Winter is coming to an end.
After settling matters with the new government in Hanyang and ensuring that the former Crown Prince would be counted among the dead, the three of them had traveled back down Mungyeong Saejae with care not to attract the attention of the roving hordes of monsters. When his highness had been safely delivered to Sangju, where he would then claim his inheritance from the late Lord Ahn Hyeon - well, the question became, what next?
Yeong-shin has now lingered in Sangju for two months with them, assisting with the border patrols. But winter is coming to an end. Depending on the day, sometimes the weather is warm enough to render the infected dormant for a few hours so that the cautious can tend to expeditious chores outside the city gates, like Yeong-shin tending to the Sumang shrine. When spring truly arrives, the soldiers stationed here will begin collecting and burning the bodies.
Seo-bi and his royal highness work closely these days, outlining strategies for managing the infection and eradicating every last pocket of the disease across the southern landscape. All of that is over Yeong-shin’s head, or so he tells himself, and he avoids their company, though he wouldn’t admit that he was avoiding them if you asked.
If you had asked Yeong-shin a year ago where he expected to be by now, he might have divulged that he expected to be dead. He had expected to methodically hunt and butcher every last man responsible for what happened to Sumang, until someone put him down. Instead, the disease stole those lives from Yeong-shin’s grasp. Fate then harnessed him again with the yoke of duty that he’d thought he had escaped with the death of his family. Now, there were new people to protect. There was more work to do. Always more work to do.
Here in Sangju, whenever he is idle, he feels that itch that he should be doing something more. Preparing more. So that, the next time a vindictive official lets loose a wave of arrows at innocent children, maybe this time he will be able to save them.
There will inevitably be a next time.
In the early evening, when the golden sun is setting between distant mountain peaks, Yeong-shin returns from his visit to the shrine. Many of Lord Ahn’s men had died, and the mysterious caretaker of the Sumang shrine must have been among them. Now the task has fallen to Yeong-shin alone. At the beginning of all of this, the grief had felt so raw… now it is like a scar, with all the heat gone. Every time he visits, the memories drain him of all his warmth.
From the open gate of the late Lord’s estate, the prince catches sight of Yeong-shin’s approach and rushes towards him. And it doesn’t matter that Lee Chang is no longer the prince, or even that “Lee Chang” is supposed to be dead. Even at his lowest, this man is still nobility, fluidly assuming the identity of Lord Ahn’s heir and the primary advisor to the governor of Sangju. Yeong-shin bows his head in respect, and turns his gaze to the dirt, where it belongs when he is in the company of his betters.
“I haven’t seen you in days,” says the prince, “I couldn’t find you anywhere, and I thought—”
“Sorry, my lord,” Yeong-shin interrupts, “I have been here, but perhaps our paths just haven’t crossed.”
When the prince had been starved for allies, it had been easier to latch on to the intimacy of mutual respect in this alliance, but now that things have returned to normal, Yeong-shin can’t shake the voice in his head reminding him that he shouldn’t be here. Lee Chang is an honorable, courageous man whom Yeong-shin would have gladly died for, but now that the social equalizer of mortal peril has passed… the chasm between their social positions grates at Yeong-shin.
“It is late,” remarks his highness, searchingly, “you haven’t eaten. You should have dinner with me in my residence.”
Yeong-shin ducks his head lower. “I have no appetite, sir. Perhaps another night.”
The prince tilts his head, and he smiles, slightly, like Yeong-shin is some sort of fascinating foreign creature. “You would… reject this invitation?”
This is the sort of offense that would get any other rags-dressed man executed. Yeong-shin used to keep a running tally of moments like this, but then he began spending time around the crown prince, and those moments piled up until there were too many to count.
Yeong-shin isn’t afraid of the stupid and unreasonable consequences of disrespect. Instead it makes him angry, and he lets that show, meeting the prince’s gaze and glaring at him for the implicit threat, challenging him to follow through.
The prince’s face falls into a frown. “Yeong-shin,” he says, “it was in jest—”
Enough of this. Enough of this. Yeong-shin brushes past the prince and towards the guest house.
He may not know what he will make of himself now that his previous path has been spoiled, but there are plenty of trained soldiers in Sangju more qualified to be in the prince’s employ. Yeong-shin will remain loyal to the cause of eradicating this disease because he is always bound to action in the face of human suffering, but he won’t pretend any desire to chain himself to the the orders of one man.
“Yeong-shin!” shouts the prince.
In the guest home, Yeong-shin sits against the wall. The other men who share these quarters are absent, naturally, because it is only sunset and they are likely still busy. They have jobs. Yeong-shin has only himself.
He cleans the musket and counts the paper cartridges remaining in the pouch, and then there is a sound at the door. Instinct has Yeong-shin’s body tensing, gripping the gun tighter, ready to use it as a club. He hears the prince say his name, from the other side of the paper.
Yeong-shin lets out a shaky breath and sets the weapon down.
The proper thing to do would be to stand up and slide open the door, to bow and greet his lord. But Yeong-shin stays seated, and says “yes, your highness” reluctantly, only loud enough to be heard.
In a mournful tone, the prince says, “You are angry with me.”
“No, your highness.”
Through the paper, Yeong-shin can see the outline of the prince standing there, and from the angled silhouette of his hat, his head must be bowed. When he speaks, as always, it is with the carefully selected phrasing of royalty; the awareness that his every word holds weight and power. “Please tell me what I have done that has caused your anger,” the prince pleads, “and I will do everything in my power to rectify it.”
Yeong-shin huffs out a breath through his teeth. What must Chang look like right now, standing awkwardly outside the servants’ quarters with his head bowed like that? Yeong-shin rises out of his crouch to slide open the door, before returning to his seat against the wall.
The prince enters and shuts the door behind himself. Then he looks down at Yeong-shin, with that typical, guileless expression on his face that reminds Yeong-shin how dangerously open the prince is with his emotions.
“I’m not angry with you,” Yeong-shin tells him firmly, averting his gaze from that face.
The prince kneels down on the mats, and then sits with his legs crossed, upright posture. “You certainly seem …”
“I am angry. I’m not angry with you.”
“What is it, then?” asks the prince, but Yeong-shin just shakes his head, because this feeling isn’t simple enough to translate into words. And even as he sits here, the anger is draining out of him again, like there’s a hole in the basin of Yeong-shin’s self that renders him incapable of retaining any feeling.
After a moment, the prince sighs. “On Ganghwa Island, on the beach, I made you a promise.”
Yeong-shin remembers that conversation. It had felt… gratifying, for someone like Chang to acknowledge Yeong-shin’s grief. It hadn’t been the first time they had spoken to one another, but it had been the first time that the prince had spoken to Yeong-shin, instead of only responding.
“But I gave up the throne,” the prince continues, “and I am no longer even the prince of Joseon. I thought you might feel I had betrayed your trust.”
Yeong-shin laughs at that, just a little. “I’m sure you had various reasons for your decision that someone like me wouldn’t understand. And if you had slaughtered that newborn, I’m certain I would have killed you on the spot.”
“That’s… a relief.”
“Is it?” Yeong-shin prods, half-heartedly playful. “Is it a relief that I’m not mad at you, or is it that you find comfort in the thought of my knife in your back?” (That’s another treasonous thing for the pile. Yeong-shin’s tongue is far wilder than the rest of him.)
“The second one,” says the prince, and Yeong-shin’s head whips around.
“Promise me,” Lee Chang entreats, gravely, “if I ever become a man like that, a man who could do something so unforgivable… promise me you will kill me.”
“You…” Yeong-shin starts, and then he looks away again.
Yes, he would have been proud to die for this man.
“You couldn’t become a man like that, not even if you tried,” he says, finally.
In the silence that follows, he can almost hear the prince thinking, and from the corner of his vision he can see the way he is biting at his lower lip. Yeong-shin waits. He expects more prodding about his mood or, worse, more prodding about the promise to kill him, neither of which will Yeong-shin be able to answer.
Instead, the prince says, “Seo-bi believes it won’t be enough to collect and burn the bodies we can find in Gyeongsang during the summer. There will be monsters hidden all over the countryside, and if even one remains, the disease will spread again in autumn. Instead, it is a better tactic to use the transition months in Spring and Autumn to track the monsters during the night and kill them during the day - this way we are less likely to overlook corpses hidden in the wilderness. I have been promised the help of many provincial militias across the south to conduct this mission.
“My task will be to tactically organize these people to maximize our efforts to eradicate the disease, without putting more lives at risk. They will also need to be trained in how to fight the monsters.” Having now delivered his rehearsed briefing, the prince pauses, trying and failing to catch Yeong-shin’s eyes. “I wish to ask of you… please, don’t leave my side. I need your help to repair this nation. I can’t do this alone.”
“There are many men in Sangju better suited to an administrative role than a tiger hunter.”
“I don’t need a tiger hunter,” says the prince. “I need you, Yeong-shin.”
Yeong-shin gives a clipped sigh, keeping his eyes trained on the floor. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I have spent every day of my life surrounded by people whose loyalty could be bought. I’ve had so precious few allies, and even fewer who are alive today.” The prince sounds desperately earnest, his voice tightening around the words. “Yeong-shin, I trust you with my life.”
Yeong-shin’s mind casts back to the prince’s bodyguard. It isn’t safe, sir. We must leave now, sir. There is nothing we can do, we must run, sir. Everyone, protect his highness!
I would never betray you, sir. May I kiss your boots, sir?
“So, you want me to replace your personal guard,” Yeong-shin spits out.
“If… if that title pleases you, then, I suppose so.” The prince is leaning forward, now, trying to get a peek at Yeong-shin’s face. “In a few days we will be leaving for Gyeongju, where I must meet with the three commanders of the militias. Please, you must come with us.”
Is that what all this was for? All that Yeong-shin has abandoned, all that he has sacrificed, for this? The dubious honor of protecting a nobleman’s life? It doesn’t matter that Lee Chang is a good man—he would make Yeong-shin no better than a guard dog.
And the worst part is that Yeong-shin is aching to say yes, because at least if the prince is giving him direction, he won’t have to agonize so much about possibly choosing a less honorable path on his own.
“No,” Yeong-shin says, tightly. “I can’t—”
Someone screams, outside.
In moments, Yeong-shin is back at the gate with his musket in hand. It all happens in a blur. A woman dressed in rags is screaming and pleading with the guards stationed there. “Please let me through!” she begs them, “My son! My son has climbed the wall, my son is out there! Ji-ho! ”
The temperature this afternoon had been warm enough to allow for brief expeditions, but the prince had arranged for the gates to only be open for one hour at most, so that everyone would return quickly and there would be less risk of stragglers falling victim when the monsters awoke. That window of time has long shut by now. The sun is already below the mountains and the whole valley is cast in shadow.
“Do you know only that your son is missing?” the prince demands, “Or did you see him climb the wall with your own eyes?”
She sobs and points shakily at a section of wall near the straw roofs of the market, and after that, Yeong-shin isn’t sure what she says, because he’s already hopping the gate.