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Against The Grain

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Princess Joohyun had been taught since a young age that she must look graceful and elegant at all times, and that she must carry herself with dignity as a member of the royal family.

However, this brittle image was thrown out the window when Joohyun was trying to run as fast as she possibly could. She did not care how she looked — the only thing on her mind was that she needed to go to her elder sister’s rescue right away.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!” The Princess’ handmaiden shouted desperately, struggling to simultaneously breathe and run after the royal she was supposed to attend. “You mustn't go to Princess Jooyeon’s residence! It will just bring trouble to you!”

“She’s my sister no matter what,” Joohyun insisted, albeit panting. “I won’t be dissuaded, so don’t try.”

She barely managed to finish her sentence when she tripped on her skirt and fell to the ground. It hurt and she let out a yelp; her knee was throbbing and she grimaced, but it did nothing to weaken her resolve. Gritting her teeth, she got back up on her feet as quickly as possible. There would be bruises and her skirt was dirtied but none of that mattered to her at the moment. She got up and kept going, ignoring her handmaiden’s pleas. The poor handmaiden had no choice but to keep running and chasing after the princess, and when she finally caught up, the scene that was unfolding before her eyes was exactly as she expected.

Joohyun stopped at the gates of her elder sister’s residence, feeling as if she was about to pass out. It was noon after all and the sun was shining mercilessly upon everyone in the palace. While there was the concern that she might faint from dehydration, she had more pressing matters to resolve.

“Let me in,” she said to the guards at the gates. “I demand to see my sister.”

Once she had caught her breath, her tone had become much more commanding and authoritative as was befitting of a royal. But she was not the highest-ranking royal there — her father was the sovereign whose supreme authority meant that his orders would always override anyone else’s.

“I apologize, Your Highness,” said one of the guards, gravely. “The King’s edict is clear — no visitors are allowed. It has been decreed that Princess Jooyeon is to remain in her quarters to reflect upon her mistakes. This will be the case until further notice. Pardon us for not being able to satisfy your command.”

Joohyun had seen this coming. She knew what the King’s orders entailed. But she could not bring herself to abandon her sister at such a critical moment. She wondered what strategy she should try next, if she ought to repeat herself with more sternness, even though she felt helpless and hopeless knowing her authority was inferior to the sovereign’s. Yet just as she was about to open her mouth and speak, her handmaiden was the one who piped up.

“You would dare disobey Her Highness’ orders?” The handmaiden’s tone was so sharp and resolute that Joohyun and the guards were surprised that a palace servant could be capable of this. “Are you not aware that, in the circumstance that any misfortune should befall Princess Jooyeon, it is Princess Joohyun who is going to be the heiress to the throne? Would you wish to offend or disrespect not just a Princess but also the prospective future Queen?”

Although her words seemed to intimidate the guards and work in Joohyun’s favor, inwardly Joohyun’s heart sank because of the implications in her handmaiden’s words: that her sister, the Crown Princess, was most likely going to be deposed and disowned. Only then would it be legally permissible for Joohyun to be next in line to the throne.

Joohyun understood the gravity of the situation. Her sister had made a huge mistake which dragged her on a path of no return. There was nothing that could be done that could possibly fix or undo this mess. Joohyun just wanted to be by her sister’s side, for emotional support if nothing else.

The handmaiden’s outburst seemed to take some desired effect on the guards who exchanged worried glances. Grimly, they relented and made way for Princess Joohyun to enter the residence. She instructed her handmaiden to wait right outside as she bolted to her sister’s side.

“Joohyun?” Jooyeon croaked weakly, slowly getting up from the fetal position she was curled up in. “How did you manage to get in here? What were you thinking?” She asked, even though her voice carried no energy. “You know our father forbade it. You shouldn’t have broken the rules to come visit me. I broke the rules and look at what’s happening to me now.”

Joohyun went up to her sister and they hugged. Jooyeon had already been crying nonstop and crying even harder now that she was in her sister’s embrace. Joohyun was not a crier, but that did not mean her heart was not equally hurting. It hurt even more to see that Jooyeon was still in her nightgown and barefaced, looking paler than a ghost.

“How are you holding up?” Joohyun asked. “Have you not eaten anything? Please don’t starve isn’t good for your health,” she added, and then gulped. “Nor is it good for the baby.”

Jooyeon smiled wryly, then looked down at her tummy even though there was no bump showing just yet. “The baby, you say? Perhaps if I starve the baby to death then it would get rid of all my problems. What do you reckon, Joohyun? Do you think it’s gonna work? If I starve myself? I could try it. Maybe I shouldn’t drink any water either. That’ll speed it up—”

“Stop,” Joohyun pleaded in anguish. “I came here even though I knew the risks; I came here because I don’t want to see you suffer. So please.”

Jooyeon shook her head and sat down on the nearest chair, shoulders slumped as she looked into the distance and stared blankly at nothing in particular. “Nothing will ever be the same again.”

“While that may be true, I still want to do whatever I can to ensure you can still live a relatively comfortable life,” Joohyun replied solemnly. “Even though your titles will most likely be taken away.”

“That seems to be the least of my worries right now. I’m an immoral woman for having a baby out of wedlock. With one of my guards, of all people. Someone they deem so lowly and unworthy. I suppose I ought to be thankful they don’t take my life away.”

Joohyun sighed. “He was just a guard, a servant at the end of the day; of course they’d have his head. But you’re the King’s daughter. No one can touch a hair on your body unless our father personally and officially commands it.”

“What did you just say?” Jooyeon gasped, clutching her sister’s hands and grasping them as tightly as she could. It made Joohyun wince, but she knew her pain was nothing compared to her sister’s. Jooyeon’s jaw dropped and her eyes went wide even though her stare was still lifeless and hollow. “They...they had him executed?”

Joohyun felt chills run down her spine. “You didn’t know,” she concluded after a chilling moment. “They didn’t tell you.”

Jooyeon let go of Joohyun and instead placed her hand on her chest right away as if searching for her heartbeat, as if attempting, needing to make sure that she was still alive, still breathing, still existing.

“They killed him,” Jooyeon whispered. “They killed the father of my child…”

“I’m so sorry,” said Joohyun sorrowfully. “There was no way they would’ve let him live. They charged him with rape and treason—”

“He didn’t rape me!” Jooyeon howled, the sudden spike in her volume causing her sister to flinch.

“I know…I just…”

“If they want to execute anyone, they should execute that traitor! That handmaiden that ratted me out!” She broke into sobs again, her chest heaving up and down. The more she tried to breathe, the more she felt as if she was going to throw up. It was only after a few minutes when she seemed to have calmed down that she was able to carry on talking. “I don’t know what gave me the impression that he and I were being careful, that we could manage to hide our affair. And now he’s dead, and soon I shall follow.”

“No, please don’t say that,” Joohyun begged. “We’ll find a way to resolve this.”

“You can’t bring back the dead,” Jooyeon spat.

“I can’t, but I can do my best to protect the living. You and the baby still have hope. You still stand a chance and I don’t want you to lose—”

All of a sudden, the doors were kicked open violently. The two princesses expected the guards to come barging in, but the intruder was no guard. They had no trouble recognizing that familiar face — the personal attendant of their mother, the Queen. The senior attendant, a woman in her late forties, looked so formidable that even as a servant, she managed to strike some fear in the two young royals. Behind her was half a dozen lower-ranking maids, and while none of them were armed, their mere presence was enough to make the two sisters feel intimidated.

“Your Highnesses,” said the attendant, uttering polite words but it was evident that there was no respect in her tone and attitude. On second thought, it was not just a lack of respect but in fact sentiments as strong as disgust and contempt, especially toward Jooyeon, the Crown Princess who had fallen from grace. She felt no need to switch to a more deferential attitude as she knew that she only needed to answer to the Queen, so if the two princesses had a problem with her then they could take it to their mother the Queen whose authority trumped theirs anyway.

“What are you doing here?” Joohyun asked sharply.

“I am here on behalf of the Queen,” she explained wickedly. “Her Majesty is aware that the Crown Princess must be feeling uncomfortable under confinement. To alleviate this discomfort, I have been ordered to deliver this bowl of papaya soup to you.”

Although she was speaking to Jooyeon directly, the princess did not dare look the attendant in the eye. She did not say anything in reply, and in fact displayed no response at all, as if she did not hear a single word the attendant spoke. As such. Joohyun had to take matters into her own hands.

“Then put it on the table and leave,” Joohyun commanded. “The Crown Princess and I do not wish to be disturbed, so get out.”

“We will gladly obey your commands, Princess Joohyun,” she sneered. “But not right now. Please understand that we must carry out the Queen’s orders first. And that includes seeing to it that Princess Jooyeon drinks the whole bowl of soup.”

“I don’t want it,” Jooyeon stated timidly.

“If Your Highness is feeling weak, the Queen has instructed me, as well as these maids,” the attendant added menacingly, gesturing at the maids standing behind her, “to feed it to you.”

“No.” Jooyeon shifted in her seat, turning away from the maids. “Go away. Leave us.”

It was clear that these maids no longer saw her as a powerful figure ever since her indiscretions and scandal had brought so much shame and dishonor to her family and her country. Swiftly, they approached her, cornering her, and the maids easily outnumbered the royals.

Joohyun could not stand it anymore. Slamming her palm onto the table, she glowered at the senior attendant fiercely. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Just doing my job as an obedient servant to the Queen,” the attendant answered nonchalantly. Rolling up her sleeves, she reached for the bowl of soup. She ignored Jooyeon’s screams and pleas while her subordinates did the same, holding the disgraced princess down by her wrists and ankles.

“Stop this! Immediately!” Joohyun bellowed. As if she were not feeling powerless enough already, the remaining maids grabbed her as well and had her subdued in a similar fashion. She could only look on helplessly as the senior attendant force-fed Jooyeon, making a mess as the pregnant princess’ continued attempts at resisting had caused the soup to spill everywhere. Her clothes were stained and so was the tiled floor. As a result of trying to scream yet also having to swallow at the same time, she kept choking and it was so painful. Above that she felt an even stronger urge to vomit, but her mother’s attendant placed a palm over her mouth and prevented her from retching. She was determined to complete her mission at all costs and only let go when it looked as if Jooyeon could no longer do anything to get the soup out of her system.

Princesses were supposed to look graceful and elegant at all times. Jooyeon, however, was the opposite as she coughed and hiccuped while quivering in pain.

“Let me go!” Joohyun continued to exclaim furiously and hysterically. “I said let me go! I’ll have you all beaten to death for this!”

“Your Highness, a lady should never raise her voice,” said the attendant mockingly. “Now that I have done as I was told, I will see myself out of the Crown Princess’ residence right away. The Queen has also ordered me to deliver a message to you, Princess Joohyun. I was going to pay a visit to your residence as well but since we are all here already, I shall convey the Queen’s message to you now: Her Majesty commands you to remain in your residence for the rest of today. You are expected to meet with your new household staff since new arrangements have taken effect.”

Joohyun huffed as her handmaidens helped her put on a more formal outfit. She was still seething from what her mother’s attendant and the other maids had done to Jooyeon, and now she was deported back to her own residence while Jooyeon continued to suffer alone.

Joohyun shivered again as the traumatic images of the struggle just now kept replaying in her head. She was just trying to keep her sister and the baby safe, but of all people it was their mother who made sure that the baby was aborted. Why? Just why? How could any mother in the world inflict this horror upon her own daughter? It was so cruel, so inhumane, so disturbing that Joohyun lost her temper and snapped at one of her handmaidens.

“Are you quite done with the ribbons yet?!”

The handmaiden was terrified, quickly apologizing. On the outside it might seem as if Joohyun was impatient to be introduced to and greeted by her new batch of servants. But deep down, she really did not care about the new arrangements at her household and had no interest in meeting the new staff. They were servants all the same, so why should she be concerned? As a royal, her maids and servants would get dismissed at irregular intervals and new ones would come along. It was irritating at times, but she was used to it by now. This policy was enforced for good reason: many palace servants and maids were spies and agents. Should they remain in the princess’ household for too lengthy a period, they would be able to continuously supply critical information about Her Highness to whoever they secretly worked for. This would put her in danger, and so countermeasures must be implemented for the sake of her safety. As such, if she had to be introduced to the newcomers every single time, she would certainly be very busy. And yet this was the Queen’s order and as the Princess, Joohyun was in no position to defy the command of someone whose power was second only to the King’s.

Of course, Joohyun did wonder why her mother the Queen specifically required her to be present for the introduction of the new staff this time in particular. Perhaps there was something special about these newcomers, or maybe it was just because of what happened to her sister. It was indeed one of Jooyeon’s maids who discovered her affair with her guard and then exposed it, so it was possible that existing protective measures were not enough. Either way, Joohyun tried to contain all her anger and frustrations for now, urging herself to look stoic and neutral. But even her expressionless face made her seem cold and frightening — she was not called the ‘ice princess’ for no reason.

As soon as she stepped outside, she was formally greeted by dozens of servants, lining up in a very organized configuration and bowing at her deferentially. They were all clad in uniform that matched their ranks, which was not surprising. But what made Joohyun stare for an extra moment was that all of these servants were female. Not just the maids but even the guards. Her heart sank, knowing that this arrangement must have been made in light of her sister’s big mistake of sleeping with her guard and getting pregnant as a result. No doubt her mother wanted to prevent her from following in her sister’s footsteps. Being surrounded by female guards would supposedly eliminate the possibility of a forbidden affair and pregnancy.

Joohyun acknowledged their salutations and allowed them to stand upright. She took steps down the stairs, her curiosity pulling her toward the female guards like a magnet. She was not even aware that the palace allowed women to join and train to be guards. But she had no complaints about that.

The commander of the royal guards in the palace was Master Kang, a middle-aged man who was still very fit and spirited. It was his job to train and coach all the guards here, no matter their gender.

“Your Highness,” said Master Kang who stepped forward once he noticed just how fascinated the princess looked. It was simply intriguing to see women taking up posts that had for the longest time been held by men. “Shall I make introductions?”

Joohyun nodded, and Master Kang began. “I have assigned my daughter, Seulgi, to be Your Highness’ personal guard. This means she will also be in charge of the staffing and deployment of all the guards in Your Highness’ household, to accompany and protect Your Highness by whatever means necessary. This applies to special occasions including but not limited to excursions outside the palace as well.”

On cue, Seulgi stepped forward too and bowed her head. Joohyun took a moment to eye Seulgi from head to toe, staring at the guard for an extended moment. It was not just because it was so refreshing to see a woman in this post, but also because Joohyun genuinely enjoyed looking at such a comely face. Her monolids, her cheeks, the shape of her lips, and the way her hair shone under the blazing sun.

Finally turning her gaze away from the unexpectedly attractive guard, Joohyun faced Master Kang once again, keeping her facial expressions unreadable.

“Are you sure you’re not appointing her as my personal guard out of nepotism?” She asked.

“Your Highness, please be assured that all these guards here have undergone rounds and rounds of intensive training under my supervision. Seulgi is indeed the one who has consistently ranked the highest across each round of evaluation. The details of the assessments and each guard’s scores have been overseen, monitored, and recorded not just by myself but also by two other military generals. There was no room for favoritism. I can promise you that she most definitely earned this place by her own effort and competence,” Master Kang explained patiently.

“I see,” Joohyun replied. “But your daughter is so pretty,” she added as if Seulgi was not standing right there. “Why would you want to send her here to be a guard when she could easily charm any wealthy nobleman and live a luxurious life among aristocrats?”

Awkward glances were exchanged between father and daughter. Seulgi blushed, while her father sought to find the right words to provide the princess with a satisfactory explanation.

“Or perhaps you can speak for yourself,” Joohyun went on, turning back to face Seulgi without waiting for Master Kang’s response. “Why would you want to be my guard?”

Seulgi cleared her throat and answered, “it is the best way I can serve the country, given my abilities.”

Joohyun smiled. Not a wide grin, but a smile nonetheless. And she did not expect that she would find herself smiling, at least not today, definitely not today since so much shit had happened already. But here she was, smiling at her new guard’s answer.

“Very well,” Joohyun replied. “I hope all of you here will be just as willing to serve.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” they chorused.

Sadly, any mirth that Joohyun had experienced from her brief encounter with Seulgi had subsided rather quickly. She spent the rest of the day in worry and anguish, desperately trying to come up with a way to rescue her sister and yet nothing would come to mind. Every time she thought she had devised a feasible plan, there would always be loopholes or dire consequences.

Was there really no way to save her sister? Joohyun sighed and massaged her temples. It was going to be midnight soon, and she was lying in bed already, but slumber was the last thing on her mind. How could she allow herself the luxury of sleeping when her sister was suffering all by herself?

Joohyun’s brain eventually gave in to the need for sleep, against her wishes. But she stayed in slumber for only an hour or so, before the commotion outside made her bolt upright and snap to attention.

“What’s going on?” She asked one of the handmaidens who rushed to her side to help her up. She pressed her fingers to her neck — her throat was so dry. Thankfully, another handmaiden passed a cup of warm water to her.

“It’s the Crown Princess,” the handmaiden answered reluctantly, on the verge of tears. “We caught word from some of the eunuchs outside.”

“What? What did they say?” Joohyun’s eyes widened in fright. “What happened to her? Is she alright?”

The handmaiden fell to her knees and shook her head apologetically. “We heard that Her Highness passed away.”

The cup that was in Joohyun’s hand fell to the floor, shattering into pieces just like her heart did. Her whole body froze, stiller than a corpse. She was speechless for a few moments, until all her thoughts and emotions assaulted her all at once.

“How is that possible?!” She demanded sharply. “No, that can’t be true. The eunuchs must have made it up. That can’t possibly be true, no, no…I must go to her. I must go see her now.”

By the time she got there, the guards merely bowed at her and no longer sought to block her way like they did previously. She barged right in, hoping against hope that she would see her sister alive and well. But that was not at all the case. The sight that struck her, and struck hard, was her sister’s dead body, in a pool of her own blood.

“Your Highness,” said the physician who got here not long before Joohyun did. “Please accept my deepest condolences.”

Joohyun’s lips were trembling, as was her voice, as she tried to speak, but even speaking had become an incredibly arduous task. “Why aren’t you doing anything?” She questioned, wanting to berate the physician but not quite able to garner enough strength to do that. “Shouldn’t you be saving her life? Isn’t that your job?”

“Forgive me, Your Highness. The Crown Princess had already stopped breathing by the time I was summoned here. There was nothing more I could have done for Her Highness,” the physician explained solemnly. “Perhaps if I was notified sooner…”

Joohyun took a few heavy breaths, her eyes darting everywhere. “Notified you sooner…” she said under her breath as she attempted to collect her thoughts. “Who notified you?”

“The guards,” the physician answered. “They reported hearing the Crown Princess’ screams. I believe they did not know at first that she was bleeding excessively, but what I was told was that her screams had been going on for so long that they could no longer stand it. By the time I got here…”

“And the baby?” Joohyun pressed on, chewing on her lips in a feeble attempt to seek solace.

“Her Highness must’ve accidentally ingested some foods that caused her to miscarry,” he replied. There was hesitation in his tone, not because he was unsure about the cause of her ‘miscarriage’ — it was obviously an abortion — but because he felt the need to be very careful with his choice of words. One slip and he could be accused of accusing the Queen of heinous crimes, and he might end up losing his head just like what happened to the father of Princess Jooyeon’s baby.

Joohyun almost fainted at that, and had to rely on her handmaidens to help her to a chair as her legs failed her. The more she chewed over the physician’s words, the angrier she became. If the forced abortion was what caused her sister to bleed and die, then her mother — and the attendant who executed it — would be to blame. It would not just be an accident, a misfortune, or a tragedy. It was murder. It was homicide. It was a death sentence. At that thought, Joohyun slammed her fist onto the table and rose to her feet abruptly. It was as if she could feel her blood boiling, every fiber in her body urging her to do something, anything, even though she had no idea what she could possibly do, or what was even in her power to do. Her hands were shaking, her arms and thighs too. It felt as if her body did not even belong to her, like everything was out of her control.

“Does my mother know?” She hissed bitterly. “Does she know that my sister is dead?”

“Messengers have been dispatched to notify the rest of the royal family, Your Highness,” the physician reported. “I wish I could have done more for the Crown Princess. Again, please accept my condolences.”

Joohyun stood up again, fuming as she marched out of her sister’s residence. Her handmaidens trailed right behind her, all the way till they arrived at the King’s chambers. When she saw from afar that the rooms were lit, Joohyun was about to go in right away. But then the King’s attending eunuch stepped outside to receive her, and piped up before she could.

“Your Majesty!” The eunuch kowtowed before Joohyun so dramatically that it made her wonder if this was all part of an awful, painful nightmare.

“What did you just call me?!” Joohyun frowned. This was improper — surely this eunuch, having been the King’s closest attendant for so many years, would know better?

“Your Majesty,” the eunuch repeated himself. He sounded so serious that there was no way he could possibly be jesting. “The King collapsed just now once His Majesty heard the news of the Crown Princess’ passing. I summoned a physician of course, but His Majesty…” he paused and gulped hard. “His Majesty was pronounced dead.”

Joohyun shook her head frantically. “There’s no way this is really happening! This can’t be real! Tell me this isn’t real!” She exclaimed. Medically it all made sense; her father the King had been suffering from cardiovascular diseases for a number of years already due to an unhealthy lifestyle and diet. But emotionally, Joohyun was overloaded. Not to mention she was running on way too little sleep.

“By law, you are next in line to the throne as the sovereign’s eldest surviving child,” the eunuch explained. “This is real, Your Majesty. All of it is real. You are our sovereign now. Long live the Queen!”

Hearing the eunuch’s words sent shivers down Joohyun’s spine. How could she possibly become the ruler of a nation? Never in her life had she ever thought that she would get this close to the throne, let alone sit on it.

Everything that happened afterward was a blur to Joohyun. It felt so unreal because she did not want it to be real, and yet it was all too real and she could not bear it. How she wished this was just a bad dream. Losing not one but two family members within a matter of hours was not something she could ever be prepared for.

By the time she returned to her own residence, she was more disoriented than ever. Her facial expressions remained blank even as her guard, Seulgi, came up to her.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Your High— ahem, Your Majesty,” said Seulgi solemnly.

There was nothing Joohyun could say in response. No doubt these words would be repeated to her again and again in the days to come. She did not want to hear it.

Noting the awkward silence and just how done Joohyun looked, Seulgi cleared her throat. “Well, I’ll be here all night...I mean, pretty much all the time anyway. It’s my job. So, if Your Majesty needs me for anything...or I can just have one of your handmaidens attend you…”

“No, it’s fine,” said Joohyun without emotion. She never had the opportunity to find a confidante in any of her handmaidens since they would come and go so frequently yet so irregularly. It would be foolish to expect that she could rely on her maids to bring her any comfort. “I’ll be fine on my own. Like I’ve always been.”

“But you don't always have to be on your own,” Seulgi blurted, and then quickly realized she should not have done that. “I apologize, Your Majesty. I shouldn't have contradicted you; I just wanted to—”

“Don't worry about it,” Joohyun replied, even though she did wish someone could be saying those exact words to her. “I know you're just trying to make me feel better.”

She then went into her bedchamber alone, void of all energy and will to live. She felt so tired, so exhausted, and yet ironically sleep would not come to her. The thing her body needed the most refused to come to her. Instead, her body reacted much more intensely and vehemently — she broke into tears. It was not just one or two drops of tears but, rather, full-on sobbing and bawling.

Seulgi remained stationed right outside Joohyun’s bedchamber and could hear the Princess — ah, no, the new Queen’s sobs quite clearly. Joohyun cried through the night, mourning not one but two family member’s deaths. Seulgi felt for her, wanting to soothe her, but she was not in the position to do so, which made her feel helpless. But then again, who in the world would feel more helpless than Joohyun herself? The supreme ruler of a country, wielding unquestioned authority, yet feeling so broken and so weak...the irony was poignant and laughable.

Seulgi was aware, as was pretty much everybody in the palace, that for the longest time Joohyun had the reputation of being a princess who was made of ice. She hardly ever cried, hardly ever smiled, basically hardly ever showed any emotion. But as Seulgi listened to Joohyun’s series of sobs and cries that went on for hours and hours, she saw for herself that Joohyun was not like that. She was not made of ice, nor was her heart made of stone. She was human, too, and everybody had misunderstood her. In fact, Seulgi wondered if Joohyun actually had anyone who truly understood her?

Chapter Text

Pursuant to the King’s and the Crown Princess’ deaths, the nation was plunged into a state of mourning and gloom. The new Queen Joohyun spent the first fortnight in utter agony. She then spent the second fortnight in a daze. Most of the time she was not sure what she was doing. Even when she was doing very simple things like eating and bathing, it still felt as if her soul was not present in her body.

The handmaidens and other servants around Joohyun continued to come and go. Compared to all these foreign faces that Joohyun would not look twice at, her personal guard Seulgi seemed to be the one and only constant in her life.

Joohyun was aware of the fact that she was now the most powerful person in the realm. But she was not yet fully conscious of just how extensive her influence and authority could be. She herself was surprised that she had hardly issued any edicts so far — except on one matter that she refused to let go of: her sister’s murder.

Joohyun had not spoken to her mother ever since Jooyeon’s death. Not even a single word. Not even the slightest acknowledgement of her presence whenever they were in the same room. Although most of the time Joohyun was numb and her mind was blank, one of the strongest feelings that she could identify and label was a need for revenge. If she could not inflict pain upon her sister’s murderers in equal measure, how could justice possibly be served?

Yet her killer was not just anyone. It was her own mother, the Queen Mother that everyone in this nation still bowed to and looked up to. Joohyun knew that if she were to openly display any act of cruelty toward her own mother, it would damage her reputation. As a sovereign who had newly ascended to the throne, especially since she was among the late King’s youngest children and therefore someone that people did not expect to see on the throne, she sure did not need anything that could possibly tarnish her image in the people’s eyes. Everybody had their eyes on her, the whole country counting on her to be the leader they needed. This was her chance to either earn the people’s support or incur their disaffection. There was simply no room for missteps.

The Queen Mother’s senior attendant, however, was not a figure that the public would pay attention to. In their eyes she was just another servant whose name they had never heard of, whose life they would not care about. Taking advantage of this, she had very soon become Joohyun’s punching bag. She was incarcerated in a cell and received a penalty that Joohyun thought was very befitting for her crime: every day, servants would force-feed a bowl of papaya soup to her.

Perhaps the only thing that prevented Joohyun from falling into a spiral of hatred and vengeance was state affairs that demanded her attention. Originally, while her sister was still alive, a betrothal was set up between Jooyeon and the Crown Prince of China. Jooyeon’s scandal would surely have offended the Chinese, but luckily a few years ago Korea sent military supplies to China when there was a civil war, so the alliance between the two countries was not entirely broken. However, this pointed to an even stronger need to solidify the alliance — and now Joohyun was the one who was expected to marry the Crown Prince of China as soon as possible.

“He’s here, Your Majesty,” one of Joohyun’s handmaidens announced. Joohyun had long stopped trying to remember the names of her handmaidens — what would be the point when they were probably going to be dismissed the next day, or at most by the end of the week? But this handmaiden in particular seemed to be rather energetic and happy-go-lucky, as she quickly added in a whisper, “and he’s quite handsome too.”

The Queen raised her eyebrows. Not once had she ever felt the need to care about the Crown Prince’s appearance. Because she was determined to not get married anyway.

Joohyun made her way to the parlor where her betrothed was waiting. Indeed there he was, dressed very formally as was expected of the occasion. As they exchanged greetings, Joohyun understood why her handmaiden would think highly of the Crown Prince’s looks. His soft features were pleasant to look at, but it was not as if he looked lovely enough for Joohyun to want to gaze at him for an additional moment. The last time — possibly the only time — anyone was able to have that effect on her was when she met Seulgi for the very first time.

“You must be Prince Lu Han,” said Joohyun coolly. “Welcome. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m very honored to finally be able to visit Korea,” Lu Han replied. He was fluent in Korean, which was not that surprising. As the heir to an empire, he was no doubt given a very extensive education on foreign languages. Joohyun, on the other hand, received a different kind of education as she was never expected to be the heiress to her father’s throne.

“I hope Your Highness has had sufficient rest after such a long journey. How do you like your quarters?” She asked.

“It’s very comfortable here. I’m very pleased,” he said. “I haven’t been here for long but I’ve already made a lot of interesting discoveries.”

“Ah, is that so?”

“Indeed. For instance, Your Majesty is even more beautiful than your late sister, from the portraits I’ve seen,” he commented with a smile.

Joohyun smiled too, but thinly, not so much out of genuine appreciation but more out of obligation since a compliment was offered to her. “Thank you. Although if I could swap my beauty for my sister and have her back alive and well, I would definitely do it.”

Lu Han stiffened, not at all expecting this standoffish, sardonic speech from a royal. He wondered if he ought to offer his condolences, but it seemed Joohyun had arrived at that thought before he did.

“You don’t have to say it,” she said, her tone gentler this time. She might not be much interested in him as a prospective spouse, but she was mindful that he was not just any guest at her court; he was the future Emperor of China after all. “I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

He smiled in an effort to diffuse the awkwardness. “Pardon me. Perhaps we ought to talk about something more delightful.”

“Such as?”

“Such as our betrothal?”

“Ah, yes. That,” she replied curtly. There was no emotion on her face, which made him unsure if she was uninterested, or displeased, or bored, or whatever. Either way, it was evident that she was not as fond of the idea of their marital union as he was.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me Your Majesty is not too pleased about our betrothal,” he said.

“Because I’m not,” she stated nonchalantly. “Please don’t take it personally, Your Highness. I simply don’t know you well enough to decide how much I like or dislike you.”

Lu Han chuckled. He understood that while her words seemed to convey something along the lines of ‘no offense’, he had a hunch she was quite sure he was not the kind of person to be easily offended — if he were, he would not have been able to survive at the Chinese court.

“I suppose we’ll get to know each other better as we spend more time together. Maybe then we can grow to like each other,” he suggested.

“Maybe.” Joohyun shrugged. “Or maybe not.”

“I personally prefer to be more optimistic,” he replied. “Especially when it comes to this matter — marriage is a lifelong commitment after all. While political stability and diplomatic bonds are no doubt important, I think I would be very obliged if we could at least get along with each other.”

“Yes, we can most certainly try to get along with each other,” she said. “As friends, at best.”


She nodded. “You heard me correctly, Your Highness.”

“While I do think of myself as an optimist, I am not inclined to believe that friendships can thrive and last in a place as dangerous as a palace.”

“But marital alliances are expected to thrive and last?” She arched an eyebrow at him, eager to see just how much of an intellectual he was.

“It’s like I said, Your Majesty. Marriages are lifelong commitments. They are meant to be taken seriously,” he insisted. “And as for alliances, I do my best to make them last.”

“I don’t disagree with you, Your Highness,” she replied calmly. “You see, it’s precisely because I treat marriage as a serious matter — that’s why I simply cannot agree to marry you. I’m afraid I feel no desire to be committed to a lifelong union with you.”

Lu Han paused, but did not falter. “Is it perhaps because there is someone else Your Majesty is already committed to?”

“Someone else? No, Your Highness. There is no one else. I am committed to myself and myself only,” she explained. “To my own wishes, to my own volition, to my own heart. I will not marry anyone unless my heart desires it.”

“I’m afraid, as members of the ruling family, it is not up to us to choose our spouses based on love,” he pointed out.

“That may be the case for you,” she said. “I, however, will resist this fate with all my might.”

“Well then, how do you propose to secure the alliance between our two nations?” He asked. “It is what I am here for, after all. And I am more than willing to hear Your Majesty’s thoughts on this matter.”

Joohyun smiled. Again there was very little mirth if any, although she did look less uneasy and more relaxed this time. “You are the Crown Prince of one of the most powerful empires in the world. You can always get yourself another bride.”

“Indeed, but that does not answer my question, Your Majesty,” he insisted. “I do have a duty to my country, as do you to yours.”

“I’m happy to make a marital alliance happen between our two countries, just not between the two of us,” she explained. “I’m aware that you and your younger sister, Princess Nongyu, are the only legitimate children born to the Emperor and Empress of China. Your remaining siblings — half-siblings, I mean to say — are all from the Emperor’s concubines.”

“That is correct.”

“In that case, no doubt Princess Nongyu is regarded as one of China’s most valuable political pawns.” Joohyun’s tone made it very clear that this was a statement, neither a conjecture nor a question.

Lu Han almost laughed at that. He was so fascinated. Joohyun was one of the very few people he had ever met who would be so straightforward.

“True,” he replied. “It might please Your Majesty to know that my sister has for a long time been interested in Korea and would have loved the chance to join me on this visit.”

“That’s wonderful. By all means, do send Her Highness here to my court. She can marry my younger brother Prince Jooyoung and we’ll have the marital alliance that we’re here to negotiate,” she announced blithely. “This would eliminate the need for you and I to be wed.”

Lu Han frowned ever so slightly. “As Your Majesty is aware, Nongyu’s status and legitimacy is quite different from my other sisters’. My father the Emperor has plans to betroth her to Emperors, or Kings, or Crown Princes from other nation states. I’m afraid His Majesty has never considered the youngest son of the late King of Korea.”

“You think of my brother as too inferior to be the husband of your empire’s most valuable princess.”

“Those were not my words, Majesty.”

“Your words,” she went on. “‘Crown Princes’, you say? There’s no reason why I can’t have my brother invested as Crown Prince.”

Lu Han cleared his throat. “I was not aware that the succession laws in Korea favored the monarch’s younger siblings over the monarch’s direct descendants.”

“No, you’re perfectly informed on our laws here. Since I currently have no legitimate heir, if I die today, tomorrow Jooyoung will be King,” she stated, once again speaking of death as if it were as mundane as the weather. “Still not tempting enough for you to barter away your sister to my country?”

“I cannot possibly count on the chance that you will not marry someone else and beget a legitimate heir through that marriage,” he stated in an equally resolute manner. “My sister could become the Empress consort or Queen consort of any foreign nation right away, as soon as my father permits it. Why should I have her marry your brother and then wait till the day he inherits your throne, assuming that day does come?”

“Your Highness,” she began. “If the laws of your empire stated that your spouse would be entitled to ruling over not just your lands but also your life, that you would be required to submit to her in all matters, that not just your authority but also your rights, your needs, your wishes would always be secondary to hers...would you be happy with that? Would you still be willing to get married?”

For a moment both of them were silent. No words were needed because the silence was enough for Joohyun to recognize that Lu Han understood what she was getting at. If he would not be fine with having to be subservient to his spouse, why would he expect her to be alright with this? Above that, he understood that there was no way she would agree to marry him — her principles and convictions would not allow it. He would be wise to stop wasting time on any attempt to talk her into agreeing to this marriage when there were indeed other ways to secure and solidify their alliance.

“It’s like I said earlier,” she continued. “Please don’t take this personally. I would say the same thing to any man who proposes to me. That is, if I thought them as worthy of my time as Your Highness is.”

“I suppose…” Lu Han began as he smiled. “You and I can indeed get along with each other as friends.”

“Perfect,” she remarked. “I’m sure your sister will be overjoyed at the prospect of getting to visit my country.”

“I will write to her and to my father right away,” he said firmly. “However I must ask: every woman I’ve ever seen, from royals to peasants, grasp for financial security and acquire it via marriage to a man. So to achieve that all the same without having to rely on a husband, how does Your Majesty plan to make it work?”

“Well,” Joohyun smiled, this time mysteriously yet confidently, “that is what I will show and prove with all the years of my reign.”

Everyone in Joohyun’s court was ready for a royal wedding, even though their expectation was shifted from a union between their Queen and the Crown Prince of China to one between their young Prince and a Chinese Princess. Either way, it was a special occasion and so everybody occupied themselves with the preparations.

One of the most serious implications of this political marriage was, of course, the renewed alliance between the two nations. But that was not all. Since the betrothal between Joohyun and Lu Han had been called off, it meant that Joohyun was once again eligible to become someone else’s wife. And plenty of wolves had their eyes on this attractive prey.

However, these wolves were not the only ones whose hunger had become dangerously intense. Or at least, their hunger was not literal — there were hundreds, thousands of people suffering and starving every day thanks to a severe drought. This had become a matter that warranted discussion during Joohyun’s everyday council meetings with her advisors.

“I thought we had sent shipments to those famine-stricken regions already,” said Joohyun, frustrated and worried in equal parts. “It’s been almost a month. Why have the food supplies still not reached them?”

“Apparently the ships were attacked by pirates…” one of her advisors replied grimly. “They stole all our supplies. Only two of our men made it back after swimming for days and riding the tide, then reaching the shore where they were rescued by the fishermen there.”

She then glowered at him fiercely. “Why have you not reported this to me sooner?!”

“Forgive me, Majesty. I wasn’t able to find the right timing for it...with the negotiations about the marital alliance with China going on…”

“What a load of rubbish,” she snapped. “People are dying and you seriously thought it would be better to wait? Don’t you know that these negotiations can drag on for years and years? Shall we allow our people to continue to suffer and starve in the meantime? My goodness, common sense is not common at all.”

The hall fell silent. The advisors had begun to learn that this new sovereign’s temper was even worse than her father’s. She might be small in stature, but this new Queen was definitely not easy to deal with, and definitely not someone they would ever want to bully.

“There a-alternative, M-Ma-Majesty,” that advisor spoke again, albeit spluttering and barely daring to look Joohyun in the eye. Instead he exchanged timid glances with the other advisors as they one by one managed to guess what option he was going to suggest. “Lord Seo Dowon may still have a substantial amount of food supplies as his lands are mostly in regions that are largely unaffected by the drought. He may be our last hope.”

The advisors started to exchange whispers with one another, discreetly agreeing that they might not have another choice apart from counting on Lord Seo, even though they shuddered as they spoke of him. Seo Dowon was someone who wielded considerable power and was a controversial figure in politics, but the most intriguing yet most intimidating thing about him was how mysterious he was. So little was known about him. It was such a perplexing phenomenon — it looked as if he hardly had any allies and hated socializing, and yet the other nobles knew better than to offend, exploit, or pick on him. Truly amazing.

Even more bizarre and perturbing was something about Lord Seo that happened a number of years ago: he used to be a close friend, trusted confidant, and valued advisor to the late King, Joohyun’s father. But one day they stopped talking to each other altogether. No one knew what went on between them. And no one dared ask.

What happened to Lord Seo was so unusual and puzzling to all the courtiers who had been closely observing his interactions with the late King. Usually when people fell out of favor with the King, their reputation would be in tatters and they were not likely to be able to keep their titles and lands even if they were spared the harsher penalties of exile or execution. And yet Lord Seo was such an anomaly. If he had really offended the King, he would have been severely punished, and banishment would not have been out of the question. The norm was that the higher you rose, the harder you would fall. But here he was, titles, privileges, and his head intact. If he fell at all, he fell so very gently and comfortably that it was almost painless. These abnormalities made it practically impossible for outsiders to figure out what could possibly have caused him and the late King to have what seemed to be a fallout.

“In that case,” Joohyun replied sternly. “Summon Seo Dowon for an audience with me this afternoon.”

Later that day, Lord Seo stepped into the hall in a most dignified and calm manner. He bowed at the Queen as was expected of him. What he expected from the Queen, however, was not quite aligned with reality.

“Your Majesty, may I ask why we are conducting this conversation whilst standing?” He asked, unfazed and collected. “If it pleases Your Majesty to have me stand, I shall willingly obey. However, I believe Your Majesty would feel much more comfortable sitting.”

Joohyun smirked. “Indeed, it’s not comfortable at all to have to stand, is it? Although I suppose discomforts and sacrifices are necessary. Those of us in the palace with ample resources shall suffer discomforts by standing a little while, whereas those in famine must face much worse discomforts on a daily basis. Wouldn’t you agree, Lord Seo?”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Your Majesty.”

“Do you?”

“I do, of course. Your Majesty might be pleased to hear that I am willing to donate my food supplies to those in need.”

“How very kind and altruistic of you, my lord,” she commented coldly.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he replied with a slight bow of his head, deliberately doing so precisely because he knew she was being sarcastic. He also knew she was irritated by his schemes — more precisely, she was irritated that he was scheming and even more irritated that she did not have a clear idea of what exactly he was up to — and he was having fun with this. He enjoyed getting on her nerves yet still leaving her no choice but to play his game and ask him for the food. Or else what kind of a ruler would she be?

“The country could definitely use more people like you. So very willing to serve,” she added with an eyebrow raised at him.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. I would be happy to send the food supplies — but on one condition.”

Joohyun would have really laughed if the situation were not so serious. Instead she just let out a mocking chuckle. “You believe yourself to be in a position to bargain with me?”

“I simply believe that the Queen will not hesitate to reward those who make contributions to the country,” he explained slyly. “And I have utmost confidence that Your Majesty will not prove me wrong.”

“Very well,” she replied brusquely. “State your terms.”

He cleared his throat and smirked, a devious glint in his eye. “I would like to ask for your royal guard Seulgi, the beautiful and charming daughter of Master Kang, to be my wife.”

Chapter Text

For the first time, Joohyun passed a new law using her queenly authority.

Once Master Kang heard about the new law, he more or less freaked out and had to rush to see his daughter right away. This new law could heavily affect her whole future and there was a very important decision that she had to make. He really wanted to be able to counsel and support her in making the best choice.

Because he was beside himself with worry, he spoke very quickly. As he tried and struggled to explain the whole situation, he jumped back and forth between the details of the law. This left Seulgi flummoxed, but the general idea she got was that the Queen seemed to have established an organization called the Queensguard. It was an elite circle of the greatest, most skilled guards. All of them, no matter their gender, would be in sworn service to the Queen for the rest of their lives.

“You mean to tell me that members of the Queensguard will take an oath where they vow to never get married and never have children, because they belong to the country completely?” Seulgi asked after her father seemed to have calmed down a little.

“Yes, that seems to be the case,” he answered. “Members of the Queensguard will be handpicked from the existing pool of guards in the Queen’s household. As the Captain, no doubt you will be among the likeliest candidates.”

“Well…” she paused, taking a moment to digest all of this information. “What if we wish to get married and have our own families instead? Must we choose between this job post and our personal lives?”

“From what I’ve heard, you can only have one or the other. At this stage, it is still up to you. If the Queen were adamant that you stay, you would not have been given a choice at all.”

She nodded. It made sense to her now, even though her father still looked slightly baffled.

“My daughter, you don’t look surprised at all. How can you not be concerned?” He pressed on. “This is your whole life, your whole future…”

“I understand,” she replied, and proceeded to tell him about what she overheard about the conversation between the Queen and Lord Seo Dowon yesterday. “So, I’m going to leave the Queen’s household and go to Lord Seo’s instead.”

Her father was speechless for a moment. “Are you sure?” He asked, looking more worried than he already was. “Are you absolutely certain? We don’t know anything about this Lord Seo...what if he’s not a good man? What if he mistreats you? I can’t possibly let my daughter marry someone like that...”

“Father, if he tries anything, I’ll probably be able to beat him up,” she said calmly. “I know many courtiers fear him. But he should fear me.”

“Seulgi, how can you still be jesting!”

“I’m not. I don’t make jokes about these matters — if I agree to become Lord Seo’s wife, he will send food to the starving people. They won’t have to suffer and this will solve a pressing problem for the Queen,” she explained. “It will be a personal sacrifice on my part, but is it better for me to turn him down and allow people to continue to suffer under the famine and the drought?”

Master Kang sighed. “I just worry that you will be unhappy as his wife.”

“Please tell me, what’s the protocol for those who wish to resign and be excluded from the Queensguard?”

“I...I didn’t look closely into that,” he admitted. “I didn't have the time to. I came to you right away. Besides, I didn’t think you would actually consider leaving.”

Their conversation was interrupted by knocks on the door. It was a eunuch who came in to make an announcement.

“Captain Kang,” he said to Seulgi specifically, after bowing at father and daughter. “The Queen has sent me to deliver a message to you. Should you choose to resign from your post in Her Majesty’s household, you are required to formally greet the Queen and bid her farewell. The ceremony will be conducted in the afternoon. Should you choose to remain in Her Majesty’s service, your presence is still required at the assembly this afternoon.”

Seulgi exchanged serious glances with her father before turning back to the eunuch. “I understand. Thank you.”

During the assembly, half the guards opted to leave. As was required of them, they bowed to the Queen and bid Her Majesty farewell one by one. Joohyun thanked each of them for their service and made it clear that it was not a shameful thing, just a matter of personal choice that she would not judge.

Master Kang looked on as the queue got shorter and shorter. Until finally it was his daughter’s turn, which made him hold his breath nervously. Seulgi was about to bow and say her lines, but then Joohyun was looking at her so intensely that she forgot what she was supposed to do and say.

“Your Majesty.” It was all that she could bring herself to say as she held Joohyun’s unrelenting gaze.

“Seulgi,” said Joohyun. Unlike the ice cold facial expressions that she usually wore, this time there was a certain kind of warmth in her eyes, and Seulgi picked up on that. When the Queen spoke her name, she got chills. Ironically not the cold kind of chills. Warm chills, if that made sense at all. And that was not the only thing that surprised her — it was probably the first time the Queen addressed her as Seulgi and not something more formal, like Captain Kang. She had never felt such a strong connection before, and to have this kind of connection with someone as untouchable as the Queen gave her a feeling that she had yet to make sense of.

“Come with me,” the Queen added, bringing Seulgi’s attention back from her deep and complex thoughts to the present moment.

Joohyun turned on her heel and went inside her chambers, Seulgi following obediently. Master Kang and the other servants in the courtyard stared in confusion for a bit, but as soon as the doors were shut they went back to going about their daily duties.

Seulgi found herself alone in the room with the Queen. She remained silent and waited for the Queen to speak first.

“Looks like you will not be getting married after all,” Joohyun began.

“I — well, I choose to leave my post, so I was under the impression that I would have the liberty to get married and have children should I choose to…” Seulgi almost spluttered. In all honesty, there was never really a point at which she fully understood what the new law entailed and what exactly her options were. And now, in a one-on-one conversation with the Queen, she was even more nervous and more bewildered than ever.

Joohyun laughed gently, and not at all mockingly. It even seemed as if she was eager to offer reassurance since Seulgi looked so apprehensive.

“No, I mean, you won’t be getting married to Seo Dowon,” she clarified. “He has changed his mind and has withdrawn his request.”

Seulgi blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can understand your disbelief. But it’s true. He is no longer asking for your hand in marriage. So if you were actually hoping to wed him, this must be such a disappointment to you.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” said Seulgi quickly. “Please be assured that I am not the least bit disappointed.”

“Hmm. However, I am a bit disappointed in you.”

Seulgi was relieved for a moment when she heard that she no longer had to marry Lord Seo, but now to hear the Queen say this was making her uneasy again. Perhaps this was related to why her father kept asking her to reconsider her decision to resign?

“M-may I know what I d-did wrong?” She asked bashfully.

“Don’t you know why I decided to pass this new law and set up the Queensguard?” Joohyun asked.

“I...I’m sure Your Majesty must’ve had your reasons…?” Seulgi gulped. “I didn’t think it was up to me to question it.”

“Surely you would’ve wondered what my motives were.”

“I would be very obliged if Your Majesty would be so kind as to enlighten me on this….”

“To tell you the truth, I set this up not because I really needed it to exist, in a bureaucratic sense or even in a practical sense. The Queensguard isn’t really that different from ordinary guards — just a fancy title I made up off the top of my head. I can even use my authority as the Queen to disband the organization and release members from their vows anytime, if that’s what I desire,” she explained. “I just wanted you to take me up on this offer so that you wouldn’t have to take the risk of getting married to Lord Seo. But the outcome I tried to avoid was the very path you chose to pursue.”

Seulgi looked down in shame once she noticed that Joohyun had one eyebrow slightly arched. “I apologize for making Your Majesty worry about me. I've let you down and I'm sorry.”

“Yes, you should really be sorry, shouldn’t you,” Joohyun replied. For once, her tone was nowhere near as serious as it normally would be.

“If I may be so bold as to ask —”

“You may,” said Joohyun without hesitation.

“Why did Your Majesty go this far with the new law and the establishment of the Queensguard and whatnot, when it would be much easier to swap me for the food supplies from Lord Seo?”

Joohyun chuckled. “Didn’t I just tell you he doesn’t want to marry you anymore?”

“Yes, but initially that was the request that he made.”

Seeing as Seulgi really wanted to know, Joohyun decided to satisfy her curiosity a little. “Why should I let him have his way? He’s not going to take anything or anyone from my side. Besides, who will be my personal guard if you are gone?”

Seulgi licked her lips. “Well, there are...other guards...highly trained and skilled, too…”

“No, no. Your father insisted that you were the most competent of all, so you shall remain in this post unless I decree otherwise,” Joohyun stated.

Seulgi really did not know how to feel about that. She understood that her position was one that was held in high regard, but for some reason she felt that the Queen valued her personally. Why would she, though?

“Yes, Majesty,” she replied anyway. “But surely, Lord Seo will not do it for free. If he gave up on trying to marry me, no doubt he would ask for something else. Or someone else.”

“Of course. But compared to a beautiful wife, there's something he will be more interested in,” Joohyun announced. “His own survival.”

As soon as the Queen had settled matters with Seulgi and the other guards, she paid a visit to her younger brother’s residence.

“You’ve here to have tea with me, aren’t you!” Prince Jooyoung gushed, excited to welcome his elder sister. They were only two years apart in age, but because he was so cheerful and energetic whereas she was so solemn and aloof, it felt as if the age gap was wider than that.

As the two of them sat down to eat and drink, Jooyoung piped up.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” he began, but was interrupted by the Queen.

“You shouldn’t speak with your mouth full,” she scolded. “It does not befit your image and station as a Prince, let alone the future Crown Prince.”

He sighed. “Do I really, absolutely have to be the Crown Prince?”

“You are the only option that I have.”

“Are you absolutely sure that you’re not going to get married and have children?” He asked. “You’re still young. Even if you don’t want to make a political marriage, perhaps one day you’ll meet someone that you’ll fall in love with and you’ll want to marry them and start a family with them.”

“I have my own principles and convictions, little brother. And I will stand by them no matter the cost.”

“I know how stubborn you can be. But I still gotta say that I really feel that the responsibility of being the Crown Prince is not meant for me...I mean I’m not cut out to be someone so important…” he protested.

She sighed too. “I hate to put you in a difficult situation but I’m afraid this isn’t negotiable.”

He pouted. “Right, because you are the Queen now and I have to do whatever you say.”

“Actually, yes, that’s exactly right.”

He let out a groan. “Never mind. Let’s talk about something else. I have something to ask you!”

“Yes, go ahead, I’m listening.”

“Why didn’t you just execute Lord Seo?” He asked. “He's nothing but trouble.”

“Why would I need to do that?”

“Well, isn’t it much simpler that way? If he does, all of his possessions will become state property, since he has no heir anyway. So you can just take his food and distribute it to those who are in need.”

“That’s true, but how shall I justify his execution?” She questioned.

“Didn’t you previously tell me you’ve gathered evidence that he had been secretly hoarding weapons in his manor?” Jooyoung frowned. “That’s against the law and the standard penalty is death.”

“And I did use that to my advantage,” she revealed. “Why do you think he agreed to withdraw his request regarding my guard?”

“You threatened him?”

“Not exactly. I had an agreement with him: he will send food while I will spare his life,” she explained. “And that’s not even all.”

“Tell me! I want to know!”

Joohyun giggled at the tone her brother used. “You’re such a child, you know that?”

“Ya! Why are you teasing me!”

“Fine, fine, I’ll tell you,” she relented. “I’ll have his weapons confiscated, but to the public I will announce that he willingly purchased these weapons for the government. It was a donation that I very much welcome and appreciate.”

“What?! Why does everything have to be so convoluted…” he complained.

“And so, to reward him for his loyalty,” she went on. “I will arrange for another pretty noblewoman to marry him.”


“Well, that isn’t so relevant now, is it? His life is in my hands and he is at my mercy. He’ll pretty much marry anyone I tell him to.”

“Alright, I see,” he replied and nodded. “But what I suggested still stands. If you expose his crime and have him executed, you could gain access to his food supplies all the same.”

Joohyun smirked. “True. But for now, I need him alive for some other purpose.”

Chapter Text

Another month had come and gone. Joohyun had been preparing and grooming Jooyoung to become the ideal Crown Prince, yet would not officially confer the title upon him just yet. After all, she did not want there to be a target on his back.

Precisely because he had not properly become the Crown Prince, Joohyun was surprised to be notified that Princess Nongyu was already travelling from China to Korea, to be betrothed to and courted by Prince Jooyoung. Joohyun had all along been under the impression that the Chinese Emperor would not think of Jooyoung as a worthy husband for Nongyu, but here she was. There must have been some underlying reason, and Joohyun was going to figure it out in due course.

After such a long journey, Nongyu was allowed a few days’ rest before formally getting introduced to the royal family of Korea, her future in-laws. Her quarters were spacious and although the decorations were not particularly extravagant, she found them to be very beautiful. She also appreciated the colorful garden, and the vibrant atmosphere it created. It was both relaxing and refreshing which was exactly what she needed as she settled down in a foreign environment.

Seeing as the weather was fine, she paced the perimeters of the gardens, enjoying the peace and quiet. Her only company was her own thoughts, mostly about how her betrothed was going to take to her.

It seemed her betrothed, Prince Jooyoung, also could not get her out of his mind either. He would not shut up about her, and since his sister was too busy with her queenly duties to listen to his disorganized rants, he turned to his cousin Jongin for a confidant. Conveniently, as Jongin was the Queen Mother’s nephew, he was granted frequent access to the palace.

“You haven’t even seen her in person, and you’re already so infatuated with her. Does that even make sense?” Jongin asked casually as he and Jooyoung sat down to eat snacks together.

“I simply cannot wait to meet her!” Jooyoung gushed. There was food in his hand but because he was so busy talking he hardly even ate.

“Who said you had to wait?” Jongin laughed, shoving yet another piece into his mouth.

“Uh, customs?”

“Nah. Why should we care about that? Let’s just go and see her today,” Jongin suggested.

“How’s that possible?”

“My dear cousin,” Jongin replied impishly, and winked. “She’s already in the palace and she has her own residence; how difficult can it be?”

Creeping, creeping, creeping.

The two boys kept signaling for each other to keep quiet as they crept to Princess Nongyu’s residence. It was awkward to have to walk while hunching their backs and keeping their knees bent, but otherwise they would get exposed too easily given how tall they were. They were not supposed to meet the Princess in advance as they were supposed to wait for a more formal ceremony. They had to be careful as they sought to satisfy their curiosity — more saliently, Jooyoung’s curiosity — in secret.

Once they reached the wall and found a tree with leaves that could at least partially cover their faces, slowly they stood upright. They found a young lady alone in the garden. It was not difficult to deduce that she must be the Princess. She was dressed in the finest silks and fabrics. Surely no servant would be able to afford that. Even from the way she stood and walked, the way she carefully took every step with elegance, and her prim posture, all of it were sure signs of a royal upbringing. After all, princesses were supposed to carry themselves with dignity and grace at all times.

“Wow!” Jooyoung gasped, completely forgetting that he was not supposed to draw attention. “She’s gorgeous!”

“Hush!” Jongin winced and smacked the Prince on the arm. “You’re too loud! If we get caught it’s gonna be because of you! Keep your voice down!”

“No, you keep your voice down! Are you hearing yourself right now?!” Jooyoung shot back.

“You’re an idiot. I cannot believe Cousin Joohyun is going to pass the throne to you.” Jongin shook his head and sighed. “This country has no hope anymore.”

Jooyoung was about to retort, but was interrupted by a female voice.

“Excuse me. Who are you?” Nongyu piped up, eyeing at the two boys in confusion.

Caught in the act, they exchanged worried glances. Jooyoung’s head was empty and Jongin had no thoughts. Both of them panicked, but in the end it was Jongin who spoke first.

“I am Prince Jooyoung!” Jongin declared, then pointed at Jooyoung. “This is my cousin, Lord Jongin.”

Jooyoung’s jaw dropped. He had no idea what his cousin was up to, or if this was going to harm him or benefit him in the long run. But he could not think of anything to say, so Nongyu took his lack of response as agreement.

“Your Highness. Your Lordship.” Nongyu greeted them politely. Her soft voice and gentleness had Jooyoung completely enchanted as he was now speechless not so much because of the shock but more out of fascination.

“I know we’re supposed to wait for the ceremony to be formally introduced to each other,” Jongin continued, sounding much calmer than the person he was pretending to be. “But I couldn’t wait. I wanted to see you right away. And now that I’ve seen you with my own eyes…” he grinned. “You’re so beautiful.”

“Thank you.” Nongyu looked down demurely, blushing a little as she smiled. She was accustomed to receiving compliments, both sincere and insincere ones alike. However Jongin sounded earnest enough for her to genuinely be happy upon hearing it.

Jooyoung cleared his throat, deciding that he would be at a severe disadvantage if he did not seize the chance to say a single word. “I agree!” He blurted. “Your Highness is prettier than all the flowers in the garden!”

Nongyu giggled. “You flatter me, my lord. Although...”

“Yes?” Both boys asked at the same time, looking at her intently and hanging on to her every word.

“I...I wonder if we’d have to pretend to not have seen each other, on the day of the ceremony.”

“Ah, yes, indeed, we’d have to,” Jongin answered, sounding very serious as if he had already thought about this. “But I’m sure we will be able to do it, and my sister the Queen will not suspect anything.”

Jooyoung merely frowned at Jongin. It must be so fun for Jongin to assume a royal’s identity.

Nongyu nodded in agreement. “I really look forward to meeting Her Majesty. Oh, and the Queen Mother as well, of course.”

“I wish we wouldn’t have to wait. How wonderful it would be, if I could see you every day,” Jongin replied affectionately. “I long for you, Princess. I long for the day we wed.”

Jooyoung grimaced at that, and had to clear his throat again. “Your Highness,” he said with emphasis, looking at Jongin sternly. “We had better go. It would not look good if other people were to catch us.”

“I will see you again in a few days’ time, Princess,” said Jongin reluctantly before taking a step back only after Jooyoung nudged him repeatedly. “Until then, I will spend every moment thinking of you and dreaming of you.”

Nongyu bowed at them gracefully as they made their way back to the real Prince’s residence. After this encounter, Nongyu went back inside and sat down in front of her guzheng. This plucked zither reminded her of home. She missed her family, especially her elder brother. She was not sure when she might get to see her family members again, if ever. Some of her aunts and cousins were married off to royals and aristocrats from faraway places, and she really had never seen them again.


Nongyu looked up and acknowledged the man who bowed at her. It was her personal guard, Yixing.

“Just now, that was the Prince, wasn’t it? Your betrothed?” Yixing asked.

Nongyu nodded shyly.

“He seems very fond of you. That will work in our favor,” Yixing replied. “In more ways than one.”

“Let’s be patient.”

“Yes, Your Highness. And don’t worry, I will keep your secret,” said Yixing in reassurance.

Seeing as she had nothing more to say, he bowed and exited the room, leaving her to the privacy of playing music on her own.

When the day came for Nongyu to formally be introduced to her future in-laws, unfortunately the real Prince was down with a nasty stomachache. As his servants were unable to talk him out of trying to make it to the ceremony, the Queen personally paid him a visit.

“I have to go and meet her!” Jooyoung insisted even though he was clutching his tummy, clearly in pain. “I must!”

“No, you must lie down and rest,” Joohyun declared sternly. “I understand you are desperate to see what she is like in person, but really, it can wait.”

“I’ve waited long enough!” He protested. “If I don’t go and meet her today, what will she think of me? I’m going to lose her! Is that what you want?!” He was so frustrated, worried that Jongin might really steal his girl if he were not able to secure her affections. Yet he could not let his sister know about what happened…

“That’s ridiculous. She’s not going to vanish into thin air,” Joohyun stated. “Besides, I’m going to invite her to the archery contest. You’ll be able to see her very soon, I’m sure.”

“But the contest is the day after tomorrow!” Jooyoung whined. “You really expect me to wait? You would be so cruel to me? To your own brother?”

“Yes, I do,” said Joohyun flatly. “Now, behave yourself. You’re not a child anymore.”

“You’re right! I’m not! But you always treat me like a child,” he grumbled loudly, and then groaned in pain again. The Queen could only sigh at that.

“I have to go and get ready for the ceremony now,” she replied, and then turned to her brother’s attendants. “See to it that His Highness stays hydrated and takes his medicine on time. Have the physician check on him twice a day.”

Jooyoung grunted in defeat. There was nothing he could do except lie down and stare at the ceiling in despair.

Luckily, he had fully recovered by the day of the archery contest. The only thing on his mind was to find a chance to talk to Nongyu and to woo her, but for Joohyun, this contest carried an entirely different purpose.

As soon as all the attendees and participants were seated, the Queen herself showed up. Her handmaidens trailed right behind her and she was also accompanied by none other than her personal guard, Captain Kang Seulgi.

As expected, everyone rose to greet her. Before allowing them to be seated, she explained the purpose and rules of the contest.

“It has come to my attention that a lot of you believe that it would be in the nation’s best interests for me to be courted by a worthy man among you, since I have rejected marriage proposals from members of other countries’ ruling families,” she stated dryly as her stare swept across the noblemen who were eyeing her with greed and ambition. No doubts their intentions were predatory but if they took her for a prey then they would be setting up a trap for themselves.

“And so today, I will make use of this archery contest to address your concerns. I will see to it that this matter will be settled once and for all,” she went on. “Every one of you here has a fair chance. So make good use of it, and prove yourself to me. Whoever can beat me at archery today, with a top score, gets to court me.”

Once she paused, those vying to be her consort began to discuss and whisper among themselves. They expected to be competing against each other, but never against the Queen herself. This actually struck fear in some of them, but there was no way they were going to chicken out at this moment. They were going to shoot their shot — literally and figuratively — and hope for the best.

Their reactions made Joohyun smirk. She knew that each of them had too strong a sense of pride and that their masculinity was too fragile. It would completely destroy a man’s ego if his wife — his property — was even better with a bow and arrow than he was. This contest was going to be so interesting.

Over the next hour, more than a hundred arrows were shot. A team of eunuchs carefully recorded and regularly reported each contestant’s score. Some of them did pretty poorly, but others pretty well, close to perfect, even. Everyone’s eyes were on them, particularly on two of the noblemen who were in the lead. Interestingly, their scores were tied, and just one point away from a perfect score. This was when a halftime break was announced.

During the break, refreshments were served. When Joohyun was taking her time with a plate of her favorite biscuits and a pot of rose tea, she also reminded her attendants to get some water as well.

“Especially you, Captain,” Joohyun added, turning to look at Seulgi in particular. “It must be tough to be standing for so long. It’s important to stay hydrated.”

Seulgi was surprised that the Queen would care so much about her servants. Grinning, she said, “Your Majesty is so kind.”

“Is it your place to be commenting on the Queen’s decisions?” Joohyun questioned.

Seulgi suddenly realized she had stepped out of line. “I apologize…” she replied solemnly, but then Joohyun broke into a smile to denote that she was not being serious. And so Seulgi smiled too and then excused herself. She could really use some air anyway.

Outside, Seulgi stretched her arms and legs. She took a stroll around the arena, and as she did so she heard a couple of contestants having a conversation about the Queen that was less than appropriate. One of them was quite tall, whereas the other was just about Seulgi’s own height and had a belly. The taller one was one of the two contestants who were tied at the top score at the moment.

“It seems you’ve got a good chance at winning the contest,” said the shorter one. “Sure, you’re tied with someone else, but hey, at least you’re in the lead. You’re just one point away from a perfect score, what are the chances Her Majesty will be able to beat you?”

The taller one chuckled haughtily. “True. A woman, good at archery...that’s unheard of.”

“Exactly. You know, I do wonder what she’s actually good at, though. Because she’s definitely not good at ruling a country.”

Both of them laughed and the taller of them replied, “we all know she’s just a pretty thing; she acts like she’s capable of governing a nation, but come on! How can we possibly rely on any woman to do it?”

“Ha! She has no facial expressions either. Do you reckon she’d also be like that when she’s…” his voice trailed off but his gesticulations were enough to insinuate a sexual act. Both of them were clearly amused by this as they burst into unabashed laughter once more.

Seulgi found herself curling her hands into tight fists. How dare they? How dare they talk about Joohyun like that? She was angry enough to report them for treason, but while marching back to the Queen’s tent she halted in her tracks, reminded that she had no evidence of the conversation that she had overheard.

She huffed, still not releasing her fists. There was no way she was going to just let this slide. Either way, she was going to prove these men wrong and teach them a lesson. Anything that a man can do, she thought to herself, women can do better.

Chapter Text

After the break, the contest resumed. The second half of the contest was rather uneventful as no one was able to beat the top scorers, even though a few came rather close. Towards the end, everyone was expecting the Queen to announce some way to resolve this and decide on one winner and one winner only. But before that, everybody held their breaths and looked on even more intently and tensely as Joohyun herself rose from her seat. She stepped onto the field and stood at the spot where every contestant stood when they had their turn. Swiftly, she picked up the bow and arrow, and got into position. She was singularly focused on the target, the same way everybody was singularly focused on how she would do. It would never look good for a monarch to lose, but for her to not lose, she would have to attain a perfect score. Could she really do it? She only had five arrows, just as many as each contestant had, no more and no less.


Everybody gasped once the first arrow flew out from the bow in Joohyun’s hands, and onto the target.


Another round of gasps, this time more dramatic.


The gasps had turned into high-pitched squeals, jaw dropping and eyes popping wide.


Someone somewhere must have let out a scream, but the arena was otherwise eerily quiet.


It was done. She hit the bullseye every single time.

Calmly, she put the bow back onto the bench. There was no victorious smirk on her face, nor triumphant cheers from the spectators. They were simply too astonished to react, or even to realize that their mouths were hanging wide open.

The first to react was the eunuch who was supposed to announce the scores. He was trembling in amazement when he read out her perfect score, loud and clear for everyone to hear.

“If there is really a ‘weaker sex’,” Joohyun stated dispassionately, her stare once again sweeping across all the spectators and contestants. “It is certainly not women.”

“Your Majesty is officially the winner of this contest!” The eunuch exclaimed reverently. “Congratulations, Your Majesty!”

Everyone else followed suit, uttering the same congratulatory phrase but some less willingly than others. Only when they were finished did Joohyun speak again.

“Since I am in a generous mood today,” she said, smiling ever so slightly. “Would anyone like to try one more time? You could still stand a chance at making your dreams come true and become the King of this country. If I were you, I’d seize this opportunity.”

Joohyun was patient enough to give them a prolonged moment, but no one rose to the occasion. As such, she was about to call it a day, but just as she was about to open her mouth, somebody piped up.

“May I?”

Initially, Joohyun was unsure which direction she ought to look in. She was expecting someone from the contestants to volunteer, but then it was a female voice that stood out and so whoever stepped up must have been in the spectator stand.

People began to make way for the special volunteer to make her way to where the bow and arrows were placed. Joohyun was no less astounded as everybody else, to see that it was Seulgi who wanted to try. Joohyun was so impressed, and agreed immediately. It would be even more amusing if another woman could outdo the contestants who were all men.

Having been through so much training, Seulgi was familiar with a range of weapons, and so she was completely in her element while she did exactly the same thing as Joohyun did just now. She felt confident even though hardly anybody else did — how could they expect her to outdo the Queen when Her Majesty’s arrows remained firmly on the bullseye?

But just like Joohyun, Seulgi had a tendency to prove men wrong, or in fact anyone who dared look down on her. Five shots later, everyone was gobsmacked to see each of her arrows slice through each of Joohyun’s, landing on the bullseye without fail.

This time, the eunuchs’ role became redundant. Joohyun was the only one who could react.

“Congratulations, Captain Kang,” she said, giving Seulgi a proud smile in approval. “However, you are not the winner,” she added puckishly. “Our scores are just tied. You didn’t accumulate more points than I did,” she explained, and then turned to speak to everybody. “At the start of the contest I made it clear that I will only be courted by whoever can beat me. But none of you could.”

She turned back to look at Seulgi again. Of course, the Captain was not expecting the same kind of prize as the Queen’s suitors were. In Seulgi’s eyes, getting to see the look on those men’s faces was already satisfying enough. They looked so condescending and arrogant just now, but she and the Queen had definitely put them in their place.

Joohyun, however, was much happier to reward Seulgi. “For such an impressive score, you may ask to receive any prize,” she offered. “Say it, and it’s yours.”

Seulgi gulped. Part of her wondered if she should never have participated, because now she had to make a very difficult decision. And of course it was at this critical moment that her mind went blank.

“A favor from Your Majesty,” she answered, eventually. Since she could not come up with anything at the moment, why not reserve this privilege for when she was truly in need of it? “A favor that I can redeem later on, at any time I choose.”

Joohyun was intrigued. Many of her courtiers have approached her to ask for all sorts of benefits, mostly promotions, lands, and other material rewards. But of course Seulgi would be different. She had always been different, and Joohyun had always appreciated that. And so she smiled and replied, “done.”

After the contest, Joohyun sat down to rest, and refreshments were served. She invited Princess Nongyu to sit with her as well, hoping to help the Princess adjust to this new life.

As the two girls chatted, their respective guards, Seulgi and Yixing, stood at the back and started to strike up a conversation too.

“I think I recognize you from last time when Crown Prince Lu Han visited our court,” said Seulgi. “Weren’t you His Highness’ valet?”

“Ah, you have an excellent memory, Captain Kang! Yes, indeed, I was,” Yixing answered. “But His Highness thought it would be a good idea for me to accompany Princess Nongyu all the way here to Korea. So I am Her Highness’ personal guard just as you are Queen Joohyun’s.”

“I see! That’s interesting.”

“Not as interesting as your performance just now! I’m amazed and humbled by your archery skills,” said Yixing. “And of course the Queen’s. If only I could get you to teach me.”

“I’m very flattered, but I can’t possibly be qualified to be your coach,” Seulgi replied humbly. “I am too young and I’m sure you would be better off learning from someone much more experienced.”

“Nonsense! You beat all the men on the field just now. Who else could be more qualified? It would be my honor to learn from you.”

“And mine to learn from you. Perhaps if you could also teach me some other skill, preferably something that comes from your country?” She asked.

“I would love to. There are different styles of combat that I can show you if you’re interested,” he offered.

“I’m very interested! Learning martial arts is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me.”

Getting to talk about something that she was passionate about had brought a grin onto her face, which was what Joohyun saw once she turned around. Joohyun thought about Seulgi’s words just now. What favor was she going to ask for? And when was she going to redeem it?

Other than asking herself these questions, she thought about what a relief it was that she managed to get a perfect score just now, so that she would not have to be courted by any man. Granted, she was pretty confident already, otherwise she would not have dared organize this contest. Once a monarch made a promise, there was no turning back.

She felt empowered by her freedom in getting to choose who to marry, who not to marry, and whether or not she wanted to get married at all. But she knew that this liberty came at a cost — her brother would not get to make this choice for himself as she had arranged a marriage for him. Of course she wanted the best for him, but whenever she said so to herself, she felt like a hypocrite. His best interests were only secondary to hers and the liberty she wanted. It was a selfish decision — it was either her freedom, or his. And she chose what was best for herself.

Biting back a sigh, she turned to Nongyu once again. Perhaps to douse her remorse, she said to her future sister-in-law, “if you’re not tired, it would be a good idea to spend more time with Jooyoung. If you two could get to know each other and get along well, I would be very pleased.”

Nongyu nodded obediently. “I desire nothing more than to please Your Majesty and His Highness.” She then rose to her feet and bowed at the Queen, then signalled for Yixing and her handmaidens to follow her as they took their leave.

“You feeling better today?” Lord Jongin asked, barely able to keep the mischievous smirk off his face as he nudged his cousin Prince Jooyoung. They played around with some of the bows and arrows after the arena had been cleared out, and only a few eunuchs remained to attend the two chaotic boys.

“Of course!” Jooyoung huffed. “How can I still afford to have a stomachache! Today is the perfect opportunity for me to talk to her...right after my sister does, of course.”

“Don’t forget, you’re supposed to be me and I’m supposed to be you.” Jongin winked, and Jooyoung rolled his eyes all the way back in exasperation.

“I have no idea why you decided to pull that kind of prank!”

“Honestly, I have no idea either.”

While Jongin merely shrugged it off and let out a guffaw, Jooyoung was stomping his feet. “Don’t flirt with my future wife, you punk! I won’t let you meet up with her again! She’s betrothed to me, not to you! Never to you!”

“Sure, but as far as she knows, I’m the one she’s going to marry,” Jongin replied blithely, ruffling his hair. “Besides, I’m so much more handsome,” he added smugly, pointing to his face. “If she has good taste she will definitely choose me over you.”

Jooyoung snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Who in their right minds would?”

Jongin whirled and stuck his tongue out at the Prince, only for His Highness to point the bow in lordling’s direction. He was not actually holding an arrow, but just the bow itself and the gesture was enough for Jongin to let out a yelp and take a few steps back. He tripped over some pebbles and would have fallen to the ground if not for one of the eunuchs rushing to help him up. He was definitely not the one laughing now.

“Wow...I feel bad for Her Highness, having to marry a bully…” Jongin glowered at his cousin as he dusted himself off. He was expecting to hear some sort of a lame comeback but then Jooyoung just handed the weapons back to the attending eunuchs and then walked off.

The Prince no longer bothered with wasting time fooling around with his cousin — he would much rather be swooning over his betrothed, the lovely Princess Nongyu. At least she had good looks and manners, and Jongin had neither.

Unfortunately, even as he approached her, he had to be mindful of his identity. He was supposed to be Lord Jongin. Of course he had been thinking about telling her the truth. It was only a matter of time before someone realized what Jongin did last time.

But how am I supposed to explain it to her? And what if I end up losing favor with her because of this prank? He asked himself, and then shuddered. He could not bear to think about it. Perhaps the best thing he could do at the moment was to impress her so that she would like him...and then worry about letting the truth come out later on.

Once he saw her, he went up to her with as much confidence as he could muster. But she saw him approaching as well, and met him halfway. Meanwhile, Yixing and her handmaidens remained an adequate distance from them, near enough to intercept and protect the Princess if necessary, but not enough to hear their dialogue.

“My lord,” said Nongyu, sounding mirthful without coming off as too eager. “How nice it is to see you again.”

Jooyoung was nervous, but smiled nevertheless. “The feeling is mutual, Princess. must be looking for the Prince?”

“Yes! How did you know? You’re so smart!”

Jooyoung had to contain his elation as a broad grin stretched across his cheeks. “Well, it’s not like you would be looking for his cousin, right?” He blurted, but then quickly realized what he said and then his smile died down. “Wait, I don’t...I didn’t mean it like that...actually…” he gulped, while the confusion on her face grew.

“Is something the matter?”

“No, no, it’s just...uh…” he licked his lips. “His Highness is...unavailable at the moment. He’s busy with his studies and he’s sent me here to keep you entertained. He studies very hard! As you can see, once the archery contest was wrapped up, he excused himself and asked the Queen’s for permission to return to his studies. He’s very keen on reading! And learning!” He lied. “He always holds conferences with esteemed scholars, to exchange ideas and debate on theories. He’s a very intellectual man!”

“Ah, I see I am betrothed to a very studious Prince,” she commented. “His Highness must be such a role model for all the men in the country.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what he is!” He agreed hastily. “And if it pleases Your Highness, he will continue to study hard and learn from the best! I assure you, he would be willing to do anything as long as it pleases you.”

“Me? But I thought it was my duty as a wife to please my future husband...” she replied innocently.

“Well, it— it’s not about duty,” he scrambled to explain. “Duty is another thing. You must know, His Highness is so fond of you, he’d do anything for you!”

“Is he?” She asked softly, blushing as she looked down. He felt the urge to tenderly lift her chin so that he could keep looking at her beautiful face, but ultimately kept his hands to himself.

“He is. I spend so much time with him; I can definitely attest for his devotion. Please trust me,” he replied firmly.

“Nothing warms my heart more than knowing that His Highness has affections for me,” she said, with a grin. “I see Your Lordship is very close to His Highness. When you see him again, no doubt he will ask you about our conversation. May I ask what you will tell him?”

“Um, of course that you are equally devoted to him!”

She nodded. “I would appreciate that. And will you also tell him that I’m always thinking of him? And that I long to see him again, even though I mustn’t disturb him when he’s focused on his studies.”

“Uh...yes! Sure, I will! I will be sure to convey your message to him. I’m sure he will be overjoyed to hear that,” he said. In his head he was already thinking about how he was going to boast to Jongin about how their interactions went. No matter what jokes Jongin liked to make or how far he was going to go with his pranks and antics, at the end of the day Jooyoung was safe in the knowledge that his future wife was devoted to him and not to anyone else.

As soon as Yixing and Nongyu left, Seulgi approached the Queen. “Majesty.”

“Come and sit a while with me,” said Joohyun, motioning for Seulgi to take the chair that was previously occupied by Nongyu. However, Seulgi hesitated.

“Majesty, technically my rank makes it unbefitting for me to be seated whilst conversing with you,” she said, sounding uncertain.

Joohyun’s facial expressions did not change, nor did her tone. “It is my wish that you take a seat and chat with me for a bit.”

And so her wish was Seulgi’s command. Seulgi did as she was told, and waited for Joohyun to speak first.

“Do you think she will be good for my brother?” Joohyun asked, looking as if she had a lot more concerns and considerations than she would allow herself to voice.

“Princess Nongyu? Of course. Her Highness is the eldest daughter of the Emperor and Empress of China, right? A woman of this station would certainly be befitting for Prince Jooyoung,” Seulgi answered.

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Joohyun replied. “If you truly understand me, then be frank with me. If I simply wanted to hear people say words they don’t mean, or give me perfunctory answers, I have a crowd of ministers who will gladly do that for me every single day.”

Seulgi gazed at the Queen, mesmerized by her even though her worries and burdens prevented her from being conscious of Seulgi’s admiration. Seulgi saw that Joohyun longed for human connection, for someone to bond with her and support her emotionally. It was easy for people to think that she did not have any emotional needs, simply because she generally showed little of her emotions. They tended to associate her heavily with the regal authority that she held, and forgot that she was human too. But Seulgi had not forgotten. She was in the unique position to see Joohyun as a young lady who strived for respect and fought for her rights, rather than merely an untouchable ruler. People in the palace could look up to her, look down on her, lust for her, fear her, judge her, but none of them ever really saw her, at least not for who she was.

Seulgi licked her lips. “How can a guard like me presume to ’truly understand’ the Queen?”

Joohyun smiled wryly. “I fail to understand why you would want to prove yourself on the archery field and yet put yourself down like that now that we’re having a private conversation.”

“I didn’t think I was trying to prove anything…” Seulgi decided not to say a word about what she heard earlier and the remarks that the two detestable men made. “But to answer Your Majesty’s question, I like to think that Princess Nongyu and Prince Jooyoung can grow to enjoy each other’s company. I’m sure Your Majesty wants His Highness to have a happy marriage.”

Joohyun nodded in agreement, but there was some chagrin in the way she looked into the distance. “I do indeed want that. Although that’s not as important as my happiness, is it.”

“Your Majesty, these two situations are not comparable,” Seulgi pointed out. “If in the unfortunate circumstance that Prince Jooyoung is not happy with Princess Nongyu, it would still be possible — legally permissible — for His Highness to take a concubine, or two, or more. But it’s different with Your Majesty. A woman is only allowed to have one husband. So Your Majesty must choose much more carefully, because the law already allows less liberty for women. The system inherently puts women at a disadvantage.”

Upon hearing Seulgi’s words, Joohyun’s fretfulness seemed to have diminished, although not completely expelled.

“You’re right,” she said. “So I shouldn’t feel bad about arranging a marriage for him whereas I get to choose for myself, because my options are already limited. But what about others?”

“Others, Majesty?”

She nodded again. “Like you. And the rest of the Queensguard. I set up the rule, the oath about never getting married and never having children.”

“But you still gave us a choice,” Seulgi insisted. “We could choose to stay and take our vows, or leave and be free.”

“And you chose to leave, only to go to a man who got to choose his bride.”

“It was only because he had leverage over Your Majesty, considering the drought and the famine that it brought,” she explained. “And in the end, he didn’t get that choice, did he? Your Majesty arranged for him to marry someone else. It isn’t fair to just consider the act alone, to be fixated on the act of taking away someone’s choice. What about the consequences? Maybe by depriving him of certain liberties, you’d be giving other people, more people a choice. So, perhaps the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”

“So you reckon the ends can justify the means?” Joohyun asked.

“Yes. Or at least, that’s what helps me sleep at night.”

“Ah.” She sighed in relief. “For a moment I was really considering dismissing the Queensguard, releasing you and the others from your vows. It wasn’t fair. I sacrificed your freedom and theirs, to limit and regulate another’s. I’m a manipulator.”

“I still believe that overall what you did resulted in more good than evil,” Seulgi declared. “And evil is something that I see so much, honestly way too much, in the men that Your Majesty beat at archery just now. I can’t imagine having to see Your Majesty enter a courtship with any of them, when none of them are deserving of you.”

Joohyun chuckled. “I don’t disagree, but what makes you say so?”

“Well, it's all in the way they look at you,” Seulgi answered.

“The way they look at me?”

“Yes. They look at you with such...greed. Avarice.” She shuddered and shook her head. “Like they want to devour you, consume you. The way a predator looks at its prey, and drools. Like hounds that have been starved for an entire week, and you’re a juicy piece of meat at their disposal. It’s dehumanizing,” she remarked. “They must be thinking about all the benefits they'll get to enjoy if they manage to become your consort.”

“Well, they can keep dreaming,” Joohyun muttered.

“I daresay even daring to fantasize about you is an insult to you,” Seulgi declared boldly. “Because then they would just see what they want to see. And then, if and when you ‘fail’ to live up to their expectations, or in whatever way don’t fit with the unrealistic ideal that they’ve constructed in their heads, they would start to blame you and criticize you. Perhaps they think they know you already, but they never actually took the effort to get to know you, to try to understand you, to appreciate you for all that you are. Because they don’t see you as a person in your own right — just an object. So how could they possibly be worthy of you?”

She seemed quite worked up as she said all of that, while Joohyun laughed gently. “No one has ever defended me in this way before.”

“Really, that’s one of the few aspects in which there’s nothing I can do to protect Your Majesty even though it’s my job to guard,” Seulgi added, clearly disgruntled.

“This is so interesting, Captain Kang. I’ve never seen you speak so vehemently about any topic.” Joohyun was grinning before she knew it. “That’s a side to you that I didn’t know existed. Ah, maybe I should take the effort to get to know you better as well.”

Seulgi was flustered. “I...I beg your pardon, Majesty…?”

“And to try to understand you, and appreciate you for all that you are. Just like you said,” Joohyun replied enthusiastically. “Yes, I think I’ll do exactly that.”

“With me, Your Majesty?”

“With you, and only with you.”

“But I…” she spluttered. “I don’t mean to cross you, but I’m...I’m not...special. You are.”

“No? I think you’re quite special,” Joohyun insisted. “You just don’t realize it.”

“Well then…” Seulgi squeaked, displaying none of the firmness and fierceness she possessed when she was rebuking the Queen’s suitors just now. “Perhaps Your Majesty could enlighten me?”

“Oh, I will,” said Joohyun breezily. “All in due time, Captain.”

Chapter Text

In the days pursuant to the archery contest that disappointed a lot of men but pleased Joohyun and Seulgi greatly, Joohyun carried on with minding her own business, happily staying single. On the other hand, Jooyoung continued to spend time with Nongyu, and she continued to be under the impression that he was Jongin.

“My lord, if you don’t mind me asking,” Nongyu began, so soft and demure that it made Jooyoung want to shelter her from everything bad in this world. “Has Prince Jooyoung been asking about me? I haven’t had the chance to see him we informally met in secret, prior to the ceremony.”

“Yes! Yes of course he has. He talks about you all the time. In fact he wouldn’t shut up about you.”

“But...he’s too busy for me, right?” She asked, somewhat sadly, and it drove Jooyoung insane.

“Well! He’s a very busy man, but he...I promise he will find time to come and see you! Just that he...well, you know he’s supposed to become the Crown Prince. So he has a lot of duties, and definitely a lot to learn from the Queen,” he explained apologetically, scratching the nape of his neck as he told one lie after another. Perhaps not exactly a lie per se, but he had had to lie to her from the start thanks to the lie that Jongin told in the first place.

She merely nodded. “I get it. He’s not just my future husband. He’s also going to be the future King of this country. Of course he must commit his time and efforts to preparing and equipping himself to become a competent leader.”

“Ah, I’m sure His Highness will be very pleased to hear that you are so understanding and patient,” he replied, breathing out in relief.

“Well, Your Lordship has also been very patient with me...answering all my questions about the Prince and letting me know about what he likes and what he doesn’t like...of course I don’t mean to impose on your time. I just want to be able to make His Highness happy in everything that I do. I hope he will understand my heart.”

“He will! He does!” He blurted, worried that he might upset her even the tiniest bit if he were not quick enough to offer the reassurance she sought. Luckily for him, she began to smile a little.

“If you’re sure of it, then I will not worry about it. After all, you are very close with His Highness and you know him very well,” she said. “Anyway,” she added, glancing up at the sky that was turning grey. “It looks as if it’s going to rain soon, so let’s go back inside. We can meet again on a finer day. I’m already looking forward to it.”

He nodded in agreement, even though he wished he did not have to part with her. He knew that at the end of the day it was him that she was going to marry, not Jongin or anyone else, but he was so captivated by her that no amount of time he could spend with her would ever be enough.

As Prince Jooyoung made his way back to his residence, he found that Lord Jongin was already there, walking around as if he owned the place. Jooyoung scowled as Jongin carried on playing with marbles and pebbles, surrounded by a few servants.

“Ya.” Jooyoung raised his voice at his cousin. “When I become King I will seriously think about how to penalize you for getting me into trouble.”

“Why, since when did you need my help with getting into trouble?” Jongin laughed loudly, clearly carefree as ever.

“Do you know how frustrated I’ve been these days?! I don’t know how to tell Princess Nongyu the truth about our swapped identities.”

“Eh, I don’t care. It isn’t my problem,” Jongin drawled.

“Isn’t your problem?! Of course it is your problem! In fact, you’re the one who caused it!” Jooyoung grumbled, stomping his feet. “Not to mention our wedding date is drawing near!”

“Don’t overthink it,” said Jongin absentmindedly. “You worry too much at times.”

“How can I not be worried?!”

“Oops, looks like it’s going to rain for real!” Jongin changed the topic suddenly as it began to drizzle. “I should go! See you later!”

As he scuttled out of his cousin’s residence, the Prince cursed under his breath and returned to his chamber, still troubled by all the lies he had told and the repercussions they would bring.

While it rained, Nongyu remained indoors, having lunch on her own as she chewed over her interactions with whom she presumed to be Lord Jongin but actually Prince Jooyoung in disguise.

Once she finished her meal, her guard Yixing entered the room and bowed.

“I see Your Highness has had a lovely morning,” he began.

“Yes, indeed, I have,” she replied, but somehow there was a rueful look upon her face.

“But there still seems to be something troubling you,” he pointed out. “It’s because of Lord Jongin, isn’t it?”

She cleared her throat. “He’s been nothing but kind to me and patient with me. I appreciate it so much. It’s hard for me to not be at least a little bit charmed by him. But I know what you’re here to say, so you don’t have to say it. I already know.”

He nodded. “I just hope that you still keep in mind what we came here to do, Princess.”

She smiled, still somewhat ruefully. “That’s not contradictory to my encounters with Lord Jongin.”

“No, but why shouldn’t we use that to our advantage?” He smirked. “You’ve mentioned that His Lordship seems quite...smitten with you.”

“And what do you propose I do about his...feelings?”

“I will not beat around the bush with you, Princess. What I mean to say is that if you can make His Lordship fall for you, then you can use him as a shield or weapon should you ever need it,” he stated.

“Why would I?” She asked gently. “I have you to protect me.”

“Of course I would do anything to protect Your Highness,” he replied, but then sighed. “Just that it wouldn’t hurt to have an additional chess piece in this game. And we both know it’s a very dangerous game to play.”

“I understand.” She took a sip from her cup before continuing, “any news from home?”

“All is as it should be,” he answered, appearing to be cryptic but it was enough for her to get what he was implying.

“I just hope my brother stays safe,” she said. “You used to be in his service — until he sent you here to be my guard, to keep me safe. But what can I do, to protect him?”

“Once you accomplish what you’ve come here to do, you will have all sorts of resources and means to offer protection to His Highness. So it would be best to just stay focused on that,” he suggested. “I’m sure His Highness would not want you to overworry.”

“I’m afraid it’s impossible for me to not worry. What he and Mother have been plotting…” she sighed. “Either way, it’s too late for me to change their minds. So now,” she added solemnly. “I must do what’s best for them.”

While everybody fled from the rain, Joohyun decided to go outside. She did not allow any of her handmaidens to accompany her. Just having Captain Kang nearby would suffice.

Rather than standing directly under the pouring rain, she simply outstretched her arm so that raindrops would fall on her open palm. She looked on sorrowfully as a puddle eventually formed on her palm and then it slipped away gradually. The more she tried to grasp at it and keep it within touch, the more it hastened its downfall. It made its escape between her fingers to meet its inevitable fate, falling to the ground to be joined with all the other raindrops that fell from the sky and hit hard. As if the raindrops that touched her hand never did at all. As if they never lived and died as part of her life.

Joohyun’s tears formed and fell the same way. Her grief was so contagious it was as if the skies saw her crying and also cried with her. The utter sadness in her eyes was heartbreaking to watch, especially to Seulgi who was the only one standing a few steps away. Seulgi was surprised by the sheer amount and intensity of raw emotions on the Queen’s face once the façade of indifference was washed away. Seulgi once again felt that Joohyun was just so, so, so misunderstood. Who she really was inside was much more mesmerizing than the image of her that everyone blindly subscribed to or assumed. After all, it was all that they could access. There was some sort of poignant intimacy in the way Seulgi was the only one who got to witness the Queen in this state. More accurately, everyone saw her as the Queen but Seulgi saw her as Joohyun and that was what made all the difference.

Fascinated, Seulgi approached the Queen subtly. “Your Majesty seems captivated by the rain.”

“Just having a moment of nostalgia,” Joohyun replied softly. “Do you like rain, Captain?”

“No,” Seulgi answered, shaking her head. A bittersweet expression spread across her face even though Joohyun was still too absorbed by the pouring rain to look at Seulgi properly. “I hate it.”

“Because of the memories it brings?”

“Partly,” she said. “But on top of that, rain just gets in the way so much. Makes everything messy. And it’s very easy to catch a cold so I humbly suggest heading back inside,” she added, sounding firmer than before as if she was insistent on giving this advice not just to Joohyun but also to her younger self who had suffered a lot as well.

“I remember the last time someone said that to me,” Joohyun began. Seulgi’s heart sank when she saw that Joohyun did not seem to have any intention of leaving this spot. But since Joohyun seemed willing to open up, Seulgi was happy to listen attentively. “It was so long ago. At least a decade ago. It was when my sister and I frolicked together in the rain.”

Seulgi understood that Joohyun was still suffering, still mourning the loss of a sibling. It must have been so tough. “Your Majesty must’ve been so close with the late Crown Princess.”

“Oh, we were inseparable. We played together all the time. And when we did that in the rain, we ended up catching a cold together. So all the servants that attended us while we played received a harsh beating, as penalty issued by our mother, the Queen. According to her, it was their indiscretion, not ours, for letting us get soaked and eventually fall ill,” she explained. “But now, I am the monarch, and no one can lay a hand on my attendants. Even if I were to step outside and stand in the pouring rain for hours upon hours, no one can stop me.”

She looked as if she was really about to go all out and get soaked, which prompted Seulgi to hastily say, “I would beseech you not to.”

Joohyun eventually held back and stayed sheltered, but she could not hold back her tears. They continued to fall from her eyes the way raindrops fell from the sky.

“Your Majesty…” Seulgi mumbled hesitantly. “Are you alright?”

“No,” Joohyun answered flatly. “And I don’t think I ever will be.”


“I miss her,” she stated. “But I can’t bring her back, not even with the power I now hold as a sovereign,” she added sharply. “Power is an illusion. I still feel so helpless and there are still so many things I can’t do. I may have authority because I’m the one who wears the crown, but I can see that the nobles don’t have much respect for me. Especially the most powerful ones.”

“Like Lord Seo, you mean?” Seulgi asked.

“Him, and someone else. His nemesis, actually. These two in particular wield far too much influence — the rest of my advisors and ministers would rather fold to their wishes than to obey mine. And I won’t tolerate that,” she declared. “I’ve got to do something about it.”

“Who is it, Majesty?”

“My uncle, Lord Kwon Donggeun. He was married to my late aunt — the younger sister of my late father. During my father’s reign, Lord Kwon had a lot of say in the policymaking process. He may be a competent politician — I’ll give him that — but a lot of the power and influence he has right now is because of his marriage to a princess. He’s made a lot of allies over the years, and he did not seem to lose prominence even after my aunt passed away.”

“But no doubt he has a lot of enemies as well,” replied Seulgi.

“Naturally.” Joohyun nodded. “The thing about him is that if I can control him, then it would probably mean I can control half the officials in the government. But he is also seeking to control me, or whoever is on the throne. Well, I will not be his puppet. Of course he claims that everything he does is for the nation’s sake, and that he’s on my side always. But the truth? He’s not on anybody’s side but his own. So if he will not be my loyal subject, then he must perish. He’s too big a threat to the crown, and it’s been this way even back then during my father’s reign.”

“Then Your Majesty must do whatever it takes,” Seulgi stated, beginning to sound just as determined. “If your mind’s made up, then so is mine. Even if no one else supports you, I will. I’m on your side.”

The rain had stopped and Joohyun was no longer crying. She finally turned to look Seulgi in the eye.

“I was right,” said Joohyun. “When I said that you’re special. But once again, you don’t realize it yourself.”

“Majesty, I’m just a servant…”

“You are not ‘just a servant’ to me,” she insisted. “You’ve never been.”

“I beg Your Majesty’s pardon. What do you mean?”

“You’re a constant. Certainty. And that means a lot to me,” she explained, even though it only seemed to make Seulgi more perplexed.

How can I be associated with ‘certainty’, thought Seulgi to herself, when that’s what I’ve had to live without for the most part of my life?

All she could say in reply was, “I’m afraid I’m not intelligent enough to understand Your Majesty’s feelings on this matter…”

“You don’t have to,” replied Joohyun. “At least not right now. Right now, all you need to know is that I will not disappoint you. I will remove those who are bold enough to get in my way.”

Seulgi nodded. At least that much she understood.

Chapter Text

After the melancholic rainy day, it was a whole week of sunshine. Also like a ray of sunshine was the energy that Prince Jooyoung radiated and the way he smiled whenever he was with his betrothed, Princess Nongyu. They were originally having a lovely chat as they took a walk around one of the fishponds in the palace. However, their conversation was interrupted by Lord Jongin who came running to them.

“Hey!” Jongin hollered, too elated to be minding his manners in front of the two royals. “Guess who just came back to court!”

He looked so excited that Jooyoung and Nongyu could not help but be curious. While Nongyu was still confused, Jooyoung let out a squeal once they saw the woman who came into sight, a few steps behind Jongin.

“Moonbyul-noona!” Jooyoung exclaimed, running up to her with childlike enthusiasm. “You’re back!”

“I’m back,” Moonbyul announced, grinning at the two boys. “It’s been so long. You two have grown so tall! How have you boys been?”

“Noona, did you hear? I’m getting married!” Jooyoung blurted. “Come and meet my fiancée! She’s a princess from China! Noona, you’ve visited China before, right?”

Whereas everybody else was smiling, Nongyu froze. “You…” she spluttered, glancing back and forth between Jooyoung and Jongin. No longer was she sure which one she was supposed to be engaged to.

“Oh, no…” Jongin uttered under his breath as he and his cousin exchanged panicked glances. “It’s over for us.”

“Kim Jongin!” Joohyun bellowed, the echoes of her voice bouncing off the walls of her study room. Lividly she glowered at her cousin who kept his head bowed. All he could do was gulp and quiver, knowing he was in deep trouble. Both he and Jooyoung were on their knees while Nongyu stood a few steps away from them, covering her face with a handkerchief as she shed tears. Moonbyul was also there — she was the one who brought them to the Queen after all.

“I’m sorry…” he squeaked timidly, not even daring to look the Queen in the eye. “I just thought it’d be fun to mess around…”

“You thought it’d be fun?!” She questioned, smacking her palm onto her desk as she rose to her feet abruptly. The sharp noise sent everyone in the room flinching. “Have you ever thought about how this would make Princess Nongyu feel? Do you think she would find it fun too, to be lied to this whole time? You may be my cousin, but don’t think I’ll let you get away with this. Do you want me to banish you from court so you’ll quit causing trouble?”

“Please don’t!” He pleaded. “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again, I swear!”

“You swear? And how am I supposed to trust you on this? You’ve proven yourself to be a liar,” she scolded. “You will be penalized for this. Both of you.”

“What?!” Jooyoung protested. “It wasn’t even my idea!”

“You sure did play along with it instead of telling the truth. Besides, you still did go and meet Princess Nongyu before you were formally allowed to, and it was improper,” Joohyun insisted. “Rules exist for a reason but you two just didn’t care, huh? How much longer were you boys going to keep this up for? All the way until the wedding day? I can’t imagine the consequences if Moonbyul hadn’t reported this to me.”

Moonbyul cleared her throat. “Originally it wasn’t any of my business. But I just think it’s unfair to Princess Nongyu, so I decided that coming to Your Majesty would be the right thing to do. Actually, Her Highness didn’t even want to expose these two liars at first,” she explained, shooting an apologetic glance at Nongyu. The Princess seemed to have stopped crying now, but still looked very disappointed and very worried. Turning back to Joohyun, Moonbyul added, “I’m sure it’s just because Her Highness didn’t want to offend anyone or make a fuss about this. I suppose, as a newcomer and a foreigner, it would be wise to think twice about making any complaints. But I’m not afraid of anyone or anything, and I believe these boys need to be taught a lesson.”

Joohyun nodded in agreement and glared at the two boys. “You two will not go unpunished. Now, let me think. What kind of a penalty do you deserve?”

“Please, please, have mercy. I promise I won’t do it again!” The boys chorused, but their pleas were ignored.

“Your Majesty, I have an idea,” Moonbyul piped up, and went on only when Joohyun gave her permission. “I don’t believe in beating or whipping disobedient children. It’s much more meaningful to have them do something constructive instead. Make some contributions rather than sit around all day causing trouble. How about sending them to the armory and making them clean the weapons there?”

“That’s a good idea,” Joohyun replied. “Moonbyul, you were the one who took up that post when you worked as a servant there, right? I’ll have you bring these two troublemakers to the armory and see to it that they’re not slacking. Do it after lunch.”

“Yes, Majesty,” she said. The two boys looked up at her pleadingly, but she only arched an eyebrow at them in disapproval. They looked down again and sighed, resigned to accept that their favorite noona was not going to show them any mercy either.

“Jongin, you’re going to do that every day for a month,” Joohyun announced. “Jooyoung, half a month.”

“What?! A month?! A whole month?!” Jongin gasped and looked as if he was about to complain further. But he decided to shut his mouth when he saw just how displeased the Queen looked.

“Yes, I said what I said, and you most definitely heard me correctly. You will clean all the equipment as Moonbyul and Master Kang see fit. I hope this will teach you a firm lesson,” Joohyun stated sternly. “Now, if Princess Nongyu is satisfied with this penalty and is willing to forgive the two of you, we will end this discussion here.”

Nongyu nodded softly. “I’m sure they won’t do it again, Majesty.”

“I’ll make sure they behave themselves,” Moonbyul replied in reassurance.

“Alright,” said Joohyun. “I’ll give you boys an hour to have lunch. After that, I expect the two of you to be cleaning the weapons and reflecting upon your mistakes.”

Defeated, they got up and exited the room. Nongyu also bowed at the Queen and announced that she was going to return to her residence.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Joohyun asked. “If you ever need anything, or if the boys ever prank you again, don’t hesitate to come to me. I will put them in their place.”

“Your Majesty has already done enough for me, and I am very thankful for all of it. I’m sure you’re busy enough already, having to deal with state affairs.”

“It isn’t your fault, though,” Moonbyul chimed in. “Those boys have got to understand that this isn’t their playground.”

“Still, I should be the one apologizing for having inconvenienced the Queen,” Nongyu insisted.

“Don’t worry about it,” replied the Queen. “You should go and eat as well.”

Nongyu nodded and bowed once more before taking her leave. That left Moonbyul and Joohyun as the only ones in the room.

“You’re back,” Joohyun started once they made eye contact and broke into giggles. “After how long? 3 years?”

“Last time I was here, you were the youngest Princess in the palace,” Moonbyul replied. “But now you’re the Queen. How unexpected! I’m proud, though.”

“I never expected to be the one sitting on the throne. I’ve lost so many family members within such a short period of time…” Joohyun sighed. “So now I’m the one who wears the crown, but at what cost?”

“I’m sorry,” said Moonbyul solemnly. “For not being able to be there for you when you were mourning.”

“You were travelling the world and having fun. I’d much rather let you be happy than have to mourn with me,” Joohyun admitted melancholically. She also thought to herself that no one was going to be here for her always anyways. But she did not say it aloud as she did not wish to make her friend feel awkward. “Come take a walk with me. I want to hear all about your adventures.”

“Well, yes, I did have a lot of fun.” Moonbyul grinned, letting the Queen lead the way as they made their way out of the study. “I got souvenirs for Your Majesty! I’ve prepared something for all of my friends.”

“Ah, your friends from when you were training under Master Kang’s tutelage?” Joohyun asked.

“That’s right. I’m always going to be thankful to Master Kang for letting me learn and practice along with the rest of his trainees. As you know, I was originally just a servant at the armory. I was supposed to clean the weapons and whatnot. I would’ve gotten into trouble for experimenting with those weapons without his permission — I got caught, but instead of dismissing me or penalizing me, he gave me the chance to stay and train. Sometimes I feel bad for quitting — but I really wanted to travel the world. It’s such a big world out there, and I’m nowhere near done with it. There’s so much more to learn, to experience, to see for myself.”

As Moonbyul explained with enthusiasm, the two ladies reached the door. Seulgi was standing right outside. Her face lit up once she saw Moonbyul, and vice versa.

“Hey!” Moonbyul gushed, smiling at Seulgi. “I haven’t even had the chance to catch up with you yet. I see you’ve risen to the rank of a royal guard while I was away!”

“Moonbyul, this is Captain Kang, my personal guard,” Joohyun explained. “Although I see you two are quite familiar with each other already?”

Moonbyul exchanged playful glances with Captain Kang. “Familiar?” She giggled. “We grew up together! We've played together, sparred together, gotten into trouble together, even bathed together. Slept in the same bed as well,” she added with a wink.

The Queen frowned slightly. She was not too surprised that Moonbyul and Seulgi would have crossed paths before. Moonbyul used to be trained by Master Kang so it made sense that she would be acquainted with his daughter. But Joohyun had no idea that they were so close. She did wonder what kind of relationship they shared back then. Of course, even as playmates or best friends they could have, as Moonbyul specified, ‘slept in the same bed’ too, but what if it was more than that?

Joohyun’s frown vanished when she realized that Moonbyul was the one person who could help her get to know Seulgi better. Moonbyul was easily accessible, and surely she would know a lot about Seulgi’s likes and dislikes, preferences and pet peeves, patterns and habits, among a lot of other interesting things about her.

As such, the Queen smiled and said, “in that case, Captain Kang, I’ll let you have some time off this evening, so that you and Moonbyul can catch up.”

Despite the misunderstanding and turmoil that Jongin and Jooyoung had caused, at least Nongyu no longer had to worry about not being able to build rapport with her future husband. Very soon came the big day. It was time for the royal wedding.

Seulgi was also curious about what royal weddings were like. She never thought she would ever have the chance to attend one, but here she was. It was so grand and extravagant, so much gold and silver everywhere. She wondered if it was possible for her to ever spend that much money, let alone earn that amount.

Normally, all eyes would be on the newlyweds. Seulgi smiled at how beautiful the bride looked. The groom also looked dashing. But inevitably her gaze always drifted back to the Queen, who was breathtakingly gorgeous. Joohyun was genuinely happy for her brother, and Seulgi was not doubtful of that.

But then, Seulgi wondered, why does the Queen still look a bit sad? It’s the look in her eyes. Her eyes are so beautiful, which makes even the sorrow beautiful. But when she’s sad, I kind of feel sad too. I don’t know why. I have to figure this out. And more importantly, what’s bothering her?

Luckily, she did not even have to find a way to voice out the questions that were on her mind. The Queen, with a bittersweet smile on her face, was the one who struck up a conversation first.

“Look at how happy they are,” she commented, eyeing the newlyweds with slight envy. “I’ll never get to experience a bride’s joy on her wedding day.”

Seulgi was a bit surprised to hear that. “Just because Your Majesty chooses to never get married doesn’t mean you’ll never get a taste of that kind of happiness.”

Then it was Joohyun’s turn to be surprised and amused. “Then what do you suggest I do, if I want to experience that feeling too?”

“You see,” she began. “The reason why a bride is happy on her wedding day is because the person she is getting married to is someone who can make her happy. So, if Your Majesty has a person in your life who can make you happy, isn't it good enough? The wedding ceremony lasts a day, but a lifelong companion…”

Joohyun felt chills run down her spine. She never thought of it that way. In the end, she could only say, “it just seems so much easier to organize a wedding than to find someone I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“While that may be true, I hope I still at least managed to offer a different perspective for Your Majesty to ponder upon.”

Joohyun nodded. “You did. I guess that means I should share my thoughts with you more often and invite you to do the same with me.”

“I never thought that what I have to say would ever be valued by someone as prominent as a monarch…” Seulgi mumbled. “I’ve never felt this important before.”

“Me neither,” Joohyun admitted. “Never thought I’d be the one ruling the country either. And I’m sure never in Jooyoung’s wildest dreams would he find himself as the heir to the throne, all but in name.” Her gaze landed upon her brother, and she sighed. “Look how carefree and full of life he is. That energy will no longer be with him once he takes my place. Everybody’s congratulating him and giving their blessings, but I feel I may have given him a curse.”

Instead of pitying the Queen, Seulgi smiled. “That’s because this is the happiest day of His Highness’ life, and Your Majesty is seeing him at his best. But the thing about life is that no one can be at their best every single day. It applies to everyone too — from sovereigns to peasants.”

Joohyun looked up at her and slowly started to smile as well. “Did your father teach you that?”

“My father taught me a lot of things, but this one I learned on my own,” Seulgi answered. “Sometimes I look back and think I was forced to grow up a lot quicker than other kids my age.”

“Now you’re making me curious about your past and what kind of things you’ve been through.”

There was a moment of hesitation from Seulgi before she said, “it’s a long story, Your Majesty.”

“Looks like it will have to wait for another time, then,” Joohyun concluded, rising from her seat. “Right now we have to proceed to the next segment of the ceremony.”

While the newlyweds remained seated, it was the guests who came forth one by one to present gifts to the couple. These presents came in all shapes and sizes, including curtains, vases, paintings, scented pouches, musical instruments, and so many more. The couple’s new residence was surely going to be decorated very elaborately.

One of the Queen’s attending eunuchs was supposed to announce the name of each guest to signal their turn to come forth with their presents. Seulgi did not think too much of it because she was unfamiliar with the names of these aristocrats either way. However, when the eunuch announced a certain nobleman’s name, she perked up her ears.

“Lord Kwon Donggeun,” said the eunuch, loud and clear for all to hear. “Please come forth to greet the couple with your blessings.”

The man in question did as he was told, bowing at the couple. Seulgi kept her eyes on him the whole time, recalling that this was the man that Joohyun wanted to eliminate.

“My uncle, Lord Kwon Donggeun. He was married to my late aunt — the younger sister of my late father. During my father’s reign, Lord Kwon had a lot of say in the policymaking process. He may be a competent politician — I’ll give him that — but a lot of the power and influence he has right now is because of his marriage to a princess. He’s made a lot of allies over the years, and he did not seem to lose prominence even after my aunt passed away.”

“But no doubt he has a lot of enemies as well,” replied Seulgi.

“Naturally.” Joohyun nodded. “The thing about him is that if I can control him, then it would probably mean I can control half the officials in the government. But he is also seeking to control me, or whoever is on the throne. Well, I will not be his puppet. Of course he claims that everything he does is for the nation’s sake, and that he’s on my side always. But the truth? He’s not on anybody’s side but his own. So if he will not be my loyal subject, then he must perish. He’s too big a threat to the crown, and it’s been this way even back then during my father’s reign.”

“Your Highnesses,” Lord Kwon began. “Congratulations. I’m very happy to be part of this joyous occasion.”

“Thank you, uncle,” Jooyoung replied politely.

“Now that we have a Chinese princess in our family,” he continued, looking at Princess Nongyu. “It is my honor to be able to call Your Highness my niece.”

The couple became aware that his words left Nongyu with no choice but to acknowledge him as family as well. Still, she remained calm and said, “I am equally pleased to be able to call you my uncle.”

Lord Kwon finally opened the box that he was holding in his hands, revealing a beautiful amethyst necklace inside. “This belonged to my late wife. She’s always wanted to give it to one of her nieces to wear. I’m sure if she were here with us today, she would be happy to present this to Princess Nongyu. I hope this gift is to Your Highness’ satisfaction.”

“It’s very beautiful,” Nongyu replied with sincere appreciation and fascination. “I shall wear it often and honor the late Princess’ memory.”

Lord Kwon bowed and was about to turn on his heel to return to his seat, but then the Queen stopped him.

“Uncle,” she piped up sternly. “Surely you realize Princess Nongyu is not the only one getting married today. I see you have prepared a most thoughtful and appropriate gift for the bride, but do you mean for the groom’s hands to be empty?”

“Majesty, that would be inauspicious. I would not dare embarrass His Highness in this way or in fact in any other way,” he replied. He was going to say more, but Joohyun cut in again.

“No doubt you have the greatest respect for your Prince,” said Joohyun. She sounded so earnest that, without context, it would have been easy to deceive an outsider into thinking she was not being sarcastic. “While offering a physical gift would be a very kind gesture on your part, there is something much more meaningful than you can do for the Prince. I understand that you have been very actively serving the country for a considerably long period of time. As part of the council, I trust that you are familiar with the ways of the court as well. As such, I would like to appoint you as Jooyoung’s mentor, to assist him in his princely responsibilities so he can more effectively fulfill his duty to the country.”

Lord Kwon smiled — or was that a smirk? “Thank you, Your Majesty. I humbly accept this appointment and will do my best in mentoring His Highness.”

Once he returned to his seat, another guest was summoned and the ceremony went on smoothly. Seulgi kept thinking about what the Queen said to Lord Kwon just now, comparing it to what she said about him the other day. If she found him to be so reprehensible, why appoint him as the Prince’s mentor? If she was trying to eliminate him, why give him even more power and influence? Why was she making decisions that would only cause her to deviate from her ultimate goal?

Seulgi shuddered. There was still so much she had to figure out and learn about Joohyun.

Chapter Text

Not long after Jooyoung and Jongin were finished with their punishment of having to clean all the weapons in the armory, they had returned to their usual mischievous selves.

“Let me show you something I discovered recently,” Jongin began, an impish smirk creeping onto his face. Out of nowhere he conjured a book, brandishing it to draw Jooyoung’s attention.

“What’s that?” Jooyoung asked. Out of curiosity, he tried to take the book. But Jongin took a step back and hid it behind his back.

“I didn’t know you were so interested in reading.”

The Prince huffed. “Are you going to show me or not?”

Jongin giggled and finally relented, handing the book to his cousin. “Well, you’re a married man now, so you need to educate yourself on…” he paused to clear his throat. “Certain matters.”

Jooyoung eyed his cousin with distrust. “Sure, but this book…’Numerous Shades Between Black And White’...what is it supposed to teach me?”

Jongin giggled again, even more puckishly this time. “Only one way to find out!”

Jooyoung shook his head and opened the book. He expected the pages to be filled with words only, but there were a lot of illustrations. However, once he took a closer look at what the illustrations were all about, he closed the book shut. He could feel his cheeks become hot and he threw the book back at his good-for-nothing cousin. “How dare you!”

This time Jongin was downright cackling. “Come on! You’re the married one! Why would you need to be shy or flustered? Aren’t you curious about all the different possibilities?” He winked and started to flip through the pages, making the Prince grimace and close his eyes in embarrassment. “I’m certainly curious. Look at all these positions! Who knew our bodies and limbs could actually be bent in all these ways…”

“Where did you even get this book from?!” Jooyoung demanded.

“Oh, so now you’re curious.”

“This is so inappropriate. You’re always up to no good. Well, I want no part of it! Haven’t we — haven’t you — already caused enough trouble last time?” Jooyoung questioned, folding his arms across his chest. “I don’t want to spend another moment in the armory. Ever! If you want to get into trouble again, I can’t and won’t stop you. Just don’t involve me in any of your messes anymore.”

“Aw, how could I possibly make you feel left out? I would never be this mean to you,” Jongin replied saccharinely. Once again he handed the book to the Prince, who accepted it very reluctantly.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea…” Jooyoung insisted.

“Well, I think it’s a brilliant idea! I’m sure all this information will come in handy at some point,” said Jongin pompously. “After all, you want to impress your wife, don’t you?”

“Ah, I…” Jooyoung faltered, licking his lips. It was probably unseemly of a prince to have pornographic material in his possession. But if the information could help him impress Nongyu in the bedroom, then perhaps an exception could be made.

When the two boys met up again to talk about the inappropriate contents of that particular book, they were in Jooyoung’s study. However, their lively discussion was interrupted when the Queen walked in unannounced. They were so startled that they completely froze. There was not even enough time to hide the book in one of the drawers under the desk. By the time they could finally bring themselves to react by rising to greet the Queen, the book was already in her hands, as was their fate.

Joohyun let out a deep sigh at the two boys before speaking. “Jooyoung-ah, one of your tutors has informed me that you have been doing quite a bit of reading these days. Care to share what you’ve learned?”

“I…” he spluttered. “I didn’t read anything! I only have that book because Jongin gave it to me!”

Jongin gawked at his cousin before turning back to Joohyun. “That’s because he asked me for it! He begged me to lend it to him!”

“No I didn’t!” Jooyoung protested loudly and vehemently. “Why are you lying?! When have I ever—”

“Yes you did! You said you wanted to—”

“I said nothing of that sort!” He insisted. “I’m so done with you constantly trying to—”

“How do you even know what I was going to say?” Jongin questioned crossly. “I haven’t even said it! You always—”

“I don’t need to hear it,” Jooyoung snapped. “It’s bound to be some rubbish with no truth to it.”

“That’s enough,” Joohyun cut in, putting an end to this madness and noise. “Jooyoung, be quiet and listen to me. Starting from tomorrow, you will be reading different kinds of books. More about politics and economics and history,” she explained. She was continually thinking of different ways to groom him to become her ideal successor and the ideal future sovereign. She really wished he would be as serious as she was. “I will also see to it that your newly appointed mentor, our dear uncle, will go through all these readings with you. This is for your own good and to make sure your understanding of the materials is solid.”

Jooyoung groaned in pain. “I’m going to be overworked!”

“No, you won’t. We will rearrange and regularly adjust your schedule and lesson plans according to your progress,” Joohyun stated resolutely. “You can expect that I’ll also have you produce essays, analyses, commentaries, and other write-ups to check your knowledge, communication skills, critical thinking skills, attention to detail, and other competencies. You should consider yourself lucky for getting to receive an education that is usually reserved for crown princes. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Majesty…” he answered reluctantly.

“And you too, Kim Jongin,” she added sharply, eyeing her disobedient cousin with distaste. “Don’t you have better things to do with your time? I’ll have you go to the library every day. I don’t care if you choose to go in the morning, or in the afternoon, or in the evening, or even if you sleep there. You will write a book report for me every week, so don’t even think about pulling any tricks.” Shaking her head at both of them, she then announced, “I will be quizzing both of you when you least expect it. So if you slack, I will most certainly find out.”

“Yes, Majesty…” Jongin was just as reluctant, but what alternative did they have?

“As for this book,” said Joohyun, bringing their attention back to ’Numerous Shades Between Black And White’. “I’m going to confiscate it and have it burned.”

The two boys were in no position to argue, so they kept their mouths shut until Joohyun was out the door.

“What a waste,” Jooyoung uttered. “I was just getting started with it. The book is much more educational than I could’ve expected! Why does my education have to be all about economics and politics? And history, who even gives a damn about history? Why can’t it be about...about...well, you know…”

Jongin snorted. “You really think she’s going to burn it?”

“I wish she were merely jesting! She’s not the type to joke around.”

“Well, I don’t think she’s really going to do that.”

“What?” Jooyoung frowned. “I’m not in the mood to play games with you. You better be serious.”

“I’m serious. If she really wanted it burned and destroyed so we can’t get our hands on it anymore, she could’ve done it right in front of us just now,” Jongin pointed out. “Why take it away and do it elsewhere?”

Jooyoung gasped. “You mean…”

“It’s not that simple, my dear cousin,” Jongin replied mysteriously. “It’s never that simple.”

Indeed, just as Jongin predicted, Joohyun was not intending to destroy the pornographic material right away.

In the privacy of her own study, she was also compelled by her curiosity to see what the book had to offer. She found it fascinating beyond imagination. It was a whole new world she never even knew existed. She was so absorbed in it that she was inevitably startled when Seulgi came into sight. She jumped and then cleared her throat, flushing madly once she realized that this time she was the one who was caught in the act. Oh, the irony.

She knew that there was no way Seulgi had not already taken a glance at what she was reading. And yet Seulgi looked so calm and unbothered. There was not even the tiniest tinge of surprise on the guard’s face, which made Joohyun even more curious and interested.

Surreptitiously, Joohyun put the book away and then forced herself to look Seulgi in the eye. After clearing her throat, she piped up. “I don’t know how much you saw just now, but I just wanted to say that I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

Seulgi was not the least bit taken aback, standing still in front of Joohyun’s desk without qualm. Her facial expressions remained neutral and her calmness did not even seem feigned. She exhibited no interest, no shame, no discomfort, nothing.

“It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, Majesty. I’ve seen way too much of this kind of content to even feel anything,” she admitted. “I’ve seen things way more graphic than these illustrations.”

Joohyun looked alarmed. “How come?”

“Remember when I said that as a child I was forced to grow up quick?”

Joohyun nodded, recalling their conversation at the wedding and the story that Seulgi never got to tell. This time she was going to be able to share more details and Joohyun was all ears.

Seulgi took a deep breath and began. “My family — my biological parents — died when I was a child. There was no one else I could turn to, so I ended up as a beggar. Apart from stealing, the only way I could make a living was by singing and dancing on the streets, hoping passersby would be entertained and take pity on me. Maybe then I’d be able to earn a few coins.”

“Seulgi…” Joohyun’s soft voice conveyed concern and sympathy, but it only made Seulgi shake her head.

“You don’t have to feel sorry for me, Majesty. I don’t need that anymore,” she replied. “At some point, my performance attracted the owner of a whorehouse who took me in. I was still too young at the time, so they just had me do the cleaning and cooking. I kept having to do menial labor, but it was all worth it. At least I got to have three meals a day, not one meal every three days.” She paused to sniffle and gulp, thinking about how tough it was back then, when even survival was such an arduous task. “And then, the owner — my savior — she told me I’d start receiving customers once I turned 13. I was expected to sing and dance as well as provide sexual services for whoever was willing to pay. She said I had a face and figure that customers would like.”

“I agree,” Joohyun blurted amidst the solemnity and poignancy of the story that Seulgi was telling.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Ahem. I mean, I do find your face and figure to be very likeable as well,” Joohyun clarified. “No other implication.”

Seulgi shrugged. “But the owner of the whorehouse said that to every girl they recruited.”

“Well, I’ve only ever said it to one girl.”

This time Seulgi blushed. “Was that what Your Majesty meant when you said that I was special?”

Joohyun nodded. “Yes, partly. But anyway, you mean to say it’s because you used to work in a whorehouse, and that’s why you’re kind of desensitized to all sorts of sexual content in these books and whatnot?”

“I’ve witnessed a lot of sexual acts while I was there,” she explained. “Even these taboos became mundane and familiar to me, so I don’t shy away from them.”

“I see…” replied Joohyun. “And all of this is before you were adopted by Master Kang, correct?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Then I had a family again. And then I started my martial arts training, befriended Moonbyul, and ended up here as your guard. And the rest is history.”

Joohyun smiled heartily. “Now that you’ve shared this much with me, I feel so much closer to you. I want to keep you even closer. Would you...would you want that too?”

Seulgi nodded. “As long as I can help make Your Majesty feel less lonely, I’d be happy to do it.”

Joohyun had never felt this sort of bond with anyone before. She was close with her siblings, but in different ways. Nothing quite like the way she felt when Seulgi was around. She knew Seulgi was special, of course, but for more reasons and in more ways than she was consciously aware of.

“Why don’t you take a walk with me, then?” Joohyun suggested.

“I would love to. Although I thought Your Majesty is going to meet up with your new sister-in-law soon. I wouldn’t like to get in the way.”

“That’s later,” said Joohyun. “For now we have some time to ourselves. And that’s precious to me. I want to cherish it.”

I cherish every bonding moment we’ve had, thought Joohyun quietly. Although she kept this to herself and suppressed the sudden surge of emotions in her chest, not wanting to overwhelm Seulgi.

She thought it might have been because she was caught red-handed just now; that must have been why she did not even bother to keep her guard up around Seulgi anymore. Perhaps it was also because Seulgi was willing to open up to her and share stories about her past. Was that not a sign of trust?

Bottom line was that she enjoyed spending time with Seulgi, above everyone else.

She herself was hardly aware of how engrossed in her own thoughts she was, even while she and Seulgi were walking in the gardens together. To servants who passed by, it would just seem as though Captain Kang was just doing her job and nothing more, merely accompanying the Queen and paying attention to Her Majesty’s safety. Of course Seulgi was doing that, but she was also thinking about what she could do to support the Queen, particularly emotionally. She was anticipating dialogue, but it was not a must for their connection and engagement to be sustained on a verbal level. If the Queen was absorbed in her own thoughts and would prefer some peace and quiet, Seulgi was also happy to just stay silent and walk with her.

When Joohyun paused in her tracks and in her thoughts too, it was because she wanted to look at some flowers more closely. Seulgi was expecting the Queen to be more enthralled by the oleanders — she had heard from some maids that it was the Queen’s favorite flower. But what drew Her Majesty’s attention and brought a bittersweet smile onto her unblemished face, Seulgi discovered, was the cyclamens.

“Does Your Majesty like cyclamens too?” Seulgi could not help but ask. “They’re so beautiful.”

Joohyun shook her head. “I never cared much for them, but now I can’t stop looking at them whenever I see them. It’s my dead sister’s favorite flower after all. How can I just ignore their presence in my palace?” She sighed. “It’s like I live and relive her death every single day.”

Seulgi’s heart sank. It had been many years since the loss of her own biological family, so it did not hurt anymore. But to Joohyun, the loss she experienced was still very much a fresh wound. The heartbreaking pain was something that no ointment or medicine could alleviate.

“Your Majesty, how can I make you feel better?”

“Oh, you already do,” she replied pensively. “Sometimes I think to myself, if it weren’t for my sister’s ‘scandal’, you might never have been assigned to my household to be my guard. We might never have crossed paths. Can you imagine? Because I can’t. I don’t think I can imagine us not being part of each other’s lives.”

As if to emphasize her point, she crouched slightly and plucked a few scarlet zinnia flowers. Dusting them off with her handkerchief, she handed them to Seulgi.

“Here.” She smiled whereas Seulgi just looked bewildered. “I want you to have these.”

Seulgi accepted it awkwardly, staring at the flowers while they just seemed to stare back at her in equal confusion. “Thank you, Majesty.”

“Do you know what this flower signifies?”

She shook her head. “I would appreciate it if Your Majesty could enlighten me.”

“Constancy,” Joohyun revealed. “That’s what you mean to me.”