Tonight, the doors to the royal chambers fly open with a furious slam as you sink your wet heat onto your king, taking all of him in a single, ambitious stroke. The dark eyes that behold you are coolly intense as he flings aside the dyed silk that preserved the last of your modesty. But your hips stutter down to stillness when two court advisors stumble inside, poorly averting their gazes.
“Please forgive our intrusion, but–”
“Did I tell you to stop?” His stare bores into you regardless of the men; the pressure from the spread hand on your thigh tightens in silent command to move. To fuck.
“N-no, jeonha.” You feel his cock twitch at the term as you lift, slowly swallow him up again with your head bowed. You keep it bowed until a surprise thrust of his nimble hips has your head snapping back, a pitchy whine bursting into air like a frightened dove. His way of reminding you that no one else matters. That the entire court already knows who holds the king’s favor most.
The rhythm is yours after that. You set it fast and needy, knees burning on the hard bed that all the luxury fabrics cannot mask. Whimpers come in waves as the pleasure does, swelling with each time your inner thighs press against his hips, tides coaxed by tonight’s crescent moon. He is quiet, and if you hadn’t already long learned to read his body, you’d miss the tongue poked in the cheek above a tight jaw, clenched harder when you take him especially deep.
“Louder,” he growls, hooking a thumb into the corner of your mouth to pull your pretty mouth apart. You taste spilled cheongju, dizzying rice wine mixed with your own arousal. “Sing for me.” And you do, keening when he bucks up into you, doubling your pace and adding his own rolls to hit the sweet spot. You never last long at this speed; he knows this well. He goes faster.
Quivering, falling forward, you bury your hands in the scattered pools of his blonde hair and he lets you. Maybe he only lets you because you’re showing off what they can’t have and what he drowns in at his whim. His, like every damn thing in this palace. But having all this attention makes you feel bold. Makes you want to try to touch the angry scar that he never mentions, but you’ve caught him staring blankly at his own reflection by the pond enough times to understand its weight.
“Um,” one of the advisors starts.
Your king sounds irritated but the sword-calloused palm that fits itself to your waist is still delicate. His thrusts, however, are not. He is so often rough but this time it’s even more, putting on a show of your trembles. You must be squeezing him tight because he lets one guttural grunt slip – proof that fills you with pride.
“The enemy’s troops are advancing two days faster than expected. Shall we send word to move into position now or follow the original plan?”
He says nothing. Licks his lips. Fits his thumb right where your bodies meet and grinds a half circle and the pressure, gods, the sudden, unrelenting pressure—
Tonight, you give your audience something to remember – the way you rear back and cry out, hitting peak while speared on his cock. The way he grabs hold of your ass and drinks you in, rutting you through the pulses that thrum through your veins. He’ll have you come again before his own release, he decides, among other things.
“Move in. Cut them off and exterminate.” Your king drags your trembling body closer to him. Traces a line down your spine, eyes narrowing over your shoulder at the men while he listens to your frantic breaths, erratic heart. He smirks. “now get the hell out.”
and the story begins... please pay attention to the dates in the chapter titles!
Chapter 2: April 1869.
the night brings with it the moon, rippling waters, and truths silenced with his mouth hot on your skin.
content warning: exhibitionism (but more indirectly), rough sex, dirty talk, name-calling, hurt feelings, hair pulling, a very unhealthy (but historically accurate) relationship, yoongi is an ass
The chilly evening wind of coming spring sweeps a scattering of fallen leaves across the courtyard. It ripples through the sleeves of your jeogori as you descend from the stone veranda of your quarters towards the private palace gardens. The two guards who stand at the entrance move wordlessly aside upon seeing you, offering you slight bows that you return. Past this barrier, the tall, reaching trees hang against the darkened sky, heavy branches scratching invisible marks over the moonlight. You follow the set path with steady footsteps, passing blooming shrubs with a yawn on your lips. The day has been long and your eyes are sore from studying medicine with only a dim lamp for company. But the breeze - it whisks away fatigue with an enviable ease.
The path winds along the expansive pond. Water lettuce and lily pads cover most of the liquid surface, lining the makeshift island that houses your favorite: the grand pavilion. Recently renovated on the king’s direct instruction. You move closer, slippers leaving stone to scrape the thin wooden bridge.
Something in the dark shifts.
Your eyes fall upon a shadow. Your steps stutter, then quicken.
The king sits on the left bench, near the open front that has yet to be replaced, with a casual arm draped over the intricate banister. He doesn’t stir at the sound of your deliberately soft voice, his gaze remaining mired on something in the distance, far beyond the pavilion’s, or perhaps even the palace’s, reach. His hat is abandoned beside him, the topknot slightly loose where it is bound on his head.
“May I join you?”
He waves his hand absently.
You consider your options, but ultimately take advantage of the pavilion’s half-finished state and sit on the very edge with your legs tucked under you in a traditional kneel. You cannot even remember the last time you’ve sat together like this - out in the open outdoors, away from the tightly-drawn curtains of his chambers and away from prying eyes. Only now do you realize how much it had been missing. “The willow trees have grown out nicely,” you offer, what you hope is a safe topic. You watch a lily pad drift idly by. “I hope the lotus flowers bloom well this year. The pond truly felt so empty last season without their color. I—”
“Is it commonplace for subjects to inflict idle chatter on their king?” The ice in his voice is a slap across the face.
You shut up immediately. Nervously swallow too, but the heaviness in your throat remains stuck. You’ve become uncomfortably familiar with that tone, the quick temper that flares up in seconds but takes its time to dissipate. A part of you wants to retreat and hide; the other can never bear to leave him. Ever so slightly, chewing on the inside of your cheek, you turn your head instead. Take your first good look at him and almost gasp at how gaunt he looks in the sparse light. Nor do you expect the deep purple settled beneath his eyes. If this had been ten or even just two years ago, you wouldn’t hesitate to mention it but with things as they are, you are so nervous to speak and…
“Have,” you bow your head slightly, “have you not been sleeping?”
“Jeonha?” You press. “Please.”
When he finally looks at you, it’s with a glare. “I haven’t the time.”
“And your meals?”
Your fingers knot. “But rest, sleep is essential. As is food. Without it, to make important decisions—”
“Hah!” His scowl deepens, the scar stretching down with his lips. “It would make little difference in how they are received.”
You should’ve known it was impossible to miss the rumors rumbling through the palace, their source the restless palace occupants faced with a ruthless king. He can’t stop the rampant thievery brought on by the grain shortage, yet executes the thieves themselves. His petty rejection of treaty with Japan left threats of war looming like an open wound that refuses to heal. All this, the former king would never have done. Or so the gossip goes.
“Still… Jeonha, you cannot, simply cannot, live like this. The people need you to be strong. They need their leader. Every hour you spend pushing yourself too far is an hour taken off your life. ” Saying the words alone puts a tremble in your fingers. The thought of his death could keep you awake right along with him. Has. But every syllable you speak is an overstep of your boundaries and rank. “I-If something is weighing on your mind, tell me. Use me. Tell me what you need and I’ll try to help however I can.”
He laughs then, but it’s an ugly, mocking sound. With a thud, he drops to the floor. “Spare me your fucking idealism.” His tight fist finds the roots of your hair. He yanks, hard. Your plain hairpin clatters to the floor, teetering wildly off the pavilion edge. “You, help me? What power do you have?” He drags you backwards, your eyes wide and quivering as they find fury in his. “What can you really do?”
He all but rips open your sash and you let him. You let him throw aside the layers that cover your chest until you’re exposed to him, torn white fabric pooling around your arms. His breath is hot at the shell of your ear as he growls, “this is all I need from you. This and nothing else.”
“T-Then use me,” you repeat, despite the dagger stab of pain in your heart. If this will lessen his burdens, you’ll do it. If this will have him in your arms if only fleetingly, you’ll do it.
He grabs a breast and smirks when you tense, then cry out when he pinches a nipple pebbled from the wind. Take it all, you think deliriously when his fingers tighten with an almost unbearable strength, and again when he dips his head low, sucking hard at the nape of your neck to give you a dark ache to remember come morning. He leaves one mark then another, and another, as if threatening to consume you entirely with his desire. And you? You’re addicted to that jolt of pain, the heady wetness of dominance that says he wants you. He wants nothing but you right now, and you tuck that precious knowledge away with a moan.
When he flips you onto your back, you don’t hear the quiet splash as your hand knocks the pin over. All your focus is stolen by your king between your legs, demanding obedience even from his knees. He wastes no time in forcing your skirt up, undoing the ties of the shorts beneath and throwing them aside. You don’t think you breathe until his nail rakes across the scrap of cloth covering your heat. “Look at you,” he mutters. “So wet. Shameless.” He doesn’t bother taking off the sokgot before fucking two fingers into you, deep enough for you to feel the ridge of his knuckles. The way your tight cunt opens and molds to him makes him sink his teeth into his lip in appreciation.
You already feel pressure building when he curls his fingers. It spikes up when he scissors, pushes you apart to hear you gasp. The noise travels far, echoing across the water while he makes a mess of you with each rapid pump. You don’t need to see to know that clear arousal is running down the sides of your lower lips. The sound of slick is as lewd as your whines, pitched at a tell-tale high.
“Fast, too fast,” you groan. But when you shift back, you’re only met with open air beneath your hands. You turn your head in panic and yelp when you realize just how close you are to the edge, with nothing but murky water below. “J-Jeonha, let me bac—”
“No.” His eyes glimmer with something possessive at the sight of you stretched out over the precipice, moonlight’s glow painted across your bare skin. All that pliant softness for him to ruin.
And you do break, when he hits that spot and punishes it without a second’s pause. “Please, oh god, please.” You don’t even know what you’re begging for but his palm slaps against your skin with reckless strokes. Your spine curves back, head going with it until all you see is the night and burning stars and everything in this palace that belongs solely to him. You let go. You cum with an errant hand flung out, fingers skimming across the water, the rest of you pinned beneath him. Uncontrollable.
His smile is sadistic as he leans over you, still fully clothed in his royal robes as he watches you tremble. “Think the guards can hear you?” You want to shake your head but all you do is grind your hips into him. “If they turned their heads, they’d see you like this. Needy. Desperate.” He spits the humiliating words through set teeth. “Why don’t I call them over and show them what the esteemed physician is really like?” His cocksure grin stretches even wider when he feels you clench in response. It seems to make up his mind; he doesn’t extract his fingers even though bliss has turned sharply into soreness. Just fucks you through the last of the aftershocks and then some until he brings you to peak for a second, noisy time.
Only then does he draw back, swiping his tongue slowly up his soaked hand. His eyes never leave you, even as he strips enough to pull his thick cock from the folds of gilded silk. You don’t get much of a glimpse before it’s sheathed in you, much fuller than his fingers. Your overstimulated cunt reacts despite the sensitivity, wetly clinging to his shaft as he bottoms out. He doesn’t stop to savor, doesn’t even let you catch a breath before he’s moving forward. His thrusts now, angry and quick and deep - they’re for him.
The low grunts of effort drop alongside sweat down his neck, topknot bobbing back and forth and he keeps going, nimble hips pistoning with none of the precision of his swordplay. Where that is beautiful, controlled movements, he finds himself the exact opposite when he’s inside you. A damn slave to the pleasure surging through his body, and he seems to hate that he needs it. A loathing that he leaves in the bruises on your ass every time you smack to the floor. “Always this tight for me,” he mutters in a low register.
You’re trying your best to hold on, and survive the acute ache of him battering against your deepest core because you could never ask him to stop. Your fingers cling to the stone boundary, holding you to solid ground when everything feels like it’s been tossed clear up into the air. You almost can’t bear to look at him like this. It’ll make you believe in the intimacy shared between lovers when this is—
He snarls your name, draws your attention back. “Say it.”
He must like what he hears and finds in your gaze, for he smirks. “You’ve become a nice little whore for me, haven’t you?”
And that’s it. That’s when you feel the hot sting behind your eyes finally overflow. It’s a word that’s you’ve become well-acquainted with these past few months but to hear it from his lips is... The tears slide backwards down your cheeks, rippling the pond but he doesn’t notice. Or if he does, maybe he pretends they’re of pleasure. If only you could follow suit.
He takes two almost-unbearably deep strokes and then, suddenly, you’re empty. He’s gasping, surprisingly undone as his hand slides frantically on his own cock. Sticky cum soon splatters all over your stomach, staining your skirt with his conquest. Panting, he looks at you through loose strands of blonde hair and doesn’t pull away. Instead, he leans forward. For a moment, you forget yourself and expect him to kiss you. Instead, he hauls you up from the brink with a sweaty hand on the back of your neck.
“What? Want something else?” He snaps when he finds your puffy eyes staring at him.
You think about asking him if he’s alright. Maybe he would listen if you tried again, just once more time. But your body is sore, your thighs and core between them especially so. A lingering reminder that this is perhaps all you are good for in his eyes. Whore.
He stands, wiping dust off his sleeves, but otherwise not bothering to fix much of his wrinkled robes. “Then you are dismissed,” he says, then walks off. Likely to his private quarters, the back entrance connected to this garden.
Alone on the floor, you curl yourself up and still feel the emptiness, a dissatisfaction. You hadn’t noticed it before, but a songbird has been singing, marking the terribly late hour. On a sigh with fingers trembling, you pull the scraps of your jacket around your nakedness and try to shield yourself from the wind.
Chapter 3: November 1857.
you meet for the first time as children, caught in the crossfire of hatred.
historical note: “mama” is the korean equivalent of “your highness” & the proper address for a queen. her children can simply call her that, but others must add her official title as well.
“Quick. Through here. Hurry!”
Your mother’s frantic voice rips you from sleep. You’ve never heard her sound like this before, panicked and scared all at once through the door that is suddenly shoved open before your stunned gaze. Before you can slip from your blanket, a woman you’ve only seen from afar comes hurtling into view, supported by senior eunuch Sang. Mother follows them in with a boy cradled in her arms. Red is splattered across their thin nightclothes, seeping through the fabric like a terrifying painting.
She ignores you, jerking her head further inside at the eunuch. “Over there, onto the bedding!” She spares you a single look. “Be quiet, okay?”
You nod as you stand, heart galloping in your chest. You somehow manage to shuffle over to the door, shutting it. When you turn back, Queen Jeonghui lies on her side, and mother is letting the boy down. He leans dizzily against the small table, red smeared all over his face. You press your lips together hard to stifle the noises of fear that want to erupt at the sight.
“Jungjeon-mama, please, you mustn’t move too much. Your wounds!”
Sang is frantically trying to hold the queen back but she keeps reaching out towards the crown prince with one of her arms. Even though she is shaking fiercely with strain, she cups his cheek, palm coming away bloodied but she keeps going back. “My son— My dear son— Yoongi-yah—” She chokes off on a sob. “Eun-a, help him first!”
“Put pressure on her wound.” Mother shoves a cloth towards Sang. “I will take care of him,” she says to the queen in a voice that might come off as soothing and calm, but you can hear the quiver. “I promise.” Using the nearby basin of water, she starts to wash his face. He looks especially tiny when he’s hunched over like this, only two years younger than you but that seems to make all the difference right now. But he doesn’t cry, doesn’t move a muscle. Just lets mother run the fabric over all the red.
“Oh!” A loud gasp slips from you when mother tilts his head up and you see the deep, jagged cut running down over his right eye, a stark contrast to his pale skin. It’s still so raw, and you can’t even begin to imagine how it hurts.
Mother’s gaze flashes to you and you think she might scold you. Instead, she snaps her fingers. “Bring me the salve. The brown one.”
You almost trip in your haste to get it to her. Up close, the angry red slit makes you want to cringe, but the prince stays still. Even as mother coats the cool balm onto the wound, which should most definitely sting, he stays still.
“How could this happen…?” The queen mutters as if in a trance as Sang pushes against her left arm, trying hard to stop the bleeding. “How could she do this?” Her eyes have glazed over, lost all their regal light. Every inch of her is trembling, sweat and tears matting her long hair. She rocks back and forth, back and forth.
“Please, I need to treat you,” your mother tries to say, but the queen’s not listening. “Your gash is much worse. I need to get to it now. Please, turn over.”
“Oh my precious, precious son—”
The prince does not even let out a whimper. He takes the hand closest to his mother and places it over her cheek. He waits until her water-logged eyes focus on him. “Mama, I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“…Thank the heavens.” With a delirious half-laugh, she finally rolls onto her back. Her eyes squeeze shut, riding out the adrenaline-ridden pain.
As mother starts to work, the prince doesn’t take his tiny hand away, nor does he allow a single tear to fall past his determined jaw. He just gives the queen tiny, strained smiles when her eyes flutter open every so often.
But you see it. You are the only one to see how he crushes his other hand into a secret fist so tight it leaves bruises that last for an entire week behind.
Later, mother tells you the official story: the crown prince had an accident with a few sharp stones. His mother had slipped while trying to help him. There is no reason for anyone to question the tragic incident that leaves the queen without use of her left arm for the rest of her life, and the prince with a scar that refuses to heal no matter what expensive balms are applied. No one questions the increased guard presence at their doors either. You are to keep their visit to your private room an absolute secret.
“But mom, why did she come to us at all?” You ask while she runs her fingers through your hair, braiding it. Other court physicians live in the palace too, ones much more experienced and higher ranked than your mother.
She pauses. Hums a single contemplative note. “Trust.” Then she never speaks of that night again.
Chapter 4: March 1858.
a visitor you never expected; a day you will never forget.
For the entire week leading up to March 9th, as it has been for the past eight years, the palace lights up with an anticipatory hum, a buzz of excitement. Queen Jeonghui is in especially high spirits as she oversees the thorough cleaning of the grand hall and the preparation of the customary celebratory dishes, made with lavish ingredients especially imported from foreign traders. For the eunuchs, the guards, and all the palace occupants, it’s a relief to see the queen so pleased after what had happened a few months prior. Even as she cradles her left arm, hidden by a swath of silk, the smile never leaves her lips as she thinks of the prince and his impending, official tenth birthday.
You don’t pay much attention to the festivities. Or to be more accurate, you don’t have time to. As much as you’d like to pretend, the decorations aren’t for you. Anyhow, your mother has been overwhelmed with work lately as one of the few uinyeo in the palace, and as the head of them all. You are but a fledging apprentice, still learning how to diagnose and properly treat the illnesses that so easily strike the ladies of the court. If only the male physicians could ease your mother’s burden. But social convention must be followed. Even tonight, on Prince Yoongi’s official birthday, she cannot join the feast even though she has been invited personally by the queen.
“Mom, Da-ri-nim’s cramping has gone down,” you report happily, steps a little lighter as you walk over to where mother is hunched over an assortment of herbs. She’s crushing ingredients together with a mortar and pestle.
“Oh? That’s wonderful.” Mother brushes away a few strands of hair from her face. “She should be stable for the rest of the night, but we should keep an eye on her.”
“To make sure she doesn’t bleed too much?”
She smiles. “That’s exactly right.”
“Is the new medicine done yet?”
You lean against the desk, watching how the small pot of water simmers above the fire. “I reeaally hope this one works.”
“Me too. The extra amount of mugwort should be effective. Do you remember its effects?”
“Hmm. Most useful for thinning blood, increasing circulation, and…” You look hopefully at her. “Relieving muscle pain?”
Much to your relief, she nods, pride swelling in her chest. “Smart girl.”
The music outside does a crescendo then, notes floating through the cracks of the doors with sounds of laughter. The drums pound out a practiced beat, seeming to shake the ground itself with revelry. You’ve seen the dancers practicing out in the courtyard a few days earlier, and you can only imagine how lovely they must look now, all dressed up in handcrafted skirts and gauzy scarves. You wish you could see it! You’ve always loved to dance. Used to try on mom’s only fancy pink hanbok even though it was much too big for you, then spin round and round and round in front of the mirror to watch the skirt float. She’d scolded you harshly after: how could you possibly dirty or ruin a present from the king himself?! The first gift she had ever earned for her essential help with delivering the precious crown prince. But there are always more dances and performances. This is more important, and that’s okay too.
“We’ll go next year.” Mother says as if she can read your mind (or maybe you’re just bad at hiding your disappointment). “I promise.”
Before you can respond, the door slides open.
One of the newer eunuchs stands in the frame, his face pale. “A dancer has collapsed! We didn’t want to move and bring her here, so please come with me!” He bows quickly, fingers twisted in the long folds of his sleeves.
“Understood.” Mother reaches aside for the parcel she keeps for emergencies. “Let it boil. Take care of the patients. We’re still going to celebrate after I get back, okay?” she says to you, then disappears with the eunuch.
You do as you’re told, checking on the women who lie on the beds. You replace the damp cloths on their foreheads that have become lukewarm with sweat, and help those who can up, so they can have some water. Many of them are recovering well from the ruthless winter sickness that swept through a whole group of maids; their fevers are mostly subsiding and coughs calming. Still, anything could happen.
When another noise comes from outside, you turn your head. Standing, you put one hand on the door handle and pull.
“Mom, did you forget—”
Your mouth drops slightly as you meet a dark gaze, one at your eye level and marred with a thin scar.
“W-Wangseja-jeonha!” You immediately drop into a bow, ninety degrees, with your back as straight as you can make it. You hold it for five long seconds. He’s still staring at you when you come up again. “M-May I ask why you are paying a visit here…?”
“I made Eunuch Kim sneak me away.” Despite his age, he sounds composed and mature, befitting a future king. He gestures casually beside him to where an exceedingly tall man stands, holding something covered with cloth. “Tray.”
Eunuch Kim steps forward, his cheek slightly indented from his polite smile as he takes away the covering to reveal a bowl, with silver utensils lying aside it. Steam rises immediately, transparent as it curls into the air alongside a comforting smell.
“Janchi guksu.” Celebratory noodles, which must have been brought directly from the feast. Undoubtedly prepared with the highest quality ingredients, and delicious. “It’s your birthday too, isn’t it?”
That was probably one of the last things you thought he’d say. Your heart squeezes; it’s a sort of weird, nervous glee at being unexpectedly seen. “T-That is—Yes! Oh, yes, it, it is!”
While you always thought it was fascinating coincidence to share the same birth date, you’d also long resigned to be overlooked by most in favor of him. Mother always brings you a new hairpin from town, and makes you savory seaweed soup in your own private celebration, and that’s enough. But now, to have the crown prince himself here! You haven’t seen him since that November night, and never this up close.
While his face remains impassive, it seems to soften at your smile. “Good. Then take this.”
You accept the tray that Eunuch Kim offers with grateful hands. You stare into the bowl with your heart pounding. “Can I ask… how did you know, seja-jeonha?”
“Mama told me.”
Your grin grows wider. Next to your mother, the queen has always been a role model of the kind of woman you’d like to be. Kind, beautiful, and endlessly caring. Even that night, she had put her son before herself. It seems the prince has learned compassion from the very best.
“I don’t know how to thank you. You didn’t have to trouble yourself, coming all this way.”
“Seja-jeonha. We only have a minute left,” the eunuch reminds in a soft voice.
The prince nods his acknowledgment. You expect him to walk away immediately, but he stays. “A king must protect and take care of his people. And… it’s a thank you. For that night.” He shifts his weight from one foot to another, almost nervous. “Eat well.” Only then does he stalk off with a swish of his opulent navy robes.
You stand there for a minute longer, watching him with admiration in your heart until your grumbling stomach makes you turn in.
Tonight, as the delicate noodles and light soup warm your body from the inside out, you make a promise to yourself. As you renew your fealty to the royal family, you add a new caveat, a second, private oath: unabridged loyalty to the crown prince, to the future king, to Min Yoongi himself.
Chapter 5: June 1868.
but trust is a fickle, fragile thing.
warning: character death.
In the long decade since the night you swore utter allegiance to the crown prince, you have done everything within your grasp to uphold the heart of the commitment you’ve made. Even as the prince becomes a king, even as beloved companions submit to the passage of time, and even as the adolescent declaration of obedience itself matures into instead a steady, affectionate support, you keep your word on all but one occasion. But it is this exact decision, this single withheld secret, that shifts both your worlds irrevocably.
“You must tell my son that it is a common illness. A simple recovery, and nothing more,” the queen had commanded you on a somber day in winter the year before as you knelt beside her bed, wiping blood from the corner of her pale lips.
“Daebi-mama.” Your voice broke on the last beat. “How long have you been hiding this?”
“Please.” Though her elegant fingers were weak, she covered your hands with a warm, pleading palm. “He doesn’t need any more distractions. Not now. Especially not ones that don’t have… simple solutions.” She squeezed then, with what strength she could muster, silencing all your protests. “If you want him to succeed - don’t tell him.”
And so, you hadn’t.
But while you agreed with the queen’s intentions, you continued to fight against the inevitability in a way that only you could. The last six months have been a frenzied haze. You blistered your feet scouring the markets, begging foreign traders for rare or sometimes strange ingredients that you could incorporate into draughts. You sought documents written in symbols you did not recognize, paying translators to parse out a phrase or even a glimmer that could help. You can’t even remember all the nights that you spent brewing, steaming, straining until the sun came over the horizon. But with each subsequent draft you secretly delivered to her bed, the queen only grew weaker.
All of this, you kept hidden from man you cared for most, justifying the guilt to yourself whenever he inquired after his mother.
But now. Now, when the king is staring with unblinking eyes at the pure white cloth draped over his mother’s body, you find that you don’t know a damn thing about what’s right anymore.
There are splinters in your chest as he takes one unsteady step towards the bed that you stand beside, hands folded in an act of repentance. His mouth opens, then closes, not a single noise passing between them for a century-long minute. All of your instincts urge you to turn away and allow him private space to grieve, but that’s your own cowardice at being faced with his sorrow, manifested in the quiver of his lip. You must put him first. You must be his witness, his pillar, even when your own heart tightens with grief.
He stumbles forward, feet clamoring over each other until he’s close enough to draw back the cloth, just enough to expose her face. His short, forcibly-suppressed exhale hits the wall. Yoongi jerks his hand away as if scorched, lets it hang numbly at his side. It’s with an indescribable expression that he takes in the familiar, softly wrinkled eyes. The pink lips that were so often curved in a warm smile. The arms that were generous enough to encompass an entire nation, but never neglected the ones closest. “Mama,” he says, voice still so tight as he takes another unsteady step, as if he needs to be closer. He’d seen her just last night. He had left her alone, and now—
It’s when his knee knocks against the hard wood, when he can truly go no further, that he plummets to the stark floor and a lonely sob rips straight from his throat. Goosebumps shoot up your arms at the noise, the visceral howl and all you can do is watch as Yoongi breaks with a shuddering gasp, “Mom.”
In this moment, it’s not a king that kneels before you, but a son. Someone’s precious child, with no one to stay strong for any longer and so he throws the entire mask away. Lets the tears finally spill over, staining the bedsheets with salt and heartache before he crumples them in a weak fist. Yoongi cries like he has never done, not since he was old enough to learn how much the word responsibility weighed on his head and how many millions of lives his body, not him, is worth. A stray tear falls on the queen’s cheek and his red-rimmed eyes follow how it rolls down her face as if she weeps at the thought of leaving him too, and he cries. He just cries, with the delicate perfume of plum blossoms fast fading around him.
Uselessly, you wish you could do something.
You wish you could have found a cure, a miracle or anything that could have bought him more time, even if it was only for a season more, or a single day. Really, it’s your own failure. You remain so fucking inexperienced, even after all these years. You should have told him. You should have tried harder. And it’s this shame that makes you reach out for him before you can think better of it, wanting nothing more than to hold him to offer a whisper of comfort and to say he’s not alone.
But when you touch him, he startles. Shifts back. Shifts away from you and you think he gathers the pieces of his crown and stitches them back together before you even have time to blink.
“Su-uinyeo-nim.” He cuts you off with the deliberate use of your full, formal title. He’s never called you such before, preferring your name during the weekly reports you made to him. The words feel sluggish on his tongue as if he thinks, as if he knows, you don’t deserve the role too. You find the strength to meet his watery, but no less intense stare, in time to hear him carefully ask— “Did you know?”
He doesn’t need to elaborate. Your fingers, lingering just an inch away from him, freeze and falter. Crumple into themselves, because you can’t give him the answer his darkening eyes say he hopes for. Or maybe that’s just you thinking too highly of yourself in his heart.
“Did you know?” He presses again, tone a little higher, voice a little more desperate.
But language is your next failure, and he is left to take your silence for the admission of guilt it is.
“Get out.” He stands, hovers protectively over the bed as if you are the danger, the outsider. “Your services—and you—are no longer required for her. You’ve done more than enough.”
Your legs shiver as you sink into a bow, quick. “Y-Yes, jeonha.”
Then your slippers are slapping against the hard floor, feet aching from the pace with which you flee from the suffocating room. Your chest burns with the want to scream that you loved her too. That you wanted to tell him so many times, almost did with a slip of a tongue, but wanted to spare his already overtaxed mind. That you tried your damned best but you just couldn’t save her, and so you lost her. And from that last glimpse of him through the closing door, hunched over alone and silently breaking, you know that you’ve lost him too.
Chapter 6: August 1868.
the gilded throne is, above all, lonely.
Alone atop his throne, King Yoongi does his best to stare down the almost two-dozen court officials that avert their eyes from him, standing from their proper place below the raised platform. His fingers, spread over the wooden armrests, tighten furtively.
“But jeonha! We believe it is the right decree, if we are to have any chance of quelling the rebellions.” The men beside the speaking advisor, Minister Choi, nod enthusiastically along.
“I do not believe it will be as effective as you think.”
Another advisor pipes up, his grey beard trembling. “If we execute the leaders, the rest of the uprising will lose their morale and cease their protests and ransacking. It will be the best method of control.”
“Please consider it, jeonha!” The rest of the men chime in a chorus, like birds that keep on fucking twittering in the morning when Yoongi just wants to sleep.
When he doesn’t respond immediately, Minister Choi interjects yet again. “Be assured that I only say this out of loyalty for your family,” even though his smarmy tone implies otherwise, “but this strategy has worked in the past for your father.”
Yoongi’s downturned mouth twitches then, betraying his deepening irritation. He despises that phrase. It’s true, his time on the throne doesn’t add up to two years. Most of the advisors here have been working in the palace for more than ten times that length, and they haven’t been afraid to challenge him at every turn. But he is the one on the throne, plagued with uncertainty or not. The decisions are his to be made, no matter how much he questions if they are correct.
Exhaustion pulls at his brain, wanting petulantly to dismiss all of the men for some temporary relief. It’s out of habit that he casts a glance to his right and his chest aches at the empty spot where his mother used to sit, offering him guidance or at the very least, comfort.
That one look starts up the murmuring, the not-so-subtle glances amongst the men, his psyche no doubt their concern. The blame all falls on him, he knows. Two months was too long to spend distraught. Without a strong leadership watching over the land, he’d been the one to give the rebels time to rally and flourish. His fault. His fault. His fault, and the skepticism towards his reign seems to spread faster than anything else.
“They are peasants!” Shit. His harsh voice cracks through the space, temper lost when it needed to be kept most. He’s horrifyingly aware that he sounds like a kid, throwing a tantrum when things don’t go his way. He hates those stares that seem to be mocking his authority, questioning it at every turn. What he wants to say is that the rebels are only lashing out because they’re hungry, because there’s not enough grain in the land to feed their families, but so what if he does? He doesn’t know how to fix that either. He doesn’t know what to do, when all these officials are looking to him for answers and he has nothing and every decision feels like it’s damning him or his people further. His people. All those people. If he can’t even control his court, how is he meant to rule the country?
“Peasant or not, they are breaking the law. Your laws, jeonha.”
Yoongi sets his jaw. Clenches his teeth so hard they hurt as tension fills his mind, shoving against his skull itself until the pressure is all he knows. The ache demands his attention, just like everything else, as if he isn’t just one man. But the reality is, he isn’t any longer. He is the king and he needs to do better. He needs to be stronger than this. He’ll lose control soon completely if nothing changes.
“Do it.” He forces his tongue to move. Tells himself it’ll be easier the next time. “Schedule the execution.” If this is what it takes, he’ll do it again and again and again until it’s enough.
The relief that sweeps through the room is instantly tangible. “Yes! We shall!” The men cry, dropping into a row of bows.
Yoongi’s already standing before they rise. He takes hurried, barely-controlled strides towards the door, issuing a firm “dismissed!” right before he bursts into the heat of the afternoon. The bright, sunny weather only feels stifling with all his robes dragging behind him. He kicks up dust clouds as he turns, not quite knowing where to go from here but craving something else, anything different to distract him.
“Jeonha!” Eunuch Kim’s voice rings out and Yoongi can hear the man’s steps trying to catch up but even the presence of his oldest companion irritates him right now.
“Leave me be,” he growls, and keeps going.
Stooped at the corner of the private palace gardens, you smile as you tend to the small collection of herbs your mother was allowed to plant here by the former king. They’re growing well these days, enjoying the bright sunshine that summer always brings. “It’ll be time to harvest you soon,” you murmur in-between your humming of a folk tune. You don’t get to check on these plants often since you live near the other uinyeo on the other side of the palace grounds, and well, being in such close proximity to the king’s quarters these days is… You’re just grateful he let you stay in the palace at all.
There’s a sudden clamor at the exact entrance you were trying to avoid.
Trepidation bursts in your heart as you look up, squinting in the sunlight to see the king entering the grounds at a startling pace. Despite your instincts telling you to flee, you don’t dare make any sudden movements for fear of drawing his attention. But you can’t seem to look away either, sleeves dragging in the dirt as you follow his rush to the pavilion, unconsciously holding your breath until he slams down onto the seat so furiously that you can hear it even across the pond.
Then, and only then, when he is half-shielded by the pavilion’s low walls, does he huddle into himself. Cradles his head in his own arms, shoulders heaving with the strain of deep, quivering breaths you are too far away to hear. But this time, you know that he doesn’t need you. He’d said it himself, and not a word more has he spoken to you in all these months, as if that awful point needed proving.
So you force yourself to stay exactly where you are, despite your wanting. You keep your distance, even when he’s crumbling before your eyes.
Chapter 7: October 1868.
it's a fine line between fear and respect.
warning: talk of death.
“Yet another execution? Are you certain?”
“Yes, another has been planned for two days from now.”
“How many is it this time?”
“Three men. All only suspected to be Japanese spies because they spoke a few words in the language.”
From your corner in the kitchen, investigating the medicinal properties of certain vegetables when made into a paste, you pretend like you’re not listening to the two women as intently as you can.
“But that’s the fourth in a month!” The young maid’s voice is too loud, ringing out across the kitchen. “Has he truly gone insane?”
“Shh!” The head cook, an older woman you’ve known since you were but a child, shakes her head furiously with her finger pressed over her lips. “Don’t let anyone catch you saying things like that. Now you’d better hurry and bring the king his dinner or he’ll cut your head off too.” Where these words would once have been said in jest, they now carry the heavy weight of a frightening reality as the maid nods. She soon speeds off with tray in hand to avoid such a fate.
The cook, Jinyoung-nim, presses her pale lips together, staring blankly at the rice porridge that bubbles away in the pot. Then, she calls your name in a soft tone.
You raise your head. “Yes?”
“Please, tell me if you can.” She hesitates. “Were you there at Minister Choi’s execution?”
At the mention of the name, you suck in an involuntary breath. You’ve tried not to think about that day for the past three weeks since it happened, but perhaps it was inevitable that all your efforts would be undone. “Yes. I… I was.”
“Is it true then? The rumors of jeonha’s…”
What can you do but nod?
The unwanted images flood your mind before you can even try to stop them.
That day in mid-September had been clear skies. You’d gathered in the public execution square, which in the past few months has seen so much spilled blood at King Yoongi’s commands that it sickens you to even think of it. Spies, rebels, and thieves alike now lost their lives every week, in addition to those behaving “suspiciously.” And if that wasn’t enough, the king had turned his bloodlust on his own court.
It was suddenly, on an inconspicuous day, that he began to hurl accusations of treason at Minister Choi. It was no secret that the king hated the man for all the oppositions to his decisions and his obsession with how things had been under the former king’s rule. That just made it all the more suspicious when a booklet of evidence appeared in the king’s possession out of nowhere, with just enough to sentence the Minister to execution.
You shouldn’t have gone to watch, but you couldn’t believe what they were saying. The king you knew would never have done such a thing, just to get rid of an annoyance. He couldn’t have fallen that far in so little time… right?
“Jeonha, I have never betrayed you!” Minister Choi, arms bound behind him like a common prisoner, had been dragged before the execution block. The king stood on the raised viewing platform, leaning against the wooden balcony with chilling ice in his stare. “You are making a mistake!”
“Please reconsider, jeonha!” Advisor Ra cried out in support of Choi. But he shut his mouth instantly when King Yoongi’s gaze flicked to him.
“Advisor Ra. Would you like to join him?”
Ra backed off, stepping back hurriedly in a bow but the threat lingered in the air. It hung over everyone in attendance like a chokehold, a feeling that was becoming too common these days. Standing in the shadows of a nearby building, you trembled at the foreignness of that blank look on his face, at the ease with which he now offered death to those who were meant to aid him. He didn’t so much as flinch when the executioner stepped up with his freshly sharpened weapon.
It was over in a second.
Most had been watching Choi’s last moments but you were still searching the king’s face for any semblance of the man he used to be. But as the sword swung down, his lips curled into a smile that was maniacal, almost crazed. His serrated scar had seemed so much redder in that light, stretched across his cheek as he held the wild grin for a moment more before he disappeared into the room, leaving his carnage and the tattered shreds of your hope behind.
Your mind does not allow you to forget it - that terrifying look. You’re afraid it’ll replace the other memories you have of him, the ones you hold so dear that slip more and more from you as the days pass.
“He really… smiled.” Jinyoung exhales at the end of your retelling, a long and tired sound.
You nod, wishing you could tell her otherwise. But you both know the changes are undeniable.
The citizens that formerly deemed him weak and useless now dread drawing his attention at all, lest they find themselves on the execution square. However, most of the rebellions across the land have ceased. Crime has been less rampant, though present still, and foreign invasion is less of a possibility with the spies (and those merely suspected of being such) taken care of. Objectively, the king carries out his proper duties and protects the land. But at what cost?
The kitchen door slams open.
It’s the same maid as before, looking absolutely frantic.
“I forgot! I forgot the rice!” Her eyes are wide in dread, hair flying loose from her up-do as she must have run all the way here. She finds the silver bowl on the counter, left behind in her haste. “Jeonha is going to kill me. He’s going to have me beheaded, or at the very least tortured and—”
“Don’t worry.” You put both hands on her shoulders, feel her entire body shudder violently beneath you. “I will bring it to him.”
“Uinyeo-nim, a-are you sure? What if he…”
You shake your head, grab the container and just go. You can’t believe he would do such a thing for such a tiny mistake, but the fresh horror in the maid’s eyes burrows right into your heart.
See, you hadn’t told Jinyoung everything. You left out all the excuses you’ve made in these past months to the guards to gain access to the gardens while the list of executions piled higher, matching the number of disheveled prisoners thrown in the cells. You spent practically every hour you could spare among the trees, waiting for the chance that the king would show and reveal some tiny sign of lingering humanity like he did that humid August day. But he never once came. This time, you’re going right to him.
When you reach his expansive chambers, walk through the corridors, the area is noticeably devoid of people, save for a few necessary guards. Very few dare to venture out here unless they absolutely need to now. You were expecting this, though it still makes you uncomfortable to witness. The door to the king’s dining room is firmly closed, with the low table of food already brought inside.
“Jeonha, I have brought your rice. Forgive me for forgetting it,” you say, wondering if he would even recognize your voice after all this time.
There’s no sign of acknowledgment, or even that he hears you in the first place, but you insist on waiting a long, pensive minute.
In the end, you’re only left with nothing yet again, feeling silly for having expected anything else. Silly, for letting yourself be in this position again and again for him.
“I’ll place the bowl outside. Let me know if there is anything else you require.” Your voice sounds weak, having lost most of its fight. Then you turn on your heel, and leave him.
Chapter 8: November 1868.
but you've always been his, haven't you?
contains: mentions of death, unhealthy relationship dynamics (but era-appropriate; you know how it goes), explicit sexual content, longing.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If there is one inevitability in life, it is that time goes on.
You, like everyone else under King Yoongi’s reign, simply do your best to survive with your head intact. With the ground now mostly frozen over with ice, you have no reason to visit the gardens, and honestly, it becomes less of a loss by the day. You have your hands full with work; the worsening winter always means a higher possibility of catching an illness for the court ladies, and so you are left with little time to think of the king. Willful ignorance is a powerful defense mechanism when even the mere mention of him brings a frown to your lips and a lingering pressure in your chest.
But it is impossible not to think of him today, on the 11th of November. What would have been Queen Jeonghui’s birthday, but is instead a day of mourning.
All official business has more or less halted for the day. The entire palace is somber, the occupants moving through familiar routines feeling numb from more than just the cold. You are among their number, having finished all the work that could distract you while the sun set. Now, you wander in the pitch dark, through the open corridor towards your quarters with heaviness in every step.
You miss her laugh. The queen had always treated you like one of her own, asking after your interests, new discoveries, and health even while her own dwindled. You miss hearing the stories of her surprisingly rambunctious life before she came to court. You miss the brightness in her voice when she spoke of the hopes she had for the future of the kingdom, and for her precious Yoongi. You blink away a tear as your journey comes to its end.
In your small but private room, you begin to undo the straps of your hanbok with the relieving sense that this day is almost over. Stripped to your undergarments, you’re eager to crawl beneath the warm blankets and let blissful sleep take you into tomorrow as soon as your eyes shut.
Except sleep is not easily persuaded to come tonight, as you soon learn.
Even when you force your body to stay still as long as possible, even when you try to block out all thought and simply imagine blankness before you, you remain no closer to dreams, forcibly stuck in this bleak reality. That’s when your exhausted mind begins to wander to places most dangerous, even though you already vowed to stay far, far away.
You wonder whether the king is alone in his grief tonight. Has he eaten properly, or has he completely shut himself away? Does he even have enough heart left to mourn from all you’ve witnessed these past months?
(This last thought is what makes you ache the most, despite yourself.)
Then a quiet voice mutters your name from outside.
You blink and look up, uncertain whether it was just the wind. Who would it be at this late hour anyway? Who would be so bold as to call your name and not your title? But then the sound comes again, louder this time with some impatience in the syllables, and you realize exactly whose voice it must be.
Scrambling to your feet with the chill of losing the blanket sweeping over you, you have a split second to decide between keeping him waiting and having a proper appearance. You land somewhere in the middle, pulling on a loose, long jeogori that was once your mother’s before throwing the door wide open before you can think it through.
Damn all the odds.
It really is him.
In the moonlight, his hair seems almost ethereal with the way most of it cascades loosely around his shoulders. It’s fine, pale gold, spilling across the crimson dye of the royal robes that have been left slacker than is normally allowed in public company. There’s still a hardness in those midnight eyes, a set obstinacy in lips twisted down for a scowl that seems all too inherent to him now.
“Jeonha,” you exhale, more breath than sound.
How are you meant to receive him after all that has happened?
Wordlessly, he moves forward. You flatten yourself against the wall to allow him entry into your tiny home, your world without question, just like you always have. His sleeves brush past you as he walks and the incredibly subtle scent of plum blossoms begins to swirl around the air, so familiar it brings a hot sting to your eyes in an instant.
“Shut the door.” His voice is biting, forcing you to drop the question.
You have little choice in the matter. When you turn back to face him, this room feels about three times smaller with the imposing aura that emanates from him. He has never felt more like a king to you than now, staring at you down his nose like he holds your life in his palm. At this distance, you fear he can hear the palpitations of your treacherous heart.
“Um.” You involuntarily wrap your hands around your stomach, trying to calm the jitters. “…How may I help you, jeonha?”
His lips curl in a smirk, but there is no real humor in it. “You must know the only thing a man and woman can do alone at night?”
Surprise is so blatant on your face that it amuses him; the smirk grows wider but remains empty still.
“You— You wish to do that?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Did you or did you not say to come if I had anything I required?”
He remembered. He knew it was you. A part of you thaws, just an inch.
“Still— Must… Must it be tonight?” Of all nights.
“It has to be.”
You swallow, dry. All you know of the act are the medical descriptions and consequences of such copulation as written out in your studied texts. To think of such a thing occurring in real life— to even consider it with the king! It was beyond your wildest thoughts, even when you used to let your childhood fantasies soar. But even more ludicrous than that, for him to consider being with you, a mere uinyeo when all the ministers routinely brought their high-born daughters to court in hopes of tempting him… “W-What of the court ladies, the ones waiting to be made concubine…?”
At your last word, he scowls like a bolt of lightning, gone before you can confirm that it was there at all. “I see.” He shifts, as if already prepared to leave. “I should have gone to them first.”
Your stomach drops.
The prospect of a random woman wrapping herself around him in seduction, holding him closer than he’s ever been to you… You wince. The mere thought of how he might fit against her, leave a part of himself inside her body, strikes envy deep into your mind. Especially when you consider all that could follow such an intimate act.
You know it’s not your place to be so concerned; it never has been, but damn it. Here he is in front of you, and not them. That has to mean something.
“No!” You blurt out, and watch his face darken with satisfaction. That in itself makes you fiercely aware of how much he has changed but still, you say, “no. Don’t… don’t go.”
In a stroke of boldness, you slip the jacket from your shoulders and let it fall to the floor.
It all happens so quickly.
Grasping your arm, he brings you to him with one strong tug. Invades your space with his heat. You’ve never been this physically close before but you are given no time to savor it. Your eyes search his for a hapless second before he forces his gaze away with a light whip of his hair. For a second, you think like he might kiss you, but that particular touch never comes.
“Bed.” The air around the word makes it sound like he’s rushing as he pulls you both towards the mussed bedspread, but of course it’s not that. It’s almost laughable, the thought that he would want so badly to claim you as his. It’s more likely that he wants any warm body beneath him, and you happened to be the most convenient.
As he pushes you to the floor, as he begins to strip you of your undergarments, your mind struggles to set aside your worries and the rest of the world with it to focus on the feeling of his unobstructed fingers on the skin he reveals with each passing second. For a moment, it works. For a moment, all you know is the heat of his desire as he throws aside most of your coverings, then discards his own as if they were nothing more than cleaning rags. Staring at his bare body for the first time, you take in all the lean muscle that make up his chest, the paleness of his skin that brings to mind the word delicate. It’s at complete odds with the ugliness that’s surrounded him for so long and really, you don’t know what to believe anymore as he rakes his eyes over you too.
You’re shivering. Keenly aware of your nakedness, made even more stark when your king practically fixes you to the floor with his presence alone. He must know this is all new to you, that he’s the only one able to put you in this position even after everything he’s done. But will that afford you the tenderness you so crave? Your pulse thunders in your ears as you await the answer.
“Turn over. On your hands and knees.”
Your breath hitches.
He doesn ’t even want to look at your face.
You choke back the emotion that yearns to spill over, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing exactly how he affects you when he doesn’t allow you the same luxury. You’re stronger than this, even though your fears have just been confirmed. That this, his broad hand harshly squeezing your ass, is the only reason he broke through the thick wall of silence between you. That he treats you just like any other woman, not one he’s known all his life.
What does it say about you that you’re still willing to give him everything?
His other hand trails down your back as if lightly scratching an invisible character there. Then, when he reaches for your sokgot, the last bit of cloth left to you, it truly hits you that there will be no going back from this. Not after he physically carves himself into your memory. It makes you unthinkingly tense up; in turn, the hands against you stutter to a pause.
The silence feels thick, smothering. Then—
“Are you afraid of me?”
You say it before you can decide whether it’s the truth or merely what you wish would be the truth.
He leaves you wondering if that was the answer he wanted and resumes, undoing the ties, pulling away the layer that wants to cling to the slight wetness between your thighs. Evidently not one for wasting time, and why would he linger when he just wants an easy release anyway, he runs the tip of his thumb down your slit before pushing eagerly into your heat. The lewd moan that you emit is a noise you’ve never made before, and it makes your face burn with shyness.
You’ve touched yourself like this perhaps three times ever, more out of medical curiosity than anything. You didn’t quite see a point in it when it just left you feeling lonely once the high faded. But under your king’s control, it feels maddeningly new. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what he’s going to do next, like when he suddenly pushes in a second finger and you feel the spike of pain work its way through your limbs before giving way to the next wave of pressure. It’s just almost too much to take, his insistent kneading against your dripping walls.
“Your cunt is so fucking tight. Just for me? Only take my fingers like this?” He feeds you another finger when you nod, huffing a smirk at your whine. The unfamiliar words are as harsh as his hands. You’ve never heard him like this, so rough and cocksure, practically an utter stranger. But a stranger could never bring out such overwhelming emotions in your chest, your poor, confined heart.
Your legs are soon shaking with the strain of holding up your weight when pleasure and pain war so intensely in your body; but you don’t dare collapse in surrender, even though this has always been a losing battle. Not even when he rears back, replacing his cream-slick hand with what you think is the blunt head of his cock. He whets it along your folds and it feels so much thicker, intimidating like the rest of him. But you want it. You realize then just how much you want it, even if this is all you’ll have of him when it’s over.
He leans over you, hot breath whisking across your back, a palm on your hip. “I’m your first.” It sounds like a boast. “No one else.”
“No.” You shake your head. “No one else.”
And he takes his first stroke.
Hisses when he feels you squeeze around him, and you wonder if this is his first time too. Then you have to force yourself to stop thinking about that altogether, afraid that the real answer might hurt more than this: the ache of being spread apart with every brutal, solid inch, filled too quickly by a man who doesn’t seem like he could take things slow even if he wanted to. He keeps shoving forward, biting down every surfacing grunt as his nails dig into your waist and it hurts. It hurts so much but you grit your teeth, refusing to back down because you need him to know that you can take this. Even when your mouth feels drier with every yelp, every moan, you tell yourself it’ll be easier the next time he wants to have his way with you. Right now, that seems better than not feeling him at all.
“This cunt,” he finally growls when he bottoms out, for once sounding so unbridled that goosebumps speed down your weakening arms. But you find yourself liking the sound, craving it even as he pauses to catch his breath.
The first few thrusts are slightly awkward. Just his hips bumping against your ass as he tries to find his footing. It doesn’t take long until he picks up a rhythm. Starts to slam into you, jolting you forward. Soreness starts to grow exponentially with a foreign feeling you think might just be pleasure spreading throughout all of you. You concentrate on that in lieu of your knees forced repeatedly against the hardness of the wooden floor, the bedding too thin to provide any real comfort.
“Jeonha,” you gasp on a particularly deep thrust, and he seems to like that. Strokes faster in response (or perhaps reward). You don’t even register that you’re half-smiling when he does, having learned something about him that is privy to only the two of you.
On top of that, he can’t seem to stop touching you. It goes beyond the way he fucks into you, more into how he can’t stop exploring the expanse of your back with his nails or with his mouth, sucking stinging marks into your body. It’s as if he needs to have as much skin contact with you as he will allow himself, needs to feel your warmth just as much as you crave his. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but you try again with a hoarse, “jeonha.” He gives it to you harder, rousing, stoking that dangerous tension.
You don’t even notice his mouth beside your ear until— “Mine.”
He claims you, and something inside you melts. Not a particularly powerful feeling but a sea change nonetheless, a weak peak that ripples out, thrums through you both. He allows you to submit to the sensation for a few scarce seconds before he tears himself away, leaving you to pulse around nothing, whimpering from the emptiness. You barely recognize the sound of skin on skin friction but suddenly, heat splatters across your back, white painting itself over your skin as he gives one, elongated exhale and it’s over.
The king backs up, shifts away. Lets any lingering warmth between you dissipate into the ice air of winter, but this time he holds your gaze with a certain firmness, as if trying to pluck out the slivers of truth in your expression. In his eyes, the thin scar ever carved down the right, you find only more depths. Fathomless, endless depths – dark and painful still.
this one was... difficult.
Chapter 9: December 1868.
just how much would you give up for him?
“Excuse me, the king said what?”
You stand in the doorway of your room, mouth agape as you stare with incredulity at Eunuch Kim. By all means a gentle man, he looks taken aback by your sudden burst of defiance and you don’t blame him for it. It is so unlike you to drop composure in public, but you couldn’t help it just this once because—
“He has commanded you to move,” he repeats.
To uproot the home you’ve made of this tiny space, to leave the people you’ve lived and worked beside your entire life. How far would he have you go? Out of the palace grounds, out of the town even? Would across the country be enough now that he wanted to be rid of you?
“He has prepared Hamhwadang Hall for you.”
The world around you freezes to ice as you process the words that have somehow made all of this more confusing. “W-What?” Your eyes narrow, blinking rapidly in confusion. “Is it not currently occupied?”
He shakes his head. “No. Jeonha has moved the women that remain into the residence next door, whether they wished to go or not. And if you so want, he will move them further.”
Eunuch Kim might as well be speaking Chinese with how much you understand this.
The king means to give you the entire hall? The one right next to his secluded gardens, where you have once again taken to occasionally wandering through? It’s much, much too big for any one person, especially with the minimal amount of possessions you have to your name. It all makes no sense, though that would perhaps suit his actions as of late. No sense, unless he wants you… closer.
Closer, like he is practically every other night since the first. Fucking you into an abused pillow, getting steadily louder with his moans while he leaves imprints on your body by any means necessary. Carnal when a strong hand wraps around your throat, needing the reassurance that you are bent to his whim as if all of this wasn’t already enough. Only recently, and only the once, has he spun you around to face him. You had been greedy in taking in the debauched sight of his need: the scowl, the flushed cheeks, the pools of sweat glistening on his bare skin. That night, the insistent nudge of his crotch against your clit in this new position brought you to your first proper climax, one that had left you a shivering mess for long after he had gone.
Closer. Yes, if you lived in the hall, he would have more privacy to come and go as he wished, with a few less sets of prying eyes. He could have more time to take what he wanted, without worry of being overheard by your neighbours. There comes that word again, surfacing in your mind regardless of your efforts to tamp it down. Convenient. That is what you are, among the other things that have begun to make their rounds through the palace in attachment to your name in lieu of your proper, working title.
Eunuch Kim’s expression turns awkward, apologetic as your emotions wane right in front of him. “If possible, he wishes for you to complete the move by tomorrow evening. But I can attempt to reason with him for some more time if you would like it. I would try to change his mind entirely, but you and I both know that he…”
You shake your head. “Thank you, but it’s alright. I’ll move. I can do it in that time. There’s not much.”
“Jeonha... I believe he is planning to move your apothecary area into the building as well. It’ll be bigger, if he does. Possibly open up a second infirmary too.”
You can tell that he’s trying to comfort you and for that, you muster a small smile. “That would be nice. I could always use the space, though I never thought there would be this much of it.”
He smiles back, cheeks dimpling slightly.
“I will begin packing then,” you say. You have an hour before you go to bed, and you might as well make the most of it. Even if your haste is partly stirred by wanting to put off the coming of morning.
Tomorrow, you’ll have to break the news to your fellow uinyeo. Really, this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, now that your initial shock has worn away. The women… involved with the king are often given a few luxuries, but since it is impossible for you to become an official concubine, not even a sanggung with the lack of blue in your blood— how strange this must look. How much the palace will talk, uncaring about whether you overhear them or not because what can you do about it? You’re nothing more than a woman who has forever lost her chastity and gained nothing in exchange.
You wrap your arms around yourself, the cold suddenly working through your hanbok more acutely.
“I shall send a few of the junior eunuchs to assist you in the afternoon.” The soothing voice separates you from your thoughts. “If that’s alright with you.”
“Yes. Thank you.” You should let him go; the wind is starting to pick up and you don’t want him to fall ill. But instead you murmur on instinct, “Namjoon-ssi...” It feels a little strange on your tongue since you haven’t called him that in so many years, but it makes his eyes soften. “Am I— Am I doing the right thing?”
“You’re doing the best you can.” Another smile, though this one is worn, tired around the edges. You think his words could apply to himself too. “Please. Sleep well.”
“...I will try.” You bow, and part.
Against the door, looking at the room you are so soon to leave, you breathe a small sigh.
After tomorrow, you will be living mere minutes from the king. Tomorrow, you will likely be beneath him again, submitting to the calloused hands that move roughly against your curves, the bite of his teeth at the nape of your neck. You’ll lose yourself in the feeling and let it linger as long as you can, even though this is never how you imagined having (if this even is such) the king, the man, the boy you fell in love with at fifteen.
Chapter 10: May 1861.
here, the world vanishes and you are unafraid to dream, to want.
You knock three times, three short raps, then push open the door to the crown prince’s private library. Sunlight invades the room unabashedly through the intricate window design, bathing the entire space in the warmth of a spring pleasantly acquiescing to summer. You inhale the scent of the aged wooden bookshelves and the worn paper they house. You feel yourself finally relax, having worked all the morning away.
At first, with the silence, you think you’re alone. You try to brush off the disappointment as you wander among the shelving, trying to decide what you will study today. You’ve just pulled a collection of herb properties off the rack when there’s a rustling, a crisp page turned with a careful hand.
“You’re back again?”
The drawl is only reserved for especially lazy times and it seems today is one of them as you peer through the newly-made book hole to find the prince lounging comfortably on the seat beneath the window. He shifts back when you make brief eye contact, drawing in the socked feet on the bench to make room.
“Yes, seja-jeonha. I’m back.”
It’s been three months since he gave you permission to access this normally off-limits space, as you mentioned needing more books to study with in conversation with Eunuch Kim. The first time you came had been profusely awkward: two bodies sitting stiffly across the room, too acutely aware of possibly being scrutinized by the other person to get anything done. But you tried again. And again. Soon, you were stealing away to the library whenever it was possible, if only for half an hour. It gradually became natural for you to share the widest seat, where the most sunshine reached (to ease the strain on your eyes, he reasoned). It didn’t take long after that before you were both ditching your rigid shoes, facing each other while he brought his knees up and you crossed your ankles, taking care that your chima skirt covered anything inappropriate.
Why he still insists on acting as if he’s surprised that you’re here, you don’t know. But you’re happy to play along if it means these afternoons keep going.
“Table,” he says, not even looking up from his book.
Okay… Still holding the text you picked up earlier, you shuffle to the desk on the other side of the room and gasp.
“Oh, this is— No…!” You abandon the herbs tome. You struggle to keep your fingers delicate through the excitement as you reach for the new book next to it, one you’ve been wanting to read for so long but could never find for its scarcity. You’d gushed about it to the prince just last week, about how it combines folk stories and myths with factual information of flower species from all across the country. “Seja-jeonha! Did you find this? How did you manage such a thing!”
“No, I didn’t. It arrived with the other books yesterday by chance.”
You don’t quite believe him as you clutch the book close to your chest in glee, practically dancing on your way to the bench. “Thank you,” you say, taking a seat on the spot you’ve started considering yours.
“It was not me,” he insists.
“Thank you so much.” You wiggle slightly, settling in with a wide smile as you watch him refocus on his reading harder, even though you both know he hasn’t turned the page in quite a few minutes.
Even as you peel open the cover of the precious text though, there’s something that captures your attention a bit more. It’s the way the sun has shifted, rays falling differently onto Yoongi’s face to kiss the pale skin beneath his sleepy eyes before scattering out across his cheeks. How the light dapples across the nose that occasionally scrunches in irritation at the countless dust particles floating around, haloing him in a golden glow that you wish you could capture in your memory for safekeeping (and later revisiting, when you inevitably feel the twinge of yearning).
Seeing this view... you think. You want. You wish for this moment to go on for a lifetime. Such desires have never been so startlingly intense and the thought alone is a terrifying one as soon as it slips into your mind but the feeling, the feeling settles in your heart like it has always been there, steadily beating away just beneath your skin.
Yoongi looks up and you snap your head away to the side so hard your neck cracks.
Your face heats with the embarrassment at being caught and you insist on pretending you were looking out the window at the garden, the multicolors bursting into vivacity. You hadn’t noticed the violet flowers coming in but now they seem to be on their way to full blossom, and the sight tugs a smile to your lips. The lotus too, beginning their cycle to beautify the pavilion even more. You’ll ask mother to take you on a walk through the garden soon, under guise of plant care.
“Books are for reading, you know.”
“Huh? Oh. I’m sorry.” It’s an automatic apology, but you know he doesn’t mean it by the gentle half-smile, half-scowl on his face. “It’s just that the pavilion is my favorite. I can’t help admiring it.”
“Why? It’s practically falling apart.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.”
He hums a noncommittal noise.
You let the subject drop, finally turning to your reading. It’s usually how these days go. Part of you has always wondered if he remembers these brief, but precious words you exchange before the silence takes over; the weighted book sitting in your lap seems to be all the proof you need. So, you sit back. Enjoy this brief respite from reality with dreams quietly blooming in your chest.
“What are you thinking so hard about? You’ll get wrinkles that way.” Later that night, facing you beneath her blankets, mother shakes a hand free to tap you on the forehead.
“Nothing much…” But you can’t stop the sliver of giddiness that runs through you when you think of today and that wonderful book. “I just… I think that I might like someone a lot.” The other L-word feels too big, too heavy to be used right now, even if it’s the right one.
“Oh?” To your great relief, mother knows better than to ask the identity of this mystery person. Just smiles with a fondness that makes you feel even more fuzzy inside. “Are you going to tell them?”
“I don’t think so. But that’s fine. It wouldn’t make a difference either way.” From the very beginning, you’ve known that the distance between you is too vast to ever be breached. To not fall would have been the most painless, but in hindsight, impossible. If concealing the truth will allow you to be close to him, then maybe that will be enough for someone like you.
Mother rolls onto her back. “It’s your choice.” She shuts her eyes. Just as you think she’s drifted off, she says, “just remember that you are always deserving of love. No matter what.”
You think about those words for a long time until you finally fall asleep.
Chapter 11: October 1864.
but nothing gold can stay.
warning: mentions of death
They said it was an accident.
She had slipped reaching for a precious herb around the side of the cliff. It had been raining the night before so the stones had still been damp. Too damp to support the weight that had been placed a smidgen too far, a tad bit wrong and then mother was just… gone. They couldn't stop the bleeding in time. And even though you told her to be careful with a warm smile that morning, even though she said she would be back very soon with a pat of your head, none of that means anything anymore.
You stare at the empty, unused bedspread beside yours and feel the warm wetness slide down your numb cheeks. You barely register the tears. Not when they've become so commonplace.
It's been three days since they gave you the news; it's been three days since you've ventured outside this room. It hurts so much to stay here but you are afraid it might hurt more to leave. If not for the kind person leaving meals outside your door (you managed to make out a swish of green robes once; one of the eunuchs it seems), you surely would have starved. But even the heat of the rice porridge doesn't seem to spread through your body, your fingers stiff and cold from lack of use.
Mother would absolutely scold you if she saw you like this.
It was she who always insisted on being independent, regardless of the strict rules that society placed on your gender and your rank. She taught you how to make the best of the resources you had, but also never to take any opportunities for granted when they came by chance. She is the best person you will ever know, and you… you owe it to her to take care of yourself.
Borrowing her strength, you push up from the blankets. You've relied on the mystery benefactor enough. You can get yourself a cup of hot water, damn it. Wrapping your mother's coat around your hanbok, her scent hugging you in comfort, you pad down the halls towards the kitchen with your head bowed.
It's a bit of a walk down, but the air helps clear some of the fog in your mind, even if you know it'll soon return in the end. Having a goal helps move you forward. That's all you need right now. To just keep going.
"Jeonha has issued a full funeral procession for her?"
Your quiet steps hesitate just as you cross the closed door of one of the tea rooms. The words worm directly into your brain. The voice is vaguely familiar, one of King Min's concubines maybe? But there is no chance that they would be talking about...
"Yes, for a mere uinyeo! Who would have thought?" A second speaker, this one harsher, sharper. She punctuates with a laugh.
With a frown, you move closer. Pretend to inspect a piece of the building tile that has come loose.
"She did help deliver the crown prince all those years ago. That would buy her some favoritism."
"Hmph. That wouldn't warrant such a fuss as this. But... I did hear that jeonha picked her off the streets himself, and that's how she first entered the palace. Imagine that — a cheonmin coming to live here!"
"But that’s not all one of the maids told me. That cheonmin…” Her voice lowers so you barely catch it. “She gave birth not long after to her daughter."
Another low laugh. "You don't think it’s the king’s bast—"
You rip away from the door, desperate not to hear the end of that sentence.
You’re going to be ill. Violently so. Or burst into the room and do something you’ll heavily regret later. Your feet move so fast you nearly fall over as you back away from the room, clutching the jacket before turning. You run back the way you came, water forgotten, the fresh sting of tears in your eyes.
Is that what they have thought of your mother all this time? Twisting her hardships and the kindness of the king into something so dirty when they knew nothing of the truth. Speculating so wildly when it was your father had abandoned you both. The truth: mother had been near death when the king happened upon you. She used the resources he allowed her to teach herself literacy, and then proper medicine to repay him with a lifetime of pure, untainted loyalty.
You throw aside the door to your room with a furious slam. You’ve never wanted so badly to break something, anything as you scan the place. Your temper flares hotter when you think of all the times mother refused to come to bed and rest because she was too concerned about the concubines and women like them who came so frequently to her for help. She talked to them, hand-fed them, cared for them. She sacrificed so much and this is how they thank her—
You make a wild grab and your hands land on unfolded laundry.
The first smack of it on the floor feels good. No permanent damage but the exertion of grabbing and hurling towards the ground is a like welcome release.
You do it again, again, again, something so deeply satisfying about seeing everything precise rumple and come undone before you as a result of your own actions. Not anyone else’s. Not even the universe’s. You snatch up another handful and prepare to throw.
“You’re packing? You’re leaving?” It’s a sharp voice, bordering on frantic.
It’s the prince, holding a pastry box, his eyes blown uncharacteristically wide with surprise. If this were any other time, you’d probably laugh at his thinking this scene has any semblance of proper intention and order.
“No,” you snap. But then you consider it.
You… You could leave, couldn’t you?
After all, there’s nothing tying you here any longer. Being in the palace will only remind of you of life before she was ripped away. The memories of her smile and her love have yet to scab over and you’re so terrified that they’ll always be there as festering, chafing wounds. You could still serve and be loyal to your king from within the town walls. Maybe open that clinic mother often talked about as a wild dream. It’d be difficult, so difficult, but you could maybe run it yourself, with a few helping hands. Yes… Yes, you could!
The more you think about it, the more you want to do it. An escape from this suffocating place. The easy way out.
“Actually, yes,” you hear yourself saying. “Leaving.”
No one would miss you, a cheonmin’s daughter. The thought of those women and their poisonous words makes you scrunch your fist, only to find you’re still holding clothes. Your heart catches when you realize it’s mother’s blouse. Yours now, you suppose. Yours to take with you and never look back.
Your heart leaps as you jerk your gaze up.
You shake your head. “The uinyeo will be fine. All of them are more experienced than me.”
“No, they won’t be.” He grits his teeth. “They need you.”
“Seja-jeonha, I—I don’t belong here.”
“Bullshit.” Always stubborn to the end. “Stay.”
The way he looks at you now… you’ve never seen it before. The wobbling of his lip. The irregularity of his breath. It’s like he is truly, completely uncertain. Almost to the point of fear. As if he knows that your paths won’t cross again if he lets you leave now.
“Stay,” he says again, and you think of mother. You think of how much she loved living here where it was safe. How much she loved helping the women even if some of them were undeserving of it in the end. You think of the queen, and the affectionate kindness she always extends to you without fail or question. Then you look at Yoongi. At that charcoal storm in his eyes, and you think maybe there’s more left here for you than you thought.
You draw in a deep, quiet breath.
Chapter 12: Interlude: September 1865.
yet, even the darkest night must break to dawn.
As the sun dips steadily into the horizon, Prince Yoongi pulls open the door to the male infirmary to find it relatively quiet.
Working on the bed immediately inside, you look up with delight. “Seja-jeonha!” Your voice may be hushed, but the joy in it is indisputable. (Yoongi quickly suppresses his instinctive smile.) “Good evening. You’re here to check on the patients again?”
“Seja-jeonha,” the two male physicians echo with bows.
“Yes,” Yoongi says, walking in until he stands by your side. “They are my people, after all. And how are they?”
“Doing well. This soldier,” you gesture with a hand at the man before you, “we were most worried about, but he’s beginning to recover. The doctors shouldn’t need me anymore after tomorrow, but I’m glad I could help. I learned so much.” Your smile is easy, content.
Yoongi likes that look on you. It’s only in the past few months that it’s really started to return, though he understands why. He’s never had to deal with the pain of losing a parent, but he can imagine how scary it must be. For the first few months, though you stayed, you lived in the palace like a ghost. You rarely dropped by the library anymore, and when you did, you were silent, save for clipped greetings and farewells. Even when Yoongi commanded Eunuch Kim to bring you secretly pilfered treats from royal tributes, you barely acknowledged them. It bothered him more than he cared to admit. But slowly, day by day, you’ve been becoming yourself again.
Crossing his arms, Yoongi watches you change the patient’s bandages. You’re quick, and skilled enough to do it without hurting or jostling the man too much. That’s why the doctors had asked for your assistance in the first place. In the past year, you’ve more than proven yourself to have a natural affinity for medicine. But more than your aptitude for memorizing facts and properties is your passion. Yoongi can see it, can feel it, how much you love your work just as your mother had. It makes him feel somehow proud, though he can’t explain why.
“The bandages have been changed, uiseng-nim,” you report to the head doctor.
He nods. “You may take your leave.”
You bow, and prepare to do exactly that. You were clearly not expecting Yoongi to come with you, for you give a little start when you turn to close the door and almost slam it in his face.
“I’ll walk with you.”
“Oh gosh, no, please don’t trouble yourself. It’s not far away.”
Yoongi frowns. “Are you going to question the prince?”
You instantly shut your mouth and he lets out a rare, low chuckle. Then he starts walking towards your quarters, leaving you to catch up behind him.
As you walk side by side, you swing your head up and let out a noise of wonderment. “Wow, the moon is beautiful tonight.” It’s not quite full yet, but it’s so bright, suspended in the sky amidst a smattering of stars and a few stray clouds.
“Mhm.” He looks only briefly before turning back to you. “It’s Chuseok soon.”
“That’s right! I’ve been helping the maids prepare their special hanbok for the palace celebration. Jungjeon-mama is planning some very extravagant events this year, I’ve heard.”
“Yeah, she is. But the town is celebrating too.”
You give a tiny sigh. “Oh, I know. Mom used to take me every year, back when I was a kid. Oh, they would always be the most wonderful nights. They had the paper lanterns, the music, the dancing. And ssireum! Mom always loved the wrestlers.” Your smile is one tinged with memory and wistfulness, but to your credit, you don’t cry. You keep smiling, even though it looks like it takes all the strength you have.
“Do you want to go this year?”
You almost trip on thin air. “T-Together?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” Yoongi quirks an eyebrow as if he’s just asked you what the cooks have planned for dinner.
“How would we even go? The guards will let me out, but certainly not you, jeonha.”
You’re almost at your room, but neither of you notice.
“But do you want to go?” He waits a beat then adds, “…with me?”
You don’t even hesitate. “Of course!”
“Then I’ll take care of it. Just be ready at nightfall.”
Your smile grows brilliant at that, if a little shy too. “O-Okay. I will.” You’re about to keep walking again but then he points to your destination, right beside you.
“Goodnight then,” he says, and hurries away before you can see the budding pink of excitement on his cheeks.
Chapter 13: October 1865.
you never thought you would smile like this again, but here you are. and here he is, by your side.
“How do I look, mom?”
Standing before the mirror, you nervously smooth the delicate sash of the pink hanbok for the hundredth time, careful not to lean down too much and dislocate the floral ornament carefully pinned in your hair. There have been doves fluttering in your stomach the entire afternoon; you don’t know if you tied this correctly or if your hair is braided right, and you can’t ask any of your nearby neighbours for fear of discovery that your plans are different than theirs tonight. Mother would know exactly what to do. What to say to make you feel at ease. But what you want most is for her to see you all grown up like this. Finally able to properly wear the outfit you coveted for so long, and hold your head high in it too. You think she’d be proud.
You manage a smile as you run your fingertips along the edge of the ornament, a gift from mother on your twelfth birthday. It’s almost been a year since her passing, and you still miss her more than anything. But you also know now that the best way to honor her is to be happy, and to carry on her work, her legacy. So far, you’ve begrudgingly won a few scraps of respect from the male physicians, and it’s a start.
“I hope you’re doing well up there,” you say, letting your gaze drift out the window to the beaming Chuseok moon, hoping the wind might take your words and your love all the way to her.
“Hey. Are you ready?”
You are grateful that the door is closed because the way you snap to attention is frankly embarrassing.
"Yes, just a moment, seja-jeonha!" you say in a nervous half-whisper, half-exclamation as you allow yourself one last glimpse at the mirror. This is going to be fine. You're going to be relaxed and have a good time, even if you are sneaking out of the palace with arguably the second most important person in the country.
Putting on a smile that hopefully looks effortless, you pull open the door and practically gasp out loud at the sight of him.
It's perhaps the first time you've seen the prince out of the traditional royal robes. It's an excellent disguise -- the clothes of a young yangban lord, done in a deep-dyed scarlet that contrasts his usual navy. A cinched belt fastens the coat deftly, juxtaposed against the dragging, silky sleeves beside it, making him seem somehow more elegant in the way he holds himself. Completing the look is the gat that sits atop his head, its wide-brim tilted low so it covers enough of his face that he wouldn't be recognized, at least not to anyone who spared him a passing glance (not that they would know his face to begin with). The gat strap hangs low in front of his chest, the intricate beading betraying just how truly expensive this hat is. He is, in short, unfairly, unfathomably handsome.
You are forever grateful that you chose to dress up; if nothing else, at least you will look suitable standing next to him, at least for a night.
If Yoongi thinks anything of your outfit, he covers it with a slight cough, his cheeks faintly reddened from the cold. “Good. Come on. We have to be quick.”
You nod, following him out into the night air.
With swift steps and strategic maneuvering, it doesn't take you long to reach one side of the imposing wall that separates palace from town. There, you find a familiar face waiting for you.
"Good evening," Eunuch Kim says with a bow. He’s wearing a different, muted set of green robes and donned a gat as well. “As you instructed, the select guards have been informed to keep quiet, and all else has been taken care of. Let us go."
He likely insisted on coming, as one of the caveats for your illicit excursion. You don't mind, since this isn't the first time he's had to do such a thing, always so worried about his rebellious, stubborn charge. You watch as he lets Yoongi go past first, then gestures for you.
“You look lovely tonight, uinyeo-nim,” Eunuch Kim says, and you share a small, furtive smile that feels like he’s cheering you on. Then you step past the official gates, feeling so acutely the pattering of your pulse because this is truly happening.
For the first handful of minutes, you remain both terrified and anticipatory that you'll be snatched back by the royal guard and accused of kidnapping the prince or something equally ridiculous as being on an actual outing with him. Beside you, Yoongi doesn't seem to have these worries as he walks by your side (though still a respectful, proper distance apart), letting his arms slightly swing while he kicks up dust with his slippers.
Just as you're wondering if you're being an awful companion and not making conversation, he says, "haven't been outside the palace in ages."
“Me too. It's… a little strange, having all this freedom to roam and do what I want. Even if it’s just for a night.”
“I'll say.” Yoongi makes an exasperated noise. “There are too many rules in that place. Can't do anything without being watched.” He gives a minor tilt of his head towards your chaperone, though it's more a tease rather than actually spiteful. Eunuch Kim, for his own sake, pretends not to see or hear the jab.
You smile. “It's for your safety, seja-jeonha.”
“So they say. But they'll regret it when I die of boredom first.”
He rolls his eyes and you laugh, and the palpitations in your stomach ease just like that.
As you draw ever closer to the town, the harmony of string and wind instruments crescendo and build with the jubilant chatter of the townspeople. It's getting to you in the best of ways; you're becoming so elated at the prospect of the festivities that you start to speed up, soon practically rushing towards the town square at a pace that forces Yoongi and Eunuch Kim to run to follow.
At the base of the square, your entire face brightens with the wondrous sight unfolding before you. There are people everywhere. Some down celebratory alcohol, others munch on sweet treats, and more still singing along to the traditional folk tunes with robust vibrato, regardless of whether they’re on key or not. You can’t find a single frown amidst all this mirth, and that’s just the way you like it. It’s overwhelming: the sights, the sounds, and the mouthwatering smell of something delicious and fried.
Yoongi eventually jogs up to you, forced to inhale a few quick breaths to refill his lungs. “Are you that hungry?” He asks, the corner of his lips curling up.
Oh god, you just made the prince run.
"No...! Not at all! I’m deeply sorry, seja-jeonha. I got too excited, didn’t I?”
“Not at all. Shall we get something to eat first then?”
You avert your eyes, though you really haven’t had dinner tonight. “No, please. Let us do what you would like.”
Yoongi grins as if it is of no consequence. “What I want? Well, then, I want to go this way.”
As is his habit, he begins to walk in the direction he chooses without notice, though this time he has to weave through the people that crowd the area. His disguise is working well; he is largely ignored as he passes, leading your little group all the way to an open alleyway where stalls line each side, lit up with lamps and vividly colored banners.
A twinge of sadness squeezes your heart as you look at the spread. You faintly remember a decade ago that there used to be a full row of assorted delicacies and sweets for purchase; now it’s mostly merchants with tables of books and hairpins, food becoming too scarce for most to sell with the grain shortage, even if they need the funds. Still, everyone seems to be doing their best with what they’ve got.
Sudden shouts ring out right beside you, nearly blowing your ears out with how loud they are.
“Jeon! Freshly fried shrimp and fish jeon for sale!”
“Hot, hot, hot nokdujeon over here!”
“Gaah!” you exclaim, eyes wide. You wouldn’t be surprised if the monks up the mountain heard about this jeon! When you turn to see who the hell is making all this commotion, you’re met with the scowling faces of two men, glaring furiously at each other in-between tending to their sizzling pans in adjacent stalls. The bearded one looks about seconds away from giving the other younger man a good smack with the fishing rod leaning on the wall behind him.
Said younger man gives a snicker. “No wonder my sales are beating yours. Why would anyone want your shrimp when they could have my delicious mung beans?”
“Say that again, if you dare.”
“Why would anyone want your gross shrimp when—”
“Yah, you can take your beans and shove them right up your nasty sokgot—”
“Excuse me,” Yoongi cuts in between them with a smirk. “I’ll take two orders of each. Preferably not ones shoved anywhere.” He drops coins on both counters, more than enough to cover the food.
“Ahem.” They levy two very similar glares at each other before beginning to package the orders for consumption, switching to polite honorifics in the process. “Yes, sir!”
“Right away, sir!”
They work deftly, obviously very practiced in the art. Neither of them drop so much as a crumb, even though they seem to be racing.
"My lord, here is your order," Fish Jeon says, only to be roughly shoved aside by Mung Bean in a rush to hand over the goods first.
"Please enjoy, sir!"
Yoongi takes the round and crispy nokdujeon, all wrapped in parchment paper. His amused chuckling makes you feel a little warmer, a bit fonder than you should. Especially when he then promptly passes the package to you.
"Seja--" You cut yourself off before you make the mistake. "Um. My lord, this is for me?" You ask, even though you're practically drooling at the scent.
"Did I give it to someone else? Eat."
He turns, hands off one of the assorted jeon plates to Eunuch Kim behind him, who accepts gratefully with a bow.
You, and your stomach, don’t need to be told twice. After blowing on the golden batter, you take a generous bite, accidentally smearing a bit of it on your cheek in the process but god, it tastes incredible. Mung Bean may be loud, but he clearly doesn’t tell lies. You have to hold yourself back from inhaling the pancake whole, instead savoring each nibble on your tongue.
“Come on. Keep going before the crowd grows,” Yoongi says, urging you forward with a jerk of his chin before biting into his own pancake. You don’t think you’ve ever seen him smile this much before, and it’s with slight regret that you tear your eyes away to look where you’re going.
From behind you as you start to walk, you hear, "Jungkook, you brat, shouldn't you be more respectful to your elders?!"
"Whatever, hyungnim. Nokdujeon! Better-than-his-fish nokdujeon!"
There is a very distinctive thwap as you move into the merchant area.
The first booth you come to belongs to a woman that you recognize, selling the latest romance novel by a rising author, Taehyun. She recognizes you too, waving you over with enthusiasm. “Oh, hello! We just received this last week. A tale of forbidden love between a yangban lady and a fisherman! Full of tension and…” she lowers her voice conspiratorially, “more than a few kisses!”
“Do people actually read things like this?” Yoongi mutters, staring at the covers.
“Huh? No! Well, hah, I certainly don’t!” You hope your face looks plausibly innocent. “But thank you,” you turn to say to the woman before hurriedly walking on before she can expose your ruse. The prince doesn’t need to know about the precious books you keep in a secret stash in your room. A lady can’t only study all day, right?
(You make a mental note to come back to town and pick up a copy later.)
Down the row you go, reluctantly finishing off the pancake on the way. Yoongi hands you the entire second plate of jeon not long after. “I don’t want it,” he says, watching you brighten at the prospect of more food. He does end up stealing a piece of shrimp from within your grasp later, throwing it casually into his mouth before you can even react.
The next display to really catch your attention is one laden with delicately handcrafted ornaments, pins, bracelets, and perfumes. “Wow!” You gush, leaning over the table as you try to calculate how much money you brought with you because you want it all, even though you rarely have the occasion to dress up. Still, you want at least something as a keepsake, to hold your memories of this precious day. Yoongi stops and waits for you; you forget it should be the other way around.
“Oh my, Eun-a-ssi? Is that you?”
What? You look up, breath hitched.
“Oh, my apologies.” The woman behind the booth is elderly, her hair grey, eyes wrinkling warmly as she smiles. “My mistake. My eyesight isn’t what it was. You… look a lot like a woman I know. I haven’t seen her in a long time now.”
“Eun-a… Eun-a was my mother,” you murmur. “She passed away last year.”
The woman’s eyes widen as she clutches her hands to her chest. “She did? Oh… Oh no… I’m so sorry, child. Then you must be—” She thinks for a moment, then says your name. You nod, and a small smile slips back on her lips, though now tinged with sadness. You know the feeling. “My name is Hong Sook-ja. I used to live right here in town with Eun-a-ssi, until all those years ago when she moved into the palace and I moved to the countryside. Your mother used to bring you into town for Chuseok and we got to know each other then. These days, I just come back every once in a while to see my granddaughter and great-grandson, so I must have missed the news.”
“It’s alright, Sook-ja-ssi. Mom lived well,” you say, ignoring the twinge in your chest. Any glimpse into mother’s life before she had you fills you with a certain homesickness, alongside the joy. “She was happy. And I’m sure she’d be happy to know that you are living well too.”
“Good. Good. She deserved happiness.” Sook-ja sighs, letting the information sink in. Only after one last kind smile does she finally seem to notice Yoongi standing beside you, trying his best not to intrude. “Now, is this handsome lord your companion? Perhaps your betrothed?”
“N-No!” You immediately cry, not wanting Yoongi to misunderstand, to think that his rank could be dragged so low as to match yours. Sook-ja should know that these class lines, even between yangban and cheonmin, are not so easily crossed. But the mischief in her gaze seems to suggest she doesn’t care much about that. “No, we’re just out. Together.”
“Yes. Out. Together,” Yoongi echoes, just as the door behind Sook-ja starts to open with a noisy creak.
A young woman dressed in a pretty hanbok steps out of the house with a smile. “Grandma, are you interrogating the customers again… Oh, hey! Kim-nim!”
All three of you turn your heads to look at Eunuch Kim, who couldn’t look more surprised at the woman’s appearance if Yoongi started growing a tail. He flusters, stepping back as if that could protect him. “Ahh, Chun-ja-ssi…! You’re, um, here! And you look, wow—” He almost drops the last piece of jeon altogether. “I was not expecting you to be here— I mean, not that I was thinking of you being elsewhere— Uh, not that I think about you that often—”
“This is my granddaughter,” Sook-ja explains, saving the poor man. “Chun-ja. She and her son, Han-jae, are the best parts of my life. She’s so clever, she can even read and write, you know!”
Chun-ja flushes under the praise. “My grandmother likes to exaggerate. But it’s very nice to meet you both,” she says, bowing in greeting as Sook-ja excuses herself, exiting through the same door.
Yoongi is once again smirking. “So, how do you know Kim-nim?”
“Mm, it was about two years ago? I was helping one of the merchants bring grain into the palace. Kim-nim saw me struggling with a particularly heavy pot, and so he helped me carry it. Since then, we chat for a bit every time he’s in town on an errand, and exchange the occasional letter! When he remembers to write me back, that is. Though his letters are often so lovely that I don’t mind the wait.” Chun-ja offers Eunuch Kim a grin that he can’t quite return with ease.
Yoongi has to work hard to keep his face relatively straight as he says, “hmm. So that is why he’s always disappearing from the palace with those weak excuses? And using all that ink? He always said it was for something important.”
“Seja— My lord! Please!” Spare me, Eunuch Kim’s wilted expression pleads. You have to hide your amusement behind a hand, lest you burst out with inappropriate laughter.
Once again, Sook-ja comes to the rescue as she shuffles out of the house, holding two familiar objects that make your eyes light up. “You’re both in luck. I knew we had a few extra this year, even after that rascal great-grandson of mine ruined a few with his roughhousing. He’d still be causing trouble if he weren’t off with his friends right now.” Sook-ja sighs. “I wish my grandson were still around to scold him. But anyway, I’d be happy if you’d take them!”
“Wish lanterns!” You exclaim, taking the lightly orange cloth contraption with glee. “Oh, I haven’t seen these up close in years.” The palace celebrations don’t usually include them, leaving you to try and catch the sight of the tiny, almost imperceptible lights floating into the sky from so far away. You’ve always loved the thought of the lamps surging towards that boundless sky, endlessly drifting, free to follow the wind.
“Do you know how to start it?” Chun-ja asks. You shake your head. “Let me show you.”
As Chun-ja explains the mechanisms behind the lantern to you, Yoongi reaches for his coin pouch. “We must give you something in exchange.” Yoongi produces several mun coins that are at least five times the lanterns’ actual worth, and tries to give them to her.
Sook-ja pushes his hand away. “No, no, it’s a present!”
“I insist.” Yoongi tries again, only to be rejected, again. He wonders if she would be so obstinate if she knew who he really was. (Probably yes.) “Alright… What if I take another item from the table to make it a fair trade?”
“Stubborn, aren’t you?” Sook-ja bursts into laughter, her belly shaking beneath her skirt. “Fine. Take your pick!”
Yoongi barely scans the accessories; he snatches up the bracelet you were looking at before and tucks it into his jeogori with a secret smile. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Sook-ja says warmly, before her smile dips down conspiratorially. “It’ll look good on her. Anyway, have fun! Enjoy the night.”
“I’m sure we will.” Yoongi shifts his attention to you. “All done? Then let’s keep going.”
“Yes, my lord,” you say, happily clutching the lanterns. “Thank you so much, Sook-ja-ssi. Chun-ja-ssi.”
Chun-ja beams. “Our pleasure. I hope we see each other in town again soon. And Kim-nim, don’t forget your letters!”
“Yes, of course, I will. I mean, I won’t. Forget, that is. Uh, I’ll write. G-Goodbye.” Eunuch Kim bows twice in quick succession before hurrying after you two, trying his best not to look back for one last glimpse of what he’s left behind.
You continue your wandering through the rest of the festival, marveling at the sheer strength of the wrestlers and then the elegance of the dancers. Absently, you wish this atmosphere could stay in place forever, and that everything else could just vanish into the smoke and ash of the burning campfires, but you know too well that life is a balance. And right now, with the prince’s silky sleeve pressed almost right against yours as you walk past a chorus of singers, the scales have temporarily tipped in your favor.
Eventually, all your wandering takes you to almost the outskirts of town, to an area you visited before with your mother. It takes some squinting but you eventually recognize the obscure path among the bushes, and immediately gesture towards it. The prince has shown you so much tonight; you want to return the favor, especially since his steps are beginning to slow. “This way! Please come with me.”
“Are you sure this is safe?” Eunuch Kim calls. “We cannot let anything happen to our lord!”
You start down the road. “Completely!”
It’s been so long since you last took these steps, but it all comes back to you effortlessly as you take the lead. It takes a few minutes, just a few, to reach the clearing you seek. And it is exactly as you remember it — the nature growing with a wild, greedy virility, the oddly shaped rocks studded in the dirt, and the reflecting pond, its water rippling from the drag of the autumn wind across its surface. There is no one here, which is exactly how you expected it to be.
“Here it is, seja-jeonha.”
“It’s quiet,” he marvels, and steps further in. He stops at the edge of the pond, staring not down but out, at the reflection of the full moon in its depths.
“I thought that you could use a change of environment. You look a little tired.” At this point, you know him well enough to tell that the neutrality of his expression shows subtle signs of weariness.
“The noise. It can be overwhelming at times. I’m not used to so much of it, usually. But I like the songs.”
You nod. “I understand perfectly! That’s why mom took me here in the first place. It used to be her secret spot when she was growing up.”
His arms shift, sleeves brushing the sides of his jacket. “She was a kind woman.”
“Very much so.”
You feel the breeze swiftly pick up, weaving through the strands of hair that have come loose from your up-do. The curling leaves around you rustle with welcome relief, bathing in the atmosphere, the rare tranquility of such a beautiful evening.
“Shall we float the lanterns?” You suggest after a spell.
“Sure.” Yoongi indicates for Eunuch Kim to bring the lanterns over. “Matches?”
Eunuch Kim fumbles in his robes for a few seconds before he realizes with a start that they’re just not there. “My apologies!” He bows. “I must have left the matches back at the booth!”
Yoongi sighs. “Too distracted by Chun-ja-ssi, hm?” Eunuch Kim flushes. “Go get them then.”
“But to leave you alone—”
“I’m not alone.”
Eunuch Kim looks between the prince and you a few times in rapid succession, his thoughts evidently as wavering as his eyes. He finally lands back on the prince.
“…Understood. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
You both watch him go, the quick pace of his steps no doubt brought on by anticipation.
“I can’t believe he’s been involved with a woman without any of us knowing,” Yoongi says, his tone betraying his real fondness.
“It’s sweet.” You smile, wondering if Eunuch Kim will ever manage to stop the stuttering long enough to actually tell Chun-ja how much he appears to like her. He is a mature man with most aspects, but apparently you’ve happened upon his one sole weakness. “But… He’ll probably be gone for a while. We won’t be able to light the lanterns.”
“I thought as much when I told him to go.”
“Well, it’s nice to take a break.” You don’t mention that you’d probably go anywhere and do anything, even if it’s just sitting around waiting, if it was with him. Instead, you look down at the pond, the water stilling enough for there to be a slightly blurry reflection of yourself awaiting below. “Hm. The water’s gotten a bit murkier these years. It used to be clear enough to see perfectly in. But it’s not so bad! Come look!”
Yoongi does. His pale face, all dark eyes and that rough, obvious scar, appears beside yours.
You fully intended on saying something else but that thought falls clear out of your mind when you realize just how undone your hair has become in all the bustle of the celebrations. I look like a mess, you think in a panic, hurriedly feeling for the strands to tuck them back. You’ve only managed to get one side fixed when a rock comes flying out of nowhere, plunging into the water with a noisy thunk! It disturbs both your reflections and wrecks the temporary mirror as cold droplets splash back.
“Hey!” You cry, leaping back from the pond to Yoongi’s grin. “What was that for?”
He has the audacity to look innocent. “Nothing. Haven’t you ever skipped rocks?”
“That was more a throw than a skip,” you grumble, checking your skirt as you hope it didn’t take too much damage. Thankfully, only a few drops actually landed on the precious fabric. “But yes, I love skipping rocks. Properly.”
“Here then.” You open your palm at Yoongi’s behest and he drops a stone into it. “Show me how to do it properly.”
You accept the challenge and plant one foot behind you, staring down a point in the middle of the pond, angling your arm as you position the stone in your hand. You most definitely look the part of an expert as you let the thing go. It shoots towards the water at a rapid speed, whooshing right through the air like a tiny bullet as it hits the surface at the angle and then proceeds to instantly sink to the bottom like, well, a rock.
Yoongi’s raucous laugh is no less than a roar, his entire body wracked with the exertion as he practically doubles over. He only gets louder when he sees the embarrassment on your face, the absolute mortification.
“I never said I was good at it…” You mutter, deciding to try a second time. This rock plummets right down to the watery floor too, refusing to save you even a little bit of face.
Yoongi’s settled into an infuriatingly smug look. “So, you can’t actually skip a stone. But you still love doing it?”
“Why?” He effortlessly makes a single skip before his pebble capsizes.
“I have a theory.” His curiosity piques at that; a turn of his head. “That it’s not up to us if the rock skips or not. Even if we have all the technique in the world,” you pick up another stone, “if the wind just happens to blow a bit harder, or if a fish from beneath disturbs the rhythm, or even if the tides themselves decide to surge up… It’ll fail. Or only skip the once. But—” You clutch the rock tightly in your hand and feel the weight, the cold, steady shape. “But if we wish hard enough. If we just keep trying every time we have the opportunity again and again…” This time, your rock is truly flying as it smacks the rippling water and skips a miraculous four times before finally dropping into the deep. “The universe might just make it happen.”
“…Or you need more practice.”
You shrug. “I’d rather believe that there are some things in the world simply out of our control. But that we can still hope for those things to shift, to change for the better if we never give up.”
Yoongi falls silent, staring at the ground through his downcast, delicate eyelashes. Maybe you said too much, you think. You didn’t mean to ramble. It’s just something you’ve thought about often. For these past months, it’s been the only thing keeping you going on the hardest, loneliest days. But you’ve made it. You’re still here. And by some miracle, he’s right here with you.
(You think maybe this is happiness.)
“I like that.” His eyes flick up to meet yours with an intensity that says he’s listening. He’s contemplating your thoughts and taking you seriously. He rubs the back of his neck, scratching at an invisible mark. “It’s a good theory. I… I understand it.”
There’s a weight to those words that you feel in the pit of your heart. A pull that draws you to him like the reckless tides towards his moon – a gravitational longing to know what truth vibrates beneath. You wonder if he feels it too.
“Seja-jeonha, I’ve returned!”
Eunuch Kim comes rushing back into the clearing, wielding the packet of matches. You both turn to him, letting the moment be whisked away with the wind whipping past the emerald robes, though you keep it safe in your memories. The eunuch has brought ink and brushes too, for you to write your wishes on the fabric itself. Increases the chance of their coming true, or so the legend goes.
After a few swishes of the brush, it doesn’t take long to light the fires. Your darkly inked characters are lit up by the flame, flickering staunchly beneath the opening as you each clutch a lantern in your hands and look at each other.
“What are you wishing for?” Yoongi asks.
“For more jeon,” is your reply, followed by an easy laugh that he echoes.
Then you let the lantern go as he does — two firebirds soaring side by side into the twinkling night.
Chapter 14: October 1866.
the coming winter promises to be harsh and unrelenting.
the things discussed in this chapter are based off a real historical event!
“Is the tea too hot, seja-jeonha?”
Sitting across Yoongi in the garden pavilion, a set of tea on a wooden tray placed on the temporary table between your benches, you hug your own cup of chaksol in a porcelain cup.
It’s a bit of an odd sight, the esteemed prince with the uinyeo for his afternoon tea, but he was the one that asked you to join him today. It’s not like many people would be able to peer into the secluded gardens anyway. This is the first real chance you’ve had to chat with the prince in several long months, most of your interactions limited to passing glimpses and subtle acknowledgments from afar. Though sparse as they are, he always seems to save you the quiet smiles that you treasure more than any gold.
“No, it’s fine. I’m just… distracted.”
“France?” you murmur before taking a sip, feeling the warmth run down your throat.
“You know how word gets around.”
Yoongi exhales, reaching for one of the yakgwa cookies. “It just keeps getting worse.” He bites into it, chewing with a frown. “After the execution of those French priests, we thought it would be over.”
“But one of them escaped.” Yoongi takes a drink. Swallows hard with his brow furrowed. “One of the Catholic missionaries. And now we don’t know what he’s telling his country or what they’re going to do. How they’re going to retaliate.”
You press a hand to your lips, gently pushing the bottom lip beneath your teeth. “But what about all those people… The ones who were converted to that new religion?”
“Executed. All of them.”
Your mouth falls slack. “All?” There had been thousands! “Even the women? The children?”
Yoongi nods, slowly. “Father said it had to be done. That there was no other solution for getting rid of the French influence.” He finishes the cookie and licks a treat-dusted fingertip. “How are the people within the palace and town?”
“They’re incredibly worried. Nobody wants a war that could take away more resources. Not while they’re already going hungry.” It always brings a tightness to your chest to think of the uncertainty permeating the land, and how many people wake up not knowing whether they will have enough food to survive the day.
“On that… I doubt there will be a war. Not a full-scale one, anyhow.”
“Okay. I’ll spread that through the people. It should help to raise morale.” It means a lot to you that he’s willing to discuss things like this with you, when any other minister or advisor wouldn’t spare you a glance. But he seems to understand that you’ll keep his secrets and reveal only what needs to be known to the rest of the court. In turn, you report to him what the civil officials would never be privy to: the real heart of the citizens. Between you there dwells, just like your mother had said, trust.
“Thank you,” he says. You watch as he drains the rest of his cup, setting it down with a clink on the table.
You pull back your sleeve as you go to pour Yoongi some more tea and he catches sight of the bracelet on your wrist, the pure white beads kept carefully clean. The precious trinket has barely left your arm since he gave it to you at the end of that Chuseok night a year ago, dropping it onto your palm as if it was just another grey rock without any elaboration on the matter. It’s been so long since that you feel bare without its weight against your skin.
He gestures for your hand and you extend it towards him. Though he is careful not to touch you directly, he gently strokes the beads to turn that warmth of his inward to the softness of your inner wrist. Closer than he’s ever been.
It makes you want more. Dangerous.
“It looks nice on you,” he says. You smile at the matter-of-fact way he states it, as if it’s an undeniable truth. “I wanted to go to Chuseok in town again. It’s unfortunate that we had to miss it because of all the…” He waves his hand, encompassing the mess that’s been these past few months.
While you desperately want to read into his use of we, you don’t let it linger as you bring your hand back, feeling the ghost of his sensation still. “It’s fine. There’s always next year.”
“Right. You’ll have to show me again how to sink rocks.” He gives a wide grin, nose scrunching up.
“You know I have a theory!” You protest, but smile back anyway.
Immediately, Yoongi stands up, watching as Eunuch Kim rushes past the garden guards with his robes flailing behind him. He is running as fast as his legs will take him, pure panic on his face. “What’s wrong? Has something happened?” He shouts back before peeling away, hurrying down the bridge to meet the Eunuch. You follow him, heart pounding as your footsteps clatter on the wood.
Eunuch Kim takes huge gulps of air as he forces himself to a stop in front of you. His face is completely red, lines of worry etched in his forehead. “The French— a-an invasion—” He sputters, “Your father— J-Jeonha— He’s collapsed!”
Chapter 15: Trivia: December 1866.
some truths are easier expressed through ink.
Have you been well? How is your son?
Please accept my apologies for how long it has been since my last letter. And yes, as well for the formal tone with which I must insist on writing in, no matter how you tease me for it, as it is what I am most accustomed to…
As you likely have heard, we have secured a full victory over the French invaders due to jeonha’s excellent leadership, so I hope you and the rest of the townspeople can feel safer from now on. Though it seems one threat has been replaced by another: the terribly harsh winter. I still remember that occasion in January when you threw a ball of snow at my back, nearly knocking me to the ground! I might have to return the favor when I see you next. Consider this your sole warning. ...But do dress warmly, please.
By your question after jeonha’s health, I see the rumors of his illness have spread through town. I cannot reveal much about his current status, though please know that is more out of precaution’s sake rather than a lack of trust in you. It could never be the latter. The rebels and jeonha’s enemies are many, and they would not hesitate to stoop to dastardly methods for their personal gain. But you will be happy to know that our dear uinyeo-nim has been promoted to su-uinyeo-nim, her mother’s prior position. She bested even our oldest physician in aiding the king, creating a new medicine that alleviated some of the strain that the campaign has put upon him. We celebrated with some strong cheongju that night. By the end of the evening, she was belting out folk songs loudly enough to alarm the guards! She sends her warmest regards to you, and to Sook-ja-ssi too.
To reply your last query, I am indeed keeping myself healthy, though perhaps all the running around the palace I do contributes to such. In the past months, seja-jeonha has taken on much more responsibility in assisting his father, and I must stay by his side. Though I imagine it must be tiring work, he shows little signs of exhaustion and pushes himself to learn as quickly as he can. It’s truly a blessing to be able to watch him mature as the days pass, though I do wish he would take more opportunity to relax. Well, perhaps the few companions he has will convince him to do so with promises of cookies.
Ah— I have been called, so I must stop here. I will send this letter with our courier and hope that it reaches you quickly. I have also included a few treats, as I know how much Han-jae likes them.
Oh, and… Chun-ja-ssi, perhaps… after all of this is over… you will do me the honor of joining me for tea at the teahouse? And you can tell me again about the texts you have been reading? And the flowers you have discovered on your walks? I [there’s a splotch of ink here, as if there was an attempt to blot out a character] miss seeing you.
Please, stay safe.
- Kim Namjoon.
Chapter 16: January 1867.
the crown is far heavier than the weight of its gold.
The mortar in your hands plummets to the floor. Fine, sand-colored powder spills uselessly over the wood but you barely flinch, limbs numb with shock. Before you, Yoongi’s expression is unfathomably blank, the hands by his side unmoving.
“He died,” he repeats, his tone as dull as the blunt end of used-up blade and you have to remind yourself to breathe.
It takes a few moments before you can peel your stuck tongue from the bottom of your dry mouth. “J-Jeonha?” You ask, even though you are afraid of the confirmation.
You inhale. Try to steady yourself even as shock gives way to sorrow.
It’s true. You seldom saw each other, save for the past few weeks as you tried to ease the pains he felt in his chest as best you could while he insisted on attending court briefings anyway, but you owe the king everything you have today. He extended kindness towards your mother, and gave her a home. Sheltered her for so many years. And he even bestowed upon you her precious title, the prefix that you cling to because it lets you feel as if she’s still with you in yet another, precious way.
“I’m so sorry,” you murmur, but Yoongi doesn’t respond. Just pads further into the otherwise-empty apothecary as you stoop to the floor to pick up what you dropped.
He falls into a nearby chair with a hard thump, robes fluttering all around him. The silence between you draws longer and longer, barely interrupted by the quiet plinks of your placing things back on the table. He sucks in slow, unhurried breaths.
“It’s strange,” he mumbles, eventually. “So fucking strange.”
He rakes through his unraveling hair, nails scratching harshly at his scalp. “I don’t… I don’t know.” Wrinkles between his brow, he glares down at himself with an unprecedented disgust. “Everything. All of it. This. Strange. I… I don’t feel anything. Why the fuck don’t I feel anything?”
“It just happened. It was sudden.” The king’s heart had been overtaxed for a long time, his age only contributing to the stress brought by the recent invasion. It must have finally given out. “It’s natural to not be able to process it right away.”
“No. No, I’ve known this was coming. I could see it in his face. His growing weaker every day, even as he commanded me to attend my lessons. Still I felt no pain, no sadness as I talked to him. And none now, even when it’s over. When it’s all over.” He shuts his eyes, crushing his hands into fists atop his knees.
You don’t know what you should say to him. How to comfort him like he did you.
He slowly shakes his head. “Hah. Well… I suppose it is a fitting end for an empty relationship like ours.”
Your instinctual reaction is incredulity. “But how could it be empty? Surely jeonha loved you. You are his son, his—”
“His only child!” Yoongi spits back. “And not for lack of trying. What choice did he have? Who else would he have to take his spot?” He smacks his fist against his leg. “No. I’m little more than a tool. A means to carry on his name and legacy. That is what he has spent so long training me for. Love? Love has nothing to do with it. In fact, I’m doubtful that he’s even capable of such a thing.”
Now that, that you cannot agree with. “He loved your mother. I know he did.” He always had eyes for her whenever you saw them together, particularly at the royal banquets. He made sure she was swathed in luxury and given whatever treats she desired. You were endlessly fond of watching them together, admiring the ease of their tandem lives while you hoped in vain for a similar blessing.
“Right, and is that why she’s back there with the rest of his sobbing consorts, crowded around his corpse?” Yoongi huffs a short, humorless laugh. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s over. Neither he nor I have to keep up the exhausting pretenses of affection any longer.”
The words themselves brim with toxins, but you can feel it: the simmer, the running current of hurt that rushes in beneath even as he insists he feels nothing. But how do you reconcile the man you thought you knew with the stranger in Yoongi’s memories? Had Yoongi hidden this truth all along, taken that burden himself to let you and everyone else live in blissful ignorance? Or was the king all of these facets? Was he forced to encompass this murky greyness to sit on the throne?
Was it simply a matter of being human?
Yoongi shakes himself. Shoves harshly back in the wooden chair. He stares at the bareness of his hands as if they are not his. He turns them over, the veins raised against pale skin.
“I’m going to be king,” he whispers, like he can’t believe it.
An anxiety for the weeks to come works itself quietly through your veins. “You are.”
“I can’t be like this, if I’m to be king.”
You wish you could tell him otherwise, that he is more than enough, but the thoughts in your mind are no less tangled then his. So instead, you heed the beckon of his solemn eyes. With the shut door protecting you from society’s restrictions, you are brave, and slide your arms around his shoulders to let him lean into the softness of your stomach.
You hold him. You hold him until the tremors beneath your palms melt into tired breaths, the reluctant rise and fall of one who does not wish to leave this warmth just yet.
Chapter 17: Interlude: February 1867.
he is king -- whether or not he wants to be.
A bundle of incense clutched in a tight fist, Yoongi stands in front of the funeral chamber with trepidation trickling in his chest.
He doesn’t know how long he has been standing here, only that the ministers are undoubtedly staring at him, waiting for his next command. It’s a feeling he still has yet to fully get accustomed to, but he must learn to take it. He must.
“Open the doors,” he says, thankful that his voice doesn’t shake as eunuchs rush forward to do his bidding. Just beyond the creaking doors and stone threshold lies the body of the king. Not my father, he reminds himself. That position had to be earned. Too late now. Yoongi bites his bottom lip and forces his feet forward.
It’s over quickly.
Standing before the raised platform, Yoongi holds his spine as straight as it will go. “Jeonha. I am assuming the royal title as monarch over this country,” he announces, letting his voice ring out to the people behind him. Then he lights every stick of incense he holds with one smooth movement. Wisps of smoke curl into the air like the rapid coil of a snake as he stabs the tapered ends into the prepared pot, taking one last long look at the man before he decides that he’s had enough.
Walking fast, it takes him but minutes to reach the throne room. Here he finds every occupant of the palace, regardless of rank, waiting for him and it makes his pulse pick up. He gives a deceptively casual pass over the sea of faces, but doesn’t quite find the one he seems to always be looking for, so he keeps going.
Up the stairs, through the doors, Yoongi approaches the seat with a kind of incredulity that it really now belongs to him. All those people crowded and crammed outside those doors, all the ones across the entire goddamn country are now his to look after and if he fucks up…
“Yoongi.” The queen’s voice is soft, drawing his attention to her place beside the throne. She so rarely uses his name outside of their private chambers and it reminds him that not everything has to change, that some things might always be the same. “I’ll be here to support you every step of the way.” He can still see remnants of tears in her eyes, but her shaky smile is brave.
“…Thank you,” he whispers. “Thank you, mom.”
He spins around, catching in his peripheral vision the navy of the robes that he will never wear again after today, for he will soon trade them for the royal red of a ruler. With his stare trained on the horizon, he takes a seat on the throne.
“Long live the king! Long live the king!”
The traditional chants ring out across the courtyard, carrying far with the whirling wind and all these emotions are stuck in his tight throat as he watches them bow before him again and again and he wishes he could have had more time but there has never been room for regret in this court and so he decides, tells himself, reminds himself, to have none.
He is king.
That night, his bones aching from the strain of walking around the entire day performing rites, Yoongi wants nothing more than to crawl beneath his blankets and not think about anything for the next several hours. But just as he is about to close his eyes, a shadow appears at his door.
Yoongi suppresses the urge to throw his pillow in that direction.
“May I enter?”
“If you promise to leave quickly.”
The door opens, revealing Eunuch Kim’s face contorted in worry as he hurries inside. In his hands, he holds an unfurled letter that he hurriedly thrusts at Yoongi. “Read this, jeonha. It was delayed due to the coronation so I only just received it. I came right away.”
Yoongi grabs the parchment. His frown deepens as he scans the inked characters, expression going from annoyed to confused to shocked in less than a minute.
“What? No.” He reads the letter again, biting down on his lip. “He didn’t. There is no possibility he arranged this. Is this true? Is it real?”
“It is.” Eunuch Kim bows low, as if that could make up for the news he just brought. “I’m sorry, jeonha. The woman you are to marry will arrive in just a few days time.”
Chapter 18: March 1867.
she is beautiful in ways you could never be.
Her name is Beom-su.
Her carriage arrives just as the sun reaches its highest peak in the sky, two measly days after Yoongi becomes king. The sole, precious daughter of the Minister of Taxation, as you will learn that evening from Jin-young over a dinner that is tasteless on your tongue. And because fate seems to have it out for you, you are witness to Beom-su’s welcoming procession. Castle ladies and eunuchs alike bow to her as she is helped out of her opulent gama by the servants that carried her all the way here. You hate the twisting in your stomach when you realize for the first time that she is beautiful, and then you can’t seem to stop.
She is beautiful in the corridors, practically gliding down them in her elaborate skirt with steps kept delicate and elegant, befitting her high status.
She is beautiful when she smiles at you whenever you happen to pass by each other, acknowledging you with a polite “su-uinyeo-nim” that makes you feel ugly and small when you can only muster a meager, fake grin in return.
But she is perhaps the most beautiful on certain afternoons when, with her makeup carefully done and perfect, she is escorted to the royal tea room to meet the king, her betrothed for a proper, private break. There is always an entire throng of excited maids who accompany her there, chatting merrily about the prepared menu and tea selection of the day. You are horribly aware that it is a far cry from the brief pockets of time you stole with the prince before he became too far for even your greedy reach.
You haven’t seen the king since his coronation. That is to be expected, of course. It’s not like you had much time with him before the ceremony either; the frenzy following his father’s death in early January had swept Yoongi up in its wake. A royal death so soon after the French invasion threatened to create mass panic among the people, and a strong leadership had to be presented to quell the fears. Thankfully, Queen Jeonghui was able to help with that front, standing strong beside her son with her ever-steady smile, giving him advice on the decisions now left up to him. And with news of the royal marriage to take place mid-May, things have settled even more, which perhaps had been the late king’s intentions when he arranged the match.
Wonderful. Just… wonderful.
You miss him.
You have no right to miss him, especially now since he is promised to another in a match that will do so much for the country, but you do.
You don’t want to admit how many times you’ve gone to the private library at your usual time and found it locked, empty. The hidden key hasn’t been moved from its hiding spot though, meaning you are still the sole other person to have free access to this space, whenever you please. You take that fact and all the hope it swirls up in you, and hold it somewhere near your heart. (He just hasn’t had the time to move it yet, says some irritating part of your mind that won’t shut up, especially at night when you’re trying to sleep.) The most pathetic thing is that even though you can, you haven’t mustered the courage to actually step inside the library in a long time, afraid the loneliness might really overwhelm you if you do. Afraid you won’t read and absorb a single word, and instead just wait for him to push open the door even though you know better. Or at least you should know better.
(You think he might even be purposefully avoiding you, which is the only conclusion you can extrapolate from the three separate times he meets your eyes by chance on the palace grounds only to snatch his gaze away and take the longer way around.)
But today, you have decided you are stronger than this. Today, you manage to enter the sunlit room and leave without much hesitation with The Myth of Flowers hugged close to your chest. The well-worn book’s weight is familiar and comforting, and you already foresee a late night poring over the words you have half memorized, perhaps with some yakgwa cookies and a cup of hot tea. The thought pulls a small smile on your face. After all, you cannot spend your entire life pining after a man who has never been, and could never have been, yours. It’s time you take care of yourself, even if that is more easily thought than done. Even if you are already feeling the absence of the bracelet you hesitantly left behind today, tucked inside a drawer with mother’s gifts of hairpins.
Caught in these thoughts, you should have been paying more attention to reality.
A flash of scarlet robes. Too close, you leap back and your eyes swing up to see who you almost just bumped into so you can apologize and—
These last thoughts, you banish from your head as soon as they come.
“Jeonha!” You voice is surprised, but automatically too warm and too fond. Thinking back on it later, you will smack your forehead and sorely regret how palpable your delight at seeing him was. “I am very sorry. I almost hurt you.”
His eyes widen for a fraction of a second, his hand slipping up to the back of his neck briefly before he lets it drop to his side. “It is of no consequence. Nothing happened.” He sounds formal, so detached it makes a discomfort rear its head in your stomach.
“Su-uinyeo-nim. Good afternoon,” comes a voice from beside him, and you realize that he is not alone. Beom-su smiles at you, her hands gathered politely in front of her skirt. You see that Eunuch Kim trails behind them too, though a little way off as is his habit.
“Good afternoon.” You force yourself to bow, and not quiver all the way through. “Please enjoy your walk.” You have to leave here. “Please excuse me.” You cannot let yourself be trapped in this conversation when nothing good can come of it.
You’ve taken maybe five steps past them when the king says something that sounds a lot like the first syllable of your name before he cuts himself off. “Su-uinyeo-nim,” he says instead, and you grit your teeth before slowly turning around.
Be strong. Be strong.
Wordlessly, his stare holds yours and you think that you can see something in his eyes so reminiscent of that day he came to you in the infirmary, confused and heavy with a loss he had yet to admit. The day he let a few more walls crumble down, only to rebuild them all mere days after.
“… Never mind. Good day.”
You swallow disappointment and nod, bowing deeply so that he can’t see your face as you hear him turn. Still, despite yourself, damned by your curiosity or maybe just stupidity, you can’t help but see them off when you come back upright. They walk side by side, pace matched down the length of the garden, soon to disappear among the lush trees.
The worst thing is, you know too well the expression on Beom-su’s face as she looks at him. It’s the one you’re certain you’ve mirrored for so many years, right down to the nervous smile and the subtle tucking of hair behind your ear because you want to look perfect for the man you’ve fallen for.
She does lovestruck better than you.
She has the privilege to give him those soft, longing glances. You can only stare at his back as he walks further and further away.
Chapter 19: May 1867.
how much can you allow yourself to want?
With her hands planted firmly on her stout hips, Jin-young-nim stands before you with a look of slight exasperation stretched across her features. Her mouth is moving, but you can’t exactly hear what she’s saying. All sound seems to have faded out, replaced with a heady buzzing that some part of you recognizes as shock as it infiltrates your mind, leaving your own mouth agape. You can do little more than blink and remember to breathe for several long moments until the silver chopsticks you were holding clatter to the table, finally pulling you from the daze.
“The wedding… is… off?”
Your voice sounds so far away; you can’t believe the words even as you say them.
“Finally! You understand me!” Jin-young cries with relief.
“I don’t— What? No… It can’t be true.”
“But it is! The match has been broken off.”
You shake your head in disbelief.
You’d seen Beom-su just yesterday, merrily taking her afternoon tea in the pavilion where you once sat with the king. Though you tried to limit your stare for your own self-preservation, she had clearly looked happy. After all, she had no reason not to be smiling — the grand wedding was planned for next week. Was.
“Didn’t you hear all the commotion today?” Jin-young finally takes a seat, setting her arms on the table.
“No, I’ve been working here since morning.” You’ve been spending more and more time with your research, letting it distract you from more… obtrusive things.
“Oh, child. You’ve missed so much. Early afternoon, two eunuchs found Beom-su-nim’s father, the esteemed Minister, in the storage room.”
Your eyebrows furrow. What’s the fuss about that?
Jin-young’s gaze glints. “He was forcing kisses upon a maid!”
Shit. Oh, shit.
Jin-young looks highly amused at the gasp that falls from your mouth. “Jeonha immediately stripped him of his position. And there is no possibility of jeonha marrying the daughter after all this scandal.”
…The king will not be married.
You are grateful for the back of this chair. Without it, you would have likely fallen to the floor with the emotions crashing into you, of which relief makes up more than half. The king will not be married. You grip the table hard, but you barely feel the stiffness of your fingers as you try not to acknowledge how your heart rate doubles, renewed with a childish dream you thought you had buried.
It is a week after the incident that the king summons you to his official meeting chambers.
To say you go with a hopeful heart is an understatement.
You spend the entire night before imagining how this first meeting in months will go, now that the wedding has been indefinitely postponed. (The people seem to trust him more anyway, after hearing of the way he removed the corrupt Minister without hesitation. You are selfishly thankful, for it quells talk of another, immediate engagement.) Will he smile at you, and call your name? Will he invite you for tea? Will things between you return to how they were half a year ago, with the casual intimacy of laughter and shared, warm afternoons and witty quips that you can still recall so clearly?
You are, of course, aware of how silly your fantasies are. When Jin-young had first brought you the news, it felt like you’d used up every ounce of luck in one fell swoop. And it’s not as if Beom-su’s absence changes your rank, or his. Your lives were always meant to be separate, somehow miraculously linked together by only the most tenuous of coincidences. But still, something in you whispers. But still.
The guards step aside and you enter the king’s chambers with all these thoughts crowding your mind and then everything just seems to stop and disappear when he brings his dark eyes up to yours.
“Jeonha.” You bow deeply. “How may I help you?”
He leans back, sunlight catching the strands of his hair. “My mother.” It is not what you wanted to hear, but you don’t let it show. “You examine her health weekly, do you not?”
“Yes, that is correct. She has been in fine spirits every week, and I have seen no major changes in her health.”
He nods. “From today on, you are to report directly to me every other week about her condition.”
Oh? “Is… Is there anything I should be looking for in particular, jeonha?”
“No. She simply seems more tired as of late, and so I would like to be more informed.”
You almost smile at his care. “I see. Then I will work to the best of my ability, jeonha.”
Was that all he called you here for? A simple task? You fiddle with your fingers as the silence between you settles in. Part of you wants to say something about his marriage, perhaps condolences, but you’re afraid that would reveal too much about your true elation. Is he upset about the broken union, or is he relieved? You can’t read the expressions on his face anymore. The space between you seems to stretch further with each of your nervous breaths.
“Um,” you eventually mumble, “is there anything else you require?” Please.
“No, that is all for today.”
Oh. “Alright. I understand. I shall, er, take my leave then.” You try not to sound too disappointed that your meeting hasn’t even lasted five measly minutes. He is the king. He is busy, much too busy to chat with you. If he even wants to now, that is. “Good day, jeonha.”
Then you hear it, as you are stepping out of the room. A quiet “thank you” followed your name, uttered so softly it almost doesn’t register if you hadn’t been hoping so fervently for it. But it’s not meant to call you back. It’s merely a parting gift.
One of your silly fantasies has come true, yet it still doesn’t feel like enough.
Over the next few months, you do come to appreciate these reports, brief as they are. You never exchange more than the words that are necessary, though sometimes you grow bold enough to extend a pleasantry that he curtly answers. Sometimes the queen asks you to bring him a few things on your way, as if she wants to help extend your precious minutes by a few seconds more. You take the chance. You take anything you can get, even while telling yourself to do better, to stop holding on to things that are long gone. Beom-su may not remain, but the distance she created remains present in your every interaction. So you can only remind yourself over and over that he is the king, no longer the… friend that you knew.
But at the very least, these visits prove that he still trusts you enough to take care of the queen.
And while this distant role of physician may now be the only position you hold in his eyes, it is better, so much better than not being close to him at all.
please note that the series will be going on a break for the next week! i should be back the week of nov 15th, but if not, then the week after. thank you for reading ♡
Chapter 20: May 1869.
just this once, you let yourself be a little braver.
A balmy wind drifts through the open window of your bedchamber, making ripples upon the freshly made spread. You stand in sunlight before the mirror, tracing the faint remnant of the bruise on your collarbone, left by the king’s hungry mouth too many nights before, and wish absently that the mark will stay for at least a few hours more.
As the days grow longer, his visits have become far less frequent, though the minutes he spends indulging in your heat seem to extend ever so slightly in turn. The explanation that leaves your heart intact is that he is occupied by overseeing the administration and results of the national civil exam, the gwageo that took place a few days ago and will bring a new group of eager scholars into the palace. You try very hard not to think about the possibility of his finding his way to another woman’s bed, even though he is well within his rights to. Even though it is expected of a king to have handfuls of consorts in his court. He has, thankfully, spared you of such truths, like he continues to spare you of any details about his life. Theoretically, that makes it easier to not get so attached. Theoretically.
With an exhale, you re-adjust the collar of your blouse to hide the mark and put on your hat before stepping out into the sun, holding a book that you intend to return to the king’s library.
As you walk towards the building, you soon realize there’s a man you’ve never seen before in green scholar’s robes in front of the shuttered doors, pacing back and forth as the dark samo on his head bobs from the effort. What’s he doing? While people may pass by here, they rarely linger.
When the man spots you, his gaze seems to brighten. “Excuse me, uinyeo-nim!”
You come to a stop before him, taking in the wane of his eyes that are like friendly crescents. “Good morning. How may I help you, Scholar…?”
“Park.” He smiles. “I’m one of the newly admitted scholars.”
“Scholar Park. Congratulations on passing the exam.” You return his smile with a small one of your own though you remain on your guard, no matter how kind he seems. Most of the current scholars treat you with disdain (though they at least attempt to veil it on the king’s account, you are certain), as you are a woman and thus beneath them, no matter if the texts you’ve read could rival theirs. This Park must be brilliant though, if he passed the rigorous exam at such a young age.
“Thank you. I’m excited to begin my work! But…” He bites his lip. “The head scholar asked me to obtain a copy of Bang Si-Hyuk’s latest text, and the royal library said that only the king has a copy…” His expressive face falls and you, with a twinge of endearment, think he might be an awful liar if he ever tried. “Would you happen to know how I might borrow from the private library? Should I request an audience with the king? Are there official forms to follow? I really don’t wish to misstep.”
You stare at him quietly, contemplating whether or not you should reveal that you have such access.
He nervously seems to take your lack of answer as confusion. “Yes, I am aware that I should have asked my fellow scholars but they are all so much older than me and I’m afraid that they will take me less seriously than they already do if I cannot complete such a simple task on my own... But no one else has walked by here and I do not want to go back empty-handed and…” He trails off, giving you a look of absolute desperation that warms your heart, despite your reservations.
“Scholar Park. I can retrieve the book for you, if you promise to return it within a few days.” The king wouldn’t notice that it’s missing anyhow, not with how busy he’s been. That, and you get the feeling that the older scholars have been playing a bit of an initiation joke on this poor boy.
“Really? You will? Thank you, uinyeo-nim!” He breaks into a huge grin. “Oh, but uinyeo-nim, how do you have access to the king’s libra…”
You can practically see the moment it clicks in his mind that you are that physician, the one who’s name is irrevocably tangled up with the king’s.
It seems palace gossip is not exempt even from those who have only entered the grounds the day before. You can literally feel the turmoil going on within him as he tries to figure out how to address you, whether or not he should give you the respect of the king’s consort even though you are technically not one in the slightest. Just a lowborn, a hole, even a witch doctor that has bewitched jeonha, as those less polite than this boy have put it when they thought you were out of earshot.
“Hm?” You prompt like a masochist, wanting to see what he says. Wanting to see if it’ll hurt you some more, or if you’ve finally gone blissfully numb.
You were right. He’s an awful liar.
But you get the book for him anyway, and see him off with promises to meet you back here two days later for the return. Your reality is none of his fault, after all.
That night, the king drops by with little decorum. Opens the door to your chambers and strips off his robes, like he always does. Though this time as he kneads your bare chest in his calloused fingers, pinching the peaked nipples so hard you whimper, you are filled with a need for some scrap of certainty. You want to wipe that coolness from his eyes for even one second, to stoke some intimate fire from him that says he still remembers how you used to be together. How it used to be easier than this. Closer, even though now you know how thick his cock feels as he robs you of air.
“You—ah—you’ve been busy, jeonha?” It’s been getting marginally easier to talk to him like this in the moonlight, his hands making a mess of you. “It’s been quite some time since you’ve come.”
“What, are you that needy for a fuck?” He smirks, but it’s a look more dark and dangerous than playful as he reaches down and finds you soaked. You think you feel the ghost of that word lingering around his question, but it is a small blessing that has not said it aloud since that night in April.
Your face flushes hot. “I-I was just wondering…” You shouldn’t mention it. You really should hold your tongue, but you’re sick of being trapped in your own mind, going in circles with your own insecurity. Just this once. Just this once you want to let yourself ask— “I thought… That perhaps you had taken another conso—oh!” You’re cut off by an abrupt inhale as he sinks two nimble fingers into your cunt. One smooth stroke takes him so deep, only for him to pull out to use the translucent wetness he’s gathered as lubricant along his shaft.
“You think I have time for other women?” He snaps. His stare is intense, but you can’t see a single lie in their depths. “Never have.”
Then he takes you so roughly, you think the bed might break from all the rattling. You have to blink away white spots in your vision when you come and he doesn’t say much more to you for the rest of the night, but you’re smiling almost deliriously all the way through with your nails scratching faint red down his back, the bracelet he gave you dragging over his skin from its home on your wrist. Never, your mind echoes, again and again.
Against all the odds. Against anything you would have expected. Even if he keeps you at arm’s length to the thoughts in his heart, it’s still the chance three-step skip of a grey stone across a rippling pond.
You're the only one.
wow. drabble 20. it’s taken us half a year to get here & it honestly feels like a dream that i’ve made it this far. yet there is still so much on the line. so much further to travel together. thank you, if you’ve been here since the beginning. thank you, if you’re just picking up the series 💜 i truly couldn’t have gotten here without all your support.
that being said, please be aware that when i started this series, i never intended to stick to a weekly schedule. i'm still a student, and am currently in the midst of writing a thesis in addition to all the classes i'm taking. i'm trying my best to upload once a week, and while i don't want to disappoint anyone, some weeks i am just completely overwhelmed with work so there won't be any new content. i won't be posting any specific warnings about breaks in the future (though i do have a schedule on my tumblr profile), so just be aware. thank you again ♡
Chapter 21: June 1869.
you’ve never been able to hide from him.
The moment you reach your private chambers, you collapse against the door. Your heart softly shudders with strain as you finally let the first tears fall, trickling steadily down your cheeks. The bundles you carried in fall to the floor as you cover your face with your cold hands, trying to stifle the quiet sobs that seem so determined to come.
You had gone into town after your work today. Walked down, escorted by a guard that you pretended wasn’t there. (The king now insisted upon such a thing whenever you left the palace walls, but you could tell the guard thought the job much beneath him.) You had just finished picking up a few ingredients from the market traders and was on your way to see if the bookstore had received new products when your attention had been caught by the sizeable crowd gathered outside the town clinic.
“Please, please, give me medicine for my daughter!” The peasant woman clutched a child that couldn’t have been more than two years old. The babe’s crying was as raucous as the yelling, the noisy mix of voices all clamoring with want.
“I need to see someone! My side— It hurts every day. I can’t work anymore. My family’s going to starve. I need treatment!”
The physician’s assistant stood on the clinic steps with folded arms and a bitter, hard look on his face. “Are we running a charity? We need to eat too! If you can’t pay, you can’t see the doctor!” He slammed the door in their faces, leaving them out in the sweltering heat, crying out that they could pay next week or as soon as they could, they just needed help right now, but the door remained shut.
Your chest felt stiflingly tight at the sight, compassion’s hand squeezing hard around your heart because you knew you could help. You had to help. You took a step forward, ready to offer your services only to have the guard block your way.
“Su-uinyeo-nim. We must return to the palace.”
“No, I want to stay.”
He shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. They could harm you.” And if they did, then his own head would likely be on the chopping block. Ridiculous.
“They won’t. They just need treatment, and I’m a physician.” You didn’t have many of your tools here but you could at least take a look, provide a diagnosis or recommend some easily obtainable herbs.
“The king would not approve of putting yourself in danger.”
You opened your mouth only to shut it. The king wouldn’t approve of a lot of things, but how could you just stand here and do nothing? These people, they needed your skills.
You took another step forward.
“Su-uinyeo-nim.” The guard’s voice was firm. He indicated for you to start walking away, towards home.
You shot him a stare, the hardest look you could conjure, but didn’t move. Not yet, damn it.
You dallied long enough. One of the women had evidently recognized your outfit and was now barreling towards you with a fire in her eyes. “Uinyeo-nim, you can help me, right!? It’s my daughter, she’s been having a fever and—”
“No, she cannot.” The guard’s glare was as sharp as the blade that the hand on his sword promised.
“Oh, please!” She threw herself against the arm the guard tried to reign her in with. Threw herself forward trying to reach you. “My daughter, my daughter will die if she’s not treated!”
“Let me—” You started, only for the guard to shove her harshly back since he could not do the same to you. She cried out, almost toppling over from the force as she clutched her baby, but he did not relent.
“We are leaving.”
He began to boldly walk towards you, practically into you, leaving you no choice in the matter. You were too afraid he might hurt her further if you did not comply even though every step away felt like a blow to your chest, like tiny fists pounding against your ribcage, making you sore and ache because the stark truth was that your inability to help her wasn’t even entirely the guard’s fault.
All those years ago, you chose to stay.
You never opened the affordable clinic mother had dreamed of. You put your feelings before the wellbeing of all those people you could have helped then, and you did it again today. Selfish. Selfish and helpless and selfish. For all the work you’ve done, it never feels like enough. There are always more patients in need and here you are, living among this extravagance and opulence but really getting nowhere. Not with the king. Not with how much change you can bring to the people.
Even your tears can only be shed here, in privacy and cowardice.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” you whisper through your blurry vision, but these are just words. They do nothing in the end and every choice feels like the wrong one and that there will only be dire consequences to follow them.
At Eunuch Kim’s muted voice, you startle. Hurriedly, you wipe the backs of your hands against your eyes. “Y-Yes?”
“The king has requested your company tonight.”
“Oh.” Shit. You’re in no state to face him, not for what he has in mind, but you must go. “I-I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Just allow me to… change.” You push to your feet, onto shaky legs as you sniff.
The brief walk over in the cool summer evening helps to pull some of the sorrow from your mind (or at least tucks it away to be revisited later when you find yourself as always, alone). Eunuch Kim is kind enough not to probe into the heaviness about you today; he simply chats about the latest novel he has picked up in town, a study of birds that he recommends heartily to you. The king is not so kind. The second you enter his chambers, tilt your head just enough for him to catch your eye, he frowns.
“You’ve been crying.”
It’s not a question.
“I, um, simply had some dust in my eyes, jeonha.”
Searching for a distraction, you begin to undo the tie of your blouse. You’ve never purposefully let him see you openly upset, or at least not since this ‘arrangement’ began.
You nod, unwilling to meet his stare.
The floorboard creaks as he steps towards you. Covers your hands with his own so he can strip you instead. You can’t tell if he believes you; he is so quiet while he pulls layer after layer from you, letting the fabric drop to the floor in bunches of crumpled white and light blue. The warmth of his fingers on your skin feels like comfort, even when it’s only a prelude to his desire.
Isn’t it stupid, that some excessive part of you wants him to openly refute your lies even as you tell them? To undress your mind as hungrily he does your body until you have no choice but to be bared and free, released from the burden of your own thoughts?
“Get on the bed.”
Maybe it’s better like this. You are the only woman he has ever known in this way; you can’t let yourself be so greedy, to again let that selfish part of you want and want and want so much that appetite consumes you, bones and all. You press your palms and knees to the hard bedding. Squeeze your eyes together. Force the tears to stay back while you wait for the burn to come.
His calloused hands land on your waist, but it’s to urge you to turn over instead.
“J-Jeonha?” you question, confused when you see him already on his knees, that piercing gaze provoking goosebumps from your skin. “Why…”
His hands find your ass, urging you towards the edge of the bed. He throws the top layer of his robes aside before he spreads your legs apart, letting them rest against the wood.
What… What is he doing? You find your answer as the sokgot strips fall to the floor beneath his touch and abruptly, before your poor heart has time to prepare itself, his breath blows warm across your clit.
“Ah, this—!” Wild-eyed, you try to squirm back, hot with embarrassment that his face is this close to your crotch. It floods you with worry after worry about your scent, the possible bumps marring your skin, the tufts of hair, but he doesn’t seem to care about any of it as he hooks his hands beneath your thighs. “You’re not—”
Soft lips and a slick tongue are pressed flush against you.
Your entire body seems to quiver at the first lick; a single taste of wetness followed by a second, a third, a relentless fourth that makes liquid pleasure crest, surging upwards, a high, rushing tide in mere seconds. You buck, hands finding no support upon the sheets and part of you wants to cover your face instead, to let die the moans that surface with each gasp but that means you would miss the sight. This unforgettable sight: inky eyes between your thighs, the quick, pink tip of his tongue swiping heat directly into your veins. It feels messy before he finds his rhythm, settles into a beat that only reaffirms how he is irrefutably dominant even while he is on his knees before you, for once not breaking you apart but making you feel so dizzyingly whole you could burst.
While his fingers have learned almost every inch of you, this remains a scenario you never even thought to entertain, never even thought he would want. His pleasing only you. His putting you at the forefront of even his own satisfaction. Stop. The grip on your thigh tightens; you never want him to let go. Stop giving me hope. He does anyway with a drawn out suck, his stare as hazy and heady as if he’s been drinking the most exquisite cheongju.
Your body is taut, sweat beading down your spine. “This is— I can’t—”
“You can,” he quips back, and whatever words you could have said are stolen by orgasm. Taken, and made unbecoming moans that blow past the last shreds of your resistance now resting between his teeth.
It overwhelms you, this newfound sensitivity from being consumed; it makes you want to shirk back but he doesn’t let you. Somehow one of your legs finds its way over his shoulder and he uses that momentum to keep you against his stunning mouth, giving you what you need but never what you want. Each lick nudges you further off the edge, finding an acute bliss past every limitation you thought you had and you think, feverishly you think — it’s like he’s giving you permission to fall apart.
Tears coalesce at the corner of your eyes but you don’t notice. You don’t even know they’re there until wetness trails down your cheeks and even then you’re distracted by another peak, this one a muted swell that makes your muscles tense around his thin frame; he supports your weight without a word of complaint as his strokes finally dwindle in time with your pulses until both drop off entirely.
As he lets your leg roll off his arm, his breaths come almost as unsteadily as yours. Slowly, he retracts his wide hands from your thighs. Rolling his tongue against the inside of his own cheek, you watch him paint your taste in his mouth and don’t know what to make of any of it.
It’s only when a few tears cling to your eyelashes and blur your vision that you realize what’s happening. How embarrassing. You told yourself you wouldn’t do this on the way here and look at you now. You’re about to reach up to wipe away the tears, the damning evidence of your weakness when the king wraps his hands tight around your wrists. Pushes you back. Presses his knees to the bed as he hovers above you, all silence and heat and him.
He leans down and cuts you off with a kiss.
You gasp into his mouth but he doesn’t pull away. He is just soft, persistent, firm, and soft as he moves naturally across territory that should have been unfamiliar, but instead it feels like he’s been mapping, planning this capture for as long as you have. An impossible dream, yes, but the warm breath ghosting across your skin, lingering, is real. You open for him. For your first kiss. Your first kiss with him.
The warm fingers at your wrist squeeze harder.
“You… You can cry.” His voice is a murmur, delicate and hesitant against your lips, as if imparting a secret. “If you want.”
So you do.
You finally let yourself cry while he kisses you again and again, adjusting his angle to push you further into the pillows, releasing a wrist to cup your wet cheek. He kisses you with his nose pressed to yours, a tiny, precious moan finding freedom from someone’s throat.
Yoongi, your mind recalls, clinging to the syllables that belong to a word you’ve never dared to say aloud as he kisses you, kisses you, kisses you until both your mouths are swollen and your chest feels a bit lighter, his a bit heavier in exchange.
And when he finally pulls away, he holds you. His arms accept all your gravity for just a few lingering minutes more, a few heartbeats more, until it’s time for you to go.
Chapter 22: July 1869.
does some part of him still remember the smiles you once shared?
Today, the sky is an overcast of grey clouds, promising at least a few drops of rain before hopefully giving way to the sun as you weave through the crowd in the town marketplace with a package in hand. “Uinyeo-nim!” A bright voice cuts through the bustle of citizens trying to do their best to earn their living.
You turn, and smile when you see a face you’ve come to know rather well in the past month. “Scholar Park!”
He clutches a bundle of books in his arms as he walks up to you. “If I had known you were going to town, I would have waited for you.”
“You are kind, but I always have an escort.” You gesture to the guard assigned to you today, another stern-faced man with one hand on his sword at all times.
Scholar Park presses his full lips tightly together at the subtle reminder of your status. “Right. Well, at least we can walk together now! Are you finished with your errands?”
“Not yet. I have one last stop. We’re almost there, actually.” You fall into a comfortable step, keeping your pace light as you begin to walk forward again. “What’re you studying today?”
He groans. “I have to memorize all the guidelines on taxation. Even though they seem needlessly complicated, and I am far from interested in that area. I would much rather focus on agriculture.”
“But you’re working hard on it anyway, right? Not sneaking in any romance novels in with the texts?” You grin, giving the books a light poke with a finger.
“Um! No, of course not!” He denies it too quickly, and you make a note to bring him one of your favorite books later to see if he’ll take. Master Taehyun’s novels have only gotten better as the years pass, and his latest is a riveting story about a dashing young soldier and his childhood friend, who disguises herself as a man to bravely join him in the military ranks.
For now, you let Scholar Park off with a smile. “We’re here.”
Before you, Chun-ja scowls down at her son with a loose fistful of his hair caught between her fingers. “Yah!” She yells, “how could you break another plate?! I told you, no more running inside!”
“Sorry mom…” The kid shuffles from foot to foot, glancing to the side for a way out. His guilt-ridden face lights up when he sees you approach: the perfect escape plan. “Uinyeo-nim!” He runs towards you, slipping out of Chun-ja’s grasp before barreling right into your stomach.
You laugh as fondly pat his head. “Hey there, Han-jae.” Then you give him a knowing look. “You’re causing trouble for your mom again?”
“When is he not, is the question.” Chun-ja rolls her eyes, but in good humor now that you’re here. “It’s so great to see you. Grandma’s going to be overjoyed you could come. Let me go get her.”
“Here. Take these books I brought for you first.” You hand her the package, which she accepts with a grateful bow. “Oh, and Eunuch Kim included some for you as well. With a letter.”
Chun-ja flushes, her smile easily pulled wider at the mention of the kind man before she disappears through the door.
Left alone, Han-jae turns his head to the man beside you. “Who’re you?” Han-jae asks Scholar Park, regarding him with some suspicion. “Are you with uinyeo-nim?”
“A scholar. Who’re you?” is the reply, said with the same amount of maturity in the tone (though you can tell Scholar Park is mostly playing along. You think.)
They stare each other down, and you leave them be to sort out whatever man to man fixation they’ve got going on as Sook-ja opens the door. “Uinyeo-nim!” With a huge smile, she immediately pulls you into a warm hug. She soon proceeds to interrogate you about your health and the importance of drinking hot water, even in summer, before she pushes a box of colorful dasik treats into your arms, making you promise to give some to the young lord that is still most definitely not your betrothed. Inevitably, Han-jae tries to steal a sweet before long and you’re forced to play keep-away from the rambunctious boy for a little while until you’re breathless, but smiling so hard your face hurts.
Even as the rain starts to fall on your way back to the palace, today is, without a doubt, a good day.
At the palace gate, upon your return, you are immediately instructed to go to the king’s quarters. You bid goodbye to Scholar Park as the guard escorts you through the palace grounds. You wish you could change, as your hanbok is rather soaked, but there is no time.
As soon as you enter his room, you sense a tension in the air, a thickness that makes you feel uneasy. The king sits at his desk, his back straight as he intently studies parchments. You know he was scheduled to have a particularly grueling meeting today, and it seems to have taken its toll on him by the scowl on his face. You aren’t sure whether to announce your presence again, and are just mulling it over when—
“Where were you?” He snaps, his stare still on the papers. “You weren’t in your room.”
“I was in town, jeonha.”
“With the guard. And with Scholar Park.”
Now he looks up. His eyes are narrowed as he takes in your damp appearance. “Park? That recently acquired academic?”
“Yes, we met by coincidence in the market.”
“I see.” His attention is drawn downward once more as he flips the page. “Strip.”
“N-Now, jeonha?” He will have you, even when he seems wrapped up in his reading?
“Unless you would rather catch ill, su-uinyeo-nim.”
Oh. Your chest tightens ever so slightly at the unexpected reason. You do as he instructs, peeling off the outer layer of your blouse and skirt before hanging them over a nearby chair.
“I, um, saw Sook-ja-nim in town. She’s doing well. She asked after you, and asked me to bring you these dasik.”
You wonder if he remembers her. And if he does, if he even cares. Still, you pick up the box and approach the desk to set it carefully on the solid surface. He watches you lift the lid to reveal the assortment of sweets, but doesn’t reach for them.
“You don’t wear it anymore,” he says suddenly, his eyes concentrating on your skin. “The bracelet.”
Instinctively, you wrap fingers around your bare wrist. “I’m sorry. It broke.” (An accident with a sharp edge just last week. You still keep the pieces in a small case buried beneath your clothes, but you don’t tell him that.)
“I’ll send Eunuch Kim for another one.”
“But that’s not the…” You shake your head, biting off the truth. “No, thank you, jeonha. There is no need to go to the trouble. It’s fine.” It could never be the same.
His brow wrinkles at your answer, but he seems to accept what you’ve said, so he doesn’t fight you. Instead, he stands. Takes you in his arms as he leads you to the bed, always the solution when he no longer wants to talk and risk letting you in that tangled, thorny mind of his. Among the luxurious fabrics, he claims you again. Reaffirms over and over with his head between your thighs that you are his, with a fervor that makes you want desperately to believe that he needs you as much as you do him.
Chapter 23: August 1869.
too much (or just enough?) is exposed in the sunlight.
You are still breathless when the king rolls over in bed, one arm outstretched as he reaches for his royal robes to once again begin the process of leaving you.
Except— the light that illuminates his bare body is from the early afternoon sun and you have never seem him basked in it like this before. It’s unnatural, you think. Too bright. Makes it all feel less like the midnight trysts, the reluctant surrender to darkest temptations that these meetings really are. But you could not refuse him when he appeared at your door. When he reached for your warmth and pressed hungry kisses to your neck, your collarbone, your chest.
Despite the sticky summer heat, you wrap the sheet around your body and turn over on a muted exhale. Watch him slip on the first layer of white underclothes. This routine is, at least, the same.
You calculate that he must have come directly from his daily morning meeting with the officials, skipping his meal to be with you. Perhaps the conference hadn’t gone well. You try not to think about how many might be executed soon as a result. Though the rate of imprisonment and subsequent punishments has certainly slowed… it has by no means stopped. Your healer’s heart hurts. Aches for those who might be innocently killed before their time, swept up in the claw of circumstance.
“Do you have enough space in the apothecary?”
The question, thrown at you without prelude, makes you pause.
The king looks at you, his robes pulled midway up his arms. “Your apothecary. Do you have enough space to work? Do you need an expansion built?”
Honestly, the mere thought of an expansion throws you off balance. Growing up, you and mother had long gotten used to that tiny, cramped infirmary, where you bumped into each other at almost every turn. Women’s health was barely more than an afterthought, and the room reflected that. Now, you’ve already been moved to such a large space, and yet he still asks if you need more?
“No, jeonha!” You sit up, the sheet slipping slightly from your chest. His eyes flash down, distracted for just a second. “Of course not! I’m very grateful for what you’ve given me. I promise, I am making good use of it.”
He licks his lips. “Hm. And what is it, that you are currently making?”
Instantly, your face lights up. “The draft I’m creating uses a mugwort base, intended to ease muscle strain and stomach pains for the palace maids, so that they will not be forced to work while enduring such discomfort every month.” You hum, a pleased sound as you think of how far you’ve come. “I’ve just discovered how to reduce the chance of allergic reactions after consumption. I’ll be trying to incorporate houttuynia next, to increase the strength.”
Though the king is now fully dressed, he takes a tentative seat on the corner of a nearby table and tilts his head to the side, as if he is interested. “It will be effective?”
“Hopefully! Earlier renditions of the medicine could only work for half an hour, and could only be consumed twice a day without causing further symptoms, so I’m looking to create a better version. So far, the few brave maids that have been testing it are showing excellent preliminary results.” You tuck a strand of hair behind your ear, feeling a sudden need to make an excuse, or at the very least, an acknowledgement: “I know it may seem less useful than pain remedies for the soldiers or men but…”
“No.” He stops you short. “It doesn’t seem that way.” His voice is soft. “You are doing important work.”
When you look at him, a faint smile ghosts his pink mouth. A precious sight you’ve not seen in quite some time, especially given in your direction. Unfortunately, it is paired with his getting upright, finally prepared to go.
Still, you offer him a small grin in return. “Thank you, jeonha. But I simply try my best.” And perhaps the sunlight makes you courageous, for you whisper, “as do you.” (Because he is. You know he is, despite everything.)
He doesn’t quite acknowledge your words, but that slight curve remains on his lips even as he turns, bathed in the afternoon’s glow as he leaves to face the rest of the world again.
Chapter 24: Trivia: September 1869.
a small happiness.
My dearest Chun-ja-ssi,
Where can I even begin? All my thoughts are scattered, but in such a wonderful manner.
I am… happy. So happy, even though that is a word that now seems too plain for how I feel. Even if I could not see the wild smile still on my face in the mirror, I would have no other name for the warmness spreading all throughout my chest when I think of the events of the day. Forgive me for sending a letter so soon but I simply could not resist. Not when you occupy every corner of my mind as you always have.
I will request that you please forget how nervous I was this afternoon, perspiring as I did. It is so unbecoming of a man, even though many do not consider me as such in my state anyway. I was afraid that you would turn me down. That you would not want to link your life with mine, considering my position and my lack. But you always accept me regardless of my nerves, my mumbled words, and my accidentally-broken utensils, don’t you? Ah... I’m too lucky to have met you…
Truly, I never thought such simple words, “I will marry you,” could make me so overjoyed. But then you had to add on that “of course,” making me feel so foolish for ever doubting what all the care and affection you’ve shown me has meant. I will live the rest of my life making sure that you never regret your words, since you have brought me such bliss since that first day I met you. When you laughed so merrily at my words, as if they were really the wittiest jokes instead of the nervous mumblings of a man who fell in love in an instant. Thank you. For everything.
And as I said before, you must not worry: I will never be upset by Han-jae’s parentage or by the knowledge that you had a first husband. It is all a part of your life. It has made you the beautiful, resilient woman you are, and I could never rebuke any bit of that history. I only wish to take care of you both now, as much as I can.
My love, I wish to take you to see the cherry blossoms when they blush prettily pink in the spring time. I want to be there to watch and help Han-jae grow up into the clever young man I know he will be. I’d like to witness this all as a family, if you will allow me.
Yours, forever yours,
Oh — It is only now that I realize that I completely forgot to answer your query as to how the king and uinyeo-nim are faring, since I blurted out my true feelings in the middle of our conversation. It is all happier news, as if the world has decided to be briefly joyful along with us. Uinyeo-nim has been smiling more, laughing often, especially when she is with one of the clever scholars. It’s been a long time since she has made a new friend. Her work is going well too, the last I asked, and she is determined to help the court ladies. As for the king… He is, astonishingly, behaving in a similar way, though not nearly as obvious. But when I broke a bowl last week, he even had the heart to snicker in my direction, which he used to do as a child! Why, yesterday, he even took his tea in the pavilion overlooking the pond, which he has not done since before his coronation.
These changes are certainly welcomed. I can only hope that they will last.
oops - my bias jumped out, clearly.
Chapter 25: October 1869.
have you been mistaken all along?
“Have you been busy today?”
The king asks this as soon as he steps into your chambers, casually kicking off the furled leaf clinging to the bottom of his shoe on the wood outside. The late October wind has lately been littering the palace grounds with the last remnants of summer as most of the plants prepare for their hibernation.
You bow as you watch him cross the space with as much ease as he would his own room, having spent so much time here in the past year. And the question he posed to you as greeting? It would be strange if he had not fallen into the habit of asking it some weeks ago, taking an unexpected interest that is making you steadily feel more and more comfortable with him even though you should be keeping him as far as you possibly can.
(Wasn’t it better when he treated this like an empty affair? Wasn’t that what he wanted?)
The king settles on the edge of the bed as he begins to undo his belt. A singular pat of the blankets beside him indicates that you should join him. And you do, saying, “unfortunately. Two of the cooks accidentally burned themselves today when there was an overflow, and we had just run out of the burn salve, so it was quite frantic. But we managed, and even had dinner prepared without much delay! Though… I was little help in that last part.”
“I remember. You attempted to poison me with yakgwa once.”
“Jeonha! That was an earnest try at making them as a gift!” Nothing more than a besotted young girl’s silly attempt.
He laughs lightly, casually at your protests, the smile that makes you far too fond once again. “I could certainly feel that in every rock-hard bite. Nearly broke my teeth with how earnest they were.” His belt clatters to the floor. “And how are the cooks now?”
“Recovering! And hopefully without much permanent scarring on their hands.”
Then his own hands are on you, as they always are before long. One slides broadly up over the thin fabric covering your back, fingers spread wide. Another firmly grips your thigh while his head dips low, ready to stake claim to your neck with his lips, the smile still stretched faintly across them. He now knows exactly how to make your breath hitch with just a few strokes. How to have you moaning, whimpering into his ear like his needy woman with the slightest skim of his fingertips over your skin.
Even though the warmth he sparked only blazes higher at his touch, you cannot be carried away. Not just yet.
“Ah, j-jeonha. Please wait.”
You gently ease back, and that is enough to make him pause. He gives you a questioning look, as you’ve never interrupted him like this before.
“It is nearly November,” you murmur.
“I am in possession of a calendar, yes.”
“No, um.” You stare down at your hands. “What I mean is… Daebi-mama. Her birthday… It will be soon.”
You’ve never once broached the subject of the late queen with him in all this time and it instantly feels like a mistake when he stiffens. Yanks his hands back to his own lap, away from you.
You force yourself to go on. “I—I wish to visit her. That is, her tomb… And burn incense. Since it is not too far away that we could feasibly return within the day, I thought it could be nice i-if you wish, jeonha? If you might, perhaps, possibly, like to come with me on that day, together?” The nervous words end up tumbling out all at once, a mess of syllables but at least they’re out. The thoughts have hung heavy on your mind for so many weeks.
He is mute.
Stares at you for long seconds until his brow furrows. His expression draws in so violently that the glare could rival the chill battering against the windows.
“You… Who do you think I am?”
Your mouth falls open at the anger simmering in his voice, groping for words in response but you can’t find them. With a single sentence, you are thrown back into the queen’s chamber, into that awful June day, where you stood at an absolute loss. Vulnerable, and scared. An entire year’s worth of feelings and experiences ago, but the cruel look he gives you now feels the exact same as it did then.
He scoffs. “You think… Honestly, you imagine I have time for such dalliances? To halt an entire day’s worth of business to do such a matter?”
“But the queen—”
“It is frivolous.” His teeth snap together. “Completely unnecessary.”
“No. No. It’s ridiculous of you to even suggest it. I have absolutely no need for such a public display that only shows the people how weak and susceptible their king is. I will not lose all that I have earned.”
“I just thought—”
“No.” He stands up altogether in a flurry of fabric, glaring at you down his nose. “No matter what you have thought, that is final.” His hands are tight fists and he’s already sauntering towards the exit.
Your mouth feels numb even as you mumble, stuttering over the words, “a king can have emotions. Can have grief.” But he doesn’t hear. He’s already closed off his ears and, you think, you dread, his heart.
Without a single look further in your direction, he pauses just the once to sweep his belt off the floor and then he’s gone.
This is the first time since last November that he has come to you and left without indulging himself in your body. While you once so fervently wished he would come for the pleasure of your company alone, you didn’t want it like this. Never like this.
You took a risk, and this is where it has left you: reminded of where your place is in this world, in his world. Alone, you let your body fall onto the bed, one palm pressed to the sheets where his heat remains faintly still.
The door flies open, slamming into its frame as the king explodes into his room.
“Jeonha, you’ve returned early?”
Eunuch Kim is in the midst of tidying up some papers as he was instructed before the king left for Hamhwadang Hall. His confused question is answered with a vicious scowl, one that bodes only awful things, and would have made a weaker man shrink back if the he were not already long used to such vitriol. Even if it hasn’t been aimed in his direction for some time now, and Eunuch Kim had let himself believe that he would perhaps never see it with such intense fury again.
“I have not yet laid out your schedule for Novem—”
Yoongi’s snarl grows even more prominent as he cuts the man off. “Leave. Get out. I don’t want the schedule right now. Just get out!”
Left with no choice, Eunuch Kim bows and quits the room. His heart feels weighty as he walks down the corridor, wondering just what the hell happened with uinyeo-nim to eradicate the rare, pleasant mood the king had left in. Just what, that has undone so many months of quiet, welcome change in an instant.