He is reminded, vaguely, of the livestock markets, back when merchants could afford to raise animals for meat—back when they could afford to raise animals at all. In the livestock markets, poultry farmers would bring live birds into the city, in bamboo cages stacked one atop the other, each cage holding a few chickens fat enough for slaughter. The birds were loud . The movement and noise around them riled them up into a frenzy of noise, cawing and screeching and pecking at the air and each other. But when a poultry farmer would lay a blanket over the cage holding his livestock, all the birds would quiet down. The chickens were simple, stupid animals. Blinded, they felt safe.
Maybe Yeong-shin, too, is a simple, stupid animal. After Commander Min shut the door, the anxiety emptied out of him. Surrounded on all sides by thin paper, he felt safe again. Even as the sun set and the surroundings darkened to night, and he was still alone, it didn’t bother him. He laid down in the bed and shut his eyes, and tried not to think about how close he had come to shooting one of the nation’s highest military officials in the face.
Gyeong-hwa brings him a simple dinner. “I ran into Seo-bi on my way back from the governor’s house,” she says. “She wanted me to tell you how sorry she is that she’s not going to be back until late tonight. Something went wrong with the refugee rations, and many people became ill with food poisoning. The governor himself is involved, now, trying to put together a new stock of rations. It sounds like quite a crisis.”
“Okay,” Yeong-shin replies, quietly. “Thank you for telling me, and thank you for the food.”
He remembers how anxious he had been this morning, told he would be alone for the whole day. Now, the disappointment is flimsy and unimpactful. He’s more tired than lonely. Or maybe he’s just re-acclimating to something that has always been familiar to him.
Gyeong-hwa leaves, and shuts the door. Yeong-shin eats in silence, and though it is still early, he douses the oil lamp, and lays down again in the dark, and thinks about being kissed.
Maybe the prince’s avoidance today means he has come to his senses. Maybe the prince has realized it was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.
But Yeong-shin thinks about being kissed. He thinks about how it would feel, if he died tomorrow, and at one point in the course of his brutal, miserable life, the crown prince of Joseon had kissed him on the lips. Strange, lovely and tender.
He’s so tired. It’s impossible to make sense of anything anymore. In a few days, if he is lucky, he will be on crutches, and things will feel more normal when he is able to move around. He will be more like himself, and less like this helpless castaway set adrift on the ocean.
If he sleeps, time will pass faster.
An indeterminate amount of time later, the lamp beside Yeong-shin’s bed is lit again. Even through his eyelids, the brightness of it burns. Between dreaming and waking, Yeong-shin groans, and turns his face away, squeezing his eyes shut to keep the light out.
Then, someone’s hands roughly tug on the fabric of his shirt. Yeong-shin grumbles out “I’m sleeping, stop it,” but that doesn’t seem to dissuade the person, and finally, when he feels them undo the knot of his shirt, he concedes and opens his eyes.
It’s Chang. He looks furious. His concentrated effort pulls open Yeong-shin’s clothing, allowing the cool air of the evening to nip at his bare chest, and now he bodily moves Yeong-shin into a sitting position so he can pull the shirt down and off his arms.
“The fuck are you doing?” Yeong-shin asks without thinking. The fear he usually feels when he speaks rudely to the prince seems to be the kind of superior reasoning that only occurs to Yeong-shin when he’s fully awake. In its absence, at this moment, his mouth is perfectly content to curse without restraint. He stops cooperating, pulls his left wrist out of Chang’s grip, and tries to rub the sleep from his eyes.
Undeterred, Chang shifts and pulls the fabric down and off Yeong-shin’s right arm, and then he’s working on the left wrist again. “They thought you were an intruder,” Chang growls. “It was my fault; I should have never put you in this bed without giving you something decent to wear.”
“Hold on, fuck, I can get dressed by myself, let go of me!” Yeong-shin yanks his arm back, but Chang has already finished with the shirt, and now he’s going for Yeong-shin’s pants (what’s left of them, after Seo-bi cut them apart to treat him). Before Chang can undress him entirely, Yeong-shin pins the prince’s wrists firmly to the wooden frame of the bed. “What the fuck?”
Chang’s eyes are wild, enraged. “I’ve brought you into my life and into my residence, and yet from looking at you, people assume you don’t belong here. If I don’t dress you in a way that signals you are a member of my inner circle, then your presence by my side will invite unto you constant danger or constant disrespect, and I refuse to allow either. Don’t fight me on this.”
“Can we discuss this like adults instead of you ripping my clothes off of me? The hell is wrong with you?” This question finally seems to break through the barrier of the prince’s anger, and Chang blinks, like he’s just realized what he was doing. His eyes, which had been staring at Yeong-shin’s face, now flicker down to his collarbones, his chest, his stomach... all the bare skin, old scars, and newer teeth-wounds from the battle in Hanyang. Yeong-shin flinches, and lets go of Chang’s wrists to pull his arms back around himself to shield his nakedness from that gaze. “Stop it.”
After a beat, Chang tears his eyes away. “Sorry,” he says, “I really was just trying to dress you in something different, I didn’t mean to—sorry. That was rude of me. Here.” He passes a bundle of fabric to Yeong-shin.
It’s silk. Dyed blue or black, hard to tell in the lamplight. Silk. Smooth under Yeong-shin’s fingers.
Silk. How many days of food is a full silk garment worth? More than a year?
“If you’re about to start denigrating yourself and telling me you don’t deserve to wear something as nice as that, don’t. I’m not in the mood to listen to such horseshit.”
Yeong-shin lifts an eyebrow, but doesn’t comment on the prince’s vocabulary. Instead, holding the bundle of clothing with the tips of his fingers, he points out, “I haven’t bathed in six days. I’ll ruin the fabric.”
“It can be washed,” grits out Chang. “I don’t care. Put it on.”
“Why are you so angry with me, all of a sudden?”
“I’m not—” Chang breaks off, and then lets out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. “I am angry. I’m not angry with you. Sound familiar?”
Yeong-shin lets out a breath, slowly. He hadn’t really felt like the prince was angry with him, but… given all the manhandling, he’d just wanted to make sure. It’s good to hear that reassurance. He’s not sure how it would feel, to know the prince was actually angry with him—he only knows how eager he is to avoid it. “If not me,” he asks, “then, who are you angry with?”
“I’m angry with myself.”
“Why?” Yeong-shin drapes the silk bundle over the bed frame so he doesn’t have to hold it or touch it, and then he wraps his arms around his naked abdomen again. “Because you didn’t dress me up nicely? Don’t be ridiculous. I understand that maybe seeing poverty for the first time has made you feel guilty for all the wealth and power you possess, but giving me nice things doesn’t erase that. I’m not your convenient proxy for the lower classes.”
Infuriatingly, Chang chuckles, and another layer of that anger seems to peel away from his demeanor. “That’s not it,” he says. “No… it’s just, during my conversation with Commander Min, I realized that, all this time, I have been neglecting you, and this incident with the Royal Commandery is proof of that. So, that is why I am angry.”
Yeong-shin frowns, grumbling, “Your highness, there are many words I could use to describe the way you’ve been treating me the past few days, but neglectful is not top of mind.”
“I’m not talking about your injury. I’m talking about the way I’ve been treating you since my abdication,” says Chang. “Hear me out.”
Resolutely topless, and with his old shirt just out of reach in the prince’s grasp, Yeong-shin doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. “I’m listening,” he says.
Chang smiles. His own silk clothing ripples in the light as he leans back, bracing a hand against the floor. His remaining anger seems to dissipate into a soft contentedness, wind-battered calm after a storm. He begins to explain, “I have these feelings for you. You know this; I’ve told you already how deeply I care for you. When all was said and done in the capital, those feelings rose from my soul to the forefront of my mind. But it was so strange—I had never felt this way about another person before. I never had the luxury of thinking of anything but ensuring my own survival. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Are you following me so far?”
As always, the emotional declarations make Yeong-shin’s throat tighten, with frustration or nerves or whatever else. In the chill, with goosebumps rising across his bare shoulders and up the nape of his neck, that discomfort is magnified. But he nods anyway.
“This evening, I realized that if everything had been the same, but you were a woman, it would have been obvious what to—”
“I’m not a woman,” Yeong-shin interjects.
“I know, I’m not trying to upset you,” Chang reassures him after half-rolling his eyes at the comment. “But listen, if everything had been the same, but you were a woman, then from the moment of my abdication, I would have been giving you things.”
“Things?” asks Yeong-shin, looking over at Chang, and then at the bundle of silk on the bed frame. “Things like silks?”
(The look that crosses over Chang’s face, for only a heartbeat, is that special, patronizing expression unique to very wealthy men. But then it disappears, and Chang simply says, “Not only silks.”)
Then he leans forward and places his hands in his lap. “Of course, you likely would have refused such gifts, just as you try to refuse any special consideration. But I think that, with my persistence, I at least could have coaxed you into better clothing; something that wasn’t so stained and ragged. And when the Royal Commandery soldiers saw you, they wouldn’t have jumped to such terrible conclusions.”
“All this, if I was a woman?” Yeong-shin clicks his teeth. “Your story doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t have been a tiger hunter, so none of this would have happened.”
Chang whines, “Please suspend your disbelief for the sake of my argument!”
“Typically I can follow your more academic monologues, your highness, but you’ve lost me on this one.”
He continues, sourly, “The point is that, had you been a woman, it would have been a very natural consequence of my feelings to court you.” Then he stops, and some of that anger from earlier clouds his face. “But, you are a man,” he explains, “and lowborn at that, so I didn’t know how to treat you. You were so important to me, but I had no idea what to do with that feeling. I didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t particularly urgent to express it regardless. After all, I assumed that my trust in you and the respect I had shown you, far above your station, was plenty enough incentive for you to stay by my side indefinitely.”
Anger flares up in Yeong-shin. The challenge is on the tip of his tongue, all the rigid self-defense of his own dignity. What do you think I am? A stray dog, eager for any scrap of food or attention? But he bares his teeth, and he says nothing, because from the irony in the prince’s voice, Chang already knows how far off the mark he had been with that assumption.
“I took advantage of you.” Chang says, firmly. “It wasn’t my intention, but I did. I had these special feelings for you, but there was no obvious framework to try to express that, and there was so much else going on. It was easy to simply treat you the way I would treat any other who happened to be in your position. So, I treated you like a loyal soldier, and I treated you like a nobi. ”
“Wait, what?” Yeong-shin yelps, feeling a sudden whiplash, first wanting to defend his own dignity, and then wanting to defend the prince’s honor instead. With his arms still crossed in front of his chest to conserve warmth, he leans forward to try to catch the prince’s gaze. “That’s a fucking lie. You’ve been decent to me from the start.”
“Have I?” counters Chang, harshly. “Don’t answer. Think.”
“There’s nothing to think about!” Yeong-shin tells him. “For all the things I’ve said and done to you, you could have killed me a hundred times over!”
“I’d like to think I can be held to a higher standard than not executing you.”
I would have noticed, Yeong-shin’s mind is chanting, I would have noticed if you’d been taking advantage of me. Grasping for a counterexample, he tosses out, “These past few days, since I’ve been injured. You wouldn’t leave my side—”
“Because I realized how easily I could lose you! My friend…” Chang’s voice turns tremulous, “I am so afraid of losing you.”
The prince’s sudden earnesty makes the room feel quieter. Yeong-shin’s mouth closes, and he doesn’t say anything in response. The only thing that came to mind, "I was never yours to lose,” is too needlessly cruel to mention.
Chang faces the lamp instead of Yeong-shin. The firelight casts a warm glow on his face, twinkling in the reflection of his eyes. “From looking at you, how could anyone think that you are important to me?” he asks. “I am a very wealthy man, and here is the man I claim to care about more than any other living person, dressed in dirty rags for clothing.”
“That’s because I don’t take handouts,” Yeong-shin claims. “Even if you’d offered—”
“Yes, Yeong-shin, you are fiercely independent. But, this?” The prince holds up the old shirt in his fist, “This is filthy. The only time it was ever washed was when you jumped off a cliff and into a pond while wearing it. If you could afford to, you would have replaced it, no? And how might you have gotten the money to replace it? From working for the—” he chucks the ragged fabric across the room, “—working directly for the damned prince for three months, that’s how. I’ve never even given you a wage.”
Yeong-shin stares at the floor. The wage—he hadn’t noticed. He hadn’t thought about it. He followed the prince because he believed in the mission, not because he was looking to get anything out of it personally. But, should he have expected compensation? Did he deserve it? “You don’t pay Seo-bi, either,” he points out.
“Seo-bi receives a government stipend as a nurse, and, while we were in the capital, she and I made sure that stipend would continue even though Jiyulheon no longer exists. We made no such arrangements for you. What have you been living on, these past few months?”
Yeong-shin hugs himself tighter; the chill is getting worse, or maybe it’s only the embarrassment, heating up his face at the expense of the rest of his body. Why does it feel so humiliating, to have the prince draw into the light the fact that Yeong-shin is so inoculated to his own poverty that he doesn’t even notice it anymore? “You feed me,” he points out weakly, and it sounds strangely like a confession. “You keep me armed. I don’t need anything else.” I’ve survived on far less, he doesn’t add.
Chang’s voice turns gentle, when he says, “No wonder you had so much trouble believing me, when I said I cared for you. My actions directly contradicted my words.”
Is that it? Is that why Yeong-shin’s instincts kept screaming at him that Chang’s affections were sinister, and why he kept belittling himself for wanting them to be true? I care about you, Chang keeps saying, over and over again, and every time it hurt, because Yeong-shin wanted… wanted what? What does he want? There are too many layers of guilt and subliminally hurt feelings for Yeong-shin to keep track of, and he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t care about the why. “Ugh,” he grunts, finally, “I’ve had enough of this.”
“What does it mean, huh? What’s the point, what does any of this mean? You’ve been making declarations like this for the past month and all it does is piss me off, because—”
“Because I never follow through.”
Yeong-shin closes his mouth, and a shiver runs up his spine.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Chang asks, shifting closer. His fingers find the bundle of silk, on the bed frame, and gently he lifts it. “Yeong-shin,” he murmurs, “Let me follow through, this time. Please.”
Chang drapes the dark silk shirt around Yeong-shin’s shoulders. His chest is a hand’s breadth away from Yeong-shin’s face, Yeong-shin can smell him, and Yeong-shin hesitates with the shirt, not yet putting his hands into the arm-holes. The texture of satin silk on his bare skin—this texture has become more familiar to Yeong-shin recently, either because of the prince wearing it, or because of the satin-wrapped pillows and mattress of this bed. But to be completely enveloped in satin is surreal, especially on such sensitive parts of his body as his spine, his shoulders, and the nape of his neck. “No undershirt?” he questions.
“It would be too big for you.” Chang explains. “Actually, this silk shirt will also be too big, but at least it will serve its intended purpose until I can have something tailored for you. Treat it like a dressing gown.”
Until I can have something tailored for you, says the former crown prince of Joseon, and Yeong-shin feels strangely brittle. “Was this yours?” he asks, unsure what answer he would prefer to hear. His fingers pinch the front of the shirt closed, and the sleeves hang empty over his shoulders.
“Yes, from when I was much younger. I kept a wardrobe here in Sangju, when I was living with my master. This was… commissioned after my growth spurt, of course,” explains Chang bashfully. Then he sits back on his heels to peer at Yeong-shin, asking, “Won’t you put it on fully?”
“I… I will,” Yeong-shin says, and he tries to convince his hands to move. Between the pads of his fingers, the fabric feels deceptively heavy, like water. The way it reflects the glow of the lamplight isn’t ostentatiously shiny; instead it glimmers and ripples, giving a rich and deep luster.
He finds the arm-holes, and stiffly slots his body into the shirt.
“I wanted to give you this one because I thought it would feel nice to wear, even without an undershirt,” Chang says, and he winces to himself before admitting, “As a spoiled young man, I demanded my tailor line the inside with the silk satin as well, instead of just a cotton lining. It feels nice, I hope?”
Yeong-shin nods, wordlessly. ‘Nice’ is an understatement. It feels like a caress.
It hangs open against his front, with his chest and torso still bare. Chang sits up on his knees, so he can help Yeong-shin tie the ribbon. Again he must come closer for this task… his face is thrown into blue shadow, his eyelashes dark against his cheeks. Loose strands of hair rest limply against his temples, having escaped from the topknot during the course of his long day.
Yeong-shin notices all of these things, and nothing else. He possesses no other thoughts. His mind only recognizes the texture of silk on his skin, and the sound of Chang’s breathing, and the scent of him, the herbal, earthy smell of incense mixed with the sweat and musk of a man.
So he kisses the prince. Before Chang has even finished tying the ribbon, they are kissing.
Then, for a long time, Yeong-shin’s mind is entirely empty.
Only the press of their lips, the tiny sounds between their mouths, the breaths, gasping, the taste of Chang’s tongue, and the way his soft hands abandon their work to find and caress Yeong-shin’s face. It is so dark in this room. There is no one here but them. There is nothing else. Yeong-shin can melt into this, there is nothing to stop him, no reason to keep himself from this intimacy he wants more than anything—
With a desperate, needy sound, Chang’s mouth finds Yeong-shin’s cheek, and his jaw, and then his throat, and those hands find his chest, his sternum, a firm grip on his hips, and it’s all… greedy, this hunger from Chang, and…
Yeong-shin catches a glimpse, in his mind’s eye, of himself spending the rest of his life in this bed, dressed in nothing but this silk shirt, an ever-open invitation, waiting to be ravished, wearing love-suckled bruises, and always conditioned lips.
“Stop,” he gasps out. His hands tremble as he finds Chang’s shoulders, but it takes no force at all to push him away. Chang looks at him, eyes half-lidded but attentive. His mouth is red, and wet, and there is a flush high in his cheeks, and he looks so beautiful it hurts to behold him. “Stop,” Yeong-shin says again, weakly, though Chang has already backed away.
“Take a deep breath,” Chang suggests, his voice roughened from the kissing.
Yeong-shin does, filling his lungs as much as he can manage, but not breaking eye contact with the prince. Some of the jittery anxiety leaves with the exhale. His fingers curl into loose fists. He feels tired, and excited, and frightened. “I can’t,” he says, not knowing where the sentence will end when he begins it, “I don’t… trust you.”
Chang nods, wildly and fervently. “I know. You shouldn’t. I haven’t earned your trust,” but his eyes glimmer with something like bittersweet relief, and his voice wavers when he asks, “but I am not alone in my... desire for you?”
Yeong-shin shakes his head. Brittle, brittle, like one more touch would crack and shatter him. Is this how intimacy always felt? He doesn’t remember it terrifying him this much before.
“I—” Chang’s voice chokes off with emotion, and he smiles, and his mouth trembles. He ducks his head low, halfway to the floor, almost a full bow for Yeong-shin, and he says, “I promise I will make myself worthy.”
After that, Chang prepares tea for them both. Evidently it wasn’t very late in the evening, and since they will not spend the time before sleep on intimacy, they must fill it with their usual patterns. Yeong-shin still feels too dazed from the kissing to say much. It is a strange sensation, to feel like one’s mind is racing, but without any substantive thoughts to show for it.
At least he manages to tie the shirt ribbon closed on his own. It doesn’t look as flat and neat as when the nobles do it, but it covers his chest, and that’s what really matters. Even including times when Yeong-shin has actually been nude, he has never felt more naked in his life than in this past conversation with Chang. As he accepts the cup of ginseng tea, and the silk brushes against his arms, Yeong-shin feels that nakedness again, acutely.
The tea is good, though. Inhaling the steam clears away the scent of the prince’s skin—but not the memory of it.
Mercifully, Chang doesn’t say anything. He only sits there, on the mat beside the bed, already unrolled in preparation for sleep. Too near to pacify Yeong-shin’s paranoia, and too distant to sate Yeong-shin’s hunger for his proximity.
When Seo-bi returns from the front lines of the refugee hospital, later that evening, it is evident how exhausted she is, but she brightens slightly when she sees the new clothing. “Oh, Yeong-shin, what is this? You look so handsome.”
He blushes, and says “it was a gift from his highness.” Will it be typical, now, for him to receive compliments for the gifts from his highness? Pessimistically, he wonders how long he’ll be able to stand it before blowing up at Chang and ruining the whole thing.
Seo-bi examines Yeong-shin’s leg in a cursory fashion, while Chang debriefs her about the status of her refugee patients. To Yeong-shin she says, “Your stomach will settle overnight and you will be fine tomorrow,” and to Chang she says, “Their bones look good and they’ll require crutches in a couple of days.” Then she shuts her eyes, and sighs, and wearily corrects herself: “Wait, reverse those. You know what I meant.”
Chang grins, and remarks, “I believe our intrepid medical researcher may require some sleep.”
“That is a very astute prescription, your highness,” she agrees, rubbing her face with the heel of her hand. To Yeong-shin she asks, “Is there anything you need from me, tonight?”
Last night, when he had relied on her for help processing the first kiss, he had been drunk. Tonight, he is sober, and he’s sure he couldn’t verbalize his feelings even if she had been alert enough to help him. So he shakes his head, while smiling in what he hopes is a reassuring manner. “I’m fine. You should go rest. Thank you for everything.”
She grabs his face in both hands and kisses his forehead right at the hairline.
Chang laughs. Yeong-shin makes an affronted sound, pushes her away, and whines, “Was that medically necessary?”
“Yes, of course,” Seo-bi declares, as she goes to leave. “It was a treatment for how adorable you looked.” Just before the door, she turns back around and bows slightly. With more sincerity, she wishes them both a good night.
“Goodnight, Seo-bi,” they respond in unison.
Then they are alone, again.
There is only the distant sound of Seo-bi’s footsteps crossing the courtyard, and the wind that whistles between the shingles of the roof, and the proximal whisper of the prince’s breathing. Yeong-shin imagines he can feel the puff of the prince’s breath on his skin. Will they kiss again, now? Should they?
Chang’s gaze is sharp and perceptive, even in this warm and lazy moment before sleep. He remarks, softly, “You are tense, again.”
“I’m sorry,” says Yeong-shin, automatically, without looking at him.
“Don’t be sorry. What can I do to help?” Chang moves onto his knees again. “Would it be better if I slept in a guest room, tonight?”
Is Yeong-shin’s unease really so transparent? He thinks about how it would feel if the prince left. Would Yeong-shin spend all night awake, thinking of Chang’s mouth? Would he touch himself? Would he stare at the darkness of the ceiling in blank, unthinking terror until morning? He can’t make his mind work. “I don’t want you to leave,” he breathes. “I don’t want to be alone.”
With an affectionate tilt of his head, Chang lifts the corner of his mat from the floor, and says, “In that case, my sleeping mat is yours to do with as you please. Where would you have me?”
Yeong-shin swallows. “Just… just a few more paces away.”
Chang nods, and stands, lifting the mat and stepping away from the bed. Three paces, and he asks, “Here?”
Yeong-shin pictures it in his mind’s eye… sitting up in the middle of the night, and looking over at Chang, not near enough to touch, but not so far that the dark would obscure him. The safety of having the prince nearby, and the safety of having his own personal space. Most importantly, the distance would reassure Yeong-shin that his own half-awake self wouldn’t reach for Chang’s hand or try to touch him, try to kiss him again. He can’t risk himself making those kinds of decisions when he isn’t awake enough to protect himself from the potential consequences.
He nods, and Chang spreads the sleeping mat on the floor.
Yeong-shin douses the oil lamp, and lies down. When his eyes adjust to the darkness, and the beams of moonlight scattered from the window, he looks at Chang, laying there, out of reach, halfway across the room. Chang looks back at him.
For a long time, they only stare at each other. Why does everything feel so different now? Since they first met, Yeong-shin has spent so much time watching the prince from afar, and trying to figure him out, trying to support him and protect him. Now, the prince is watching him back, and Yeong-shin feels seen. It is equal parts mortifying and intoxicating.
In the blue shadows, Chang’s mouth curves up in a small, sweet smile. Without words, it almost seems like a ‘Hello.’