It’s been a long and bloody battle. His father’s lifeless body lays before him, sprawled in the middle of the throne room, his blood smeared red on the cold stone floor. He was a tyrant, but Seungcheol still feels sorrow at his passing. There was once a time when Seungcheol loved him, respected him. Some part of Seungcheol still loves him– but greater still is the part of him that loves his kingdom and his people. He couldn’t sit still while his people suffered under a tyrant’s rule.
Almost in a daze, Seungcheol kneels beside his father’s corpse, says a prayer so his soul may find peace. It may be a lost cause, given the blood on his father’s hands, but there’s no harm trying anyway. There’s one more thing he has to do, for his people– he reaches out and removes the crown from his father’s head.
It is with pride and no small amount of disbelief that he stalks to the porch, throws open the doors, and raises the King’s crown high above his head. Jihoon, perched atop the highest of the castle towers, must see him and cast an amplifying spell, because when he speaks his voice booms across the castle grounds. “The king is dead!” he cries, his voice ringing clear above the clang of the battle below. “The king is dead!”
The crowd below answers with a surging, deafening roar. “Rally together, soldiers!” Seungcheol can hear Soonyoung’s voice roaring. “One last push– the king is dead!”
Well done, says Jihoon’s voice in his mind, quiet and proud and relieved.
Seungcheol stands there, crown in his hands, until the battle is finally won.
The aftermath of battle is messy. Seungcheol’s been in his fair share of campaigns, has seen death and injury even in successful ones. The wounded are gathered in the great hall, tended to both by mages and traditional healers. Seungcheol scans the hall and spots Jihoon in a corner, kneeling next to Soonyoung, picking wooden splinters out of the gash in Soonyoung’s leg.
“Stay still,” Jihoon scolds as Seungcheol approaches them. “You’re no use to your soldiers like this, so just wait until I’m finished!”
“But I need to know– I need to know who’s fallen,” Soonyoung is saying, impatient as always. “Can’t you, like, hurry it up, or–”
“Do you want to get an infection?” Jihoon snaps, annoyed in his concern.
“Guys,” Seungcheol sighs, and they both turn to him. “We just won a revolution, can you take it easy for a few hours?”
“I’m not the one being unreasonable,” Jihoon sniffs.
“Unreasonable?” Soonyoung repeats, outraged. “Jihoon, please, those soldiers are family to me, I need to know who I have to mourn–”
“They’ll be the ones mourning you if you don’t hold still!”
“Soonyoung,” Seungcheol interjects, voice soft. “I’m sorry to say this, but the people you’ve lost aren’t going anywhere. As your friend, I’m asking you not to risk your life for those who have already lost theirs.”
That makes Soonyoung go quiet, though he’s still sulking.
“Think about it this way,” Jihoon says, more gently. “If Seungcheol was the one hurt, or even me, would you let us get up before getting treatment?”
Soonyoung makes a disgruntled noise. “No,” he says eventually, with a heavy sigh. “Fine, do what you have to. I’m sorry for kicking up a fuss.”
“I get it,” Jihoon says softly. “I’ve lost people too.”
Some kind of moment passes between them, some look of understanding that makes Seungcheol feel like he’s invading on a private moment, but it passes just as quickly as it came. “I’ll be quick,” Jihoon promises, and goes back to his work.
“So, Your Highness,” Soonyoung says, grinning at Seungcheol. “Or should I say, Your Majesty? When’s the coronation?”
Seungcheol blinks at him, surprised. “Coronation?” he repeats. “You must be mad. I’m an outcast who committed patricide, do you really think the Council will let me be king?”
“You ended the rule of a tyrant king,” Soonyoung says, like Seungcheol is the one who’s mad. “I mean, yeah, it was your father– uh, sorry–”
“Real tactful,” Jihoon mutters sarcastically.
“The point is,” Soonyoung continues, glaring at Jihoon. “You’re a hero. The people’s hero. The Council can kick and scream all they want, there’s no way the people will stand for any other king.”
“Soonyoung’s right,” Jihoon says, without looking up from his work. “And if they try to elect one anyway, they’ll have to get past me.”
“Look at this guy, trying to look cool on his own,” teases Soonyoung.
“Do you want me to lift this numbing spell?” Jihoon threatens.
“No, no, I said nothing, please carry on,” Soonyoung lies with an innocent smile. “No, but seriously, Seungcheol, we’re behind you. Whatever you do, whatever path you choose, you have my blade.”
Seungcheol can only stare at them in awe. He doesn’t know how he’s been so lucky, to have these two as friends.
“Thanks,” he chokes out, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Aww, don’t cry!” Soonyoung laughs.
“I’m not!” Seungcheol protests.
“You’re so crying,” Jihoon agrees, giving him a small smile. “Chin up, you have to be strong for your subjects.”
Oh God, his subjects. If he’s going to do this– if he’s going to be King– there’s so much to plan, so much to prepare. He has to– talk to the Council, address the public, decide who he can and cannot trust from his father’s court. There are treaties to sign and declarations to be made and gestures of goodwill to be sent to their allies. He feels dizzy just thinking about it.
“Stop,” says Jihoon firmly, cutting into Seungcheol’s thoughts. “Don’t think about all that right now. One step at a time– take a walk around the castle, say a few words to the brave men and women who nearly lost their lives for you, pray for those who did.” He sets aside his tweezers, reaches for his needle and thread. “You’re at your best when you love your people. So do what you can now, and we can face the future together.”
His words calm Seungcheol’s mind, help him think a little clearer. Seungcheol takes a deep breath. “Thank you,” he says, honestly. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Both of you.”
“Cry, probably,” Soonyoung jokes. “Go on, shoo. The kingdom needs its king.”
“I’m not its king yet,” Seungcheol argues, but goes anyway.
Seungcheol spends the rest of the day doing what he can to help. He makes his rounds among the wounded, all of whom are thankful to him even as they grieve their fallen comrades. He sits by deathbeds and clasps their hands in his, says his thanks and his prayers for them as they slip away; he fetches medicines and tools alike to aid in the healers’ work.
After that, he leaves the great hall, helps collect the dead and lay them in rows in the courtyard. There are so many, too many, and the sight of it makes Seungcheol want to weep. He doesn’t, but he does order them all be given a proper burial, even the soldiers on his father’s side. He will not dishonour them for being loyal to their king.
When he cannot stomach the sight and stench of corpses any longer, he goes into the lower town. The people there were warned of a battle, were cleared out of their houses before Seungcheol began his attack, but they must have heard of its conclusion, because there are quite a number of people in town. When they spot him, they bow their heads low and say their thanks. So many of them have known him, and he them, since he was a child, the little boy who snuck into town to evade his lessons. More recently, they’ve known him as the Crown Prince, the one who was ordered to slaughter a family of commoners without trial, but refused and was disowned. He knows they are thankful, but doesn’t think he deserves it, not for doing the right thing.
Whispers follow him through town as he takes stock of the damage done. The king is dead, he hears them say, joyous. Long live the king!
Two days later, Seungcheol holds court.
All things considered, attendance is pretty good. Most of the Council make an appearance, as do the lesser nobles who haven’t fled the castle. Soonyoung and his soldiers stand at attention in full formal armour; as do Jihoon and his mages, in their long, sweeping robes.
What impresses Seungcheol the most, however, is the congregation of commoners outside the castle, just beyond the gates. He can’t quite see them from here, but he’s heard the servants say there are hundreds, waiting for the declaration of a new king.
“My greetings to you all,” Seungcheol says, oddly calm. “And my thanks for your attendance. As you must have heard by now, my father, the king, was killed two days ago, by my own hand. I did so, in all honesty, because I was disgusted, appalled, at the atrocities he committed towards the people of this kingdom, solely for the sake of his own power and greed.”
A murmur starts among the nobles, but Seungcheol holds a hand up to stop them. “I was complicit in a number of these acts, myself,” he admits. “I acted as my father asked, wishing only to please him. However, two years ago, I refused, and my father stripped me of my title and banished me from the castle. In my travels, I had the immense fortune of meeting and speaking to a great number of people, commoners of this very kingdom, all of whom were suffering under my father’s rule. It was then, after seeing and experiencing the tyranny of his rule for myself, as a commoner, with no exceptions made for me on account of my blood, did I truly see how my people were being tortured. It was then, and only then, did I decide to unseat my father.
“Make no mistake, it would be my honour to be your king. It is my dream and my duty to do so, and it has been ever since I was a child. However, that is not the reason why I killed my father. It is not power, or wealth, or title that I claim– it is freedom, the freedom of a people who have slaved under a tyrant for decades, the freedom for the people of this kingdom to speak and be heard, and suffer unjustly no more. I have killed the king– not because he was my father, but because he was a bad king.”
Seungcheol swallows. It’s time for the last nail in the coffin, the final part to this speech before they decide his fate.
“I believe that I can be a better king to you than my father was. And I can stand here all day, telling you about what changes I would make or what qualifications I have– but all of that can come later, to all who wish to hear it. The question I put to you, right here and now, is…”
Seungcheol sinks to one knee, bowing his head over the other in the traditional kneel of allegiance. He ignores the startled murmur of the crowd, just keeps his head bowed in deference as he says, “Will you accept this oath of fealty that I swear to you, the people of this kingdom? Will you let me serve you, as you have served my father, to atone for my sins?”
A silence sweeps through the throne room. Seungcheol doesn’t look up, can’t bear to. He stays stock still, waiting–
A clink of metal, from the left, and a swish of fabric, from the right. “Long live the king,” say Soonyoung and Jihoon, solemn and united.
There is a pause, then– the sound of more people falling to their knees, and Seungcheol can’t help but look up now, can’t help but watch as the whole court drops to their knees and bow their heads to him. “Long live the king!” they cry, even the crabby old Council members who have long mistrusted him. “Long live the king!”
And then, shouts from outside, voices so strong and so loud Seungcheol can hear them even from beyond the gates: “Long live the king! Long live the king! Long live the king!”
“Cool speech, Your Majesty,” Jihoon says, after, grinning at him. “Sounds like it really moved the townspeople.”
“I didn’t know you’d be broadcasting that to them,” Seungcheol whines, pouting at him. “You should’ve told me.”
“Does it matter?” Jihoon snorts. “I knew you’d win them over. And anyway, I didn’t think of it until it was time for court. One of my mages had to sprint there to get the projection up in time.” He shrugs. “I thought it might provide incentive, if the Council decided not to accept you as king. Though that wasn’t a problem, thankfully.”
Seungcheol just shakes his head in awe. “Thank you,” is all he can say. Even he hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I– thank you.”
Jihoon looks surprised at the genuine emotion in Seungcheol’s voice. He clears his throat awkwardly, giving Seungcheol a friendly punch in the shoulder. “My pleasure,” he says softly, smiling. “Now come, Your Majesty, we have a lot to discuss.”
The rest of the day flies by in a flurry of meetings. The Council may have accepted him as king, but it’s clear that not all of them approve. They question him on everything, challenge everything he says; even the ones that approve of him don’t come to his defense, probably trying to test his worth. Soonyoung and Jihoon are present, standing at either side of him, but they have no official seats on the Council, so they can’t help. Jihoon does occasionally badmouth one or two of the more hateful Concil members in Seungcheol’s mind, which makes Seungcheol feel better, but beyond that there’s nothing he can do.
By the time Seungcheol stumbles into his chambers– his old ones, the ones he used as a prince– he’s exhausted, ready to peel his clothes off and fall into bed. It doesn’t occur to him until he’s right in front of the doors that the servants have probably prepared the king’s chambers for him, but he’s too tired to go all the way over to the other side of the castle, and anyway he isn’t ready to sleep in his dead father’s bed. Instead, he pushes open the doors to the prince’s chambers, expecting to see a cold, dusty room.
To his surprise, he finds dinner laid neatly on his dining table and a fire crackling merrily in the hearth. The floor has been swept clean, and even his favourite rug has been rolled out under the dining table.
“Welcome back, Seungcheol,” says a familiar voice, and Seungcheol turns to see Jeonghan, emerging from the door to his inner bedchambers, wearing a bright grin. “Oh, sorry, it’s Your Majesty now, isn’t it?”
“Yah, stop pretending to be obedient now, you brat,” Seungcheol laughs, fatigue forgotten as he runs over to give him a tight hug. “How’d you know I’d come here?”
“I know you,” Jeonghan tells him, hugging back just as hard. “And anyway, if you hadn’t come, I’d have just eaten this delightful spread all by myself. This is a feast for servants, you know.”
Seungcheol laughs, pulling away. Jeonghan had been his personal manservant since they were both just kids. It was a family thing; Jeonghan’s father had been manservant to Seungcheol’s for decades. Their fathers had had a very proper, very professional relationship, but Seungcheol and Jeonghan were more like best friends. Jeonghan had stayed behind when Seungcheol was banished, along with Jihoon, though Soonyoung had stubbornly chosen to follow Seungcheol. It turned out to be a great idea; Jeonghan’s status as a trusted servant had allowed him to gather information vital to the siege without raising suspicion, which they’d been able to pass along with Jihoon’s magic. Seungcheol suspects that had been his plan all along.
“C’mon, eat with me,” Seungcheol says, suddenly starving. “I heard you were assigned to my cousin while I was gone, tell me about that.”
Jeonghan drops into his usual seat at Seungcheol’s left with a groan. “It was horrible. No offense, but your cousin was such a pain. He made me play chess with him all day, then complained that I hadn’t finished my chores by sundown! How does he expect me to do both?”
“I suspect he might have been more forgiving if you hadn’t been quite so good at chess,” Seungcheol says, grinning.
“Well, if he was going to be sore about losing, he should never have challenged me,” Jeonghan sniffs, popping a piece of roast chicken in his mouth. “Anyway, thank God you’re back. Plus, you’re king now, so you’ll be doing lots of sitting in boring meetings and not so much hunting or fighting or gallivanting around playing hero!”
“You’re still going to have to come to those meetings, it’s not like you can just nap when I’m not out riding!” Seungcheol points out. Jeonghan is possibly the laziest person ever, and though he does do his duties, he tends to take a nap immediately after he finishes whatever he’s been assigned. Which wouldn't be a problem, except then it makes it difficult to assign him any additional work, especially when he decides to take a nap in the middle of the woods.
“Yeah, but all I have to do at those meetings is stand around and refill your water,” Jeonghan says. “It’s not like I have to pay attention.”
He’s a liar, he totally pays attention. Jeonghan is smarter than Seungcheol in a lot of ways, has a mind for politics and people that Seungcheol doesn’t. Seungcheol has asked his advice on more than one occasion for this very reason, and he isn’t about to stop now.
“Sure,” Seungcheol agrees anyway, figuring he’ll let Jeonghan pretend he’s lazier than he really is for now. Jeonghan sees right through him, too, judging by the wicked grin he gives Seungcheol. It really has been too long since he’s seen him, Seungcheol thinks, cataloguing the scar on Jeonghan’s lip, the gauntness of his cheeks. “I missed you,” he blurts out, softer than he meant to be.
Jeonghan pauses, a spoonful of peas halfway to his mouth. He puts the spoon back down and reaches over to ruffle Seungcheol’s hair, just like he always used to when they were kids. “I missed you, too,” he says quietly, smiling.
Seungcheol smiles back, and they both go back to their meal in comfortable silence.
Unfortunately, the days only get more and more stressful. Seungcheol has his hands full with planning the coronation and rebuilding the castle and lower town, on top of the rumours floating around about some of the dukes planning a counterattack. After about two days of juggling all these issues, he remembers he can delegate, so he gets Jeonghan to organise the coronation, and tells Soonyoung to look into the rumours of an attack. He tries to get Jihoon’s input on using magic to speed up the rebuilding process, but Jihoon tells him, somewhat irritably, that he’s busy with ‘preparations’.
“What preparations?” Seungcheol asks, baffled. He’s not a mage, has never been very good at it, but he knows the basics. The circle Jihoon’s drawn in chalk on the floor, the herbs he’s gathering– this is no run-of-the-mill spell he’s casting.
“I’m tired of being at Council meetings where I can’t say a word,” Jihoon says shortly.
Seungcheol feels– wounded. “Well, you don’t have to come,” he says, a little upset.
Jihoon looks at him like he’s gone mad. “No, idiot,” he says, exasperated. “I’m getting a seat on the Council.”
“Oh,” says Seungcheol, feeling a little foolish. “Uh, how are you going to do that?”
“You’ll find out,” Jihoon tells him cryptically, and shoos him out of his workroom.
Whatever Jihoon’s got planned, it quickly gets overshadowed by the news that Soonyoung has, of all the preposterous things, challenged the Captain of the Guard to a duel.
“A duel, Soonyoung?” Seungcheol says by way of greeting when he happens on Soonyoung at the training grounds.
“Yep,” pants Soonyoung, in the middle of sword drills. He’s wearing full armour, sans helmet, even though it’s midday and he’s already sweating like a pig.
“Why?” Seungcheol asks, frustrated, when Soonyoung doesn’t seem like he’s going to elaborate.
“Well, Jihoonie and I were talking,” Soonyoung grunts, stabbing into the air, “and we hated how the Council members keep kicking your ass in meetings.”
“They’re not kicking my ass!” Seungcheol protests, but it’s true. They kind of are kicking his ass.
“So,” Soonyoung continues, ignoring Seungcheol, “we’ve decided we’re going to get seats on the Council.”
“So you challenged the Captain of the Guard to a duel? Just like that?”
“Well, I asked her nicely first,” Soonyoung says, rolling over to a dummy and stabbing it in the stomach, quick and precise. “She said no at first but I kept hounding her about it– uh, if she asks, I wasn’t following her, our schedules just happened to overlap–”
Seungcheol shakes his head. “If I don’t know anything, I can’t lie to her about it,” he says, because ignorance truly is bliss. “So what, she got angry and challenged you to a duel?”
“No, she said I could have a seat!” Soonyoung says, far too cheerfully for someone who’s about to duel the deadliest knight in the kingdom. “Well, if I prove myself, that is. By beating her and all the other senior knights in combat, tourney-style.”
“What?” Seungcheol nearly shouts. “All the senior knights? Soonyoung, that’s seven experienced knights to contend with, are you sure you can take them?”
Soonyoung pulls a fancy sidestep-and-slice move, decapitating a straw dummy. “It’s one-on-one, and not to death, just surrender,” he says casually. “And they’re all, like, over 40. As long as Jihoon’s around to heal me up between fights, it should be fine.”
Seungcheol shakes his head, disbelieving. “You’re fighting seven war veterans in a row and Jihoon’s cooking up some kind of huge spell,” he says, almost lamenting. “Why go through all this trouble, just for a seat on the Council?”
Soonyoung straightens, sticks his sword in the dirt. “I told you,” he says, grinning, clapping his hands on Seungcheol’s shoulders. “We’re behind you, every step of the way.”
The duel is set to take place three days later. Seungcheol has the servants set up the tourney ring, and spreads the word so there’ll be plenty of people to bear witness. He’d asked to adjudicate, and of course he will be fair, but he doesn’t trust that all of the older knights will believe him to be unbiased. The more witnesses who agree with his assessments, the better.
“Nervous?” Seungcheol asks, catching up with Soonyoung before the duels start.
“Yeah,” admits Soonyoung, “but a little nervousness is always good. If you’re not nervous, you’re overconfident.”
“Stay calm,” says Jihoon. “You’ve got a short temper, and everyone knows it. They’ll try to rile you up.”
“I know,” Soonyoung says, annoyed, then sighs when Jihoon raises an eyebrow at him. “Sorry. I know. Thanks.”
“Kwon!” comes a rough voice from behind them, and they turn to see one of the knights Soonyoung will be facing, Sir Wonrae, sneering at them. “Hanging around with wizard filth again?”
Seungcheol bristles. Soonyoung twitches like he sorely wants to punch Sir Wonrae in the face, but Jihoon stays his hand with a touch to his arm. It’s a good call; fighting outside the ring, even verbally, would be enough to disqualify him.
Seungcheol, however, is under no such obligation. “Sir Wonrae,” he says, voice cold. “I ask that you refer to this trusted member of my court with the honour he deserves.”
“With all due respect, sire,” sneers Sir Wonrae, in a way that suggests he feels no respect at all, “you weren’t around during the war on magic. Magicians are a cruel, conniving sort, they killed hundreds of us without batting an eye–”
“And we killed thousands of them out of greed and spite,” Seungcheol finishes, a warning in his voice. “Yes, I am aware, sir knight, but it has been many years since we made peace with magical beings, and many more since our war with them came to an end. I ask you to put your hurt aside, as Jihoon and his kin have put aside theirs to serve our kingdom.”
That shuts Sir Wonrae up, if only for a little bit. “I’ve got my eyes on you, kid,” he hisses at Soonyoung threateningly. “If I see even a hint of magic in that ring, I’m coming for your little pet conjurer, and then you. Got it?”
Sir Wonrae leaves them one poisonous glare, then stalks off.
“Can I banish somebody for being a narrow-minded bigot?” Seungcheol huffs, angry. “I’m so sorry about that, Jihoon, you didn’t deserve that.”
Jihoon shrugs, calm. “It’s not my fight,” he says, which is true. It’s been decades since the war. Only the older generations remember, and even then some have changed their tune now that magic is so commonplace. It’s maybe the one good thing Seungcheol’s father has done, although it was for his own benefit. He may have been a scheming rat, but he was admittedly brilliant at forward planning. Accepting magic users so early during his reign, after his father, Seungcheol’s grandfather, had taken great lengths to shun them– doing that ensured he’d had magic on his side when he was older and set out to expand his kingdom by conquest.
Still, it’s thanks to those efforts to welcome magic users that brought Jihoon here with them now, and no matter how twisted his motives were in doing it, Seungcheol will always be thankful to his father for that.
“That bastard,” Soonyoung growls, glaring daggers into Sir Wonrae’s back. “I swear to God–”
“Don’t,” Jihoon says sharply, and Soonyoung turns to him incredulously.
“Soonyoung, don’t. If you mess this up, there won’t be another shot at a seat on the Council until the Captain steps down, and that could take years.”
Soonyoung doesn’t say anything, but he still looks enraged. Jihoon just sighs, hands him his helmet, and then his sword and shield. “Don’t be stupid,” he says, quiet, soft in a way he only gets in private. “Break a leg out there, okay? Hopefully not your own. I’ll be here waiting for you after. Alright?”
That, of all things, is what makes the tension bleed from Soonyoung’s shoulders. He lets out a heavy sigh, shaking his head. “You’re right,” he says. “Thank you.”
Seungcheol looks up at the sun. “It’s nearly time,” he says, nervous butterflies in his stomach. “Good luck, Soonyoung. And, uh, just do your best, it’s fine if you don’t make it, no pressure–”
“He’ll make it,” Jihoon interrupts firmly, which is maybe the most confidence he’s ever shown in Soonyoung, but then he adds, “as long as he doesn’t lose his temper!”
Seungcheol expects Soonyoung to whine and complain at that, but he doesn’t, just rolls his shoulders and stares out at the ring, like he can’t even hear them anymore. It’s the focus he gets on the battlefield, the cool-headed warrior instead of the childish brat.
“He’ll be fine,” Seungcheol says softly, finally believing it.
“Of course he will,” Jihoon says stubbornly, and shooes Seungcheol away to his box so they can get the party started.
The duels are spectacular. Soonyoung is always amazing on the battlefield, but it’s rare to see him taking fights so seriously right out the gate. Usually, during tourneys, he’ll play the crowd a little during the first couple of rounds, pull fancy stunts to put on a show. Today, he’s all business, eyes sharp and movements precise. He plays it cautious, calm, waits for a gap in his opponent’s defense before darting in with a flurry of blows. It’s impressive, and honestly a little terrifying. Not for the first time, Seungcheol is thankful that Soonyoung is on his side.
The first three rounds go smoothly. Sir Ilsung takes his loss graciously, grinning and shaking Soonyoung’s hand with nothing but compliments and little tips, though Sir Yeongdo and Sir Manshik turn their noses up and huff at him disdainfully, pride wounded.
The fourth duel proves a little more difficult; Sir Gyeongshik is a large, burly man, and Soonyoung’s leaner frame is ill-equipped to take him down. Still, what Soonyoung lacks in bulk he makes up for with speed and sheer unpredictability. After a long, gruelling match, Soonyoung gives up trying to be careful and literally launches himself onto Sir Gyeongshik’s broad back, hangs on for dear life and clangs his metal bracers loudly against Sir Gyeongshik’s helmet, right over his ears. Sir Gyeongshik shouts with pain and rips off his helmet furiously– Soonyoung takes the chance to point a knife right in Sir Gyeongshik’s face.
The crowd goes wild when Sir Gyeongshik raises his hands in surrender. Seungcheol himself is so awed he nearly forgets to announce Soonyoung the winner. Even Jihoon is yelling and jumping with excitement outside the ring. Soonyoung drops off Sir Gyeongshik’s back, panting, and promptly falls to the ground, ripping his helmet off and throwing it aside.
“You’re a fierce one, kid,” grins Sir Gyeongshik, looking similarly exhausted. He offers a hand to Soonyoung, who takes it and is promptly yanked to his feet. Sir Gyeongshik claps him on the shoulder, gruff but (probably) friendly, then collects his weapon and helmet and leaves the ring. Soonyoung does the same, and Jihoon is quick to usher him into a chair. He really does look exhausted, which is concerning because he still has three knights left to face. Jihoon’s magic can ease his physical aches and pains for a while, but it can’t relieve the mental strain he must be under.
Still, Soonyoung is nothing if not persistent, and after he’s caught his breath and Jihoon’s cleared him for combat, he’s back in the ring, calm and confident once again. Opponent number five, Sir Dojung, is the most experienced knight in the castle, and it shows in both his skill and his caution. He is also, however, the oldest knight in the castle, decades older than Soonyoung– he puts up a mighty fight, but over time he can’t keep up with Soonyoung’s stamina and speed.
And then, of course, it’s Sir Wonrae’s turn. For all Seungcheol wishes he was an easy opponent, Sir Wonrae has been fighting wars since he was 15, and his style is aggressive and dangerous. He’s reckless, but he’s strong and fast, and with his prejudice against Jihoon, Seungcheol’s afraid he’ll see magic where there’s none and start fighting to kill.
As expected, the match is brutal. Sir Wonrae is terrifying, starts attacking the moment Seungcheol calls for the duel to start. It’s all Soonyoung can do to block his blows with his shield, helpless to prevent the advance, and soon he’s backed against a wall. Even so, his shield holds strong, preventing Sir Wonrae from holding his blade to Soonyoung’s throat, but there’s no way he can keep this up. His arm must be aching by now, Soonyoung has to find another way out–
As if on cue, Soonyoung’s leg kicks out to hook around the back of Sir Wonrae’s, right as Soonyoung uses his shield to push back on a blow, causing Sir Wonrae to lose his balance. A more daring man (or, perhaps, a more foolish man) would have gone for a win right there and then, but Soonyoung doesn’t take the bait, just puts space between them and catches his breath.
Sir Wonrae is back on his feet in an instant, charging at Soonyoung yet again. It seems his strategy remains the same: tire Soonyoung out with his relentless attacks, then wait for a gap in his defense and strike. Seungcheol bites his thumb nervously, heart thumping rabbit-quick in his chest. He doesn’t know how Soonyoung’s going to get out of this one.
Soonyoung tries to parry, but his sword gets knocked out of his hands and soars into the dirt. Sir Wonrae advances in a flash, but Soonyoung’s just barely quick enough to bring his shield up in time. This time, when he tries to hook Sir Wonrae’s leg again, Sir Wonrae leaps out of the way. Looks like the same trick won’t work twice– but Soonyoung isn’t fazed, just takes the brief reprieve to sprint towards his sword.
Sir Wonrae is faster, puts himself between Soonyoung and his sword, and goes back to his heavy attacks. Soonyoung braces his shield with both hands, waits for Sir Wonrae to pull his arms back above his head in preparation to attack, then advances into Sir Wonrae’s space and shoves, hard, at his chest. Sir Wonrae stumbles back, surprised, and Soonyoung keeps shoving, keeping him off-balance until he trips over something– Soonyoung’s discarded sword!– and falls into the dirt.
Seungcheol doesn’t know if this was Soonyoung’s plan all along, but he doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste, sits on Sir Wonrae’s torso and uses his shield to press down on Sir Wonrae’s right hand, the one holding his sword. Soonyoung’s right hand goes straight for the gap between helmet and armour, closing around Sir Wonrae’s throat.
Sir Wonrae flails, a little, trying to break free, but Soonyoung remains firm. Eventually, Sir Wonrae pounds at the ground with his left hand in surrender.
The crowd roars with approval. Seungcheol himself has to fight to sound neutral when he declares Soonyoung the winner. Soonyoung climbs to his feet, breathing heavily. He offers a hand to Sir Wonrae, but the older knight slaps it away, standing on his own with difficulty.
“Magic!” he shrieks, ripping off his helmet. “It must be! How else could he have made me trip? I warned you, boy, that I wouldn’t stand for magic–”
Seungcheol starts to stand, to interrupt, but Captain Miyoung beats him to it.
“There was no magic,” she announces coolly from her seat right beside Seungcheol’s box. “You tripped over the very sword you knocked from his hands. Perhaps if you were half as observant as you are ill-tempered, you would not have lost the match.”
Sir Wonrae turns red all the way to his ears. He fumes, but doesn’t say anything, just gathers his belongings and stomps out of the ring.
Soonyoung bows to her respectfully. “My thanks for defending me, Captain,” he says, in the most subdued, formal tone Seungcheol has ever heard him use.
“I was only doing my duty,” Captain Miyoung replies, cool as ever. “It is part of the Knight’s Code to accept a fair defeat with grace. I hope you remember that when we meet in the ring.”
Of course, Soonyoung wouldn’t be Soonyoung if he wasn’t cheeky. “I will, Captain,” he says, grinning. “As long as you do the same.”
A murmur runs through the crowd, shocked, but Captain Miyoung just raises an eyebrow at him.
“Be careful that your confidence doesn’t turn to arrogance, child,” she says, but Seungcheol thinks he sees a hint of a smile on her face. “Go, let your healer treat your wounds. I will prepare myself for battle.”
With that, she leaves the stands. Soonyoung bows at her all the same before he exits the ring.
Seungcheol lets out a deep breath. Captain Miyoung is a shrewd warrior, precise and deadly. She’s been known to go easy on the younger knights and squires, for the sake of instruction, but given the six senior knights Soonyoung’s just beaten before her very eyes, she’s not likely to cut him any slack. She is old, but she is wise, and Seungcheol has no idea how Soonyoung is going to beat her.
As it turns out, Seungcheol’s fears are not unfounded. Soonyoung starts off fairly well, trading cautious blows with Captain Miyoung, both getting a feel for the other. Captain Miyoung attacks first, switches from defense to offense at the drop of a hat. Soonyoung narrowly manages to roll out of the way, but his attempt at a counterattack is easily evaded. Captain Miyoung doesn’t leave him time to catch his breath; she presses in, targets every gap in Soonyoung’s defence, moves so swift and precise that Seungcheol can’t believe how Soonyoung’s parrying every blow.
Seungcheol’s starting to think winning is a lost cause when Soonyoung suddenly falls into a crouch and takes a reckless swipe at Captain Miyoung’s legs. Between the clumsiness of Soonyoung’s attack and Captain Miyoung’s attempt to step out of the way, he manages to smash his sword into Captain Miyoung’s knee so hard he leaves a sizable dent in her poleyn. It’s her left knee, too, which is known to give her trouble from an old battle wound. It’s either sheer luck or some amazingly detailed planning on Soonyoung’s part.
Captain Miyoung hisses in pain and stumbles backwards. Soonyoung seizes the opportunity, springing out of his crouch to attack. Captain Miyoung manages to parry, but Soonyoung doesn’t let up, and soon it’s Captain Miyoung who’s forced on the defensive.
Of course, the moment Seungcheol starts thinking that there’s a chance Soonyoung will actually win this one, Captain Miyoung’s experience and skill shine through. She finds her footing, steadies herself, gives back as good as she gets– until Soonyoung makes a misstep, takes just a second too long between attacks. She pounces on the weakness like a lion, and suddenly, with just one quick thrust, Soonyoung’s got a sword at his throat.
“Do you yield?” Captain Miyoung asks, voice steady despite her heavy breathing.
Soonyoung drops his sword and shield to the ground with a clatter, raising his arms in surrender. The crowd applauds him, cheering. Seungcheol does too, though disappointment coils tight around his heart. Poor Soonyoung, to have done all this and gotten nothing in return!
Captain Miyoung lowers her sword and sticks it in the dirt. She and Soonyoung both remove their helmets before shaking hands.
“I graciously accept my defeat,” says Soonyoung, though he looks shattered. “It was a good match, Captain.”
“You fought well,” Captain Miyoung acknowledges. “I am proud to be your captain, Sir Soonyoung.”
The praise brings a smile to Soonyoung’s face. “Thank you,” he says, glowing with fierce pride. “I am honoured to have you as my captain.”
Captain Miyoung smiles, just a little. “Let’s see if you still feel that way when you have to sit through a whole Council meeting,” she says casually.
Seungcheol can’t believe his ears. Neither can Soonyoung, apparently, because his mouth falls open in disbelief. “What was that?” he breathes.
Is that– a hint of a smile on Captain Miyoung’s face? “Didn’t you hear me? That seat on the Council– you’ve got it.”
“But I– I lost!” Soonyoung gasps. “I failed, I–”
“You may have lost the match,” Captain Miyoung interrupts, not unkindly, “but you have certainly proven yourself.”
All Soonyoung can do is gape at her, eyes wide with shock.
“Close your mouth, child,” Captain Miyoung scolds, though she looks amused. “The Council isn’t the only responsibility you’ll be undertaking. From now on, every meeting I go to, every campaign I ride in, every hunt and every dinner party, you will come with me. Even at Council meetings, no more standing behind the King; you sit by me, now. I think, with a little training, you can go far.” She raises an eyebrow. “That is, of course, if you are willing?”
Soonyoung looks like he’s had the wind knocked out of him. “Yes, yes, of course, thank you so much,” he stammers, fumbling over his words. “I– I won’t let you down!”
Captain Miyoung nods her head in acknowledgement. “Very good. Rest, for now; report to my chambers first thing tomorrow.” She turns to face Seungcheol in his box, bows to him in respect, then collects her sword and exits the ring.
Seungcheol can’t help the laugh that bubbles out of him, happy and bright. He can’t believe it– Soonyoung, on the Council! Not only that, he’s practically been made protégé to the Captain of the Guard, which is a massive step in Soonyoung’s career! It’s only Jeonghan’s polite cough that stops him from running down there and hugging the daylights out of Soonyoung, armour be damned. He’s a king now, he can’t be showing such blatant favouritism in front of hundreds of his subjects; he’ll just have to congratulate him later.
Jihoon has no such qualms. He literally sprints right into the middle of the ring, whooping and cheering with joy, tackling Soonyoung to the ground in what must be the most enthusiastic hug Seungcheol’s ever seen. “You did it!” he’s yelling, nearly vibrating with excitement. “Soonyoung, you did it!”
Soonyoung– Soonyoung is almost in a daze, just sits there in the dirt like he’s barely knows what’s happening. “I did it,” he mouths, disbelieving. His eyes meet Seungcheol’s, and it’s all Seungcheol can do not to yell praise at him. He settles for a grin so wide Seungcheol’s face feels like it’s splitting in two, and a little thumbs up.
Soonyoung smiles back, slowly, like it’s finally dawning on him, and then he’s clutching at Jihoon’s arms, pulling him into a tight hug. “I did it!” he yells, his voice so loud and so raw Seungcheol’s sure the whole lower town’s heard him.
Seungcheol feels so happy for Soonyoung he thinks he might burst. “I’m so proud of him,” he tells Jeonghan, getting a little choked up.
“He did well,” Jeonghan agrees, soft. He offers Seungcheol a white handkerchief.
“What is this for?”
“So you can mop up your tears, you emotional wreck,” Jeonghan teases. “Who knew banishment could make you even softer?”
Seungcheol gives him a flat, unimpressed stare. “I hate you,” he says, but takes the handkerchief anyway.
Jeonghan is kind enough to pretend he doesn’t notice when Seungcheol dabs at his eyes.
The next Council meeting rolls around a few days later. Jihoon isn’t in attendance, still holed up in his workroom with honest-to-goodness newts’ eyes and snake skins and whatever else he’s been gathering for his spell.
Soonyoung, however, is sitting next to Captain Miyoung, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the Council.
“Captain, you cannot simply appoint Council members without our consent!” says Lord Jungsoo, aghast. “No matter how skilled this boy may be at combat, he doesn’t have nearly the amount of expertise required–”
“May I remind you, Your Grace, that Sir Soonyoung is no mere boy, he is a full knight of six years who deserves to be treated with respect,” Captain Miyoung interrupts, voice cold. “May I also remind you, on the subject of expertise, that he has been riding with me and my knights since he was a squire of 15 years, a fact that surely gave him the wisdom and experience necessary to lead a successful siege just one week ago.” She pauses, turning to Seungcheol. “I don’t mean to understate your leadership, Your Majesty, but unless I am mistaken it seems impossible for Sir Soonyoung not to have played a vital role in the revolution.”
Seungcheol nearly smiles. “Indeed, you are not mistaken,” he says coolly. “Sir Soonyoung’s advice was indispensable to me during the planning stages, just as his blade was during the battle itself.”
“But, Your Majesty!” splutters Lord Jungsoo. “Er– forgive me, sire– I mean to say, one incident hardly speaks for his expertise. How can we entrust the fate of this kingdom to a youngling such as he?”
“Thin ice, Jungsoo-yah,” the Court Sorceror says suddenly, and the whole table falls silent. Court Sorceror Byeongcheol is not a talkative man when it comes to matters outside magic. It’s rare for him to participate in the Council’s bickering. “Don’t forget, your King is a youngling, too.”
The table erupts with quiet murmurs. Lord Jungsoo, who had been ready to argue, snaps his mouth shut. It’s true; Seungcheol is only one year older than Soonyoung is. To doubt Soonyoung’s ability to even speak his opinion on the Council on account of his age is to doubt Seungcheol’s ability to rule an entire kingdom. It had been bold for the Court Sorceror to say what was on everyone’s mind.
Seungcheol clears his throat. “That,” he says loudly, silencing the chatter, “is why I have a Council to advise me.” He turns back to Captain Miyoung. “Captain, say your piece. You will be heard.”
Captain Miyoung bows her head. “Thank you, sire. All I wish to say is this: I have brought Sir Soonyoung to this Council not because I believe he has expert knowledge in combat strategy. That is, as Lord Jungsoo rightly pointed out, absurd. No, I have other reasons for bringing him– the first of which is the very youth you doubt. Some of you may have witnessed his ingenuity in combat during the duels several days ago; I find it hard to believe that any one of us Council members would have the passion nor the creativity to leap onto a tough opponent’s back and deafen him with our bracers. That’s the kind of vigour only youth can grant.”
A chuckle passes around the table at the memory. Seungcheol nearly snorts himself at the bashful look on Soonyoung’s face.
“The second reason,” Captain Miyoung continues, “is exactly that of experience. Sir Soonyoung has been shadowing me for the past few days. I have asked him to do so in order to gain the experience necessary for a role in command.” She clears her throat, straightening in her seat. “Let me make clear why I have done so. I am not unaware of the deterioration of my physical state, both due to age and history in combat. It pains me to say, but death or retirement are both very real possibilities for my near future. It is my intention that, before either of those come to pass, Sir Soonyoung be trained as my successor.”
Seungcheol can’t help the surprised gasp he lets out. The Council bursts into outraged chatter. Soonyoung’s mouth has fallen open as he stares at Captain Miyoung. Clearly, he hadn’t been told of this either.
“Preposterous!” Lord Jungsoo splutters. “Captain, surely one of the senior knights–”
“They are as old as I,” Captain Miyoung says firmly, “or will be soon. Twenty years under a strong leader, in my opinion, will be more beneficial to our kingdom than fifteen under several mediocre ones.”
“Mediocre! How dare you–”
“Don’t misunderstand me, each and every one of my knights is a brilliant fighter,” Captain Miyoung tells him, firm, “but among them there is only one who can push this kingdom to change, who will allow us to become better than we are. We have heard, all week, of His Majesty’s ambitions, ambitions that not even I feel able to bring to fruition.” Her eyes are hard, certain. “Sir Soonyoung, however, can.”
The Council explodes with protest.
“–surely someone more experienced–”
“–cannot accept this–!”
Seungcheol sighs, rubbing his temples. All this shouting is giving him a headache. Some Council members have even gotten to their feet, shouting with rage. Captain Miyoung calmly sips her tea, quietly conversing with Soonyoung, who looks much less calm.
Finally, Seungcheol’s had enough. “Quiet!” he bellows. The room falls silent, all eyes on him. “I understand that many of you have concerns about this appointment. However, I also see Captain Miyoung’s point. I propose that we allow Sir Soonyoung to join us for a period of time, say three months, during which we will gauge his performance. Once those three months are up, we vote on whether or not we think he is worthy of a seat on the Council. Is that agreeable to you all?”
Murmurs of assent, and no outright objections, so Seungcheol counts it a win. He huffs an irritated breath. “Good. Now, if that’s all, I’d like to get started on this meeting…!”
The meeting goes smoothly after that. Soonyoung is attentive and professional, especially when he delivers his report on the alleged revolt by the duchies. It’s still not very much information, but it’s good work for the short amount of time he’s had, which seems to appease most of the Council.
Jihoon is waiting outside the Council room when they finish up for the day.
“Jihoonie!” Soonyoung beams at him. “Did you come to support me on my first day as a Council member?”
Jihoon, predictably, doesn’t even look at him. “Not like this is your first Council meeting,” he says, peering behind both Soonyoung and Seungcheol to the Council members still trickling out of the room.
Soonyoung pouts. “Just once, can’t you be nice to me?” he complains, but Jihoon’s already pushing past them.
“Court Sorceror!” he calls, hurrying to Court Sorceror Byeongcheol’s side. “If I could have just a minute of your time…”
Soonyoung sighs. Seungcheol pats his back comfortingly. “Think that’s got anything to do with his plan to get on the Council?” he asks.
Soonyoung shrugs, clearly just as in the dark as Seungcheol is. “I thought he was just going to challenge the Court Sorceror to, like, a wizard duel or something. Do wizards have duels?”
A duel between two powerful mages could get messy, quick; but if it isn’t a duel, what could it be? Seungcheol sighs, shaking his head. “Let’s just let Jihoon deal with it,” he says, because it’s not his problem until somebody makes a complaint.
“Good plan,” Soonyoung agrees. “Dinner? In your chambers?”
“Sure,” Seungcheol says, then squints at him suspiciously. “You know my meals aren’t any better than yours, right?”
Jihoon bursts into Seungcheol’s chambers just as he’s about to take a bite of roast beef. Jeonghan, in the middle of refilling his mug, jerks with surprise and spills water down his front.
“Would it kill you to knock?” Jeonghan groans, standing and heading for Seungcheol’s bedchambers. “Cheol, I’m stealing your clothes.”
Seungcheol sighs. “Take something old or the maids will gossip,” he calls after him. Jeonghan will probably ignore him, but at least he can say he tried.
“Soonyoung,” Jihoon says, impatient and panting. “I need you.”
Soonyoung looks just as shocked at Seungcheol feels. “What?” he croaks, his cheeks still stuffed with food.
“So, like, do you guys want me to leave, or,” Seungcheol says awkwardly.
“That’s– not what I meant,” Jihoon snaps, ears red. He shuts the doors behind him and stalks over to the table. “I need help hunting something.”
“Help?” Seungcheol repeats, incredulous. “You’ve been hunting all manner of beast for ten years–”
Jihoon cuts him off with a shake of his head. “This is no ordinary beast,” he says grimly. “I need to hunt a dragon.”
Seungcheol can’t believe his ears. Soonyoung must be in a similar state of shock, because his mouth falls open. Which, disgusting, but Seungcheol can’t fault him, because what else was he supposed to do when Jihoon dropped a bomb like that?
“Have you actually gone mad?” Soonyoung shrieks, voice cracking. “A dragon– what makes you think I can kill a dragon?!”
“If we’re lucky, we’ll only have to track it,” Jihoon says, with that unfortunate glint of determination in his eye. “I just need one scale– well, more would be ideal, but one should be sufficient.”
Seungcheol feels a headache coming on. “First of all,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose, “why do you need this dragon scale so badly?”
“To get on the Council,” Jihoon says, exasperated, like it should have been obvious. “Court Sorceror Byeongcheol is a researcher, an academic, not a warrior or a politician. He doesn’t care about the kingdom, not like you or I do. He’s only in this position of authority because he thinks he’s discovered all there is to know about magic and how to use it. He’s lost hope.”
Seungcheol isn’t following. “And this dragon scale is supposed to help… how?”
Jihoon gives up trying to just strongarm them into compliance. Which, to his credit, does sometimes work. Except not when it’s about dragons! “Years ago, Court Sorceror Byeongcheol came up with a spell,” he explains impatiently. “A spell to synthesise leather, or something very similar to it, without needing the hide of an animal. I won’t get into the details, but the spell never caught on because it took longer to synthesise leather than to do it the traditional way. I thought, maybe, if I showed that the spell could be used to synthesise something else, something we can’t create any other way, Court Sorceror Byeongcheol would be inspired to start doing research again.”
“And give up being Court Sorceror,” Soonyoung finishes, sounding awed. “And you’re sure he’ll appoint you in his place?”
Jihoon snorts. “I’ve basically been doing his job for years,” he says wryly. “Like I said, he doesn’t really care that much about this kingdom.”
“So, what, you’re trying to make a fake dragonskin?” Seungcheol asks.
“I think we could make something better,” Jihoon says, eyes glittering. “Dragonhide armour.”
That piques Seungcheol’s interest. Legend speaks of a heroic knight who vanquished the dragon terrorising his hometown, then made its scales into armour as his trophy. It was said to have imbued him with the strength and ferocity of a dragon, which allowed him to become the greatest warrior in the land.
“All the benefit, none of the risk involved in fighting a dragon,” Jihoon finishes. “It probably wouldn’t have any of the supposed mystical powers, but dragonhide is still a tough, fireproof material. If we can figure this spell out, it could really up our armies’ defense.”
“Is this what you were talking to Court Sorceror Byeongcheol about earlier?” Soonyoung asks. “What did he say?”
Jihoon scowls. “I brought up the possibility, but… he doesn’t believe me. Wants me to prove it. Hence, the dragon scale. I need something to base the synthesis on.”
Good God. Seungcheol can’t deny, it would be tremendously useful to have fireproof armour, but he still has his doubts about Jihoon’s current plan of attack. “Fine,” Seungcheol concedes, “but where are you even going to find a dragon? It’ll take twelve days hard ride to get to the nearest dragon’s lair and back again, surely you can’t be asking Soonyoung to just go away with you for two weeks.” He pauses, suspicious. “Wait, are you–”
“No, I am not!” Jihoon bursts out, flustered. He huffs angrily, clearly collecting himself. “We’re not going all the way to that lair, it’s too far and I think a mated pair of dragons would be far too much for us to handle anyway. Luckily, we might not have to. We’ve been keeping an eye on that mated pair; their hatchling reached maturity and left the nest just a few days ago, and there have been sightings of it flying over the western forest.”
The western forest– that’s barely an hour’s ride away. Seungcheol shifts anxiously. “It’s not going to make its lair there, is it?”
Thankfully, Jihoon shakes his head. “It’s a mountain dragon, it won’t want to settle on flat land so close to so many people. Most likely it’s just passing through.”
“And how are we to track it?” Soonyoung wants to know. “Dragons fly faster than our horses can run, and for much longer besides.”
“That’s why I was looking for you so urgently,” Jihoon replies. “We got the report of the sighting just a few hours ago. It’s probably resting in the forest until daybreak. If we’re quick and quiet, we might be able to sneak up to it while it’s asleep.”
Seungcheol shakes his head, incredulous. “What, and just yank a scale off its body?” he says sarcastically. “You can’t expect it to sleep through that.”
Surprisingly, it’s Soonyoung who answers. “Dragons shed scales like humans shed hair,” he says slowly, looking like he’s warming up to the idea. “If we’re lucky, we might find some just lying around.”
“They shed when they scratch, too, so,” Jihoon produces a flask of sickly yellow liquid from somewhere in his robes.
“Itching potion!” exclaims Soonyoung, which, why is Seungcheol not surprised he recognises it on sight? “Dude, that’s powerful stuff.”
“We’ll just use a little bit,” Jihoon assures him. “The dragon won’t even wake up, it’ll just scratch its scales off in its sleep. So, are you in or not?”
Seungcheol is not in, he’s not in at all. This is utter madness.
“Of course I’m in,” chirps Soonyoung.
Seungcheol wants to cry. “I thought having seven duels in a row was stupid,” he says, despairing, “but this is even worse.”
“He’d just go without me if I said no,” Soonyoung points out, already wiping his mouth with a napkin and standing up. Which is true, but.
“Why does he have to go at all?” Seungcheol laments, knowing full well neither of them are going to listen to him. “Can you at least take a couple other people with you? Knights, mages?”
“They’ll just slow us down,” Jihoon dismisses. “And anyway, more people means more noise. We can’t risk the dragon waking up.”
“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” Soonyoung tells him, grinning. “I’ll take care of him.”
Jihoon makes a face and shoves him in the shoulder. “I can take care of myself, asshole,” he snaps, annoyed.
“He’ll take care of me, then,” Soonyoung corrects, without missing a beat. “We’ll be back by daybreak. Don’t wait up!”
With that, both Jihoon and Soonyoung stride from the room, at ease and confident like they aren’t walking into the maw of a giant fire-breathing beast. Seungcheol sighs as the doors close behind them. He appreciates them and their dedication to supporting him as their king, but really, do they have to risk their lives to do so?
“Are they gone?” comes Jeonghan’s voice from the bedchamber.
Seungcheol jumps a little. He’d almost forgotten Jeonghan was still in there. “Yeah,” he calls back, and Jeonghan comes out to join him at the table, wearing (sigh) one of Seungcheol’s nice silk shirts. “Didn’t I say to pick an old shirt? The servants are going to spread rumours about us again.”
“Let them,” Jeonghan says, grinning. “I don’t like looking like I’m wearing your castoffs.”
Seungcheol gives up. Whatever, it’s old news around the castle anyway, rumours like these have been going around since they were sixteen and Seungcheol showed no interest in tumbling any scullery maids in the stables, which is apparently what princes are supposed to do. He decides to change the subject instead: “What took you so long, then? Snooping through my stuff?”
Jeonghan snorts. “You don’t have a single thing in there that I don’t know about,” he says, in such an ominous way that Seungcheol starts sweating, even though he doesn’t have anything to hide. “I just didn’t want to barge in and ruin the mood.”
Seungcheol frowns. “What mood?” he asks, confused.
Jeonghan shrugs, taking a bite of mashed potatoes. “The three of you are really close,” he says lightly.
That bothers Seungcheol. “You know you’re my best friend, right?” he says, worried. “I know I’ve been working closely with them lately, but that doesn’t change things between us.”
Jeonghan looks amused, but also a little touched. “That’s not what I meant, but thank you. No, I was talking about how there might be, ah, things that they feel comfortable saying to each other in front of you that they might not in front of me,” he says cryptically.
“What,” says Seungcheol.
Jeonghan laughs. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, turning back to his dinner. “If the dragon eats them, you won’t have to think about it ever again.”
Seungcheol groans. “Don’t even joke about that! Why do these kids insist on doing these things? They keep telling me it’s because they’re behind me or whatever, but I’d rather they be safe and wait instead of pulling reckless stunts like this. They’d both be promoted to the Council, in time.”
“Oh, yes, just like you waited to ascend to the throne,” Jeonghan says dryly.
Seungcehol gapes at him. “That was different,” he protests. “People were suffering–!”
“And people will continue to suffer if you don’t get some Council members on your side,” Jeonghan retorts. “All the good ideas in the world don’t mean a thing if you can’t get them past the Council.”
Seungcheol falls silent. Technically, he can just defy the Council, but Seungcheol really, really doesn’t want to be that kind of king.
“They believe in you,” Jeonghan continues. “Maybe you should believe in them.”
Seungcheol looks down at his plate, pushing his food around. Jeonghan gives him space, lets silence fall between them as Seungcheol mulls it over. He’s good at that, knows when to speak up and when to back off. Not for the first time, Seungcheol is grateful to have him by his side.
“You’re right,” Seungcheol sighs eventually, when he can’t deny it any longer. “They’ve done this much for me. I should stop second-guessing and just trust them.”
Jeonghan grins at him, cheeky. “I’m always right,” he says, cocky. “It’s one of my many talents, next to my dashing good looks and boundless benevolence. Hey, maybe you should put me on your Council–”
Seungcheol snorts. “Three new members, all under the age of thirty, in one week? Let’s try not to kill the Council with shock, shall we?”
Jeonghan laughs and lets it drop. Seungcheol, though, doesn’t. Jeonghan on the Council… now there’s a thought.
Soonyoung and Jihoon show up at the castle gates at daybreak, clothes singed black and faces smeared with soot. Jihoon’s hair is an absolute mess of dirt and burnt leaves; Soonyoung’s missing several pieces of armour, including his chestplate.
“I take it things didn’t go according to plan,” Seungcheol says by way of greeting, when he meets them in the courtyard by the main entrance.
Jihoon looks exhausted, but musters up a poisonous glare at Soonyoung anyway as he swings off his black mare.
“It was an accident,” Soonyoung protests, dismounting his own chestnut gelding. “It’s not my fault the dragon twitched in its sleep right as I was pouring the itching potion on it, how do you expect me to react?”
Jihoon rolls his eyes, but lets it drop. “There’ll be reports of fire and smoke from the western forest,” he tells Seungcheol instead, giving his mare a loving pat before letting the stablehands take her away. “Don’t worry, we dealt with it.”
“Honestly, the dragon went down pretty easy,” says Soonyoung, which, considering he looks like he’s been through hell, seems unlikely.
“When he says ‘easy’ he means he nearly got roasted distracting it while I cast a sleeping spell,” Jihoon corrects, unamused.
“It was better once my armour was ripped off,” Soonyoung tells him, like the fact that his armour was ripped off his body is no cause for concern. “And anyway, the forest fire nearly killed us way more times than the dragon did. Thank God we managed put it out.”
Seungcheol briefly considers asking how, exactly, they did that, but decides he doesn’t want to know. “Tell me you got a scale, at least,” he sighs, already feeling tired even though the day’s barely started.
Jihoon holds up a little pouch. It rattles dully, like a bag of toenail clippings. (Which, yes, thanks to his lifelong friendship with Jihoon, Seungcheol knows what a bag of toenail clippings sounds like.) “Plenty,” Jihoon says triumphantly. “Now I just have to finish that spell–”
“No,” Seungcheol interrupts sternly. “Not today. Go get your injuries looked at, have a bath, get some sleep. Both of you.”
Jihoon opens his mouth to argue, but closes it again when Seungcheol fixes him with a flat stare.
“Yes, dad,” says Soonyoung, rolling his eyes. “As long as you’re the one explaining this to Captain Miyoung. She’s not going to be happy.”
“Yeah, of course,” Seungcheol says, all false bravado. Captain Miyoung is absolutely terrifying.
Both Soonyoung and Jihoon don’t look convinced, but lets him shoo them off into the castle anyway, both promising they’ll get some rest. Soonyoung, he believes, but Seungcheol posts a guard outside Jihoon’s workroom just in case. He wouldn’t put it past that boy to lie to his face.
A few days later, Seungcheol finds himself arms deep in arrangements to be made for the nobles who are coming to his coronation. Between making sure the royals of other kingdoms aren’t made to feel inferior and keeping his own gentry as far from their petty rivals as possible, assigning rooms, even in this massive castle, is no easy task, and it doesn’t help that they still don’t know which of the gentry are involved in the uprising, if there is to be one at all. Seungcheol and Jeonghan have been sat staring at the schematic of the castle they’ve sprawled on the floor of Seungcheol’s chambers for the past hour and a half, and they’ve only gone a third of the way down the guest list.
“Next, Lady Ga-young,” Jeonghan reads from his roll of parchment, quill at the ready. “She’s requested a window facing east so she may be ‘coaxed awake by the sweet caress of morning sunlight’– her words, not mine. Also, she’s allergic to cats.”
“Why do we care if she’s allergic to cats?” Seungcheol sighs, head in his hands.
“Because the only room left in the eastern wing is next to Duchess Si-ah, who’s bringing her beloved Prince Snugglepuss,” Jeonghan says patiently, using his foot to point out where they’ve scribbled it on the schematic.
Seungcheol groans. “Can we just give up,” he whines. “Let’s just cancel this entire coronation, what do you think?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I’ve already ordered the flowers,” Jeonghan replies without missing a beat, used to Seungcheol’s complaining. “I suppose we can put the duchess in the southern wing– ah, no, but she and Lady Soojeong had a thing that one summer, remember? It might make things awkward.”
Seungcheol sighs, takes a moment to wish he had a kinder, more indulgent best friend, then leans over to squint at the schematic. “They’re just going to have to deal with it,” he decides, when he can find no other alternative. “It was, like, ten years ago, they can suck it up for a few days.”
Jeonghan makes notes on the schematic. There’s probably a more dignified way to do this whole planning business than having his servant crawl over the floor so he can scribble his lopsided chicken scratch on the castle floorplans, but Seungcheol gave up on dignity about three days into his unofficial reign. He’s glad Jeonghan’s here, though. If anyone knows the politics and tensions going on between the nobles– and how to deal with them!– it’s Jeonghan. He has a knack for it, for reading people and getting what he wants out of them. It’s a valuable, admirable skill, one Seungcheol wishes he had.
Seungcheol hesitates. “Jeonghan,” he says slowly, nervous. “I– There’s something I have to ask you.”
“Hmm?” Jeonghan hums, still scribbling away.
“Well,” Seungcheol stalls, licking his lips, “I, uh. That is, how would you feel about–”
Before he can finish his sentence, the door bursts open and Soonyoung sticks his head in. “Seungcheol-hyung,” he says, panting, “Jihoon’s summoning us. I think he’s finished the spell!”
Seungcheol’s eyebrows shoot up. “Yes, of course,” he says, standing. “Uh, Jeonghan, sorry, can you finish this up on your own?”
“Rude,” Jeonghan sniffs, mock-offended. “Go on, don’t let me keep you.”
Seungcheol shoots him a grin. “You’re the best. We’ll talk later?”
Jeonghan waves him off impatiently, so Seungcheol goes, grateful to get away from boring room assignments.
Court Sorceror Byeongcheol is already in Jihoon’s workroom when Soonyoung and Seungcheol show up. “Amazing,” he’s saying, holding what must be a swatch of synthesised dragonhide, tough and thick and forest green. “Simply marvellous! How did you get it to stabilise in this form?”
It’s the most enthusiastic Seungcheol’s heard him sound in years. He doesn’t even acknowledge Seungcheol when he comes into the room, too busy running his fingers over the dragonhide reverently.
Jihoon looks exhausted, but nods in greeting. The few junior mages hanging about the room bow hastily too. “We used ginger, my lord,” Jihoon says to Court Sorceror Byeongcheol. “As you know, the nomadic tribes that pass through the eastern of the kingdom practice their own brand of witchcraft– they use ginger powder in their hunting charms, to steady their hearts and keep their arrows flying straight. I thought, perhaps, the same principle might apply here.”
“Fascinating!” Court Sorceror Byeongcheol exclaims, eyes shining. “I hadn’t thought there to be any merit in their superstitions– with no words spoken over their charms, I thought it impossible for any spell to hold. Goes to show that an old man is not always a wise one!”
Jihoon smiles tersely. “Indeed, it seems there is much yet to learn about magic.”
“Oh, yes!” Court Sorceror Byeongcheol agrees, eyes shining. “So much we haven’t discovered– ah, I feel alive again! Where did you learn of the nomads’ customs? I must look into them at once– what more might we have missed?”
“But, my lord,” says Jihoon, eyes wide in mock-surprise, as if this wasn’t his plan all along. “How will you have the time to do all this research when you have your Court Sorceror duties to attend to?”
“Oh, bugger Court Sorceror duties!” says Court Sorceror Byeongcheol, with the vigour of a much younger man. “You can take over the role, can’t you, lad? You already assist me with my duties anyway, and you have the king’s trust. Surely he would not deny you, if you are willing?”
Jihoon masks his triumph with a bow. “I would be honoured, my lord,” he says.
Court Sorceror Byeongcheol looks overjoyed. “Right!” he says, clapping his hands together. “That’s settled, then. Bring me quill and parchment, I shall write sign a statement so you may take it to the king–”
“No need for that, Your Grace,” says Seungcheol, and he has to admit, it’s kind of funny to see the old man jump.
To his credit, Court Sorceror Byeongcheol quickly regains his bearings. “I didn’t see you there, Your Majesty, I apologise,” he says quickly, though he doesn’t sound particularly sorry. “I hereby resign from my position as Court Sorceror and appoint this boy– Jihoon, was it?– in my stead. I beg you to agree, my lord– this is vital research, research that will surely be of use to this kingdom, it is my life’s calling–”
Seungcheol holds up a hand. “No need to justify this to me any more, Your Grace– you had me at ‘bugger Court Sorceror duties’.”
“Oh, thank you, sire!” Court Sorceror Byeongcheol– or, rather, Lord Byeongcheol, now that he’s resigned– is glowing. “I am forever in your debt! Now, Jihoon, where did you hear about the nomads–?”
“One of their shamans assisted in the revolution,” Jihoon says. “She’s staying in the inn, in the lower town– she’s considering joining us, as a mage.”
“Marvellous!” exclaims Lord Byeongcheol, and scurries off to find her.
“Well,” says Soonyoung, in the silence that follows. “That was easier than duelling seven knights.”
Jihoon is appointed the next morning, with little fanfare. The mages are in attendance, of course, dressed in their finest robes. So is the Council, although surprisingly, none are kicking a fuss. Most of them probably realise that Jihoon’s a better fit for this role than Lord Byeongcheol ever was, but Seungcheol still expected a token protest or two about his age.
Surprisingly, Seungcheol is barely involved in this ceremony. Jihoon and Lord Byeongcheol bow to each other, exchange some somber words about duties and humility, and then more in the ancient tongue of magic. The mages in the room chant the words back, solemn and low, then Lord Byeongcheol steps away and Jihoon turns to kneel before Seungcheol.
“I lay my power at your feet, for you to command through me,” says Jihoon, and Seungcheol expected it to sound formalised, mechanical, like every other appointment he’s ever witnessed. Instead, Jihoon’s voice is firm and strong and passionate, like he believes every word. “I vow to serve you and act as your vassal in all things. I swear fealty to you, my King, and no other, if my doing so shall please you.”
“It does,” says Seungcheol, the words coming out strong and warm. He raises his ceremonial sceptre, touching the tip to Jihoon’s shoulders, and then his head. “I appoint you: Court Sorceror Jihoon.”
Applause fills the room. Jihoon rises, silent, but his eyes burning with fierce determination. “I will serve you well, my liege,” he promises, quiet enough that it was meant for Seungcheol and not the crowd.
Seungcheol smiles, pride welling up in his chest. “Yes,” he agrees, just as quietly. “I believe you will.”
Jihoon wastes no time getting down to business. He is quiet but authoritative, doesn’t interrupt without reason and makes sure he speaks firmly enough to be taken seriously. It’s almost amazing to watch; Jihoon is up to his eyes in talent and skill, and he isn’t afraid to show it. It’s a marked difference to Soonyoung– where Soonyoung is wearing the Council down slowly, proving his worth day by day in small shows of trustworthiness, Jihoon simply bulldozes them down. “The strain this would put on our magical resources is outrageous” or “the tax on petty charms is outdated and discriminatory” or even “with all due respect, Your Grace, that just isn’t how magic works”– Jihoon is taking no shit from anybody. The Council will soon learn they can’t bully him.
Things truly heat up, however, when the topic of Seungcheol’s coronation comes up. “We have a list of nobles we suspect to be involved in the revolt,” Soonyoung says, “but we still don’t have anything concrete. It won’t be possible to deal with this before the coronation, I’m afraid.”
“I say we bar all of the suspects from coming, then,” says Lord Jungsoo. “Better safe than sorry! What if they try to assassinate the king?”
“Too obvious,” Lady Young-ok dismisses. “It’ll tip off the ones we haven’t caught wind of and make it harder for us to catch them.”
“What do you propose, then? Are we to invite traitors onto our doorstep?” Lord Jungsoo snaps back.
Seungcheol holds up a hand, already anticipating a squabble. “Please, let’s not fight between us. Captain Miyoung, what say you?”
Captain Miyoung pauses, weighs her words carefully before she speaks. “Lord Jungsoo has a point,” she says, “but so does Lady Young-ok. Our intelligence suggests they aren’t ready to strike yet, which means there may be some room for us to gather more information and make sure we nail down the right people. But… I hesitate to simply welcome them all into the castle and hope they don’t attack.”
Seungcheol hums, thinking. Move too early and they’ll alert the traitors; move too late and Seungcheol could end up with a literal knife in his back. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
“We can, of course, assign Your Majesty an extra set of guards,” Captain Miyoung continues. “That should work well enough, even as a deterrent, for normal day-to-day activity. It’s the ceremony itself that concerns me– we can’t stop the king from being alone then.”
Surprisingly, Jihoon is the first to speak. “I may have a solution,” he says slowly. “A spell, typically used by miners to detect metal. Nobody should be bringing weapons to the coronation ceremony– this way, we’ll be able to keep an eye on any would-be attackers.”
This causes a stir among the Council. Lady Young-ok leans forward. “How does the spell work?” she asks, looking intrigued.
“It will allow my mages and I to sense every bit of metal in a particular area, no matter how hidden,” Jihoon explains.
“Every bit of metal?” Lord Jungsoo clarifies. “What about small medals or buckles on official uniforms, will those set the spell off?”
“Yes, but we’d know it’s not what we’re looking for. We get a feel for the size and shape of the metal. Though it’s not particularly precise– more like seeing a silhouette than the real thing.”
“What about armour?” Captain Miyoung wants to know. “If the attackers hide knives in their metal armour, will you be able to tell?”
“We’d be able to sense the presence of another piece of metal in addition to the armour, yes.”
“How big is the area of effect?” Soonyoung asks. “Who would be able to sense the metal?”
“With the help of my mages, it shouldn’t be a problem to cover the entire throne room. Every mage who lent their power to the spell would be party to it; we could station some on the balcony level to keep an eye on things and leave the rest on the ground for quick response.”
Lady Young-ok makes a disapproving noise. “Not a bad plan,” she says, “but I spot a problem.
Jihoon inclines his head, calm. “What is it, my lady?”
Lady Young-ok’s eyes are sharp. “How can we trust you?” she challenges. “If only you and your mages can see the metal, what’s stopping you from lying to our faces?”
That sets the table murmuring. Seungcheol has to fight not to react. Outbursts will not help them here.
“Your Grace,” Soonyoung says, from halfway down the table, teeth gritted in clearly contained anger. “Respectfully, what reason would he have to do that? Why would Jihoon help His Majesty with the siege only to have him assassinated right after?”
Lady Young-ok shrugs, eyes not leaving Jihoon. “Perhaps he thinks the young king is easier to overthrow,” she suggests, voice cold. “He is a mighty sorcerer, is he not? Perhaps he intends to stage a coup, to claim the throne for himself–”
“Lady Young-ok!” Lord Jungsoo, surprisingly, is the one to interrupt, sounding aghast. “You go too far! New as he is, you cannot make accusations like these against a member of this Council without any sort of evidence!”
“Accusation?” Lady Young-ok repeats, finally looking away from Jihoon. “No, I was merely stating a possibility. The boy was very eager to join the Council. I cannot deny I found it… strange.”
Seungcheol desperately wants to punch something. His fingers clench into fists under the table; it takes Jeonghan clearing his throat and leaning over under the pretence of topping up Seungcheol’s water mug to shake him out of it.
Jihoon, in spite of all this, keeps his cool. “I understand, Your Grace,” he says, smoothly, like he isn’t being accused of wanting to murder his king for the crown. “Although it is regrettable that you think of me in that way, I understand that nothing I say will change your mind. My primary concern is with this coronation. I still believe that this metal-detecting spell is our best bet at catching any potential attackers. If you cannot trust me, may I suggest an alternative? I believe it may be possible for us to extend the effects of the spell to the eyes of the Council, so you all will see what we see.”
“And why have you not mentioned this before?” Lady Young-ok challenges, eyebrow raised.
“For those unused to magical Sight, it may be… disorienting,” Jihoon says, rather cryptically. “Any magician can verify this. Nevertheless, if you do not trust me, this is the only path forward.”
Captain Miyoung leans forward, evidently intrigued. “And how, exactly, would this extension work?”
“Amulets,” Jihoon answers. “One each. It will take a fair amount of preparation, and requires a strand of hair from every person to participate. Perhaps Lord Byeongcheol can make them, to assure you that I am not pulling any wool over your eyes.”
“And how do we know he isn’t in on it too?” Lady Young-ok says. “He was mighty quick to give his position up to you–”
“Your Grace!” cries Lord Jungsoo, glaring now. “You will not speak ill of Lord Byeongcheol. He has been a loyal member of this Council and kingdom for decades!”
Lady Young-ok bows at him. “My apologies, my lord,” she says, but Seungcheol gets the feeling that she isn’t sorry at all. “I am merely being cautious.”
Seungcheol nearly snorts. Most likely she’s just salty that Jihoon (and Soonyoung, probably) gained a spot on the Council so easily. If he recalls correctly, it took her upwards of a decade and no small amount of brown-nosing before she got hers.
“Very well,” Seungcheol calls, and the chatter quiets. “Are we decided? Court Sorceror Jihoon will cast a metal-detection spell, and Lord Byeongcheol will create amulets so that members of the Council– only those who are willing, of course– will be able to see the metal, too. Any objections?”
Some murmuring, some sulking on Lady Young-ok’s part, but no real objections.
“It’s settled, then,” Seungcheol says. “Just a reminder, though I’m sure you’re all aware: apart from Lord Byeongcheol and the mages, nobody outside this room is to know about this. We can’t risk the wrong people catching wind of this. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sire,” the table more-or-less choruses.
“Good,” Seungcheol says, authoritative. “Council is adjourned!”
The days pass by in a whirlwind after that. There’s so much to do, speeches to draft and fittings to attend and portraits to pose for. The speeches are difficult to write, and harder to hear feedback on, because it goes through several layers of proofreading, after which Jeonghan schedules a session with Wonwoo and Seungcheol has to sit there listening to all the ways his speech sucks. Still, it’s better than the fittings, which is basically the tailor and her assistants sticking pins uncomfortably close to Seungcheol’s body while Jeonghan laughs at his discomfort from a nearby chaise.
And neither of those even come close to the portraits. Seungcheol has to stand there, posing in his heavy fur-lined cape and big poofy crown, carrying the orb and sceptre, for hours. Literal hours. People come looking for him to talk to about whatever issue and find him in the throne room posing in full royal finery. Which, sure, maybe he was used to this once upon a time, but two years living as a commoner have made him sorely embarrassed at all this ostentatiousness. He swears to himself he’ll have portraits done only once every few years, instead of once a month like his father had insisted on.
And then, suddenly, the coronation is upon them. The guests start pouring in up to a week prior; Seungcheol runs up and down greeting them, making sure they’re settled in, diplomatically sidestepping any last-minute room-change requests. Lord Byeongcheol hands out amulets for the Council members to test. Seungcheol declined one; he’d probably go crazy if he thought he was going to get stabbed with every glimpse of metal. He trusts Jihoon and his Council to watch his back, anyway.
(Just as well, really, because over the next couple of days, Seungcheol sees a good few Council members stumble about as if drunk, curse quite a fair bit, then aggressively yank the amulet off and hand it back to Jihoon in a huff. Turns out, Jihoon wasn’t lying about the disorientation.)
With everything going on, all the hands he has to shake and names he has to remember and squabbles he has to break up, it doesn’t hit him until literally the morning of the coronation that he’s going to be king.
Seungcheol takes a deep, shaky breath.
“You’ll be fine,” Jeonghan tells him quietly, fastening Seungcheol’s red velvet cape with a polished golden clasp. He straightens Seungcheol’s tunic, smoothes it down with his hands. “You’ll be amazing.”
“I just want to be– good for the people,” he whispers back, heart thumping loud in his ears.
“I know,” Jeonghan says softly. “That’s why you’ll be a great king.”
His words are gentle but warm, quiet but full of conviction. They make Seungcheol’s pulse settle, calm his roiling nerves. He takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out slowly.
“Thank you,” Seungcheol rasps, quiet and honest and so, so grateful. Jeonghan always knows what to say. Which… “Hey.”
Jeonghan must pick up on the shift in his tone, because he looks up at him with a frown. “What?” he asks. “What, what’s up, cold feet? Because I have spent too long planning this coronation–”
“No,” Seungcheol cuts him off, a little harshly, and Jeonghan falls silent, surprised. “Sorry. That’s not what I–” Seungcheol takes a deep breath, shaking his head. And then, because he figures it’s best to just come out with it, “How do you feel about working for Lord Jungsoo?”
Jeonghan just– stares at him. “What?” he says, voice flat.
“Not, like, as a servant,” Seungcheol clarifies hastily. “I mean, like– an apprentice. I’ve already talked to him about it, he’s happy to take you on–”
“There’s no way I’d be able to do that and be your servant.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Seungcheol says, nervous. “You– You wouldn’t be my servant anymore.”
Jeonghan looks like he’s just been slapped. “What is this about, Seungcheol?” he asks quietly. “What did I do?”
Seungcheol blinks, surprised; he hadn’t expected this reaction. “Do? You didn’t do anything. Or, well, you did, you have been, it’s just– you said it yourself, you’d be great on my Council, and I was thinking, you’re so good at managing people and keeping a handle on things in general–”
“So you were just trying to be nice,” Jeonghan says, in a way that suggests he’s been anything but. “You thought I’d jump at this chance to get on the Council. Is that it?”
Seungcheol is– baffled. “Well, kinda,” he admits. “Even when we were kids, you loved the politics lessons way more than me. I thought you’d be interested in a position like this.”
Jeonghan sighs, obviously frustrated. “Don’t get me wrong, I am interested,” he says, “but I don’t want to be on your Council. Not like this.”
“Oh,” says Seungcheol, a little hurt. “Um. Why?”
Jeonghan’s eyes are fierce, burning. “I’m not leaving your side,” he says, so firm and determined it makes Seungcheol’s breath catch in his throat. “People like Jihoon and Soonyoung follow you because they believe in your ideals. I follow you because you’re you.”
It’s all Seungcheol can do to stare, mouth agape, at Jeonghan. “Oh,” he says faintly.
Jeonghan isn’t finished. “I will go, if you want me to,” he says lowly, which Seungcheol can tell took a lot for him to say. “But… I’d much rather stay.” His gaze, when it meets Seungcheol’s is meaningful, melancholy. “It’s been– it’s been two years, Seungcheol,” is all he says, voice quiet.
It’s all he needs to say. Seungcheol knows exactly what he means, knows how hard it was to go from inseparable to miles apart with little to no contact in a moment. Two years since Seungcheol left and Jeonghan stayed, two years of too-infrequent letters and fleeting magic-meetings. Two years, in which Seungcheol realised, maybe– maybe there’s something here that he’s never noticed before.
“Stay,” Seungcheol whispers, reaches out so he can grasp Jeonghan’s fingers. “Please, stay.”
Jeonghan lets out a breath, tightens his fingers around Seungcheol’s. “You couldn’t keep me away even if you wanted to,” he murmurs, and Seungcheol can’t help but laugh.
The coronation goes smoothly.
The beginning is smooth as silk. Seungcheol holds his head high as he walks through the throne room, his cape trailing regally behind him, his hair shining all different colours in the light that comes in through the stained-glass windows. With every step, he feels more settled, feels like this is right. Within the hour, he will be king. The thought is not nearly as terrifying as it once was; his body thrums with anticipation, not terror.
He makes it to the front of the room, right before the throne, where the oldest member of the nobility waits for him. It is Lady Cheon-ja, swathed in fine silks, her wrinkled face proud and kindly. She was always kind to him, had always kept his secrets and let him hide in her chambers with his stolen cookies when he was a child. It seems fitting that she is the one to officiate his coronation, as his parents cannot.
Seungcheol sinks into a kneeling bow before her, takes comfort in her gentle touch to his back. “My child,” she says, her voice enchanted to echo around the room. “Are you willing to take the oath?”
“Do you swear to govern the people of this kingdom to the best of your ability?”
“I swear it.”
“Do you promise to uphold the laws of this kingdom with a fair hand?”
“I promise it.”
“Do you vow to do what is best for your people, to make decisions for their sake and theirs alone?”
Seungcheol pauses. A murmur sweeps through the throne room, particularly among those native to this kingdom. This is not part of the usual script. He sneaks a peek up at her– Lady Cheon-ja’s eyes twinkle kindly at him.
Seungcheol smiles back, drops his head back into a proper bow. “I vow it,” he says, voice strong and firm, and the force of it settles the chatter.
“Rise, my child,” sayd Lady Cheon-ja, a hint of a smile in her voice. Seungcheol does, and from a purple cushion behind her she takes the royal orb in her age-shaky hands. “This orb represents the world of your kingdom, the people whom you will govern. By taking it, you hold them and their lives in your hands. Will you accept this responsibility?”
“I will,” says Seungcheol, and takes the orb in his right hand.
Lady Cheon-ja takes the sceptre next. “This rod represents the justice you must deal. You will have the power of judgement and punishment. In excercising this power, you must strike a balance between justice and mercy, punishment and protection. Will you do so?”
“I will,” says Seungcheol, and takes the sceptre in his left.
Finally, finally, Lady Cheon-ja raises the crown. She turns to him with a smile on her face and warmth in her eyes, and Seungcheol is so, so honoured with how much she believes in him. “This crown is luxurious and laden with valuables– but these valuables also weigh it down. It represents the weight of your position, under the glory and gilt. King is a glamorous title, but you must not forget that with it comes the heaviest duty of all. Will you bear this weight along with the gold?”
This is it. Seungcheol swallows, heartbeat steady. “I will bear it gladly,” he says, and his voice is so raw and so honest it nearly surprises himself. Lady Cheon-ja smiles at him, and he lowers his head so she can place the crown on his head. She pats his cheeks gently as she pulls away, like he’s a kid again, and steps backwards, bowing low to him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she calls, as Seungcheol turns around to face the people– his people, now. “I give you: His Majesty King Seungcheol! Long live the king!”
“Long live the king!” the crowd shouts back. “Long live the king! Long live the king!”
Seungcheol can’t help the tiny smile that grows on his face. The shouts are so loud it resonates all the way down to Seungcheol’s bones, filling him with fierce pride and loyalty. It’s not just in here, he realises with a start. Outside the castle, too, all the way from the lower town– his people are shouting for him, cheering for him. It’s all he can do to turn his face up, to bask in the awe and amazement and the love of his people. There are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes; he can’t believe how lucky he is.
He’s so swept up in the feeling that he barely even notices he’s been stabbed until the cheers turn to screams.
Everything happens in a flash. Seungcheol falls to the ground, stunned. Soonyoung and Captain Miyoung, in the front row as part of the Council, immediately pounce on the attacker, tackling him to the ground; Jihoon literally leaps down from the balcony level, using magic to slow his fall, and rushes to Seungcheol’s side. “Are you okay, Seungcheol, can you hear me?” he asks, voice steady but urgent. “Listen– was the blade poisoned, do you feel–”
“Death– Deathlight,” Seungcheol wheezes, because unfortunately for his would-be murderer, he’s encountered the stuff before.
“Deathlight, okay, I can work with that,” Jihoon says, and turns to yell something at someone that Seungcheol can’t quite focus on. His vision is going dark very rapidly, which is– concerning.
“Can’t– see,” Seungcheol slurs, because he really can’t, not very much, not anymore. “Gonna– pass out–”
“No, no, no no no,” gasps a new voice, accompanied by a hand, grasping his in a vice-like grip. “Seungcheol, no, stay with me, c’mon–”
“Jeonghan,” Seungcheol manages, and passes out.
Seungcheol awakes with a start. He sits up sharply, which he immediately regrets, because it feels like his entire insides were removed and then stuffed back into his body. Which, par for the course with deathlight poisoning, honestly.
“You’re awake,” says a familiar voice, and Seungcheol turns to see Jihoon standing a short ways away, arms crossed over his chest. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“I’m not dead,” Seungcheol croaks. He reaches for the glass of water by his bed, sipping gingerly. His hands are shaking, which, not fun.
“No, you’re not,” Jihoon agrees. “Though you gave it a pretty good shot. Asshole.”
“Not my fault I was stabbed with a poisoned knife,” Seungcheol retorts, because really, it was the attacker who was the asshole. “What happened?”
Jihoon sighs. “Attacker used a bone knife,” he says darkly. “Which, good news and bad news. Good news, it absorbed most of the deathlight poison, so not nearly as much of it went into your system. Which is why you’re still with us today.”
Good God. Guess that explained why the metal-detection spell didn’t pick up on the knife. But that means… “Bad news,” Seungcheol says, feeling a numb sort of shock, “we have a leak in the Council.”
“We had a leak,” Jihoon corrects grimly. “Turns out Lady Young-ok wasn’t just a salty bitch, she was a salty traitor, too. The attacker– one of the lesser dukes– he sold her out hoping we’d lighten his sentence. We have them both locked up in the dungeons as we speak.”
Seungcheol shakes his head. He can’t believe it. A member of his very own Council… he’d have to be more careful from now on. “And the rest of the revolution?”
“Silent, for now,” Jihoon says. “We’ll keep our ears to the ground, but they probably won’t bother us for some time more.”
Seungcheol sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ve been king for one day and someone’s already tried to assassinate me,” he laments. “Is it too late to abdicate?”
“You signed up for this, I’m afraid,” Jihoon tells him lightly, and just laughs– laughs!– when Seungcheol falls back onto his pillows with an exasperated groan, and then another when his body screams in protest.
“Being poisoned sucks,” Seungcheol whines. “Hey, next time just let me die, it’ll hurt less than this.”
Jihoon snorts. “Can’t do that, Your Majesty, no matter how many times you nearly get killed,” he says, too-casual. Seungcheol lifts his head so he can squint at him, suspicious.
Jihoon grins. “Long live the king,” he says, and expertly ducks under the pillow Seungcheol chucks at his head.