the flowering years
It’s snowing by the time evening falls and Namjoon decides to retire for the day. He has a dinner date, he’s the last one in his office, and it’s nearly seollal. He should pretend like he has a life outside of his doctorate work.
hey you workaholic. are you done yet? i’m hungry. we’re going to get dinner tonight, right? let me know when you’re finished grading papers or reading up about the composition of soap in the goryeo era and ready to be human again.
Yoongi’s text is longer and gruffer than usual, which is as good as an I love you as Namjoon could hope for. He tries to reply with one hand and put on his coat with the other, which doesn’t amount to much except for one arm in the wrong sleeve and his phone on the floor. Thank god Yoongi got him an Otterbox (among other less tangible things) for his birthday.
i’m coming, i’m coming. what did you want to eat today?
tosokchon. i want soup.
tosokchon it is, i’ll see you there.
The walk to the subway station could be shorter, especially in the snow; Namjoon didn’t bring his umbrella, partly because he woke up late this morning and didn’t plan better for the weather, partly because he’s not one to plan for the weather at all. Snowflakes cling to his hair and the frames of his glasses, and he tries to be thankful that the snow is at least not heavy.
He almost makes it to the subway station without getting distracted by any storefronts, but he’s doomed the second he passes by a bookstore and sees that the sale shelf has been restocked with a haphazard collection of books that he doesn’t remember seeing last week.
It’s an obvious decision. Namjoon darts inside, just as someone else is exiting, and swears he won’t let himself stay more than fifteen minutes in here. Some of the titles he’s read before, like Black Flower and A Field of Stars, but the cover that immediately catches his eye is one with two silhouettes facing away from each other upon a patchy blue sky. To Live Again, it’s called. An angry bleat from his phone makes Namjoon jump just as he’s reaching out for it.
if you get sidetracked in a bookstore again, you’re dead! for real this time!
Namjoon snorts. He picks the book up and flips it to the back to read the blurb.
Part story, part memoir, To Live Again pays tribute to two of Goryeo’s most unlikely lovers.
Oh, Namjoon’s going to like this. He hasn’t even finished the rest of the blurb when he’s gotten to the cash register, and pays for it before making it out in a record six, going on seven minutes.
“You got distracted in a bookstore again, didn’t you.” Yoongi clicks his tongue as Namjoon slides into his seat at Tosokchon without breaking a sweat, the comforting smell of samgyetang settling on his clothes.
“I did not!”
Yoongi raises his eyebrows.
“Okay, I did, but. I spent less than ten minutes in there.”
“Find anything interesting?”
“Well—yeah, I actually did. It’s like a kind-of memoir about two lovers from Goryeo.”
“Right up your alley, then,” Yoongi says. “Tell me more. A kind-of memoir?”
“I don’t know, what if bores you? And I haven’t even read it myself, it just seemed interesting and it was on sale.”
“You don’t bore me,” Yoongi says matter-of-factly. He doesn’t even look up from his menu. “Not even when you wake me up at 3 AM to talk my ear off about trade war. Go on, read some of it.”
Namjoon orders himself dakbokkeumtang before he reaches into his bag and pulls the book out. It has a trademark inky new-book-smell that he loves when he opens the cover, and takes a breath.
“‘There once was a shaman in the kingdom of Baekje who lived alone. When other shamans lived in convents together, she was cast into the country where no one except the occasional lost traveler would come upon her hut, drawn by the promising cloud of smoke from her cooking fires and the lantern in the front yard…’”
But the shaman Han Yongsu did not commit a great sin or fail at her skill. At most, one could argue that she had angered the royal court of the Goguryeo, for Han Yongsu was a shaman who only foretold of misfortune.
It made her popular, and it made her powerful. She saw weak emperors before they were born, and knew when a war was doomed before it had even been fought. For a long time, the royal city was grateful for her help.
But at the dusk of Silla and Baekje, the king of Silla married a low-ranking woman for love and was murdered by his own queen, plunging the kingdom into a despair that Goguryeo seized as a chance to conquer.
The royal court castigated her for the prophecy she had foretold: A prince will fall in love with a lowborn, and if he is given a chance at a life beside that lowborn, the kingdom will prosper.
The kingdom of Silla, then, was only too delighted when their king fell in love with a woman far below any woman he should have been eyeing to occupy the throne beside him. It is a miracle that Han Yongsu was not executed immediately for the horrific end of the kingdom of Silla, but because she lived in Baekje, who had warned them of the Tang invasion, she was given a pardon that translated to exile.
But she was not wrong. One cannot ask of a shaman to put a place and a time and a name to the prophecies she knows. It may not have been the king of Silla, but there once lived a prince who fell in love with a lowborn. His name was Kim Taehyung, second emperor of the Kim Dynasty.
It is nearly dinnertime, and Taehyung had been perched on one of the cinnabar vases inside his room, itching at a scratch through the fabric of his robes in the sticky summer heat. He isn’t hungry. Chasing butterflies feels like a much better idea, even though it would be much more fun if he had company.
But no matter. He hops off the vase, where he shouldn’t have been sitting to begin with, and gives chase alone.
Huwon is filled with the sound of crickets now, cloudy with gnats, and the butterfly actually stays still long enough upon the open bloom of a mugunghwa before it feels him coming, and flits out of his reach. “Come back here!” he says, snatching with his fist, and jumping as it dances out of his reach in the air.
They play this little game, and Taehyung follows it, jumping and snatching until his shoe catches on a branch in the dirt and he goes sprawling. The dull thud of his ribs hitting the ground knocks the air from his lungs. When he looks up, the butterfly is gone, the sky is dark, and a run-down cabin looms up before him.
Taehyung sits up, breath coming in scared gasps, and he jumps when the door bangs open and a man he does not recognize steps out. His skin is sooty, as if he had worked a long day in the sun, and his braid is coming undone where it is tied with a rag. He bends down along the side of the house, where a rusted well pump stands, and sets down a bucket.
He sees Taehyung, curled up in a tight ball, when he straightens.
“Hello,” he says, a question in his voice, and Taehyung bursts into prompt, noisy tears. “Oh, no, wait—wait, don’t cry, I won’t hurt you, I’m not here to—hang on, are you—?”
“Seobangnim, what’s going on?”
“There’s a child here,” the man calls. “He seems to be lost.”
“A child?” Taehyung opens his eyes when a woman’s voice reaches his ears. “Alone? Outside?”
“Yes, he’s afraid, I think I scared him—and he’s wearing clothes of the royal family.”
Taehyung flinches when he feels a soft hand on his shoulder. There is a voice very close to his face. “Hello,” she says, “are you from the royal family?”
“I’m—” Taehyung sniffles, fists very tight in his now dirty clothes, his handmaids will chastise him again, “I’m Taehyung.”
“Oh, dear gods,” he hears her say. “It’s the emperor’s son. Wonjanim, you came all the way here alone?”
“There was a butterfly, in Huwon,” Taehyung says. “I just followed it here.”
“Are you hurt? Are you in pain? You fell, didn’t you?” When she sits down beside him, Taehyung lifts his face out of his knees properly. “How about this, wonjanim. How about we wait here, and wait for your handmaids to come get you? Seobangnim will go find them, so they know where you are. Does that sound good?”
“I’ll go now,” says the man. “I’ll put a shirt on.”
“I’m not hurt,” Taehyung declares. “I’m a strong boy now!”
“That you are, wonjanim. Here, let me get that leaf in your hair for you.”
Taehyung’s eyes fall on the sack that she has tied firmly around her chest when she leans in and picks the ginkgo leaf out of his bangs. He would not have noticed it if not for the pair of pearly black eyes reflecting the light of the lantern in the doorway, staring up at him. They disappear when she pulls away.
“Is that a baby?”
“Yes, wonjanim. Did you see him?”
“Oh, he is, isn’t he,” she says, lifting the fold of fabric away. “He’s a quiet boy right now. He must know what’s happening.”
“What’s he called?”
“Jeon Jeongguk,” she says. “Do you want to say hi?”
Taehyung leans in when she does, lifting the fabric away from Jeongguk’s face. A dusting of black hair covers the top of his head and Taehyung waves his hand.
“Hi Jeonggukie,” he says.
“Wonjanim, you are bleeding,” the woman says suddenly. “Your hands.”
The sting shoots up Taehyung’s arms as soon as he becomes aware of the blood. The sight of all the red on his palms is enough to make him start dissolving back into tears.
As if on cue, Jeongguk does too.
“Okay, okay, it’s okay,” she says, heaving herself to her feet. “It’s okay wonjanim, let’s get you fixed up before your handmaids get back, hmm? Now, don’t cry, Jeongguk is sad if you cry. Can you be a brave hyungnim for him?”
Taehyung chokes on his breath, trying to corral his sobs back into his stomach.
“He’s going to need a brave hyungnim like you to grow up well, right?”
Shuddering with hiccups, Taehyung nods. “Yeah, I’m a brave hyungnim.”
“That’s right, now sit down on this stool for me so we can at least get the blood off.”
Like magic, Jeongguk stops wailing after Taehyung does. He falls asleep immediately, too, tired out from all the commotion around him, and Taehyung watches as she dabs away the blood on his hands with a damp rag.
“I’m sorry, wonjanim, I know it’s not the best.”
“It’s okay. You shouldn’t get a good cloth dirty, anyway.”
“You’re very kind, wonjanim.”
“No, I’m just me.”
She laughs. “You are just you.”
Taehyung leans over when she comes back from rinsing the rag out, peeking at Jeongguk’s sleeping face. “Is he going to get big?”
“He sure will.”
“That doesn’t sound right.” Taehyung looks down at himself. “I don’t get bigger every day.”
“Just a little everyday,” she says. “It’s hard to see yourself get big, it’s easier when it’s somebody else.”
“Wonjanim! Wonjanim, oh gods, we were looking everywhere for you,” says his handmaid, rushing into the cabin. “Thank you for finding him, we thought he’d been—that something terrible had happened.”
“We just found the wonjanim in our front yard. He followed a butterfly here, no harm done.”
“Wonjanim, let us go,” says his handmaid. “You’re filthy, we need to clean you up—what happened to your hands?”
“He fell,” says the man from before stepping back into the cabin. “We are sorry we could not take care of him better.”
“You did all you could—we will tell the empress about your good deed. Wonjanim, quickly.”
“Can I come back to see Jeongguk?”
“He’s going to get bigger everyday,” Taehyung says. “I want to see that happen!”
As it turns out, Taehyung does not need to go anywhere to see Jeongguk get bigger.
His father, the emperor Kim Seogeol, admonishes him for doing what could have led to something far more perilous—“what if you had fallen into wicked hands?”—and rewards the Jeon clan generously for taking care of his son, however simply they had done so.
Taehyung doesn’t understand the provisions of their reward, but he cares about exactly one part of it: when Jeongguk is old enough, he will be allowed to play in the Huwon gardens in the evenings, after Taehyung’s lessons in the afternoon. The boring parts of the provisions include something about food compensation, but Taehyung’s just excited he’ll have a friend.
“Don’t you wish you had a friend in the palace?” his father asks, stroking his hair. The evenings are cooler now, summer pulling the flowers from its hair in preparation for autumn. In a quiet moment before bed, Taehyung sits beside him and sips his milk.
“But I’ll have one, abeonim-mama. Jeongguk will be my friend.”
“I suppose you’re right, aren’t you? I simply wish there was someone better.”
“A friend is a friend,” Taehyung says stubbornly. “He said hi to me, so we’re gonna be great friends. Better than someone better.”
His father stares at him.
“You know what else I wish, Taehyung-ah?”
“I wish I could still see the world as you see it.”
But perhaps that was Kim Taehyung’s greatest power, that willingness to see beauty in simple things, beauty in things that people of his rank would scoff at, and happiness in unlikely places. It was one he exercised with abandon, a love for things that could not be quashed even in so treacherous a place as the palace.
The young prince wanted to give things to the people he loved, and he loved many. It took him years to understand why he could not. Why he could not, in fact, even give something as simple as happiness.
The emperor is due for a hunting trip, and as the head of the stables, Jeongguk’s father leads the horses out by the reigns to saddle them up. Taehyung had insisted on tagging along on the premise of wanting to see the horses, and Seogeol’s favorite mare.
“Good morning, wonjanim,” says Jeon Young. “Are you talking about Jeongguk? He was asleep when I stepped out today, but do you want to see him? If your father allows.”
Taehyung skips from foot to foot, tugging on his father’s hand. “Abeonim-mama, can I?”
Seogeol sighs minutely, a tiny exhale that all adults do when they don’t want to say yes but have no better reason to say no. Adults are astonishingly unexciting. Taehyung puffs up triumphantly. “You may. Don’t bother hardworking people, Taehyung.”
“Thank you, abeonim-mama,” Taehyung says. The stairs up to the doorway of their house are uneven and he nearly stumbles on an uneven brick, but the door is ajar. The smell of cooking food wafts out as he pushes it open.
“Wonjanim? Is that you?” Jeongguk’s mother—Taehyung has heard some people call her Joo Seok—appears from around the dining table with floury hands. “You’re here early, are you here with the emperor?”
“Yeah. I came to see if Jeongguk is bigger.”
“You came at just the right time,” she says. “He woke up a few minutes ago, so he might be a little cranky. Come with me.”
She wipes her hands and beckons Taehyung to follow, and he is led into a much smaller, warmer room, with an unmade bed. There’s a tiny wooden box beside it, and she reaches into it before crouching down in front of Taehyung with a rustle of her skirt.
“Jeongguk-ah,” she says, bouncing his tightly clenched fist in her hand. “The prince is here to see you.”
He’s much fatter than Taehyung remembers, and far less pink. His eyes don’t seem to have any trouble staying open, either, and he stares at Taehyung openly for a few seconds before reaching out.
“Oh—I’m sorry, wonjanim—”
“It’s okay,” Taehyung says, laughing when Jeongguk pulls the hairstick loose from the half-bun atop his head, his braid comes tumbling loose around his shoulders. He picks it up. “Do you like it? I don’t like it, but they’re pretty. But you don’t have enough hair for one. When will you? How old is he?”
“He’s just past one year now, wonjanim. The first time you saw him, he was only a few moons.”
“I’m almost three,” Taehyung says. “So maybe by then, he’ll have enough. He’ll get bigger, right?”
“Of course he will.”
“So you should save that hairstick for him. Just don’t do it too tight, it hurts. Red is pretty on everyone.” Taehyung pries Jeongguks sweaty baby fingers open and curls them around the thin metal rod, and pats his hand. “You keep it.”
“Wonjanim, are you sure? You should not give your precious things away to lowborns like us.”
“It’ll be a secret,” Taehyung says. “Make sure he doesn’t tell anybody!”
And Taehyung, ever the master secret keeper, forgets about it.
“So did this actually happen?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “There is an emperor Kim Taehyung in the timeline of Goryeo monarchs, but I’ve never found literature covering anybody called Jeon Jeongguk in relation to him.”
“It’s marketed as a memoir, though.”
“Part, anyway. Part memoir. It’s curious. It makes me wonder.”
“About which parts are real?”
She was still alive, albeit feeling her years now, still in the remote countryside of the northern Goryeo border. And she still held steadfast in the prophecy that had landed her where she was: there will be a prince who will fall in love with a lowborn, and only given a chance at a life beside that lowborn will the kingdom see great wealth and prosperity. Of course, thanks to the idiocy of man, and the fleeting attention that is humanity’s downfall, they had nearly executed her for what they believed was the wrong prophecy.
But shamans are not clocks; they cannot and will not tell you the future in the order that is convenient for you, or for politics. They only work as convolutedly as the magic they practice. Sometimes it was obvious, but often it was not.
Han Yongsu woke in a sweat during the tail end of an abominably hot summer, on the night of a new moon. She sat up and lit a candle in the lantern beside her pallet, unsure what had woken her, and too afraid to return to sleep, not even know why fear was a part of the equation at all.
For the first time, something very unclear had come very clearly to her: the future diverged. From here, the old prophecy that had expelled her from the shaman house stood true but only conditionally, and yet, she could not see what the condition could be.
Looking back, I cannot know how the people of the palace did not see it coming, like a stampede on the horizon. Why the emperor so freely let his son, the crown prince, play with a son of his stablemaster. Why it took what it did for it to become this story today.
At the same time I too can understand how everyone could have been so blind to it.
The nature of their relationship began chastely. It was a love that all children knew, and that all children had for each other and the world. Beautiful in all the ways childhood love was: indiscriminate, sometimes undeserved, and unfailingly forgiving. It was years before it became romantic. Years before it became sexual.
“No fair, you’re cheating!” Taehyung stomps his foot. “I’m not supposed to get dirty.”
Jeongguk at seven years old is as ruthless as they come: rough and tumble, injured and scabbing on any given day, permanently ready to physically fight a bull if he was given the chance (he is not). Taehyung practically feels smoke pour of his own ears when Jeongguk sticks his tongue out and blows a raspberry, waggling his fingers. “Guess you’re just going to be it forever, hyungnim!”
“I don’t want to be it forever,” Taehyung protests, as Jeongguk clambers up higher and sends a shower of leaves down on him.
“Are you just scared to come up here?”
“I’m not scared!” Taehyung stomps his foot again.
“It’s nice up here, hyungnim. You can see the koi pond from here. At least come up and look, we can stop playing.”
“Okay, wait for me.”
“Use the hollow there as a step up! It’s easy.”
Taehyung wobbles when the wind picks up. It makes the branches sway, but Jeongguk scoots over dutifully to make room on the branch beside him. It lies almost parallel to the ground, as if it were made for two children to sit on, and Taehyung arranges the skirts of his robes around his legs and prays to any god that might be listening that the satins don’t stain.
“See?” Jeongguk points across Huwon, past the pavilion, where a bridge extends across the koi pond. “You can see way more from up here.”
“It’s nice here,” Taehyung decides. The wind is still making the branch rock back and forth. “But I want to get down now.”
“Okay, okay. You go first.”
Taehyung peers behind him uncertainly at the way he’d come. It looks like a vertical drop to the ground.
“Uh, you go first. I want to see how you do it.”
“It’s easy, hyungnim.” Jeongguk climbs over him, swinging blithely a good two yards off the ground and slip-sliding his way down the trunk. “Your turn.”
“I don’t—I can’t do that.”
“Yes you can! You got up there, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but—I can’t get down like that, it’s too scary.”
“So you are scared.”
“No I’m not! It’s not safe!”
Jeongguk frowns from the ground. “Do you want me to go find someone? I’m not supposed to be in the palace.”
“No, don’t get anybody. They’re going to yell at me.”
“But you can’t stay up there forever.”
“I guess I’ll have to,” Taehyung laments. “I live here now.”
“Don’t be stupid. Can you jump?”
“Are you crazy? I’ll die.”
“I’ll catch you.”
“Then we’ll both die. And then your mother will kill me.”
“No, we won’t.” Jeongguk opens his arms out wide. “Just jump. I won’t let you hit the ground.”
Taehyung shimmies forward, bracing one hand on the branch and one against the trunk. Jeongguk looks so very small from here. For a moment, Taehyung makes to tip off, then shrinks back once more.
“No, I can’t!” he cries. “I’ll squish you.”
“I mean, you can stay stuck up there, or maybe squish me. My mom dropped a pot on me once, remember? You can’t squish me after that, I’m invincible now.”
“I don’t know, Jeonggukie.”
“Hurry up, my arms are getting tired,” Jeongguk complains. “Just jump!”
Taehyung swallows hard. Oh, gods, he’s about to get in so much trouble. The bark grinds against his legs as he pushes himself off the branch, there’s a tearing sound, and he’s airborne for a heartstopping moment in time where he feels like he’s been falling forever.
Then Jeongguk is rushing up all too fast, clenching his eyes shut at the last second before the impact, which is Totally Reassuring. But Taehyung has no time to think, and no choice but to throw his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, cover the back of his head, and—
“Oof,” Jeongguk wheezes, and Taehyung feels the breath rush out of his lungs much like the first time he’d fallen smack on his ribs.
“Are you okay?” Taehyung scrambles off of Jeongguk but his legs are jelly, and he just ends up propping his arms up on either side of Jeongguk’s face only to find that his elbows are giving, too. “Are you dead?”
“Yeah. I think I’m dead, hyungnim.” Jeongguk coughs. “You’re so heavy I thought I got hit by a horse.”
“Oh, gods. How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Three, I’m not blind.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m not hurt,” Jeongguk declares. “Told you I’m invincible. Are you?”
“No, but.” The scrap of torn satin flutters in the breeze where it got caught on a sharp edge on the branch, like a flag of surrender. Taehyung eyes it sadly. “I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
“Hmm.” Jeongguk sits up gingerly, peeling himself out of the grass. “Yeah, you’re going to get in trouble for that.”
“I should run away,” Taehyung says. There are grass stains on his knees and on the cuffs of his embroidered sleeves. “Then I won’t need to sit in lessons anymore.”
“Do you even know how to ride a horse? You’d need to run on your own two feet.”
“No, abeonim-mama says I’m too young to learn still. I’m nine! I’m practically an adult now.”
“I can teach you.”
“You know how? But you’re a baby.”
“I am not a baby! I’m only two years younger than you. And I grew up on one, hyungnim, of course I know how. Duh. Just don’t make me catch you again if you don’t know how to dismount.”
When Taehyung turns twelve, the emperor allows him to let Jeongguk into the palace for one day of celebration. There will be a great feast, and music, and all the sons of the emperor’s advisors are invited to play kickball. Taehyung isn’t very good, but he can feel them letting him win, and keeps wishing Jeongguk would show up already. Jeongguk would play honestly, and also probably beat him.
But Jeongguk never does come, and at the end of it all, Seogeol asks, “Did you have a good day, Taehyung-wonja?”
“I did, abeonim-mama,” Taehyung says, content. “And so did Jongkyu-daegun and Eunjin-wangnyeo. Thank you for all the festivities.”
“But you are not happy.”
“I am happy. Today was lovely. It—well, it would have been complete if Jeonggukie had come.”
“The stablemaster’s son?” Seogeol leans over his desk. “Perhaps he is ill. But you had fun with the advisors’ sons, didn’t you?”
“They were fun.”
“But they weren’t that boy.”
“Yes, Jeon Jeongguk, abeonim-mama.”
“Maybe it is just as well.”
“Taehyung-ah,” says his father. “You cannot spend your life playing with a lowborn.”
This grinds at Taehyung’s nerves. The emperor has been giving him this talk more as of late, and he hates it. “He is my friend.”
“True though that may be, your lives move along different trajectories. If it does not happen today, it will come tomorrow; he will fade out of your life, and you will have grave responsibilities on your shoulders.”
Taehyung wants to argue, but bites his lip and knows better. Holding his tongue always puts a sour taste in his mouth, as if the unspoken words go rancid on his lips. “I understand, abeonim-mama. Regardless, I had an excellent birthday. Thank you.”
“Good night,” says the emperor, and he offers one last smile. “And happy twelfth year, my son.”
The court ladies bow as Taehyung gets to his feet and leaves Seogeol’s bedchambers, and in the darkness, he starts undoing his hair before he even reaches his own pavilion. The sweetness of the scented oil smooths the edges of his frustration when his hair falls in rippled waves behind him, crimped from being in a braided knot all afternoon.
Taehyung jumps out of his skin. “Who’s—Jeongguk? Jeonggukie, is that you?”
“Yeah.” The voice comes from behind a post that supports the awning along his pavilion. “Sorry I didn’t come.”
“Why didn’t you?” Taehyung asks, annoyance towards him flaring in earnest for the first time today, almost belatedly. “I waited all day for you! None of the games were fun because they all let me win, it wasn’t really a game at all.”
“I didn’t have anything to wear,” Jeongguk says, so quiet that the words are nearly lost to the hum of the evening. “I couldn’t show up like this.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. An awkward, rebuked pause fills the space between them. “I’m sorry I got mad at you.”
“It’s okay. I was mad my mother didn’t let me come. She said I looked like a street rat and made me wait, and I yelled that you would forget about me by now.” Jeongguk looks up, and the light catches a hairstick that holds his half-knot up at the back of his head, and Taehyung vaguely realizes that he’s never seen Jeongguk outside a braid or without hair flying undone around him. “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah, it was okay.” He gestures. “You changed your hair.”
“Oh. It was the only thing we had that was appropriate for the palace, and these are my nice clothes,” Jeongguk lifts an arm half-heartedly, and the most anyone could say about them was that they were at least clean and darned in the threadbare patches. “My mother said you gave this to me.”
Taehyung blinks. “I gave what to you?”
“The hairstick, when we were little. We don’t remember, I guess.” Jeongguk seems to remember something, and reaches into the sack tied around his chest. “Oh, I brought you this. Happy birthday. It’s nothing in comparison to what you must have gotten, but I—I made it.”
“You made this?” Taehyung asks, voice echoing in the snow around them. “Wait, come inside, you must be freezing. Did you walk in the snow all this way?”
“I’m invincible, remember?” Jeongguk says. “But inside would be nice.”
Taehyung tears open the parchment, wrapped with a bit of old twine. A wooden box lined with cheesecloth falls into his lap.
“It must have gone cold, I’m sorry.”
“My mother helped, but I made it mostly myself,” Jeongguk says, a hint of pride creeping into his voice.
“Come eat this with me,” Taehyung says, pulling the lid off and taking out one of the flower-shaped cakes. It makes a little snowstorm where he places it in Jeongguk’s palm. “These are so pretty, I don’t even want to eat them.”
“They’re red bean.”
“My favorite! You knew, right?”
“Of course,” Jeongguk sniffs. “Who do you think I am?”
“My friend,” Taehyung says, shoving half of it into his mouth in one go. “My best friend.”
He did not want to grow up. He did not want to think about a queen and concubines. He did not want the title wangseja, or seja, or any variation of it. He did not want his world to close up, as tight-lipped as an oyster guarding a pearl.
He did not want a boring life, one without a stable boy in it. A stable boy who realized very quickly that his time at Taehyung’s side was, rationally, coming to an end.
Jeongguk’s voice filters into Taehyung’s consciousness like sunrise through the purl of a knitted blanket. Taehyung opts to hum in reply rather than use his words.
“I heard the music from my house. Should I call you wangseja now, instead of hyungnim? How about jeoha?”
“If you call me wangseja, I’m going to put chili flakes in your pants,” Taehyung says without opening his eyes, still spread on the grasses of Huwon like he had done in easier days when the only thing he needed to worry about was the torn skirt of his robes or how poorly he did in calligraphy that day. “Good afternoon to you, too.”
“Cranky,” Jeongguk says, voice amused. “You don’t look happy to see me.”
Taehyung cracks an eye open at this. It’s late enough in the day, the sun dipping low in the sky, that the sky has begun to turn a fiery orange to conclude Taehyung’s day of coronation as crown prince. Recently, Jeongguk has been wearing his hair up more often with that same hairstick that Taehyung apparently had given him so many years ago, and his voice has started to deepen unevenly so that it’s raspy on some words and cracks on others.
“You must be really stupid to believe that.”
Jeongguk turns to look at him, a laugh on his lips but not so much in his mouth. “See, cranky.”
“The coronation was nice, but it was just,” Taehyung sighs, folding his hands over each other behind his head as a pillow. “God, Jeonggukie. I’m not ready to think about an empress.”
“Yeah, you know. One I have to marry.”
“Never heard of the concept?” Taehyung asks, bemused.
“No, I,” Jeongguk shrugs. “That’s kind of sudden, I guess.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Taehyung says. “But my father just gave me this whole spiel about how he and my mother were married by my age, and that I should stop dawdling and start considering it seriously.”
“I see. Well, do you have anyone in mind?”
“You know I don’t, Jeonggukie, what have I done all these years except study and play with you,” Taehyung says.
“Do you even have a choice who it will be?”
“Maybe, if they find several girls who are fit for the role, and I’ll be able to pick among them.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“No, but what if I don’t want to?” Taehyung sits up, begins ripping up grass by the handful in his frustration. “Abeonim-mama is good to me, but he’s become overbearing in his pressure to follow in his footsteps. I want to make my own choices.”
“I wish I could help you,” Jeongguk says softly, casting his eyes down. Taehyung stares at him, and suddenly, they are standing on opposite sides of a deep chasm of which neither of them can see the bottom, one without a bridge. One that they cannot cross.
“No, Jeonggukie, don’t blame yourself. I’m only telling you because you’re the only one who won’t chastise me for thinking this way.” Taehyung takes his hand in both of his, and closes that unfamiliar chasm between them. The yawn of it had ached in his bones. “You’re the one who’s stood by my side always.”
“Yeah, I have.” One corner of Jeongguk’s mouth tugs up in a smile. “And I’ll stand by you for as long as you ask me to, wangseja.”
“I like spicy food. Bring it on.”
Jeongguk again does not show up to Taehyung’s eighteenth birthday, during which he still has not married, nor found an empress. This time he has a much graver excuse.
“Is he okay?” Taehyung asks, when Jeongguk breaks the news to him: his father, while fixing the roof of their hut when it collapsed during the snows, had slipped on a patch of ice, fallen backwards, and fractured his spine.
“He won’t be walking again,” Jeongguk says. “I am so sorry I didn’t even stop by this time with food, I couldn’t leave—since he’s injured, I have to take care of all the stables alone now, and it’s been hard.”
“Jeonggukie, no,” says Taehyung, and he reaches out for Jeongguk’s hands. They’re noticeably rougher than they used to be, but still warm. Always warm, even during the snow. “Don’t apologize for that. Is there anything I can do to help you? Anything at all?”
The snow on the bridge has been swept away, and from up here, the ghostly bodies of koi swim beneath the frozen surface of the koi pond. Jeongguk had come in a cloak that hardly looked like it could keep a block of ice warm, and Taehyung had stripped off one of his immediately to drape around his shoulders. The downy lining brushes at Jeongguk’s cheeks. In the watery sunlight of winter, the angles of Jeongguk’s face are thrown into sharp relief, and so far away is the child that used to shout and laugh even louder than Taehyung.
“There isn’t anything. He is as good as we can get him now. You should not worry about me anymore, wangseja. There are more important things on your plate. There’s a nation for you to look after.”
“For the last time, I hate when you call me wangseja, stop it,” Taehyung says. “Have we not always been there for each other? Why should it change now?”
“I overheard his majesty the emperor negotiating for more ladies to be brought before you,” Jeongguk says. The tone of his voice is hardly recognizable. Taehyung clutches his hands harder, as if he squeezes enough he’ll see a glimmer of the Jeongguk he knew.
“And? It’s coming along. What does that have anything to do with you?”
“You can’t spend so much time with me and look for an empress. I don’t want you to have animosity with your father because of this.” Jeongguk hangs his head. “My father said that a stable boy’s place is in the stable, not in the crown prince’s gardens.”
“What if the crown prince commands your presence in his gardens?”
A small smile sneaks across Jeongguk’s lips. “I suppose I cannot disobey a royal order.”
“You shouldn’t. Or you’ll be punished.”
“How so, wangseja?”
Taehyung gets the feeling that, this time, Jeongguk says it to tease him. “You’ll have to see me every single day. You’ll get so tired of me, you’ll groan at the thought of my face.”
“I guess I wouldn’t mind being punished.”
“Don’t you dare!”
They did still see each other. Each and every time they did was as though they hadn’t seen each other for many moons, though it could have just been a fortnight. Some nights, Jeongguk just wanted Taehyung to read to him, too tired to do anything else after a day of taking care of the stables and horses. Between the two of them, only Taehyung could read hanja, and Jeongguk would fall asleep beside him to the sound of his voice.
The crown prince was never happier than he was on the days that he had time to send for Jeongguk after nightfall, when he was finished with both lessons and meetings with his father and advisors. It exhausted him, this political work. There were many things that they did that Taehyung understood, but saw no need for.
It was not a game he was fond of playing.
And, in time, his empress was chosen. It was a quiet affair, as the girl was nearly a decade younger, selected out of a pool of final candidates. There simply were not unmarried girls his age in the royal bloodlines by the time Taehyung made his decision. She was quiet, affluent, with a powerful father in the ministry of advisors and an education to boot. It was unconventional, but the crown prince never really lived for conformity.
So it was.
wind from an empty cave/one day, three autumns
“I decided I was hungry,” Taehyung says, winking. The doorway to the kitchens is thick with the smell of the day’s cooking. He will carry the aroma of sizzling meat and baking bread on his clothes all afternoon.
“I hope it keeps you full, then,” says the head cook, bowing as she hands him a sack of warm food. “Eat well, and go well, jeoha.”
“Thank you for cooking so much for me!” The sack is heavier than it looks, bulging with wrapped parcels of buns and hot bread and even a canister of soup, fastened shut with twine and cloth. “I will be on my way.”
The cooks bow him out, some of the youngest a little starstruck at the sight of the crown prince in the kitchens. The sun is still low in the east, enough that Taehyung can get away with being absent from the palace a little longer. When the military general Kim Shin passes by, he inclines his head, and Taehyung gives him a quick nod back.
“Jeoha, you should not be walking around alone.”
Taehyung jumps. It is increasingly a habit for other people to catch him unawares by chimjeon. “You scared me, Lady Ha, my gods. I am alone this morning. No need to come with me.”
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“But that’s why you should not be alone.”
“Lady Ha,” Taehyung says. “Nothing could happen to me without Jimin-tongjang knowing. If someone really wanted to harm me, they would.”
His old handmaid looks at him with worry.
“Are you…going to the Jeon household?”
Taehyung stares at her for so long that she ducks her head. “I’m sorry, jeoha, I should not have asked such a bold question, forgive me. I have seen the error of my ways.”
“Don’t tell abeonim-mama.”
She looks up at him. “I will not, jeoha, you have my word.”
“He won’t punish me if he knew, and yet.” Taehyung sighs. “Somehow that’s even worse than if he yelled at me. I’ll be on my way now.”
Summer is cooler this year, surprisingly so. The heat that made Taehyung’s robes stick to his skin had ended much earlier than usual, the mosquitoes leaving him alone sooner than they did in most years. The wind blows his hair into his face and Taehyung spends most of the walk to Jeongguk’s house pulling long strands of it out of his mouth and eyes. Cooler, but not cold; by the time he’s getting over the hill that stands between much of the palace and the servants’ quarters, a light sweat dots his neck.
A gentle smoke rises from the yard out back, where Joo Seok must be cooking, and Taehyung peeks over the side of the house. “Good morning,” he calls, and she startles before scrambling to her feet to bow.
“Jeoha, what are—it’s been so long! It is an honor to see you.”
“It’s Jeongguk’s twentieth birthday today, right?” Taehyung says. “Of course I had to come.”
“Yes, it is,” she says, tucking a peppered strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh, we’re—we’re hardly ready for visitors, Jeongguk’s still working in the stables, and I was cooking.” She gestures behind at the dark red coals glowing inside the domed oven. “Something nice for him, it’s nothing much.”
“I brought some stuff for Jeonggukie, can I give them to him? They might spoil his appetite, I’m sorry.”
“No! No, jeoha, please. Don’t be. He’ll be delighted to see you, he hasn’t had a chance to visit for a while now. He’ll be in the stables.”
A couple of chickens strut past as Taehyung crosses the yard. It’s small, but it’s home, and before Taehyung even makes it to the entrance of the stables he can hear Jeongguk singing to himself. He finds himself gripped with a sudden anxiety—it has been a while, Joo Seok hadn’t been wrong. Right around the beginning of the summer, Jeongguk’s father had fallen more ill than ever, and Taehyung had to spend an increasing amount of time in Seonjeongjeon or sitting with his new empress, though time spent with her felt more like playing with Eunjin-gongju.
But Taehyung scoffs at himself, and pushes the anxiety aside. It’s stupid to be nervous around Jeongguk, who’d grown up with him from a time before either of them can even remember. His back is to Taehyung when he steps into the doorway, and Jeongguk half-chatters and half-sings to a horse as dark as night. He’s seemingly unbothered by the soot on his skin or the hair sticking to his back, wet with the sweat of labor.
The horse blusters, turning her head, when Jeongguk starts so violently that he drops her brush. “Good gods, jeoha,” he says, turning around and snatching the cover off the horse’s back, draping it around his shoulders like a cloak. “I’m indecent.”
Taehyung raises his eyebrows. “Because a horse’s blanket is so much better?”
“Please, Jeonggukie. You really mustn’t spook the horses.”
Jeongguk chews on his lip, pulling the blanket around himself tighter and tighter until he’s covered up to his chin. “Good morning, hyungnim,” he says, quieter.
“That’s better.” Taehyung lets a smile cross his face, stepping inside the stables. “Happy birthday, Jeonggukie. Have you eaten yet?”
“I brought you food, will you eat with me?”
“There’s really only enough for you.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk realizes what Taehyung is saying, belatedly, and goes, “Wait, all for me? For my birthday?”
“I said that, dummy. You should eat before the soup gets cold.”
Jeongguk looks on helplessly as Taehyung simply sits down on the stone floor of the stable and unties the sack around his shoulders, starting to unpack each little parcel. At some point he must realize that Taehyung’s not kidding, and leads the horse back into her stall before coming to sit down across in front of the assortment of food being lain out in front of him.
“Did you ask the cooks for all of this?”
“Yeah, I wanted to make something myself, but let’s face it.”
“You’re not very good at cooking,” Jeongguk says, snorting.
“The worst.” Taehyung unwraps a pair of chopsticks, holding the gilded ends up to Jeongguk, who only looks at them.
“Your food’s going to get cold. I didn’t walk all the way here for you to just stare at it. Come on, eat.”
Jeongguk fumbles for words a second longer before he unsheathes one arm from his cocoon, letting it drop from his shoulders. There’s a smudge of dirt under his collarbone, and Taehyung tries to pick up conversation.
“How is your father?”
“Can’t complain. He’s griping about how this winter will be cold, and that it’ll hurt his bones. I keep telling him that it’s because he refuses to drink milk.”
Taehyung watches as Jeongguk stuffs half his bowl of rice into his mouth at once, ravenous, as if he hasn’t eaten in ages. His heart pangs when he thinks about how there must be some truth to it, and silently pushes his bowl around the unwrapped parcels of food to Jeongguk’s side.
“You look like you’re starving.”
“You haven’t eaten.”
“I can eat whenever I want.”
“I wish I had time to come see you in Huwon,” Jeongguk says. “Four of our mares foaled this summer, and three more fell ill. Some disease spread through these stables like wildfire. Nights of around the clock work to make sure that the little ones didn’t get sick and the mothers didn’t die. It’s been a hard few months, and all I wanted to do was lie down in the grass and forget about it all.”
“You should have asked me to send for more help.”
“My mother and I could manage.”
“Your mother can’t help you forever.”
“We can manage,” Jeongguk repeats, more forcefully this time. Taehyung sits back as if stung, and in the hurt silence Jeongguk looks up. “Oh, hyungnim—jeoha, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound that way. I just wish you—”
“I just wish you would let me do the things I can do for you.”
“You don’t need to. You don’t have time to.”
“I have time for the one person I know I can trust, always. In a life where I’ve been taught I cannot trust even the people who raised and bathed me, I know I can trust you.”
Jeongguk ducks his head. “Thank you.”
“I know that you’re going to say that you’re just a stable boy, or that you’re sorry that you can’t do more, or do the same things for me. But you forget that it was once you who caught me jumping out of a tree, and it was you that thought of ways to cover up for the trouble I got into, you who taught me how to ride a horse when my father wanted the army generals to do it.” Taehyung softens. “You have done everything in the world for me. You have done it with your own hands. I can only read to you, and send help from afar.”
At this point, Jeongguk is no longer looking at him. A smothered sort of silence hangs like a storm cloud over their meal, punctuated by the clink of chopsticks as Jeongguk fills his mouth with more and more food without chewing.
And only then does Taehyung realize that his eyes are wet and red-rimmed. Jeongguk trembles all over, and. And.
And Taehyung hates himself for how commanding his voice has gotten, how harsh it sounded, bouncing off the splintered wood of the stable stalls. Call a man jeoha for long enough and he will act like the crown prince. Dress a king in gold thread and seat him above his inferiors and he can only look down the bridge of his nose. Put him a court with a council of shrewd, calculating advisors for long enough and he will only know to direct and counter-scheme.
He’d come here to give Jeongguk something to celebrate with for his birthday, yet all he has succeeded in doing is alienate his best and only friend.
Jeongguk flinches when Taehyung sits down beside him, though it’s a good sign that he accepts the hug that Taehyung pulls him into. His skin is still sticky with perspiration, but Taehyung wraps his arms around his shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “I’m so sorry, it must have been hard for you recently. I’m sorry I spoke to you that way. I shouldn’t have.”
Wordlessly, Jeongguk shakes his head against Taehyung’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry for who I’ve become.”
“No,” Jeongguk protests, voice uneven with tears.
Jeongguk does not elaborate. Taehyung doesn’t need him to.
The chasm grows deeper than ever.
It took Taehyung much, much longer to see the chasm between them. Jeongguk had known it from the moment Taehyung had leapt out of that tree and nearly crushed the both of them in the grass, and he had only watched the bottom of it drop deeper and deeper as the years passed.
The years in a wheeled stool took a toll on Jeon Young. They turned him as bitter as rue, and he told his son to wear all his hair up or put that thing where he couldn’t see it. It was a reminder of all the things that their family was pinned under.
Yet every morning Jeongguk rose out of bed, picked the red enameled hairstick off the rickety bedside table, and knotted his hair with it. This was the only bridge across that abyssal chasm: a thin golden rod so polished and ornate that it seemed like something that belonged to a different reality when Jeongguk saw it in the reflection in the river. Stupid, even, too flashy against the muted, tattered fabric of his clothing.
He did not want to let go of a life to which he had never even belonged.
“It was your doing, wasn’t it?”
“I neither confirm nor deny having anything to do with it,” Taehyung says nonchalantly.
“So I’d have more time to come see you.”
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
Jeongguk has his cheek pillowed on the backs of his hands, lying on his stomach by the Huwon pond. “You’re no fun if you’re going to make me come here just to watch you write things all afternoon, hyungnim.”
The wooden handle of Taehyung’s brush clacks against the inkpot when he dips the hairs back into the well. “I’m almost done. Writing is slow, Jeonggukie.”
“What are you writing about? Read it to me?”
“It’s a report to the ministry about the affairs of foreign trade.”
“Never mind. I’m asleep already.”
Taehyung laughs aloud at this, and Jeongguk lets a smile stretch over his mouth. “I didn’t think it would interest you.”
“I am sure it’s riveting material,” Jeongguk says, and yawns for emphasis. Taehyung laughs again.
“Tell me about the new stablemaster’s family, then, if you’re so bored.”
“Ah, they’re a nice family. Two sons, one baby daughter. It’s good to see my father talking to them.”
“Does Jeon Young like them?”
“Their father thought of a way to get mine out of his chair again. He can’t stand, but the horses don’t care. As long as you have hands and a sense of direction the horses can take you where you want to go.” Jeongguk shifts his face on his hands. “Well, he needs help getting off and on, and he can’t squeeze his legs around the horses’ backs anymore, but I haven’t seen him smile in years.”
“I’m happy to hear.” Taehyung drips ink on his desk and rubs it away with his thumb. “Are the sons your age?”
“Younger,” Jeongguk says. “They run around and play with the foals and get into trouble, much like we did once.”
“Days long gone,” Taehyung agrees wistfully. “Easier days.”
“The best ones.”
Taehyung is about to reply when Jeongguk is startled by something behind him, already scrambling to his feet before Taehyung has even turned to look. “Wangsejabin,” he says, ducking his head and bowing.
“Dakyung-sejabin,” Taehyung says, rising to his feet. She eyes Jeongguk with curiosity, then fixes her gaze on Taehyung’s face.
“Is he your commoner friend?”
“He is my friend.”
“What is he doing in the palace?”
“His family helped me once long ago, it is his privilege,” Taehyung says. In his periphery, he can see that Jeongguk is still bowed, eyes still downcast. “Did you want to see me for something?”
Dakyung looks surprised. From the way her eyes stay on Jeongguk behind him he knows she’s staring at the binyeo in his hair, red and gold and far too decorated for it to be part of a commoner’s wardrobe.
“I finished my lessons for the day. I wanted to see if you had time to spend with me.”
“Not yet, wangsejabin, not yet,” Taehyung says. “Will you wait for me? How about tonight?”
“It’s always ‘tonight,’ and I have to sleep early.”
“I’m sorry. Just a little longer, wangsejabin.”
When she leaves, Jeongguk doesn’t lie down in the grass again. He sits instead. Taehyung can see the cogs whirring in his head as he struggles for words, and does not push him.
“Was that your empress?”
“Yes,” Taehyung says, running his brush on the edge of his inkpot so that the excess runs off.
“The older ones are married.”
“Does it matter?” Taehyung says. “We are all pawns in a game we did not agree to play.”
“Come on, come sit on the banister outside my bedchamber. I am finished with this letter.”
Jeongguk trails after Taehyung like a chastised puppy, picking up a spare roll of parchment that Taehyung drops from his armful. He sits down along the green painted wood outside as Taehyung rummages through the chest by his wardrobe.
“Now sit still. Your knot is undone.”
Taehyung positions Jeongguk’s head to face forward and pulls the hairstick out of the knot, letting it tumble loose before taking a comb to it.
“What are you doing?”
“Doing your hair right,” Taehyung says.
“It’s fine the way it is.” Jeongguk sweeps the bangs out of his eyes when Taehyung combs them back too, the strands falling in waves over his forehead.
“Sit still and stop complaining. When was the last time you got any of it trimmed?”
“Last time we saw the shears, I wager?”
Jeongguk’s hair hangs all the way down just past his waist. It is so matted in some places that Taehyung is forced to hack at it with his comb and massage the knots open with his fingertips, then comb some more.
“What are you doing?”
“Braiding it,” Taehyung says.
The slump of Jeongguk’s shoulders is noticeable. Not so much in response to the braiding itself, Taehyung is sure, but Jeongguk hardly is delighted about being in this position.
Somewhere, they have gone wrong.
“Are you upset about something today?” he asks.
“What does she think of me,” Jeongguk says. The thought comes out disjointed and unfinished. “What do they say about me, or you, for entertaining me?”
“A commoner.” Jeongguk sighs. “Your commoner friend.”
“You said it yourself. It’s all a game. What if I’m your downfall?”
“Then that is how I’ve chosen to play this game,” Taehyung says, reaching the ends of the braid and rolling it up into a knot at the back of Jeongguk’s head.
Jeongguk turns his head now, the free lower half of his hair falling back over his shoulder. “You don’t think things through at all, do you?”
A laugh tickles the corner of Taehyung’s mouth. “No, I guess not,” he says. The binyeo slides into the braided knot seamlessly, holding it tight. “But you still like me for it, no?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “I suppose I do, don’t I?”
“Neither do I, but there’s still more than half the book left.”
“He’s going to die,” Yoongi says with complete conviction. “Look at it. The author might as well have titled the book ‘Jeongguk Dies At the End.’”
“I don’t know,” Namjoon says, thumbing the remaining pages so that they flip past. A tiny ink-scented breeze blows back in his face. “That would be too obvious.”
“That’s because it is obvious. He’ll die. I’ve seen enough K-dramas to know how it’ll end.”
It was a game that Jeongguk dared to play.
“Escaping the festivities? How unbrotherly, hyungnim.”
Jeongguk sits down in the frigid grass beside him. “I told myself I was going to stay out of sight and out of mind today, but I thought you might need some company.”
“Of course. Who do you think I am?”
The knot in Taehyung’s chest tightens, painfully, and Jeongguk catches him staring at his profile. “What’s wrong?” he asks, glancing at him.
“I’ve just been thinking about the throne, is all.”
“Ah,” Jeongguk says. “When—when is the wedding?”
“Next year, this time.”
“I see.” They fall silent. Jeongguk inhales, then places his hands on his knees with a reticent determination and stands up. “Well, hyungnim, there’s only one fix for throne woes.”
“And what’s that?”
“You wouldn’t—I don’t know—do me the honor of climbing the Huwon ginkgo trees with me, would you?”
Yes, perhaps the throne looms great and ominous over Taehyung, he who stands in his father’s shadow. Perhaps the wedding sits like a black cat with green eyes on the fences of Taehyung’s childhood, watching him, waiting for the sun to set on the last days of his princehood.
Perhaps his days with Jeongguk are numbered. The clock had been counting down from the very second Taehyung had seen his face, pink and and warm with sleep against Joo Seok’s neck, and only now can he hear the tick.
But for now, Taehyung watches and follows Jeongguk up the great ginkgo tree in Huwon on this grey, cloudy day in wedding robes. Jeongguk kicks a shower of loose leaves into Taehyung’s face and only laughs at his protest.
“Disrespecting the crown prince,” Taehyung mutters, picking a crisp leaf out of his hair. “Punishable, really.”
“And what was the punishment? Something about being forced to see you every day?” Jeongguk settles down on the hanging branch made for two people to sit side by side.“Once again, I think I wouldn’t mind being in trouble.”
“I can’t win with you.” Taehyung squeezes in beside him. “I also don’t remember it being so small up here.”
“This tree doesn’t remember us so big,” Jeongguk says, and leans in. For a wild moment, a what are you doing? jumps to Taehyung’s lips, until he realizes that Jeongguk is untangling the strands of his hair that got caught in the twigs.
They gaze into the distance. Sunset should be sometime now, but the curtain is already drawn. A show that had ended before it even began. The sky turns a blue as cold as the sea, and Taehyung sighs.
“Thank you for coming to see me. I,” he folds the hem of his embroidered sleeve in and out, in and out. The phoenix appears to flap its wings on the satin. “I did want some company.”
“That wasn’t the crown princess.”
“Dakyung-sejabin is lovely.”
They both hear the but she isn’t you pass between them. The wind picks it up and tugs it away. Half their conversations, lately, seem to be unspoken.
“She came by our stables the other day.”
“What?” At this, Taehyung rouses from his day-long stupor. “What for?”
“She wanted to know what you liked.” Jeongguk rests his weight on the heels of his hands, blowing a breath out of his nose that discloses how reluctant he is to talk about this.
“So you told her?”
“What, did I reveal some nasty secret by telling her you like red bean?” Jeongguk teases, and the tautness of the moment vanishes. “She was very kind. She brought gifts for my family and the other stablemaster’s family. I guess she—well, she did say that she doesn’t know how to read you.”
“Oh. I don’t think I’m a terribly difficult person to read.”
“She’s ten years your junior, and you only think so because I can read you like an open book.”
It is Taehyung’s turn to sigh.
“Sorry, I’m sorry. I won’t talk about it. It wasn’t a big deal, anyway, I just thought I should mention to you. So you knew.”
“Thank you for telling me.” Mindlessly, Taehyung sets his head down on Jeongguk’s shoulder, and closes his eyes. “I just want to sit up here with you forever, and forget about the world and the things I have to do.”
“We can do that.”
“I have to go soon before they start looking for me.”
“Then, the day that you can,” Jeongguk says, so softly that Taehyung feels more than hears the words, “I’ll be waiting up here.”
Taehyung opens his eyes, lifts his head. Jeongguk is turning his face away at the words already, scrambling so that he’s crouched on the branch. “We should get down. It’ll look less suspicious if we’re not in a tree like a couple of hooligans.”
“I’m not a hooligan,” Taehyung mumbles, watching Jeongguk shimmy his way down the way they climbed, hopping into the grass. Only then does he remember with a cold-stomach dread that the first time they did this, he could not get down. “Oh, uh—Jeonggukie—”
“What,” Jeongguk circles around so that he’s standing in front of the branch. “Don’t tell me you can’t get down again?”
“What are the chances of me killing you this time?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Even as built as you are now? Little Jeongguk would be disappointed. He said he was invincible, because a pot was dropped on him.”
“Little Jeongguk was all too eager to get killed by blunt force trauma, clearly.”
“Jeonggukie, please,” Jeongguk repeats. “It looks like it can’t be helped.”
He opens up his arms, reaching up towards Taehyung, and this time, he doesn’t look so far away. This time, Taehyung doesn’t hesitate, and lets himself fall forward.
Still, he falls for as long as it felt last time, and Jeongguk still screws his eyes shut. This time, though, Jeongguk isn’t knocked to the ground like a leaf in the wind, though he stumbles back hard at the impact and eventually topples over with Taehyung still tangled in his arms.
“Dead,” Jeongguk declares, staring up at the sky, but there’s a breathless laugh in his eyes and on his mouth. “Definitely dead this time.”
Taehyung wheezes, half of it an honest wheeze, and half of it a chuckle. He props himself up with one hand on the side of Jeongguk’s head. For old time’s sake he holds up his hand, and asks, “How many fingers?”
Jeongguk’s smile fades when he turns his face to look at Taehyung, and they’re essentially nose to nose. This close, Taehyung can feel the hard exhale of Jeongguk’s breath on his face. It is warm against the cold nip of the wind.
“Three,” Jeongguk whispers, so softly that he might as well have mouthed it. “I’m not blind.”
His palms are still spread flat on Taehyung’s back, the touch burning through the layers of satin and linen. Taehyung lowers the hand with three fingers. It comes to rest, naturally, unthinkingly, on Jeongguk’s shoulder. Jeongguk doesn’t take his gaze off of him, doesn’t let go of him.
So Taehyung pushes his luck, and leans in.
There’s a rustle, and he feels his lips meet skin.
Taehyung opens his eyes, pulls back. Jeongguk’s face is turned to the side, and only when Taehyung lifts away does he look at him again.
“Oh, I—I’m sorry, I, I shouldn’t have,” Taehyung is stumbling to his feet, his robes falling in sheets back into place. He pushes his hair out of his face and over his shoulders. “I’m so sorry, please don’t think of me differently—I need to go, I’m sorry, I’ll go now. I’m going.”
Taehyung’s legs work of their own accord. He hasn’t run like this in years; it is unseemly for crown princes, said Seogeol, to run like a hellion through the palace grounds. Now, Taehyung goes as fast as his feet can take him, away from Huwon and all the humiliation that burns in his cheeks.
Taehyung trips, breath coming to a stuttering halt when he sees Dakyung in the gate of the gardens. Concern lines her face. “Jeoha, are you okay?”
And so the crown prince breaks down in tears in front of his crown princess, about another man. Pity the girl who does not understand, not for years to come.
In twenty years, the chasm has never been darker.
There is no protocol for Taehyung to follow. There is no one to ask for guidance. Such is the fate of falling in love with someone he shouldn’t have. He cannot ask his father what to do. He cannot ask his siblings what he should say. Least of all can he ask his crown princess, and the one person he could ask is the one he cannot speak to.
Taehyung tosses in bed. The hour must be late. The fire in his lantern is but a mere ember, and the air is frigid with winter chill. He sits up, muscles aching, and drapes his cloak around his shoulders.
“I’m just going for a walk.”
“Jeoha, you’ll get ill!”
“I won’t. I want to think.”
The snow has been cleared away from the stone and alabaster walkways. There’s a powdery dusting of it along the stairs, and the hush of his cloak dragging along the snowdrifts is all that keeps him company.
Taehyung stares up into the sky. It’s cold as death outside, and his breath comes in clouds of white as thick as plumes of smoke. For the first time since Eunjin’s wedding, his mind feels clear.
Jeongguk. Stupidly, Taehyung had been blind to what he stood for in his life. It was so obvious, now, why he put off selecting an empress for so many years, and why his father had nothing but quiet disappointment. Now all he wanted to know was how obvious this all was to Jeongguk—or perhaps Jeongguk was the smarter of them. Perhaps he already knew this.
“Jeoha, it is very cold outside. If you’re to stand in the snow, you should at least wear more.”
Taehyung brings his thoughts back down to earth and focuses, disoriented, on the figure in front of him.
“Jimin-tongjang, why are you awake?”
“We do a patrol of the palace when it is not wartime,” says Jimin, unpinning the cloak from his own shoulders and draping it around Taehyung’s. “Is there any particular reason you’re out here so late?”
Taehyung appreciates that Jimin doesn’t tell him to go back inside like he were a child. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
“If I may, jeoha, may I speak frankly?”
“You have not looked content these past days,” Jimin says. “I wish that I could see you smile again.”
Taehyung gives him a small, brittle one. “You’re observant, Jimin-tongjang.”
“I daresay that we are not so different, jeoha. It pains me to see you unhappy.”
“I made my mistakes,” Taehyung says. “Now I live with them.”
“Is it an affair of the heart?”
Taehyung stares at him, and wonders what Jimin could know.
“What does it matter? I have a crown princess. Any affair of the heart is irrelevant.”
“If it hurts you, it hurts us all,” Jimin says. “I do not seek to offer advice on how to solve these affairs, jeoha, but it is my duty to see you well. Please help me take care of you.”
Taehyung has never been so nervous to go down to the stables in all his life. He wakes up as one condemned, decides he’d much rather face execution by quarter horse, and rolls back over in bed.
But the day will not wait for him, and by the time the sun has broken the horizon, Taehyung is out of bed. The only time he has is the early morning and late evening, and he wants to get this out of the way without it hanging over him like a raincloud from sunrise to sunset.
Time and distance are curious things. Whenever it is that you wish time would slow down, it speeds up. Whenever it is that you wish something were farther away, it always seems too close. The walk to the stables is shorter than Taehyung has ever remembered it. In no time he can see the telltale stream of cooking smoke rising in a thin, wispy trail into the sky, and he takes a deep breath as he starts down the hill towards the settlement.
The new stablemaster’s family is living in a cabin beside Jeongguk’s. Noises of the morning drift through the windows—the clank of spoons on woks, the sizzle of oil. A layer of frost melts around the tufts of grass growing by the well, and a brood of hens trots past.
There is no one else outside. Joo Seok isn’t at her oven, and there is no sound of singing from the stables. Taehyung stands in the dirt clearing, out of place, until the door of the new stablemaster’s home bangs open so hard it ricochets off the wall. He ducks behind the side of the stables, and peeks out.
“Boys! Come back inside!”
“Jeongguk hyungnim is back!” one of them shouts, no older than four or five. His brother, a few years older at most, jumps and waves. “He said he would teach us how to ride today!”
The sound of approaching hooves grows loud before it comes to a stop, and Jeongguk appears in the clearing, sliding off a palomino mare with a golden mane. He strokes along the length of her neck.
“Our sleepyheads are awake so early today,” he says, picking up the younger of the two boys. “This excited already?”
“I’m sorry, Jeongguk-ah, they’ve been incorrigible all morning.”
“No, don’t be sorry,” Jeongguk bounces the boy on his hip to hold him more securely. “I remember when I was their age, I couldn’t wait to get on the back of a horse too.”
Taehyung smiles to himself. He, too, remembers those days.
“Jeongguk hyungnim, did you ever teach anyone before? Are you a good teacher?”
“Ji Wook-ah, don’t speak to your hyungnim like that.”
“I’m a great teacher,” Jeongguk says, crouching down so he can be eye-level with the boy on the ground, and puts a hand on his shoulder. “You want to know a secret? Shh, your eomeonim can’t know.”
“All right, all right. I’ll leave you boys to it.”
“What’s the secret?” Ji Wook asks.
Jeongguk lowers his voice, but Taehyung can hear him.
“I taught the next king how to ride a horse.”
“Wow, really? The real next king?”
“The real next king, when he was a kid like you,” Jeongguk says. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Is he good?”
“The first time, he didn’t know how to get off the horse. Guess what I had to do?”
Jeongguk laughs at the memory. “Catch him. I already told him, he better not ask me to catch him, but he asked me anyway.”
“How about now?”
“He’s great at it now. Some days I wish he’d ask me to catch him again.”
Taehyung’s throat feels like it’s full of cotton. He turns, creeping around the back of the stable shed, and makes to disappear back the way he came without detection. Just as he thinks he’s made it, that’s he’s escaped being seen, he hears a surprised “Jeoha!”
Jeongguk is staring at him, thunderstruck, still holding the boy in his arm. For a split second, they stare at each other—one from the dirt clearing, one from the foot of the hill.
Jeongguk is setting the boy down and bowing his head, nudging at the both of them to do the same. “Bow,” he says, through gritted teeth. They get down on their knees in the dirt immediately, and the sight of it pains Taehyung so much that he actually feels himself walking back.
“No, no, get up,” he says, holding his hands out. Jeongguk’s gaze is still fixed on him as if he’s seen a ghost, or a dream, and Taehyung brushes the boys off as they get up. “It’s okay. I’m sorry, I’ll be going.”
“Hyungnim, who is he?”
“The king, Ji Chul, be quiet,” Ji Wook hisses.
“He’s not the king, Jeongguk hyungnim would have called him jeonha.”
“Boys,” Jeongguk says, “go back inside for now? I’ll teach you as soon as I talk to the wangseja, ok?”
They scurry along. Children, as little as they know, can feel the tension long before they even understand what it is, or where it comes from. Taehyung grasps for words when Jeongguk looks back at him, faltering under the weight of his gaze.
“I’ll be going,” is all that he manages. “I’m sorry, I—you had plans today, you have things to do. I shouldn’t have just shown up unannounced and expected you to drop everything for me. I’ll leave now.”
Jeongguk’s hand closes around his just as he’s turning away.
“Just for this time,” he murmurs, “will the crown prince listen to the words of a stable boy?”
Taehyung looks at him, but Jeongguk is looking at their linked hands, as if he can’t quite believe he’s even holding it. “Yes. Of course. Always.”
He does not speak right away, leading Taehyung out of the clearing, into the stables. The noises of the outside world die away to be replaced by the muted, soft sounds of the few horses that aren’t in the fields shifting in the hay.
“I wish I could say I don’t know why I—why I turned my face. In the moment, I just did. I regretted it as soon as I did, because I knew exactly what it would mean to you, and how you would understand it, and that was never something I wanted to say.” Jeongguk slots his fingers into Taehyung’s slowly, until their hands are interlaced. “In that moment, I saw—I saw twenty years of being with you changing in an instant, and I was scared to face it. What would it mean? You’re my hyungnim, but you’re also my crown prince. One day you will marry someone that is not me, and rule a kingdom where I am nothing but another body.”
“You’ve always been so much more than another body to me.”
“I know, but only in that moment did I learn. It changes nothing in this world if a stable boy loves the crown prince. He will live and die in anonymity. I do not want any misfortune to befall you because you—because of your affection for lowborn.”
“You love me?”
“Have I ever done anything else, jeoha, but love you,” Jeongguk says, staring at their hands again, now. “I was born into a life at your side. It was the first thing I ever knew to do.”
The knot in Taehyung chest at once loosens and grows tighter than ever. It does this a lot, recently. An exhale rushes out of his body in a shudder and a laugh and he steps closer.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, lifting a hand to Jeongguk’s face, sliding it down the side of it until Jeongguk’s cheek rests in his fingers.
“Can I kiss you?”
Jeongguk runs his own hand up the length of Taehyung’s arm until he reaches his wrist, and brings Taehyung’s hand away from his face. Taehyung’s heart is about to fall when Jeongguk’s face leans so close to his, impossibly soft, and closes the distance between them.
If it’s obvious that neither of them have ever kissed anyone, they don’t say anything. Taehyung whimpers and slides his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, pulling him closer until he can feel Jeongguk’s heart beating against his and they stand on the same side of the chasm. His waist is warm where Jeongguk’s hands are, burning him through the fabric again. By the time Taehyung’s head starts to spin, they separate.
Taehyung’s breath hitches when Jeongguk pulls him into a hug. He curls his hands around Jeongguk’s shoulders, and rests his chin on them. “Jeonggukie?”
“Hang on, don’t make me look at you yet.”
“Are you embarrassed?”
“Are you not?”
Taehyung lets himself smile into Jeongguk’s hair. It smells sweet, like he’s just washed it and rubbed scented oil into the ends. “Maybe just a little,” he says, and laughs.
Both of them knew that whatever territory they were stepping into was a dangerous one. People have touched the crown with lighter fingers and paid the price for it. Some did nothing but merely look at one of the royal family for a little too long, or spoke out of turn. This was Taehyung sneaking Jeongguk into the palace after nightfall nearly every evening, away from prying eyes. Their playdates in Huwon were over. The time they spent together now could get one or either of them executed.
But, at the same time, both of them knew that the moment Taehyung was married, and the moment emperor Seogeol died, Jeongguk’s time in his life was over. So they set out to create a forever out of the numbered days.
And I’d say they did it. You’re reading this forever right now, aren’t you?
“You’re late today,” he says between kisses, as Jeongguk undoes the military cloak tied at his throat. It serves as a good disguise for him to be walking around in, especially in the evenings, where it doesn’t draw attention. The next kiss is a smile into Taehyung’s lips.
“Maybe you’re just impatient, hyungnim,” he says against Taehyung’s mouth, kissing him again.
Taehyung’s back thuds heavily against the floor when he pulls Jeongguk down on his bedding, sighing contentedly when Jeongguk’s body stretches over him. He hovers over Taehyung’s face like this, lying between his legs in a tangle of rough linen and embroidered indigo satin, and props his weight up on an elbow.
“Sorry I made you wait,” he says, looking away a little when Taehyung gazes for too long into his face. “Busy day.”
“I know,” Taehyung says, bracketing Jeongguk’s cheeks in his hands so he’ll look back at him. “Me too.”
“Did you have a lot of writing to do?”
“That and a lot of meetings to sit in for,” Taehyung sighs. “Dinner with Dakyung-sejabin’s family after all of it.”
Jeongguk brushes his eyelid with his lips. “I’m sorry.”
“What did you do?”
“Teach the boys how to ride, as you know.” Jeongguk brushes long strands of Taehyung’s hair out of his face so that they spread out in a fan on his pillows. “The foals are getting big, so Ji Tan’s been adding to the stables for more room. Perimeter check at sunrise, teaching in the morning, building in the afternoon until evening.”
“You work so much harder than I do.”
“Only on mindless things.”
Taehyung thumbs at the locks of Jeongguk’s hair that cascade around him like a canopy, then heaves his weight up until they roll, and he lounges atop Jeongguk’s chest.
“Thank you for coming to see me, even though you must be exhausted.”
“Seeing you is the only thing that gets me through the day.”
This time it’s Taehyung who ducks his head, unable to contain the smile on his face, so he elects to bury it curve of Jeongguk’s neck. They lie together with one of Jeongguk’s hands on the small of Taehyung’s back in dreamy silence.
“I have a question.”
“When did you know?”
“When did I know what?”
“About—about me. Or, us.”
The thumb that Jeongguk had been stroking back and forth against Taehyung’s spine stills. “About how I feel?”
Taehyung lifts his face. The expression in Jeongguk’s eyes is tense.
“Yeah. When did you admit it to yourself?”
“Never,” Jeongguk says, as though this should be glaringly obvious. “I always knew. I just never let myself accept it.”
“Hyungnim, please remember who you are, and who I am.”
“But I don’t c—”
“I know you don’t, because you never had to. A fox and a deer both understand that there are greater beasts in this world. The difference is that the fox has fangs, and the deer does not. Hey,” Jeongguk says, when Taehyung begins to pull away in shame. “It’s not your fault. You would not know this. Only I can tell you.”
“You lived your whole life knowing how you felt about me, and never once forgave yourself for it?”
“Not until the moment you jumped out of that tree and tried to kiss me, no.”
“No wonder you panicked.”
“It makes more sense now, doesn’t it,” Jeongguk says, smiling ruefully at the memory.
Taehyung taps the tip of Jeongguk’s nose, and his heart does something terrible and achy in his chest when Jeongguk scrunches it. “Do you forgive yourself now? Because I would be pretty sad if you didn’t feel the way you do about me.”
“I try to, every day.”
“Hmm.” He pretends to think very hard. “Kissing me, maybe?”
“Then I’d be happy to help,” Taehyung says, and is so in love with the laugh that Jeongguk presses into his mouth.
The days slip quietly by like this, and they are happy with the little time they spend together. It isn’t much to speak of—all they have is evenings after their days are done. Some nights feel no different from the times they would play together as children, with Taehyung reading to Jeongguk until his eyes started closing or trying his newest braid idea on his hair with his collection of hair sticks. Other nights, when words felt flat and insufficient, all they did was kiss. Sometimes it was with Jeongguk sitting up against the wall with Taehyung leaning into him, sometimes lying side by side on the bed with Taehyung’s fingers tangled in Jeongguk’s hair.
“You need to be gentler,” Jeongguk murmurs, dropping one last soft kiss on Taehyung’s lips before he pulls away enough to see his face. “Ji Chul asked me yesterday why my mouth looked bruised.”
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, and runs the pad of his thumb over the seam of Jeongguk’s mouth. His face warms a little when Jeongguk kisses it, blinking lazily as he does. “But only a little. What did you tell him?”
“That one of the horses headbutted me when I was mucking out her stall.”
“And he bought that?”
“Children both conveniently and inconveniently believe just about anything.”
“What else have they believed?”
Jeongguk inhales, thinking. “Ji Chul asked where he came from, and I said he was brought on the back of his favorite horse. They also both believe they’ll shrivel up, their arms will fall off, and that they’ll turn into little old men if they don’t eat their vegetables.”
“Did you scare them into believing that?”
“I had no hand in the matter,” Jeongguk says, mock offended.
“So you did.”
“But more than anything, it’s what they don’t believe that’s truly funny. They say you’re too young and pretty to be an emperor.”
“I’ll take that as a high compliment.”
“It’s just as well that they don’t believe me, right?” Jeongguk says. “And they believe in forever, too.”
Taehyung opens his eyes. “Why shouldn’t we?”
“You know there isn’t one for either of us.”
The sigh that Taehyung release blows back into his face where it hits Jeongguk’s chest.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken.”
“Let’s just believe.” Taehyung kisses Jeongguk’s bruised mouth, takes care to be soft. “Just for a second, let’s believe in that forever.”
Believing doesn’t take much. Taehyung brings their mouths together again to kiss, holding Jeongguk’s face in his hand. It’s easy, with Jeongguk’s touch and scent all around him, to believe in that forever. Taehyung reaches up, higher, until his fingers find the cold angles of the binyeo, and pulls it free from Jeongguk’s hair.
Jeongguk chases his mouth when Taehyung leans away, tossing the hairstick aside. It hits the floormats with a metallic thunk. The high knot at the back of Jeongguk’s head loosens, unfurling, as it falls around his shoulders.
Taehyung expects him to ask what he’s doing. But Jeongguk surprises him, and reaches up to do the same, then leans Taehyung into him to undo the braided knot so that the waves of his hair lie flat. His hands are slow and patient, starting at the foot of Taehyung’s braid and working his way up as it comes apart in his fingers.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, not knowing exactly what to follow it up with. The word is muffled into Jeongguk’s shoulder.
The fabric of Jeongguk’s robes is scratchy under Taehyung’s hands as he runs them up his chest to his neck. “Jeonggukie.”
“Yes, hyungnim. I’m listening.”
Jeongguk reaches the top of Taehyung’s braid and fingercombs the crimped waves out just once before he answers.
“Can you what?”
Taehyung tugs on the ties of Jeongguk’s shirt so that it pulls open slightly. “Can I…?”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung finds pleasure in knowing that Jeongguk’s mouth is probably as dry as his. “You want to?”
“I want to. But do you?”
Jeongguk swallows, so audibly that it’s comical. “Yes, I want to. I—I’ve wanted to.”
“Then why didn’t you say so?” Taehyung teases, and Jeongguk’s answering smile is sheepish. It lightens the atmosphere. “Hold still for me.”
If he is honest with himself, Taehyung’s hands are shaking. Jeongguk holds as still as marble under his touch, and all that betrays how he nervous he is, too, is the tiniest flinch when Taehyung’s fingertips brushes the bare skin of his collarbone.
“I’m sorry, do you want to stop?”
“No! No. Your hands are just a little cold.”
“You haven’t kissed me enough, maybe,” Taehyung says, reaching the bottom tie of Jeongguk’s shirt. He pulls the knot of his belt holding his jeogori closed, then slides his hands under the opening and pushes it all back from Jeongguk’s body. He’s about to move lower when he sees that Jeongguk’s face has entirely surpassed pink and gone straight for scarlet, and tips it up with a finger underneath his chin.
“Jeonggukie, are you blushing? After all those times you waltzed around in front of me in the stables without a shirt on in the summer, and you’re going red in the face now?”
“It’s different,” Jeongguk mumbles. “It’s different when you do it.”
“Yeah, keep—keep going.”
So Taehyung keeps going, moving slowly, and Jeongguk lifts his hips off the mat so that his pants can slide over his legs. Taehyung pushes it aside, then comes back to kneel in between Jeongguk’s thighs now where he’s completely naked.
And they don’t speak. On Jeongguk’s part, he is too bundled by nerves to genuinely articulate any words, but Taehyung doesn’t want to burst the bubble of this moment, of the realization that Jeongguk trusts him enough to undress him.
They fill the silence with kisses, and every inch of Jeongguk’s skin grows warm under Taehyung’s palms. He shivers where Taehyung runs his fingers, then jerks hard when Taehyung lets his hand fall low, just above his crotch.
“Do me,” Taehyung whispers, trying to kiss and speak at the same time. He takes Jeongguk’s hands in his own and places them on the knotted belt at his waist. “Me too.”
“Are you sure?”
Jeongguk goes so maddeningly slow that Taehyung wants to reach down and help—and almost does, until he notices the shake of Jeongguk’s hands, and the way Jeongguk worries his lower lip between his teeth as he goes. Instead Taehyung encourages him softly, with words at first, until Jeongguk’s hand brushes his skin and he lets out an honest, quivery whimper.
“Oh, gods,” Jeongguk says.
“Jeonggukie,” says Taehyung, shimmying out of the heavy satin as Jeongguk pushes it off his shoulders. “Touch me.”
“I—wait, as soon as I—”
He makes quicker work of Taehyung’s pants, helped along when Taehyung kicks them off once Jeongguk gets them down past his knees. Then they’re sitting there, with Jeongguk looking unsure of how to proceed, and Taehyung yanks him forward so they tumble onto his bedding.
“Touch me,” Taehyung repeats. His eyelashes flutter when Jeongguk lifts his hand up and brushes a fingertip across his cheekbone, and he sinks down onto Jeongguk’s body below him. The shudder that runs through Jeongguk’s body when his cock rubs into Taehyung’s belly is so satisfying that Taehyung wiggles a little so it grinds harder against his skin.
“Hyungnim, hyungnim, wait,” Jeongguk gasps. “Wait.”
“When we’re here, like this, don’t call me hyungnim. I want to hear you say my name.”
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk says. Wonder fills his voice, as foreign as the name sounds on his tongue.
“Say it again,” Taehyung says, straddling Jeongguk so that he can grind into his abdomen. Jeongguk moans out loud in earnest when his cock drags against the curve of Taehyung’s ass.
“Taehyung.” This time it’s a broken gasp. “Taehyung, oh gods, Taehyung.”
It makes Taehyung leak right onto Jeongguk’s skin, the sound of his name in Jeongguk’s mouth, riding on the backs of his wet, ragged breaths. They do not last long, even just grinding into each other like this. When Jeongguk intelligently recalls that he has hands to use and reaches down to pump Taehyung lightly, Taehyung comes with a gasp and a shiver onto his stomach—“Jeongguk, oh, Jeonggukie—Jeonggukie,” and nearly collapses upon him.
Taehyung slides back until his bottom meets the bed again, pulling Jeongguk with him so that they can kiss without Taehyung crushing him under his weight. The joke is on him, since he feels so spent and shivery that he has to grasp weakly at Jeongguk’s shoulders to stay upright until Jeongguk wraps his arms around his waist and gathers him close.
“I want to do it again,” Taehyung rasps between kisses. “Oh, but—you didn’t finish?”
“I wanted you to come first,” Jeongguk says, blushing again at the words.
“You need to finish,” Taehyung says, squirming out of Jeongguk’s hold. He doesn’t want to; it’s so warm and secure, but he’ll be damned if he lets Jeongguk leave his bedchamber today without finishing. “Sit back.”
“Hyungnim, what are you—?”
“What did I say about hyungnim?”
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk corrects.
“Mmm, I like it much more when you call me that,” Taehyung says, pushing Jeongguk’s legs open. “Don’t forget it, now.”
Jeongguk’s head falls back in a wordless moan instead when Taehyung bends down and licks the head of his cock. He’s propped up on his hands, and Taehyung half-expects his elbows to give out with the force of the shiver that wracks his body.
“Taehyung, oh, Taehyung—Taehyung—”
Taehyung takes more of him into his mouth, sucking, bracing his hands on the toned insides of Jeongguk’s thighs so that they don’t snap shut around his head. The harder he sucks, the harder Jeongguk’s breaths come. Taehyung can tell he’s holding himself back from moaning too loudly, then slides off with a quiet pop.
“Look at me,” Taehyung says. “I want you to watch me.”
Jeongguk brings his gaze to watch Taehyung down the length of his body, and Taehyung almost smiles as he sucks Jeongguk back into his mouth. The bangs and baby hairs around Jeongguk’s face are dark with sweat when Taehyung looks up at him through his eyelashes.
“Taehyung, I’m going to—stop, I’ll finish in your mouth—”
Not only does Taehyung not sit back, he simply redoubles his efforts, licking and sucking singlemindedly until a tiny, destroyed whimper tumbles out of Jeongguk’s mouth. His orgasm takes long, lazy seconds to pass by, and Taehyung hums as he swallows Jeongguk’s come. He pants hazily, then tips forward again to suck at the head of Jeongguk’s cock and kiss away the last dribble of come that leaks onto his tongue.
“Taehyung, please, no more,” Jeongguk says, hips shaking as Taehyung sits back up, curling his arms around Jeongguk’s neck. At this, finally, Jeongguk allows his arms to give out, and they land in a sticky heap in the pillows.
“So good,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk once, twice. “So perfect. Did it feel good?”
Jeongguk takes longer to catch his breath. His heart thunders, still, against Taehyung’s ribs. “It felt so good.”
“I only want you to touch me,” Taehyung says, burrowing his face into the curve of Jeongguk’s neck. “I want you to be the only one who can touch me.”
The arms are around Taehyung’s waist again, strong and reassuring.
“Only I’ll touch you,” Jeongguk agrees, in their pretend forever. “Like this, always.”
Time passes differently in extremes.
If anyone were to ask Taehyung what he’d been doing the past few weeks, he would tell them that he’d be tied up in state meetings with Emperor Seogeol as tensions rose with Nihon in the east and the Khitans in the west. He’d tell them about how it was easier to talk to Dakyung-sejabin lately, how they would sit together and read in the quiet hum of the afternoons, and share dinner come nightfall.
He’d tell them all of this as one would read a record book, with a placid smile and chuckles peppered in between his words, all in the right places. What he remembers is the sight of Jeongguk’s hand breaking the surface of the koi pond as he laughed, feeding them bits of stale bread by the light of a lantern after Huwon was abandoned. He remembers the way Jeongguk’s fingers would twist the binyeo into his knot after he braided it back up following a tumble in the sheets. Or the way sunlight looked in the morning when it bled through the curtain of Jeongguk’s hair, falling over his shoulder when he bent down to kiss Taehyung on his browbone. His sunrise visits toed a place between fiction and reality that Taehyung would dwell in all day.
The insignificant things, really, become all that Taehyung can think about.
“You know what I thought about the other day?”
Jeongguk yawns a little, half-naked under Taehyung. They had only managed to get all of Taehyung’s off before getting too distracted by kissing, then it felt so good just curling up against Jeongguk’s body that they find themselves stuck in a limbo of laziness and arousal.
“You think about a lot of things, Taehyung.”
A breath of a smile appears on Taehyung’s face at the sound of his name. Jeongguk has his eyes closed, eyelashes quivering as Taehyung traces the lines of his face. His fingertips linger on the curve of Jeongguk’s cupid bow. “It was a stupid thing.”
“Considering the number of times you almost got us seriously hurt or killed, I am not too surprised.” Jeongguk cracks one eye open, and laughs a chuntering laugh in his chest at the pout on Taehyung’s face.
“I thought about what it was like to run away.”
Jeongguk’s eyes open in alarm.
“I’m not playing at anything, relax,” Taehyung says, putting both his hands on Jeongguk’s cheeks so he doesn’t try to sit up. “I just imagined it, you know, with you. For just a second, I let myself think about it.”
“What did it look like?”
Taehyung props his chin up in his hand, one still tracing the long bridge of Jeongguk’s nose. “We’d leave at night. By sunrise we would be out of the royal city. We’d share a horse, maybe Night Flower. She likes you best. We’d go somewhere nobody knew me. We wouldn’t have to get up at sunrise, and only see each other after sunset. We wouldn’t have to be quiet at night. You could sit in the sun with me, and we could eat red bean cakes in the afternoon. And I could teach you how to read and write. I’m not that good at cooking, but I’ll learn and make the things you like to eat. You won’t have to share with anyone but me.”
“That sounds like,” Jeongguk doesn’t finish his sentence, and looks away.
“Like everything I could wish for.”
“It’s nice to imagine, right?”
“I find that I am always sadder when I think about what could be.”
“Then let’s not think about what could be,” Taehyung says, “and think about what is.”
Jeongguk closes his eyes and the wistful look is gone. It’s hard to look at, and Taehyung regrets, always, putting that expression on his face. Their kisses come softer now, less fast and desperate, and Taehyung reaches down to pull the rest of Jeongguk’s clothes off his body.
A stroke of uncharacteristic anxiety courses through Taehyung’s blood, and Jeongguk sits up at his hesitation.
“Hyungnim, what’s wrong?”
Taehyung sits back on Jeongguk’s bare thighs. “Shall we—let’s, for real. I want to make love for real tonight.”
“Oh.” Jeongguk colors high in his cheeks, and reaches up to scratch the back of his neck. “You want to?”
“I want to.” Taehyung presses in close enough to kiss, but doesn’t, letting his face hover in front of Jeongguk’s and staring at his mouth. “Do you?”
Jeongguk’s exhale is shaky, a staccato on Taehyung’s lips. “Yes, I want to.”
The first kiss is a short, soft pink. A heartbeat in silence. Taehyung pulls away but Jeongguk follows, kissing him again, and it’s languid stretches of red. He learns to feel the world in gasps, and Jeongguk’s skin, and the heat of his body lying between Taehyung’s legs. When his cock rubs into Taehyung’s belly, he lets a whimper pass between them.
“Oil,” Taehyung says, pushing Jeongguk back so he can speak. “Oil, let me get it.”
Neither of them want to move. Taehyung stays perched on Jeongguk’s thighs, shivering despite the warmth radiating from Jeongguk’s skin—because of it, in fact. Jeongguk lets his eyes close when Taehyung rests their foreheads together.
“Are you going to get it?”
“Let me stay like this,” Taehyung says, wrapping his arms around Jeongguk’s neck to tug him closer, and leaves a kiss on the shell of his ear—on the corner of his jaw, on his jugular, until Jeongguk moans softly against him.
“If you don’t get it, I will.”
“Okay, okay.” The jar he returns with has been unused and unopened, with a lacquered gold rose on the lid, and Taehyung sits down cross-legged with it in the butterfly of his legs to undo the wax seal.
“Jasmine,” Jeongguk says, as soon as the top comes off.
“I just opened it, you can tell?”
“It’s what you always smell like.” Jeongguk realizes how that sounds, and ducks his face.
Taehyung dips his index and middle fingers into the pool of oil. A pale amber, it drips off in his fingertips in long strings until Jeongguk takes Taehyung’s wrist and pulls his hand forward.
His mouth goes drier than the summer sun when Jeongguk brings Taehyung’s hand to mouth, wrapping his lips around his fingers. “Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, voice broken and weak, so aroused that he’s lightheaded with it as Jeongguk licks the oil away. “Please.”
“Mm. Yes, okay.”
“Will you?” Taehyung scoots forward with his heels, making to lie back. “Can you?”
Jeongguk takes the jar out of Taehyung’s palm, the black polished wood gleaming as he shifts forward. “Whatever you want.”
It is a slow process, one they both know they cannot rush. The first finger goes easily, and Jeongguk thrusts it in and out until the pain between Taehyung’s eyebrows smooths away, dripping more oil when he asks for more.
“Oh, Jeongguk—oh, oh—”
“Okay, keep going,” Taehyung says, every muscle in his body like strung rope. A rivulet of precome runs down his abdomen, leaving a trail along his skin.
The second is more slow going, but Taehyung figures out to move his hips a little, and pleasure zings through his body. It’s enough to make him reach for Jeongguk’s free hand, where it runs up and down the length of his thigh to relax him.
“More.” Taehyung lifts his head. Jeongguk laces their fingers together, looking at him uncertainly. “Please, I want it. I want you.”
The mess of oil in Jeongguk’s lap is making Taehyung’s ass slip a little where it rests on his legs. He whimpers when Jeongguk pulls him up more securely, rubs more oil around his hole, and adds a third finger.
Taehyung’s body nearly curls in on itself when Jeongguk presses something in him that feels so good he might be addicted to it, just after one hit. Maybe it’s just Jeongguk. When the white hot pleasure fades, he reaches out.
“Taehyung, I’m here.”
“I want you to be part of me,” Taehyung says. Sweat glimmers on his heaving chest. “I want to feel you in me.”
“Okay, I will—here, let me—”
Taehyung dutifully allows Jeongguk to scoot back, watching hazily as Jeongguk scoops more oil into his palms and rubs his hands over his cock. He moans at his own touch so brokenly Taehyung thinks for a wild moment that Jeongguk may just finish like this, that it would be such a shame, there had been enough precome leaking down his shaft to be enough.
His concern is short lived. When Taehyung feels the press of Jeongguk’s cock to his hole, he chokes out a “Jeonggukie,” and receives a “Taehyung,” in return.
It takes a few tries. Taehyung’s gasps give way to a few breathy giggles, then an earnest laugh when he sees the pink rising in Jeongguk’s cheekbones when he can’t seem to get his cock in. “Do you need help?”
“Don’t laugh, hyungnim,” Jeongguk says, holding Taehyung still. A strange back and forth between arousal and the ticklish feeling of laughter fills Taehyung’s chest. “I can—”
“Let me, Jeonggukie,” says Taehyung, sitting up and pressing a hand flat on Jeongguk’s chest so he tips back. He follows the movement of Taehyung’ body, until Jeongguk’s head rests at the foot of the bed. Shivers run through Taehyung’s body when Jeongguk runs his hands over his thighs, leaving behind streaks of oil from his hands.
Jeongguk’s breath catches in his throat at Taehyung’s touch—and Taehyung would like to think he’s steady with concentration, but his hands shake when reaches back and holds Jeongguk’s cock steady against his hole.
“There,” Taehyung gasps, successful, as Jeongguk nudges the head of his cock inside. The feeling of him is thicker than Taehyung anticipated, and he digs his nails into Jeongguk’s shoulder as he sinks lower.
“Go slow, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says. He’s striving for some semblance of composure, too, rubbing his thumbs over Taehyung’s legs, yet his voice is thin with the strain not to moan aloud.
By the time Taehyung is fully seated, his thighs are burning, and Jeongguk’s chest heaves with the breaths he has held. He reaches up to cup Taehyung’s cheek in his hand.
“Good,” Taehyung says, whimpering when Jeongguk shifts beneath him. “Kiss me?”
As if Jeongguk would ever deny him kisses. The motion of his sitting up is enough to make pleasure flare low in Taehyung’s abdomen. Jeongguk lets himself moan now, right into Taehyung’s mouth. Taehyung rocks against him, gently, and that moan turns into a gasp.
Establishing a rhythm comes easily, like breathing. It helps that they have known the movements of each others’ bodies for so many years. Taehyung cries out when Jeongguk’s hips finally start coming up to meet his downstrokes, lips going slack in their kisses. “Jeonggukie,” he says, just to hear the word.
“Taehyung, I—I can’t—”
Jeongguk’s body goes impossibly tight under him when he comes, digging his hands into Taehyung’s hips hard enough to bruise. “No, please,” he chokes out, when Taehyung rolls his hips a little more on his cock. A catlike grin stretches across Taehyung’s face.
“You’re the worst,” Jeongguk gasps, closing his eyes briefly. For a second Taehyung can hear only his own ragged breath when Jeongguk swallows, then, “You didn’t finish, did you?”
“It was cute to watch you come.”
“The worst,” Jeongguk says, and reaches down with oil-slick hands to pump at Taehyung’s cock. His hips jerk at Jeongguk’s touch, and he inadvertently grinds his ass harder down onto Jeongguk’s cock inside. The orgasm comes over him hot and sticky, rushing through his blood, and Taehyung has to catch himself from slumping onto Jeongguk’s chest.
“Cuter,” Jeongguk decides, stroking up and down Taehyung’s cock as he milks the come onto his belly. “Definitely cuter.” He chuckles at the choked gasp in Taehyung’s throat when he thumbs at the head, and his hand comes away come-sticky when Taehyung grabs his wrist and pushes at it weakly.
In the end, Taehyung does end up lying upon him, still trying to gather the bits of him that his orgasm pulled apart. It felt like he, Kim Taehyung, was made up of a thousand threads in a tapestry, and Jeongguk had pulled one frayed edge to unravel all of him.
“Was I your first?”
Jeongguk snorts. “Do you honestly believe that there could have been anyone else?”
Emotion makes Taehyung’s throat cotton-thick. “I guessed as much.”
“What gave it away?”
“You finished so fast.”
“I’ve never been with anybody, okay!”
“And I said it was cute!” Taehyung insists, laughing at the blush that he can quite literally hear creeping up on Jeongguk’s face again. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” Jeongguk says. “For what, exactly?”
“You’re really mouthy after an orgasm, you know?”
“Should I be more romantic?”
“Yeah,” Taehyung says, sticking his lower lip out. Jeongguk kisses it with a laugh.
“Okay.” He wraps his arms around Taehyung’s middle and hums. “Thank you too. For being my first. First everything, actually. I’m pretty sure you were the first to make me laugh, before I even knew what it meant to laugh. First friend. First kiss. First—first lover.”
Taehyung smiles where his mouth is pressed against Jeongguk’s clavicles. “You too,” he says. “First everything.”
Jeongguk hums, and Taehyung blinks sleepily at the feeling of a kiss being pressed to the crown of his head. “I need to go soon.”
“I don’t want to. I’m sorry. I don’t want to either.”
Taehyung turns his face so that it rests in the curve of Jeongguk’s neck, where he can feel a heartbeat fluttering like a caged bird beneath his jaw.
“I love you.”
The words are nearly lost in Jeongguk’s hair, so soft that Jeongguk could have imagined them if it weren’t for the slightest tightening of Taehyung’s arms around him.
“I love you more than anybody.”
“I can, and I do,” Taehyung says. His voice is tired, but stubborn, the dreamy haze of his orgasm dissolving in the wake of his insistence.
“I love you too.” It sounds like a dirty secret, the way Jeongguk whispers it for only Taehyung to hear, but Taehyung cups them in his hands like newborn black-and-scarlet koi. “First I love you, too.”
Love in a royal court was not easy to hide. This much was obvious. Kings, queens, consorts, and advisors alike have perished in the irresistible face of mixing love and power. And that was only love between rival clans in a royal rank, never mind the consequences of people knowing that the prince was bedding a stable boy.
But a love like this, that could make a forever out of the numbered days—well. Though it was not meant for anybody’s eyes but their own, it was truly something to behold.
Of all the questions he’s been asked during dinners with Dakyung-sejabin’s family, this is perhaps one of the strangest.
“That boy?” he asks, knowing exactly whom they’re talking about. He does not like it. To hear anybody bring up Jeongguk around him without rhyme nor reason puts him on edge like a struck match.
“The one that Dakyung says you speak to often,” says her father, one of the advisors in the ministry council. “I hear he’s a talented herder.”
“He’s a horseman, abeonim,” Dakyung insists.
“Herder, horseman, stable boy. You should let him into the palace grounds just for that day and let him see what it is like here, no? Jeoha, what do you say?”
“I am sure he’d be delighted to,” Taehyung says. He tries not to grit his teeth.
“It would make him happy, right?”
Dakyung speaks to him with genuine concern, and Taehyung hides his sigh behind a smile. “Yes, I think it would.”
“And you’d be happy if he were here, right?”
“Yes, I would be.”
“So it’s settled.” She reaches her chopsticks across the table for a dried fish. “Abeonim, jeoha is tired, you mustn’t ask him so many questions.”
“Ah, jeoha, you’ll have such a caring wife,” the advisor rumbles, pinching Dakyung’s cheek. “Already starting to talk back at me about someone she’s not even married to yet.”
“Leave him alone, Cho Ryu,” says his wife.
“I’m simply trying to understand my son-in-law’s life a little, is all. It’s normal for princes to have friends, though they’re not usually lowborns.”
“His family was helped me when I was young. It was the blessing from my father that allowed him to be in my life.”
“I see. So you grew up with this boy?”
Cho Ryu nods deeply. “A true friend.”
“He’s good-looking, why isn’t he married yet? Is he not your age?” asks Dakyung.
Taehyung stares at her, and she senses his gaze, stilling with her chopsticks in her mouth. “Did—did I say something wrong, jeoha?”
“No, no. You didn’t. He’s younger than me, just a little. And I suppose he isn’t married.”
“You suppose? He either is or isn’t,” says Cho Ryu.
“He’s not.” A sick, swooping feeling fills Taehyung’s stomach the more they talk about this. “He isn’t married. He wants to take care of his parents.”
“What a filial son.”
The rest of the dinner is, more or less, easier to sit through. But Taehyung’s appetite has vanished, so he excuses himself from the table as soon as he deems appropriate, begging a feeling of malaise and thanking them for the dinner.
He walks back to chimjeon alone, a burning sensation deep in the pit of stomach. The handmaids bow as he approaches, and he gives them a nod so that they may retire for the evening. When he closes the last pair of sliding doors to his room, he jumps when someone speaks from behind him.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung breathes, clutching his chest and turning. “You scared the daylights out of me.”
“I’m sorry, I wanted to surprise you.” The lantern hasn’t been lit, and Taehyung can only hear Jeongguk approaching in the darkness before he’s enveloped in sweet-smelling warmth. A tension he hadn’t known he was holding in his body loosens, and Jeongguk holds him tighter, ever observant.
“Are you okay?”
“Tired,” Taehyung mumbles, hugging Jeongguk around his neck and burying his face in his shoulder.
“Then it’s a good thing I got here early today, yeah?”
Even in the darkness, Taehyung knows Jeongguk’s body like the back of his own hands. When he lifts his face Jeongguk is already there, kissing him gently on the corner of his mouth and then more properly on his lips.
“I want to lie down.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jeongguk asks when they do, Taehyung settling half on top of him with his arm slung over Jeongguk’s stomach to hug him like he were a big pillow. “Did something happen?”
Taehyung rests his face on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Nothing happened.”
A hesitant pause. “Hyungnim, if you’re worried it’ll hurt me, I’d rather know and hurt together with you than let you hurt alone.”
“Nothing, really nothing.” As his eyes adjust to the darkness, Taehyung can discern the curves of Jeongguk’s face beside his. He reaches up to brush his fingertips over Jeongguk’s cheek. “I just thought about you, and really wanted to see you.”
“Here I am.”
Jeongguk secures his arm more tightly around Taehyung’s shoulders. “I love you.”
Taehyung laughs in spite of the inexplicable exhaustion in his bones at Jeongguk’s audible pout. “You’re not going to say it back?”
“How the tables have turned.”
“I love you too, Jeonggukie.” Taehyung tilts his face so that his lips meet Jeongguk’s jaw. “I love you the most.”
“More than red bean cakes, even.”
“Wow, that really is the most.”
“It is.” Taehyung chews on his lip. Then, “Jeonggukie?”
“Can you stay here tonight?”
Jeongguk, as Taehyung expected, does not answer right away. “It might not be safe for you, hyungnim.”
“For me?” Taehyung pushes his hair of his face in disbelief.
“If anything happens—”
“If anything happens, you’re the one who will hurt more than I, and you’re worried about me?”
“Do you not want me to stay, then?”
“I just can’t believe you have the—that you can worry about me. Of all people, it’s not safe for you.”
“I’ll stay if you want me to,” Jeongguk says, pulling Taehyung against him to shake the renewed tension out of his muscles. “I must leave by dawn, but I’ll stay with you.”
Taehyung sighs. “I love you,” he says. “Can we just sleep like this?”
“Don’t you want to let your hair down?”
“Okay,” Taehyung says, slumber coming over him before he can get to it. He falls asleep to Jeongguk’s hands pulling the binyeo out of his hair in one gentle stroke, combing out the braid with his fingers, and the world sputters out like a flame.
But Taehyung is not a stupid prince, and knows the dangers of keeping Jeongguk in the palace for longer than it takes to make love. As much as he wants to, he seldomly asks Jeongguk to stay, and always makes sure to tell him before he falls asleep, tired from sex, that Jeongguk should leave right after he falls asleep.
When Taehyung is on his elbows and knees, though, he’s not worrying about any of that. He’s more concerned with asking Jeongguk to “go harder, please, harder,” until Jeongguk’s tentative hold on his hips grows bruising.
“Taehyung,” he groans, sliding full and deep inside. Taehyung whimpers, pushing himself up onto his hands, and looks over his shoulder. Jeongguk understands, reaching out with one arm, then both, to hug Taehyung to his chest for kisses.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung moans against his lips, feeding his little cries into Jeongguk’s mouth, curling his fingers around Jeongguk’s wrists where they’re pressed into his ribs. Jeongguk thrusts into him like this, and Taehyung gasps without really kissing, trying to keep his eyes on Jeongguk’s mouth anyway like he means to. “Jeongguk.”
“Are you going to come?”
“I’m going to come, ah.” Taehyung drops his head back slightly when Jeongguk pumps his cock harder, the slick of jasmine oil making the slide of his hand sound extra filthy. “Jeonggukie—ah, Jeongguk—”
His body locks up when he finishes, come spurting onto the bedding. Jeongguk kisses at his neck as Taehyung quivers from the aftershocks, knuckles white where his hands had tightened around Jeongguk’s arms. “Come in me,” he says, words trembling their way out of his mouth. “Keep going.”
It never takes Jeongguk long to finish if Taehyung comes first. The sight and feel of his lover coming around him is enough to get him there within seconds, and Jeongguk holds his weight away from Taehyung’s back when he groans and slumps from the force of his orgasm.
“I’m sorry, I’ll move in a second.”
“I like it,” Taehyung hums, pressing his oversensitive cock into his bed, and enjoying the jerk of his own hips and the answering whine Jeongguk gives when it makes Taehyung shift around him. “Stay inside me until you want to move.”
“Was it good?”
“Always good.” Taehyung smiles when Jeongguk kisses at the part of his cheek he can reach lying like this, on Taehyung’s back. His mouth falls slack when Jeongguk pulls out slowly, his cock brushing the back of Taehyung’s thigh.
“Don’t leave me yet, it’s cold.”
“Not yet, don’t worry. I dropped by earlier today so I could stay longer, even if it’s not until dawn.” Jeongguk tugs the outermost layer of his clothes on, and clucks his tongue as he stands up to cross the bedchamber. “Are you cold? No wonder, you need to be more careful hyungnim—your window is open.”
“What? It’s open?”
“Just a hair, it’s okay. Hey, shh, shh,” he adds when he turns to see Taehyung sitting up with the bedsheets clutched to his chest. “We’re always quiet, don’t forget.”
“I’m sorry, I should have been more careful. Oh, gods, what if—what if—?”
“I’m afraid for you.”
“It’s okay, nothing will happen. Come here.” He gathers Taehyung into his arms, rocking him a little, and Taehyung hooks his chin over the swell of Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I’m here, I’ll always be here.”
Taehyung hugs him back. “And I’ll protect you, Jeonggukie, with all the power I have.”
And in the middle of a forever they create out of their numbered days, Taehyung is shaken awake from a deep sleep as though the hands make to kidnap him.
“Jeoha! Jeoha, wake up—something is happening. Wake up!”
“Wh—what’s going on? Is there trouble?”
Lady Ha straightens as he sits up, bleary with sleep, and her face disappears in the glow of the lantern by her head. “There’s trouble,” she says, wringing her hands. “It’s your friend.”
“Yes, the boy from the stables.”
“What happened?” The sleep evaporates from his eyes, and he jumps to his feet. “What? Is he hurt? What happened to Jeongguk?”
“I’m not sure, jeoha, I really don’t know. There was a commotion outside, I was woken by shouting near the servants’ quarters, so I looked outside, and—and I saw the back of him. He was being marched away by some of the emperor’s men! Your father’s men. I don’t know, it didn’t feel right, jeoha, I had to come tell you immediately.”
“Why?” Taehyung forces an arm through his jeogori, shivering in the drafts of his bedchamber. “Did you hear why?”
“Not at all, I’m sorry, jeoha.”
“It’s okay, I—wait. If I march up to my father now, he’ll know that—”
Taehyung balks, the words dying in his throat.
“He’ll know that what, jeoha?”
“That—that you came to tell me.”
“Who am I but a handmaid, jeoha. If I were afraid for myself, I would not have run to tell you. They treated him badly, jeoha. It wasn’t some clean affair, they did not lead him out of his house like he’d agreed to it.”
“They forced him?”
“They—I think they may have beaten him, jeoha, I heard the blows.” Her face is ducked so deeply that her chin may be touching her chest. “I couldn’t run out there and do anything, I’m so sorry. I heard the boy shouting, and they beat him until he stopped.”
“I have to—oh god, I have to—what if they kill him? Why did they do this?”
“Only the emperor can answer that question, jeoha. You must speak to him, that boy’s fate is entirely in his hands.”
“I must go,” Taehyung says, pacing. He looks up. “I have to. I cannot sit idly by not knowing why they did this or that they might kill him.”
“Jeoha, you must be careful. Emperor Seogeol—he may not be particularly forgiving right now.”
Taehyung pins his cloak at his throat. “Whatever happens, I need to know I reasoned with him. Lady Ha,” he takes her free hand, “thank you for telling me.”
There is a new moon tonight, and Taehyung, in his rush to leave, had forgotten to put shoes on. The stone grounds are frigid beneath the soles of his feet, and his cloak flaps behind him like a wounded bird as he runs. Nothing but a few still-lit fires in the lamps by the pavilions lights his way.
“Abeonim-mama!” he calls before he even makes it into Seonjeongjeon. “Abeonim-mama, please, I have a request that you listen—to…me…”
Jeongguk is on his knees, head down, kowtowing at Seogeol’s feet with his hands tied behind his back. Seogeol stands up from his throne, and Taehyung looks from him, to Cho Ryu behind him, to the posse of his cronies flanking him.
“So you’re here.”
Rage overcomes him like a splash of oxblood, and Taehyung marches inside. He has an entire mind to challenge his father, the emperor, right here in the hall when Jeongguk makes a weak noise and lifts his head to look over his shoulder.
“Jeoha, don’t,” he says, and Taehyung’s heart constricts when he sees how much blood is on Jeongguk’s face. Some of it streams from a nosebleed, some of it trickles out of the corner of his mouth. A bruise has already begun to bloom over the expanse of his cheek, and there is a nasty cut through his eyebrow.
“Jeongguk,” he breathes, the wind knocked out of him at the sight of his face, like someone had punched him in the ribs. Then his body lurches back into motion, and he stumbles to drop to his knees beside Jeongguk, lifting his head, fluttering his fingers over the wounds. He looks up sharply. “Abeonim-mama, why—?”
“Don’t get too upset just yet.” Seogeol sits down heavily in his throne. “I don’t plan to let him live.”
Seogeol looks up, a thunderous disbelief coloring the lines of his aging face. Taehyung’s voice echoes off the high ceilings of Seonjeongjeon.
“Excuse me, wangseja?”
“You haven’t even told me—why do you want to execute him? What has he done? Abeonim-mama, please, you can’t. You can’t!”
“Wangseja.” Seogeol rubs his eyes, as if he’s trying to reason with a very small child. “Please listen to yourself right now.”
“Do you not sound like a somebody trying to rescue his damned lover?” Seogeol asks, pounding his fist into the gilded armrest. “I had feared, wangseja, and I had hoped not. I knew from the moment I let that ingrate into the palace that it was a mistake, that he’d grow hungry for the throne one day.”
“What?” Taehyung asks, sitting back. His hand leaves a smear of blood on the front of his robes where he’d touched Jeongguk’s face. “What are you talking about?”
“Seducing the crown, fool, it’s a common practice! Were you really so blind to what he was trying to do?”
“Abeonim-mama, there’s—no, Jeongguk wouldn’t, Jeongguk doesn’t want the throne. What use does he have for it? That’s not true! What makes you think I didn’t put my hands on him first? How do you know it wasn’t me who asked him to do these things?”
“Somebody came by your bedchamber some nights ago.” Cho Ryu steps forward until he stands beside Seogeol. “They saw that boy attacking you.”
“No, he wasn’t. We were just—we just—”
Taehyung’s voice dies in his throat when Jeongguk looks up.
“Were you in the crown prince’s room three nights ago?”
“Were you in his bed?”
“And,” Cho Ryu’s eyelid twitches, “do you admit to engaging in sodomy with the crown prince?”
“Stop!” Taehyung shouts.
“Do you or do you not admit, lowborn!” Cho Ryu barks.
“I admit,” Jeongguk says hoarsely. “I confess to these things.”
“Jeonggukie, no. No, wait!”
Taehyung throws an arm over Jeongguk and gets up on his knees, hand outstretched as if to physically keep Cho Ryu back. “No, you must understand. You must! I asked Jeongguk to come to my bedchamber, and I put my hands on him, not the other way around, and I asked him to bed me, I fell in love with him first, you can’t execute him for a crime he didn’t commit!”
“So, what.” Seogeol flicks his hand, as if to goad Taehyung to keep going. “You suggest we execute you instead, then? Will that make you feel better?”
“Better me than him, you cannot punish the innocent, abeon—”
“Do not call me abeonim.”
“Mama.” Jeongguk’s voice is thick and choked with blood, and Taehyung wants to cry at how small he looks. “You cannot execute the next emperor of Goryeo. This nation needs him more than it does me.”
“You’re right. It does not matter to me what happens to you, as long as I protect the interests of this nation. If that means you die, then so be it. If that is what it takes to protect this crown from corruption, then so be it. That is what I have lived for. Soldiers, put him in the prisons until morning. We’ll decide the method of execution come sunrise, I’ve lost enough sleep over this.”
“Abeonim-mama, I respectfully request that you reconsider your stance.”
Seogeol stands up, and the shadow that he casts over Taehyung has never been as dark as it is now.
“Do what you want, wangseja. It is no longer a concern to me.”
Jeongguk is yanked to his feet none too gently, and shoved along like a head of cattle. He trips over himself more than once and though Taehyung’s legs are asleep, he clambers to his feet.
“Please, you cannot kill him.” His pleas fall on deaf ears, all the way down to the dungeons, where it has been empty since the last several prisoners of war were released. They are cold and forbidding, cobwebs gleaming silver when the lanterns are brought inside. Jeongguk is shoved into a cell so hard he falls, landing hard on his shoulder. When he’s down on the ground, they fasten a heavy chain around his bound wrists.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, feeling the sting of tears for the first time during this whole ordeal when the soldiers lock the chains between the bars. A peppery sensation fills his nose as it always does before he cries. “Jeonggukie, hey. Are you ok? Jeonggukie, look at me.”
Jeongguk has not moved from where he lies on his side on the hay-strewn cement. “Jeoha,” he replies weakly.
“Yes, Jeongguk. Not jeoha, just hyungnim. Just Taehyung. How badly are you hurt? Can you breathe?”
“Don’t cry, jeoha,” Jeongguk says, and through the sanguine mess on Jeongguk’s mouth Taehyung catches a glimpse of a smile. “You look so ugly when you cry.”
“Jeonggukie!” Tears swim in his eyes.
“Somebody saw us, jeoha. The night we left the window ajar. I was wrong. They said somebody told the council that I was in your room, attacking you.”
“I don’t know. They would not say. They brought that person into Seonjeongjeon and asked them to confirm if it was me, but they kept my head down, and whoever it was did not speak. It would have been someone who stopped by chimjeon, so it could have been one of the handmaids.”
“Jeonggukie, you can’t die.” A sob wracks Taehyung’s chest. “If you die, what will I do?”
“Become a great emperor, of course.”
“If you die, what will I tell your parents?”
“We are but a family of lowborns. You do not owe my parents anything.”
“How can you say that.” The tears pour in earnest now. “How can you even believe that for a moment?”
Jeongguk sits up with some difficulty. There must be a great pain in his side, and Taehyung chokes on his sobs when he sees the scarlet patch of blood on his clothes. “Jeoha, shh,” he soothes, as if Taehyung is the one cut and bleeding. “Shh.”
“I don’t want you to die, you can’t die,” Taehyung says, holding Jeongguk’s face as soon as he’s within reach. “If you die, who can I trust in this world? I only have you. I don’t want anybody else.”
The chain clank softly when Jeongguk raises his bound hands, maneuvering them so that he can brush away the stream of tears on Taehyung’s cheeks.
“I don’t want to die, either. Who’s going to catch you when you can’t get out of the ginkgo tree?”
“I’ll never climb it again.”
“But Huwon looks so beautiful from our spot.”
“Huwon means nothing to me if you’re not in it.”
“Jeoha,” Jeongguk says, almost crooning. “Hyungnim.”
But the exhaustion of crying and being woken up in the middle of the night makes Taehyung’s sobs quiet and his eyes droop in the quietest hours of the night. He dozes with his head against the bars and his hands tangled in Jeongguk’s. At one point, he thinks Jeongguk kisses his forehead through his bars, lips cracked from the drying blood.
Time does not miss this opportunity to speed up, moreso than it ever has in Taehyung’s life. The sky traitorously begins to lighten, forbidding blue giving way to a sundance yellow, and Taehyung jolts awake when he hears the door to the prison being unlocked.
“Hyungnim, it’s okay,” Jeongguk says. “Hyungnim—”
A barrage of people walks in, and Taehyung rises to his feet for the occasion. At the head of the vanguard is Seogeol, fresh and ready for the day. Behind him is, unsurprisingly, Cho Ryu, but also Jongkyu-daegun and his sister, Eunjin-gongju. There is fear in Jongkyu’s eyes and Taehyung figures that he prefers it over disgust. Jimin is here with his men, some of whom Taehyung recognizes from last night, and he holds his chin high.
“Move aside, wangseja.”
“We are here to kill only one person today. I am not interested in arguing with you.”
“If you must make it two, then so be it,” says Taehyung in the same tone his father had leveled him some hours ago.
“Hyungnim, no,” Jeongguk says, trying to reach through the bars. “Jeoha, you cannot do this. Do not do this. Don’t be a fool.”
Taehyung steels himself. “I could never protect you myself, with my own hands. I’m doing it now.”
“Move aside, wangseja. I have a ministry seminar after this.”
“Jeoha, it is in your best interest.” Jimin steps forward tentatively, holding a hand out as though to touch a wounded animal. “Come with me. You won’t have to watch it.”
“I don’t want to see him die.”
“You won’t have to.”
For a moment, it seems apparent that Taehyung is softening, and Jimin steps up closer. He waits until Jimin is close enough before reaching out as quickly as a snake striking prey, drawing the sword strapped at Jimin’s hip.
“Jeoha.” Jimin holds both his hands up, but the men behind him draw their blades in response. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Don’t touch him. You cannot touch him.” Taehyung had taken years of sword training, but they stand as no match for the adrenaline coursing through him right now. The blade quivers like a leaf in the wind, even when he grasps the handle with both hands. “That is a command.”
“Or what,” Seogeol says.
A collective noise of shock passes through the throng of people gathered in the prison. “Hyungnim, no!” shouts Jongkyu.
“Taehyung, stop!” cries Jeongguk, punctuated by the cacophony of his chains.
The kiss of the blade against Taehyung’s neck is almost heady, and he’s dizzy with how much power he holds in his hands right now. All he needs to do is apply a bit of pressure, slash the sword down, and it could all be over.
But Seogeol laughs.
“Do it, then,” says Seogeol. “Kill yourself. What difference does it make? We can execute him after you’re dead. Don’t forget that Jongkyu-daegun could easily take your place, and probably with more grace than you.”
“Abeonim-mama, that’s not true.”
“Mama, please,” Jeongguk cries. The jangle of the chains grates off the stone walls of the prison. “Mama, please don’t—please, I’ll die however you like, don’t tell him to kill himself, you need him, the nation needs him.”
“Do not speak to me after the crimes you have committed in this palace.” Seogeol does not even deign to look at him. “You lost that privilege, stable boy. Not that you ever deserved it to begin with. It was the deed of your parents to take care of my son, not yours. Do not act as if you have the nation’s interests at heart after you attempted to seduce the crown.”
“Mama, please! Regardless of what you think of me or what I did, whatever you do, please don’t let him kill himself!”
“Do it,” Seogeol commands. “Or are you too coward to do this, too? Are you too afraid to watch him die?”
A scarlet trail of blood worms its way down the length of Taehyung’s neck where the blade of the sword has bitten into the skin. Through angry tears, Taehyung can see the apprehension in Jimin’s eyes where he stands behind his father, as if he’s trying to beg the same thing that Jeongguk is without making a sound. Don’t be a fool. Don’t do this.
So Taehyung drops his sword. Not because he’s afraid of the pain, or because he’s afraid of death, or because it would make anybody sad. No, the realization that he has power that some men can only dream of, yet it amounts to nothing to protect someone he loves, makes him go weak in the knees. The blade clangs to the ground, vibrating from the force.
“You choose the way of the coward.”
“If he dies whether or not I gave everything for him, does that make me the coward, or you?”
Rage flares in Seogeol’s face. “You dare—?”
“Abeonim-mama,” Jongkyu pleads. His hand is placating on the emperor’s shoulder. “Please, let us speak about this calmly.”
“The time for discussion is over, Jongkyu-ah. Your brother has made it very clear what his values are. They don’t lie with us.”
“You mustn’t think of him that way, abeonim-mama, if you kill Jeongguk, you will make a martyr out of him.”
There is a collective turn of heads when Jimin’s voice breaks through the din. He no longer meets Taehyung’s eyes now, but Taehyung stares up at him in surprise.
“If I may suggest, please remember that Jeongguk has served you all his life with unshakeable faith. For years he took care of every steed in our stables as a child. I have seen him raise foals like they are his own siblings. Your favorite mare always receives his best treatment—so I ask that, if you cannot accept him in your palace any longer to allow him to join military ranks.”
“Under your command?” Seogeol asks.
“If he is to die, then let him die fighting for you.”
The noise of Taehyung’s hiccup is the only thing that interrupts the ensuing silence.
“I respectfully request, jeonha, for the sake of the future emperor. The sake of this nation rests on the strength of the crown prince. If you strike him down, the nation may pay a higher price.”
Nobody seems to have an rejoinder for this. Seogeol is motionless, standing on the other side of the fallen sword from where Taehyung is slumped on his knees.
“Abeonim-mama,” Taehyung says, voice splintered. “Do you remember what you said to me when I was young?”
Jeongguk’s binds clank behind him. “You told me you wished you could see the world as I did again. Which, growing up, I wanted to understand. What was it about adults that they no longer understood the world in the same way I did? I even wondered that when I myself became an adult. Should I be seeing the world differently now that I’m grown up? No. I figured out that you can choose what you want to believe, and I chose to see this world through forgiveness.”
Seogeol’s eye twitches, but he doesn’t speak. Taehyung presses on.
“But you, abeonim-mama, you chose to see this world with cynicism and punishment.” A surge of unexpected strength runs through Taehyung’s legs, and he struggles to stand. “You do not want to believe that there is good, so you don’t see it. One day I will forgive you for this, but you can kill me now, and you can kill him, and will that make you happy? Will ridding this place of me get you any closer to what you want?”
“You will not,” Seogeol says, shaking all over, “earn my forgiveness.”
“I don’t need it. Even if I die today or years from now, what matters is that I knew I protected what mattered to me.” Taehyung stands in front of the lock to Jeongguk’s cell. “One day, I hope you can look back and be able to say you did the same.”
The people gathered behind the emperor look back and forth between the crown prince, with his bloodied jeogori collar, to the emperor, who at full height does not even come up to Taehyung’s eyebrows. Afters what feels like an eternity trembles by, he speaks.
“What are you doing with him,” Taehyung says, immediately locking his hands on the bars behind him.
“Releasing him.” Seogeol looks at Jimin and his men expectantly, then raises his voice. “Why are you standing there?”
“You’re letting him go?”
“If he must live, then he must leave.”
“I’m exiling him, Taehyung.” The tone of his voice leaves no room for compromise. “His heart will keep beating, but he is as good as dead.”
Exile is okay. It’s okay. If he can’t see Jeongguk again, he is okay knowing that Jeongguk is at least alive somewhere in this world.
No, how can it be okay?
“Jeoha, please be still, your wound is very hard to bandage.”
The stream of sobs that tumbles out of Taehyung’s mouth is hard to choke back, but he sucks his lower lip in between his teeth and fists his hands in the knees of his robes. The doctor called for him had taken one look at him and jumped right to work. Taehyung hadn’t even flinched at the gleam of the needle that he passed through a flame to disinfect.
“You could have nicked a very big blood vessel, jeoha,” says the doctor, working methodically. The wound can’t seem to stop bleeding, the blood refusing to coagulate. Taehyung tries not to look down at the stream of blood that has trickled its way down his chest, where he had pulled down half his robes so they wouldn’t stain more. “You’re quite lucky.”
The pile of bloodied cotton swabs grows in the tin pan of rubbish with the snipped ends of thread. The doctor stands back, holding Taehyung’s head still as he presses yet another wad of cotton to the wound with a pair of forceps.
“Is it still bleeding?”
“Just a bit, jeoha. I think the force of your tears upset the wound a little, there’s nothing to worry about. Are you feeling dizzy?”
Truthfully, yes, but Taehyung knows it’s not anything caused by loss of blood. “I’m okay.”
“If you’re uncomfortable anywhere, jeoha, it is in my best interest that I help you. We all need you to be well.”
“I said I’m okay,” Taehyung repeats. “Is there anybody looking after Jeongguk?”
“He was hurt. Is there somebody helping him?”
“Jeoha, we are not allowed to speak to those who are exiled,” the doctor reminds him.
“Nobody is seeing to him?”
“He was sent back to the stable cabins, jeoha, I’m sure his family is doing what they can for him before he leaves.”
Taehyung stands up, and his head spins in earnest, but he fumbles for the collar of his jeogori. Threads of cotton still cling to the bloody seam along his neck. “I’m going to see him.”
“Jeoha, be reasonable, you must sit down. Please, you’ll hurt yourself more.”
“He’s going to be exiled, I can worry about myself—when he’s gone, when I can’t see him anymore.”
“He will leave at dawn. It is customary, jeoha, for rites to be done in the nighttime before exile, he will not disappear from underneath your nose.”
Taehyung falls heavily back into the chair. It had been an unsaid assumption that no matter what happened, Jeongguk would always be there. The idea that Taehyung would continue in his life without him was almost unfathomable, a task more daunting than the crown coming down to rest on his head.
“It will be okay, jeoha. You will have a chance at goodbye.”
Taehyung stands in a woods quieter than death. Every tree is a black, spidery tombstone.
These woods are white with freshly fallen snow. The dirt path used by merchants and their wagons becomes a gleaming walkway truly fit for an emperor, and the trees sag with the weight of the ice along each side of the road. If they are ginkgo, he cannot tell. Far, far away at the end of it, somebody walks alone wearing a tattered military cloak nearly as dark as his hair.
A golden binyeo with red cinnabar and green enamel glitters in the middle of the path. Only one pair of footsteps mars the snow. “Wait,” Taehyung calls out, his voice echoing in the impossible silence. “You dropped this!”
His feet stumble over each other in slow-motion as he tries to run. Try as he might, though, no matter how fast he pumps his legs he moves slower with every step. He manages to reach the binyeo and pick it up. The snow stings his fingers red.
“Hey, you dropped your—!”
The figure turns his head, just as slow as Taehyung’s feet had moved. But before Taehyung can see his face, the image disappears, cuts to black, and he wakes up tangled in sweaty blankets.
“Jeongguk.” Even to his own ears his voice is slow and groggy with sleep. The wound on his neck throbs, as if his heart had come to live underneath his jaw. “Jeongguk.”
He struggles out of bed, but a striking clarity comes over him when he reaches for his usual robes. Taehyung stands there, shivering in his thin, sweat-damp nightclothes, until he comes to a decision and reaches deep into his closet for something else to wear. The fabric is foreign, but it feels heavenly to be dry, and he pulls a long veil over his head so no one will be able to tell who he is from the back.
Taehyung tries not to let himself remember the dawns where Jeongguk would sneak by and drop a few kisses on his face and lips before he ghosted away until nighttime. He had come by so often just so that Taehyung could wake up everyday smiling, without really knowing why. It was the same feeling when someone would wake up after a good dream, and not be able to remember what the dream was about—simply that they had been left with a soft, burning flame in their chest for the entire day.
A spot of orange winks at the line of the horizon as the sun starts to wake, shaking the stardust from its bones. There is a tiny window of time before military patrols turn in for the day and the first servants begin to stir, and Taehyung stumbles over the hem of his robes as he tries to hurry. The cut of these clothes is unfamiliar.
And time, of course, does what time does. It seems like the journey of a lifetime to even reach the hill by the stables, where not even the chickens have begun to cluck for the day.
He slips and slides his way down the path, clods of dry dirt tumbling down around his heels. Taehyung is hyper-conscious of the fact that he is likely no longer welcome here, and shifts from foot to foot uncomfortably when he thinks about knocking on Jeongguk’s door.
Something moves in the window of one of the stables, and Taehyung starts, going around the back of the stable sheds where he won’t be seen. The stables had expanded by so much since he’d last been here, and he almost doesn’t recognize them anymore. In one of them, a blue-black horse raises her head, like he recognizes him. It must be Night Flower.
In the first stable house, Taehyung sees it—somebody standing in the walkway of the stable, beside a stallion with a white star on his forehead. He fastens the ties of its reins around its ears, and isn’t wearing a military cloak. His clothes are dark with a hood pulled over his head.
The hooded figure does not lend any indication that he heard, tightening the saddle on his horse and checking the clasps where they lie against its coat. A raven caws distantly, and the frigid morning breeze makes the veil flutter.
Taehyung steps farther into the stable, and the pungent smell of hay rushes into his nose. It is warm in here. “Jeongguk?”
Finally, the hooded man stills, and straightens. When Jeongguk turns his face only half of it slides into the light of the single lantern hanging in the door. The blood has been wiped away, though the bruise is purpling on his jaw now.
“You should not be here, jeoha.”
The title stings now more than ever.
“Are you leaving?” Taehyung shivers in the white linens of his robes, and steps forward into the drafty shelter of the stable.
“I have overstayed my welcome,” says Jeongguk. He refuses to look at Taehyung even as he comes closer. “I was supposed to be gone by sunrise.”
“It isn’t, yet.” Some of the horses in the stalls on either side of the stable raise their heads at his voice. “Please.”
Taehyung no longer knows what he is asking, what he is saying please for, really. Please don’t call me jeoha, and treat me like a stranger. Please look at me one last time. Please don’t go, no matter how impossible the future is.
“Please.” Taehyung’s hands are cold, but Jeongguk does not flinch when Taehyung slides them along the curves of his cheeks and lifts his hood up and off his head, letting the fabric fall back. “Oh, Jeongguk—Jeonggukie—”
It is customary, jeoha, for rites to be done in the nighttime before exile.
The cruel cold blue of the early morning winter throws one side of Jeongguk’s face into sharp relief, but the flames of the lantern cast a warm glow over his hair. What is left of it, that is, as if he had taken a great sword, held it flat against the nape of his neck, and sliced upward in a clean cut. His mother might have attempted to salvage it with shears, where the hair tapers neatly near his neck and ears.
“Jeoha, you should not be crying for someone like me anymore.”
The tears are welcome warmth on Taehyung’s face. “It’s all gone,” he says needlessly, stroking the jagged ends of Jeongguk’s hair, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. So many evenings had passed sleepily by with Taehyung putting some new sort of braid and hair stick into Jeongguk’s hair. Something in him shatters at the sight of it, as if all of those days were nothing but a pipe dream in someone else’s life.
“It’ll grow back.”
“I don’t want you to go. You’ve been in my life all this time. I don’t want to know a life without you in it.”
Jeongguk can only look at him, in the last heartbeats before the sun will rise in earnest. No one in the palace is awake, not even the handmaids, and here stands the crown prince in a swath of white. To him it means nothing more than a disguise, but to the heavens he is the lone mourner for somebody that the world has already forgotten.
Taehyung does not protest as Jeongguk reaches up, tugs Taehyung’s hands away from his jaw, and holds them in his own. His stallion shifts his feet restlessly beside him, but he steps close for a kiss. It is nothing more than a soft press of lips, and Jeongguk pulls away before Taehyung can even register than he had leaned in.
His face falls back into shadow as Jeongguk lifts the hood back over his head and mounts the stallion. “Live well, jeoha,” he says. “Until our next life.”
He wanted to say I love you, for the last time.
to live again
In some ways, it does. It is the end of one chapter, an exceptionally bittersweet one, and one that the emperor could not stop rereading for many years. But he practiced what he preached, and he wanted to be the firm, merciful king that his father was not. He wanted not for his pain to turn him bitter. He wanted not the power he was given, but he took what was thrust upon him to create something he could be proud of: a kind monarchy. A forgiving monarchy.
Perhaps he could have been called a weak emperor; there is not a single doubt in this land that advisors plotted against him to overthrow him and seize the throne. Many could have easily seen him as a weak link in a dynasty of kings, yet the expected mutiny of power never came. It was with an eerie, impossible grace that Emperor Taehyung viewed his council and advisors, as if he knew how to read them without needing to hear what they said behind his back.
It helped that the princess, his sister, was married to the son of one of the most influential advisors, and that his brother was part of the council of scholars. Taehyung alone may not have been much a threat, but no one makes it through life alone. Together, they created a deceptively powerful iron triangle that few attempted to challenge.
He wed Dakyung-sejabin when she came of age, as was promised, and he lived well. It was the last thing Jeongguk ever asked of him. It was the least he could do to, in some way, honor that request.
“Taekwon-ah, you’re not going to be able to get down from there, you know.”
“Yes I can!” Taehyung watches with a mixture of apprehension and fondness and something a little like melancholy as he watches the young prince scramble up the trunk of the ginkgo tree. “Come up with me!”
“Ah, I am too old for that.”
“Boring,” Taekwon says, pausing in his odyssey to pout his father. “Abeonim-mama, you can see everything from here, you have to come up with me! It’s not that hard. I’ll teach you.”
“I know what it looks like up there. I climbed this tree once, too, you know.”
“Really? I thought abeonim-mama didn’t believe in roughhousing.”
“I roughhoused my fair share when I was your age!” Taehyung laughs. “And I was always in trouble.”
“Did you play with harabeonim-daewang?”
“No, I played with somebody else.”
“I bet he couldn’t climb as fast as me!”
Taekwon crosses his arms and kicks his legs back and forth where he sits on his branch, already eager to be king.
“Maybe if he were still here today, you guys could have a contest,” Taehyung says.
“Oh, where is he now?”
“He left many years ago.”
“Did he go where eomeonim-mama went?”
“No, no. I think he’s still down here, with us.” Taehyung shades his eyes with his hand to see his son without squinting. “Somewhere.”
“Why did he go?”
“Because the world wants us to go places sometimes, and we can only follow.”
“That makes no sense. I go wherever I want.”
“That you do, Taekwon-ah. Why don’t you come down, now? The sun is setting. It will be dinner soon. We should check is Taegeuk is awake, how does that sound?”
“Okay. I’m coming down now!”
The summer heat is enough to drive anyone mad, and Taegeuk makes it very clear that she isn’t pleased about feeling sticky and hot all day and night in her crib.
“Did she sleep well?”
“She slept fitfully, jeonha, waking up to cry every few hours. It was nothing we couldn’t fix with some rocking and singing, but she gets hungry and restless easily.”
“I have an idea.” The handmaids and nurses titter with surprise when Taehyung reaches into her crib and lifts her out gently. “It’s a lovely morning outside, and I promised Taekwon to take a walk with him before my day of meetings with the advisors and the ministry, so I’ll bring her with me. You all may take a break until I return.”
“Jeonha, are you sure?”
“It won’t be for long. Thank you for all standing in as mothers when her own cannot be here with us.”
“Is she awake?” Taekwon asks, staring wide-eyed at the bundle of blankets when Taehyung meets him by the gates of Huwon. “I want to see!”
“Don’t bother her too loudly,” Taehyung says, crouching down low and lifting the silk away from Taegeuk’s face.
“She’s so little,” Taekwon whispers, very lightly petting the top of her head with a single finger.
“You were this little once.”
“You were even littler than her when you arrived,” Taehyung says, standing up. Taekwon follows him thoughtfully.
“I don’t remember being that little.”
“I don’t either. It seems most of us can’t.”
A bundle of cheesecloth swings back and forth in Taekwon’s grasp, and Taehyung nods at it. “What do you have there?”
“I want to feed the koi today!” Taekwon declares. “I saved it from breakfast.”
“Oh, Taekwon-ah, you should ask the cooks for bread. They’ll give you some so you don’t have to go hungry.”
“It’s okay. People always feed me, but no one feeds the koi. I’ll share my food with them.”
Taehyung smiles when Taekwon frowns. “But I still need to climb the tree, too. I have to get higher every day.”
“Don’t climb too high, or you’ll fall,” Taehyung says, watching his son set down his parcel of bread carefully at the foot of the tree.
“I won’t fall!”
Taegeuk gurgles then, and Taehyung rocks her gently as she squirms and lifts her head. He adjusts the blankets around her and he lays her upright over his chest, and she makes a happy noise before tugging at the binyeo in his hair.
“Abeonim-mama,” Taekwon says, sitting on the branch that Taehyung once had, so long ago. “I can see the pond from here!”
“You can, can’t you?” Taehyung says, feeling his braid come loose at the back of his head as Taegeuk waves the binyeo in her fists with glee. “Taegeuk-ah, now I have to get that back in my—”
“Jeonha, I’m sorry,” comes Jimin’s voice from behind him. Taehyung turns to see him mid-bow. “I know I’m interrupting your morning, the ladies told me you were spending time in Huwon before the meetings in the afternoon, but this is urgent.”
“So urgent it couldn’t have waited? Are we being invaded?” jokes Taehyung. When Jimin hesitates, his voice falls flat. “Are we actually? Again?”
“No, no, jeonha, please be at ease. The kingdom is safe as far as I know, but—something has happened, and it requires your immediate attention.”
“Shall I return to Seonjeongjeon?”
“Your presence here is adequate.”
“Oh, is there somebody here to see me? Send them here at once.”
“As you wish, jeonha.” Jimin bows once more before he takes his leave.
“Taekwon-ah, I’m sorry. We have to go back a little earlier than we thought today.”
“Why? What’s happened?” Taekwon scoots along the branch until he can reach the trunk again.
“Urgent work, I hear,” Taehyung says. “Come down quickly, but be careful. You climbed high today, are you proud of yourself?”
“I’m proud,” Taekwon says, more shouting it towards the sky as he backtracks his steps down from the tree.
“In a few days we can come out here and play again.” Taegeuk, blissfully not understanding, gnaws on the rounded edge of the binyeo she’d pilfered. Taehyung pries it out of her fingers, rebuking her softly to not put strange things in her mouth. “Careful, Taekwon-ah, careful.”
Taehyung breath freezes in his lungs. The wind, too, seems to suddenly hang still. It’s not Jimin’s voice anymore, but it is one Taehyung recognizes. He had locked up the sound and lilt of it somewhere deep in him and forgotten where he left the key.
The man wears a military cloak, tattered at the hems, as though it has lived many lifetimes and seen many battles. His hair is long, and tangled from travel. A dark red scar runs over his cheekbone.
This isn’t the snowy woods that it should be.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung breathes, clutching Taegeuk tighter for fear that he’ll drop her in shock. “No, it can’t be real. Jeongguk?”
“It is real, jeonha,” he says. Improbably, impossibly Jeongguk. His voice is raspier, as if his throat had been injured once, but it is the same one that Taehyung knew so well.
“Who are you?” Taehyung startles when Taekwon’s shrill voice pierces the moment. “You made the emperor cry, that’s a sin, you know! You should be begging his forgiveness right now!”
“I should have begged his forgiveness years ago,” Jeongguk says, without missing a beat. The wind seems to remember to blow again, and his cloak flutters to show a scabbard strapped at his waist. Taekwon shrinks back into Taehyung’s robes, and looks up at his father uncertainly.
“Taekwon-ah,” Taehyung says, bending down. “Can I ask you to be a king, just for right now?”
Taekwon nods, eyeing Jeongguk warily.
“I need you to hold your sister, and bring her back to the bedchambers so the ladies can take care of her. Can you do that for me?”
“I can do it, abeonim-mama.”
“The ladies will see you before you see them. Ask them for help even if you can’t see them. They will hear you. Be very careful, like you’re holding a bowl with lots of hot water,” Taehyung says.
Taekwon receives the bundle, trembling with the responsibility he’s been given, and begins walking back towards the gates of Huwon as though he’s cradling an injured bird.
Jeongguk watches him go with an expression Taehyung has seen before, but can’t remember how to read. It’s tongue he hasn’t spoken in for a long time.
“How old is he?”
“Braver than the both of us, climbing that tree at his age.”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, the tears coming back in full force now that Taekwon is out of sight and earshot. “Why did you come back?”
“After I left, I was in exile alone for a few moons when I received a visitor. I told her I could not speak to her, as I was a man exiled, no longer part of society. She simply smiled, and told me that she was the same, and that we were similar to each other. Forgotten people who still had a responsibility left in this world.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She was a shaman,” Jeongguk says. “Her name was Han Yongsu, and she told me she’d seen me—that she’d seen us. She had foretold a prophecy about us when she was just a young woman, and that she had been exiled for what they believed was the wrong prophecy.”
“And she told you to join the military?”
“She said that the Khitans were going to strike in a series of three wars. I was to fight in the first, and then come find you again. She didn’t tell me why, only that you needed me. That it would be the right thing.”
“I.” Taehyung blinks, at a loss for words. “Is this—is this all true?”
“You know it is unwise to ignore the words of a shaman, jeonha. She traveled with me all the way here from the outskirts of Goryeo, from her home in the mountains.”
“You mean she’s here, in the palace?”
“She passed away right after she relayed the message to Jimin-daejang and the council,” Jeongguk says, eyes downcast. “She said that she had served her purpose.”
“And—you’re back, for good?”
“It is, as it seems—” Jeongguk swallows, and Taehyung thinks he catches a glimpse of the nervous young boy who he had grown up with. “Written in the stars, jeonha.”
“You will be part of the palace?”
“There is a decree in writing from her at Seonjeongjeon this moment that says I must be part of the palace. That is—that is, if you’ll still have me.”
This is an ending that Taehyung never once let himself entertain. Perhaps he may have dreamed of it, perhaps in the quiet moments in the morning when he thought he felt a kiss on his forehead from someone that disappeared by sunrise. Jeongguk flinches in surprise when Taehyung steps forward, holding his escaped binyeo in his teeth as he draws his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair.
“What did I say about calling me wangseja, or jeoha, or jeonha?”
Jeongguk stares at him speechlessly as Taehyung works, curling the twist of Jeongguk’s hair into a bun at the back of his head. The binyeo slides into the knot easily, sitting upon the crown of his head where it belongs.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk whispers.
“Yes,” Taehyung says, nearly blinded by the gleam of the sun off the gold filigree and cinnabar, sitting in Jeongguk’s hair like a ruby-red butterfly on a mugunghwa. “Jeonggukie.” It tastes like home.
Night Flower had passed away some years past, but Ji Wook and Ji Chul were astounded to see Jeongguk return to his old post, taking up morning perimeter checks. They insisted that they had a handle on the work, so Jeongguk was shafted to the evening checks before the military patrols, and he learned of the singular pleasure that was sleeping in. Sleepyhead, Taehyung called him, and the name stuck like an arrow to wood. Sometimes it was Sleepyhead, sometimes it was still Jeonggukie. One morning, Taehyung caused a giant fuss over his clothing—he had rolled over in bed, realized Jeongguk was asleep on the sleeve of his nightclothes, and simply taken a pair of shears to snip it off so he wouldn’t wake him. Jeongguk had no idea, only vaguely registering the kiss that Taehyung left on the corner of his mouth, and slept blissfully through the palace tailor losing her hair over the ruined silk.
Days passed like this, with Jeongguk helping Ji Wook and Ji Chul with the stables after lunch, then teaching Taekwon to ride like he once had for them. The hardest things he had to do now were just to wake up in the mornings, and answer Taegeuk’s questions when she asked what Jeongguk was to her father.
It’s a happy ending, right?
But I am afraid I have not been entirely honest with you. I have hoodwinked you in the most dishonorable of ways, and I would be more ashamed of myself if it didn't mean that more people would be happier this way. This will be the last act of dishonor I will leave behind.
You see, as most stories go, some things are not—cannot—be real. Perhaps some of it, perhaps almost all of it is, but some things cannot be real. This ending is one those things.
If you look back in history, you will find a certain emperor by the name of Kim Taehyung. By the time you read this, his name may not be of any importance or even meaning to you. His rule did not end up being a remarkable one. He left behind a weak lineage of successors, and he was outlived by the eventual empress dowager.
That empress dowager is me. I am Cho Dakyung.
The truth—the whole, untarnished truth—is that the crown prince Kim Taehyung never met the lowborn stable boy of the Jeon clan again. He watched him leave, under a moonlight as deep as the impenetrable sea, and it was the last time they ever saw each other. Jeongguk did not return. He may have joined the military, but I would not know. I did not die during childbirth, and they never experienced a fateful meeting in Huwon as they once did as children.
Do I hate myself for being alive? Some days, I almost think I do.
Around the time the second princess and our fourth child was born, pyaeha fell ill. I was afraid for him, and especially afraid that his council of advisors would make a seize at the throne. His health was so unwell that some days he could not even sit in Seonjeongjeon to speak with the ministers about state affairs. He lied in bed and I had to watch him waste away.
It was like trying to catch a shadow. He looked at me, but he didn’t see me. When I said his name, he replied, but he didn’t speak to me. When I told him that I loved him, and that for the sake of the nation, he could not leave just yet, he agreed and assured me he was right there, yet something in his eyes was so distant that it was like his spirit was already a long, long way from here.
I did the only thing I could think of with what power I had. My father would have called me an imbecile. But there are things you do for the people you love because you love them, no matter the burn mark on your body.
I looked for Jeon Jeongguk.
He had to be somewhere in our great nation; I could not picture that the Khitan mongols would have welcomed him with open arms, and he was not a stupid man. I searched, and I searched, and I searched. I wished for the power of Han Yongsu. And after I wished, I searched some more. As I was nearly about to give up and return home for fear that Taehyung would pass under my nose—I found him.
We had a lovely conversation, even though he’s admittedly a bit quiet with strangers. But he was an excellent listener.
Luckily, pyaeha did not pass in the time I was gone. When I returned to the palace he was out of bed, full of his old energy, as if he had never been ill. He lived out his life, long and full, with what I wish I could say was all the happiness in the world. But I knew, and I am sure by now that you also know, that was not true.
But why write a story about a world happier than the one you leave behind?
I am sure there are poets and novelists out there who would scorn the reason I wrote this story. I am sure there will be poets and novelists in the generations to come who will join them.
It is my wish that it wouldn’t be this way. But regardless of my wishes, it remains that I am not only the empress dowager, but also the very person who, so many years ago, spilled a secret that wasn't mine to tell. I was a young girl who saw something I didn't understand, and wrote off something breathtaking and beautiful as an act of evil. I didn’t know I was part of a game that I had already begun to play. And I have carried the secret burden for a lifetime.
Do I deserve the shame? Perhaps I do.
Yet this is the best repentance I can offer, at the end of my life. I could not give the emperor the happiness he sought. I was the one who had taken it away, and I've lived with the consequences of my actions. This story, the one I have written, is simply the one that would have been told if a scared young girl had not told the wrong people the wrong story. This is the one you must remember.
Reality gives us the ending we must accept. Fiction gives us the second chance that life denies us.
To Kim Taehyung, the second emperor of the Kim dynasty of the Kingdom of Goryeo, first son of the emperor Kim Seogeol: I am sorry for the life I could not give you. Until the day we meet again, please be well.
To Jeon Jeongguk, the second son of Jeon Young: I took everything from you. I wish there were words in this world for me to express my regret for what I did. I do not expect you to forgive me. All that I ask, if I may, is that you find the emperor and my late husband in the next life and not let go of him when you do. I saw you in his eyes until the end. He misses you so much.
“Oh, we’re so sorry. We’ll leave right away.”
There is debate in the historian community about the legitimacy of the story she tells. Multiple accounts provide evidence that there lived a practicing shaman by the name of Han Yongsu and that she once served in the kingdom of Baekje on the eve of the unification of Goryeo. Her name shows up in several court and royal documents pertaining to the affairs of war. Whether or not she ever made the prophecies regarding Kim Taehyung’s fate depicted in this book is, of course, a question that remains unanswered.
Furthermore, the more central question of whether or not a Jeon Jeongguk ever lived enjoys an arbitrary yes. Few, if any, written records exist of the palace servants, and due to his lowborn status, Jeon Jeongguk would not have left a mark on any surviving palace documents. Even if they were, his name would have been blacked out, censored, or the document disposed of entirely if he had been exiled as the book depicts. This is where the arbitrary is defined.
The yes is supported by the existence of a binyeo, or traditional Korean hairstick, at the burial site of the emperor and his empress. Many royal families were buried with items important to their lives, a practice familiar across many cultures and in the modern day. Found at the site of Emperor Taehyung’s tomb was a binyeo of gold and bronze, but it was not one that he was reported to wear in the literature and paintings of his person, nor did it belong to the empress dowager, who was said to have worn hair sticks made of pink and orange jade.
The responsibility of historians is to ask five questions. What happened? Why did it happen? What does it mean today? What have we learned from the past? Should we do anything to prevent it?
But, sometimes, these questions cannot be answered. History is, both fortunately and tragically, not a perfect science, for humans are not rational. Sometimes, there is only one question: is it worth remembering?
History is, after all, a story. Quite literally his story, an amalgam in the word itself—or, in this instance, her story. The textbooks will tell us about emperor Kim Taehyung, his empress Cho Dakyung, and his aforementioned unremarkable reign, but To Live Again tells us of his remarkable life. It paints a different picture, one full of color, and one that the empress dowager begged us not to forget. Perhaps to remember it is just to honor the wish of a dead, pitiable empress with the guilt of a thousand lifetimes upon her shoulders. Perhaps it is a lesson, taught by a voiceless, forgotten stable boy who dared to play the game.
So our answer is yes. Not only is it worth remembering Jeon Jeongguk, it is vital to. In the contemporary age, where governmental institutions have taken over the fabric of society, it may sound ludicrous to remember a bygone tale of a poor man armed with nothing but a lionheart and a hairstick made of gold. His life teaches us two very important lessons, the first of which is as somber they come—that love alone cannot save us, as much as we would all like to believe. The second is far more hopeful—that love can be found in the most unlikely of people, across the most unlikely of divisions. Love can close chasms and build bridges, if only we give it the chance.
Yoongi’s hands are pink with cold, and Namjoon feels him stick one of them into his pockets. He reaches in to hold it.
“You think any of it was real?”
“Some of it had to be.”
“There must have been a person called Jeon Jeongguk,” Namjoon muses, watching as the clouds of their breaths trail up over their heads like blue-grey smoke from a chimney stack. “There must have been a boy who fell in love with a crown prince, when he should. And there must have been someone that Emperor Kim Taehyung loved like the seas could dry and the stones could rot in the mountains. That much, I believe.”
“So the great history doctorate is swayed by a story. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Reality is what we make of it, right? It’s what we choose to remember from history.”
“And you’ll choose to believe this over your eight years studying this subject?”
Sure, Namjoon wants to believe it. He tightens his hand around Yoongi’s, and it’s a spot of warmth in a cold new year. He wants this story to live again. Despite every book that might say otherwise, he wants to to believe that somewhere, somehow, a crown prince and a stable boy stand on the same side of a great chasm with binyeos in their hair, eating red bean cakes under the ginkgo tree.