When asked, Jo Yeong always says that he was inducted into the royal guard when he was eighteen. It’s true only technically. That might be the legal age for enlistment into the Kingdom of Corea’s army, but both he and his King know better. Jo Yeong gives up his future when Lee Gon presses him into service at four.
“You are my unbreakable sword. So stop crying” Lee Gon had said, eyes red and rimmed with tears. It was the very first time Jo Yeong’s heart had ever fluttered. It was a feeling he would revisit thousands of times as he grew up and learned where the curve of Lee Gon’s neck met his shoulder, memorized the shape of Lee Gon’s back, and studied the cords of muscle in his King’s arms. He didn’t have a word for it then. He does now. He never dares say it aloud.
“Okay,” Jo Yeong had said, chest tight. “Yes. Your Majesty.”
The words were strange in his four-year-old mouth. He’d never said them before. Before, Lee Gon had been the hyung they’d told him to follow around. “Make sure he’s eating,” his father had said. “Make sure he’s smiling,” corrected Lady Noh.
At Yeong’s tone, Lee Gon’s eyes had widened and his body had flinched slightly. But by god, even then, Jo Yeong had felt them—felt the majesty in Lee Gon’s eyes, in his voice, in the small hands gripping the toy sword standing between them. Lee Gon might be small and young and very, very quiet, but he was the King. There was no doubt about it.
Admiral Jo couldn’t pry the toy sword away from his son that night. After three weeks of trying, he gave up. Jo Yeong was nothing if not stubborn, as it turned out.
This part will never be in any royal biography: There are about half a dozen years in middle and high school where Jo Yeong stops sleeping. Lee Gon never needs to study much—but he does because he’s in love with science and math and because every one of his appetites is whetted by a steady stream of royal tutors delicately choreographed by Lady Noh and Prince Buyeong. They whisper endlessly about his prowess in math, calling him a prodigy and joking that his royal lineage was a waste—if he’d spent all of his time with his nose buried in books he’d have been a shoe-in for a Fields medal, for sure. “It’s his preternatural calm,” they say, “he can just sit in a chair for hours and focus. It’s uncanny.”
Jo Yeong is different. He wasn’t built for the classroom. His mind flits from subject to subject, so he has to train it to land. He drinks too much coffee, trains with his father in the morning, does twenty pull ups before bed, and stuffs his nose with cotton wool to head off the endless nosebleeds. He stabs pencils into his thigh and tries to tell his attention to focus, focus, focus. He imagines his King, shoulders hunches, small hand turning giant pages, expression flinty. It’s not normal for a boy to sit in a chair that’s too large and turn pages that are too heavy with a hand that’s always pockmarked with crescent-shaped indents in the palms. And Jo Yeong is four years too young to turn the pages for him.
“Perfect marks again,” his father says, approvingly, flipping through another report card. “Incredible. You could get a scholarship to the Naval Academy with this.”
It almost feels like it’s enough when his father says it. The insistent drumming in Jo Yeong’s mind calms, even if it’s just for a moment. He wonders what it must be like to worry about nothing but school, to never wonder how many tests are left between him and a bullet-proof vest and a standard-issue pistol. He imagines himself on a boat a hundred miles away running drills.
He’s thirteen. Five more years. When he rides with Lee Gon in the fields around the palace, he starts three steps behind him, shoulders back, eyes tracking the perimeter. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice when Jo Yeong’s eyes get to linger on the lines of sweat beading along the King’s back.
Eventually the façade collapses. Lee Gon challenges him to a race and laughs his overly formal, stilted laugh until Yeong brushes too close and threatens to humiliate him in front of his staff and Gon throws back his head for real and his eyes sparkle and Yeong thinks this is my King and feels the world swing out of control. His dreams are hot and heady.
There’s a moment when another path opens up, and Jo Yeong can most clearly see what he’s leaving behind. Lee Gon never learns about this, but it’s the before and after of Jo Yeong’s life. It happens when he’s two months away from his sixteenth birthday, when he’s stopped dreaming of bulletproof vests and instead imagines acing the SATs and getting into college and dating.
Specifically: There’s a girl in his class who sits by the window and smells like daisies and has started grabbing the table across from his in the library. He thinks her father is the Minister of Agriculture. Jo Yeong’s mind buzzes with the thought of her. He turns pages in his math textbook just to feel them move, and watches her lips curve into a smile. They’re almost a little too red. Maybe it’s makeup? His neck feels hot. She looks incredibly soft. All curves where Lee Gon would be sharp edges.
His phone buzzes. She wrinkles her forehead at the sound and passes him a note. Coffee in the break room?
Their high school—filled with the scions of royalty and politicians—has a break room in the library filled with expensive teas and coffees for purchase. An infamous date spot. He feels himself tense. His change? Maybe. He scribbles a few shaky characters in return: Yes. Let’s.
They laugh over hot chocolate for four hours. Her face is beautiful. It reminds him of something. A celebrity, maybe? They ditch their belongings in the library and takes a walk around the building and suddenly his hands are tangled up in her hair. Jo Yeong forgets his name. She’s so close. She reminds him of summer and candy and he even thinks that he smiles. He tells her stories he’s never told anyone else. Like how he has nightmares, still, filled with someone else’s tears. He presses his forehead to hers and he can feel the blood thrum under her temples.
They’re surprised by security. They have to awkwardly extricate themselves from some bushes that leave scratches along his arms and wrist. “Jo Yeong,” an officer says, tossing him his bag, “your phone has been ringing for an hour.”
The girl laughs and tucks some hair behind her ear and suddenly Jo Yeong feels himself go cold. She says something; he doesn’t hear. There’s a loud ringing. He wonders if anyone else hears it. It’s deafening, overwhelming, suffocating.
Somehow, his fingers find his cell phone in his bag. He flips it open. The password is Lee Gon’s favorite number, a string of zeroes. And, yes. Four text messages from the only number saved in his phone without a name.
I command you to come.
The next hour passes in a blur. He isn’t sure what happens to his backpack or his cell phone but he ends up storming into the palace with sweat pressing down his bangs and panic in his chest and he wonders whether he was too late, whether he hadn’t been fast enough, whether anything would have been different if he’d been there with a bulletproof vest and a pistol in hand and his King in his heart.
He dashes through the door without waiting for the guards to finish announcing him. “Your Majesty,” he says, meaning, what the fuck happened to you?
He might have said that too. He’s not sure. Lee Gon just grimaces. Only twenty, he looks unbelievably young tucked in bed, covered in that hideous green silk comforter, hair falling into his face. His right arm is in a cast. “You made it,” he says tersely. “Took you long enough.”
“You—” and it comes out strangled and informal and his heart is still hammering in his chest.
“I broke my arm. Maximus was startled this morning. I demoted her. That’s all.”
I can’t fall off a horse for you, he thinks hysterically. “I’m—I didn’t have my phone on me.”
“It’s fine.” And then, “I’ll be off the rowing team for at least fifteen weeks.”
Yeong approaches the bed. There’s an IV hooked up to Lee Gon’s arm, snaking through the papers of equations littering his desk, hanging off the side of his bedspread. Ah. Right. Of course there is. As of tomorrow, Yeong remembers, Lee Gon will have been King for fourteen years. Yeong closes his eyes. Daisies and red lips and soft hair war with the bright impression of Lee Gon’s sweaty face.
There’s an obvious victor. He offers his hands, palms up. Lee Gon does not like to be touched. But he doesn’t mind doing the touching.
He knows Lee Gon wouldn’t ask. But Yeong wants to give this to him, unfurl along all of the edges, offer up every one of his stories. “I was studying in the library. For a literature test.”
“The library left welts on your arm? Fascinating new pedagogical approach. I should tell my tutors.”
“I, ah, may have taken a break in a bush. With someone.”
Lee Gon snorts. “Of course you did. How was she?”
Beautiful. But he doesn’t want to say that. Different words press at his mouth. He doesn’t want to say those either. He thinks the King leans closer. Jo Yeong feels dizzy. Instead, he tries: “Have you saved me a room in the barracks?”
Lee Gon slides a tentative finger over Yeong’s hand. It leaves a line of fire that extends from Yeong’s wrist straight into his heart. “Is falling off a horse all it takes to get you to move into the palace? I should have done it earlier.”
“If you fall off another horse on purpose, I will kill you.”
“That is literally the definition of treason. Beheading is imminent.” And then, more quietly, “Answer my question.”
Jo Yeong’s heart hammers in his chest. He thinks it might explode. Lee Gon smells of sweat and horse and it’s heady. The room is too hot. “If you so command me, your highness.”
At that, Lee Gon laughs. It’s a small thing. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Live here, Yeong-ah.”
Lady Noh gives it to him straight, later. “If you live here, you cannot go home.”
Jo Yeong knows. The palace has rules. The King has too many enemies and too many secrets. He nods, because he’s seen what it’s done to his parents—planets that orbit one another carefully but never seem to be able to share the same space. “I’m ready. I’ve always been ready.”
“Oh, sweet boy.” She strokes his hair. Jo Yeong feels four years old all over again and finds that he wants to grab at her skirts and bury his face in them. “Thank you. I know you wanted to try for college. But he called out for you when he fell.”
The guilt splinters into his heart. Yeong deletes all of the contacts off his cell phone that night. He moves into the palace that week. His King sends over his private tutors that month. They go riding together every afternoon.
After a few short months, Yeong graduates with a GED. His parents throw him a small party at a fancy Italian restaurant, but his father’s smile is soft. “We brought you to his coronation because we just thought you would be good for each other. I. . . .”
“I chose this.”
Admiral Jo closes his eyes. “I think we made you choose this.”
His father doesn’t understand that losing for Lee Gon is its own sort of victory. No one else gets to see the King when he wakes up, when he’s fresh out of the shower, when he’s terrified and lonely and needs someone beside him.
Yeong knows, deep inside, that he would have crossed the universe to stop his boy-King from crying. He’s glad his parents ensured that it was just a courtyard.
No doors in the palace are closed to Jo Yeong. Not even when he’s wearing his wrist-comm and uniform. He sits with Lee Gon through the worst of his nightmares and watches old movies with him when Lee Gon is bored. The King always steals his popcorn and Yeong lets him exactly half the time because sometimes Lee Gon needs a friend, and sometimes Lee Gon needs a subject. Yeong toes the line, pushing, pulling, always within reach.
He is the King’s best friend, but he sleeps with a bulletproof vest. It’s the best of both worlds. Within a year, Yeong is promoted to captain. No one suspects the title is gifted to him. The entire royal squadron has seen Yeong practice his sharpshooting late into the night until his eyes are bloodshot, doing pushups until he collapses into the gym mats.
And when Lee Gon calls, Jo Yeong comes.
This part will be in a book, somewhere, someday.
“Your Majesty,” Yeong says simply, slipping into Lee Gon’s study. It’s been three days since the King has slept. Three days ago, someone had slipped something in Lee Gon’s drink and a servant vomited blood after he tasted it. The King had lunged forward—boots tracking blood all over his bedroom floor—and grabbed the man’s arms and said stay with me, while Yeong had called the royal guards to protect their King and hunt for the would-be-assassin. By the time they found the culprit—a cook-turned anarchist—the servant was twitching and grey and Lee Gon had blood on his hands and in his hair and he’d bitten straight through his lip.
The royal doctor couldn’t be summoned until the threat was neutralized. Standard operating protocol to make sure no one tips off the assailant. Everyone knew that. The servant—Lee Byunwoo, eighteen years in His Majesty’s service, seven in his father’s—certainly did. He shrugged when he saw the doctor’s face. “I’m glad to have served you,” he said to his King at the very end. Jo Yeong had vomited into his sink that night and called his father and said, why would people ever do this to him? Admiral Jo had said nothing except, I am so very proud of you.
Lee Gon’s eyes are still flinty and cold. His face is too pale. The tea on his desk is stone cold. Tomorrow will be Lee Gon’s eighteenth year on the throne. Jo Yeong knows that the King cannot forget the feeling of blood slick between his toes. “I was working through the Poincaré conjecture.”
Jo Yeong’s stomach curdles. Lee Gon had no one to call. “Again?”
“The Ricci flow is beautiful.”
The room is too quiet. Jo Yeong approaches the table. There are people outside because there are always people outside, because this is the palace. He puts his hand on the desk and leaves it there. “Come. Eat.”
Lee Gon smiles and it’s an angry, bitter thing. “You can’t tell me what to do. That’s treason.”
“Your definition of treason gets broader by the day.”
“If I say something is treason, it’s treason.” Lee Gon’s voice is cavalier. Yeong knows better than to trust it.
Yeong conspicuously offers up his palm. Lee Gon slides a finger into it.
“Well, I’ll make the arrangements. I want to be beheaded on a sunny day. I’ll want to be sure everyone is willing to come. My father, I’m sure, would thank you.”
Lee Gon sighs and lets his head rest against his desk. His fingers press more insistently into Yeong’s palm. “Your insolence is unforgivable.” But his voice is warmer. So warm that it melts Jo Yeong’s heart.
“Can I get you more tea, Your Highness?”
Gon shrugs and just raises his voice. “Is anyone out there?”
Of course there is. Five guards answer. A lady in waiting opens the door. The King requests a pot of tea and two cups. No one stares at Yeong and Gon’s hands.
The doors close, and Jo Yeong moves to taste it in the silence. The place where Lee Gon’s fingers had pressed into his hand burns hot. Yeong closes his eyes and almost misses Lee Gon stiffening and swiping the cup away, letting it shatter on the wood of his study. The cup was probably some traditional piece dating back to the beginning of the Joseon dynasty. Gon’s voice is higher than it should be when he says, too easily, “Sorry. Reflex.”
Jo Yeong grabs the other cup. He hands still smart. “It’s easier if I do this.”
“You cannot die until I behead you,” Lee Gon whispers. Less of a command, more a question.
“I’d never dare do anything without your permission.” Yeong knocks back the tea. It’s terrible. It tastes of anise. “So, not technically poison? But it’s disgusting.”
Lee Gon’s laugh is strangled. “You can have the rest, then.”
The days are long, Lee Gon’s hands are warm, and Jo Yeong thinks he has never wanted anything more than this. But this, Yeong knows, will ruin them.
Time heals all wounds. Lee Gon’s universe widens first by moments, then by meters. He rows with his Naval Academy class in the summer and fall, and spends the winters reading math treatises in his study. He gives lectures and speeches and signs autographs. Sometimes he makes policy. Often he provides the pomp and circumstance to formal state ceremonies. He plays go with his uncle and trains with Jo Yeong and sometimes they watch movies together. Lee Gon still touches him, softly and surely, and jokes about state weddings and children and heirs of my body.
The jokes are more pointed after Koo Seoryeong is elected. Lee Gon ignores her at first, toys with the press and lets them take photos of the two of them together. He has to admit, she’s brilliant and determined and is destined for the history books. But, he reminds Jo Yeong quietly, moments after her appointment, she forgets that her terms are limited—his is not.
“They’ll name a chapter after her, but a book after me.”
Jo Yeong rolls his eyes to lighten the air. For once, the King doesn’t take the bait. He’s been sleeping better, Yeong thinks, letting his eyes wander. His skin is healthier, he’s put on weight. He looks—better. Not good, because Lee Gon hasn’t looked truly happy since the day he became King—but better. Yeong steps closer. His hands are inches from Lee Gon’s shoulder.
Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe maybe. It’s selfish, but Yeong’s chest tightens even further and his heart hurts. Maybe. “Your Highness, I—”
Lee Gon steps away. “I’m fine, Yeong-ah. Go to bed. There’s just. Too much to do.”
A decade of training has him straightening, snapping his heels together, back curved in a slight bow. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
The end comes all of a sudden, a wave crashing into their universe. Suddenly there’s a parallel universe and time travel and a woman that may have saved Lee Gon before Jo Yeong ever could, and it feels unfair that sometime like Jung Tae-eul could have leveraged magic to get a head start on Lee Gon’s heart, but she makes Lee Gon smile like his mother isn’t gone and his father wasn’t murdered and he isn’t the beloved orphan King of a nation that needs him. Lee Gon slips through Jo Yeong’s fingers. He doesn’t need small acts of comfort when he has her. It gets even harder to breathe. At night he dreams of death and magic and justice and Lee Gon’s red-rimmed eyes under his crown. He’s not jealous, because the King is happy and that’s all Yeong ever wanted, but this Lee Gon is also scared and angry and vengeful.
“Stay here,” he tells Yeong one day in their fancy hotel room in the Republic of Korea. Yeong hates this place. He can’t rest. He can’t deploy a dozen guards to check the security footage, or block off an elevator for His Majesty’s personal use, or test all the food that Lee Gon is eating. “You’ll have to track Lee Lim down yourself.”
There’s no hesitation. Jo Yeong acknowledges the order. He doesn’t ask will you leave me here forever because he will stay if Lee Gon asks.
His palms curl upwards, this time, in supplication. Not an offering. The King steps forward, folds his hands over Yeong’s, closes the fists. “Thank you,” he says.
Yeong’s heart shatters into a million pieces. Easy enough—Yeong would die for his King. He can live for him too. “You got it.”
It’s still too casual. Lee Gon reminds Jo Yeong of the line he’s never policed with Jung Tae-eul. “I can still behead you.”
“Not here. I think there’s a law against it.”
“Treason,” and Lee Gon’s breath is hot. “I am your King. That’s true whatever world we’re in. Remember that, Yeong-ah.”
A frisson of sparks in Yeong’s back. His fists tighten, nails meeting the soft skin of his palms. “Yes, Your Highness.”
In the end, there’s no royal wedding. There’s no marriage. She’s gone as quickly as she comes. But he calls her his queen at night, gasping into his pillows, screaming into the void. Jo Yeong keeps watch outside the door and hears it.
Every once in a while, he slips into Lee Gon’s room and offers him a hand. At first, the King doesn’t take it. But as time passes, he leans into Yeong’s palms, into his shoulder, into his chest. He remerges into the public sphere. He brushes off questions about his love life. He reaffirms his commitment to the line of succession, and jokes about needing to cross the universe to find another wife. His smiles never reach his eyes and he loses three kilograms too quickly, but he is still beloved, still their King.
“Tell me where to go,” Jo Yeong nearly begs, “I’ll find her for you. I’ll do anything.”
But Lee Gon only shrugs. “I know you would. You would do anything for me. Like I will do anything for her.” He presses his lips to Yeong’s palm and Yeong feels fireworks explode in his chest. “But there is nothing to do.”
“Please,” because Jo Yeong would do anything, anything to make Lee Gon smile again. He would tear apart the fabric of time with his bare hands. He would cross worlds. He would die. He would live.
He waits for a command that does not come. Lee Gon just leans in for a hug, mouth by Yeong’s ear, hands fisting in his short, slicked back hair. Yeong breaks and bends and burns.
They hunt Lee Lim down. At his King’s command, Jo Yeong becomes an executioner. At night, Lee Gon presses into Jo Yeong’s side and holds him too tightly, too sharply, too closely. The King stakes out a maximalist position in everything that he does.
Still, the spaces between their bodies feel like vast, open planes of emptiness. Jo Yeong has always known, intellectually, that he was not enough. Now, even with Lee Gon’s hands tangled in his hair, stroking at his temples and tracing the line of his jaw, he feels it in his bones.
(In the end, of course, Lee Gon figures it out. He locks himself in his study for a month to do it, but he emerges looking a decade younger and happier and softer.
It’s so simple, so absurdly obvious. The only one who could have saved the King is himself. As soon as the flute was cleaved in two, history broke, and only the rightful heir to the Four Tiger Sword could reassemble the pieces of time. Yeong notices the King slip Jung Tae-eul’s badge in his pocket before he goes.
“But she didn’t save you, in the end.”
“Oh,” and Lee Gon flushes cheekily. “Actually. I think she did." Apparently, the possibility that he might lose himself in the past doesn’t faze him in the least. He presses his forehead to Yeong’s and cups Yeong’s cheeks. Yeong’s heart, the only muscle in his body that he never managed to tame, races. “Turns out I’m very selfish. So. Can you cover for me? One last time?"
It’s a big ask. Almost too big. If, as expected, he never returns, Jo Yeong will have to pick up the pieces: report Lee Gon’s death and serve his successor, a thin wisp of a teenager he will learn to call king and may have to die for. He will observe funeral rites for a man lost to the multiverse.
Lee Gon knows all of this. He is intimately familiar with loss. He knows, and he asks anyway, eyes piercing. You would do anything for me.
It’s true. It’s been the guiding principle in Jo Yeong’s life. “Yes, Your Majesty.” And then again, just in case Lee Gon didn’t understand, I would do this for you even if you were not my king, “hyung.”
Lee Gon’s breath hitches, and he presses a dry, raspy kiss against Yeong’s forehead. Yeong looks up. Lee Gon’s eyes are bright and beautiful and full of hope. Jo Yeong feels the universe click into place. He has a word for it now. He has too many words for it now.
He says none of them. It doesn’t matter. Jo Yeong is sure that Lee Gon knows.