Prince Bin didn’t look weak or sickly. In fact, he was tall and broad-shouldered and quite muscular as he stood in the middle of the sparring ring, stripped to the waist and preparing to grapple with one of his martial arts instructors.
It was Dongmin’s first day as Bin’s chief bodyguard. He supposed he ought to be grateful, having been promoted up the ranks and sent back to the capital from the front lines where days had alternated between mind-numbing boredom and the frenzied terror of a border raid from the fierce Jurchens in the north. Instead he was nervous and intimidated, because all he’d heard about Prince Bin was that despite being the King’s eldest son, he was sickly and weak, so one of his younger brothers was the Crown Prince.
Watching Prince Bin, muscles rippling, pick up his wrestling instructor and just hold him while he decided which way to throw him, Dongmin wondered what kind of man the Crown Prince must have been, that Prince Bin was considered weak.
And then Prince Bin spun and pinned the other man to the mat, and cheers rose up from the sidelines, where Prince Bin’s Chief Eunuch and other court ladies were watching.
“Well done, Highness,” the instructor said, accepting Prince Bin’s hand and climbing to his feet.
“Better luck next time, sabomnim.” Prince’s Bin’s smile was puppyish and sweet.
“There’s not much luck involved, considering how big you grew,” his instructor responded, shaking himself out.
Prince Bin’s eunuch noticed Dongmin and scurried over, almost tripping over the hem of his long green robe. He had to pause and right his conical black samo hat, and then he bowed.
“Sergeant Lee, you’re here.”
Dongmin bowed respectfully. “Yes, Chief Eunuch.”
“I’m Eunuch Yoon. Come introduce yourself to the prince.” Eunuch Yoon was startlingly tall, taller than even Dongmin, whose height often turned heads. Eunuch Yoon was also quite young-looking with soft, round features. He turned and scurried back to the sparring ring, and he bowed. “Your Highness, your new bodyguard has arrived.”
“I don’t see what was wrong with Jinwoo-hyung,” Prince Bin said.
Dongmin bowed. “Sergeant Lee Dongmin, Your Highness. It’s an honor to serve you.”
When he straightened up, Prince Bin was staring at him in disbelief.
Prince Bin turned to Eunuch Yoon. “Is this some kind of joke? Is he a real soldier?”
Eunuch Yoon blinked. “Your Highness —”
Dongmin bowed again. “I assure you, Your Highness, I am qualified to protect you.”
Although did Prince Bin really need extra protection? For someone considered quite weak, he was very hearty and hale.
“He is,” Eunuch Yoon said quickly. “One of the best. General Cha selected him personally.”
Prince Bin continued to look skeptical, but Dongmin was used to it. People saw his pretty flower boy face and assumed he was some kind of frail scholar. If they knew how much blood he had on his hands —
“Well, General Cha is a wise soldier,” Prince Bin said finally, and turned away from Dongmin. “Archery next.”
He held his arms out imperiously, and Eunuch Yoon and a couple of court ladies scrambled to dress him in a combat uniform. Of course, it was in royal colors, and in it, Prince Bin was striking.
Dongmin had heard a lot about how handsome Prince Bin was. When he wasn’t smiling, he looked like a haughty house cat. Dongmin knew better than to say that out loud.
Prince Bin’s ssireum instructor — Instructor Jung — bowed and departed, and servants bustled about, setting up archery targets, fetching bows and arrows.
Dongmin was seemingly forgotten as Prince Bin drank some tea that a couple of court ladies brought him, waiting for the archery range to be set up. Of course, that was Dongmin’s job, wasn’t it? To be forgotten, to blend into the background, be a loyal servant. He came from a decent enough family, distant poor cousins to a high-ranking noble, so he’d been educated well.
But he’d lived hard as a soldier, was unused to the stiff formality and excess of palace life. Following Prince Bin around all day while he went to lectures, did martial arts training, and met with friends and acquaintances was boring, but Dongmin was nervous, kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When would Prince Bin have one of his notorious fainting spells? When would he suddenly collapse and send all of his servants into a panic? All of Dongmin’s cousins’ tales of beautiful, flower-fragile Prince Bin seemed like total lies.
Prince Bin did seem like he was rather wrapped around Princess Sua’s little finger, but Princess Sua was smart and beautiful and good-hearted, so Dongmin could see why.
Prince Bin also seemed to have an excellent relationship with his half-brother, Crown Prince Minhyuk, who’d been born to the King’s favorite concubine. The crown prince was quiet and serious, hard-working, and fiercely competitive when it came to both martial arts and music, but he and Prince Bin often trained together, egging each other on, and seemed like close brothers. Watching them laughing as they wrestled made Dongmin miss his own younger brother, who was about the same age as Princess Sua and the crown prince.
Dongmin observed nothing about Prince Bin that would make him unfit to be crown prince and one day ruler of all of Joseon. Perhaps because the weather was nice, Prince Bin’s health was good? Prince Bin often took advantage of the pleasant weather, having his lectures outside and training outside while the sun shone, though Eunuch Yoon fussed about Prince Bin getting tanned like a commoner, hovering over him with a beautifully painted umbrella. When winter came, would Dongmin see the weakness people whispered about, the sickliness?
But as the seasons changed, Prince Bin continued to be healthy and strong, active and playful with his siblings, keeping Princess Sua company when the Crown Prince was off seeing to official business with the King.
“Guardsman Lee,” Prince Bin said one day, while he was walking through the gardens watching the autumn leaves fall in a shower of red and gold and bronze.
“Yes, Highness?” Dongmin slid closer to him, hand on the hilt of his sword.
“How do you like life at the palace?” Prince Bin asked.
Dongmin blinked, confused. Prince Bin never spoke to him directly, seemed to forget he was there half the time. “Pardon, Your Highness?”
“Do you like living here at the palace?” Prince Bin was looking right at him, and his gaze was oddly intense.
“It’s — peaceful, compared to where I was before,” Dongmin offered finally. He wanted to shrink away from the prince’s scrutiny, but it was his job to remain close, to make sure he could put himself between Prince Bin and any harm that might come to him.
“Where were you before?”
“On the northern border, Highness. With General Cha.”
“Fending off the Jurchens.” Prince Bin nodded in understanding. He turned and headed back to his own quarters, and his retinue followed in a susurration of robes like a long, brightly-colored serpent.
Back at his quarters, he seated himself at his desk, and Eunuch Yoon dispatched a couple of court ladies to fetch him tea and snacks. The rest of the court ladies arrayed themselves just outside the doors. Dongmin remained close to Prince Bin, within arm’s reach, but standing, keeping an eye on the doors.
Eunuch Yoon fetched Prince Bin some books to read, and Dongmin prepared himself for silence.
“You’re beautiful, you know,” Prince Bin said, and Eunuch Yoon blinked.
“Me, Your Highness?”
“No. Guardsman Lee.” Prince Bin flicked a glance at him and then opened his book.
Dongmin inclined his head. “Thank you, Your Highness, but my mother assures me that there are men far more handsome than me to be found in this world.”
“Your mother was just trying to keep your ego in check, I’m sure,” Prince Bin said.
“His Highness is very handsome himself,” Dongmin offered.
“You didn’t strike me as the type to dish out sycophantic flattery.” Prince Bin pressed his lips into a thin line.
“Ah, no, Your Highness, I just —”
“Just what?” Prince Bin asked.
Dongmin shook his head. “Apologies. It’s not my place.”
“What’s not your place?” Prince Bin pressed.
Before Dongmin could answer, the court ladies returned with the tea and snacks, which Eunuch Yoon taste-tested.
The court ladies returned to their positions outside of the prince’s quarters and slid the doors closed.
And then Prince Bin swung himself over the desk and plopped down in front of the little round table with the snacks.
“Sanha-ya, eat with me.”
And Eunuch Yoon, to Dongmin’s vast surprise, said, “Thanks, hyungnim!” And he sat down with the prince.
Prince Bin gestured for Eunuch Yoon to make a selection first. Eunuch Yoon hummed, inspecting each of the snacks carefully.
Prince Bin sighed. “Before I’m old.”
“Sorry, hyungnim.” Eunuch Yoon selected a little cookie shaped like a pink flower and bit in, smiled.
Prince Bin poured tea for both of them. Then he turned and looked at Dongmin. “Join us, Guardsman Lee.”
Dongmin blinked. “But — Highness. I’m on duty.”
“No one’s going to sneak up on us in here,” Prince Bin said.
Eunuch Yoon turned to Dongmin and smiled. “Come on! It’s delicious. I even asked them to bring a teacup for you too.”
Dongmin did notice a third teacup on the table, and a third little plate for a share of the snacks.
“Do I have to make it a royal order?” Prince Bin asked.
Dongmin curled his hand around the sheath of his sword. “Highness —”
“Guardsman Lee, I’m ordering you to sit and have tea and snacks with us,” Prince Bin said.
Dongmin couldn’t disobey a royal order, so he sat down carefully beside Prince Bin and Sanha, angling himself so he could see the door still.
“So, what year were you born?” Eunuch Yoon asked. “I was born in the year of the Year of the Dragon.”
“The Ox,” Dongmin said.
“Ah, so you’re older than me.” Eunuch Yoon smiled and poured Dongmin a cup of tea, which he accepted.
“I was also born in the Year of the Ox. We’re same-age friends.” Prince Bin looked amused.
“Indeed we are, Highness.” Dongmin sipped some of his tea. It was delicious.
“Relax,” Prince Bin said. “Winter’s coming, and we’ll be cooped up inside with each other a lot. We should be comfortable. Friends.”
“I should never get too comfortable, Highness. I must ensure your safety,” Dongmin felt compelled to point out.
“Well, you can enjoy tea and cookies once in a while,” Prince Bin said, and placed a pretty golden cake on Dongmin’s plate. “I promise not to order you to do it too often.”
“Thank you, Highness.” Dongmin accepted the cookie with a polite bow and bit into it. It was delicious, but then of course it was; only the best for the royal family.
“So, Dongmin-hyungnim — can I call you that?” Eunuch Yoon asked. “You can call me Sanha.”
“Sanha,” Dongmin said carefully. “That’s fine.”
“Dongmin-hyungnim. Tell us more about you. Where are you from? What’s your family like?” Sanha beamed at him, and he was very sweet-faced.
“Stop interrogating him, gremlin,” Prince Bin said, and they sounded familiar, close, almost like Prince Bin and the crown prince did.
“I’m from Gyeonggi Province,” Dongmin said. “My father is a retired soldier, my mother the daughter of a magistrate. My younger brother will be attending Sungkyunkwan to also become a scholar. Donghyunie is the same age as Princess Sua and the Crown Prince.”
Sanha told Dongmin about his two elder brothers, both of whom were also soldiers for the crown, and how he’d started working at the palace as a child, and Prince Bin had picked him from a crop of brand new eunuchs.
“He looked cute and innocent, but he’s a monster,” Prince Bin said. “Bosses me around. Picks on me.”
“I do not,” Sanha protested. He leaned over and stage-whispered to Dongmin, “Hyungnim is scary. Have you seen his muscles? He can throw other grown men.”
“I do keep myself in good shape.” Prince Bin preened, but then he devolved into laughter, bright sweet giggles that seemed so at odds with how physically powerful he was.
Dongmin couldn’t help but smile. Prince Bin was adorable.
As the weather became colder, they spent more and more time together indoors, just the three of them. Usually it fell on Sanha to entertain Prince Bin when he was bored of studying. Sometimes they’d make music together, as Sanha was skilled on the gayageum and Prince Bin had a lovely voice. Occasionally they’d play games of baduk, or even more childish games like gonggi, laughing wildly as the pebbles got away from them.
Once in a while, Dongmin was invited to sit with them and share snacks and tea, but he could never quite bring himself to play a game with them, because it was his job to look out for Prince Bin’s safety, and he couldn’t bear the thought of letting himself get distracted and then something happening to the Prince.
Nothing had happened, though. Dongmin had been protecting Prince Bin for months, and there hadn’t been a single hint of Prince Bin being unwell, not a cough or a sniffle or a stumble. But Dongmin had heard the court ladies murmuring about it, how Prince Bin seemed so much healthier these days.
Dongmin heard other rumors, too, that if Prince Bin’s health had finally stabilized, maybe he would become Crown Prince after all. Compared to Prince Bin, Crown Prince Minhyuk was shorter, slenderer, and at first glance seemed more delicate. Dongmin had witnessed the man on the practice grounds, though, and he was fast and strong. Lean though he was, every inch of him was muscle, and something about him was fiercer, more intense than Prince Bin and his puppy-sweet smile.
Courtiers called Prince Bin Puppy-cat. They called Crown Prince Minhyuk Wolf Boy .
One very cold day approaching mid-winter, Sanha was called away to deal with some issue among the court ladies, leaving one junior court lady and Dongmin to attend to Prince Bin while he flipped through a textbook, chin in hand, gaze distant.
Finally, Prince Bin said, “Guardsman Lee, you were a soldier. You must be excellent at games of strategy, like baduk.”
Prince Bin and Sanha were almost equally skilled, and they were constantly overturning each other’s win streaks and high scores.
“I was only a sergeant in the field, Highness,” Dongmin said, wary of how the court lady Yejin was watching them. “I am more suited to field tactics than to the bigger strategies of war.”
Prince Bin pouted. “Guardsman Lee, I’m bored. Play with me.”
“I’m ordering you to play with me. Court Lady Chu, bring us snacks and tea. And also get some snacks and tea for yourself and the other ladies,” Prince Bin said.
Yejin had initially looked put out at the notion of having to tromp across the snowy palace grounds, but then she lit up. “Right away, Your Highness.” And she bustled out of his quarters, calling for a couple of court ladies to help her.
“I’ll play with you once she’s returned,” Dongmin said, as Prince Bin rose up and crossed the room, poking through the shelves in search of the baduk board and stones.
“I’ll get the board set up, then,” Prince Bin said. “If I can find it.”
Dongmin watched Prince Bin frown and poke through the shelves for three minutes before he crossed the room.
“Allow me, Highness.” Dongmin knew where Sanha kept the baduk board and little abalone inlaid wooden chest with the stones, and he reached for them.
Prince Bin spotted them at the same time. “Ah! There they are.” He reached out — and his hand tangled with Dongmin’s.
Tingles spread across Dongmin’s skin from the point of warm contact, and he snatched his hand back. “Apologies, Highness.”
Prince Bin just smiled. “You know your way around here almost as well as I do.”
Dongmin resisted the urge to say, Better than you, and instead stepped back. “It’s my job to be observant, Highness.”
Prince Bin studied him for a moment. “Yes, I suppose it is.” He went back to his desk to set up the baduk board.
A few minutes later, Yejin and two other court ladies entered the room, bearing a low table laden with tea and snacks. They had, Dongmin noticed, another tray for themselves.
“Just set it down over there. I’ll handle the rest,” Prince Bin said, and he really was refreshingly informal and friendly in his own quarters.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Yejin bobbed her head and then scurried out of the room.
Dongmin heard a brief exclamation of excitement from the court ladies as they examined their treats outside the closed doors.
“I’ll taste it for you, in Sanha’s absence,” Dongmin said.
“You just want the first bite.” Prince Bin’s smile was teasing.
But Dongmin arranged the tea table as he’d seen his mother and Sanha and court ladies do on previous occasions, and he sampled the tea and each of the cakes and cookies.
“Well? How are they?” Prince Bin asked.
“Delicious, and poison-free.” Dongmin smiled tentatively.
Prince Bin held out both of his hands, which were closed. “Left or right.”
“Ah, right,” Dongmin said. It was Sanha’s job to be Prince Bin’s right hand, but Sanha wasn’t here, so right now it was Dongmin’s job, and he’d take it seriously.
Bin opened his hand. On his palm was a gleaming white baduk stone. “You’re white. I’m black.”
“Yes, Highness.” Dongmin pulled the tea table close to the desk, making sure it was easily within Prince Bin’s reach, and the game began.
Of course, Prince Bin was a talented player, having been educated by some of the finest tutors in the nation. Dongmin, however, had learned to play baduk in the barracks, betting money and food and sometimes even supplies on his games against older, tougher, more experienced soldiers. Necessity was the mother of invention, and necessity had made Dongmin excellent at the game.
“Are you secretly some kind of baduk genius?” Prince Bin asked when Dongmin capped another of his chains of stones and effectively stole the score from him.
“No. I’m just a genius,” Dongmin said, and immediately clapped a hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry, Your Highness. I didn’t mean to be impertinent. I just —”
But Prince Bin laughed, looking delighted. “No, I like it when you’re sassy with me. It means you’ve finally relaxed.”
Dongmin should never relax, not in the prince’s presence, not when he was supposed to be keeping the prince safe. “Your Highness, I’m sorry, I should —” He started to push himself to his feet.
Prince Bin caught his wrist, staying him. “No. Please. It’s okay. Let’s just finish the game, all right? I promise I’m fine. I’m safe. There are always guards outside. If something were to happen, I know you’d protect me.”
“With my life,” Dongmin said.
Prince Bin smiled. “I know. Now come on. Play with me.”
This time, Prince Bin didn’t have to make it a royal order. Dongmin sat back down, and he and Prince Bin talked and laughed and shared snacks and tea.
By the time Sanha returned from whatever had called him away, Prince Bin was back to studying and Dongmin was standing at attention.
“Did you miss me?” Sanha asked, after he’d made his formal greetings to Prince Bin.
“Not at all. Dongmin’s way more fun than you are,” Prince Bin said without looking up from his book.
Sanha pouted, but then he cast Dongmin a questioning look, a silent, Everything all right?
Dongmin nodded, and Sanha went to fetch a gayageum so he could provide Bin some accompaniment while he read.
While Sanha was playing, Prince Bin caught Dongmin’s eye and smiled, and Dongmin felt something shift between them.
He wasn’t sure what it was, but he liked it.
After that, Dongmin felt easier in Prince Bin’s presence, playing games with him, sharing drinks and snacks with him (but never alcohol), and one time even playing music with him.
“You have a lovely singing voice,” Prince Bin said. “And you play the gayageum well.”
“Not as well as Sanha.” Dongmin put the instrument away, then resumed his spot guarding Prince Bin at his desk.
“For someone who wasn’t raised as he was, you play very well.”
“Thank you, Highness.”
“So, do you like life in the palace? Do you like being my bodyguard?”
“I do like it here,” Dongmin said. “And being your bodyguard is — well, it is easier than I expected, I suppose.”
“What did you expect?”
Dongmin felt his cheeks turn pink. “I just —”
“The rumors about my health.”
Prince Bin’s expression turned distant, contemplative, one of his many textbooks going ignored. “My health really isn’t good. It’s been surprisingly good for the last little while, but the truth is my body is — weak. I’ll have fits of weakness and pain for no reason at all, no reason the palace physicians have been able to discover. I am unfit to rule, and I understand this.”
“I am sorry you have been in pain, Highness,” Dongmin said softly.
Prince Bin cast him a look. “It’s not like it’s your fault. Honestly, ever since you’ve been here, I haven’t had a single episode, so maybe you’re my good luck charm. But my good luck can’t last forever, can it?” Then his gaze went distant again. “One of my nurses used to tell strange tales about the Old Man Under the Moon and the red thread, and so I thought maybe — but no. My health is what it is. I feel bad for Minhyukie. I don’t think he ever wanted to be king. But in my sixteenth year, the fits started, and so he had to step up, do what’s best for our kingdom.”
Dongmin wasn’t sure what to do with this deep, personal honesty from the prince. Finally, he said, “Thank you for telling me.”
Prince Bin cast him a look. “Honestly, I’m surprised they sent me a new bodyguard and not a personal physician to hover over me instead.”
“If I may, Highness, what happened to your previous bodyguard?”
“Ah, Jinwoo-ya? He found a woman he loved, so I petitioned Minhyukie to ask the King to have him released from service so he can start a family and be happy.” Prince Bin looked at Dongmin. “Why? Have you found a woman you want to marry?”
“No, Highness. When would I have a chance to meet a woman? I spend all my time with you.”
“And with my dozen court ladies.”
“But the court ladies are the King’s people.”
“They still have hearts,” Prince Bin said softly.
“They do. We all do. But my heart belongs to you,” Dongmin said.
Prince Bin’s eyes widened.
“I mean — because I serve you,” Dongmin amended quickly.
Prince Bin’s gaze went distant again. “Of course. Thank you, Guardsman Lee.” He raised his voice. “Eunuch Yoon, can we have some tea and snacks? And bring the baduk board. I want to beat you soundly.”
From outside the sliding doors, Sanha said, “Yes, Your Highness.”
For the next few days, Dongmin felt terribly awkward around Prince Bin, and Prince Bin seemed to feel equally awkward around him, because he always kept Sanha present as some kind of buffer between them. Dongmin wanted to apologize, to try to explain what he really meant by that comment, except he wasn’t even sure what he really meant.
On a particularly cold day close to midwinter, Prince Bin asked for yet another tray of snacks and tea, and it was a shivering Yejin who was dispatched to get it.
“Highness, I should go. I’m taller, walk faster, am stronger, can carry everything myself. Yejin will have to take at least two ladies with her,” Sanha said.
“Stay here,” Prince Bin said, tone ringing with authority, and Sanha ducked his head with uncharacteristic meekness.
Prince Bin sighed and added, “Bring hot tea and snacks for yourselves, ladies,” and Yejin and a couple of other girls ducked out of the prince’s quarters.
In their absence, it was so quiet that Dongmin thought he’d be able to hear the snow falling. It seemed an eternity before Yejin and the other girls returned. Sanha took the tray from the shivering girls and immediately bustled about, setting the tray in front of Prince Bin and arranging the dishes and cups.
Yejin and the girls bobbed their heads and ducked out to see to their own snacks, but then Dongmin heard approaching footsteps. He tightened his grip on his sword instinctively, and then Yejin said,
“The Crown Prince is here to see you.”
“Enter,” Prince Bin called out, tone ringing and imperious.
The doors slid open and Crown Prince Minhyuk, in sleek black robes embroidered with the royal dragon, stepped into the room.
Of course Prince Bin surrendered his seat — and the place of honor — to his younger brother.
“Hyungnim,” the Crown Prince said. “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors.”
“That father will strip you of your title and make me Crown Prince in your stead now that my health is miraculously better? Of course,” Prince Bin said. “But they’re just rumors. The King has mentioned no such thing to me.”
“He wouldn’t have to mention it to you beforehand,” the Crown Prince pointed out.
“Brother,” Prince Bin said, leaning in, “I have no desire to take the throne. Perhaps there was a time — but no. It’s yours. You’ve trained for it. You’ll be a fine king.”
“I’m not worried about you trying to usurp my position. I know you wouldn’t,” the Crown Prince said. “But the ministers are stirring things up, making noise. You know the Left State Councilor is loyal to your mother, and the Right State Councilor loyal to mine.”
“I wish I didn’t know it,” Prince Bin muttered.
“I’m afraid things might be ugly for a while, until the King makes clear that he won’t be changing the line of succession,” the Crown Prince said. “But I want you to know that I want none of this ugliness.”
Prince Bin’s expression softened. “I know you’re not like that, Minhyuk-ah.”
The Crown Prince suddenly looked very young and vulnerable and tired. “I’m sorry, hyung. That it’s this way.”
“We were born into the royal family. This privilege is not without its price,” Prince Bin said.
The Crown Prince offered a small, tentative, and adorably dimpled smile. “You’re right. Thanks for the reminder. Let me pour you a drink.”
He reached out, and Sanha, who’d been about to pour tea for the both of them, drew his hands back.
The Crown Prince was solemn as he carefully held his sleeve out of the way, pouring as neatly and formally as any well-trained servant. He held the cup out to Prince Bin with both hands, and —
Agony lanced through Dongmin’s chest.
He doubled over with a gasp.
“Hyung!” Sanha cried, scrambling to his side.
Dongmin staggered, collapsed to his knees. It felt like an iron band was tightening around his lungs, making it impossible to breathe, and his throat was burning, and —
“Dongmin-ah!” Bin surged to his feet.
There was a crash of porcelain as he jostled the little serving table.
Dongmin’s vision went gray and spotty.
Vaguely, Dongmin heard the Crown Prince shouting for someone to summon a court physician, but all Dongmin knew was that he couldn’t breathe and it felt like he was being stabbed in the chest and throat and —
Gentle hands smoothed his hair out of his face. “Dongminnie, look at me. Are you okay?”
Dongmin blinked rapidly. Prince Bin was kneeling beside him, gazing at him anxiously.
“Here, help him breathe,” Sanha said, and he and Prince Bin helped Dongmin sit up.
Dongmin devolved into a coughing fit, but the pressure in his chest was rapidly fading. He blinked again, pressed a hand to his chest.
“What happened?” the Crown Prince demanded.
Sanha stared at Dongmin, wide-eyed. “It was just like one of Prince Bin’s fits. He just — collapsed.”
Prince Bin put a hand on Dongmin’s shoulder. “My illness isn’t contagious.”
“No one knows what your illness is,” Sanha pointed out.
“Dongminnie,” Prince Bin said, leaning in and catching Dongmin’s eye, “have you been around anyone ill? Did you eat something bad?”
Dongmin shook his head. “No, Highness,” he gasped out. “I just — suddenly it felt like I’d been stabbed in the chest.”
“Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” Sanha asked.
Prince Bin’s brow furrowed. “Yes, but —”
“Hyung,” the Crown Prince said. “Your tea was poisoned.”
Sanha spun around. “What?”
Dongmin pushed himself to his feet.
“Dongminnie,” Prince Bin protested, but Dongmin was breathing just fine.
He crossed the room and knelt beside the up-ended tea tray — and saw that the silver chopsticks that were always provided for serving snacks had turned tarnished black where they’d fallen into the spilled tea.
He whipped around and looked at Sanha. “You didn’t test it first?”
“I was about to, but then the Crown Prince —”
“The physician is here,” Yejin said from outside the doors.
The Crown Prince said, “Also summon Inspector Ok from the Royal Inspection Bureau.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Yejin said.
The doors slid open, admitting a middle-aged man in a physician’s uniform. “What happened?”
The Crown Prince said, in a low voice, “Someone tried to poison my brother.”
“And also Guardsman Lee collapsed suddenly,” Prince Bin said. “It was similar to the fits I used to have.”
The physician knelt and inspected the spilled tea, leaned down and sniffed it. “Yes, it’s definitely red rosary bean poison.”
“Well, no one drank it, so we’re fine,” Prince Bin said, “but Guardsman Lee —”
“Hyung, someone tried to poison you,” the Crown Prince said.
“Maybe it was you they were after,” Prince Bin protested.
Dongmin cleared his throat. “Unless the kitchen staff were aware that the Crown Prince was coming to visit you, the poison must have been meant for you, Prince Bin.”
“My visit was a last-minute decision,” the Crown Prince murmured. “I was originally on my way to see Sua.” He turned to the physician. “Find out where these poisonous beans can be purchased and where they’re stored.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the physician said. He turned to go, but Prince Bin called out.
“You have to check over Guardsman Lee. He collapsed.”
“I’m fine,” Dongmin protested, but Prince Bin shook his head.
“I know what those fits feel like. Sit down and let him check you.” Prince Bin pushed Dongmin down onto one of the sitting cushions, and Dongmin obeyed, still feeling a little dizzy.
He’d had a strange fit. Someone had tried to poison Prince Bin. What was happening? He’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and now —
“Describe the event to me.” The physician knelt in front of Dongmin and peered at him.
Dongmin held out one hand so the physician could check his pulse, and he explained what had happened as best as he could.
“It does sound like one of hyungnim’s fits, doesn’t it?” the Crown Prince asked in a low voice.
The physician nodded. “It does. I don’t understand. Such a disease isn’t communicable.”
“Well, if he hadn’t had that fit, we’d have drunk the tea, and we’d be dead,” Prince Bin said. Then he frowned. “In fact, he collapsed right as I was about to drink the tea.”
“Hyung,” the Crown Prince said. “You don’t think —”
“Remember what our nurse used to always tell us? About how soulmates connected by the Red Thread would feel intense pain when the other was in life-threatening danger,” Prince Bin said.
Dongmin blinked. “What are you saying?”
Prince Bin knelt beside him again. “You used to fight on the northern borders, right? Fending off Jurchen raids.”
“How old were you when you were assigned there?”
“I was sixteen and fresh out of training,” Dongmin said.
“I was sixteen when I first started having fits.” Prince Bin’s eyes were bright, almost feverish. “My fits stopped happening when you came here. Away from the front lines. Where it’s safer.”
“But I’ve never had a fit before,” Dongmin said slowly.
“I’ve never been in life-threatening danger before today,” Prince Bin replied.
Dongmin stared at him.
“Heol,” Sanha said. “You’re soulmates. Now Bin-hyung can definitely never be Crown Prince, because his soulmate is another man.”
“Wait, you believe this?” Dongmin twisted around to look at Sanha.
The physician said, “I’ve heard of the condition before, and it is documented in some medical texts, but it’s very rare.”
“Should we test it?” Sanha asked. “We could put Dongmin-hyung in danger —”
“I think it’s been tested enough,” Prince Bin said.
Inspector Ok arrived just then. “What’s going on?”
He eyed Dongmin disapprovingly, and Dongmin pushed himself to his feet, bowed.
“Inspector,” Dongmin said, “someone tried to poison Prince Bin, and also the Crown Prince, though we suspect Prince Bin was the intended target.”
Inspector Ok crossed the room to inspect the spilled tea and the tarnished chopsticks. He looked at the physician. “Tell me everything.”
Once the fervor died down and the tea tray had been cleaned up and the physicians and inspectors had all been dismissed and the Crown Prince had been convinced to return to his own quarters for the evening, Dongmin found himself sitting across from Prince Bin, the two of them alone as Sanha had ducked out with a muttered excuse that Dongmin couldn’t even remember.
“You think it’s true?” Dongmin asked. “That we’re soulmates.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense: about my disease, and your sudden collapse — and how I feel about you.”
Dongmin blinked. “How you feel about me?”
Prince Bin looked away. “I like you,” he said softly. “You’re handsome, and you’re funny, and you’re smart, but I am who I am, and you are who you are, but then you said your heart was mine, and I —”
“I like you too,” Dongmin said, just as softly. “I like playing music with you and talking to you and playing baduk with you, but —”
“But we’re soulmates,” Prince Bin said, “and nothing, not even palace rules, can change that.”
“So now what?”
“Now, you can stop being my bodyguard, and you can be my —”
“Princess? I don’t think so.” Dongmin crossed his arms over his chest, defensive and anxious.
“Of course not. You’d be my prince. Prince Dongmin. How does that sound?”
“Weird,” Dongmin blurted out, because it did.
“Well, maybe I’ll just keep on calling you Dongmin, and you can call me Bin.” He smiled, and Dongmin’s heart skipped a beat.
“I’m not sure I can do that, Your Highness,” Dongmin began.
“Surely you won’t be calling me that when we kiss.”
“Kiss?” Dongmin echoed.
Bin leaned across the desk and caught Dongmin’s chin in his hand, met his gaze and held it. “Lee Dongmin, will you kiss me?”
Dongmin’s heart fluttered in his chest, and he said, “Yes, Bin, I’ll kiss you,” and he leaned in.