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Three Times a Habit

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Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is a habit.” – Variation on Moscow Rules

 

Yong-Ha made a beautiful gisaeng.

Of course he did. Was there any surprise to this? He was Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha, and everything he did was beautiful. He was silk merchant and dressmaker Gu Yong-Ha, and didn’t every gisaeng house in Joseon vie to have their hanbok from him? He was charming reprobate Yeorim, and hadn’t he been all but raised in the laps of Hanyang’s most charming gisaeng?

However, being a beautiful gisaeng presented unanticipated challenges, especially when it was only meant as a guise to infiltrate the hanok of Gim Seong-Ho, one of Hanyang’s most influential middlemen. Yong-Ha made a beautiful gisaeng, but he’d certainly had no intent of performing the more intimate duties of a gisaeng.

“Ah, Hanu-Hanu! Why do you not sit here where it is warm?” Seong-Ho sat at the head of a daecheong filled with his clients, gisaeng, laughter, and much cheap soju. He patted the empty place at his side, ignoring all of Moran Seom-Seom’s attempts to distract his attention from her beautiful ‘sister.’ Reaching out a grubby hand, he snatched at the lilac silk of Yong-Ha’s chima.

That hand withdrew at a sharp rap from Yong-Ha’s fan. Seong-Ho raised red knuckles to his lips, frowning up at Yong-Ha, and was met with an equally sharp smile.

“Why would the bright day wish to end in rain?” Yong-Ha asked, swaying out of reach in case his fan and his words weren’t enough to protect his virtue—or his silk skirts.

“The warmth of the sun makes a man thirsty. Come, let’s have a sip of sweet Hanu.” He tried again to make a swipe for the chima. Just Yong-Ha’s luck that the lunk would have something resembling a brain. He shot Seom-Seom an annoyed glare for not better distracting her client. The gisaeng’s apologetic grimace did nothing to help Yong-Ha out of his predicament.

More direct means were needed. Yong-Ha smiled and fluttered at Seong-Ho, leaning close as though his resistance had been nothing more than a tease. “You wish for Hanu to quench you?” he asked, reaching blindly for the jug of soju on the table. “Then let us hope that this is enough to cool the day’s heat.”

Seom-Seom squealed and scuttled back from the rain of soju that Yong-Ha dumped over Seong-Ho’s head. Yong-Ha twitched his skirts out of the way of a few stray droplets. The sputters and yowls from Seong-Ho drew the attention of his guests, but enough soju had been drunk to warm them, and only laughter followed.

Yong-Ha set the jug aside and gave a little dip of acknowledgement before twirling away from any vengeance that Seong-Ho might be tempted to take. By the time Seong-Ho cleared the streaming alcohol from his eyes, Yong-Ha was slipping out the door, and Aeng-Aeng had joined Seom-Seom’s attempts to distract their host. Few things were more effective than a gaggle of gisaeng to draw a man’s mind away from vengeance.

Adjusting the angle of his jeonmo so that the bamboo cage and veils didn’t obstruct his sight, Yong-Ha rustled his way down the steps and deeper into the compound.

To the rest of the world, Gim Seong-Ho was a successful and reasonably honest middleman with extensive warehouses to store the goods of Hanyang’s many merchants—like Yong-Ha. He’d avoided being implicated in the graft and bribery revealed by Merchant Song’s ledgers, and he’d prospered after the King opened the markets and upset the monopoly enjoyed by the older merchant families. Anyone would say that Gim Seong-Ho’s prosperity was a just reward for cleaving to the three fundamental principles and the five moral disciplines.

But Gu Yong-Ha was not anyone. He knew that men who appeared the most upright had the most to hide—well, except for his friend Lee Sun-Joon, but there was only room in the world for one such aberration.

It only took a bit of digging—a coin here, a night of soju or gambling or gisaeng there—for Yong-Ha to learn the mechanism and art of Seong-Ho’s corruption. That had led him here, tonight, his brows shaped and darkened with soot, his lips reddened with rouge, wearing one of his most beautiful hanbok, and struggling not to tilt his head sideways under the uneven weight of his gache and jeonmo.

Nestled between Seom-Seom and Aeng-Aeng back in the warmth of Moran-gak, Yong-Ha’s plan had seemed the height of brilliance. Infiltrate the compound, find the warehouse, look for the portions of shipments and goods that Seong-Ho had claimed were lost to thieves or destroyed by mice and mold, and give the evidence to the Han Sung Bu so that those lazy idiots couldn’t avoid punishing Seong-Ho for his crimes.

But Yong-Ha hadn’t realized how... grabby... some men could be. And rude. Only Yong-Ha’s quick fan and quicker wits had saved him from being bruised head-to-toe from pinches. It was almost enough to make him wonder if the reason the gisaeng favored him so wasn’t his good looks or impeccable sense of fashion, but rather the fact that he never pushed where he wasn’t invited.

He shook his head, rattling the bamboo cage of his jeonmo and dislodging the veils. Thoughts for a later time. For now, he had to find where Seong-Ho kept his skimmed goods. It wouldn’t be the warehouses by the river. Those were subject to inspection by both imperial bureaucrats and merchant clients. No, it had to be somewhere that nobody but Seong-Ho’s own people had access to.

Voices and a crunch of footsteps on bare ground alerted Yong-Ha to the approach of a squad of Seong-Ho’s men. He ducked into the shadows between two buildings to let them pass by, counted six of them wearing a motley assortment of rough hemp and linen, and looking more like gangsters or laborers than guards.

“Now where might all of you be off to?” Yong-Ha mused aloud once they’d passed out of sight. Peering around the corner, he darted out into the courtyard and headed the direction the men had headed.

This corner of the compound had only one building, squat and abandoned seeming. The roof tiles were cracked, a few missing, and the wood of the doors and support beams had gone grey with age. The building nudged up against the compound’s rear wall. Many had mocked Seong-Ho when he moved to a hanok with such an unlucky arrangement—facing a mountain and its back to a river. Few mocked now in the face of Seong-Ho’s success. It struck Yong-Ha that this was exactly the sort of arrangement that would suit a corrupt middleman in need of a place to stash skimmed goods.

Yong-Ha was halfway across the bare courtyard, with nowhere to run, when the doors to the building opened and the men he’d followed streamed out.

They stopped when they saw Yong-Ha. Yong-Ha stopped as well.

“Now what is a pretty flower like you doing so far from your proper garden?” asked the man leading them.

Yong-Ha smiled, ducked his head to peek sideways through his veil, and prepared to flirt as though his life depended on it. Which it quite likely did.

“Hm. How should such a question be answered?” he mused, tapping his closed fan to his lips. “Looking to be plucked? But how cliché. A more entertaining answer than that can surely be devised.” Swaying closer as though he had no reason to fear being so far from the banquet, Yong-Ha concentrated all his wiles on the leader. He was the one to convince. The other men faded into a blur, half-obscured by his veil.

He lifted his fan and used the edge to trace the leader’s jaw and lift his chin. “Perhaps I found the selection of gardeners wanting and went looking for someone more skilled to tend to my... bud.”

The man visibly swallowed. He hooked his fingers over the fan, forcing it down, and slid his hand up to meet Yong-Ha’s. Yong-Ha had steeled himself to endure a bit of mauling in service to a good cause—his prolonged life—when a gruff and very familiar voice cut through the charged silence.

“She’s with me.”

One of the gathered men stepped forward, snatching Yong-Ha’s hand away before the leader could touch him. Ragged hair fell forward over a glower, like the surlier version of Yong-Ha’s veils. Loose clothes, as dull and worn as Yong-Ha’s were colorful and neat, draped half open as though the wearer was a low-life who couldn’t be bothered to tie them closed. His lips pursed tight as he glared an oh-so-familiar glare at Yong-Ha.

He tore his gaze away from Yong-Ha’s growing smile. “She came looking for me,” he told the leader. And then, to Yong-Ha, a muttered, “I told you to wait at the gate.”

Geol-Oh. Yong-Ha melted against his friend and savior. Later, he’d question what his friend was doing here, looking as he hadn’t looked since their days at Sungkyunkwan. For now, he had to back up Moon Jae-Shin’s story.

“And I waited for so long. Your poor Hanu-Hanu standing alone in the dark and the cold of her own tears.” Yong-Ha pressed harder against Jae-Shin’s side, tilting his head so that he didn’t cosh his friend with the bamboo cage of his jeonmo. Jae-Shin’s arm tensed. His whole posture was rigid rather than the loose slouch he usually affected.

Yong-Ha poked him—surreptitiously. Jae-shin jumped, eyes widening, but it was enough to prod him into the act.

“I’m sorry. I had to work.” Another poke. Jae-Shin cleared his throat. “Your Min-Jun is sorry to have left you for so long, H-hanu...uh... Hanu.”

The patrol leader smiled, a smile that went nowhere near his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell us you had such a lovely bloom that blossomed only for you, Min-Jun? I would have taken someone else to secure... the compound.”

Jae-Shin looked away. Didn’t answer his leader and wouldn’t look at Yong-Ha.

No matter, Yong-Ha was probably better suited to answer for him. “My sweet Min-Jun does not wish to cause me trouble with Master Seong-Ho. You see why I would give such a considerate man my... heart.”

Several of the watching men chuckled knowingly. The leader sighed and shook his head. “Aish. Just so long as the two of you don’t cause me any trouble. Go, go,” he said, waving for Jae-Shin and Yong-Ha to head back to the public areas of the compound.

Yong-Ha fought not to stumble as Jae-Shin dragged him in the direction of the daecheong.

“What are you doing here?” he growled, yanking Yong-Ha into the shadows on the edge of the feast.

“Looking for evidence that Seong-Ho is skimming goods from his clients. Well, from me. What are you doing here?” Giddiness energized Yong-Ha. He couldn’t stop himself from smoothing the lay of Jae-Shin’s rumpled jeogori, brushing his ragged hair out of his face.

Jae-Shin batted Yong-Ha’s hands away like he always did. “Trying to find out why the shipment of ginseng that went to Sungkyunkwan turned out to be ooraji root instead.”

Tapping his fan to his lips, Yong-Ha peered up into the shadows of his jeonmo. “But you’re a royal guard. Isn’t that a task for the Han Sung Bu?”

“The Han Sung Bu blames the seller of the ginseng. Lee Sun-Joon asked me to confirm that it wasn’t the middleman.”

“Funny. Kim Yoon-Shik was the one who suggested that I could look around more easily as a gisaeng than a silk merchant.”

Jae-Shin batted away the veil drooping over Yong-Ha’s face. “You look ridiculous.”

Yong-Ha blew him a kiss. “I look beautiful. You just hate to admit it.” But enough with flirting with his oh-so-serious Geol-Oh. There were more important matters to attend to. “So, the answers we both seek are back in that building you came out of?” Yong-Ha peered back the way they’d come. The rest of the guards had moved on, and the doors to the building sported no locks that he’d seen.

“Underneath it. There’s a hatch leading to storage caves below.”

Ah. “Locked?”

Jae-Shin grunted.

“River entry?”

“Guarded.”

“Key?”

“Soo-Bin has it. The one you were flirting with.”

“The one I was distracting, you mean.” And Soo-Bin had seemed... open to being distracted. Good enough. Yong-Ha glanced into the brightly lit daecheong just in time to see Soo-Bin bow to Seong-Ho and hand him something that looked distressingly key-like.

“Aish,” Yong-Ha muttered. Why had he poured an entire jug of soju over the man? He started to move forward and was jerked back into the shadows by Jae-Shin.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting the key. Am I not Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha?” He blew another kiss at his Geol-Oh. “Watch and be entertained.

 

***

 

It took Yong-Ha several circuits of the room—and several sharp glances and emphatic gestures at Seom-Seom and Aeng-Aeng—before the too-helpful gisaengs realized that their Yeorim wanted to be molested. They made artfully casual withdrawals, leaving the field—and Seong-Ho’s lap—open for Yong-Ha.

On his next pass, he felt the tug on his chima. He employed a bit of artfulness himself, elegantly tumbling into his quarry’s lap. His jeonmo tumbled away and the veils with it, leaving him with a clear view of Seong-Ho’s triumphant leer.

And in the shadows beyond, Jae-Shin’s frowning face and clenched fists.

“Ha. Caught you. Where’s your jug of soju now?”

“Yes, the rain has fallen upon you.” Yong-Ha giggled and slapped at Seong-Ho’s chest until he felt a hard lump that bore no resemblance to his paramour’s soft physique.

“And now that the drought is over, it’ll soon be time for the plowing, hey?”

Yong-Ha hid a pained snort with another insipid giggle. He nestled closer so that Seong-Ho’s fingers would be trapped between them instead of tugging on the tie of Yong-Ha’s jeogori. His own hand slipped into the depths of Seong-Ho’s clothes, deftly tugging the key free.

And now to get himself free. “Yes, but first mustn’t the ground be well fertilized?” Yong-Ha cooed.

“Hah, yes. Ferti—what?” Seong-Ha’s brows beetled as he struggled to parse out the innuendo behind those words. “That’s... uh... what exactly are you talking about?”

Burying his hands under his skirts, Yong-Ha pressed closer. “You know. To make the earth more fertile. I’m no farmer, but I’ve heard that duck droppings are best.”

Seong-Ho leaned back from Yong-Ha’s advances, almost overturning them both. “You want to use... duck droppings?”

With the key tucked away in his baji, Yong-Ha brought his hands to bear, caressing Seong-Ho’s cheek. “Mmhmm. Over your entire… field. You don’t happen to have one, do you? A duck?”

Seong-Ho cringed from his touch. “I... hadn’t heard that the gisaeng of Moran-gak were so... er...”

“Hanu-Hanu.” Cho-sun floated up, the sharpness of her tone not reflected in the serenity of her smile. She set a hand on Yong-Ha’s shoulder and pulled him off his victim. He had to hold back a wince. Who knew a gisaeng’s grip could be so painfully strong? “You seem to have lost your jeonmo. Why don’t you retrieve it and I will see to our host?”

Cho-sun relaxed her grip and knelt beside a red-faced Seong-Ho, lifting the soju jug. “Your cup has gone empty, my lord. Will you allow me to refill it?”

Yong-Ha made his escape, leaving Cho-Sun to assure her patron that no, the utilization of duck droppings was not a practice she subscribed to.

He’d ventured beyond the daecheong’s light, looking for either his friend or his hat, when Jae-Shin’s hand darted out from the shadows and caught Yong-Ha’s wrist. Jae-Shin dragged him along a passway between buildings, all twists and turns and uneven ground. Yong-Ha collided with him when he abruptly stopped.

They’d come to the rear courtyard. Across a moonlit swath of bare ground, the supply house sat abandoned and unguarded. Only then did Jae-Shin turn his glare on Yong-Ha.

“Geol Oh?” Yong-Ha said, ready to charm his friend out of his anger if needed.

“Geol Oh. Geol Oh? There is only one crazy person here, and it is not me,” he muttered. “It is the one who is laughing. You are lucky that did not... that Seong-Ho did not...”

Pressing fingertips to his lips so that his silent laughter didn’t bubble over into sound, Yong-ha savored his victory as much as he savored Jae-Shin’s sputtering disapproval. “The table held another jug of soju if I had need of it to cool Seong-Ho’s passion.” He nudged Jae-Shin’s shoulder. “Should I thank you for Cho-Sun’s timely intervention?”

“I don’t want your thanks,” Jae-Shin grumbled. His gaze passed over the rooftops, the courtyard. Anywhere but Yong-Ha, which just amused Yong-Ha all the more. It seemed no man was immune to his gisaeng wiles.

Jae-Shin cleared his throat. “Did you get the key?”

“I did. It’s in my—” A hand clamped over the rest of Yong-Ha’s response. Jae-Shin’s, warm and calloused from years of archery. He dragged Yong-Ha close, turning them so that Yong-Ha was pressed against one wall of the passage, the bright colors of his hanbok hidden by Jae-Shin’s drab clothing.

And then Yong-Ha heard the voices. Distant, but closer than the feast, and echoing oddly off the walls of the narrow passway.

 “Key,” Jae-Shin whispered, close enough to Yong-Ha’s ear that his breath warmed and his whiskers tickled.

“Baji,” Yong-Ha said, just as softly. He peered down the passage and scanned the open courtyard, trying to discover the direction of the threat.

Jae Shin was stooping to dig under Yong-Ha’s skirts when the voices rose again, clear enough to be discerned.

“—swear they came down this way.”

And clearly coming from their not-so-hidden passway.

“Does it matter? The peach rolled out of the boss’ hands and Min-Jun caught it. Leave him be so he can sample it in peace.”

“Didn’t look like a man intending to sample anything. And I’m telling you, there was something odd about that gisaeng.”

The voices were close, too close to flee across the courtyard, and coming from the only shadows that might have offered shelter. Jae-Shin knelt before Yong-Ha, lifting the violet chima to retrieve the key. His dark gaze searched passage and courtyard, the sky above, and Yong-Ha’s face, looking for any escape.

But there was no escape. Except... He was Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha, and contrary to anyone’s opinion, he was an excellent gisaeng.

Also, perhaps, just a bit crazy.

He grabbed the loose edges of Jae-Shin’s collar and dragged him to standing. Just the right height for Yong-Ha to lean close and mash their lips together.

“Right leg,” he mumbled against Jae-Shin’s mouth, and obligingly wrapped the leg in question around Jae-Shin’s hips for easier reach.

Several tense breaths passed before Jae-Shin jerked into motion. He plunged his hand into the froth of Yong-Ha’s chima, searching up his leg for the hidden key.

Just in time. Yong-Ha cracked one eye and caught a flash of pale movement from the shadows of the passage. The conversation between Soo-bin and his underling broke on a sputter.

Yong-Ha closed his eyes and concentrated on being convincing.

It wasn’t difficult, really. Jae-Shin’s lips had softened as he concentrated on his blind and fumbling search for the key. Yong-Ha’s lips softened in response, and then it seemed only sensible to part them so that it was less artless mashing and more like kissing. Hard and wet and teeth and tongues. Breath mingling and heart-pounding. Yes. Very much like kissing.

Jae-Shin had finally worked his hand past the skirts and was groping and pressing his way up Yong-Ha’s calf, his thigh. Yong-Ha lifted his leg higher—to help!—and too late realized that this would have the distressing effect of throwing them both off balance. Jae-Shin stumbled forward, pressing Yong-Ha hard against the wall at his back.

Yong-Ha whimpered at the increased pressure, and Jae-Shin groaned, grip tightening. Probably in frustration. He was taking a damnably long time to find that key.

The guards found their voices first. “That... definitely looks like peach sampling to me,” said the underling.

Soo-Bin grunted. “Guess she was... what she seemed. Come on. Let’s leave them to it.”

Footsteps followed. Faded. Yong-Ha kept kissing until he was certain the guards were gone.

Jae-Shin didn’t seem to have realized they were alone and safe again. It took Yong-Ha biting his lower lip to get him to pull back.

He didn’t go far, possibly because Yong-Ha’s teeth still held his lower lip. “Wha—” he whispered, more breath than words.

Right. Hard to talk with your lip between your best friend’s teeth. Yong-Ha released him. “They’re gone. Did you get the key?”

“Oh. Uh.” A moment’s more fumbling, warm hands digging under the loose fabric at Yong-Ha’s hip. Jae-Shin withdrew his hand. Stumbled back into the opposite wall and held up the key. His mouth opened and closed several times before words tumbled out. “If... if Seong-Ho notices it missing, he’ll clear the storage cellar. I’ll have a copy made and slip it back into the daecheong tonight.”

“So he thinks he dropped it. Ah, Geol Oh, how did such a brilliant scholar take so long to graduate from Sungkyunkwan?” Yong-Ha reached across to nudge Jae-Shin’s shoulder.

Jae-Shin jerked away. “You should go back. Leave with the gisaeng. I’ll... tell you when I’ve had a chance to search the cellar.”

“Try not to get stabbed this time.” Because his Geol Oh had a habit of returning from nightly intrigues with wounds in all sorts of new and interesting places.

Jae-Shin nodded and would have skulked out into the courtyard, but Yong-Ha blocked his way with arm and fan. “Wait.”

It wasn’t until Yong-Ha lifted his hand to Jae-Shin’s lips, wasn’t until Jae-Shin flinched away again and stumbled out of reach, that Yong-Ha realized his improvisational kissing might have been a grave mistake. Jae-Shin was regarding him with the same unease—terror, even—that he usually reserved for pretty, unmarried women. All that was missing were the hiccups.

Yong-Haw slowly lowered his hand. “You... have some... here.” He gestured to his lips.

If Jae-Shin noticed that Yong-Ha’s usual glibness had deserted him, he said nothing. Nodding sharply, he scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth and fled into the courtyard.

“Aish!” Yong-Ha hissed, remembering now all the things that he hadn’t allowed himself to think about during the kiss. Jae-Shin’s scent, his heat, the softness of his lips and the strength of his grip.

And the reaction of Yong-Ha’s body at finally exploring the forbidden fantasies he’d always shoved aside. He was still hard, tension still singing along his limbs and settling in his churning gut. His hand slipped down his thigh before he realized that stoking those fires wasn’t his usual solution.

He banged his head against the wall and hissed again. He feared it was going to take more than his well-worn red book to recover from this disaster.

 

***

 

Yong-Ha waited several days for Jae-Shin to come to him, but no Moon Jae Shin came. He checked with the royal guard, but Jae Shin was always out on patrol, despite mysteriously never appearing on a roster. He harassed the servants at the house of the Minister of Justice, but the young lord was never at home. He even visited Professors Lee Sun-Joon and Kim Yoon-Shik at Sungkyunkwan. They, at least, confirmed that Moon Jae-Shin was investigating the matter of the false ginseng shipment, but he hadn’t reported back to them. Yong-Ha told them about Seong-Ho’s skimming, and they promised to send word whenever Jae-Shin showed up.

“I’m certain he’s fine, Sunbae,” Kim Yoon-Shik said in parting. “It has been a long time since the Red Messenger invited arrows to be shot at him.”

“And yet it is a talent that Geol Oh will never entirely lose,” Yong-Ha muttered as he trudged down the Banchon road.

It was one thing for Moon Jae-Shin to avoid Yong-Ha because of a little personal awkwardness, but it was completely unacceptable for him to put a halt to Yong-Ha’s investigation like this. Or so, Yong-Ha told himself as he was led through the main gates of Gim Seong-Ho’s hanok one evening and warmly greeted by the middleman himself.

“Gu Yong-Ha-ssi, you are looking very well. Is this the embroidered brocade that I stored for you last month?”

Yong-Ha couldn’t think of an excuse to dance out of the way when Seong-Ha snagged the fabric of his jeonbok with grubby fingers. He smiled tightly and promised himself that revenge would be achieved when he exposed the man’s good-skimming to the other merchants in Hanyang.

“Of course,” he said. “The best advertisement for my wares is clearly myself.” He lifted his arms and spun—coincidentally pulling the brocade out of Seong-Ho’s grip.

“And you wear it so well, eh?” Seong-Ho winked, and Yong-Ha had no choice but to reply with a pained smile.

Seong-Ho sobered. “It is too bad that part of the shipment was lost to water damage.” As though he wasn’t the one who’d falsely reported the damage and then conveniently disposed of the goods.

Yong-Ha followed Seong-Ho through the daecheong and into his personal sarangbang. He waited patiently as his host poured him tea. “Yes, but I don’t blame you, of course. Didn’t the Han Sung Bu determine that the ship’s captain was to blame?” A finding no doubt informed by generous bribes. Yong-Ha took a sip and clenched his smile against a grimace. And he’d thought Seong-Ho’s soju was cheap.

He set his cup down and ignored the refill. He was not subjecting himself to another sip of that warmed-over ditch water. “But I seek your advice on another matter.”

“Ah, yes.” Avarice gleamed in Seong-Ho’s eyes. He stroked his beard. “You said you needed to store something… away from the prying eyes of government inspectors?”

“Mmm.” Yong-Ha dug into his sleeve and pulled out a worn red book. It was Moon Jae-Shin’s fault, this plan. At least, after a fashion. If Yong-Ha hadn’t spent the past several days aggressively—and fruitlessly—trying to erase the memory of their kiss in the pages of the red book, he might never have been… inspired.

“Oh?”  Lifting the book as though it was a foreign oddity from the West, Seong-Ho opened it to a random page. Of course, being so well-worn by Yong-Ha, the random page happened also to be one of the most prurient pages. “Oh. Oh!” Seong-Ho flipped through the book, eyes wide and lips parted—and growing wet with drool the more pages he turned.

Yong-Ha cleared his throat. “Yes. Well. The work of this particular author is in high demand. There is a small shipment that is coming in…”

“Ah.” Seong-Ho slipped the book into his sleeve and nodded knowingly. “Are they… all the same?”

“Oh no. This is only the first of a ten-volume series. And I’ve arranged for exclusive distribution.” Yong-Ha leaned forward over the table. “Very lucrative.” And then, sighing, he pulled back and plucked at the pink flowers adorning his sage-green jeonbok. “Assuming I can find a safe place to store them.”

“Hm. As to that, I might have an old storehouse on my grounds that might do…”

Yong-Ha nodded along as Seong-Ho outlined a plan to receive the goods and avoid the inspectors, spirit the books to his special storehouse, where they could be kept for as long as needed. And Yong-Ha also paid attention to the parts that Seong-Ho didn’t give voice to, how Seong-Ho could keep as much of the shipment as he wanted, even sell all the books himself, and what could Yong-Ha do when any report of the theft would implicate himself in the selling of banned books?

“That sounds exactly like what I needed. I knew I could rely on you. But…” Casting a worried glance at the eaves, Yong-Ha tapped his closed fan against his lips. “I’ve already lost goods to water. This storehouse of yours sounds as though it is in poor repair.”

“I assure you it is only worn on the outside. If you wish to inspect it, we can do so right now.”

Seong-Ho behaved as though he had nothing to worry about as he led Yong-Ho through the compound, chatting all the way. And why should he? If things were as Moon Jae-Shin had said, the storehouse itself would be empty, and all the stolen goods in the cellar beneath.

Still, it was a start.

They were just approaching the courtyard outside the storehouse when shouts sounded from around the corner, and the twang of bow strings, and the fffft-thunk of arrows sinking into wood.

From the darkness above them, a figure all in black fell and landed in the dust at their feet. Moon Jae-Shin. Even with the mask disguising his face, he was known to Yong-Ha.

Jae-shin crouched low, listed to one side, his arm wrapped around his middle. The fingers clutching his flank shone red in the moonlight. His eyes widened as he recognized Yong-Ha, but then a shout from the courtyard drew his attention.

Soo-Bin rounded the corner, backed by many more guards than just the five he’d had on the previous night. “Bows down. Don’t shoot the boss. Get the thief!”

The guards—a rough hewn and hard-faced lot—charged past their leader, making for the wounded Jae-Shin.

Yong-Ha did the only thing he could do. “ASSASSIN!” he shrieked, and threw himself at Seong-Ho, tackling his host to the ground and clearing the path for Jae-Shin’s escape.

Jae-Shin fled. Seong-Ho struggled to free himself from Yong-Ha’s protective flailing, but Yong-Ha clung to him. “I will keep you safe, Gim Seong-Ho-ssi! He will not get you!”

“Get off me, you—” Seong-Ho shoved, and Yong-Ha rolled away—

—directly into the path of Soo-Bin and his men.

The guards fell over each other in their attempt to not fall on their boss’ honored guest. By the time Yong-Ha and Seong-Ho had been pulled to their feet and set to rights, the black-clad thief was well away.

“Aish!” Clicking his tongue, Yong-Ha brushed dirt from his jeonbok. In vain. The brocade was ruined. He shook his head and looked up at his host. “Thank you for the tour, Gim Seong-Ho-ssi. To witness such excitement, it makes me think I should seek someplace quieter for my literary endeavors.”

 

***

 

Where to go, where to go? No, more importantly, where might Geol Oh go? Not to his father’s house. He was too likely to be discovered by well-meaning servants. And not to Yong-Ha’s home, not after their encounter days before. Not the offices of the city guard. They might be overlooking Jae-Shin’s extracurricular activities, but even they couldn’t ignore those activities if they were dripping blood on the floor.

On a hunch, Yong-Ha headed for Sungkyunkwan. How many times had Geol Oh bled on the floor of the Hyangkwan Chung in secret?

The doors creaked softly when Yong-Ha slipped into the dark and rarely-used building. The scant moonlight streaming through the latticed screens broke on the rows of shelving, leaving the room cloaked in patterned shadow.

A soft exhalation followed the creak of the doors closing, and one of the shadows between shelves shifted.

“Aish.” Yong-Ha clicked his tongue against his teeth and bustled into the room. His bag of water jugs and bandages banged against his hip as he knelt beside Jae-Shin’s slumped body.

A grimace of pain tightened Jae-Shin’s features. Sweat beaded on his lip and brow, and his ragged hair looked even more mussed than usual, if that was possible. His collar sagged open at the neck, revealing a solid chest striped with old scars. It rose and fell too quickly for regular breathing.

“This is why you should listen to your Yeorim. Didn’t I tell you not to get shot?”

“Didn’t. It was that punk Soo-Bin’s sword.” Jae-Shin coughed and tried to shift away from Yong-Ha’s searching hands. “You don’t need to concern yourself with me—”

“You are ten years too late with that warning.” Yong-Ha said, using cheer to hide his concern—and hurt, that Jae-Shin shied away from him.

Jae Shin caught Yong-Ha’s wrist when he would have pushed his jeogori open. “I said don’t.”

Yong-Ha’s smile faltered, but he wasn’t going to let Jae-Shin’s discomfort stop him from helping. “You have a choice. You can let me look after you, or I can call in Kim Yoon-Shik.”

Several breaths passed before Jae-Shin released his grip. His head fell back against the shelf, hard enough to rattle the various jars of incense and herbs, and he closed his eyes as though he could pretend that Yong-Ha wasn’t peeling back his shirt to expose the wound at his side.

As wounds went, it wasn’t the worst that Jae-Shin had brought back. Long, but shallow, just under his ribs. The blood had already congealed into a gummy scab.

“To have the sword of Soo-Bin cut you, you must be getting slow.” There. Now Jae-Shin’s frown was for Yong-Ha’s teasing and not... anything else. He kept to silent glowering and the occasional grunt as Yong-Ha cleaned the wound, packed it with moss, and pressed a folded cloth against it to hold everything in place.

But when he leaned close to pass a binding bandage around Jae-Shin’s back, Jae-Shin stiffened.

“What are you doing?” His breath was close enough to tickle Yong-Ha’s cheek. It came fast and light, as though Jae-Shin had been running.

Or he’s wounded, idiot, Yong-Ha reminded himself, quashing the flutters that made his own heart beat too fast. “I need to secure the bandage,” he said, cursing his own breathlessness. And yet, he didn’t move, couldn’t make himself move. His chest was pressed against Jae-Shin’s bare one, and if he just turned his head the slightest bit, their lips—

No. Yong-Ha shook himself and got back to tending his friend. His wounded friend. “Did you at least find anything useful for your troubles?” he asked, wrapping the binder once, twice... probably enough, but he made a third pass for good measure, and not for the way it allowed him to press up against Jae-Shin.

He wondered if Jae-Shin would answer, but after one or two throat-clearings, Jae-shin was back to tickling Yong-Ha’s neck with his words.

“Yes. I mean, I did. Days ago. But there’s no proof beyond the goods themselves, and no way to force an inspection without proof. Gim Seong-Ho isn’t helpful enough to keep a room full of incriminating ledgers.”

Yong-Ha took his time tying off the bandage. “Then tonight, what was that about?”

The grin that curved Jae-Shin’s lips, equal parts sly and cocky, just about undid Yong-Ha.

Making evidence. Or the opportunity for it. Seong-Ho will move his goods if he thinks a thief is after them, and when he does, the guard will be lying in—what?

“What?” Yong-Ha blinked. He’d been staring at Jae-Shin’s smile. Or his lips. Something like that.

Jae-Shin licked his lips, and Yong-Ha’s eyes fluttered closed. At least that meant he was no longer staring?

“Do I have... something... again?”

The tremor that threaded Jae-Shin’s question caused Yong-Ha’s eyes to snap open again. Something. Something? Was he bringing up the rouge from the other night? And, by proxy, how the rouge got there?

“Let me see.” Forgetting all the reasons this was a bad idea, Yong-Ha ran his thumb over Jae-Shin’s lower lip, catching the uneven breaths, the hint of moisture. And then he replaced his thumb with his lips, and plunged headlong into the unadvisable.

Jae-Shin’s lips parted on a gasp, and Yong-Ha followed that opening. His fingers splayed across Jae-Shin’s chest, tracing the cords of scarring, a dozen brushes with death. Yong-Ha kissed for each one, each time he’d been so afraid and hidden it with smiles and wit. Until his seeking hand found the bandage covering the most recent wound, and Jae-Shin hissed and shoved Yong-Ha away.

Jars rattled on the shelf when Yong-Ha fell hard against it. The sound cut the silence between them. Jae-Shin’s face was turned away, hidden by hair and shadow.

Rising to his feet, Yong-Ha waited. Waited for the recrimination, for the rejection. Only then could he smile and laugh this all off as a joke, a mistake. He clutched the shelf for stability. Only once before had he felt this exposed, this vulnerable—when Ha In-Soo had revealed that Yong-Ha wasn’t the yangban noble he’d claimed to be. Was instead merely the son of a Joogin merchant, all money and bought lineage.

Having that truth exposed to his fellow students had been a nightmare. Dreading Jae-Shin’s rejection was worse.

He couldn’t let the silence stretch on. Better to have Jae-Shin yell at him and get it over with. “I—”

“If you keep this up, it’s going to become a habit.” Jae-Shin looked up at Yong-Ha, half his face still hidden in shadow.

Yong-Ha swallowed against nausea. How many times had he heard that soft threat from Jae-Shin? Often enough to recognize the acrimony behind it. For once, Yong-Ha had nothing to say, no clever retort. Jae-Shin was right. Yong-Ha had always been careful before not to dance over the line that kept them apart.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and fled before he could make matters worse.

 

***

 

Yong-Ha was hardly surprised when, two days later, the news buzzed among his fellow merchants that Gim Seong-Ho had been caught transporting good that had been skimmed from several of his clients. He wasn’t surprised that his news goaded others to come forward with similar reports of minor, sporadic losses that, in total, accounted for quite a bit of wealth. He wasn’t surprised when Gim Seong-Ho’s hanok and warehouses were raided and looted by those same merchants looking to get some of their own back.

He wasn’t surprised that Moon Jae-Shin never came to him through the initial or subsequent uproar.

“But why is our Yeorim so glum?” asked Seom-Seom, fingers pressing circles into Yong-Ha’s temples. “You caught the thief, and surely your silks will be returned soon.”

“Ah, you do not know the Han Sung Bu very well if you think so. They make even better thieves than Gim Seong-Ho.” Yong-Ha tilted his head back, chasing the temporary relief to be found in Seom-Seom’s massage. Elsewhere from Moran-gak rose the sounds of laughter and music—the normal business of a gisaeng house—but all was quiet in the corner room where Yong-Ha had sought solace. Aeng-Aeng had disappeared seeking more tea, and Seom-Seom kept a running banter to cover for Yong-Ha’s unusual reticence.

“As you make a better gisaeng than Cho-sun?” she asked, tapping Yong-Ha’s nose lightly.

He wrinkled it in response. “Of course. I’m Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha. Is there anything I can’t do?” But the usual boast rang hollow. Bitter.

Seom-Seom must have heard it. Her smile tightened, just at the corners, and she lowered her eyes. “Even so. I will go help Aeng-Aeng with the tea.”

She slipped out quickly and quietly, and very like a woman escaping an uncomfortable situation. Yong-Ha’s brief stint as a gisaeng had taught him to know the signs.

“Aish!” He flopped back and stared at the ceiling. “You’ve become Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha, who frightens pretty gisaeng with your foul moods.”

At the sound of the door sliding open and closed, Yong-Ha sat back, up, preparing to be properly conciliatory.

Until he realized that it was not Seom-Seom or Aeng-Aeng kneeling opposite him, but Moon Jae-Shin.

He’d cleaned up—slightly—from the rags he’d been wearing while undercover. He’d never be as fashionable as Yong-Ha, but his dopo and jeonbok were contrasting shades of midnight and indigo silk. Passable. He’d forgone gat and manggeon, leaving his hair a ragged mess that hung over half his face. Yong-Ha’s fingers twitched, resisting the urge to comb that hair back.

“Geol Oh. You’ve come at a terrible time, I’m afraid. I seem to be lacking in tea or soju or gisaeng.” Yong-Ha’s smile felt thin and brittle, even to him.

Jae-Shin must have concurred. He snorted. “You seem to still have plenty of words.”

That was promising. If Jae-shin was willing to ignore what Yong-Ha had done, then Yong-Ha was happy to oblige. He spread his hands, and this time his smile felt less forced. More him. “Well, I am the scholar Gu Yong-Ha. I deal in words as much as I deal in silks.”

“Then perhaps you have words to explain to me what you were about when Gisaeng Gu Yong-Ha kissed me at Gim Seong-Ho’s hanok.”

Yong-Ha’s smile faltered. “Well. That. I… it was a distraction. The guards—”

Jae-Shin leaned forward, lip curled in an incipient snarl. “And when Doctor Gu Yong-Ha kissed me at Hyangkwan Chung?”

Anger flared. Snapped. Not at Jae-Shin so much as at the world that tried to keep Yong-Ha in a place that didn’t suit him. “So what if I kissed you. Isn’t this the King’s new Joseon, where we question wisdom rather than accept it blindly?” he snapped, jaw tight and fists clenched. He blinked to fight back tears, but that did nothing for his trembling. “Where there is no difference between classes? Where there is no difference between men and women? If it is acceptable for Kim Yoon-Shik to be a Sungkyunkwan scholar, then why is it unacceptable for me to want—”

Jae-Shin’s lips stopped Yong-Ha from revealing what he wanted, which was fine, because what he wanted was Jae-Shin’s kiss.

“You talk too much,” Jae-Shin said between kisses.

Yong-Ha gripped him by the shoulders to keep his equilibrium, which lasted only until Jae-Shin pressed him down to the floor. “You… said this would become a habit.” That mattered for some reason, though Yong-Ha couldn’t precisely recall why when Jae-Shin’s kisses had moved to his cheek. His ear. His neck.

“I didn’t say that was a bad thing.”

And what could he, Yeorim Gu Yong-Ha, say to that, that kisses couldn’t say better?