him a smile, or maybe Jihoon’s just imagining it. And then—
“From the Low district, spectator—Lee Jihoon.”