Kun dangled the earring in front of Ten. It was long, ornate silver interlaced with diamonds and emeralds. It was beautiful. Probably the most expensive thing in the room, and that was saying something. It was the previous Queen’s favourite jewel, priceless for that fact alone.
Ten gazed at it, bored. “Jongmin’s concubine has one just like it.”
Kun sighed. “I can assure you that hers, if it is similar, is much smaller.”
Ten pressed his lips together, trying not to smile. The whispers were already beginning, the hushed murmurs behind hands, the prying eyes, the disbelief that someone would dare speak to Kun in such a manner. That was more beautiful than the obscene emerald on the end of the silver. There was one set of eyes in particular that rested heavily upon Ten from the crowd. “I suppose it will do until you find me something more to my taste.”
He went to take it, but Kun pulled it out of reach with his eyebrows raised. “Aren’t you going to say thank you?”
He didn’t bother to hide his smile then. Shifting out of his seat, Ten knelt at Kun’s feet. “Thank you, my King,” he said. His smile widened when Kun’s hand stroked ever so gently through his hair and the whispers reached an almost obscene crescendo. Kun paid them no mind; his attention was for Ten only.
When Ten retired, Kun followed. Everyone shot up from their chairs, rushing to bow as he passed, but Ten didn’t so much as glance behind; he saw enough of their sickly fawning without pausing to watch yet another example. Yukhei opened the door to let him pass, flashing him a quick, knowing smile as he slipped out. The door closed behind him, Yukhei well aware that it would take Kun at least another ten minutes of formal goodbyes before he could exit. It was all the time Ten needed to slip through the dark halls, the heels of his boots echoing on the Corinthian marble as he sped up his steps to almost a jog, unclasping the earring and tucking it into his hand as he started to run, grinning all the while.
Sicheng’s chambers were high up the building, several floors above the main halls of the palace, tucked away in corners forbidden to guests. He liked it that way, out of the watchful eye, free to see as he pleased, his audience unaware. Of course he knew Ten was coming; the door to his bedroom was unlatched upon arrival.
Ten threw the earring at Sicheng, who caught it with ease, sat cross legged on his bed with a book open. He held the earring up to the candlelight, watching the emerald flash from shades of chartreuse to jade. Eventually, his eyes slid back to Ten. “Pretty.”
“Isn’t it?” Ten asked. He crossed his ankles as he leant against the door. “Wear it tomorrow.”
Sicheng’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because I want you to.”
“This isn’t mine to wear.”
“But it’s mine to bestow,” Ten said. He walked forward slowly to stand beside the bed and stroke his knuckles against Sicheng’s cheek. “Angel, the green will so suit your complexion. You’ll look magnificent.”
Sicheng’s eyes were knowing, but this time, not quite knowing enough. “Is it better for me if I don’t ask?”
Ten kept stroking. Sicheng’s skin was so soft, silky to the touch and unflawed in any light, like an unbruised peach. He was so gorgeous that sometimes Ten wanted to dig his nails into that skin, but he held himself back. He loved Sicheng more than he wanted him to be ugly. “It’s always safer if you don’t ask,” he said softly. “Wear the boots I gave you, too. Polish the buckles.”
“Do I have to attend court?”
“No, act as you usually would,” Ten said. He dropped a kiss to Sicheng’s forehead and turned back toward the door, knowing his time was running out. He needed to get back to his own chambers. “The people that matter will notice.”
Kun had changed out of his evening finery by the time he entered Ten’s chambers, using his own passage between walls. The candle he held flickered gently, casting shadows across the plains of his face. Ten preferred him like this. Without the layers of velvet and silk and linen, beneath the brass buttons and whalebone charms he kept hidden out of view.
Of course, he preferred Ten like this too. Sat atop the bed of rosy coloured sheets, dressed in only his nightshirt, legs bare and spread. Waiting.
Kun put down the candle on the bedside, kneeling next to Ten. The jewelled ring on his thumb scratched Ten’s cheek as his chin was caught and he was tugged into a kiss. “Don’t think I don’t know,” Kun whispered against his lips.
Ten felt himself smile even as Kun deepened the kiss, their tongues sliding together softly. Kun was always so gentle with Ten. It was lovely. “Know what, my King?”
Kun grumbled, pulling back. He was frowning. “Don’t call me that here, you know I hate it.”
“What else should I call you?”
Ten fiddled with a lock of Kun’s hair. “Kun,” he said. His hand drifted down, from Kun’s hair to trace the faint veins visible in his neck, down further, to the collar of his nightshirt, the lovingly placed scratches and bites just visible above the top of the linen. Below that, the whalebone charms. So many tokens of Ten’s affection, and Kun wore them all. He felt himself smile again. “My dear, darling Kun.”
Kun caught Ten’s wandering hand and halted the exploration. “You’re planning something.”
“Always,” Ten said. He looked up through his lashes and watched Kun’s beautiful eyes dilate as desire warred with suspicion.
“What game are you playing this time?”
“A fun one,” Ten whispered. He leant forward to kiss Kun again, wet and drugging. He felt drunk off power. “I’m going to anger you tomorrow, darling. Don’t hold back. Be cruel.”
He pulled back ever so slightly. Kun tasted of wine, deep and rich, but he smelt even better, something floral, something untamed. Something that Ten had distilled and bottled for him, tucked away in a hidden crystal bottle, a recipe for Kun only. He was intoxicating, inside and out. If Ten opened him up, no doubt there would be wildflowers growing amongst the blood. “Don’t you trust me, Kun?”
“Not at all.”
He kissed Kun again, doting, pleased with the answer. “Good. I’d hate for you to get complacent.”
The whispers had begun as soon as he first stepped foot in the court, as of yet undeserving of the intense scrutiny. People whispered behind their hands and fans that he was a witch, a creature from the woodlands that had hexed their beloved king. It would have been laughable if it weren’t so complimentary. They didn’t know, after all, that he was just as mortal as the lords that drank until they lost control of their bowels, the ladies that hid their insecurities behind lead-based paint that was slowly rotting their skin.
Ten just knew how to hide his mortality, and that’s what angered them.
It wasn’t about his appearance, though he knew it was enchanting enough. It wasn’t about the clothes he wore, though he made sure to wear only the best. It wasn’t about the perfect fall of his hair, the curl of his smile, the way his eyes shone under certain lighting – it was something else. What Ten called an aura, the lords that reviled him called a miasma of depravity.
Ten liked either term. It depended on his mood.
Really, he wasn’t any more depraved than the rest of them. In comparison he thought his tastes were rather tame; he’d tortured no servants, fathered no illegitimate children, beaten no unsuspecting commoner. They just didn’t like his shamelessness, the way he used his appearance, the way he didn’t hide the pride of his status. They hated that his flirtatious gaze was heady on their ugly heads one moment, then greedy on a stationary soldier the next. Being lumped in with the lesser what angered the lords, and the fact that Ten was above them angered them most of all.
How galling it must have been to see a common whore beside the throne, his hands in the King’s hair, lips against the King’s ear.
Kun was furious. Ten could feel it in the air, the tenseness of the guards who stood rigid in doorways, the servants that skittered past hoping to remain unseen. No one enjoyed it when the King was angry, unaware as they were of Kun’s soft, throbbing heart. Unaware that he’d cut off his own hand before he punished someone wrongly. Unaware of his weaknesses, as they should be.
Sicheng stood with Yukhei, talking quietly as they watched Ten approach the ornate but sadly closed oak doors.
“He doesn’t want you to enter,” Yukhei said to Ten. He was frowning slightly, the instinctive expression of someone that knew a fight was coming. A soldier’s instinct. “He told me to keep you away.”
“What on earth for?”
The emerald dangling from Sicheng’s ear flashed in the sunlight streaming from the windows. “They’re discussing taxes,” he said. “The King didn’t want you to be bored. He recommended a walk in the gardens to reflect upon recent decisions.”
Ten cocked his head, pretending to consider. “Interesting. Would he join me?”
“No. He has to continue his work with the Lords.”
“Then I shall wait with him as he does, and afterwards we shall walk the gardens together.”
“Ten,” Sicheng said lowly. “He’s not happy. He’s not happy at all.”
“But angel, I’m so very happy,” Ten said, smiling. “You wouldn’t want to change that, would you?”
Yukhei paled. “Ten…”
“Open the door, Yukhei,” Ten said. “It will be easier for you if you do.”
He hesitated, but after a tense moment Sicheng nodded, and Yukhei complied.
Conversation stopped as soon as Ten entered the room. A servant materialised from the background to pull up a chair beside Kun’s, and Ten took to the seat with the ease of someone unbothered by stares. Kun’s eyes were like burning coals upon his blistering skin, but he so enjoyed the warmth.
“Don’t stop for me,” he said, gesturing with one hand toward the papers gathered in the middle of the table. “I’m merely here to wait for the King.”
After a moment of silence, Kun nodded. “Continue.”
The conversation slowly resumed, and Ten sat back and watched it all. It was amusing to count how many of the men and women present detested him. It was even more amusing to count those that didn’t – the number was much smaller. Seulgi shot him a small smile from her seat beside Sooyoung, but other than that people barely glanced in his direction. They were too caught up in the boring delegation of taxes, becoming more and more vexed at Kun’s stubborn refusal to lower the rates.
“The more you charge us the less we can pay or people,” one lord said. He was young, younger than most, anyway. Many of them had been Kun’s father’s advisors, then his half-brother’s. This one was a son, someone who bridged the gap between the distrusted king and the advisors that thought they were the ones that deserved the gilded crown. His father must have sent him to appeal to the King as a fellow youth, someone with the guise of a fresh perspective. How unfortunate that he was already turning stale.
“The money is for your people, since I cannot trust you to feed and clothe them yourselves,” Kun said. He was frowning, growing increasingly frustrated, and it was lovely to see such ire flash behind his dark eyes, his brows lowered heavily. “I am not taxing peasants and farmers; I am taxing you lords. I will not have this country suffer another famine because you are reluctant to part with your coffers.”
“The peasants work for us.”
The room’s buzz halted, and Ten’s smile grew heady. Ah, the passion of a boy yet to understand his position.
Kun’s stare must have been as heavy as lead. “And you work for me. Do not forget who sits upon the throne.”
It was visible, palpable, on the tips of so many tongues. So many of the lords were thinking it, desperate to say it, too coward to admit that they hated Kun almost as much as they hated the man beside him. The bastard son of the true King sits on our throne.
“I think you should decrease the amount,” Ten said.
Kun’s eyes slid to him slowly. “Excuse me?”
The young lord was watching too, confused, but rapt, eyes greedy upon Ten’s skin.
“A kind king receives loyalty for his benevolence,” Ten said, smiling. The tension in the room was mounting again, this time excitement. The courts did so enjoy belittlement. “Do not punish the lords that serve you.”
“You overestimate your worth, Ten,” Kun said slowly, the anger darkening his voice to a heady tenor. He pointed to the door. “Get out of my sight.”
Ten left. Once more he forced down his smile, trying for something akin to contrite as he walked past the lords that stared, some not bothering to hide their smugness, some still confused as to why Ten had defended them in the first place. Not that it mattered. Ten had gotten what he wanted.
“I told you he was angry,” Sicheng said to Ten’s retreating figure.
“He was perfect,” Ten replied, heading for the gardens. “As always.”
He walked the gardens slowly, enjoying the light breeze. The air smelt so pleasant, full of roses and daisies and tulips, all the bright flowers that the court enjoyed gazing upon as they played cards and rolled dice, ignoring the outside world as they tittered about affairs and jewels and inheritances. The flowers were pretty, but Ten bored of them quickly, as he had with the people that demanded they be planted. Colourful petals with sweet aromas couldn’t hide the uselessness of the design – if he cut the stem of a tulip, the whole thing would wilt. The roses had thorns, but like blades, they were easily dodged.
Ten preferred the walled garden Kun had built with his own hands as a child, following along with his brother in the hopes that hard labour would afford him some kind of affection. The heavy stones still held the impression of his childish innocence, the desperation for recognition. This was the first place he’d brought Ten when they’d first arrived back at the palace together, arm in arm and ever so drunk from champagne.
This was the place that Ten had placed his own hands into the damp earth, growing his own flowers that climbed up the walls, ropes of vines and petals that caged in Kun’s bad memories and kept them tame. This, which was once the walled garden of the King and Queen, was now Ten’s very own domain, only seen from the rooms adjacent to Sicheng’s chambers. It was perfectly private unless a gathering had been organised in a select handful of rooms.
“These flowers are lovely.”
It seemed there was a rat scurrying amongst Ten’s flora. “Do you know anything of flowers?”
“Nothing. I was versed in war room tactics and strategy, not plants.”
Ten turned towards the voice, schooling his expression. It was the young lord from before, staring at the red bulbs of one of Ten’s favourite plants. “Ah,” Ten said. “The Arum Maculatum. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And yet not many people encourage their growth because they are deemed unruly. They have a tendency to take over wherever they are placed.”
“Ironic,” the man said. “Beautiful and yet undervalued. I can see why it reminds me of you.”
Ten laughed. “Undervalued? I am the companion of your king.”
“For now,” he said. His eyes were quick, his face not striking, but pleasantly handsome. He had been raised by his parents to be appealing in the fitted clothes he wore, moulded like clay beneath the coins of his ancestry. He could see on Ten that it separated them, that the hands that built Ten were callused, that his material was not that of clay but something else. “As soon as the meeting was adjourned the court began to talk of the King’s mounting displeasure. They say that soon you will be replaced.”
“Oh?” Ten cocked an eyebrow. “By whom?”
“The King’s scholar,” he said. “He’s been gifted a jewel the same as yours. You are one of two, no longer unique to him. Soon enough your control will slip, and you will once again be on your knees begging for the hand of any man.”
“And if I gave him my own jewel?”
“Then I would say you know you are falling from favour,” the lord said. “But you cannot bribe your usurper; he has no more control than you.”
“No one has more control than me,” Ten said, still smiling. He plucked one of the red berries from the Aram Maculatum and after rubbing it gently against his shirt, placed it between his lips. The juice was bitter, almost enough to make him gag, but he chewed diligently, ignoring the horrifying texture. “You know, this plant has another name. Many call it the Lords and Ladies. I can see why, can you? A thin stem holding up such ripe clusters of berries all squashed together, dripping all over each other. When one begins to rot, the rest quickly follow.” He pulled off another berry and ate it. “Like Lords and Ladies, I find that caring for the plant is quite simple. If one of the berries begins to rot, you pull it off to save those that are ripe. If it is the stem that is dying, then you must remove the whole plant, pulling it up from the roots to save the flowerbed.”
“You are smarter than they think you are,” the lord said quietly. “I can see that.”
“Then you are smarter than they are.”
“My foolish younger brother says you are admirable, though his friends mock him for it. What kind of lord admires the King’s concubine?”
Interesting. Another pawn to add to the board. “A boy that understands more than what he sees, I would say.”
The lord hummed. “What do you think?”
Ten cocked his head. “About?”
“About this particular plant? Is it a berry that must be removed or is the whole plant to be pulled from the ground?”
“I have yet to decide,” Ten said. “I shall see which part of the plant proves to please me more.” He plucked another berry. “Would you care for one?”
The lord shook his head. “Lunch is being served soon.”
Ten put the berry into his own mouth and chewed. “Probably a wise decision,” he said.
A month into his reign, Kun has shaken. “They hate you,” he said quietly, pacing his room. “They hate you, what if they hate me?”
“They won’t, darling,” Ten said from the bed. He hated to see Kun like this, so agitated, so unsure. He didn’t realise what Ten was doing yet, but that was okay. He was far too earnest; if he knew, the rest of the court would soon know too. “Trust me.”
“You know I don’t,” Kun snapped. He continued to pace. “How do you do it? They hate you for all the wrong reasons – how do you do it?”
Ten placed another berry under his tongue and forced himself not to shudder at the taste. “The secret, my darling,” he said, crawling to the edge of the bed, “is a secret for a reason.”
Kun stopped pacing. He turned to Ten, and one moment he was by the window, the next he was stood in front of Ten, hands on his face, eyes wide, scared, frantic. “What if they know?” he whispered. “What if they find out? They’ll kill us both and ruin the kingdom. People will starve again, children will die. I can’t let that happen, Ten. I have to rule so that those monsters don’t get the chance.”
Ten cupped Kun’s face, tracing the lines of his cheekbones with his thumbs. “Calm yourself, my King,” he said quietly. Kun’s eyes fluttered closed, his chest heaving. “Have I failed you yet?”
Kun shook his head slowly. “No.”
“And I won’t.”
“Hyunsik came up to me today and accused you of witchery,” Kun said. “He accused you of placing a spell over the palace.”
Ten laughed. “Oh how lovely that would be, to control this place with spells and ill intent!”
“They think you’re fickle,” Kun murmured. “Weak, selfish, effete, and vein. How can they hate you for exactly the wrong reasons?”
Ten leant close. “The key,” he whispered, “is to ensure they believe the lies and distrust the truth. My honesty is never received as such and I have ensured that it is more a blessing than a curse. There are so many games you can play with the truth, Kun, that the fun of lies simply pales in comparison.”
He spent the night alone in his chamber. Kun’s anger wasn’t faked; Ten had humiliated him in front of his Lords. He had undermined his authority and overstepped his own position. He had made an already tricky position even more unsteady, and things would be harder for Kun now that his court knew things were souring with Ten. They would barrage him with beautiful daughters and handsome sons, begging to divert his attention.
Ten and Kun would no longer be seen as a single unit. There was a crack forming on the surface of their pretty porcelain.
He stirred his tea, contemplating by candlelight.
They say that soon you will be replaced.
It was an interesting prospect. If, in the midst of his fury, Kun’s eyes fell elsewhere, what would Ten do?
He laughed aloud, shaking his head and taking a sip that burned his throat all the way down. Kun could no more look elsewhere than Ten could. Even if the cracks turned to shards, fragments splintering with sharp edges and piercing points, they would remain together. Even in dust, their ashes would mingle.
The next day, Kun spent his hours in the chambers of the court, playing cards and distracting himself. The lords were at an impasse, yet unwilling to pay their taxes while Kun refused to acquiesce. He kept Sicheng by his side, resolutely ignoring Ten while he asked Sicheng mundane questions about the weather, his research, the state of the library.
“It has begun,” the young lord told Ten. “He is tiring of you.”
“I angered him,” Ten murmured. “Of course he does not wish to see me at the moment.” His cards were terrible, but the people at his table were too stupid to prove competition nonetheless. He pondered what to buy with his winnings. New boots, perhaps? Or a new shirt, flowing silk in the mossy green Kun so enjoyed.
“It is so much more than that,” the lord said. “Before I came to court my father warned me of you, of your tricks and your lies. He called you the panther at the feet of the king.”
“Your father flatters me,” Ten said. He picked up another card. The Queen of hearts. How lovely.
“The lords would accept their taxes if the king would only dispose of you,” the lord said. “Doesn’t that worry you?”
Ten laughed. “Oh you sweet, foolish man. What happens to the puppet when you cut the strings?”
His eyes narrowed. “The King-“
“Is entirely mine. I’m his every thought, his every move. His every decision is mine before he thinks it.” He threw his cards onto the table in a fit of petulance, starling the others still contemplating their moves. Ten smiled at them, tense. “I forfeit, you’re making this game terribly boring. Until next time gentlemen.”
When he rose from the table and wandered outside to the terrace, the young lord followed. “You are too arrogant, Ten. Everyone here knows you are losing your allure.”
Ten took a seat on one of the wrought iron benches that lined the wall, spreading his legs slightly, feeling the muscles of his legs stretch. He needed to start stretching more, he could feel that a run was coming. A chase.
“You should listen to me, Ten. It is in your best interests to save yourself while you can, to pick the winning side, the berry or the root.”
Ten grinned up at him, watching his eyes dilate and his cheeks begin to flush. Of course this would be the position it took; men so did like to see Ten low to the floor. “Why would you want to warn the whore of the King?”
The lord looked away. “You are not what my father said, nor who the other lords and ladies think you are. They say you are a feeble, drunk on the leisure of a lifestyle you had never thought to experience. A stray cat fat on fish.”
“I can understand why they would say such,” Ten said. He examined his nails. Kun had been known to call him kitten from time to time, but it was more for his claws than his languor.
“You are arrogant, yes, but you are not weak. I can see that. You are much cleverer than you wish them to see.”
“I know,” the lord said. He stared off into the midday sun, and in the light his profile was so perfectly aquiline. He wore the stern expression of a man enchanted by his own ideals, so sure that he was on the path of justice, so convinced he was destined for greatness. He looked back to Ten. “The King does not utilise you as he should. You deserve more.”
“And you would give it to me?”
The lord nodded. “If you would give me something in return.”
Just on the other side of the doors, Kun was playing cards with Sicheng by his side, earring grazing his swanlike neck, serene beauty on display for the court to see. He was always so much more composed than Ten, much better at controlling his urges. Would Kun enter his chambers tonight, confused and torn?
“I would consider it,” Ten said. “Depending on what it is you want.”
“Ah,” Ten said. He had expected something, but not this. Not something so brazen. “You wish to usurp?”
“I wish to gain the power that my father was too much of a coward to take. All the elderly lords that sit complacent in their castles make me sick. Things need to change.”
Ten rested his head on his hand, fingers drumming against his cheek. “Interesting. And the King?”
“He is young and naive,” the lord said. “I remember visiting the palace as a child and seeing him run at the heels of his father and brother, close to begging for so much as a glance as though they would love him if only, they saw him. He is lost upon an ill-fitting throne, malleable, and you know it best.”
“You do not hide that he is wrapped around your fingers. When he took to the throne, you were the one he clung to after the death of his family. You were his waypoint, but you are starting to drift, growing impetuous, bored with the everyday. You lash out for attention, but it is no longer bringing you what you wish, instead you are receiving anger and dismissal. The original draw is waning.” He smirked. “Even as you grow sedentary and bored, I can see your fear of being discarded. You won’t let yourself even consider it, will you? That he would rid himself of you, and you would be left with nothing. What power does a concubine have in a palace? The only control you have is when you spread your legs.”
“I suppose it’s good that I so enjoy spreading my legs then,” Ten said, trying not to bite. “Is there a particular reason you’re taunting me?”
“You want something interesting to happen,” the lord said. “I could be the catalyst.”
Ten laughed. “You think your ambition makes you special? There is not a person in this palace that doesn’t vie for a seat on the throne.”
“Other than you.” He cocked his head, eyes searching. “If you are so bored, why is that? Why don’t you try and take the crown? Would you not enjoy ruling?”
Ten stood, dusting off his trousers. Despite forfeiting at cards, he felt like splurging. Perhaps he would buy a silk shirt anyway. He leant close to the young lord, enjoying the way his powerful body tensed as if afraid. As if Ten, a head shorter, half the width, could pose a considerable threat. Maybe he was smarter than he seemed. “If you look closely,” Ten whispered, “you’ll see that I already rule.”
“Why do you spend so much time with Hyunsik’s son?”
Ten glanced behind him in the mirror. Kun had entered his chamber without warning, standing in the doorway to watch as Ten cleansed his face. “You wish to talk to me now?”
Ten didn’t hide his smile. “I think he’s infatuated with me.”
Kun’s expression was severe. “Is this part of your game?”
“Not originally,” Ten admitted. He rubbed a mixture of rosehip and lavender oil between his hands before gently pressing it into the skin of his face and neck. “But I can make use of it.”
“In what way?”
“Be patient with me, darling.”
“He and his father want the throne. They always have, ever since my father was first crowned.” Kun walked closer, holding Ten’s gaze in the mirror. “He is planning on using you against me.”
“Of course he is,” Ten agreed, smiling. “You look tired today. Why don’t you retire?”
Kun put a heavy hand on Ten’s shoulder. “I can’t lose you.”
“He’s young. Handsome. Rich.”
“Lots of men are,” Ten said. “But when have I ever cared about that? When have I ever wanted anyone else?”
“I don’t know.” Kun’s hand tightened. “But this palace warps everything. Maybe you will leave me too. Why did you give your gift to Sicheng?”
Ten spun on his stool to face Kun. “Because I needed dissent.”
“To make him think he has a chance,” Ten whispered. He stood, pushing Kun back until his legs hit the edge of Ten’s bed and he hit the soft mattress with a dull thud.
“It’s like you live to taunt me, to mock me,” Kun said. He clenched a hand in Ten’s shirt and threw him onto the bed, eyes hot. “I swear, it’s like you just want to torture me.”
“On the contrary,” Ten said, smiling indulgently as he leant up to press a kiss to Kun’s lips. “I exist only to protect you, darling. That was our deal, wasn’t it? You protect the people and I protect you.”
“I don’t enjoy your methods.”
“If you enjoyed them, they wouldn’t work.” Ten groaned at Kun bit at his neck possessively, sure to leave marks. “Nothing is pleasant in this place of lies.”
“Not even this?”
He yanked Kun up by his hair, soothed the pain by kissing his lips ever so gently. Kun followed Ten’s mouth, already slipping somewhere inside of himself. “You know that what we have doesn’t belong to this palace. What is between us survived before you wore a crown and will continue until we are both buried beneath the dirt, rotting away together.”
Kun smiled, exhausted and effortlessly charming. “We’re already rotting.”
“Don’t be morbid, darling,” Ten chided. “We live in opulence, the world at our fingertips. What more could you want?”
“Well it would be nice if my lords stopped trying to organise coups behind my back,” Kun mused. His hand slipped below Ten’s shirt, warm from his heartbeat, callused from his sword. “It would be lovely if women would stop throwing their hapless daughters at my feet. It would be especially pleasant if upstarts would stop trying to seduce you. I’d very much enjoy that.”
Ten ground up into him, revelling in the surprised half moan Kun released before trapping Ten more firmly against the bed. They were both hard, but this was part of the fun. Seeing who would snap first was their favourite game to play together. “If you ask it of me, my King, it is not within my power to deny you,” Ten breathed.
“You’d give me anything?” Kun asked. He already knew the answer, just as Ten would if their roles were reversed and he were the one pinning Kun to the bed, crown eschewed but firm upon his head. It hardly mattered who sat on the throne when they were so entwined. There was nothing Ten would not do for Kun, and he knew Kun would abandon everything he knew if Ten asked of it. It was the only steady truth between them, perhaps the only truth in the entire palace.
“I’d give you anything,” Ten said. “Everything.”
Kun’s eyes softened. “And you, Kitten. You have my all.”
“I know,” Ten said. He leant up and Kun allowed a kiss, soft and chaste. No matter what the palace put him through, it was worth it for Kun. It was worth it to ensure he could sleep soundly in Ten’s arms, protected from those who would hurt him. It was worth it to know that Ten, too, when he felt his most vulnerable, had Kun to protect him. It was the only reason he felt as confident as he did, ripping apart the seams of the palace with his hands bloody and torn amongst the pearls and the silken thread.
Hyunsik’s youngest boy was a wide-eyed wonder. Full of the joys of youth, he ran about the palace grounds with the other children of lords, attacking each other with wooden swords, tripping and shoving and covering their finery in mud. As a child, Kun had been backhanded for getting wine on the sleeve of a coat during one of his father’s dinners. He had been called an embarrassment, sent to his room without food.
It had mattered little that he was the son of the king. Why would it matter? He was a half blood, never to sit the throne. That had been his elder brother’s destiny, the legitimate heir, spoilt and cruel as all of these children were, ripping the shirts that had taken women countless hours to sew with their bloody fingers just to buy their starving children stale bread. A handful of the pearls and stones sewn into the collars of their shirts would feed a poor family for years.
“Kunhang!” Ten called. “May I speak to you?”
He looked up from the boy he was wrestling, hair everywhere. His grin was modest, humbled by Ten’s attention but still holding the devious nature of a natural heartbreaker. Already he had hundreds swooning, and Ten didn’t doubt that in a couple of years the numbers would be in the thousands. He gestured for Kunhang to join him in walking the grounds, and after only a second of deliberation Kunhang abandoned his friends to sprint after Ten.
“What did you need of me, Sir?”
“Call me Ten.”
Kunhang turned pink. “Ten. What did you need of me?”
“I am just curious, I suppose,” Ten said. “I have seen you amongst your friends for many weeks, and yet you so rarely seem to enjoy life at the palace. Is there something lacking?”
His face turned from pink to deathly white so fast that it was almost nauseating. “No! No, there is nothing at all lacking, I swear!”
Ten squeezed his shoulder. “Calm yourself, I am not going to expose your enthusiasm to the king, nor will I tell your father. I just want to understand your perspective.”
Kunhang looked to the sky, lost. “I… I suppose this just, as beautiful as it is, isn’t the life that I… would have chosen for myself.”
“Oh? What would you have chosen, Kunhang?” Ten asked, as if he didn’t already know. He knew the aspirations of everyone that walked through the palace gates, from Seulgi, climbing her way through the soldiers ranks until she finally found herself a worthy seat on the King’s Guard, to Yukhei, who had begun life as a farmer but had vowed to follow Kun until the end of the earth. Kunhang, with his starry eyes and endless enthusiasm, did not belong in his restrictive clothes with his elder brother breathing down the back of his neck.
“I want to be a fighter,” Kunhang said, meeting Ten’s gaze. “I want to be free to defend what I believe in and prove myself to the world for being myself instead of my father’s son. I want to forge my own path, as the King did when he took to the throne.”
“Do you know where I come from, Kunhang?”
“…No, Ten. No one does.”
“I come from a ridiculously small village in the mountains. It is a haunted place full of suspicion, but just as ghosts linger, so do their teachings. There’s a man who resides there in an old, wooden house. He takes on a certain number of pupils each year, the ones he knows will thrive, and he teaches them everything he knows, from fighting to strategy to subterfuge. My younger brother is there now, studying.” He stopped walking, turning around to gaze back at the fields. Ladies were sat together on the grass, sipping wine and eating berries while the young boys continued to chase one another. The men were gathered on the patio, watching it all with the regality of the unaware.
“I did not know you have a brother.”
“Only the King knows.” He slid his eyes to Kunhang. “And now you.”
“Why would you tell me this?”
“Because my brother is bored, Kunhang.” Ten turned to him. “He is lonely. It is to be expected, isn’t it? A boy void of companions his age, training in the mountains for months at a time. It would be a difficult life for anyone.”
Kunhang was smart, smarter than his elder brother. No wonder the two had such a reputation of fighting one another; no wonder it was common gossip that they would happily see one another dead. Like Kun and his brother, there was deceit here, a great deal of resentment and disgust. Ten didn’t doubt that if Kunhang ripped the beaded sleeves of his shirt that his brother would serve him the same treatment as Kun had received so many years ago. “You want me to train with him?”
Ten smiled. “If it is what you want. I would never think to force you, of course, but you are the only boy here worthy of the offer.”
“But – my brother is my guardian while I am at the palace. He would never let me go.”
“I could make him.”
There was blossoming hope in Kunhang’s eyes. “You could?”
“If it is what you want.”
“It is,” he whispered. “Ten, I hate this place. The beauty hides so much ugliness. My brother bullies servants and soldiers alike, my father returns from our home only to encourage unrest amongst the other lords. Everyone here is cruel, and I have never understood why you have been so hated – you have done nothing to deserve such scorn! The King loves you, is that not enough for some respect? But because he is illegitimate, they barely respect him anyway, as though the past years of prosperity are not down to his constant work and effort.” He frowned. “I know I am young, but everything here is backwards. Blood means more than anything else, wealth comes second. What about the people that put us here to help? They are long forgotten on the outside of these walls.”
“How like Kun you are, dear boy,” Ten murmured. Kunhang sang of innocence and goodness, the only thing in the gardens not perfumed to hide the smell of rot. “The Kingdom is made better by people like you.”
Kunhang’s flush deepened. “Thank you.”
“If the King wills it, you will serve in the country with my brother. I am the right hand of the King, and I will it, so you will go. Pack your things tonight and a carriage will come for you at dawn.”
“Thank you,” Kunhang said. “Thank you so much.”
Ten put a hand against Kunhang’s cheek. “Don’t thank me,” he whispered. “You deserve goodness, Kunhang, but I am not so selfless as to do this of no prerogative. I have my own agenda.”
Kunhang nodded. “I know. Nothing here is free.”
“You would do well to listen to this advice, for it is the most accurate you will receive when it comes to the rich here. Listen to what is unsaid, ignore what is spoken. The people here breathe lies.”
The letter he wrote to Yangyang was concise, to the point. Kunhang promised to keep it safe until arrival, unopened and respected, and he was just earnest enough that Ten believed him. Not that it mattered if it was opened; there was nothing suspicious or condemning in the letter. It held all the genuine love of a man who adored his younger brother and wished for him to treat his new companion with respect. All of the threats were well hidden, only to be understood by Yangyang and his quick, clever eyes.
Kun entered Ten’s chamber minutes after he had returned to it after delivering the letter to Kunhang.
As soon as he saw Ten he breathed out a sigh. “Come here, love.”
Ten approached him, and as soon as he was within arm’s length, Kun sighed again, this one of relief. He flopped down onto the pillows, pulling Ten with him so that they were both sprawled out amongst the sheets. “I don’t want to be king anymore,” he murmured, pressing his face into Ten’s hair. He nuzzled, inhaling the oils Ten had massaged into his skin and scalp, hibiscus and lotus. “I miss when things were simpler.”
He must have been feeling sentimental. How had he spent his day? Amongst papers and bills, as he always did, strategizing where to send his fortune, sending it to the people that needed it the most to ensure they kept healthy while Kun battled their lords over taxes. Poor darling, struggling with the weight of a world on his shoulders. “When you turned up on my doorstep, half-starved and full of righteous vengeance?”
He felt Kun’s tired smile. “After that. When you nursed me back to health and made me remember how it felt to be alive.”
“When we danced together without the crowds of onlookers?”
“When we went walking in the forests, picking berries and watching foxes.”
“When you weren’t the King and I wasn’t the King’s Whore.”
Kun’s hold tightened. “You are no whore.”
“But the palace thinks I am, and that’s what’s important.”
“Why?” Kun pulled back slightly, searching Ten’s expression. “Why would you have them think you a whore? A fickle, devious mind with no care but for himself?”
Sometimes he could still see the bastard child in Kun’s eyes. The lost, ever searching, ever reaching boy that was scared to hold onto anything lest it be taken from him. Ten hated that look. He would rather die than have Kun feel so vulnerable. “Because, darling,” he murmured, kissing Kun’s cheek, “While they are focused on my image, they stay blind to what is beneath. That matters in this game of facades.”
Kun’s genuine nature was what made him such a fair, beloved ruler of the people while it made him the scorn of the courts. The snakes coiled in their prettily perfumed nests could never respect a man who cared for the kingdom; they lived for their own gain only. None understood the pressure of ruling a kingdom when the leader genuinely cared about the people. Kun spent countless nights awake, strategizing food and resources, digging into his own wilting funds to pay those who would be left forgotten by their own lords.
There were so many aspects of kingship that Ten didn’t understand, could never understand. He didn’t have the mind for delegating in the way that Kun did, the innate need to fairly distribute, to ensure that everyone was treat well. Kun worked so hard, running himself ragged only to be scored by the people that dined on his plates and slept in the beds he paid for. After his brother’s death, Kun had inherited a smouldering pile of ashes and been told to create a beautiful rose using only what was in his hands. He had no time or energy to focus on the vipers at his feet, which was why Ten attended himself so keenly to the whispers of the court.
Kun’s hyperopia was too vast, so Ten had adapted. He had become Kun’s myopia.
“Hyunsik is returning to the palace,” Sicheng told Ten the next morning. They ate breakfast together on one of the private balconies overlooking the inner courtyard, listening to birdsong and the sounds of the palace waking. The sun was only just rising, and their hot tea steamed in the chill of the morning air. “I wonder why that could be?”
Ten sipped his tea. “That was faster than I imagined. The gossip in court must truly spread like wildfire if he is travelling back only hours after his son has departed. His men must have been listening quite intently while I spoke to Kunhang yesterday.”
“As you knew they would.”
“Yes. They weren’t as quiet as they could have been. You would have done a much better job of staying unheard.” Ten looked up at the brightening sky. “Despite the temperature now, I think it will be warm today. Perhaps I should wear my new shirt, what do you think?”
“The forest green one?”
“I think it would suit you well.”
“Would I look beautiful, Sicheng?”
“Enchanting,” Sicheng said. “The rooms are ready for cards as you asked. Is today important, Ten?”
“I think it is,” Ten said. He took another sip of his tea, considering. “I suppose it depends on how much I am underestimated.”
The first time he’d officially arrived at the palace, Ten had been shunned on sight. The companion of a freshly crowned king was terrible enough, but that he was male? That he was untitled, unnamed, nothing but a commoner with a pretty face? The insult ran through the court like a lightning strike, all the sons and daughters of the lords and ladies waiting for their chance to woo the King suddenly beneath a boy that only months ago wouldn’t have been worth shining their boots.
He had expected to make enemies, but the blatant trickeries had shocked him to his core. Dinner would arrive and there would be a dead sparrow in his soup. He would peel his bedsheets back to find masses of wriggling maggots tainting the linen a burgundy bloody brown. His garden was destroyed more than once, lovingly rebuilt numerous times in the dead of night, when Kun wouldn’t notice the wrongdoings, or Ten’s secrecy in hiding them.
He was the King’s Pet. Nothing more. In the palace, when the court gathered to play cards and laugh behind their fans and silk gloves, what was Ten but another toy for them to pass around?
His books had been torn to pieces, his clothes trampled into the winter mud, his hands crushed in closing doors, feet tripped by hidden wires, and all the time it had been those echoing whispers that had surrounded him.
He hadn’t told Kun. If he had, heads would have rolled. It would have been a statement, yes, but one that the King valued his toy more than his valued his people, and that would have caused more problems in only a handful of years. Cautious of incurring his wrath for the wrong reasons, Ten had swept the maggots away with his own hands, alone. He had replanted his gardens countless times, used his own money to rebind his books and replace his clothes.
He supposed that to an outsider it must have looked like weakness, hiding bullying from the King like he was aware of being unworthy of defence. After all, many pets had risen and fallen during the reign of their kings. How many companions had Kun’s father kept? Kun was the only illegitimate child he admitted to, but that was not to say he was the only one. Who knew how many half siblings Kun had throughout the kingdom, unknown to anyone other than their mother? What damage a single man could do to so many. It had always fascinated Ten in the way that he and so many others, mainly women, could be condemned for being loved, while the one who was active in the loving could remain faultless, unless they were already marred by their own circumstance, such as being born to an unwed mother. The world was full of injustices when it was the unjust that were ruling, and now that someone kind had found their way to the throne, the world of scrabbling rats and snakes had begun to bite.
Ten was cornered in his garden, pruning the leaves of his Oleander. It was blossoming quite nicely, shades of hot pink and bruised purple. He couldn’t see Sicheng’s corner of the palace from his spot near the bottom of the wall, but he knew he could be seen. He wondered how many were watching, unbeknownst of what was to come.
A hand grabbed at the back of his beautiful silk shirt and hurled him onto the grass. He stared up at the cloudless sky, winded. The young lord pulled him up by his hair and threw him back down, and Ten landed oddly on his left wrist. Something cracked, sending shooting pains up his arm. He whimpered, surprised by such a vicious attack, rising slowly to his knees, hand around his wrist. It wasn’t broken, but something was wrong, already swelling beneath his skin. He would have to ask Dejun to check it later, after he had finished examining the body.
“You sent my brother away.”
Ten looked up through the fall of his hair. “I did no such thing.”
“My father’s men heard you. I saw with my own eyes as he left the palace this morning. What kind of double games are you playing?”
“You hate your brother, the whole court knows of it,” Ten spat. “Why should it matter to you if he leaves of his own choice to train with my brother? The King allowed it.”
“You undermined the authority of my family and sent away the favoured son. My father is furious.”
He could not stop a small smile. “You defer to the fury of your sickly old father and yet you think yourself worthy to rule a kingdom?”
“The King was correct,” the young lord sneered. “You overestimate your worth.” He kicked Ten in the stomach and left him retching, gasping for breath as the lord walked away to begin pacing along the wall.
“Pass me a berry,” Ten gasped, hands clenching in the grass as the pain wracked his frame. “Please. It will settle the nausea.”
“One of your Lords and Ladies?” The young lord plucked a berry, ripe and juicy, only to crush it beneath his shoe. He shook his head, staring down at Ten with pity. “The courts were right; you are fickle and thoughtless. You act on whim. I should never have begun to trust you.”
“Please,” Ten said. “Just one berry.”
“Even now, all you can think about is yourself. What will the King say when I tell him I had to defend myself against your advances? He will be rid of you for good. This will be the final straw.” He picked another berry, examining this one closely as Ten watched on. He ate it, holding eye contact. “These taste horrible.” He ate another. “I should have known you would enjoy something so disgusting.”
“I don’t enjoy them,” Ten murmured, staring. “I hate fruit.”
The lord paused. “What?”
“You shouldn’t have eaten those,” Ten whispered. "Predictable little boy."
He had already started coughing by the time Seulgi arrived, going straight to help Ten from the ground as Yukhei cuffed the lord and began reciting the rules of the palace. If Ten looked up and squinted against the sun as he was helped out of the garden, he could almost see Sicheng waving from the distant window.
The whispers had already begun. They coiled around table legs like snakes, raised hair on the back of your neck like icy winds, danced behind your eyelids like nightmares.
Poor, foolish boy.
He was too young for the courts.
Did his father teach him nothing?
He was horrible anyway. Haven’t you heard how he treated the servants?
He wouldn’t have lasted anyway.
Have you heard how he died? Pathetic. Unfitting for a lord.
If that were my son, I would be ashamed.
Hyunsik stared wide eyed but unseeing at Ten, his travelling cloak still wound across his shoulders. The bowl of berries sat between them.
“I don’t know where he got the idea to eat something so poisonous,” Ten said into the silence. “What a tragic situation.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Believe what you like,” Ten said. He picked a berry from the bowl, examining its colour and texture. “I can’t imagine why he would have eaten something from the Arum Maculatum. It is entirely poisonous.” He put the berry in his mouth and chewed slowly, holding eye contact. “Unless a person has spent years building their tolerance.”
Realisation dawned in Hyunsik’s eyes. “You.”
“It is certainly a shame,” Ten continued. He put another berry into his mouth, savouring the disgusting taste, the sting of the juice that burnt the inside of his mouth, the gum around his teeth. It was a satisfying burn, like the one in his eyes, unblinking as he stared at Hyunsik. “I’ll be delicate when I pass the news to Kunhang, of that you have my word.”
“Kunhang? Where is my son-“
“He’s your heir now, correct? Your surviving child.” Ten ate another berry. Some of the juice slipped from the corner of his mouth and trailed down his neck. He didn’t wipe it away, letting it soak into his skin and leave a red, raised line, like the welt after a whiplash. “What a sweet boy he is. I will make sure that my family take good care of him in this difficult time.”
“I'll kill you.”
Ten cocked his head. “You can if you like. I’m unarmed, why not do it now? I’ll probably enjoy it more than you.” He smiled. “Of course, you’ll be executed. Kun is a very dedicated lover, and if I die he’ll be quite heartbroken. It’s a shame, too. If I die at your hands, what would my family think? I certainly hope they wouldn’t seek revenge by hurting Kunhang. It would be terrible if your innocent boy was punished for his father’s actions.”
Hyunsik was silent, taking in all that was becoming evident. He was trapped. Ten had his remaining heir not only loyal, but surrounded by family. Any move Hyunsik made would face consequence, and now he knew that Ten was willing to take the fruits from his plant, one by one. Even poisonous berries could be crushed between his teeth if he ignored the taste.
“What is it you want from me?” Hyunsik eventually asked.
“Nothing,” Ten said. “You are free to do as you wish, as long as you pay your taxes and remain loyal to the King. No coups, no schemes, no threats. I expect the demure, pleasant nature that you expect from your own wife. You can do that, can’t you darling? I saw you with Kun’s father, I know you are capable of respecting the throne.”
“Kun’s father was not a bastard courting a witch.”
“You’re right,” Ten said. “But I’m hoping you will look past your pride to see the knife I’m holding at your remaining son’s throat. I would hate to kill him; he’s a sweet boy. I think he will make a wonderful ruler in his own right in a few years.” Ten stood. “This is a lot for you to take in, and I understand that you need time to grieve. You can hardly think about losing your remaining child when one has been so abruptly taken from you. I am being unkind, aren’t I? I will leave you in peace.”
“You are a monster.”
Ten paused at the door. On the other side of the oak, Kun was pacing, waiting for Ten to exit. He was anxious, in need of being calmed, of being held, reassured that despite the trauma of the day, Ten was alright. His wounds would heal. Ten’s hands itched to stroke through Kun’s hair, across the smooth skin of his neck, to massage the tension from his shoulders. He turned to look at Hyunsik. “I am a monster,” he agreed. “And you are an ant, trapped beneath the heel of my boot, darling. Next time you wish to plan something against Kun, remember that I have already killed two kings to protect him, along with your pathetic son. Do I have a limit?” He smiled. “Why not push me and find out? I do so enjoy these games.”
Kun had been so young, so naive when they’d first met. He’d turned up on Ten’s doorstop in the dead of winter, lips chapped and tinged with blue as he shivered in the wind. “My aunt sent me,” he said. “She said you would know what to do.”
“I know how to do a lot of things,” Ten replied, leaning against the door. Behind his back, the blade he pressed into his fingertip was sharp enough to rip the skin. He wondered if he would have to use it on such a pretty young man with gorgeous chestnut hair and pleading, sorrowful eyes. “What is it you want?”
“To be King.”
Ten didn’t laugh at the gall. He considered, instead, how the young man would look upon a throne. If he would fill out well after eating a good meal, if he knew how to properly swing a sword, if he held the profile of a man who could command and be respected. His eyes were soft, and that would likely never change, but the rest could be moulded by Ten’s deft fingers. The rest could be hardened.
“Why come to me?”
“The villagers say this house is cursed, that the people that live here are devils.” He raised his chin. “They said that if I am willing to sell my soul, I can gain what my heart desires.”
He didn’t seem the selfish type. “And the throne is what your heart desires?”
“No.” His chin trembled, but his eyes stayed resolute. “My heart desires a world where people like my mother don’t die locked in a cell because she committed the sin of birthing the King’s bastard.”
Ten’s grip relaxed on the dagger and he opened the door wider, allowing the man to come inside. “What a soft soul you have,” he murmured. He could hear Taemin and Joohyun in the kitchen, trying to listen in without being heard, though their light breathing gave them away. Yangyang hid at the top of the stairs, not even attempting to be quiet. “You better come inside. Don’t worry darling, I won’t let anything hurt you.”