CHAPTER ONE: the cunning of snakes
Yoongi could feel the delicious heat of the flickering flames as he passed them, a pressing warmth against the coolness of his cheeks in the surprising chill of the coming eve. The harsh grip of the guard dug into his flesh as Yoongi stumbled forward blindly, eyes obscured by the cloth blindfold.
He felt acutely aware of all his other senses. The flinty sound of someone sharpening their sword in preparation for the beheading that would befall him. The scrape of his shoes against the gravelly and uneven ground. The uncomfortable brush of his eyelashes against the blindfold. The rough scratching against his delicate wrists, born from the ropes tying his hands together. The smell of woodsmoke, intoxicating and terrifyingly thrilling, in a way that made his ears resound with the sound of his beating heart.
If anyone asked him, just a while ago, what he thought he would be doing right now, it would not have been this. It would have been mourning his dead father, the late king, for everyone had known, even back then, that the king was fatally ill. Or perhaps it would have been attending his own coronation. Most certainly, it would not have been walking, blinded, to his sword-sharpening executioner, to his oncoming death, to his unravelling.
There were few moments in his life that came with a close contact with death.
As a prince of the Joseon Dynasty, a rather peaceful time, compared to the era of the Three Kingdoms, he wasn’t prone to danger. There was the rare case of a wayward horse or some such danger, but nothing that had ever thwarted his iron destiny like this.
So perhaps that was why his heart was pounding so furiously in his chest, an echo of each step he made. There was something strangely calm to it, too. Like an acceptance of fate. Not that he had any intention of happily going to his death and letting that half-commoner brother of his take Yoongi’s rightful throne. But… a strange sense of peace. Like he was taking his fate into his own hands, instead of being pushed to it.
He twitched his fingers, shifting against the binds upon his wrist.
“You will regret this,” Yoongi said coldly.
“I am doing the king’s work, Heaven’s work.” The guard retorted.
Ah. Yoongi thought in his mind.
He recognised this voice. It was Sang Hyuk, a loyalist guard. He was known in the court for his loudly proclaimed faith to Yoongi's younger brother, Jungkook. A fool that danced to the whims of a maddened man, some of the older and more experienced officials called him, shaking their wizened heads. They did not last long in Jungkook's favour.
“I did not realise that Heaven wished to place a pretender upon the throne, and let its true Son die.” He replied, jutting out his chin in a spoilt way.
“Do not be so pretentious, dragon prince.” The nickname was said in a sarcastic, mocking tone but Yoongi smiled at it. It was one bequeathed upon him by his mother, the long deceased Queen Wang Anhe.
“You are right; I am the dragon prince. I am beyond the grave.”
The guard made a noise that Yoongi thought was a stifled huff of laughter. "Then we shall see if you can rise from your ashes without a head." And he shoved him, forcing him to the ground.
"You will regret this." He warned.
"Will I?" A smooth, different voice asked.
Yoongi cocked his head curiously in the direction of the voice. It wasn't particularly distinct, but pure-sounding and smooth, rolling over the owner's tongue easily, like rolls of silk from the dress stylist.
It was the voice of Kim Seokjin, one of the fairer-faced imperial guards, and a personal favourite of his dearest younger brother, Jungkook. A dark resentment built up in the pit of Yoongi's stomach, and he fought a scowl of righteous anger. Was this how these faithless men repaid him, their ordained Crown Prince, by Heaven and King?
But he gave an arrogant smirk, a tip of his head.
"My, I am so important that they sent the great sword master, Kim Seokjin?" Yoongi drawled.
"Be quiet else I'll cut off your tongue too."
"So harsh." He purred.
Yoongi fancied that he could hear the sharp indrawn breath of Seokjin’s, as he paused to say another cutting word, before two cries of shock rippled through the night, and a series of loud clanging. Even through the blindfold, the prince sensed a change in setting.
“Charge!” A familiar shout barked out.
Thrillingly, crazily, hysterically, Yoongi let out a loud bark of laughter. He twisted his hands, easily slipping out of the rope binds, and tore off his blindfold in one smooth motion. His eyes were immediately attacked by an onslaught of colours, and the blazing oranges and reds of the fire danced around his figure, quickly spreading from the knocked over stands. There shouts in the air but he didn’t stop to discern them. Instead, he bunched a handful of robes in one hand and rushed away.
“Wangseja!” Someone hissed, and Yoongi ran to them.
“Hoseok-ah?” He whispered.
“Yes. Come on.” Hoseok, Yoongi's loyal and personal guard, said softly, leading the prince away from the fight under the cover of a starry eve.
They slipped through the courtyard, creeping out of the palace grounds with shocking ease. Hoseok stopped in front of an animal cart, surrounded by several horses. "Put this on."
He handed Yoongi a sat gat, a rounded tent-like hat made of bamboo.
"Thanks," he muttered.
He took off his outer robes, under which was a plain white set of jeongi and baji. Yoongi set the sat gat on his head, tilting it forwards so it obscured half his face. He leapt onto a black horse, tugging at the leather reins.
“How many more?” Yoongi asked, eyes shining.
“Eight. Now, let us go, prince.” Hoseok urged.
“My consort?” He asked, naming his beloved.
“She’s safe,” he replied, giving his horse a little kick.
It neighed and began clip-clopping beside Yoongi's, muscles rippling in the silver light. Yoongi turned his gaze towards the moonlit cobblestone road, away from the Imperial Palace.
"Let's go then.”
A month ago…
Of course it was, this sudden turn of events, this falseness, this deception, dealt by his own blood relatives. Not that Yoongi had ever expected the Queen Jeon Soyeon, nor her son, to ever be truthful innocents. All knew that there was never more a devious woman than the queen. But this… this falseness, this deceiving of the king, this playing with the will of Heaven… it baffled Yoongi. It enraged him.
A shaman had approached the king, the court whispered. She had claimed of great news that would leave dire consequences, if left unheard. The gods whispered to her, she claimed.
The emperor had always been a superstitious man.
So he listened. Yoongi did not know what falseness the paid actress had spilled into his father’s ears, blasphemous words tainted with deception, but he believed her. There were meetings call, arguments made, tears shed, until there was only one conclusion to draw.
Heaven had spoken and Yoongi was not to be king.
The gods… they called for his younger brother instead, the son of the current Queen Soyeon. And all Yoongi could do was watch and step down as his father signed the words that would condemn him as a mere imperial son. He would sign away Yoongi’s destiny to such a vain thing as Jungkook, an undeserving boy as him. It burned him with fury. It twisted his insides and tormented his mind, that such a thing could possibly happen. Such an unthinkable thing when he had been the Crown Prince all his life.
He had learnt the title as he learnt his own name. It was his name. Always, that title had been set before his name. From the moment he was young, he was addressed as the Crown Prince. He attended ceremonies as the heir to the empire. He was greeted as the future king of Korea. Not some – some second son. Not like Jungkook, born to a commoner queen who lucked into the gaze of a widower king.
But such was luck, such was the deviousness of conspiring beauties and plotting lords, such was an ambitious nobody. Jungkook became Crown Prince, then king.
And Yoongi was cast out.
Jungkook strode the length of throne room, casting his cool gaze over his new advisors. The rich fabric of his robes swished around his legs, as if reflecting the boiling fury that nettled inside the man. The many officials before him watched silently, eyes downcast as if in shame.
Light filtered into the room through the wooden slat windows, though it didn’t spill into the shadowed corners, casting an ominous air to the place. The fuming young man stopped his pacing and stood, glaring at the officials, each evading his gaze as if eye contact meant certain death and hiding from it could bring eternal life. A stream of moonlight landed over him, cresting his dark hair like an angel’s halo, in complete contrast to his scornful features.
"Which fool let him go?!" He shouted, slapping a hand on the table.
"Daegam," one began.
He turned to him with a cold fury. "What did you call me?"
"Jusang, I meant. Forgive me, jusang jeoha." The old man, Kang Hye, quavered, giving a full bow. Jungkook scoffed at his neck, lip curling into a sneer.
He was surrounded by complete idiots.
"Sang Hyuk. Nam Jihoon. Jung Hoseok. Park Jimin." He purred out each name, dragging them slowly as if savouring it, wondering what it might feel to crush the men's skulls in his hands. "Where are they? How did you not see traitors, when they were right in front of you?! Are you all fools?" His voice went deceptively soft, so soft. "Am I surrounded by fools?"
"Jusang jeoha, it was... unprecedented." Kang Hye spread his hands as if to emphasise his point.
"Is it not your job to precedent the unprecedented?" Jungkook raised an arch eyebrow.
"We are most sorry." The man said again.
"I don't want to hear your excuses." Jungkook turned his back on the officials, gaze landing on the column of guards that stood by the walls. "Kim Seokjin!"
"Here, jusang jeoha." The newly appointed head guard stepped forward.
"I want you to spread the message that the former prince Yoongi has escaped the palace grounds, and he is enemy to the whole empire. Anyone who turns him in will be paid a hefty price. Search all families that are known for their connections with the prince." Jungkook announced, waving an imperious hand.
Seokjin bowed, dark curls falling to frame his face, before leaving swiftly, calling out commands.
"Council dismissed." Jungkook flipped an impatient hand at them, leaving with a swift flick of his robes.
The Queen’s Palaces were normally reserved for the king's consort, Queen Ji-eun, but, as of current, it was being occupied by the dowager queen, Jeon Soyeon. Delicate bursts of apple blossoms framed her rooms, a wreath of white beauty, giving it a light scent that wafted around Jungkook as he entered the room where the dowager queen was brushing her hair with a sandalwood comb.
"Lady Mother," he kneeled as she bent down, kissing him on the forehead.
"Son, my emperor, give me news." Soyeon said, tilting his face up with a bejewelled finger, glittering with gold and pearls and jade.
"The Crown Prince..." Jungkook began.
She dug her finger into his flesh. "You are the Crown Prince and now king. He is a half-Chinese swine, undeserving of such a title. Do not insult me by calling Yoongi the Crown Prince, son."
"Forgive me, Mother." He bowed his head.
"Forgiven." She waved a hand at him, and he stood.
"Yoongi has... escaped." Jungkook said.
The impact came suddenly, a whistle in the air, and then a sharp sting against his cheek as Soyeon slapped him hard. She stood up, striding the length of the room, the skirts of her hanbok fluttering around her as she grabbed a bouquet of apple blossoms, throwing it to the floor in a rageful white waterfall. When she finally turned her gaze to him, Jungkook saw the disgusted rage that brew in her dark brown eyes.
"Fool! Are you trying to undermine what I have done for you, son?" She snarled.
"Lady Mother... it is not my mistake." Jungkook said slowly, flushing red, not just from the stinging pain, but also from anger and humiliation, his fingers lighting touching the mark. "Do not punish me for the stupidity of others."
"Do you know how much I paid that shaman? The years of work that I have put in to even rise to the title of queen?! You will throw that away?" Soyeon asked softly. "Son, you are mine and I have no need for uselessness.
"There have been wars fought for this very reason, and I refuse to let this transition be bloody. You will capture the prince and kill him, before he goes across the border. The last thing we need is the might of China upon us, Jungkook. We cannot have that."
"I have sent out guards and messengers already." He claimed.
"Send more. And muster up armies." Soyeon said.
She turned her gaze to the window, as if imagining, already, a storming army with gleaming armour in the kiss of the sun. “We must be ready.”
It was a cool night, and Ji-eun leaned wistfully out the window to watch the curve of the plump moon, ripe in the lush glow of mid-summer.
The court would go on process again, soon. It would be another bright summer of laughing and young love, untainted by the muttering of the lords. Except, not this year. With the death of the old king and now the new king, her husband, had exiled the true Crown Prince, it was unlikely to be peaceful, ever. Ji-eun feared the coming of winter when the lords would come together again to plot. And then it would all be a muddle of fear again.
She had been at court before she had even seen the coming of fifteen, married to the second son of the old king. And she hated it.
The new Queen missed the days of her youth, where she spent her time in the endless courtyards of her childhood, alone to all but her delighted thoughts. There were still courtyards here, but it wasn’t the same. There were the side-comments of the ladies, the gossip of the servants, and the plotting of all the great men of the land. There were rich foods, the sweets that she so craved, but they couldn’t be enjoyed in the quiet of her own rooms but instead shared with the gossiping women that, she had no doubt of, were constantly whispering of her.
And all she could dream of, despite this envied bliss with her beloved Jungkook and the luxury of being queen, was the peaceful countryside. An endless field with wheat golden in the sun and laughter bright in the air, where she could just be herself. Ji-eun, an aspiring poet with dreams of happiness. Just simplicity at its best. She wanted to love, to be swept into that dizzying whirlwind that poets wrote of, to sway to her own pounding lust with the beat of music, to sit in quiet contemplation in the sweet embrace of her beloved. Indeed, the fake security of guards and the meaningless luxury of silks meant nothing to her in the face of such a blissful paradise.
It wasn’t as if she was flippant of her good fortune, disrespectful of what Heaven had bestowed upon her so graciously. But she dreamt, oh so dearly, of just simplicity. Ji-eun imagined, often, of how she would run away.
A faceless driver would take her on his animal cart and ride her away, to where there was a peaceful countryside with smiling children and the toil of farmers, tanned muscles gleaming bronze in burning sunlight. And she would laugh and step into the simple hanok. She dreamed of summer nights with fireflies, with romantic music in the background as she sat with Jungkook.
But it could never happen, was her crushing realisation as she turned her gaze back to her room, away from the glowing city of golden lamps, to see the box of jade necklaces and gold rings, to see the silk hangings on the bed, to see the exquisite hanboks tailored just for her, to see the truth of her existence. For Jungkook would never disobey his mother, the dowager queen, and Soyeon would never allow her son, her destined son, smiled upon by the gods of Heaven, to settle into such a plain, peaceful existence of simple mundaneness.
And so Ji-eun would have to take her fate, her place, her inheritance: the throne of the Queen of the Joseon Dynasty, all of Korea.
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