The envoy arrives at dawn.
A lone rider gallops across the fields of the Jung Kingdom, a crimson banner held high in the air despite scores of bows trained upon them. All it would take would be one raise of the hand for the messenger to be shot dead, but they race onwards, coming to a halt a respectful distance away from the line of soldiers.
“Permission to approach!” the envoy shouts. A female’s voice.
“Permission granted,” Crown Princess Jung Jinsol calls back. Her white steed tosses its head, and she gives it a gentle pat on the neck as the envoy dismounts and begins approaching.
She’s young, Jinsol notes, taking in the courier’s lightly dressed, unarmed appearance. The young woman shows no fear despite the spears pointing at her, following her every movement, and she keeps her head high until she reaches Jinsol and kneels, presenting a scroll.
“A message from the Crown Princess of the Kim Kingdom,” she says.
“What’s your name?” Jinsol asks as she takes the scroll, her eyes not missing the intricate design of the leather bracers the envoy is wearing.
“Choi Yerim, Your Highness. I am the personal squire of the Crown Princess.”
Jinsol narrows her eyes.
“That’s awfully… bold of the Crown Princess, sending her own squire into enemy lands.”
Yerim’s eyes glance at the troops surrounding them.
“She wishes to convey the sincerity of the message I have been tasked to bring you,” she explains, her voice lowered. “It is a relatively, um, important matter.”
“What could be more important than her invading my lands?” Jinsol asks. “Did she wise up and choose to surrender?”
Yerim doesn’t meet her eyes, and Jinsol takes the cue to unfurl the scroll.
To Your Royal Highness Jung Jinsol,
I will make this brief, as I’m sure you’d agree that now is not the time for frilly formalities.
As we both know, the soldiers of the Kim Kingdom outnumbers yours by at least four to one. You must also surely be aware of the recent increase in activity to the north, not to mention the Jo Empire gathering power in the south.
In light of these facts, there are two roads forward:
One, my troops and I seize the Jung Kingdom’s power for our own and crush any resistance.
Two, the Jung Kingdom willingly offers its power to the Kim Kingdom, an alliance that will be bound by matrimony between Your Highness and myself.
The correct answer should be clear.
If my squire does not return or if we do not receive a favorable answer by sunset, we shall commence with the destruction of your people.
I hope you choose wisely.
Crown Princess of the Kim Kingdom, Kim Jungeun
Jinsol immediately crumples up the scroll as soon as she’s done reading. She clenches it in her fist, making no move to stop her soldiers as they take her reaction as a sign to press even closer to Yerim, blades surrounding the squire.
“She sent you here as a sign of sincerity, you say?” Jinsol says as she looks down at Yerim.
“Y– Yes, Your Highness.”
“Sincerity… when she’s basically threatening me and my people?” Jinsol snaps. “Is she aware that every single man and woman would defend this kingdom to the death?”
“Yes, actually, Your Highness,” Yerim nods quickly. “That’s exactly why she proposed, erm, that proposal. She does not wish for needless bloodshed.”
Jinsol stares at Yerim for a minute before flattening the scroll to read it once more.
I hope you choose wisely.
Except this isn’t really a choice.
“You know you don’t have to do this, right?”
Jinsol smiles over her shoulder as her sister brushes some invisible dust off her back before fixing the tassels of her epaulette for the nth time. Chaewon hasn’t stopped fussing over her for the past half hour, but Jinsol’s content with letting her sister do as she pleases.
It’s probably one of the last few moments she’ll be able to spend with her, after all.
“You know, I’m a Jung princess too,” Chaewon continues with a frown. “If anyone should have to leave home, it should be me–”
“If you think I’m going to let you marry a jerk of a warmonger, think again,” Jinsol interrupts sternly. She turns around and pokes Chaewon’s forehead. “I’m doing this so you don’t have to.”
“I know,” Chaewon protests, grabbing where Jinsol jabbed. “I’m saying that I should do this so you don’t have to.”
“Princess Jungeun specifically named me,” Jinsol says patiently. “And we’ve come this far with the arrangements. I don’t think the Kim Kingdom would be happy if we do a princess swap at the last second.”
She looks Chaewon up and down.
“Don’t say it,” Chaewon warns. “Don’t you dare say a thing about me being too short to impersonate you.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Jinsol says, her lips twitching.
She turns back to the full length mirror before her and examines her own reflection closely. Brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes, she scans her appearance and checks for any imperfections in her formal military attire. Heaven knows there’s no way she’s going to wear some overly elaborate and heavy dress to this farce of a wedding, and no matter how hard she tries, she can’t imagine the stuffy Crown Princess of the Kim Kingdom doing the same.
Jinsol actually hasn’t ever seen Princess Jungeun before in all their years of skirmishes and warfare. As often as she’s taken to the battlefield in the past half decade, Jinsol has only ever faced Jungeun’s troops and generals, the princess herself nowhere to be seen. She’s definitely felt her presence though, through conniving strategies and dastardly tactics that have forced Jinsol to live on the front lines to defend her homeland.
Jinsol resists the urge to clench her fists, remembering that Chaewon is right next to her. The younger princess is still adjusting this and that, polishing the silver on Jinsol’s uniform even though they both know she already did that twenty minutes ago.
In a sharp contrast to the black that Jinsol is wearing (it was a compromise between the two kingdoms instead of arguing over red or blue, and Jinsol tries not to think about funerals), Chaewon has on a pale white dress. She could very well pass off for one of today’s brides, and Jinsol is doubly grateful that she’s not handing off her precious younger sister to their country’s long time nemesis.
“You look pretty, Chaewon,” Jinsol says. “You look all grown up now.”
“I kind of have to, don’t I?” Chaewon says, her voice quiet. She stops smoothing out the creases on Jinsol’s jacket, opting to hold her sleeve instead. “I’m in charge of Artioso Hold now.”
“Yeah,” Jinsol nods. “Don’t blow it up while I’m away, okay?”
“I’ll blow it up if you don’t visit soon enough,” Chaewon retorts. Her grip tightens. “I… I’m going to miss you.”
Jinsol spins around and throws her arms around her sister, wrinkles be damned.
“I’ll miss you too,” she says, pressing a kiss into Chaewon’s hair. “Take care of Mother for me, alright?”
A knock on the door forces the two to separate.
“Enter,” Jinsol commands.
“Your Highnesses.” It’s that squire again, Yerim, and she bows deeply before the princesses. “It’s time.”
Jinsol sucks in a breath.
“Time to face the dragon,” she whispers to herself.
Jinsol can hear cheering and celebrating as soon as she steps out of the guest wing. It’s distant but intense, and Jinsol can’t even begin to guess how many civilians have gathered outside Eclipse Palace on this momentous day. The halls within the castle are lined with troops holding banners, and although she sees the Jung Kingdom’s standard amongst them, she knows that the vast majority of the knights present are from the Kim Kingdom.
Well, technically they’ll be hers too after the ceremony, right?
Jinsol’s not naive enough to believe that.
She tries to brush these negative thoughts aside as she follows Yerim down the twisting hallways, smiling to all the people she passes by as they fall to their knees before her. They all seem much more excited than she is, no doubt glad that the long conflict between the Jungs and the Kims is finally over. Reminding herself of this fact, Jinsol steels herself as she reaches the final door separating her and her betrothed.
“Are you ready?” Yerim asks quietly.
The door opens.
And Jinsol’s breath is taken away.
Nobody ever told her that Kim Jungeun is so beautiful.
The princess awaits Jinsol at the altar in her own military regalia, her back ramrod straight as she holds her hands behind her. Her features are sharp, and her piercing eyes remind Jinsol of a bird of prey as their gazes lock. Jinsol refuses to look away as she begins walking down the aisle, Chaewon right next to her, and Jungeun similarly follows her with her eyes until they’re finally standing before each other.
“Nice to finally meet you,” Jinsol murmurs, well aware of the public’s scrutiny on them.
“Likewise, I’m sure,” Jungeun says, and Jinsol knows she’s not imagining the bite to her words when she sees how Jungeun is very clearly clenching her jaw.
The old, aging officiant clears his throat.
“Today,” he wheezes. “We are gathered here for the most joyous occasion: the joining of two nations!”
Jinsol easily tunes out the rest of the speech, her ears still picking up things such as “unity,” “unison,” “unite,” “union,” and other such words. She passes time by examining Jungeun’s face up close, and she’s impressed with how Jungeun never once looks away from the officiant despite his endless prattling.
Jungeun suddenly grabs Jinsol’s hands, and Jinsol holds back a flinch of surprise as she snaps to attention.
“Crown Princess Kim Jungeun of the Kim Kingdom,” the officiant says. “Do you vow to uphold this marriage and preserve this union of two until your dying days?”
“I do,” Jungeun answers, her voice easily ringing across the hall.
The officiant turns to the other party.
“Crown Princess Jung Jinsol of the Jung Kingdom,” he says. “Do you vow to uphold this marriage and preserve this union of two until your dying days?”
I hope you choose wisely.
And her fate is sealed.
Even if it’ll never compare to Artioso Hold, Eclipse Palace is more beautiful than Jinsol ever expected. She’s only ever heard descriptions of it from passing merchants and ambassadors, but after a few weeks in the castle, she admits that there’s something about the high ceilings and enormous stained glass windows that make her feel like she’s walked into a fairy tale.
Too bad there’s no Knight in Shining Armor to play the role of her partner. Instead, she’s stuck with a surly, stuck-up, ice block of a “wife”.
Jinsol doesn’t see her so-called spouse much these days thanks to separate bedrooms and the fact that Jungeun seems to live in her study, but every coincidental run-in they’ve had so far has been nothing short of unpleasant. Jungeun hardly ever speaks more than two sentences to Jinsol in one setting, and what the princess does say is usually clipped and curt. It’s almost like she wants Jinsol to know that she’s unwelcome and unwanted, something that was all but proven mere hours ago.
Jinsol had been on her way to the throne room this morning since Yerim had informed her that they would be holding court until noon. After taking a wrong turn twice, Jinsol almost made it to her destination when a hand suddenly grabbed her shoulder.
“You’re not needed here,” Jungeun said coldly before walking in alone.
As Jinsol whacks a training dummy with a wooden sword, she wonders how big of a diplomatic incident it would be if her hand “accidentally slips” and she “unintentionally” stabs her “dear princess” with a fork at dinner tonight. The thought amuses her as she bashes the dummy with her shield, and she finds herself getting fired up when she imagines a certain someone being clobbered instead of the straw figurine she’s become well acquainted with.
The sound of rapid footsteps cuts into Jinsol’s concentration, and she lowers her weapons to see Yerim running towards her.
“Your Highness!” the squire says hurriedly. “Princess Jungeun is on her way to see you right now.”
“Oh?” Jinsol plants her sword into the dirt like a cane and leans on it. “She actually wants to see me for once?”
“Uh…” Yerim grimaces. “She’s not happy. Like at all.”
Jinsol rolls her eyes.
“Is she ever?”
Jungeun’s shout echoes all throughout the training grounds, and Jinsol watches out of the corner of her eye as several captains wisely grab their equipment and scurry away. Even Yerim seems to be edging away slowly, whistling innocently before swiftly dashing away.
Jinsol doesn’t even have a minute before Jungeun storms up to her, face very clearly twisted in anger.
“Where have you been?” Jungeun hisses. “You were summoned for the war council an hour ago!”
“I’ve been right here this whole time, as usual,” Jinsol says calmly. “And I seem to recall a certain someone saying that I’m not needed, Princess.”
“You were summoned,” Jungeun emphasizes through gritted teeth. “In case you didn’t realize, that means you are indeed needed, or I wouldn’t have bothered summoning you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jinsol says sarcastically, more spite coming out than she intended. “I didn’t realize that I was one of your servants, here to come and go at your beckon.”
Jungeun mumbles something under her breath, and Jinsol catches the word “useless”.
“Look,” Jungeun says more clearly. “You aren’t needed for domestic affairs because you don’t know a thing about this kingdom. On the other hand, one of my generals personally requested your input at today’s war council due to your expertise. Unfortunately, someone didn’t show up.”
Jinsol feels her temper rising.
“Forgive me for not being keen on discussing how to kill people with the very people that have been trying to kill me for the past five years,” Jinsol says loudly. She takes a step forward, appreciating how she’s taller than Jungeun. “We’ve been enemies for a long time, Princess, and I know you haven’t forgotten that based on how you treat me.”
For a moment, Jungeun doesn’t answer. She stands there, glaring at Jinsol with a storm brewing in her eyes. Jinsol half-expects Jungeun to lash out in some way, maybe even physically, so she’s surprised when Jungeun takes a step back.
“You’re right,” the heir to the Kim throne says. Her voice is bitter as she continues. “We have indeed been enemies for a long time. I’ve had to bury so many good men and women because of you. And now I have to see you walking the halls they used to walk, standing where they once stood.”
It would be so easy for Jinsol to make a rebuttal by pointing out all the blood on Jungeun’s hands. Jungeun’s aware of that too, judging by the guarded look in her eyes, yet for some reason Jinsol suddenly doesn’t want to throw more oil on the pyre burning between them. It’s not like either of them can take the past back, Jinsol thinks, and as she convinces herself to take the high road, Jungeun turns around with a huff and begins walking away.
Frustrated with Jungeun, frustrated at the situation, and frustrated by herself, Jinsol decides to go for one last potshot.
“You’re the one who wanted to marry me, you know!”
Jungeun stops in her tracks.
Without turning around, she says, “I didn’t.”
And then she’s gone.
Jinsol lets out a very long exhale. She feels her whole body deflate with the action, her shoulders sagging from a weariness that wasn’t here before. The shield still strapped to her arm suddenly feels too heavy, and she quickly discards it to the side.
“Sorry, Bob,” she says to her inanimate training buddy. “Looks like I won’t be hanging out with you as much anymore.”
It takes an annoying amount of time for Jinsol to find the archives. It's in a part of the castle that she’s never been to, and Jinsol feels a stab of homesickness when she opens the giant wooden doors to find the vaguely familiar sight of shelves filled with scrolls. If she tries hard enough, she can easily imagine Chaewon napping instead of studying at one of the tables.
“Your Highness,” one of the archivists greets with a bow. “May this humble servant be of assistance?”
“Uh, I’m just browsing– Actually, yes,” Jinsol amends quickly, reminding herself that this isn’t Artioso Hold’s library. “I’d like to see some recent agricultural surveys and last season’s tax records, please.”
The archivist pauses.
“We are more than happy to help,” she says as assistants begin dashing through the shelves. “However…”
“Yes?” Jinsol prompts with what she hopes is an encouraging smile.
“Well… It is likely that Crown Princess Jungeun would like to be informed of your visit here,” the archivist says, bowing her head. “We offer our utmost respect to Your Highness, but–”
“It’s okay,” Jinsol interrupts with a wave of the hand. “I understand.”
“Thank you for your graciousness, Your Highness.” The archivist bows once again as her assistants return with arms full of documents. “Please let us know if there is anything if else we may assist you with.”
The servants soon make themselves scarce, vanishing from Jinsol’s sight as she begins the arduously boring task of reading through countless ledgers filled with tiny numbers. It’s mind-numbing work, and more than once Jinsol finds herself daydreaming and reminiscing rather than actually absorbing information. She almost cheers in delight when Yerim shows up to fetch her for dinner.
“Why were you in the archives?” Jungeun asks bluntly as soon as Jinsol sits down.
Jinsol’s seat is directly across Jungeun’s, the head of the table left empty for Jungeun’s ailing father. The king is even more elusive than his busy daughter, Jinsol having only seen him a grand total of twice so far, and nobody else is permitted to join the royal table sans Yerim for some reason Jinsol has yet to ask.
“You said I don’t know a thing,” Jinsol shrugs as she stabs a chunk of pork. “So I went to learn some things.”
She chances a glance at Jungeun, gauging her reaction. Her spouse’s eyes are narrowed, but there’s only the faintest embers of the anger from before. Jinsol can’t tell if Jungeun has genuinely calmed down or if she’s just hiding her rage for the sake of being civil, so she’s secretly relieved when Jungeun finally nods.
“Suit yourself,” is all she says.
Jinsol counts that as a win.
Scratch stabbing Jungeun with a fork in private. Jinsol would very much like to use the royal scepter to just bash her dear wife over the head in front of all these nobles. She wouldn’t say she’s anywhere near the violent type, but at this rate, Jinsol feels like Jungeun is practically asking for it.
The first words the Kim princess said to her today were “don’t get in my way” when Jinsol walked into the throne room. She didn’t even look at Jinsol before taking her seat, leaving Jinsol to scramble for the other empty chair before advisors and aristocrats started pouring in. Their people seemed surprised to see Jinsol present, but nobody said a thing as court commenced.
It’s been almost two hours since then, and Jungeun has not let Jinsol say a single word.
Jinsol’s starting to wonder if Jungeun has eyes on the side of her head or something, for if Jinsol so much as opens her mouth, Jungeun quickly cuts in with a firm verdict or a line of questioning that leaves Jinsol no opportunity to cut in. Jinsol understands not “getting in the way” of someone who’s far more familiar with this country, but to not even be allowed to contribute one thing is really starting to rile her up.
She didn’t spend countless hours in the dusty archives for nothing.
As two nobles argue over land distribution and crop growth in front of her, Jinsol sees her chance. She’s well aware that this is probably going to piss off Jungeun, but after noticing how everyone is starting to ignore her presence and treat her like some sort of seat warmer, Jinsol decides it’s time to do something.
“If I may,” she calls out loudly, and all eyes in the room fly to her. She’s almost concerned for Jungeun’s neck with how fast the princess turned to her, but Jinsol ignores that in favor of pressing her current advantage. “Duchess Minji, your grievance is how vast tracts of your land are unusable for agriculture, correct?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Jungeun’s eyes are like the burning of the summer sun upon Jinsol’s skin, but Jinsol continues onwards as she examines the map she brought with her.
“Why not irrigate it then? Build some aqueducts? There’s a small river that starts from the Bylo mountains to the east of your castle that you can use. It will take time to construct everything, but–”
“Our people have never used aqueducts outside of the capital,” Jungeun points out, and Jinsol is relieved that her tone is more neutral than defensive.
“The Jung Kingdom has,” Jinsol says. “The majority of our lands are by the sea, but we’ve designed systems to ensure that all our cities have constant access to water, even those far away from the Lunar and Cygnus rivers such as Ligr Front.”
A few nobles start whispering amongst themselves at the mention of what used to be the most highly contested fortress between the Jung and Kim kingdoms, but Jinsol pays them no heed. She’s more concerned with how Jungeun’s frowning deeply until the younger princess’s expression abruptly clears.
“Very well,” Jungeun says to their audience. “Duchess Minji shall consult with Princess Jinsol after court is adjourned, and we shall discuss the results at a later date.”
Another case is soon presented, followed by several more that once again reduce Jinsol to just listening. She’s not as fussed this time, glad to let Jungeun do the brain work when she quickly realizes that the issues being discussed are still out of her expanded knowledge pool regarding the Kim Kingdom’s inner workings. There’s a few disputes she’s able to form an opinion on, but she finds no fault with Jungeun’s verdicts.
“Duchess Minji will be waiting for you in the east receiving hall,” Jungeun says after everyone has filed out of the throne room. “You pitched this idea, so don’t let her down.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Jinsol says dryly. “At least I finally get to do something useful around here.”
Just as she’s about to turn away, Jungeun clears her throat.
“I’ll have the scribes send records to your study,” she says. “The more you know, the more I’ll let you do.”
Jinsol tries not to roll her eyes at how Jungeun seems incapable of ceding any sort of power without it being on her own terms. Baby steps, Jinsol tells herself. Baby steps.
“Thanks, I guess.”
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on her end, but Jinsol almost thinks that Jungeun is about to say “you’re welcome” with how she’s staring at Jinsol so intently. Alas, the princess ultimately turns away without a word and leaves Jinsol to her devices.
Jinsol doesn’t see Jungeun again until the next day, her consultation with Duchess Minji turning into an impromptu seminar. To her surprise, the duchess wasn’t alone in the specified meeting room, and there were at least a dozen other lords and ladies present to observe and glean what information they could for their own lands. It was a strange experience for Jinsol, drawing blueprints and explaining architectural techniques to former foes for an entire day, but she took it in stride.
After all, what’s good for the Kim Kingdom is good for the Jung Kingdom, right?
Jinsol doesn’t slack in verifying that her arrangement with Princess Jungeun has been beneficial both ways. She spends the next morning going over new intelligence confirming the transfer of goods and supplies between the two kingdoms, and she’s pleased to receive word that her trusty warsteed is enroute to Eclipse Palace with his own personal entourage. Military reports from her old generals are mixed; some are pleased to not have to worry about the constant threat of fighting while others still crave retribution and glory on the battlefield.
Jinsol does her best to write replies shutting the latter down.
She takes her lunch in her study as she tries to make a dent in the veritable mountain of assigned reading Jungeun gave her. Her eyes nearly popped out when she saw literal towers of papers stacked on her desk when she walked in this morning, and even as the afternoon begins to fade, Jinsol doesn’t feel like she’s made much, if any, progress.
As dinner approaches, Jinsol decides she’s more than earned a break. She promptly ditches her office to take a stroll around Eclipse Palace, testing her knowledge of its layout as she goes. Her legs appreciate the exercise after so much sitting, and Jinsol promises herself a session at the training grounds tomorrow as a treat.
Jinsol has no idea how Yerim is so good at finding her, but the squire somehow tracks her down and hands her a letter as she wanders around. It’s sealed with the coat of arms of her homeland, and Jinsol doesn’t hesitate before ripping the envelope open.
To my dear sister,
I hope this message reaches you in good time.
I thought you’d like to know that Mother is in good health, though she misses you terribly. I suppose I do too. It’s annoying dealing with all these aristocrats and making them comply with the terms of this alliance by myself. I wish you were here to knock some sense into our generals in particular. It’s a pain in the butt listening to them come up with stupid reasons to bring you back home. I think someone even suggested throwing you in a bag and smuggling you out of the Kim Kingdom.
I hope Princess Jungeun is treating you well. If she isn’t, then we’ll go over and toss her in her own moat.
Seagulls have taken to roosting in the west greenhouse. There’s never been so many there before. I wonder what I should do about them. At least they haven’t eaten any of the vegetables we planted together.
I hope you can visit soon, though I understand why you can’t. I hope you’re at least enjoying your time in Eclipse Palace.
Write back or else.
Your favorite sister,
Princess Chaewon of the Jung Kingdom
Jinsol smiles sadly at the letter in her hands, fingers lightly tracing her sister’s handwriting. There’s a sour twinge in her chest, and she allows herself to indulge in that feeling of yearning for home for a minute before focusing on more important matters.
Namely, the fact that there isn’t a west greenhouse in Artioso Hold.
“Yerim?” Jinsol calls out, and she’s mildly impressed when the squire immediately pops out from around the corner.
“Yes, Your Highness?”
“Where is Princess Jungeun? I need to speak with her,” Jinsol says.
“Ah… she’s probably in her private garden right now,” Yerim answers, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Normally she doesn’t let anyone in there, but… Well, you’re her wife, aren’t you? I’ll show you the way.”
Jinsol grimaces at the thought of intruding upon Jungeun’s personal space. Still, she follows behind Yerim as the attendant leads her through the palace, and she does her best to remember the path they take.
“She’s in here,” Yerim says when they come to a stop before a surprisingly plain wooden door.
“You’re not going in with me?”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of it,” Yerim says far too cheerily.
“... You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” Jinsol says, crossing her arms.
“Doing what on purpose?” Yerim asks innocently. She gives a solid knock on the door before sprinting away faster than Jinsol can object. “Good luck!”
“Enter,” a voice says from within, and it’s softer than Jinsol has ever heard it.
She slowly pushes open the door only for her jaw to drop once she’s able to peer within.
Jungeun’s private garden is a small courtyard of sorts, a tiny atrium that can only fit a single stone bench inside comfortably. Crimson flower buds line two of the walls, the doorway kept clear along with the giant windows directly opposite the entrance. The setting sun is framed perfectly within the clear panels of glass, and the light coming through dyes the entire garden in red, dyes Jungeun in red.
Jungeun seems to have chosen to dress lightly today, forgoing formal attire for a simple white dress despite the fact that she’s currently kneeling on soil as she tends to her garden. Jinsol has never seen her look so peaceful, her usual stern expression replaced by a calm, serene one. Jinsol almost regrets clearing her throat to catch Jungeun’s attention.
“What’s up, Yerim?”
“I’m not Yerim.”
Jungeun lets out a curse as she rushes to stand up, the expletive turning into multiple when she loses balance. Jinsol quickly reaches out and grabs Jungeun’s arms to steady her, but she misjudges her strength and winds up pulling Jungeun right up against her.
Jungeun really is pretty, Jinsol thinks.
And then she’s roughly shoved away.
“Who let you in here?” Jungeun demands.
“Yerim did,” Jinsol replies, amused by how Jungeun suddenly can’t seem to meet her eyes.
“Of course she did,” Jungeun mumbles before sighing. “What do you want?”
“I received a letter from my sister,” Jinsol starts, but she’s quickly interrupted.
“I didn’t order anyone to read your stuff, if that’s what you’re going to say.”
“I wasn’t,” Jinsol says as patiently as possible. “I just wanted to let you know that she says the Jo Empire has stationed a lot of troops in the west.”
Jungeun narrows her eyes.
“She actually wrote that in regular correspondence that anyone could open?” she asks. “Are you sure it’s even from her–”
“I’m sure,” Jinsol states firmly. “I know her handwriting, and she coded it, so to speak. She wrote of seagulls, and we all know the Jo Empire flies a white bird on their flags.”
Jungeun curses again under her breath.
“They haven’t moved their armies in the east, so that means they must have a lot more soldiers than we imagined,” she says. “Did Princess Chaewon say anything about them actively being a threat yet?”
“No, she said they were ‘roosting,’ and that she’s not sure what to do with them,” Jinsol explains. “She’s probably waiting for us to decide. I used to handle the military at home, after all.”
“And are you going to finally contribute here?” Jungeun asks, crossing her arms. “Or are you going to sit out again?”
“That depends, Princess,” Jinsol says evenly. “Am I going to be allowed to do anything? Or are you just going to handle everything by yourself while I sit there like a war trophy?”
“You are not–” Jungeun takes a deep breath as she clenches her fists. “You are not a war trophy.”
“Sure didn’t seem like it yesterday.”
“Look,” Jungeun says sharply. “Can we talk about this somewhere else?”
“Why?” Jinsol lifts an eyebrow. “Don’t like arguing in your precious garden?”
Jinsol stares for a second before giving in with a sigh.
“Fine, let’s go,” she says as she turns around and leaves the room.
“I… misjudged you,” Jungeun says when she catches up to Jinsol. She continues walking quickly and passes Jinsol, who is content with following behind since she doesn’t know where her wife plans on going. “The point of this alliance was primarily for military purposes. I didn’t expect you to take such a… vested interest in running the country.”
“Do you think I like attending court just for fun? For the record, listening to nobles argue about this and that is not my idea of a good time.”
“Something we both agree on,” Jungeun mutters. “Look, I’m sorry–”
“Wow, that’s a first.”
Jinsol tries not to wither under Jungeun’s glare when the princess screeches to a stop.
“If you’re just going to be difficult–”
“No, I’m sorry,” Jinsol says quickly. “There, now we’re even. Please continue.”
“As I was saying,” Jungeun enunciates loudly before resuming their walk. “I misjudged you. At first I thought you felt like you needed to be there as my wife. So I told you you weren’t. And yesterday…”
“Yesterday?” Jinsol prompts.
“I didn’t realize you were there to… help,” Jungeun admits. She doesn’t look at Jinsol as she opens the door to her office. “I thought you were just there to observe and learn. But perhaps you’re more knowledgeable about civil matters than I gave you credit for.”
Jinsol tries not to take too much offense at the backhanded compliment.
“Okay, let’s get something straight,” she says as she sits in one of the chairs facing Jungeun’s desk. “I may have spent most of the past five years focusing on the military, but I do know how to run a country. Chaewon and I used to handle things together. We always have.”
“And I’ve always done things alone,” Jungeun says quietly.
The room falls silent.
Jinsol feels an unexpected pang of sympathy for the woman sitting across her. She’s well aware that Jungeun is an only child whose mother died giving birth. Things probably haven’t been easy for her since her father took ill, something Jinsol is all too familiar with. Her own mother’s health began failing not long after her father fell to rogue bandits, and Jinsol had to quickly step up and take charge with Chaewon thankfully backing her up.
She doesn’t want to think about how hard things would have been if she didn’t have her sister.
“Princess,” Jinsol calls out gently.
Jungeun looks up but doesn’t say anything.
“Can we just… agree to let bygones be bygones?” Jinsol asks. “We’ve both caused a lot of death in the name of a feud our grandfathers started. There’s no point in blaming each other for that now, not when we got married for the sake of peace.”
“It’s not that easy,” Jungeun states flatly. She then shakes her head. “But doing the right thing is hardly ever easy. Especially if you don’t know if it’s really the right thing or not.”
“... Are you talking about this alliance?”
Jungeun suddenly seems like she aged ten years in the span of seconds, a shadow coming across her face as she stares down at her desk.
“I’m talking about…” Jungeun swallows. “When I ordered the full scale invasion of the Jung Kingdom.”
Jinsol balls her hands into fists on her lap, recognizable stirrings of rage starting up in her gut. She tries to smother them, but it seems almost impossible with how Jungeun herself opened Pandora’s Box and brought up the one topic Jinsol has been trying to come to terms with.
“Why did you do it?” Jinsol asks. “The Jungs and Kims have been pushing and pulling over the border for decades. It’s never escalated to full on war though… not until you decided to march for Artioso Hold.”
“I did it for the exact reason I said in that letter,” Jungeun says, a familiar blaze back in her eyes as she locks gazes with Jinsol. “It’s the same reason you came to find me today: the Jo Empire.”
“What, them sitting right at your door? I don’t buy it,” Jinsol snaps. “You could have negotiated, called for a truce or a treaty with us. Even a simple ceasefire would have worked. But instead you invaded.”
“Princess Jinsol,” Jungeun says, ice creeping into her voice. “Do you really think I didn’t consider that?”
“Then why!?” Jinsol demands. “So many people died!”
“I had to!” Jungeun all but shouts. “Let’s say we agreed to a ceasefire. What would happen to my country if the Jo Empire finally attacked and then you Jungs decided to stab us in the back?”
“We would never–”
“How could I know that?” Jungeun interrupts harshly. “Even now, some of your generals refuse to cooperate with mine. Who’s to say they wouldn’t violate a treaty at their nearest convenience?”
“Are you saying I can’t control my own men?” Jinsol hisses.
“I’m saying that I didn’t know,” Jungeun emphasizes, weariness audible in her tone. “I couldn’t have known, and I couldn’t risk it. My options were to either risk getting crushed by a war on two fronts, or to strike first and strike quickly and push you into a position where you’d accept my proposal.”
Jinsol lets out a shaky breath.
“And what would you have done if the Jos struck while you were at war with us?”
“They did,” Jungeun says darkly. “They burned down an entire village on the border and left nobody alive. Which is why we had no time to lose in pushing into your kingdom.”
Jinsol slowly looks to the ceiling before closing her eyes. She forces herself to regulate her breathing, trying to stamp down her flickering temper. Like Jungeun said, it’s easier said than done, but Jinsol reminds herself of what’s at stake as she returns her attention to her wife.
“You said you didn’t know if it was the right thing to do or not,” Jinsol says. “What about now?”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Jungeun chuckles humorlessly. “Our countries are no longer fighting, and you’re here now to—hopefully—help deal with the Jo Empire.”
“But? I hear a but,” Jinsol says, leaning back in her chair.
Jungeun doesn’t answer for the longest time.
Then, she finally speaks.
“It was hard,” Jungeun confesses, her voice oddly hoarse. “It was so hard making that decision. I didn’t want to. But I had to. For the Kim Kingdom.”
“... I think I understand,” Jinsol says after a long pause, not missing Jungeun’s surprise and what could be hope flittering across her face. “I don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet, and I don’t know if I ever will, but… I understand.”
“I... Thank you.”
Jinsol stands up.
“I know we came here to talk about the Jo Empire’s movements to the west, but I don’t think I can handle that right now,” she says. “But we can talk tomorrow.”
“I’ll be summoning the war council in the afternoon,” Jungeun informs her. “We can present the issue then. That is if you would… please attend.”
Jinsol gives a small smile.
“At least you said the magic word this time.”
Sometimes, Jinsol almost maybe kinda sorta considers regretting having that conversation with Jungeun.
While she didn’t know it at the time, Jinsol has come to recognize that something changed the moment she stepped into Jungeun’s garden. Airing things out seems to have led to a shift in her relationship with Jungeun, the Kim princess becoming notably more receptive to working with Jinsol. They’ve basically merged studies over the past few weeks as Jinsol spends more and more time in Jungeun’s office instead of having to run over every time she has a question. Jungeun is, contrary to Jinsol’s expectations, quite patient when it comes to teaching Jinsol, and Jinsol is quickly caught up to speed with everything going on. At this point, she’s able to keep up with Jungeun and actively take part in developing plans and contingencies with her.
And therein lies the problem.
“I told you,” Jinsol says for the third time in a row today. “This isn’t going to work. You’re basically tossing an entire battalion to the wolves. There’s no way they’ll make it back.”
“And I told you that they’re not meant to. They’re a decoy for a reason,” Jungeun retorts. “Sacrifices have to be made in the name of war.”
“You would know all about that, wouldn’t you?” Jinsol can’t help the bitterness of her tone. “Our soldiers are just tools to you, aren’t they?”
Jungeun’s eyes flash.
“If the Jo Empire really decides to push for Ligr Front to cut our armies in half, people are going to die no matter what,” she says firmly, jabbing the map spread out on her desk. “My job is to make sure their deaths are not in vain.”
“There has to be a better way,” Jinsol insists. “What if the 21st Battalion retreats towards the east after engaging? The 2nd can wait for them there and launch a pincer attack.”
“You want to divide up our troops even more? What if they don’t take the bait?”
“Then I’ll wait for them there at Ligr Plains,” Jinsol says simply. “If they want to reach the Front, they’ll have to go through me.”
“You can’t just throw yourself into armor and sit in the middle of a battlefield and consider that problem solved,” Jungeun growls.
“It worked against you for nearly a year, didn’t it?” Jinsol taunts, crossing her arms.
Jungeun slams her hands on her table.
“It worked until it didn’t,” she points out angrily. “Don’t forget how far we pushed into the Jung Kingdom until you accepted this alliance.”
Jinsol squeezes her own arm in frustration. While they’ve made great strides in communicating with each other, things regarding the military always seem to circle back the bad blood between them. Jinsol knows it’s pointless to throw a fit, however, and she tries to give Jungeun the benefit of the doubt by telling herself that Jungeun’s statement is more of a reminder of the facts than a personal attack.
“Look,” Jinsol says carefully as she too places her hands on the desk. “What I’m trying to say is that I am familiar with dealing with enemies that outnumber us. At the very least I can buy time for the 21st and 2nd to arrive as reinforcements if the Jo Empire doesn’t take the bait.”
“You’re mistaken if you think you’re going to be allowed on the frontlines of such a dangerous battle.”
Why is Kim Jungeun so stubborn? Jinsol asks herself.
“Good thing this isn’t your call to make, Princess,” she says with a mocking smile. “I am your equal in the eyes of the people, and I can go where I please. I have never hid behind my troops, and I’m not about to start now. You’re welcome to stay in the back like you always do though.”
“Not all of us are fighters,” Jungeun replies coldly, papers crinkling under her hands. “I’m not stupid enough to make my soldiers’ lives harder by forcing them to defend me in the middle of combat.”
“Are you calling me stupid–”
“No, but you sure act like–”
“Dinner time!” a voice calls out merrily as the door suddenly flies open.
There stands Yerim, the squire somehow balancing three plates of food, and she freezes as she lowers her foot from kicking the door open.
“Uh… Did I interrupt something?” she asks, her eyes darting between the two princesses.
“N– No,” Jungeun answers quickly.
She pulls back from Jinsol, and Jinsol blinks in surprise when she realizes just how close they had gotten while arguing. She didn’t notice herself leaning forward as their discussion got more and more heated, and neither did Jungeun, judging by the way she awkwardly clears her throat and takes an entire step away from the table.
“Um, I can come back later if you guys are busy,” Yerim offers with an apologetic smile. “Or I can leave your meals here and eat elsewhere–”
“No, it’s fine,” Jungeun sighs. “Come on in. Sit.”
Jinsol says nothing as she glances between liege and subordinate, silently clearing off the desk for the three of them. Just like how she’s growing more and more used to Jungeun’s presence, she’s become accustomed to seeing Yerim almost as often. The young attendant is certainly much brighter company, always smiling and taking the time to chat with Jinsol despite how busy she is.
Jinsol can’t help but wonder though. She’s not blind to how close Jungeun and Yerim are. Yerim doesn’t bother with keeping up formalities anymore when it’s just the three of them, and Jungeun doesn’t seem bothered in the least. She seems more at ease, even, and it’s clear she values her squire on more than a professional level.
“So… Guess what?” Yerim suddenly says with a wide grin, cutting into Jinsol’s line of thought.
“What?” Jinsol answers when Jungeun starts digging into her food.
“Morale in the castle has been increasing lately,” Yerim reports. “The servants are quite happy to see you two spending so much time together these days.”
“That’s good,” Jinsol says with a tired smile.
“Isn’t it? I actually saw two guards crying today about how sweet it is that you two don’t have to hide your love for each other anymore.”
Jinsol instantly drops her fork as Jungeun chokes on her potato, coughing and hacking loudly until a chunk is dislodged from her throat and flies across the room.
“I’m sorry, hide our what?” Jungeun wheezes.
“Your love!” Yerim repeats, beaming as though she didn’t just almost accidentally kill royalty. “A lot of people seem to believe that you two have had a hidden love affair for the past few years, and now you’re both finally married and free to be together. Isn’t that great?”
“No?” Jungeun says weakly. “I’m not– we’re not– Yerim, you know that’s not true!”
“I know,” Yerim acknowledges. “But the people don’t! I think the legendary bard quintet Scarlet Silk are already singing their latest ballad, which features you two as the leads of this wonderful, beautiful, tragic love story.”
“... Tragic?” Jinsol echoes. Next to her, Jungeun buries her face in her hands.
“It, um… doesn’t end happily.”
“... How does it end?” Jinsol asks, her curiosity overtaking her desire to forsake this entire conversation.
“Well…” Yerim says slowly. She clears her throat before letting out an entire stream of words in one breath. “The Jo Empire basically wipes out the entire Jung-Kim army and comes for Princess Jungeun’s head, and the talented, wonderful, amazing, show-stopping Princess Jinsol dies after single-handedly defending Eclipse Palace for seven days and seven nights straight, slaying thousands and thousands of foes only to succumb to a wound dealt by the dastardly, wicked, evil, villainous General Hyunjin, and Princess Jinsol spends her final breaths in the arms of Princess Jungeun as rain falls and the entire world mourns for the most passionate, ardent love that ended far too quickly.”
Outside, a crow caws thrice as it flies past the window.
“... Thanks for sharing,” Jinsol finally manages to utter.
“You’re welcome! I hope I get a chance to hear it soon,” Yerim sighs dreamily. “I heard they premiered it at Artioso Hold. Lucky them.”
Jinsol’s eyes widen.
“Oh no,” she whispers, a chill going down her spine. “Chaewon.”
Jinsol hears a snort and looks to see Jungeun very poorly stifling a laugh. Her shoulders shake as she covers her mouth, but that does nothing to conceal how her eyes have narrowed in mirth.
“Yerim,” Jungeun calls out, voice shaking with suppressed amusement. “I hereby forbid you from ever attending any performances of this ballad.”
“What!?” Yerim gasps. “Why?”
“It’s for the good of the nation.”
Yerim immediately turns to Jinsol.
“Your Highness!” she pleads. “You’ll let me go, right?”
“Hmm…” Jinsol pretends to think. “I’ll consider it… if you stop calling me Your Highness all the time.”
“Deal,” Yerim nods quickly. “No take backs!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Jinsol meets Jungeun’s eyes as soon as Yerim is distracted by her meal, and she surreptitiously shakes her head. She’s rewarded with the faintest of laughs akin to a single, muted chime of a bell, and she’s not prepared for how soothing the sound is.
When they part ways for the night after somehow making a breakthrough of a compromise, Jinsol wonders what it would be like to hear Jungeun laugh from the bottom of her heart.
To my dear sister,
Remember those seagulls I keep telling you about? The ones that flew to the east for the summer? Well, you won’t believe it but they’re back. I’m pretty sure they’re the same exact ones, and they’re leaving behind so much bird poop that I don’t even want to go near the greenhouse anymore. Good thing they’re not causing any damage aside from the damage to my sense of smell.
I wish people would stop performing The Tale of Red and Blue here. It was hilarious the first two or so times, but after the twentieth, I think I just want to puke. I’m sick of hearing about your “intense, torrid, and sensual romance” with Princess Jungeun. None of the bards here are as good as Scarlet Silk in the first place, and the ending is still
complete nonsense in need of reworking.
Speaking of Princess Jungeun, the people here at Artioso Hold just won’t stop talking about your
improved finally revealed relationship with her. Mother is very pleased to hear that you two are getting along. My offer to toss Princess Jungeun into the moat still stands though.
Please do me a favor and find a way for me to not have to hear about your love life all the time. It’s quite exhausting. Also, I have no idea what you were trying to draw in your last letter. Even our seneschal can’t tell if it’s a fish or an owl. Please work on your art.
I miss you, as always.
Your most beloved sister,
Princess Chaewon of the Jung-Kim Kingdom
Jinsol smiles to herself as she pockets the latest correspondence from her sister. As rare as Chaewon’s letters are, they don’t really sting with homesickness as much anymore, and Jinsol cherishes each and every one of them for the comfort they bring to her heart.
Jinsol is in good spirits when she knocks on the door to Jungeun’s garden. It’s noon, the sun shining brightly down at her as she steps into the tiny courtyard after hearing a quiet “Come in”. Jungeun is seated at the bench this time, staring outside, and she doesn’t turn around as Jinsol walks inside.
“Hey, just to let you know, Chaewon’s backing up the reports that say the Jo Empire has moved their troops from the center back to the west,” Jinsol says. “It’s annoying how they keep– Princess? Are you okay?”
Jungeun jolts out of her daze with a slight jump.
“Sorry,” she mumbles. “I wasn’t listening. Can you repeat what you said?”
“Hold on,” Jinsol says as she walks around the bench to stand in front of Jungeun. “Are you okay? You look… more tired than usual.”
“I’m fine,” Jungeun says shortly. She moves to rise. “Let’s go talk in my study–”
“Sit,” Jinsol commands. She grabs Jungeun’s shoulders and pushes her back onto the bench. “Work can wait. You look like you didn’t sleep all night or something.”
“I… I didn’t,” Jungeun gives in with a sigh. “My father’s health took a sudden turn for the worse last night.”
“Oh,” Jinsol says softly. “I’m… I’m sorry to hear that. I hope he gets better soon.”
“Me too,” Jungeun whispers, bowing her head. “Yerim is with him now. I just… needed some fresh air.”
“I’ll take care of things. You can rest here for as long as you’d like–”
“Wait,” Jungeun calls out. She grabs Jinsol’s sleeve before she can walk away, though she lets go quickly. “Can… Can you sit here with me?” she asks quietly. “I don’t… want to be alone right now.”
“Of course,” Jinsol murmurs.
Jungeun scoots over, and Jinsol delicately takes the spot next to her. A light breeze swirls in the garden as they sit in wordless silence, nothing but the sounds of birds and rustling leaves accompanying them. It’s peaceful, quiet, yet Jinsol can’t help the tender ache in her chest that always forms whenever she thinks of her mother and sister back home and her father resting in heaven.
Jinsol casts her eyes to the sky, raising a hand to block the overbearing brilliance of the sun. There’s only one small cloud visible today, and it gradually dissipates, white turning to blue as Jinsol can do nothing but watch.
A head falls onto her shoulder.
Jinsol almost doesn’t dare to move, but she carefully cranes her neck to catch a view of Jungeun with her eyes shut. Her wife finally looks her age for once, no wrinkles born of stress and pressure marring her sleeping face. Jinsol is more than content to let her be, and although she’s not sure why she finds a strange solace in the weight of Jungeun’s head, she just accepts that feeling for what it is without further thought.
Jinsol closes her own eyes, and the passage of time gently slips away.
She wakes to the sensation of Jungeun stirring.
Jinsol barely has enough time to lift her head off of Jungeun’s when the princess suddenly jerks upright, eyes narrowed. Jinsol herself blinks rapidly to clear her mind of their impromptu nap, and she listens closely for the sound that roused the both of them.
Right on cue, another knock echoes through the courtyard.
“Enter,” Jungeun calls out as she stands to face the door. Jinsol remains seated, and she prepares herself knowing who’s most likely behind that door.
Sure enough, it opens to reveal Yerim.
Jungeun visibly stiffens.
“Father,” she says. “How… Is he…”
“He’s fine,” Yerim says, a smile spreading over her worn out face. “The physicians said he’ll make it.”
“Oh, thank god,” Jungeun breathes out before dashing over to the doorway. She immediately throws her arms around Yerim, the younger woman clutching her just as tightly.
Jinsol silently watches as the two quietly whisper to each other. She doesn’t realize when or why she starts frowning, but she quickly wipes any gloom off her face as Jungeun turns to her.
“Thank you,” Jungeun says with a small but sincere smile.
Jinsol mirrors her expression.
Jinsol’s face falls when Jungeun leaves with Yerim, their arms linked as Yerim tugs Jungeun away. A familiar, unpleasant itch in Jinsol’s mind resurfaces, but she doesn’t know what she can do to scratch it. If she’s honest with herself, this unsettling emotion has been around for quite some time, and it’s becoming too distracting to ignore.
It takes Jinsol an admittedly long while to figure out how to address this issue.
“Yerim?” she calls out one day as the squire accompanies her on a routine horseback excursion around the capital. “Can I ask you something… personal?”
“Sure,” Yerim says. She tosses a piece of dried meat at one of the dogs following them before turning to Jinsol with her usual welcoming disposition. “What’s on your mind?”
“What…” Jinsol bites her lower lip before trying again. “What exactly is your, um, relationship with the Crown Princess?”
“With Jungeun?” Yerim tilts her head. “Officially, I’m her squire. I swore fealty to her a long, long time ago.”
“How long ago?”
“Since I was a child, actually,” Yerim says. She smiles wistfully. “I couldn’t even hold a sword back then.”
Jinsol stares in thought.
“Why hasn’t she knighted you if you’ve served her for so long?” she asks after they’ve passed a small stream. “You’re so skilled at what you do, and I’ve seen you prove your mettle in the training grounds as well.”
“Well…” Yerim fidgets slightly in her saddle, her hand instinctively flying to a golden bat pinned to her belt. “If I become a knight, Jungeun will have to send me far away for those… knightly kinds of duties. But as her personal squire, I can remain by her side and help her with whatever she needs.”
“Remain by her side… You two really are close, aren’t you?”
“Yep!” Yerim grins proudly. “We basically grew up together, and technically she spared my life, so–”
“Hold on,” Jinsol says sharply as she pulls her stallion to a halt. “Spared your life? What did you do?”
“Ah, um…” Yerim grimaces, awkwardness written all over her face as she clearly realizes that she’s said too much. “I’d love to tell you, but… I think it’s better if you ask Jungeun yourself.”
“Choi Yerim, are you a criminal?”
“No! Nononono,” Yerim insists, waving her hands desperately. “No way! Nothing like that. Look, I really want to tell you, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to. It’s better if you ask Jungeun. Really,” she adds when Jinsol furrows her brows. “I think it’s time she tells you anyways.”
“Alright,” Jinsol assents with reluctance. “I’ll ask her later.”
Yerim suddenly rides up to Jinsol, peering closely at the princess.
“Can I ask you a question now?”
“Go for it.”
“Why were you asking?”
“My relationship with Jungeun,” Yerim clarifies. “Why were you asking about it?”
“I’ve been curious about it for a long time,” Jinsol admits. “Like ever since I moved here.”
Yerim hums thoughtfully.
“That’s it? Just curiosity?”
“Only curiosity? Are you sure there’s nothing else?” Yerim presses. “You can be honest with me, you know.”
“What else would there be?” Jinsol asks, quite befuddled.
Yerim takes a whole minute to answer.
“Jealousy,” she says at last. “Maybe you asked because you’re jealous.”
“Oh,” Jinsol says, mouth hanging open. “Huh. I didn’t consider that.”
“Well?” Yerim prompts, eyes shining excitedly. “What do you think, now that you’ve considered it?”
“I dunno,” Jinsol says. It’s the truth, though technically not the entire truth. The notion is foreign to her, but she can’t deny that it seems to click in more ways than she’d like to admit. “I’ll have to think more about it.”
“Darn,” Yerim mutters. “So close.”
“What, you want me to be jealous?”
“Yes, actually!” Yerim nods, her entire body moving with her enthusiasm.
“You know it would be you I would be jealous of, right?” Jinsol says casually. “What if I decide to have you executed for being the mistress of my lawfully wedded wife?”
“You wouldn’t,” she exclaims before grimacing as though she just bit into a lemon. “And eww, I wouldn’t be her mistress even if you paid me.”
“That’s… kinda harsh.” Jinsol winces. “I feel bad for her.”
“I have my reasons,” Yerim says, deepening her voice to sound more mysterious. “And those very same reasons are why you don’t actually have to be jealous.”
“I’m not though?”
“In case you were,” Yerim says dismissively. “It’s okay to be jealous, you know. Jungeun definitely is, even if she won’t admit it.”
Jinsol almost slips from her horse.
“She kept whining this morning about how I always get to go on these rides with you,” Yerim pouts. “Ah, don’t tell her I told you that.”
“I won’t,” Jinsol promises even as disappointment settles in her gut. “But I mean I don’t blame her. It sucks being stuck indoors all the time.”
“Nuh uh,” Yerim says firmly. “She’s not jealous of me going outside. She’s jealous of me going outside with you. Trust me, I know her.”
“You're the expert,” Jinsol concedes. A pleasant tingling has taken a hold of her now, and she’s not about to pop that bubble if Yerim’s saying that she doesn’t have to.
And besides, Yerim makes good points.
If Jinsol digs deeper into her psyche, she may very well find that she is indeed jealous of the bond between Yerim and Jungeun. It’s not a simplistic kind of jealousy though, one that could be solved with easy words and quick reassurances. It’s more like a deep-rooted craving, one that leaves behind feelings of loneliness and inadequacy when left unfulfilled.
It’s desire, Jinsol realizes.
She has always desired being able to stand so close to Jungeun without being burned.
“God, I hate the Jo Empire so much,” Jungeun groans.
“Me too,” Jinsol sighs.
Once again, the two are discussing their great nemesis, though they’re in the war room this time instead of Jungeun’s office. Their generals all vacated the room not too long ago after an inconclusive council where no clear cut direction was drawn, no thanks to their perplexing opponent.
“Why do they keep marching endlessly along the border?” Jungeun complains loudly. “Do they really have nothing better to do?”
“It hardly makes sense,” Jinsol agrees as she slumps in her chair. “Maybe they’re looking for a hole to punch through, but they’re wasting so many resources.”
“Exactly!” Jungeun groans again, tossing her head against the backrest of her own seat. “Jinsol,” she demands. “Make it make sense.”
Jinsol chuckles to herself. This kind of behavior has become more and more common these days when Jungeun gets too fed up with things and enters this crabby, borderline whiny mood. Jinsol knows it’s harmless though, and she’s actually inclined to say that it’s cute. This facet of Jungeun only ever emerges in private, and Jinsol quite enjoys seeing this side of Jungeun that hardly anyone else gets to see.
“Sorry, Princess,” Jinsol says. “I don’t know how to translate nonsense.”
“Useless,” Jungeun mutters, but there’s no bite in her voice. “What did I marry you for?”
“My good looks, maybe?” Jinsol jokes.
Jungeun places her elbow on her armrest, leaning closer to Jinsol as she squints closely at her.
“What’s gotten into you lately?” Jungeun asks. “You’ve been acting a bit… differently.”
“Not sure,” Jinsol shrugs. “I guess I’ve been in a good mood recently.”
“... It was your last tour with Yerim, wasn’t it?” Jungeun asks rather stiffly as she pulls back. “Yerim kept saying she had a lot of fun for some reason.”
“Oh yeah.” Jinsol snaps her fingers. “I did have a bit of a… revelation out there thanks to her, and it’s pretty nice being able to understand yourself a bit better.”
“Well, I’m glad one of us gets to have some sort of epiphany,” Jungeun grumbles.
“Maybe you should go out on a survey with her,” Jinsol suggests. “She can be quite perceptive sometimes.”
“No thanks,” Jungeun says, shifting in her seat. “She sees through me enough as is.”
Jinsol clears her throat.
“Speaking of Yerim,” she says slowly. “There’s something I keep forgetting to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“What did you spare Yerim’s life for?”
“... I spared Yerim’s life???”
Jinsol tries not to laugh at how genuinely befuddled Jungeun looks, her wife almost climbing out of her seat in sheer confusion.
“Wait,” Jungeun says abruptly. “I think I know what she’s talking about… Ugh, this kid.”
“Uh… Are you going to share with the class?” Jinsol asks. “She told me to ask you if I wanted to find out.”
Jungeun settles back into her chair as she looks at Jinsol out of the corner of her eye.
“What I’m about to tell you is to be kept a secret between the three of us,” she says seriously. “This cannot get out. I am not joking.”
“I promise,” Jinsol vows, grasping the gravity of the situation.
Jungeun scans the room to make sure it’s empty as she lowers her voice.
“Yerim is my half-sister,” she explains. “She’s the illegitimate daughter of my father, the king.”
“Oh,” Jinsol gasps quietly. “That makes sense. That’s why you two are so ridiculously close, huh?”
“Exactly,” Jungeun nods. “We act like siblings sometimes because that’s what we are. And as for me sparing her life…”
“Succession?” Jinsol guesses.
“Yep. This kid somehow still thinks I’ve done her a huge favor by not “taking care of loose ends” when I never would have considered that in the first place,” Jungeun frowns. “I’ve told her this countless times… But this is why this is a secret. I can’t risk Yerim being put in danger by some clowns who want to use her for their own ends.”
“Well, thank you for trusting me,” Jinsol says sincerely. “It means a lot. I understand how important this is.”
“I should have let you know sooner,” Jungeun murmurs. “We are wives, after all, and in case anything happens to me–”
“Nope,” Jinsol interrupts loudly, throwing up her arms in a cross. “We are not going there. We’re going to beat up the Jo Kingdom without me—or anyone else—dying tragically, and then the three of us will live happily ever after.”
“What about Princess Chaewon?”
“She can handle herself,” Jinsol says dismissively. “Father used to joke about how she could steal my crown with how clever she can be sometimes. Good thing she’s too lazy.”
Jungeun lets out an amused snort before coughing into her hand.
“By the way, are you going to share with the class?”
“... Share what?”
“That epiphany of yours,” Jungeun says, tapping her armrest. “I’m quite curious.”
There’s no way she’s going to tell Jungeun. It’s both too hard and too embarrassing to try and explain a yearning for someone, and there’s no way she’s going to divulge her feelings towards Jungeun like that. Instead, she cradles them like the treasure they are as she thinks of where they used to be at the start, how far their relationship has come, and how much further they have yet to go.
Jungeun is still definitely scalding at times, but Jinsol isn’t blind to how Jungeun no longer scorches her soul so intensely. It’s one of the reasons why she’s been so cheery as of late, more confident in indulging in Jungeun’s presence in a way the old Jinsol never would have been able to. Of course, there’s still a long distance between their hearts, but Jinsol’s in no rush.
Bound until their dying days, Jinsol knows they have plenty of time to learn how to walk hand-in-hand properly.
Maybe she’ll even fall in love along the way.
“Well?” Jungeun prods, cutting into Jinsol’s reverie.
“Ask me again in ten years.”
Jinsol receives the news as she’s napping in Jungeun’s garden. It’s become a habit for her to go there after training sessions ever since Jungeun said she was welcome to it anytime.
“I mean what’s mine is yours and all, so…” Jungeun had said, deliberately avoiding Jinsol’s eyes before making up some excuse to leave.
The two often run into each other in that secluded courtyard, sometimes taking the time to chat for a bit while simply enjoying the silence on other days. There’s an unspoken agreement between them, one that ensures neither will bring up work or prior spats in the garden. Jinsol still laughs whenever she thinks of the time they both left the throne room after a disagreement on a trading policy; both she and Jungeun went straight for the garden, walking side by side even as they refused to acknowledge each other. At least they both cracked a smile when they got to the door.
Peace is what Jinsol has come to associate with that private garden, and she knows that’s what it means to Jungeun as well. She’s careful to not disturb that especially after Jungeun so graciously extended her that invitation.
But life has other plans.
“Your Highness!” a knight yells as she bursts into the room. “I bring urgent news!”
“What is it?” Jinsol immediately answers, bolting upright at the panic she hears.
“The Eden Alliance has attacked! They’re besieging Artioso Hold as we speak!”
Jinsol’s blood runs cold. She freezes for a second before pushing past the knight as she sprints for the armory.
“Summon the 6th and 7th Cavalry Regiments,” she orders as she races down hallways. “General Bora should be on standby. Tell her to be ready to move out at once!”
Jinsol doesn’t think she’s ever put on armor so quickly. She’s hardly aware of her surroundings as she tightens her gauntlets, the sounds of soldiers running around her muted and distant. She makes it to the stables in record time, her longtime steed already awaiting her, and she wastes no time in quickly mounting her horse and heading for the gates.
Jinsol curses as she yanks on the reins to pull Beta out of his canter. He tosses his head impatiently, and Jinsol turns to see her wife running up to her with attendants in tow.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jungeun says, panting as she glares up at Jinsol.
“To Artioso Hold. Don’t try to stop me,” Jinsol adds when it’s clear that Jungeun is going to protest. “I’m going no matter what.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jungeun snaps. “What good is it, charging off blindly at an entire army?”
“You can’t possibly expect me to just sit here and do nothing,” Jinsol argues, her already present frustration welling up even more. “That’s my sister over there!”
“I know,” Jungeun says through gritted teeth. “But we need to pull together a plan–”
“There’s no time for that!” Jinsol shouts. She angrily points to the west. “The Eden Alliance has surrounded Artioso Hold and the longer we wait, the stronger they can dig in. It’s going to take days for us to get there in the first place!”
“We have other generals stationed in the area that can get to them faster,” Jungeun points out. “Artioso Hold won’t just fold in a few days. I need you here to–”
“My sister needs me,” Jinsol snarls. “I am not going to sit here and twiddle my thumbs thousands of miles away while she’s in danger.”
“I’m not asking you to!” Jungeun says, fists visibly shaking at her sides. “I’m just asking you to slow down and think–”
“What part of ‘there’s no time’ do you not understand!? Why are you holding me back–”
“Because I care about you!”
Jinsol doesn’t understand.
She doesn’t know why five words suddenly give her pause, why they’re able to take her fury and blow it aside so easily. It’s strange, Jinsol thinks, but maybe it has to do with the way Jungeun is staring at her so resolutely, so unyielding like a flame that refuses to go out.
“I care about you,” Jungeun repeats firmly as Jinsol is at a loss for words. “I know how upset you are right now, but it does no one any good for you to just charge forward blindly and get yourself k- killed.”
“I… I’m sorry,” Jinsol mumbles. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I can’t not go. It’s impossible.”
Her chest twists in pain at the hurt that flashes across Jungeun’s face. Not for the first time, Jinsol wishes they had met in a different life, in a different world free of war and death.
She’s sure that she would seek Jungeun every time.
“Fine,” Jungeun says quietly. “Go.”
She leaves Jinsol without looking back.
The march is long and bitter.
There’s some irony in the fact that they’re moving along the Cygnus River. It’s the very path Jungeun took so long ago in her invasion of the Jung Kingdom, and it’s now the route Jinsol has to take to save it.
It takes considerable effort for Jinsol to adhere to a strict pace. She wants nothing more than to gallop full speed across the land in her haste to reach Artioso Hold, but she knows she has to go at a steadier, restrained rate lest she wear out her troops before they even reach the battlefield. Their projected journey will take a total of three days, and every agonizing second passes both too slowly and too quickly.
A messenger arrives at camp on the second night.
“Your Highness,” he says as he kneels before Jinsol. “I have come to inform you that ten thousand men and women are on their way to Artioso Hold, with three thousand of them a day’s march behind you. At least five thousand more will follow behind them, but they will not be under your command.”
“Crown Princess Jungeun,” the page answers. “She will be leading the rearguard, as usual.”
“... I see.”
“There is also this, Your Highness.” The messenger pulls out a small, sealed piece of parchment and hands it over. “I was informed that this is unsigned, but it is a private message from the Crown Princess herself.”
“Thank you,” Jinsol nods. “Please, go and rest.”
She opens the note as soon as she’s alone in the safety of her tent.
Just as you have stood by my side, I will follow you. Always.
Jinsol stares at that familiar cursive for an entire minute before carefully folding up the message. She tucks it into her breastplate right next to her heart, and she’d like to think that that’s where it belongs. If she tries hard enough, she can pretend that the little piece of paper has magic of its own and will protect her in the days to come.
The first clash occurs at sunset two days later.
Artioso Hold stands far away in the distance, a grey sentinel of the sea. There’s no smoke coming from it, but Jinsol isn’t foolish enough to believe that everything is okay. The army blocking her path is a good indicator of that, and Jinsol thinks of Chaewon before slamming her helm down and charging into the fray.
The Eden Alliance’s soldiers are well trained, but it’s clear that this is only a small contingent of them likely sent here to slow Jinsol down. She refuses to allow them to, cutting down those that get too near as she advances forward. At first, it seems like her troops are gaining ground, but then she notices one of their flanks crumbling.
And then she sees why.
A knight in all black armor atop an equally dark steed wields their halberd like the Grim Reaper, taking life after life with each swing of their weapon. Even the Jung-Kim Kingdom’s seasoned cavaliers are no match against this foe, and Jinsol wonders how the Eden Alliance hid this demon of a warrior for so long. Jinsol falters for a second, but remembering how Chaewon is ahead of her and Jungeun is behind causes her to steel herself as she directs Beta towards the most terrifying opponent she has ever seen.
Their first pass is inconclusive, though Jinsol’s entire arm nearly goes numb with how hard the black knight strikes her shield. Her shield rattles for several good seconds, and Jinsol wouldn’t be surprised if there’s already a dent on it. Her second charge is also a mixed bag as her shield is nearly ripped off her arm when the knight’s halberd hooks onto it, though she manages to land a glancing hit of her own.
The third engagement is a disaster.
The black knight shifts their grip to the end of their halberd in the last few seconds before they’re due to collide, massively extending their range as they make a sweeping, horizontal swing. Jinsol raises her shield at an angle to deflect it without taking too much direct force, but she either miscalculates or the knight is so much stronger than she anticipates for all she hears is a clang of metal before she’s promptly knocked off of Beta.
The knight charges.
Jinsol raises her battered shield and sword, unwilling to give up without a fight even as she’s on the ground. Death gallops towards her, and she narrowly manages to avoid being trampled as she blocks another hit while rolling away. She doesn’t even have time to scramble to her feet as the knight comes back for another round, easily knocking away Jinsol’s soldiers that try to come to her rescue.
Jinsol braces herself.
And red flies into the air.
Blood splatters the grass as Jinsol clutches her left shoulder. The cut she received there burns, and she hisses as the searing pain threatens to blind her. She quickly gathers her bearings and reaches for the sword she dropped, but she’s unable to get a good grip on it thanks to the blood on her hand.
The knight raises their halberd and points it directly at Jinsol.
“I’m sorry,” Jinsol whispers to the wind.
A shrill whistle pierces the air, loud enough to earn several shouts of shock. Jinsol herself winces, and she looks up just in time to see the black knight’s horse standing over her.
“Order your troops to retreat,” the knight says, her voice a lot higher and thinner than Jinsol expected. “I will do the same once you do.”
“Why?” Jinsol asks.
“Expect a messenger soon,” the knight says in lieu of answering. She places her blade right at Jinsol’s throat. “Do it. Now.”
“All units,” she shouts. “Pull back.”
“To me!” the knight commands her own soldiers.
Jinsol catches sight of a flag bearing a wolf before the Eden Alliance vanishes in the direction of Artioso Hold, leaving Jinsol sitting in the dirt surrounded by bodies. It’s a grisly sight, and Jinsol’s heart is heavy as her surviving captains rush to assist her back to camp.
As the mysterious knight promised, an envoy arrives at dawn. The familiarity of the situation isn’t lost upon Jinsol as she reads the message.
She almost drops the letter when she sees who it’s from.
To my dear sister,
It has been over a week since the Eden Alliance showed up on our lands. They crossed the Cygnus River so quickly and there was hardly any time for us to react. The infantry that marched to intercept them were routed almost instantly, and although we moved to defend Artioso Hold, the Eden Alliance has locked us into a siege.
Please forgive me.
I knew you would come as soon as you heard the news. Though I am happy to know that you have returned to our homeland, I wish it wasn’t like this. I was informed of the wound you sustained this afternoon. I pray the reports are true when they say it’s not a grievous injury. You’ve already suffered enough for this nation as is.
I am currently writing this from the Eden Alliance’s camp. I have surrendered myself to them in return for a ceasefire. You may think me weak for giving in so quickly, but in light of recent developments that I cannot disclose in writing, I have determined that this is the best course of action to prevent casualties on all sides. Do not worry for me, for I am being treated very well.
High Queen Sooyoung wishes to negotiate with you and Princess Jungeun. She personally informed me that this was her main goal from the start, not unlike your dearly beloved.
Ugh, I can’t believe I wrote that.
Please meet us at Youth Circle Hill at noon in three days. High Queen Sooyoung will bring her wife and one other as a witness and requests that you do the same. Please come unarmed, as High Queen Sooyoung has promised that none of them will come bearing weapons.
I will be waiting for you. Do you think the wild dogs that used to live on the hill will still be there? I hope we don’t see them.
Again, I wish we could have reunited under better circumstances. I am sorry I could not protect Artioso Hold in your absence.
Your only sister,
Princess Chaewon of the Jung-Kim Kingdom
“You’re lucky you’re injured, you know.”
Jinsol raises an eyebrow.
“Lucky?” she repeats. “Lucky I can’t use my left arm for who knows how long?”
“Yes,” Jungeun says sternly. “You’re lucky that I won’t slap a wounded soldier no matter how stupid they are.”
Jinsol’s lip twitches.
“Thank you, oh kind Princess,” she says grandly. “Your merciful mercy is very merciful.”
“The more you joke, the more I’m reconsidering.”
“Sorry,” Jinsol mumbles before clearing her throat. “Thank you for coming to see me.”
Jungeun fixes her with a piercing gaze.
“Did you get my message?” she asks.
“Good,” Jungeun says shortly as if that answers anything.
Jinsol stares blankly until comprehension finally hits her. She grins to herself as she admires the tinge of red creeping onto Jungeun’s face.
“I have it right here, you know,” she says casually as she reaches into the pocket on her chest. “I keep it close to my heart–”
“Stop!” Jungeun practically screeches. She grabs Jinsol’s wrist, holding her in place. “Put that thing away! I don’t want to see it ever again.”
“Sheesh, overreacting much?” Jinsol pouts as she puts her hand back down. “I thought it was really sweet. My wife cares about me! How cute.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Jinsol laughs before her amusement fades. “I really am sorry, actually. About…”
“About nearly getting yourself killed like I told you not to?”
“That and… I’m sorry about how I left.”
Jinsol looks to where Jungeun still hasn’t let go of her. Slowly, she flips her palm over and shifts so that she can hold Jungeun’s hand. There’s a gentle flutter in her stomach when Jungeun doesn’t pull away, and Jinsol looks up to see an accepting smile on her wife’s face.
“I don’t really blame you,” Jungeun admits. “If it was Yerim… I don’t think I could have waited either.”
“I thought you’re not a fighter?”
“Family’s family, no?” she says, and Jinsol doesn’t think it’s just her imagination when she feels a gentle squeeze. Jungeun’s grip only grows tighter as she reveals, “I was… really worried when I heard you got hurt.”
“Sorry,” Jinsol apologizes again. “I wasn’t planning on it. I mean I never do, but that Alliance knight is really something. We would have pushed past them if it wasn’t for her.”
“I heard,” Jungeun frowns. “General Bora also says she’s never seen such a warrior before.” Her thumb swipes across Jinsol’s knuckles for a brief second. “I’m glad you made it back alive.”
“Me too,” Jinsol agrees softly. “There’s still a lot we have to do together, isn’t there?”
“Exactly, so no more doing stupid things, alright?”
“No guarantees, Princess. You know how I am,” Jinsol winks.
Jungeun gives Jinsol an unimpressed look before sighing.
“Well, to be honest, your skirmish with the Alliance was actually quite beneficial,” she says as she rubs her temple with her free hand. “Even with the black knight, our forces inflicted a lot of damage to theirs, and if our scouting reports are correct, it’s not a stretch to say that we could push back the Alliance with the army we’ve gathered here.”
“I know,” Jungeun says, interrupting the interruption. “It wouldn’t be a decisive or quick victory anyways, and it’s not worth risking it with the Jo Empire doing… whatever it is they’re doing.”
“You didn’t pull too many troops from the border garrisons, did you?”
“Of course not. But the sooner we can resolve this, the better,” Jungeun says. “We don’t want to leave even a crack open for the Jo Empire to come bursting through.”
“Well, good thing High Queen Sooyoung seems more than ready to talk,” Jinsol sighs in relief. “Hopefully we can wrap this whole thing up tomorrow.”
Jungeun purses her lips.
“You’re sure that we can trust her?”
“Chaewon does, for whatever reason, and I trust Chaewon,” Jinsol reasons. “And before you say she was coerced into writing that letter, she would have made it clear if she really was. I’m speaking from experience.”
“She’s been a hostage before?” Jungeun asks, lifting an eyebrow.
“Kinda,” Jinsol chuckles. “Our tutor once locked her in the library until she finished writing a practice diplomatic letter, and wow did that thing have so many creative ways to politely say ‘I hate you.’”
A giggle escapes from Jungeun, and Jinsol finds herself oddly at peace despite being stuck in a dingy tent with the threat of war looming over her country.
“By the way, Princess…”
“If you hear Chaewon barking tomorrow, run for your life.”
Fortunately, there is no barking as the sun rises directly above Youth Circle Hill. Jinsol takes that as a signal that High Queen Sooyoung hasn’t done anything treacherous yet as she climbs the hill with Jungeun and Yerim beside her.
Upon reaching the summit, Jinsol immediately searches for her sister.
“Chaewon!” she exclaims as soon as she spots her standing next to three other women. Chaewon waves, though she says nothing as she turns to the person who is undoubtedly the High Queen.
High Queen Sooyoung’s crown glimmers under the sun as she takes a step forward.
“Welcome,” she says. “Thank you for coming. I am High Queen Sooyoung, leader of the Eden Alliance.”
“And I’m her wife, Queen Jiwoo!” A shorter figure also donning a crown grins widely as she all but runs up to the Jung-Kim trio. “Wow, you three really are as pretty as the rumors say!”
“Erm, thanks,” Jungeun says as she cautiously leans back. “I am Crown Princess Jungeun.”
Jinsol takes the cue when Jungeun lifts a hand in her direction.
“I’m Crown Princess Jinsol,” she says before glancing at Yerim.
“I’m Choi Yerim,” the squire introduces brightly. “And I’m not a princess.”
All eyes turn to the last, unknown figure. She’s significantly taller than Chaewon as she stands next to her, and she looks quite… sour for some reason.
“I’m Son Hyejoo,” she says. “And, uh... I’m also not a princess.”
That voice is familiar, Jinsol thinks.
And then she gasps.
“You!” Jinsol shouts as she points an accusing finger. “You’re the black knight!”
Hyejoo shifts awkwardly on her feet. “Um… Yeah. Sorry about your arm.”
Chaewon immediately turns to her.
“You were the one who hurt my sister?”
“Sorry? It was an accident.”
“Hurting someone while fighting them is not an accident!”
“Uh… I was trying to kill her. So maiming her was an accident.”
“Do you realize you’re just making it sound worse–”
“Settle down, kids,” High Queen Sooyoung cuts in dryly. “You can fight later. We have business to discuss.”
“Are those two… friends?” Jungeun whispers into Jinsol’s ears. “They seem… very close.”
“No way,” Jinsol scowls. “Chaewon doesn’t have taste this bad when it comes to friends.”
Sooyoung clears her throat.
“Princess Jinsol and Princess Jungeun,” she says loudly. “I have asked you here today in hopes of reaching a compromise regarding the aggressive actions our nations have taken towards each other.”
“Hold on,” Jungeun says sharply. “The only aggressive action we have taken is defending our land from your invasion. That shouldn’t count.”
“I’m not talking about that,” Sooyoung says, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “I’m talking about when you destroyed an entire village two weeks ago.”
“Wait, what?” Jinsol furrows her brows in confusion. “We never did that. We would never do that.”
Hyejoo gives a derisive snort as Sooyoung crosses her arms.
“We saw the village ourselves,” Jiwoo says quietly, the smile gone from her face. “It’s right on the border of our countries, perfect for your armies to raze before running away.”
“And what would we gain from that?” Jungeun counters. “I mean no offense to Your Majesties, but it’s honestly preposterous to think that we’d do such a meaningless, cruel thing.”
“Then who did?” Sooyoung scowls. “You know, when Princess Chaewon swore on her life that Your Highnesses would offer an explanation for this, I didn’t realize she meant denial.”
Jinsol turns to her sister.
“Is this what you meant by recent developments?”
Chaewon nods, and Jinsol gives a huff of frustration.
“Look,” she says. “I know it’s hard to believe, but whoever did that wasn’t us. We have no reason to provoke you.”
“Wait,” Jungeun suddenly says. “Your Majesties, were the villages burned quite literally to the ground with absolutely no survivors left?”
“Yes,” Sooyoung confirms. “Though I don’t see–”
“The Jo Empire,” Jinsol realizes as she follows Jungeun’s unspoken train of thought. “They did the same exact thing to the Kim Kingdom before our countries merged.”
“... You’re saying they somehow marched through your lands to come and attack ours?” Jiwoo asks. “That’s… hard to believe.”
“It’s the only explanation that makes sense,” Jungeun says firmly. “Send a scout if you don’t believe us. The ruins of the village they destroyed are still there at the foot of the Bylo mountains.”
Jiwoo and Sooyoung glance at each other. They seem to be holding a silent conversation, one that ends when Sooyoung nods.
“We will indeed be sending a scout to verify your claim,” she says. “But for now, we shall temporarily accept your explanation. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the village we lost was also close to the Bylo mountains.”
“Not to mention the fact that the Jo Empire has ignored our attempts to contact them,” Jiwoo adds.
“You too?” Jungeun frowns. “None of our diplomats have made it back from them.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Sooyoung says as she grabs her chin in thought. “Well, I guess this brings us to the next matter: Artioso Hold.”
Jinsol doesn’t miss how Chaewon’s face falls upon hearing the name of their home. She quickly gives her sister a reassuring smile, hoping to convey that she holds absolutely no blame or ill will towards Chaewon for what happened.
“Let me just get to the point,” Sooyoung says. “We want it. We’ve wanted it for a long time.”
“Excuse me?” Jinsol is immediately riled up by the queen's words. “We’re not just going to give it to you. And you have no justification to take it anymore.”
“We could just conquer it and call it a day… but I don’t think either side really wants to bother with that, right?” Sooyoung asks as she looks between the two princesses.
“... What are you trying to get at?” Jungeun growls. “If you want a fight–”
“No, no more violence!” Jiwoo protests before reaching over to pinch Sooyoung. “Stop trying to be cool and just say it already!”
“Ow! Okay, okay,” Sooyoung whines. “Look, let’s form an alliance.”
“An alliance,” Jungeun repeats.
“An alliance,” Jiwoo echoes.
“What are the terms?” Jinsol asks before a circle of parroting starts.
“Well, aside from the usual trade contracts and such, the Eden Alliance would like full access to Artioso Hold and the land that belongs to it,” Sooyoung states. “In return, we will offer you our full support should the Jo Empire attack.”
“Why are you so interested in Artioso Hold?” Jungeun questions suspiciously.
“Why wouldn’t we be?” Sooyoung shrugs. “It’s not called the gateway to the ocean for nothing. Eden Alliance produces a lot of goods, and being able to access the largest port on this side of the continent will do wonders for exports. Plus, we can help you defend the west from the Empire.”
“And how do we know you won’t just use it as a base to attack us?” Jinsol asks, arms crossed.
“Oh, I’ve been waiting for this part!” Jiwoo claps her hands. “It’s easy! Just like what Your Highnesses did and what Sooyoung and I did, we’ll set up an arranged marriage between Princess Chaewon and Hyejoo!”
“What?” Chaewon squeaks.
“What?” Jinsol yelps.
“What?” Jungeun shouts.
“What?” Yerim gasps.
“WHAT?” Hyejoo bellows.
“What?” Jiwoo asks innocently. “It makes sense! Princess Chaewon knows how to run the place, and Hyejoo will have no problem protecting it. It’s a match made in heaven!”
Jinsol looks to Jungeun. Her wife gives her a grimace of a smile, and Jinsol gives a resigned sigh.
“It does indeed make sense,” she admits. “We will have to speak with our advisors first, but we are open to these terms.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Sooyoung says with what Jinsol prays is genuine sincerity. “Unfortunately, we will have to take Princess Chaewon back to our camp until negotiations are formally opened.”
Jinsol sucks in a breath.
“I’ll be fine,” Chaewon says to her. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m your sister,” Jinsol reminds her. “Of course I’m going to worry. And Chaewon?”
“I’m proud of you. I always will be.”
There’s something bittersweet about having a once-familiar place feel foreign due to the erosion of time.
The bedroom Jinsol grew up in has been left completely untouched, and yet she can’t help but feel a strange, featherlight pressure on her chest as she wakes up to the ceiling she hasn’t seen in such a long time. It’s been almost two weeks since she’s been able to stay in Artioso Hold, but just as she’s finally getting reacquainted with the castle where she was born and raised, it’s time to leave it behind once more.
A bird sings outside, and Jinsol wonders how many generations it’s been since the first one she heard as a kid. Beams of sunlight filter into the room, their rays hitting the old, wooden table that Jinsol and Chaewon used to doodle at. It’s situated right next to the window, perfect for hearing the incessant crashing of waves on the nearby shore.
Jinsol cranes her neck to see someone already sitting there.
“Good morning,” Jinsol greets as she carefully climbs out of bed, mindful of her arm.
“Hey,” Jungeun says with a warm smile. She gestures at the table. “Breakfast is here.”
Jinsol takes her seat wordlessly, gaze drawn to the ocean. Something about the view feels different, though she knows the Lunar Sea hasn’t changed. It must be herself.
“You know,” Jungeun says so softly that Jinsol knows she’s being mindful of the day. “I was thinking… it would be nice to retire here in Artioso Hold.”
Jinsol rests her head on her chin as she looks to her wife.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Jungeun says as she focuses on the teacup in her hands. “If we can find a way to resolve things with the Jo Empire, we could try taking vacations here too.”
“I’d like that,” Jinsol says. “I’d like that a lot.”
“I was also thinking…”
“Putting that brain of yours to work so early in the morning?” Jinsol teases.
Jungeun rolls her eyes goodnaturedly.
“You’ve mentioned sleeping quite well the past few days despite your injury, didn’t you?”
“Yeah?” Jinsol silently thanks her sister for assigning her wife to the same room as her.
Jungeun fiddles with her cup, swishing the dregs of her tea around the bottom, and Jinsol smiles to herself.
“This is the most peaceful sleep I’ve had in a long time,” Jungeun confesses. “So maybe when we get back to Eclipse Palace…”
“My, how scandalous!” Jinsol pretends to be shocked. “Is my wife asking me to share a bed with her?”
Jungeun gives a sigh as she too puts her chin in her hand, setting down her empty cup.
“I miss the days when you weren’t this… bold and annoying.”
“Sorry, Princess,” Jinsol grins. “It’s part of the package. Do you really though?”
“Of course not,” Jungeun retorts. “You were insufferable back then. Now, at least you’re somewhat tolerable.”
“I could say the same for you, you know,” Jinsol pouts.
“I do know.” Jungeun turns to the window. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yeah,” Jinsol nods. “I mean it’s about time. High Queen Sooyoung and Queen Jiwoo are long gone already.”
The two reigning sovereigns of the Eden Alliance departed two days ago, leaving behind Hyejoo after a surprisingly teary farewell. Jinsol hopes she doesn’t reenact all the blubbering and nose blowing when it’s her turn in a few hours. Still, it was a bit funny seeing even the fearsome black knight wiping away a few tears of her own.
Jinsol has come to realize that Hyejoo isn’t what she expected under all that armor. The knight is quite reserved but thoughtful, extending a proper, heartfelt apology to Jinsol a few days into the official negotiations between their two countries. Despite her veneer of death on the battlefield, Hyejoo is nothing but gentle and considerate towards Chaewon, and Jinsol hasn’t missed the way Hyejoo looks at Chaewon when she catches them on strolls in between meetings. She thinks her sister will be left in good hands.
Today’s parting isn’t as painful knowing that Jinsol will be seeing Chaewon soon enough when it comes time for her wedding. They’ll have to head to the Eden Alliance’s capital, but the distance is no matter to Jinsol. She raced across a country for her sister once; she’ll do it again.
“Don’t be mean to my sister,” Chaewon warns Jungeun when it’s time to leave. “Hyejoo promised she’ll help me throw you in the moat if you are.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jungeun says, her lips twitching. She turns to Jinsol. “Ready to go?”
“Let’s go,” Jinsol says after one last goodbye to Chaewon and Artioso Hold. “Let’s go home.”
Eclipse Palace welcomes back their returning princesses with thunderous applause. The citizens are eager to celebrate the Jung-Kim Kingdom’s newfound friendship with the Eden Alliance, though only after properly honoring the fallen. After an entire week of commemorations and festivities, Jinsol’s life soon returns to its usual pace filled with work, work, and more work.
At least she has Jungeun to share the burden with, Yerim helping out where she can. The squire was ecstatic to hear that Jungeun and Jinsol decided to finally combine their bedrooms, and her high spirits refuse to go away no matter how many times she has to carry messages across the entire castle in one day.
“It’s like we’re a real family now!” Yerim says at dinner one night. “By the way, does Jungeun still snore?”
“What? I’ve never snored!” Jungeun immediately denies.
“She doesn’t,” Jinsol confirms. “She’s a cuddle monster though.”
“Oh, I remember her being like that when we were kids,” Yerim reminisces with a wistful sigh. “I always woke up unable to move because of her.”
“It’s what I have to deal with now,” Jinsol bemoans. “I’m glad my arm is mostly healed. Otherwise, I might have lost it with how Jungeun squeezes it.”
“Can you two stop slandering me?” Jungeun hisses. “Really… Right in front of my salad too.”
“We do it because we looove you,” Yerim sings, throwing her arms around her half-sister.
“Yeah, we looooove you,” Jinsol backs her up with a smirk, bursting into laughter when Jungeun turns tomato red.
The days pass by just like this, filled with warm jibes back and forth. Jungeun and Jinsol have learned quite well to keep business and personal matters separate, and Jinsol finds it comforting to know that she can argue with Jungeun all day in their office and have any lingering friction be gone before nightfall.
They’ve come a long way, she thinks.
Jungeun invites her to their garden one sunny afternoon.
“I got something for you,” she says in an endearingly shy manner. “It’s nothing big, so don’t freak out.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Jinsol says even though she’s screaming in glee on the inside.
Jungeun hands over a small package wrapped in blue paper. Jinsol takes care to not allow a single rip as she opens it, delicately pulling at the plain white ribbon tying it together. Jungeun shifts impatiently next to her, but Jinsol takes her time in peeling open her gift.
Inside lies a golden betta pin.
“I gave Yerim one of these a long time ago,” Jungeun says with a nonchalant shrug even as she looks everywhere but at Jinsol. “She’s not wrong when she says we’re all family, so… I figured you should get one too.”
“Th– Thank you.” Jinsol clears her throat of the lump that suddenly lodged itself there. “This is… beautiful. Thank you, really. This means a lot.”
“You mean a lot,” Jungeun says. She smiles. “Thank you for being here.”
“Sorry I didn’t get you anything,” Jinsol mumbles. She’s tempted to throw her arms around Jungeun, but another braver idea comes to mind. “Can I, uh… do something instead?”
“Close your eyes.”
Jungeun searches Jinsol’s face for a second before complying. The sun is currently at an angle that perfectly highlights her features and, as always, Jinsol thinks that Jungeun really is beautiful.
Carefully, carefully, Jinsol raises her hand and places it on Jungeun’s cheek. Jungeun shivers under her touch, but she doesn’t pull away. Her heart pounding loudly in her chest, Jinsol takes a deep breath before leaning in.
The door bursts open.
“Emergency!” Yerim shouts. “Wait. Oh no,” she wails in distress. “Were you two finally about to– oh my god, I should have waited a minute.”
“Wh– What’s the emergency?” Jungeun says sharply, though she’s still blushing. Whether consciously or not, she grabs Jinsol’s hand tightly as they wait for the news.
Yerim adopts a serious expression.
“The Prime Minister of the Jo Empire is here.”
The throne room is completely silent when they step in. Yerim informed them that the Jo delegates requested a private meeting, and so the room is deserted save for two women dressed in the traditional white and gold of the Jo Empire.
“Introduce yourselves,” Jungeun commands after she and Jinsol have taken their seats.
“I am Jeon Heejin,” the shorter woman says. “I am the Prime Minister of the Jo Empire.”
“And I am General Kim Hyunjin,” her partner says. “We come bearing news, along with a humble request for your assistance.”
“Tell us the news first,” Jinsol says quickly.
Heejin squares her shoulder.
“Empress Haseul has ascended the throne,” she announces, her voice ringing through the hall. “She has taken Duchess Wong Kahei as her Empress Consort.”
“What happened to the emperor?” Jungeun asks with a frown.
Heejin and Hyunjin glance at each other before the latter answers.
“He was assassinated over a year ago,” the general says quietly. “Our country has been enduring a silent civil war since.”
“A year?” Jungeun repeats. “An entire year and none of us heard? This is impossible.”
“It’s the truth,” Heejin says firmly before lowering her head. “He was murdered by his sister, who hid the deed by claiming he was sick and acted as his regent for months.”
“The regent fled to the west when Empress Haseul found out,” Hyunjin continues. “She stole the Imperial Seal, and we have only just managed to take it back and crown Empress Haseul as the rightful ruler of our empire.”
“But that doesn’t mean your civil war is over,” Jinsol surmises.
Hyunjin’s eyes darken as Heejin continues to keep her head bowed.
“When the regent fled to the west, she took many troops with her,” Hyunjin says, anger clear in her every word. “She has been building her forces there, all while denying Empress Haseul’s birthright. We have our own army, but victory is currently impossible with Berrites coming over the Bylo mountains and invading us in the far east.”
“Please, Your Highnesses,” Heejin begs as she sinks to her knees. “Please help us defeat the regent and save our country.”
“Hold on,” Jungeun says, and she looks as troubled as Jinsol feels. “I hear your plea, but this is all so… Berrites? They haven’t set foot on this side of the mountains for decades. Everyone knows it’s hell to cross the Bylo mountains.”
“We believe they’ve discovered a new technology,” Hyunjin reports. “They have this black powder that explodes when met with fire, and they’ve been blasting tunnels through the mountains. They’ve also used it to destroy entire villages.”
“So it wasn’t the Jo Empire,” Jinsol murmurs to Jungeun as all the pieces begin falling in place.
“We believe the Berrites are conspiring with the regent,” Heejin says. “Every time we try to push the Berrites to the east, the regent also sends her forces eastward, and we’re forced to pull back and reinforce the central plains. It’s been like this for months. While the regent’s armies and ours haven’t engaged in combat yet, this cannot go on for much longer. Please, help us.”
Jinsol holds up a hand.
“I have one more question. What happened to the diplomats and envoys we’ve sent to the Jo Empire?”
“Probably dead,” Hyunjin says bluntly. “There’s no point in sugarcoating it,” she says to Heejin when the minister turns to her. “The regent has spies and sympathizers throughout the land, and they’ve been disrupting our communications while feeding lies to the populace.”
“This is why we need to decisively defeat the regent herself once and for all,” Heejin says. “Our empire is slowly being ripped apart from inside and out.”
Jungeun sighs, rubbing her forehead in exhaustion.
“How do you think Sooyoung and Jiwoo will take this?” she asks Jinsol. “They agreed to help us fight the Jo Empire… What about fighting with the Jo Empire?”
“I mean technically the regent is still part of the Jo Empire for now,” Jinsol points out. “I’m more worried about Chaewon…”
“I don’t think she’s going to be happy about us sending her betrothed off into battle.”
The war ended within mere weeks.
Jung-Kim troops commanded by Crown Princess Jinsol flooded out of Ligr Front to bolster General Hyunjin’s forces as they pushed to the west. Meanwhile, Queen Jiwoo personally led her soldiers along the Bylo mountains as reinforcements for Empress Haseul’s fight against the Berrites. Knight Hyejoo sallied out of Artioso Hold and crossed the Lunar River as swift as lightning, punching straight through to the regent.
Ultimately, it was General Hyunjin’s squire Yeojin who personally captured the traitor and brought her back to the Empire’s capital for judgement.
“Sometimes, I really can’t tell if execution is the perfect punishment or too merciful for people like this,” Jinsol murmurs as she reads a report about the regent’s sentencing. The night wind is cool as stars twinkle above their little rose garden. “She caused so much confusion and death out of what? Greed?”
“She wasn’t alone,” Jungeun reminds her, eyes closed as she enjoys the breeze. “Her supporters were many, and Hyunjin told me they had to deal with another rebellion the other day.”
“Poor Haseul,” Jinsol frowns. “Can’t believe she has to deal with all this even though it was her father and aunt that ran the Empire into the dirt. Why can’t the people see that she’s nowhere near as cruel and careless as them?”
“You know,” Jungeun says thoughtfully, cracking open an eye. “Maybe she’s so kind precisely because they were so cruel.”
Jinsol pushes her wife with her shoulder.
“Stop trying to sound so wise,” she jokes.
“What? You know I’m right,” Jungeun says, shoving back. She doesn’t move away, leaning into Jinsol instead.
“Of course,” Jinsol says solemnly. “My princess is always right.”
Jungeun laughs, and Jinsol thinks the stars shine just a bit brighter in response.
“What the regent did doesn’t lead to all bad stuff though,” Jinsol muses. “I mean we got two major alliances out of it, and hopefully peace for the years to come.”
“I like how you don’t mention the number one thing that led to those other things,” Jungeun says crossly, though Jinsol can hear the affection in her voice. She feels it as Jungeun takes her hand. “We got married because of the Jo Empire, in case you forgot.”
“How could I forget?” Jinsol grins as she shifts on the bench so she can take a better look at her wife. “It’s the whole reason why we can sit here today, together.”
“Together,” Jungeun echoes. “Against all odds.”
“Against all odds,” Jinsol agrees as a feeling surges in her chest. It’s warm, smoldering yet comforting, and it rushes through her veins like a jubilant fire as she gazes upon the woman she will proudly spend the rest of her life with.
“Hey,” Jungeun calls out softly.
“I love you,” Jungeun says.
And Jinsol kisses her.
In the year 820, the Jo Empire, the Jung-Kim Kingdom, and the Eden Alliance all signed a treaty binding the three countries as allies. This pact was named the Lunar Agreement after the river that runs through all three nations.
In the year 821, Princess Chaewon and the famed Knight Hyejoo were finally wedded. It was a beloved day celebrated across all the lands.
In the year 822, the queen of the former Jung Kingdom passed away. Her eldest daughter succeeded the throne and was crowned Queen Jinsol of the Jung-Kim Kingdom. The aging king of what used to be known as the Kim Kingdom soon abdicated the throne “as was long overdue,” passing on the crown to Queen Jungeun of the Jung-Kim Kingdom.
In the year 824, Choi Yerim publicly announced her relation to Queen Jungeun right before renouncing her place in the line of succession. She continued to serve her family faithfully for years until she moved to the Jo Empire to be with the love of her life.
In the year 826, the Jo Empire’s Minister of Military Affairs Hyunjin shocked all but Empress Consort Kahei by publicly declaring her love for Prime Minister Heejin. It is said that the union of their houses was a lively one.
In the year 830, on the tenth anniversary of the Lunar Agreement, High Queen Sooyoung and Queen Jiwoo hosted the First Decennial Lunar Birth event to commemorate the milestone. Records say it was the largest gathering of people in centuries.
Empress Haseul’s reign was turbulent for the first five years after her ascension to the throne. Backed by excellent, hand-picked advisors and her astute wife, however, Empress Haseul eventually brought stability to her empire through creeds of kindness and compassion, ushering the Jo Empire into a golden age of peace and prosperity. In honor of her achievements, one of her descendents commissioned a giant statue of Empress Haseul surrounded by her closest friends and family.
High Queen Sooyoung and Queen Jiwoo similarly ruled the Eden Alliance for decades. Well loved by their people, they implemented unusual policies aimed to bring about breakthroughs in economics and technology. They were successful, eventually handing a wealthy and secure nation to their heir before embarking on the “honeymoon Sooyoung promised me for years.” Transcripts of Princess Consort Hyejoo’s diary entries that weren’t filled with mentions of her wife often complained about “all these hags always visiting MY castle.”
The Jung-Kim Kingdom had a saying: “If Queen Jungeun is mad, it’ll still be a good day. If Queen Jungeun is happy, it’ll be a great day.” There was an abundance of great days, largely thanks to Queen Jungeun’s partner and spouse Queen Jinsol. The two were renowned and revered for their ability to work so well together for the betterment of the land, and together they created sweeping reforms that would ultimately change the course of history. Though they vanished from the public eye after passing the throne to their daughter, bards sang for centuries of a fulfilled promise to return to Artioso Hold.
On the Hundreth Decennial Lunar Birth, exactly one thousand ten years after the Lunar Agreement was first drawn up, all three countries formally merged and united as one. A ghastly clerical error led to the new republic being named Loona, a mistake that the newly elected President Yeojin, named after Empress Haseul’s Minister of Household Affairs, took in stride with much amusement.
Although Loona no longer resembles the three nations it used to be, some of the ancient forts and castles still remain. They have been deemed national treasures and have been converted into museums housing artifacts belonging to those long gone. One such site is a small garden inside the Eclipse Palace, meticulously maintained for generations as it harbors a singular item of untold worth:
A golden betta pin.