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trance of the empire (strangle my desire)

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172 days.

 

Nayeon is woken by one of her servers fluttering about her bed-chamber. She doesn’t bother looking over her shoulder, already knowing who she’ll find. 

Dusting, sweeping -- poorly , mind -- leaving behind fingerprints on every glass ornament in the room just to find an excuse to clean them a second, third time, a young medical apprentice will be occupying space in the corner of her room, being a nuisance. 

Nayeon grits her teeth. It’s early, and she isn’t required for duty for another few hours yet. The very fact of her consciousness is a massive point of frustration for Nayeon, but definitely not an accident on her staff’s part. 

“Sana,” Nayeon groans, pushing her sheets away from her face. Her voice is hoarse from sleep, the rasp of it cutting out the better half of her words as she grumbles out her complaints. “How is it you keep getting in here?” 

Sana’s long dark hair is twisted away from her face, and her gown, dull and thin, is far too shapeless for it to be her own. “You left it unlocked,” she responds, unphased by Nayeon’s disapproval. 

Nayeon wonders briefly who Sana stole the uniform from, before recognising that she doesn’t really care. 

“That is not an invitation inside,” Nayeon reminds her, thrusting the blanket off her torso in a strop. She jerks up. “How many times have you--” Nayeon hisses, flinching away from the stream of sunlight beaming directly into her line of sight. She scuffles across towards the more shaded side of her bed. “--Been warned?”

The oppressive brightness that flooded her room early morning was in large part why Nayeon hated being woken before the sun rose over her tower. If Sana insisted on being here during the sunrise, then she could at least make herself useful by… by stitching up an array of thick cloths to block the light from the window, or something.

Nayeon rubs at her eyes, her spotted-white vision pitiful and aching, and pauses thoughtfully. Maybe she should order it.

Sana knocks into one of the brooms she’s using as a prop, startling Nayeon. Whipping her head around in fright, Nayeon just about manages to catch a glimpse of the wooden stick’s descent as Sana sends it clattering to the floor, the whack resounding off the brickwork. Both Sana and Nayeon visibly wince at the racket it makes. 

Nayeon holds her breath for an elongated moment, listening out for any commotion to follow outside in the halls. It was one thing to sneak into her room acting as if she belonged, but it would be another thing entirely if she got caught. 

After enough time passes to ease them both with relief that no one had been alerted, Sana and Nayeon sag in their respective positions, breathing evenly again. After a moment Sana bends to retrieve the broom off the floor with a slight apprehensiveness, telling Nayeon that dropping it in the first place had been a genuine accident this time. After all, this whole charade is to catch only Nayeon’s attention, not her guards’.

Still. It’s annoying, Nayeon thinks angrily, flopping back against her bed. Usually, she wouldn’t mind, but after a horrendous day yesterday followed by a tireless night, Nayeon is in no mood to host guests. 

“Do you always have to make so much noise?”

“No, I don’t,” Sana shrugs, recovering well. She wraps her hands over the top of the broom and rests her chin over her knuckles. “But how else will I wake you?”

“Like a normal person,” Nayeon huffs, the spite in her voice lost between the quilts. “Tapping my shoulder would suffice, I’m sure.”

Sana only hums, before busying herself once more. “You know I’m not allowed to touch you,” she says evenly, lifting her head up to gauge Nayeon’s reaction. 

Nayeon gives a noncommittal grunt, displeased at the reminder. 

What a stupid rule.

It didn’t apply to every female royal. It doesn’t even apply across a majority of their neighbouring Kingdoms, either. Nayeon was only one of a few who drew the short straw. 

Native to their region and only recently adopted by a few others within the last century, Nayeon was one of a dozen others subjected to the oppressive practice that prevented anyone from making skin-to-skin contact with her without committing a crime by doing so. With the extreme punishment of death, it’s safe to say people are plenty conscious of the rule. Some of her servers go as far as flinching out of the way as she passes, as if her very presence is a threat.

(And yet, Sana--)

Only handmaidens are granted full access to Nayeon, once thoroughly vetted by the King himself. Even now they’re expected to wear gloves wherever possible, and the reality of it infuriates her -- the life her father has chosen on her behalf. It was never supposed to be this way, she thinks bitterly. Miserth are destroying their own history by mudding the origins of where it all came from, dirtying preservation with perversion.

The tradition was created in a time where a plague wreaked havoc across their Kingdom, wiping out half the population as well as the majority of the royal family in one fell swoop. It took the lives of the women first, and then spread to their Princes, and though medical experts claimed it was the case that women were simply weaker, Nayeon suspects it had a lot more to do with the fact that the women had more duties beyond the castle walls than the men did.

Outside of the city’s underground brothels, where else did the men go but war? 

Still, the tradition soon lost all of its significance. Almost as if they’d gone back in time with regressive ideas and practices, the precaution of limiting contact between the Princesses twisted into something more sinister. What had been a genuine attempt to preserve the health of the women became a selling point when expanding on the Kingdom’s power. 

Arranged marriages between neighbouring monarchs, proposed to broaden the gene pool, were rebranded as bidding contests that only perpetuated the ownership and control of women. Men expected more from a wife they had to pay for, and Princesses haven’t known freedom since.

Starved of affection and intimacy, the new generation of hyper-monitored duchesses became something of a luxury, a trophy to parade around. It was almost accidental, the way it came into fruition, but once recognised as a business opportunity by their fathers, princesses were extorted for all they were worth. 

Men liked their wives pure, innocent, controlled — and Nayeon’s father was no different. His own wife is barely a woman, and when it came to the potential of his daughter he went to every extreme to increase her worth. Nayeon’s diet, clothing, and handling are all under surveillance for the pleasure of a man that she has yet to meet. 

She hates it. 

Sana’s voice brings Nayeon back, thoughts of her future marriage now only an echo at the corner of her mind. 

“--Did you forget?”

She misses the first half of Sana’s question.

“Forget what? The reason people in this castle look down to their feet as they speak to me?”

Sana nods. “Yes.”

How could she possibly--

Nayeon, true to her dramatic nature, scoffs and kicks what’s left of her blankets up off her body, revealing her bedclothes and a very, very pointed scowl underneath. “No,” she hisses, squinting across the room at the ghost of Sana’s smile, “I’m well aware.”

“Then your suggestion falls even flatter,” Sana taunts with a small private smile, turning her back to Nayeon’s unrelenting, piercing eyes. “If you know that I cannot touch you, why bother making the suggestion?”

Doesn’t usually stop you from breaking the rules , she thinks. 

“If you’re only going to re-dirty the objects you’ve just cleaned afterwards, Sana, why even bother taking your rags to them at all?”

Sana doesn’t break her stance and turns to the Princess with that same warm look in her eyes. 

“So I get to spend more time with you,” she admits easily, freely. 

Unashamed. 

(Unlike Nayeon, whose cheeks pinken at the confession -- at the pride in Sana’s statement, her voice ).

Nayeon swallows, squeezing her fingers together. “You understand that you’ll be punished if you are caught here, don’t you?” Nayeon asks instead, any challenge she had felt burning within her chest down to a mere flicker. 

“With how often you remind me,” Sana drawls, “how could I forget?”

Taking a moment to process her words, silence falls between them, filled sweetly by Sana’s sweeping. “And it’s worth it, for you?” Nayeon asks cautiously.

Sana pauses, propping her broom to stand against the wall. Crossing the space between them, she arrives at a stop by the side of Nayeon’s bed, a bed too large for just one person. 

Sana’s face does something interesting, then, Nayeon realises. 

Her jaw is firm, biting down words Nayeon knows she’ll never be able to say, though Nayeon doesn’t doubt that Sana has the courage to. The younger girl opens her mouth, closes it. Repeats the process.

Nayeon is surprised to notice that Sana’s indecision doesn’t bother her as much as it might. Being sheltered by others has always been a peeve of Nayeon’s. Growing up with her staff constantly censoring their thoughts, words, their ideas around her… ‘for her sake’. It was an easy way to rile her. Being left ignorant is not a form of protection, she’d argue, except when it came to Sana. If the other girl is choosing cautiousness rather than openness, then Nayeon trusts she has a good reason to.

Still, that doesn’t unmark her as curious, though.

It’s quiet for a while, Nayeon following as Sana’s features transform from anxious to frustrated, and then on towards guilt. Not too long after the jittery quiet begins does Sana’s face betray her anxiety once more. 

“If I wasn’t, do you think I would be here?” Sana answers finally, and it’s… sufficient, Nayeon supposes. Her point is made without going into too much detail, but Nayeon had hoped Sana would give her more to go on.

“I appreciate you being here,” Nayeon decides to say, distracted. She tries to avoid paying too much attention to Sana’s bottom lip, now gripped between her teeth. It looks soft. 

“…But?”

Nayeon blinks, reminded she had left her words hanging. 

“But I don’t want you to be punished for it.”

Nayeon tries to meet the server’s -- Sana’s -- eyes, but they’re trained onto the floor beside her, glinting and beautiful. “Then you know what to do,” Sana manages, pushing the emotion from her voice. “Command me to leave, and then command me to stay away.”

Nayeon won’t even allow herself to consider it. 

“You know I won’t,” she mumbles, her stomach clenching at the reality of it. 

“Then you know I won’t stay away.” 

Sana turns away from Nayeon’s messy bed, messy hair, messy title , and returns to her supplies on the other side of the room. She collects her broom, her hip jutted in defiance. 

“You’re so stubborn,” the Princess growls, almost allowing herself to laugh. 

If Sana wasn’t so ... Nayeon could’ve had her detained already. Lord knows she’s committed enough crimes for it. Her negligence for the laws, traditions, the inner workings of the castle, hierarchy -- God . If Nayeon wasn’t so ridiculously smitten Sana could very well have been killed already.

Yet, here she is, pretending to sweep her rugs, a mask to allow them the luxury of basking in each other’s presence before the days’ interruptions start. 

“I learned from you,” Sana mutters, low enough to be considered a snide remark, but loud enough for Nayeon to catch the playful underlay. It’s definitely not unintentional, though. It wouldn’t be the first time Sana had attempted to rile the Princess, as if she wasn’t risking the entire aspect of a future by just being with her. 

Nayeon contemplates pointing this out to her again, that Sana’s jibes were futile in the grand scheme of things, but Nayeon likes that she isn’t too shaken to bicker with her. The second heir or not, Sana came with a weightlessness that felt a lot like a loss of heritage, and somehow, Nayeon found it to be comforting. 

“You know,” Nayeon says, her voice sounding off of the hard-bricked walls, “you could touch me, Sana.”

Sana lifts her head to quirk an eyebrow at the Princess, humorous doubt reflected upon her features. “Hm?”

“My father,” Nayeon resumes, chewing the inside of her cheek just for a moment. She has to think -- if Sana was granted permission to touch, to feel Nayeon, how would she respond to that sort of privilege? Would she abuse it? Allow herself to linger on Nayeon’s skin under watchful eyes just for the sake of having the permission to do so?

Nayeon scrunches up her nose. Perhaps that would not be such a bad thing, but it would definitely raise a few questions about her intentions. 

Sana clears her throat. “Your father,” she urges, hand propped against her hip. 

“My father,” Nayeon repeats, looking up at Sana sceptically. “I can ask him, for me, for you ,” Nayeon corrects. “You understand the laws of the tradition. But all laws have exceptions -- Tannin, Nari, Boram. Every member of my team has been given permission to touch me, be with me, for obvious reasons.”

All older women. Nayeon hadn’t missed that detail when her father had hired them, knowing just how deliberate that had been. Nayeon isn’t convinced her father would risk allowing someone like Sana the privilege they share, but she’s tempted to try.

It should be noted that his reluctance wouldn’t be down to anything Sana herself is doing, for she cannot control that she’s young and beautiful, but Nayeon suspects he might perceive her as a threat anyhow. Nayeon doesn’t have a good track record with young and beautiful, and can’t be sure that her father trusts her enough not to rebel, or do something stupid like fall in love, tarnishing her reputation with recklessness.

“Oh?” Sana smirks at Nayeon with a dangerous glint in her eyes that Nayeon knows better than to indulge in, but it’s easy to forget. “And what interest would you have in me touching you, Your Highness?” Sana asks, challenges.

Sana is very clever, Nayeon thinks, with the way her entire demeanour transforms when she’s taunting Nayeon. The guarded look in Sana’s eyes is enough to momentarily disarm her, but nevertheless, Nayeon won’t be fooled by it for very long. 

She understands Sana at least well enough to know that she shares her desires. It’s possible that they’re never going to be able to safely vocalise them, or explicitly act upon them, but Nayeon can feel it, has seen it in Sana’s nervous glances when she thinks Nayeon isn’t watching -- the despair, almost, laced beneath a slither of hope that resides within them despite their circumstances. 

“I… I hate noise,” Nayeon stutters, cursing herself for fumbling through an explanation, and her poor execution of it. “I would prefer to be woken by hand. Touch.”

“And how will you explain this to the King? I’m not supposed to be here,” the younger girl reminds Nayeon, a newfound seriousness to her voice. 

“Maybe I’ll introduce you as my new attendant, to both my father and my team,” Nayeon shrugs, “maybe... maybe I’ll claim my right to my own body. Maybe I won’t tell him about you at all.”

“You really want me to join your team?” Sana interrupts, distracted. 

“Would you rather keep slithering in here like some sort of germ?” The snark flies over Sana’s head. “How is it you keep getting past the guards, by the way? Do I need to look into better security?”

“That’s for me to know,” Sana blurts, upset by the idea, before softening. “You mean it, though? You’d want me on your team?” 

Unable to keep from grinning after a small bow of confirmation from the Princess, Sana’s eyes crinkle around the edges. She, then hit with a reminder of words Nayeon had sworn to be true only yesterday morning, frowns. 

“Why? I thought I was annoying?”

Nayeon, again, gives her a small but sure nod. “Oh, you are,” she agrees. “Why do you ask such frustrating questions?”

“Hm?”

“You know why I’d value you on my team, and you know very well what I think of you in the very sense that you are still standing in my room, after weeks of entering without permission.”

Sana bites down her smirk. “They call you the Stone Princess, you know,” she responds, to which Nayeon acknowledges with a bob of her head. 

“So?”

“It’s just nice to hear you say that you want me here, is all. To know that the Stone Princess’s feelings are no more of a myth than mine.”

Nayeon feels her stomach lilt and tries speaking through the mess of emotion that rises in her throat at Sana’s admission. Feelings. She had already known it of course, but hearing it said brings a certain magic to the words.

“I’m going back to sleep,” she mumbles, not knowing what else to say. “Stay, keep cleaning, nap on my dressing chair. I don’t care.” Nayeon is silent for a long moment. “Just... lock the door first, and be gone before the first call.”

 



168 days.

 

“Why did you choose me?”

Sana looks up. “Pardon?”

“There’s apprentices all over the castle. Other young women like you. Daughters of Lords,” Nayeon picks at the edges of her nails. “I suppose I’m asking why, considering all the complications that I come with, you decided that I would make the perfect friend.”

Sana only laughs. “Is that what this is? Friendship?”

Nayeon does well to keep from rolling her eyes. “You can’t tell me you assumed it could be anything more when approaching me for the first time. I doubt anyone could have such an ego.”

“I can name a few,” Sana disagrees, and they both share a look knowing they both could. “Are you asking for an honest answer or a charming one?”

“Charming? Oh, don’t tease me. Give me something honest.”

“Okay.” Sana leans back into Nayeon’s chair, an amused lift to her lip. 

It was Sana who insisted on skipping lunch to hide away in Nayeon’s room, today. Despite having an entire castle to explore, Sana always opted for the reclusiveness of Nayeon’s chamber. 

If Nayeon could guess, it would be because it is somewhat isolated from the rest of the palace, a circular structure only connected by a string of corridors with guards posted at each exit. There’s just one route Nayeon knows of that doesn’t have a security detail, but it requires travelling through the gardens to access and weaving through an abandoned underground weapons vault that they have to break into.

It reeks of mold, and an earthiness that Nayeon can only describe as pungent. Rainwater has been leaking through the double doors that lead up to the grounds and has rotted the wood, creating entire ecosystems in the damp, gloomy cellar, the floor one collective puddle. She’s reminded of wet socks whenever she trudges through it, but Nayeon can’t have it cleaned without alerting her father to the existence of it which defeats the entire purpose of having a secret passage.

Still, she would like a way into her own quarters without having to peel spiderwebs out of her hair afterwards, but Sana still won’t confess how she’s been slinking into her room on a daily basis, nor will she offer any hints as to how she discovered the secret passageway, to begin with. So until Nayeon can weasel it out of her, they’ve been doing it her way.

Regretfully.

“The first time I saw you, you were upset,” Sana starts, running her fingers over the wrinkles of her apron. “The King was there,” her face darkens, “and he was giving you corrections, but I don’t know what about. I watched you for a while. I thought your maidens might try to make you feel better after he had left, but they kept tight-lipped.” 

Nayeon can’t picture what occasion that might have been, for Sana to have been present even as an apprentice. It was uncommon for different sectors of the castle to mix without good reason, but Nayeon supposes it doesn’t matter.

“I realised I wanted to defend you, in the place of those who should’ve.” Sana nods her head as she retells the story.  “So when you injured your wrist a few weeks later and my senior left to gather the supplies to make a splint, I decided I would talk to you.” Her face lights up. “You were moody but very entertaining.”

Nayeon controls her expression well. “I’m glad to know my pain humours you.”

“No, you were too drunk to feel the pain,” Sana clarifies. “You were annoyed with your sister. You kept rambling about her, repeating that she was the reason you needed a splint but you wouldn’t say what she did. I suppose you didn’t want to badmouth the Princess to a stranger you’d never met, but your language was still very colourful. I thought it was funny.”

Nayeon is kind of horrified, actually. “I don’t remember that.”

Sana smiles. “I was but a stranger, and like I said: you were drunk.”

Nayeon reflects over the information. It distorts the memories she has about how their relationship began, but it makes more sense this way. “I always assumed our first meeting was at the bonfire. Your first words to me were an insult to my intelligence. I remember thinking you were bold, to approach me like that, even if you were only joking.”

“It’s scary approaching a monarch,” Sana agrees, “but when you think of the Princess as just another girl, a rebellious teenager stealing her father’s liquor to drink alone in the afternoon, then it’s not so frightening at all. Especially when they pout as you do.”

Nayeon’s face drops. “I do not pout.”

“You didn’t stop whilst your wrist was wrapped,” Sana laughs. “I was supposed to observe for training purposes, but instead, I was tasked with holding you still.”

“You…” Held me? “I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true! I always found it strange that you hadn’t brought it up before. Me touching you, that is,” Sana clarifies, and then follows it with, “Though I wore gloves. I assumed that you just didn’t recognise that girl as being me, but it makes sense that you don’t remember it. You were a mess,” she adds as an afterthought.

Nayeon glares at Sana, daring her to call a bluff. 

She doesn’t. 

After a moment: “Was I really that bad?”

Sana’s answer comes in a laugh. 

It’ll give Nayeon something new to obsess over, that’s for sure, but part of her can’t help being jealous of Sana for having pieces of their relationship she doesn’t have access to. She wonders what else Sana knows, what other secrets she’s keeping to herself.

“I would have recognised you if I had been sober,” Nayeon finds herself saying. She’s not sure why she brings it up. “I wouldn’t have forgotten you.”

Sana watches her curiously. “You sound sure.”

“I’ve lived in this castle for twelve years,” Nayeon starts to explain. “I can’t leave. I don’t have any responsibilities. You wouldn’t believe how many hours I’ve spent staring at the walls, praying something about them would change, just so I had something new to look at.” She huffs out an unamused laugh. “So believe me, if I had been met with a face like yours whilst I was sober, I wouldn’t have forgotten.”

For a moment Sana doesn’t say anything, only watches Nayeon in that way of hers, not giving anything away. Then she sucks in a breath like she’s steadying herself, before joking, “So was that honest, or charming?”




152 days.

 

Like most mornings, Sana sneaks into Nayeon’s chamber and invites herself into her bedroom. Nayeon is already awake when she pushes the door open, fumbling with the equipment she’s managed to smuggle from the servant’s quarters.

Restless, Nayeon doesn’t bother pretending to be asleep. She bolts upright almost immediately after Sana shuts the door behind herself, halfway between tripping over the handle of a mop. Nayeon startles the girl by abruptly voicing a warning for her to lock the door, and Sana almost catapults out of her skin.

“Don’t make too much noise,” Nayeon instructs in a whisper, hushing Sana’s yelp of surprise, before pulling the blankets from her body and scooting out of bed. 

Sana nods, pushing the metal barricade down to bar the door shut. She looks nervous, like she didn’t quite anticipate Nayeon’s consciousness so soon. 

“Morning, Your Highness,” Sana greets, frozen at the door at the visual of a cagey Princess. Nayeon beckons her closer but Sana hesitates, almost as if there’s an invisible barrier struck between them. 

“What hour is it?” Nayeon asks.

“Five,” Sana answers, shifting awkwardly between each of her feet. “Oh.” The realisation dawns upon her. “Do you have preparation today?”

Nayeon nods anxiously. They’d spoken about this before. 

Nari was due to arrive at seven with an unfortunate amount of uncomfortable, prickly dresses for her to be fitted into. She’ll be measured for hours, and after any necessary alterations are made, she’ll be paraded around the castle during this year’s festive celebration and advertised, officially inviting bids from visitors. 

Sana bites down on the inside of her cheek, failing to disguise her dread. “You’re being shown,” she breathes heavily, a disdainful look to her eyes. 

Nayeon scrunches her nightdress between her fingers, and whispers, “Yes.”

Sana stares at Nayeon without anything to say. The look of contempt is gone from her face now but is taken up by something empty, something Nayeon isn’t used to seeing. 

So Nayeon stares at Sana with unease and doesn’t say anything either. 

 


 

Nayeon sabotages her fitting.

Sana leaves her quarters long before Nari arrives, but in her haste exit, waiting right up until the last possible moment she could to leave Nayeon’s side, tumbles over the handle of her mop and snaps it in two. 

It slices the side of her leg, the edges of the wooden poles left serrated and sharp, and while Nayeon jumps up to help Sana only waves her off, before making a point to leave them on Nayeon’s dresser. She departs Nayeon’s room with a wink.

It gives her the idea.

Later, once Nari excuses herself to use the restroom mid-fitting, Nayeon uses them to tear holes in every dress Nari had wheeled in on her rickety cart. It isn’t personal, Nayeon knows Nari will understand that, but it still leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth, lingering and shameful. 

When Nari returns, Nayeon is no longer in her chamber -- the only evidence of her left amongst the shredded fabric she leaves behind. 

A note, for Nari’s eyes only, that reads: I’m sorry.

 



142 days.

 

Sana, like the rise of the sun, is an inevitable force she wakes to every morning. 

She doesn’t bring her cover, this time, not her rags, not her mop. Not even the gown she wears like a second skin. 

She’s in her own uniform today, a patch showcasing the healer’s brand sewn into the fabric around her bicep. It’s odd, Nayeon realises, having this version of Sana standing at the edge of her bed. 

“Sana, what are you… is everything okay?”

She looks crushed, a grim cast over her eyes. Nayeon isn’t accustomed to meeting Sana’s face without a smile. 

“How long do we have left?”

Nayeon frowns, thrown by the question. “What do you mean?”

A flurry of rage sweeps across Sana’s face, voice deepening. “If you’re shown over the Christmas period, how long until…”

Nayeon flinches at Sana’s tone, the darkness in her voice. It stings, her disgust, even if it shouldn’t. “Until what? I’m sold? You can say it, Sana.”

Sana drags her feet to the centre of the room, sinking to her knees beside her bed. “I’m sorry,” she mopes, careful still not to touch her despite already breaking the rules in other ways. “Married,” Sana offers instead, putting it kindly. “How long until your father chooses someone for you to marry.”

“What does it matter?” Nayeon barks, suddenly finding herself in a mood. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Sana rests her head against Nayeon’s mattress, only inches away from her. Nayeon involuntarily twitches in her direction but manages to keep her hands to herself. 

“I know,” Sana mumbles, face-down. “I thought… I thought I would have more time.” She lifts her head, tears in her round eyes. “With you. I thought… even if you could never be mine, then at least we could… at least we would have some time.”

“Time…” Nayeon mumbles, and in a state of shock, dazzled by Sana’s affection, raises her hand to Sana’s cheek. Part of her expects Sana to bounce away, creating some sort of boundary between them before Nayeon is able to reach her. “You wanted…”

“Yes,” Sana breathes. 

Nayeon isn’t even sure what she’s aiming for when the back of her fingers meet Sana’s skin, hugging the contour of her cheekbone. She’s not sure what she expects to feel, but the lump in the back of her throat only grows when Sana tilts her head into the contact, prolonging the caress. 

“I’m sorry,” Sana repeats, allowing a tear to slip down her face, “I know this isn’t what you asked for. I know I’m putting you in a difficult position by even being here, but…” 

Nayeon, stunned by the sight in front of her, uses her thumb to swipe beneath Sana’s eyes. Touching Sana, it’s… the luxury of it doesn’t escape her, not even as the fear of being caught swells inside of her. Nayeon won’t take this moment for granted, not ever, committing each detail to memory.

Who knows when she’ll next be able to experience something as tender as this again?

“Would it be okay if I hugged you?” Sana shakes, looking guilty. “I want to be your friend through this at least, if you’ll allow it.”

Nayeon doesn’t even remember the last time she was hugged, isn’t sure she has the facilities for affection greater than a touch to the side of a face, to the back of a hand, but leans across as Sana opens her arms anyway. Nayeon prays luck is on their side, that Sana had remembered to lock the door behind her on her entry, and melts into the embrace.

Sana smells… Nayeon breathes deeply, allowing herself to be comforted.

It would be humiliating to cry, as Sana tightens her arms around Nayeon’s neck, shameful to be taken by a harmless gesture. But with Sana gripping her with such promise -- soothed still by the knowledge that Sana isn’t performing here, in this private bubble of time between them, nor would she dare speak of it to anyone -- Nayeon does exactly that.

She weeps.





131 days.

It’s been an unusually long time since Sana has been able to make it to her room in the mornings, her days growing longer as a common cold takes over the castle. Nayeon’s escorts are more vigilant too because of this, not only guarding her quarters but following her around the castle with a seriousness they usually lacked, all while Sana has been swamped at work nursing people back to health.

But she’s coming today -- Sana had told her yesterday. Nayeon had caught sight of Sana assisting one of the senior healers with a delivery of supplies outside the medical wing. Nayeon can admit now that the visit had been deliberate. She had swung by hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl, having missed her over the course of the week, and when Sana had spotted her she had smiled, and mouthed the word tomorrow.

Nayeon can barely contain her excitement. She almost goes looking for Sana, ventures as far as creaking open her door and peeking her head out into the corridor. Not even the howling of spirits linger in the hallways at this time, so Nayeon tiptoes back into bed with a sigh. 

Her judgement of time has been skewed lately. Nayeon had requested curtains from the seamstress so no longer did sunlight intrude her room, forcing Nayeon to peer behind the fabric to get a decent gauge of what hour it must be. It’s still dusky outside, the moon high across the expansive deep blues of a sleeping sky, and Sana wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Still, Nayeon sits on her mattress, bubbling with the good news, and waits. For hours. 

By the time Sana does tiptoe in, Nayeon has already bound over to the entrance of her room, having been listening out for her arrival. Their affection is free-flowing in private, each touch more curious than the one before, adventurous, but it might be the first time Nayeon initiates a hug without Sana being the one to request it first.

“Good morning to you, too,” Sana grins, tucking her face into Nayeon’s hair. “These curtains are doing wonders for your mood.”

Nayeon huffs, but lets it go. “Ask me about the good news I have.”

“Okay,” Sana says, shuffling inside and planting her bucket of rags beside Nayeon’s dresser. “What good news do you have?”

“We have time.”

Sana’s head leans to the side. “Pardon?”

“I ruined my fitting, do you remember?”

“No,” Sana crosses her brows. “You didn’t mention… You ruined your fitting?”

“Oh please,” Nayeon waves off her surprise, “As if you didn’t give me the idea?”

Sana, caught between a proud smile and a grimace, lets out a breath. “You ruined your fitting. With the mop? I didn’t think you would do it.” She pauses, thoughtful. “Aren’t you in trouble?”

“Yes,” Nayeon shrugs, “but that brings me to the good news. When my father demanded an explanation Nari was dishonest with him. She told him there had been trouble with the measurements on the dressmaker's end of things, and that my gown wouldn’t be ready in time for the ball. I thought he would delay my showing until the spring, but he wants a better price. No event is as big as our Christmas formal, and he would rather wait until next year for a better profit.”

She’ll be older than ideal by then, but Nayeon has a young face. It might be the only reason her father doesn’t strike out at her when he mulls over how he will redress the delay in his favour. 

“That’s… Your Highness, that’s incredible ,” Sana gushes, her mouth making odd shapes as if speechless. “We have time.”

It’s easy to forget they’re discussing Nayeon’s future marriage when she’s directly confronted with Sana’s gleaming smile and bright glittering eyes, and the spike of adrenaline that surges through her system at those words, we have time , has a disarming effect.

“Kiss me, Sana,” Nayeon urges, eyes wild with desire as she pushes closer.

She’s not even really thinking about what it could mean, but she hadn’t been thinking about the consequences of destroying every piece of cloth Nari had brought her that morning, either. And that had paid off.

Sana, breathless by the request, curls her hands around Nayeon’s wrists. She, ever the tease, leans as close as she can whilst still withholding her lips from the Princess, and grins. “Is that an order?”

Nayeon, shamelessly, lets out a grunt. “Does it need to be?”

“I suppose not.”

Incredible news, indeed.

 



133 days.


Nayeon doesn’t often speak to the Queen. Not even during meal times, where she’s forced to contribute in the same conversations as the woman masquerading as her sibling’s mother.

Even her voice irks Nayeon. 

Her stepmother says something particularly bleak to her father, who’s wolfing a leg of chicken into his mouth with a grunt. The grease smeared across his face makes Nayeon feel a little nauseous, his bulbous chin glistening as he sucks in more meat between his lips. Nayeon tries not to look as repulsed as she feels but doesn’t suspect she’s doing very well.

“What about you, Nayeon?”

Nayeon lowers her spoon from her mouth, having missed the question. It’s not like her bowl of boiled chicken and carrot broth is all that appetising anyway. 

“Pardon?”

Jiseum fashions her a look, like she’s annoyed by the fact Nayeon has been caught with a wandering mind, again , though she would never have the gall to admit it in front of her father. Nayeon’s physical presence means almost nothing when she’s absent in all other ways, and the twitch in her stepmother’s lip tells Nayeon all she needs to know about where she stands. 

Nayeon’s not even sure why it bothers her so much, nor does she understand the woman’s apprehension when it comes to pointing this fact out. It’s not like her father would mind another person scolding Nayeon, no less have that person be the Queen. Nayeon doubts he’d even bat an eye. 

Still, Jiseum sighs, giving in, and moves on to her sister -- one of her two biological children. That’s another thing that irritates Nayeon. Her siblings have the luxury of growing up under a roof with both parents, but neither one of them makes an effort. Her father, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, has more than enough on his plate. Jiseum, though?

Sooyoung leaps into the chatter, and Nayeon is relieved the attention is off of her. Her father is still gulping down his supper rather than chewing as if it’s not his fourth meal of the day, and Nayeon has to look away before she heaves.

Aside from the time she gets to share with her little sister, Nayeon hates dinner time. 

Nayeon spends most nights more focused on biting her tongue rather than eating, holding herself back from unleashing the spite she feels flare at the back of her throat and replacing it with a blank smile instead. Sometimes she stuffs food in her mouth just as Jiseum turns to her conversationally, so her stepmother skips over her instead. 

Nayeon doesn’t resent her for the heirs she’s given the King -- the shared affection for her half-siblings being the only real connection between them. In a multitude of ways, Nayeon sees a lot of her own circumstances shadowed in her stepmother, but that doesn’t make her existence sting any less.

Sometimes Nayeon half wishes she was wicked if only to give her some personality. It would be easy to hate her if she was unkind, but as Nayeon looks over at the woman now, with her long, straight hair, as strict as the posture of her spine, Nayeon only sees a reflection of herself a few years from now. 

It’s a horrible thing to be faced with every day, mocked by her future in the form of her stepmother.

Absolutely nothing about the woman is remarkable, not a single renowned quality that hollers for attention. That’s not to say she’s not beautiful, or that she at least wasn’t once a woman who fought to be heard in a room -- but things change when you marry a monarch. Jiseum’s entire presence is crafted in such a way so that people will look over her, past her as if she were not there, to the King standing tall beside her.

And if her stepmother wasn’t so perfectly smitten with that, maybe Nayeon would resent her less. If she hadn’t woken up one day and decided that the most important thing about her was the man that she married, as if she didn’t matter past her wedding date, beyond the birth of her son, then perhaps Nayeon would find something to respect about her place in their lives.

No, Jiseum was once a woman Nayeon admired. Perhaps that’s the cruelty of it. She was everything Nayeon prided herself on being, or at the very least aspired to become.

Outspoken, commanding whichever room she entered, Jiseum was a bold, defiant young woman before the wedding ceremony. Despite being groomed to be somebody’s wife throughout her life, Nayeon alike, her stepmother had once resented the arrangement with a fierceness that intimidated even her father, only then a newly crowned King. It wasn’t enough to prevent the marriage, but she had sparked nervousness in each party. Her own family, hoping for the sale to go through smoothly, and Nayeon’s father, having needed it just as much, grew weary as each day ticked closer to the wedding, hoping neither side would pull out. 

Nayeon had been excited, guiltily hoping the marriage would stand, if only so Nayeon had someone to teach her. Jiseum was young enough to be an older sister, a mentor of some kind. Or at least, Nayeon had hoped. 

Making noise and kicking up a racket every time someone dared to speak over her, Nayeon watched, fascinated by her future stepmother. In awe of her. But now, just over a decade later, Nayeon no longer sees that in the woman opposite her today. 

Something shifted, since then, and Nayeon is no longer inspired by who’s been left behind. It strikes fear into her that perhaps even the strongest of women can be silenced -- of what the future could hold for her, too.

Nayeon drops her spoon and stands abruptly. “I feel unwell,” she announces, pushing her bowl more centrally. Someone in white swoops in behind her and removes it before vanishing back into thin air, as swift as the wind. “I think it’s best I head to my room early and get some rest.”

Her father doesn’t spare her a glance, and her sister only nods in acknowledgement. Jiseum has the decency to at least look concerned, but Nayeon knows that’s not for her own benefit.

“Goodnight,” she offers her family, before striding out of the hall. She doesn’t wait for a reply.





123 days.

 

Sana prods at the Princess’s mind, having observed something unsettling in her expression. Usually, when they were alone, no matter where or which time, Nayeon’s tight jaw would slack and she allowed herself the freedom to relax, breathe without consequence. In front of her now, though, Nayeon remains poised and silent. 

“You’re troubled,” Sana notes, offering the Princess the chance to elaborate by either correction or admittance. 

“As should you be,” Nayeon comments, glancing around the dark hall and allowing herself to sigh. This was one of Nayeon’s least favourite rooms. Its high ceiling and low hanging banners made the room feel even more enormous than it was. The walls, with over three dozen steel mounted lanterns, were so vastly spaced apart between each stretch of window that there was nowhere Nayeon could stand to feel warmth.

It was the kind of room designed for celebrations, to accommodate hundreds of people at once. A hall cultivated simply to hold attention, it’s successful in its purpose of attracting visitors from across the Kingdoms to marvel at its magnificence. From the intricately crafted wooden mouldings that line the walls to the shimmering chandeliers coated in gold, there’s not a single element of this decor that hasn’t been lathered with money. It was a beautiful room, for what it was worth, but with only Nayeon and Sana present, the chill of its emptiness only served to make her feel more alone.

Sana tilts her head. “I should?”

“You have many concerns to think about, also.”

Sana nods, but goes on to deny that she should be particularly distressed about anything. “Only if I let them be worries, yes,” she says, a twist to her lips that felt, to Nayeon, designed to make light of the situation. 

“Yes, well, I can’t help but worry. My father is the King.”

“As I have been made aware of,” Sana smiles, folding her arms behind her back leaving her chest exposed. “Since birth.”

You look just like them, Nayeon thinks. 

It’s been several weeks since Nayeon fought to make Sana one of her handmaidens, but her father had denied them the opportunity due to her lack of experience in that field. Nayeon wasn’t sure why he cared about that of all things, and strongly suspects he had other reasons for the refusal, but he did, however, offer Sana the chance to become Nayeon’s personal healer for the meantime. 

Sana’s mother is one of the castle’s longest-serving doctors, and with Sana’s apprenticeship in the medical wing drawing to a close, Sana was likely going to be offered to one of the Lords by the end of it. 

She’s still not allowed to touch Nayeon unless her health is put into question, but Nayeon is grateful to have an excuse to keep Sana around regardless. Lawfully, this time. Nayeon doesn’t doubt that a negative outcome wouldn’t have done much to keep Sana away, but it’s a relief to have the security.

Sana has adapted to her new role well, adopting certain postures and gestures common amongst servants across the castle. Sana’s superiors have been quick to catch her up to speed, drumming in the fundamentals during lessons between gaps in her daily routine from the moment she had been promoted from a student to a personal servant. Hands behind your back, bow your head until greeted. Only speak when spoken to. 

Sana is a great actress and carries herself well amongst a crowd of onlookers, but Nayeon knows it’s not yet instinctual. She falters, at times, but always recovers with grace. Even when alone Sana maintains her rigid stance, and while Nayeon knows it’s for show, a blanket of formality to protect them if they were ever spied on, it still bothers her.

Sana keeps her hands tucked out of view, and Nayeon itches to tear them back around her front. 

The servers around the castle are taught such body language as a sign of respect, submission -- opening their bodies to the vulnerability of attack. But, to Nayeon, being unable to see the hands of the strangers surrounding her made her uneasy, paranoid. It’s not the same with Sana, of course, but how was she to know their hands were not enclosed around a dagger? 

Nayeon takes a step closer to Sana, allowing herself to run her fingers down the sleeves of her pale, soft gown, feeling herself grimace at the touch of it. Sana’s uniform, the colours a symbol of the wealth Nayeon’s family possesses, are a stain on Sana’s skin. It serves as nothing but a reminder of who they both are, who held the power. Nayeon could command Sana to slit her own throat and she would be forced to succumb to her demand in the name of honour or die for it anyway. 

It makes her want to vomit.

“My father is the King,” Nayeon repeats, circling her hands around Sana’s wrists and tugging them from behind her back. “Kings only know how to die.”

“We all die, Your Highness.” Sana twists her wrists around to rest her fingers upon Nayeon’s palms, her skin both as cold, and as pale, as the bitter winds that rule the realm. “If it’s his health you’re concerned about, remember your father has the best healers across the entire Kingdom stationed just outside of his chamber. My mother is one of them.”

“Your mother cannot save him from the hundred-thousand swords bargained with his name.”

“My mother--”

“I’m sure your mother is an expert across her trade, Sana,” Nayeon interrupts. “I am not suggesting otherwise. The matter I speak of is political.”

A soft crease appears between Sana’s brows. The healer trails her fingers across Nayeon’s forearms, up into the sleeves of her dress. “Politics has never been a strong suit of mine,” Sana admits, with just a hint of a small, light smile. She dips her head. “Sorry.”

“There’s no need to apologise.” Nayeon uses her fingers to lift Sana’s chin. “Though you should do well in learning not to interrupt your superiors so much, however,” Nayeon adds lightly. “To anyone else your love of your own voice may translate as impudent.” 

“I don’t--” Nayeon raises an eyebrow, amused almost, but entirely too focused on the nails dragging back down across the skin of her wrists for a true smile to flourish. “Yes, of course,” Sana amends. “I will do my best to remember.”

“It would be wise of you,” Nayeon swallows, her voice echoing imposingly throughout the candlelit hall. Even with the curtains open the winter skies were too dull to illuminate the castle properly, shadowing Sana’s face in darkness. “At least for the sake of…” Nayeon’s eyes drag over Sana’s attire. “Your role.”

Creating distance between them, Nayeon crosses to the backside of the hall to gaze upon the land her father ruled from the window, her hot breath condensing upon the cold glass. 

“No King dies a natural death… not a death without poison or betrayal, fueled by a hunger for power. No King has died with dignity in over one hundred years,” Nayeon expresses, a pain in her voice. “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

The soles of Sana’s shoes create a ripple of sound throughout the room, bouncing off the dark oak floors as she makes her way closer to Nayeon once more. She stops within a few-metres distance of the Princess, swaying in hesitation with an unasked question on her lips. 

“You fear your father’s death,” Sana says slowly, her voice wavering as she speaks. 

The intimacy of the atmosphere curls Nayeon’s stomach. Everything is so amplified in a room like this, Nayeon is sure she’d be able to hear the breath escaping Sana’s lungs if she tried hard enough to. 

“You fear a man sworn to protect the King will be one to take his life.”

Turning on her heel to face the younger girl, Nayeon is met with sympathetic eyes, pure in their honesty. Even in such bleak lighting, Sana’s eyes shine.

Nayeon turns away, if only for a moment. 

Sana does well to fill in the cracks of loneliness Nayeon’s upbringing shrouds her in, but Nayeon is learning there’s a cost to having Sana so close also. 

The girl is incredibly empathetic, exuding compassion tenfold. Sana awards her the genuinity of sensitivity almost daily, an emotion that Nayeon only ever experienced from two others her whole life. The first, from her mother, before she was snatched from her arms as a child and thrust into that of a minder at the castle. The second, a young girl called Jeongyeon, who had once been a dear friend.

Nayeon stares at Sana with unease at the memory of how their relationship came to an end, worrying her bottom lip now for entirely new reasons. Nayeon cannot forget how she had been punished for Jeongyeon. For how she cared. 

Nayeon was taught from a young age that in this world, everyone was an enemy but those who shared your bloodline. It was considered foolish to concern yourself otherwise -- to connect with others, care for anyone at all. Nayeon isn’t sure if she agrees with that though would never outwardly put it to question, but she does know this: for Sana to sympathise so reverently with Nayeon’s qualms is just as, if not more, foolish than Nayeon for bestowing them. 

Nayeon is a Princess, Sana her healer. No amount of shared, private spaces between them could afford them to forget otherwise. 

Her father had told her once, as a child propped up by his side on the throne: ‘Those who hold your love are no more than accessories to be used by your enemies to hurt you.’ Nayeon hadn’t understood it then, couldn’t fathom what that had anything to do with her. It sounded too grown-up for only her eleven years, and she definitely wasn’t in love. Jeongyeon was her best friend , not her boyfriend. 

Still, Nayeon had tucked those words away for another time, for when she was older and her father had softened to the world around him, to her and Jeongyeon’s companionship. He just didn’t understand her, she’d thought. Nayeon rarely met with her father when she lived back at home with her mother, so Jeongyeon was still just a stranger to him. He would see one day, Nayeon was sure, and stop reacting to her spoken name like a threat. 

She had known Jeongyeon almost all her life, and Nayeon knew she could trust the girl with absolutely everything she had to give. 

Jeongyeon’s father was a chef for the Late King, and before the crown, would often bring home scraps of herb-infused bread or pastries for them to divide between them from the kitchens. Sometimes they’d fight over it, bargaining for the larger pieces, which didn’t change even as Nayeon was taken away and decorated as someone else. 

As Miserth’s newly titled Princess, Nayeon could demand anything she wanted as part of the royal family, but she never needed to. At the end of each day, late into the evenings, Jeongyeon would charm the guards with sugary goods and weasel her way into Nayeon’s room, bringing her spoils from her father’s day at work. 

It was as if nothing had ever changed. Silly nickname or not, silly dresses or not, Jeongyeon would smile at her the same way she always did, and attempt to steal back the bread from Nayeon’s own hands. 

After all their years together Jeongyeon was the only person within Miserth’s borders who didn’t treat Nayeon as their Princess, but as hers, Jeongyeon’s Nayeon, and she had loved the girl for it. 

So Nayeon did a naive thing and ignored her father’s warnings to stay clear of her friend. Time and time again she would roll her eyes at her father’s caution that she cared too much, exposed herself too freely. Right up until the day of Jeongyeon’s twelfth birthday, Nayeon had dismissed his threats as the rantings of a bitter old man and had paid the price.  

Nayeon, with a gift in hand, had galloped to Jeongyeon’s chambers only to be ushered away at the sight of her lifeless body. The guards had reacted lethargically to Nayeon’s presence for swordsmen trained to curve the swing of an axe in mere seconds, almost as if they had counted on her witnessing the scene. As if that had been the very point. 

Her best friend had been starved to death in a castle full of food, her father a chef, and Nayeon had learned how to internalise her affection ever since. 

“I don’t fear it as much as I have accepted this fate to be true,” Nayeon sighs, pausing long enough to bite her bottom lip in spite of herself. “My father will be killed so long as he is King, and when my brother is crowned I will be forced to watch him grow into his title and when the time comes, I will watch him slain of it.”

Nayeon’s hands tremble at the mention of her little brother. She hasn’t seen him since he was sent to live amongst the squires some months ago, and won’t return until he has mastered his sword.

Her heart aches for his safe return, and hopes, whilst he is away, he has at least someone who cares for him the way Sana cares for her -- someone willing to shield him from others and their bad intentions, opportunists looking to groom the future King.

“When my brother is killed, so will I be, or perhaps I will be kept as a trophy to the man that cuts the heart from his chest.” Nayeon swallows thickly, ignoring Sana’s disturbed expression. “As for my sister… It’s the way things are, I know, and though I have accepted the losses that come with royalty, I can’t forgive my father for subjecting my family to this, to begin with.”

“Your Highness… subjecting?” Sana takes a weary step towards the Princess, Nayeon’s features edged with a hard, pointed stare. “I’m not defending him,” she prefaces, “I know how difficult he’s made things for you, and I’ll do my best to help relieve any pain that I can, but your father was the hand of the last King.” Sana squints, confused. “In the late King’s will, he listed his wish for your father to take his place in the absence of a living son. He had no other choice.”

Nayeon deflates. Sana is only repeating the story everyone’s heard -- that the Lonely King had commanded her father to take his crown upon his death bed, once he had passed onto the lands of the Gods. It was true to the realm, to the provinces outside of the capital, to the people who lived amongst them within these castle walls, and to those who lived within the hills. 

But not to Nayeon, was it true. 

“Sana. The last King did not fall sick.”

“The King’s health was–”

“He was murdered by my father, Sana,” Nayeon snaps, the confession cutting straight across the rich, magnificent hall. She takes a moment to catch her breath, to relieve herself of any guilt she should feel for speaking of her father’s crimes. “In the realm,” she speaks softly, though with grit, “the truth is only how the King tells it to be.”

Sana’s heart stops in her chest. Nayeon can tell by the way her body stiffens, eyes sharp with surprise, that there’s been an understanding. An understanding that Nayeon’s father, their King, had committed the greatest treason -- one that not only went unpunished by death but one rewarded with a crown. 

“The kingdom is ruled by a traitorous King,” Sana sounds out, the initial shock of Nayeon’s confession dwindling under Nayeon’s watchful eye. Nayeon could be killed for telling Sana this, and that knowledge doesn’t escape either of their notice. “Why have you told me?”

“Because I can do what I like, is why,” Nayeon gruffs, turning her back away from Sana to observe the capital from the window once again. She can almost taste it, the nervous tension engulfing them both, the fear of what this truth could mean for the both of them. “Because I am bitter.”

Sana, her face twisting into a look of offence within the window’s reflection, scoffs, and makes the rest of the way to Nayeon’s side. The Princess watches on as Sana proceeds to shake her head, in disapproval, maybe, or disbelief. 

“Bitter that your family rose to power from an act so beautifully executed, it is unheard of?”

“Just that we rose to power at all, mostly.”

“I understand your torment, Nayeon, but there are worse things to be in life than a Princess.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Nayeon smiles regretfully. She never really expected Sana to. 

Even Sana, privy to the private sacrifices Nayeon makes each sunrise, cannot resist the temptation to glorify monarchy for its spoils. It can be hard to condemn the luxury of possession, of money and fame when you grew up poor, but Nayeon, only a vessel in her own body, resents the sentiment still. 

She wishes that at least one person could understand.

“I was not born into royalty like my siblings, my father burdened me with it. I had a life before this one, friends I could be allowed the liberty to trust, and ambitions that I have been taught to suppress. It is unimaginable to my siblings what our lives could have been like if my father hadn’t been so selfish in stealing another man’s crown, but I do. I was young, but I remember.”

Nayeon thinks of Jeongyeon, of her mother. 

“My father took away my best friend to teach me a lesson about love.” 

What she doesn’t say is murdered. What she doesn’t say is tortured. Nayeon isn’t sure she’s able to face that truth out loud, not with the way Sana is watching her. Not with the threat of it happening again. 

“He took me from my mother because he did not want to make her a Queen. Even now, I am forbidden to see her. My own mother, Sana.” Nayeon sends out a silent plea for understanding. “Do you see? For that, I will always resent him.” 

“I do.” Sana steps closer. “If you could have any life you wanted… is that what you would wish for? Your past?”

Nayeon pauses, surprised by the question and equally confused about its relevance. “Yes and no. I would wish to be a wife, with a family I loved.”

“I thought you resented that you were to be married?”

“Oh, I do,” Nayeon agrees, watching curiously as Sana steps into her space. 

“You’re a very hard girl to understand at times,” Sana tells her, pushing Nayeon’s hair from her face with a gentle, lingering touch. It’s the first time Sana has ever broken the rules outside of Nayeon’s room, and Nayeon is… undecided on how she feels about it. 

(It would be shameful to admit she wants to lean into the touch, despite knowing how much danger it could put them in). 

“Am I?” Nayeon asks, exasperated. Her complete disinterest in an answer, however, fails to provide her with an excuse for her captive attention on Sana’s mouth. 

Screw it, she thinks, leaning into Sana’s fingers. She’s decided she likes it very much. 

“I suppose what I mean to say is I would like to have the freedom to choose,” Nayeon exhales, heart hammering away. “I do want a family. I do want to be away from this castle, but I would like it to be on my own terms.” Nayeon’s gaze flickers between Sana’s eye’s and her lips. She swallows, her throat dry all of a sudden. “If I could.”

Sana drags her thumb across Nayeon’s cheekbone, and down, over her top lip. Nayeon isn’t sure she’s even listening. “May I, Your Highness?”

“Sana,” Nayeon manages, swallowing roughly. She resists the look of temptation in the healer’s eye with practised effort. It wouldn’t be the first time Sana has stripped her with just a look, but Nayeon feels more exposed outside the seclusion of her bedroom. “Have you confused where we are standing?” she almost begs, whines. 

Sana’s eyes drill into her own, the anticipation of a response sending Nayeon’s pulse racing. There was an alarming pace to it, too, which only pursued to quicken as the door of the hall sounded to open. 

Sana ricochets off of the Princess as their moment of privacy is breached, the creaking hinges forcing Sana into submission. “No, Your Highness,” she says cautiously, breathlessly, “I haven’t.”

As several of the castle’s workmen bound into the room, Sana makes a bold move and steps behind Nayeon in one fluid stride, and begins work pulling the ties from Nayeon’s hair. It’s a clever way of masking any suspicious behaviour as an innocent act of grooming, but the irony of it is delicious. If only they, as Nayeon knew, how useless Sana was with hair maintenance.  

“Vincit qui se vincit,” Nayeon half-chuckles, observing the men passing through in a fashion Nayeon has only known soldiers to. Patrol, perhaps. Their synchronised steps are almost musical, yet still carry an air of menace. Nayeon doesn’t recognise any of their faces but that doesn’t mean to say they won’t recognise Sana’s. 

“As I said, you’re a very hard girl to understand,” Sana whispers, “particularly when you decide to speak to me in a foreign tongue.”

Nayeon smiles, a nervous shake to her hands as she discreetly reaches backwards to run her thumb across Sana’s hip. “I don’t expect to be understood, Sana.” 

It’s just not part of what she’s cultivated to be. 

“Ooh, so fun and cryptic,” Sana teases, weaving Nayeon’s hair between her fingers carelessly, though her posture exposes her nerves. 

Her shoulders are tight beneath her gown, and Nayeon can feel the edges of Sana’s anxiety seeping into the way she manoeuvres her hands. Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled. Nayeon wouldn’t be surprised if Sana was watching the men too, distracted from the task ahead of it.

“Speaking of which,” Nayeon starts slowly, under her breath, “how long should I expect to be combing the knots from my hair once I’m spared from your carnage?”

“Quite a while, I imagine,” Sana giggles, accidentally tugging at a strand of Nayeon’s hair during the mechanics of plaiting it. 

“Christ,” Nayeon hisses, flinching away from Sana’s touch. Only --  of course -- her hair is seemingly coiled around Sana’s fingers, tangled, judging by the way the healer is dragged with Nayeon on her pursuit of an escape. 

“Shit– pardon, Your Highness, I’m so sorry!”

“Mind your language,” Nayeon hushes, bringing her hand around to rub the back of her head. “If they hear you curse they’re going to assume you’ve upset me. And I don’t need to be questioned why you of all people are braiding my hair here when it is my chamber that accommodates grooming.”

This only works if they act guiltless for their crime. 

“I’m sorry, really sorry,” Sana breathes, resting her forehead on the crown of Nayeon’s head. “When will they leave?”

“If only I knew.”





111 days. 

 

“I'm thinking of making you my handmaiden,” Nayeon says, having summoned Sana away from her responsibilities in the medical wing for a walk alongside her in the gardens. After the disaster in the great hall, they need a more concrete facade. “I’m sure my father won’t have a problem with it. You’re basically always with me these days, and you have more experience now. This way you’ll be able to touch me completely, without any questions.”

Winter is Nayeon’s least favourite season. The courtyard is at its most stupefying just before the weather changes. Even late into autumn, the last of the garden’s flowers continue to bloom, accenting the grey brick of the castle walls with bright, vivid colour. Only when winter commands the earth do they surrender, having boldly resisted death right up until the sun at last dropped from the sky, their days shrouded in darkness. 

It’s disheartening to watch as they shrivel, curling into their stems before snapping, drifting to the ground later to be covered in frost. Even the ivy that coils around the clock tower has weathered this year, leaving a skeleton behind in its place to shelter the winds until spring. 

Sometimes Nayeon would sit out for hours into the fall evenings until the chill seeped right through to her bones, and bumps pricked her skin. She would have to submerge herself in steaming hot water once she retreated back behind the palace walls, nose blue, soaking until she felt life return to her body. She didn’t want to miss a moment of it in those last few weeks, before winter destroyed what little beauty she had left in her life, withholding it for months on end. 

Sana is silent under the sound of snow crunching beneath her feet, but Nayeon can spot her blush from a mile away -- the contrast of her blaring, pink cheeks and the blinding white blanket of snow. It is definitely a sight to commit to memory. 

“Is that an invitation, Your Highness?” Sana attempts, although weakly. The sceptical look on her own face is a clear indication of where she stands with this kind of flirting, especially when she’s in this kind of mood. 

The girl is freezing. Nayeon had warned her to bring furs to wrap around her shoulders for this very reason but Sana had neglected to consider her own health. Nayeon can see the tremor in her jaw, her last slither of self-control working to keep her teeth from clattering. 

Nayeon wishes she could offer her own cloak without causing controversy. 

“It’s a pay rise, Sana. Your apprenticeship ends this month. It’s either me you’ll shadow or one of our Nobles, and I’d rather it be me.” 

Nayeon hated the thought, hated the way too many of them carried their status, feeling as though they were more important than they were. The problem with having as many Lords as Miserth did was that they felt as if they needed to do more to elevate themselves to compete with those around them; each one crueller than the one before. 

Nayeon had a lot of fears in her life -- her father’s temper could be one. She can recall countless occasions where his eyes would glaze over darkly, seconds before lashing out at her. Times when he felt like being particularly cruel was the only way to make a point. Her future husband, a second. Her siblings being hurt on another person’s ladder to power would often frighten her enough to follow Nayeon into her dreams, but none of them quite like this. She had prepared for those. 

The thought of Sana being awarded to one of Miserth’s Lords left her with a sudden chill.  She couldn’t bear the idea of someone taking advantage of the girl simply because they felt like they had the right to. 

No, Nayeon could never trust them. 

“And please,” Nayeon begs, “stop calling me that while we’re alone. It’s too much.” 

Sana slows at her side, inspecting the stark, expansive grounds below them. Even with so much blaring whiteness encompassing the land, the world still felt very, very dull. 

Nayeon follows Sana’s line of sight to the city spread out beneath them, suppressed beneath a thick blanket of snow. It’s when she looks back up to the side of Sana’s face that she realises the irony of a colourless world. The only brightness in her own life comes from the person beside her, and her connection to the girl is the one thing that threatens the very certainty of drawing breath. 

“What else would you have me call you?”

Nayeon brushes her thumb against one of Sana’s shaking shoulders. It’s glacial outside, cold enough for death’s welcome if subjected to the winter’s harshness for too long, so Nayeon knows they’re truly alone. Only a madman would follow them out here. 

Nayeon had overheard a few of the guards talking amongst themselves about the capital last week. She doesn’t have anyone who travels outside of the walls to gather intel for her, who can pass on important news she might want to know. Nayeon is sheltered enough by her own family as it is, reports spun into mistruths long before they trickle down to her, so Nayeon finds other ways to be kept in the loop. 

Particularly in times where the isolation threatened to numb her mind, while seeking out some sort of connection with their people, Nayeon would sneak into the barracks. It was the only place with a large enough sample of men who travelled through both sides of the gates to give an unbiased reading, so she would brace herself for the stench of sweat and listen in on the knights. 

One of the bulkier swordsmen was sharing stories of his patrol through one of the villages, his girth a rival to his lofty height, boasting about half of the city being littered with frozen corpses. He’d said so while tucking his chin into the animal hide wrapped around his shoulders, shivering still even under his winter cloak. “The farmlands are destroyed by snow, and there's no food. I caught a feller salvaging meat from the bodies of the fallen,” he’d said, rubbing his hands together to create enough friction for warmth. “Sick bastard.”

Nayeon had fled from the area before she was spotted, making it all the way to the courtyard before retching, disposing of her lunch. The snow had melted beneath the contents of her stomach, steaming violently against the dead of winter. The thought of the public being forced to survive off the carcasses of their neighbours was enough to make anyone sick... All whilst her father bathed in the spoils of their craft. 

Nayeon would’ve set the whole Kingdom alight right then if she could. It’ll be the first thing that changes when her brother is King, that’s for sure. Nayeon will make sure of it. 

“What do you call most people by?” 

Sana feels herself begin to shiver once more as she falls under Nayeon’s gaze, goosebumps prickling up on her skin. “Surely, you’re not suggesting...” 

“Yes,” Nayeon gives the girl a sly grin but returns to detachment as swiftly as one would blink. “Though, it’s not a suggestion. You’re to address me as Nayeon from now on,” she continues, “‘Your Highness’ is… I don’t like how that feels, with you.”

“But I have to,” Sana tries reasoning, an unsettling feeling swelling in her stomach. Nayeon understands her apprehension, for if she was ever overheard… 

“I don’t want to be called that when we’re alone at least,” Nayeon repeats, brushing arms. “Call me by my name. Unless, of course, you have any other ideas.”

A sudden silence descends among them. Nayeon senses some internal judgments being made, with the way Sana’s expression lightens after a moment’s thought.

“What?” Nayeon asks, wary of Sana’s sudden shift. Sana squints up at Nayeon with a treasure in her eye. A smirk, perhaps, just on the edge of dimpling her cheeks. 

“Nayeonnie. That’s what I call you in my head,” she admits. “It’s cute. It suits you.”

Nayeon blinks, raising an eyebrow at her companion. “Seriously?” 

The corners of Sana’s eyes wrinkle. “Yes. You’re very cute.” 

Nayeon tries hiding her smile without being too obvious about it. The idea alone that Sana’s flattery, no matter how silly, has an effect on her in the first place is almost embarrassing. Almost, because Sana is looking at her in that secret way that she does, like she’s giving away a thousand of her words in one subtle, warm look. And Sana’s words, attention, smile -- they all meant everything. 

Christ , Nayeon thinks, hating how pathetic Sana makes her. How capable Sana is at creating the illusion that they can afford to be young and childish, just with her company. It’s maddening, quite literally, because nothing about Sana would ever be good enough for her father. 

Sometimes Nayeon would drift away into her own mind, curious about what a world where royalty was but a distant memory would look like. If she, in any life, could approach her father with Sana on her arm without needing to offer an explanation. Sometimes she’d be away for hours at a time. Wondering. Thinking. Building whole worlds inside of her own head, with more promising realities than the ones they find themselves stuck in.

“You’re very annoying,” Nayeon deadpans, brushing the back of her fingers down Sana’s arm. Her skin is so smooth it seems to slide beneath her fingers like water. Or perhaps that's just the cold, numbing the tips of her fingers.

The healer remains silent, but takes Nayeon’s hand in her own and squeezes it, a quiet, content air falling upon them both. Nayeon watches down at the city below them, reminding herself of the poverty she had once known, what she had once sworn to demolish once she had the power to.

“Handmaiden, then,” Nayeon prompts in a sombre, sure tone. It was a question, no less, just Nayeon had a tendency to disguise them. “If my father agrees this time to the promotion.”

“Of course.” Even holding hands with an heir to Miserth’s throne, Sana has never felt so helpless. “I’m all yours.”

 



97 days.

 

They’re almost caught. Sana has her face in Nayeon’s neck when Tannin shows up to her room unannounced, but Sana’s reflexes are impressive. She’s standing by the dresser before Tannin is able to fully wedge the heavy door open, blustering about how Nayeon is late for something or other when she catches sight of Sana inconspicuously hovering on the other side of the room.

Neither of them says a word at her arrival, and Nayeon dreads to think what it all must look like.

Sana stops sneaking into her room after that.

 



94 days.

 

Sana’s kisses become the best part of Nayeon’s day. They’re more mindful now of where they meet though equally reckless at the same time. No longer does Sana sneak into her room before duty, but they do spend time together in the bathhouse. 

Something about its publicity makes carrying this secret here easier. There are guards posted at each entrance, all instructed to keep people out of the pools whilst their Princess is occupying the space. Given the tradition, any lapse in their concentration could cost them their lives, for if anyone was to witness their Princess nude everything would be compromised.

It’s this security that makes spending time here with Sana so brilliantly private. 

Sana, of course, is allowed entry. None of the guards bats an eye as she follows Nayeon inside, cupping Nayeon’s toiletries in a woven basket. 

Stripping in front of Sana for the first time had been equally thrilling as it was terrifying, but as Sana began to undress with her, very quickly had Nayeon’s reservations been forgotten. 

They soak for hours, learning each other’s bodies but never having sex. They seem to agree that though they may be able to hide the touches and the delicacy between them, they wouldn’t be able to hide that. If it were all true, what they say, that she'll bleed for her first, then there’s no true way she can safeguard Sana’s life if they ever crossed that line. Should her virginity be called into question, it wouldn’t take long for them to narrow down who.

But God, does the devil tempt her.




81 days.

 

Nayeon loves her sister, but she resents her naivety. She's different from Nayeon in the sense that the castle is all she’s ever known, ignorant to all life outside these suffocating walls. She doesn’t have friends either, only her own team of marshalls whose loyalty lies with their father, but her sister doesn’t view them that way. 

Sooyoung doesn’t understand yet the thumb she’s kept under, the oppressive nature of her father’s meticulous instructions. She’s still young and romanticises the tradition, describing often how unique it makes her feel. She boasts about it a lot to Nayeon in particular, the only other person she knows kept under the same regime, failing to read Nayeon’s mood whenever she brings it up. Nayeon tries to keep her true feelings on the matter away from her baby sister, for it would only serve to make her miserable too. 

She’s happy. As happy as anyone can be with such a sheltered life anyway, and Nayeon doesn’t want to take away what little youth she has left. There are plenty of people who will snatch at the chance later on in her life and that’s when she’ll need Nayeon’s protection the most. 

In the present, she’s babbling about something nonsensical, though Nayeon isn’t really listening. She tries to, but soon enough her focus shifts away from her sister’s words and onto the four walls around them. She thinks of Christmas, reminds herself that this is the last one she has left, before…

Before

“Do you think I could have your maiden, once you’re gone?”

Nayeon turns sharply at that. 

“What? Who?”

“The Japanese girl. She seems really nice,” her sister says, pushing long, wispy hairs from her eyes. She has flyaways falling from her braids, long thick pieces sticking up all over the place. She always does, whenever Nayeon sees her. 

She’s not sure what her sister does during the day that turns her into such a mess, but it reminds Nayeon of childlike innocence so she never points it out. If she badgers her sister that Princesses are supposed to be well kept, then that’ll be another thing about this castle that chips away at her sister’s childhood, until in the end, there is nothing of it left.

“She’s a healer,” Nayeon says absentmindedly, sad, all of a sudden. She stares at her sister and finds that she misses her already. “She’s a maiden too, I suppose, but I suspect that once I leave she’ll be redistributed back amongst the medical field.”

“Does she have an accent?”

“I…” Nayeon isn’t sure how she wants to approach this. If she is overzealous with the information she offers, then it’ll be obvious there’s more of a relationship between them than just a girl and her help. “I’m not sure. We don’t often speak.”

“Was she born in Japan? I’ve never met a Japanese person before.”

“Father’s healer is Japanese,” Nayeon points out. She avoids drawing attention to the fact that she only knows this through her connection to Sana, though. 

“Well I’ve never met them!” her sister rants. “Will you ask her for me?” Sooyoung begs. “I’d like to know.”

“No,” Nayeon barks, before softening at the way her sister flinches. “It’s not good to become too involved in the staff’s personal lives,” she amends quietly. “They’re not our friends.”

“You sound like father.”

Nayeon freezes at that, Jeongyeon’s face flashing in her mind. “Has he… what has he said?”

A chill unravels over her body at the thought of Sooyoung unknowingly granting a loved one a death sentence. Nayeon wonders briefly if she’s overlooked her sister’s relationships, and sends out a silent prayer that her father’s sudden interest in Sooyoung’s ‘friends’ is only precautionary rather than reactionary. 

Sooyoung shrugs loosely. “Only that I shouldn’t try to befriend my handmaidens.”

Nayeon frowns. Though relieved there is nothing more to it, she still hates that he’s forced her hand into agreeing with him. 

“He’s right.” Nayeon can’t explain to her exactly why he’s right, not without frightening her with memories of lessons Nayeon has had to learn. She throws an arm over her sister’s shoulder, pulls her close. “I know it can be lonely here, at times,” Nayeon starts softly. “But you can always talk to me.”

Her sister nuzzles into Nayeon’s body. Sooyoung is usually more serious about the no-touch restrictions, resisting Nayeon’s affection out of a fear that it might spoil her somehow, even if they are only sisters. But she leans closer this time like she needs Nayeon’s warmth more. 

“What about when you’re gone?” she asks in a small voice. “Who can I talk to?”

Instantly, Nayeon thinks of Sana. They haven’t discussed what Sana will do once Nayeon is gone, both dreading the day, but there’s almost no need to. Nayeon knows Sana will seek out Sooyoung on her own to befriend her. Watch out for her like Nayeon would if she was home. 

Nayeon can’t tell her sister this yet and considers how unfair it all is. How life itself is unfair. Perhaps she’ll write Sooyoung a letter before she leaves, explaining that she has at least one friend in this castle that will protect her secrets. It’ll make Nayeon feel better about having to leave, at the very least. “You can write to me as much as you would like. It will be nice to hear from you often, too. I’ll be less homesick.”

“Will you miss it here?”

That’s a hard question. Almost instinctively she itched to say yes, but she had Sana in her thoughts at the time, widely swaying her decision. “I’ll miss some things, I suppose,” Nayeon admits. “You, for example. The gardens.”

“Might be nice to see a different castle though,” her sister says thoughtfully. “I’m so bored of this one.”

“I hope he might let me outside,” Nayeon says carefully, telling herself not to get her hopes up too much. “I hear that other royal families often tour their territories, travelling huge distances that can take them away from court for weeks at a time. Princesses and all,” she says with an air-like mystery, as if she can’t quite imagine it herself. “I’d like to visit the cities, once again.”

“What’s Miserth like?” her sister asks after a moment. “My mother says you used to live amongst the people below.”

Nayeon nods and for once, the thought of her previous life brings a smile to her face. “Yes, my mother and I lived in a small house on the west side of the city. From the gardens, you can still see the house I grew up in.” She slows her speech. “I miss it.”

“You do?”

Nayeon sighs. “The Lords here are miserable. They don’t respect our people, so don’t pay much mind to what they say. Our people are nice. Kind, as long as you treat them well. I wish I could take you to visit the bakeries and market stalls.” 

Sometimes when Nayeon strolls through the gardens she catches the smell of seared meat in the wind, buttery dough from the baker’s hut some distance away. She’s not afforded the indulgence of anything too fattening or doughy here, her diet meticulously bland in fear she may gain too much weight. But each time she caught the scent in the air, her mouth watering at the memory of hearty stews, grilled beef skewers stuffed onto steel prongs wedged between roasted peppers, Nayeon would be soothed by the reminder of home. Of her mother. 

Miserth has always been full of life, it's only the castle that isn’t. 

She misses music, too. Real music, music with depth and feeling. As a child, in the evenings, Nayeon would listen as a few men would gather by one of the drinking houses about forty yards away from her own home, and play songs with strings. Here, in the castle, the only music she can access are the hymns sung during church. 

Her sister hums, and for the first time, she sounds unsure of their position -- uncertain if being a Princess is really as fulfilling as she had been sold. “Do you think they like us, the people down there?”

Given the image their father portrays, probably not. If she was still amongst them, her own title amis, it’s likely that she would agree. The King is greedy and selfish. He swooped onto the throne with magical words and promises, buying himself enough time until the birth of their brother, a true heir. Then, once he had been announced to the realm, their father bolted the castle gates closed and hadn’t opened them to the public since.

“I’d like to think that if we were allowed to show them who we are, that we care for them, then they would. But the truth is,” Nayeon pauses as her sister sucks in a breath. “We’re strangers to them. We keep ourselves separated. The Kingdom is so disjointed it feels as if it’s us versus them.” 

Her sister nods long and slow, nose tickling the skin of Nayeon’s bicep. 

“If I could change one thing it would be that,” Nayeon says, surprising herself by how much she means it. “I would like us to be one people, rather than two.”

There’s a knock on the door, and the younger Princess groans at the sound of her maiden beckoning her from behind it. “Ugh,” she grumbles, reluctantly detaching herself from Nayeon’s side. “If I could change one thing,” she says seriously, her eyebrows drawn tightly, “it would be these sewing lessons.”

Nayeon laughs. 

She doesn’t see the point of them, either.




79 days

 

A week before Christmas, Nayeon comes to the startling realisation that she’s in love with Sana.

The season makes the revelation all the more magical. Nayeon aches to tell her all about it, but isn’t sure that’s such a good idea. What can she promise her, but only another year?

 


62 days.

 

Nayeon receives a summons from her father, and all four of her handmaidens, Sana included, swarm her bedroom.

“What’s going on?” Nayeon asks, sitting up from her reading chair. Tannin and Nari have a serious look in their eye, Boram indifferent, and Sana looks outright pale.

“Your father has someone he wants you to meet, Your Highness,” Tannin deadpans, her rich, smooth voice lacking her usual warmth. She sounds stressed for the most part, but she too seems to be avoiding eye contact.

Nayeon locks her gaze back onto Sana hoping she’ll give her some sort of visual clue as to what's going on, but Sana keeps her head down, her hair partially covering her face. Nayeon only breaks away when Nari shuffles across to her and lifts her up from her seat.

“Let’s get you dressed.”

Nayeon shakes her away, frustrated by the crypticness over this meeting. “I am dressed.”

“Not for a Prince, Your Highness,” Boram says, materialising behind her. She pulls out a box from beneath Nayeon’s dressers and starts untying the braids in her hair. 

Her eyes snap to Sana’s. “A Prince?” 

Sana gives her a look.

“And who is this Prince?” 

Nari gives her a helpless shrug. “We haven’t been informed, Your Highness, but he must be important. The King has requested that you look your best.”

Nayeon scoffs.

“I imagine he is only the first of many. He’s very good looking,” Nari adds sheepishly, hoping to quell Nayeon’s temper. To take out the sting. 

It doesn’t.

It must take over an hour of her maidens pulling at her before Boram looks her up and down, her sunken eyes making her look wiser beyond her years, and decides that Nayeon is ready. The finishing detail, of course, which Sana cradles with careful, nervous hands, is her crown.

Sana’s fingers shake as she slips it onto Nayeon’s head, weaving a pin hidden beneath her hair to keep it in place. Sana gives her a sympathetic smile just before she’s quickly herded off to the throne room, where the occasion hits Nayeon for the first time.

She hadn’t been prepared for this. She was supposed to be shown, not… not whatever this is. She wasn’t supposed to meet any of her suitors this personally, close enough to judge the look in his eye as he shamelessly weighed her up. This was… this was too informal, or perhaps not informal enough. Was she supposed to speak to this man? Try to impress him?

But how? Of all her preparation had gone into the End of Year ceremony. She was to swan around whilst everyone was feasting and filling their bellies with ale, and look pretty. Keep her spine straight, her head high. Her chin forwards. She wasn’t to speak unless spoken directly to, and never to a man her father was trying to lure bids out of. 

Her job was to entice. The more alluring she was the better, the more interest she’d garner. If anyone wanted to know more, there was a price they would have to pay. Nothing about Nayeon came free.

So this?

Nayeon looks between her father and the Prince. The King’s baldness is slowly spreading over the crown of his head, only a ring of hair left just above the set of his ears, and nowhere else. The Prince, however…

He’s wearing a deep blue wool tunic, with his hands crossed behind his back. Nari was right -- this stranger is very kind on the eyes. His thick dark hair sits just above his jawline, not an inch of it out of place. She wonders how long it must've taken his own team of maidens to style it, to control his curls into the loose, precise waves that fall over his ears, before deciding she doesn’t want to know. 

She next notices his eyes, a muddied green though deeply troubled, and whilst they complement his pronounced bone structure the whole picture of him is moody. He looks very unapproachable at first glance, from his dark features to his rigid posture, but Nayeon supposes it’s what also makes him so beautiful. 

Somehow his attractiveness makes Nayeon only resent him more.

Her father introduces him and Nayeon smiles politely. She doesn’t bother repeating her own name and title back. He’s here for a reason. 

Prince Marcolfo of Douya, an empire halfway across the world. He had travelled further than Nayeon had in her entire life just on his journey to get here. As her father continues to introduce him, she learns that he had set off for sail long before the news broke out that Nayeon’s departure from the Kingdom -- her father’s words -- had been delayed, but her father, impressed with his dedication to meet her, didn’t see a reason he couldn’t still enjoy a show considering he was already here.

For a moment Prince Marcolfo reaches out his hand for her to shake, before remembering himself. He quickly retracts his hand, embarrassed, before deflecting from his mistake by complementing Miserth’s hospitality for housing him.

Interesting, Nayeon thinks, whilst he glances down at her gloves with a clouded expression. What interest did he have in her, if not for the tradition?

As more pleasantries are exchanged, Nayeon starts to switch off to the conversation around them. She thinks of Sana, of her wounded expression back in her room whilst she was washed and dressed, and aches to return to her. She hadn’t considered this ever happening before she asked Sana to be her handmaiden. Perhaps if she had known Sana would have to help prepare her for the man she might lose her to, Nayeon would have never offered the suggestion up at all.

Nayeon doesn’t switch back into the conversation until a small man marches up beside the Prince, presenting him with a blue velvet box, the very same blue as his tunic, likely being the colour of his house. The Prince accepts it, and then carefully offers it to Nayeon.

She reaches for it before faltering. Nayeon looks to her father expectantly, unsure whether he warrants the margin of error low enough for any accidental touching to occur, for Nayeon to take it herself. He doesn’t, evidently, for only seconds later does a woman intercept, transferring it from Prince Marcolfo’s steady hands to her father.

Nayeon watches as her father opens it without expression, her eyes following as he reaches inside and pulls out a dress. It’s the finest of silks she’s ever seen, no doubt costing a fortune. It’s studded with small gems that glitter when they catch the light, and its colour… Again, like all things he brings Nayeon is learning, the fabric has been dyed with the same rich blue the Prince himself wears, as is the velvet upholstery covering the box.

“It’s beautiful,” Nayeon says in wonder, forgetting all about the symbolism behind it.

“A gift,” he says with a thick accent, of which Nayeon cannot differentiate. “For you, Princess. I hope to see you wear it one day.”

Nayeon was old enough to know that presents such as these didn’t come without a price. This was the start of her sale, she realised, and with his broad white smile, cultivated to charm her, she almost falls for it. 

She hadn’t expected her emotions to be bought in this exchange, too. 

“Thank you,” she says, just to be considerate. And because her father is watching. “That’s very kind.”

When she looks up to the King beside her, his eyes are stormy. She dreads to think why, and lowers her head away from him.

She can’t wait for this to be over.

 


59 days.

 

The Prince has set off on his return home, though Nayeon can’t help but feel haunted by him. His gift has been stuffed into the bottom of her wardrobe, the box a reminder of the uncertainty of her future. 

She thinks about him for weeks after his departure, wondering if there is to be another who lands on her doorstep, bargaining for her hand.

 


41 days.

 

Nayeon was old enough now to get out of her embroidery lessons, which left her schedule wide open on certain days of the week. Nayeon had tried to keep it to herself for as long as it took someone to question what exactly she was getting up to on her new days off, but it wasn’t long before she received a summons.

Sewing has now been replaced with shadowing the castle advisories for a few hours per day, if only to witness their discussions on event planning, or… something. Nayeon was unsure herself on exactly what it was that she was supposed to be learning, versus the actual take she was getting from these sessions. 

It was a bold move teaching her in such a way, she thought, considering most of her life has been centred around the suppression of her education. Even if she was expected to tune out when they spoke on matters of a political nature, Nayeon fails to understand the motive behind these lessons in the first place.

Nayeon suspects that her father was the one responsible for her placement amongst them, considering she’s already spent years learning the proper etiquette for Princesses and couldn’t possibly enrich her knowledge further. Nayeon had a tendency to pick fights when she was bored so it would be no surprise if this was just a means of keeping her occupied and away from him, but that doesn’t make her presence here any less strange.

Princesses, even if they do become Queens, aren’t expected to do much planning or bidding of their own. They don’t wield power the same way their King’s do. Aside from bearing her husband as many sons as she can manage, she’s not bargained for much else, so she has to wonder: when her father hates Nayeon’s confrontation as much as he does, her questions on how he can stomach to rule the way he does, why would he allow her to observe in a setting that’ll only strengthen her stance against him? Learning how the realm is controlled can only cause her father more grief in the end, which he would know.

Despite the incomprehensibility of a Princess garnering this set of skills, listening in on these conversations, Nayeon won't dare say anything. These segments are the most interesting parts of her day -- when she’s quiet enough for the advisors to forget she’s amongst them as they bicker confidentially between themselves.

There’s a small herd of them, but the ones to keep an eye on, the most important of them all, are a small group made up of four men. Technically two of them are generals, and even the advisors themselves take on a greater political role than the average advice counsel, more strategists than the rest of them. Nayeon isn’t sure what their exact job spectrum truly covers, but judging by what she’s caught snippets of over the past few weeks alone, their titles are a lot more understated than deserved. 

It’s intriguing. She wonders why that is, if that’s a strategy of some kind to keep the most pivotal members of the King’s councillors under the guise of a lesser title. Inconspicuous. Perhaps to throw off any spies, misguide them into surveilling the wrong people -- though the more Nayeon studies them the more certain she becomes that one of these four men is a spy himself, for her father. He’s absent fairly frequently, being the smallest of the bunch. His features are unremarkable and plain, and being a slim, scrawny thing, he wouldn’t look too out of place amongst the villagers. The other men are bloated with greed, bellies round and full -- if they were to traipse through any nearby settlement or city they’d certainly attract the wrong kind of attention. Poor men don’t have the liberty to gain so much weight, at least not in Miserth. They would stick out like sore thumbs. 

Nayeon eyes him suspiciously. Cautiously. She wonders what specifically he’s tasked with reporting on — if he’s ever had to report back about her. 

She intends to find out. 

Soaking in as much as she can before her father corrects the mistake he made by placing her here, Nayeon has learned to be still over the last few weeks. Hidden and patient, she has been careful to mask her eagerness and has gained the trust of the four men, all of whom are now comfortable with assuming her disinterest is genuine. 

She learns, and learns more. And it goes perfectly until it doesn’t. 

In the end, it’s the Queen who gives her away.

She waltzes in one afternoon as light as a windswept feather. With barely any meat on the woman’s bones, she’s awarded the ability to travel quieter, and more swiftly. More often than not Jiseum is able to blindside people completely by her approach, only drawing attention to herself when it’s too late for a person to avoid her.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” the Queen says to her directly. Nayeon jumps at the sound of her voice, then busies herself with trying not to look guilty. The Queen’s eyes flicker over to the map in the centre of the room, before straightening to address the four men -- all of whom had been hunched over around the circular table until just a moment ago, jolting upright in alarm. “And you all should know better than to bring her in here.”

Nayeon sees their eyes dart to each other, none of them sure on what to do, nor what to say. Nayeon is almost as lost as they look. 

They’re in the war council room, but it’s treated more generally than that. The walls are lined with plans for empowering the Kingdom, from proposed tax increases to potential treaty arrangements, accompanied by a full list of rival territories and their trade routes. There’s more, such as a list of suitors and their assets, who Nayeon suspects are lined up for her, but she hasn’t had the chance to memorise any of them yet. 

There’s also a very interesting drawing of the surrounding islands and with their weaknesses highlighted and circled, such as fragile defence posts, pockets of unguarded coastline where you might dock several ships at once, sheltered from the view of look-out posts, farmland that could potentially support several hundred warriors for weeks at a time… almost as if someone might be planning an attack. 

One of them opens his mouth as if the thought has only just occurred to him of what Nayeon had to gain just by standing in here. Then, his face hardens as he looks around the table as if he’s entertaining the idea of shifting the blame onto one of his colleagues. Nayeon can tell by the curl in his lip, a look she’s become familiar with after watching him argue with the others over many occasions. 

“Yes, Your Majesty,” another man bows, tilting his head in shame. “It was a mistake, we see that now.” His dark eyes snap over to Nayeon, almost damning, and a second pair of eyes follows suit. 

It makes her furious

As if they think she is at fault here when all she’s done is follow instructions? Granted, she has been manipulating them for several weeks now, wearing down their caution until they no longer batted an eye allowing her to tag along throughout confidential meetings and other private matters that she, and anyone else, had no business witnessing.

But wasn’t that their job? To think things through?

God, if only the King knew how much of his coin was being wasted paying four men to be suspicious, only to be outsmarted by a Princess engineered to be stupid. Four men who failed to weigh up the consequences of relieving themselves of the boundaries between their work, and Nayeon.

“Out,” the Queen demands coldly, and the men scarper, tails tucked between their legs. Nayeon can tell they don’t fear the Queen herself, but they do fear what words she might share with the King on the matter. If she hadn’t been on the receiving end of their passive-aggressive glares as they scurried off, perhaps she might’ve felt sorry for them.

Nayeon stands tall and waits, knowing what is to follow. But during the next few moments the Queen doesn’t say anything at all, only stares at Nayeon in a disappointed kind of way. 

“Say it,” Nayeon huffs, her patience thinning. “Say whatever it is you need to say so we can both get on with our days.”

“I fought for this position for you, Nayeon. And you’ve abused it.”

She did? But why--

“I only did as I was told.”

They both exchange a look, and as true as it may be, they both know she played a larger hand than that. 

“Your father wanted to send you away to live with the priests. That’s no place for any young woman, locked up for days on end, reciting prayer until mealtimes.” A solemn look falls upon her stepmother's face, and Nayeon realises with stark clarity that she’s speaking from experience. She’d heard horror stories about the convents, but it felt like a distant tale, not something that could ever directly affect her. “Whole days could go by without your knowledge.”

“Maybe you made a mistake,” Nayeon mutters, though shuddering at the thought. She mightn't be so difficult if Jiseum wasn’t so usually infuriating. 

Her stepmother sighs like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. She steps closer. “I’ve tried so hard to be a mother to you, Nayeon, but you won’t allow it.”

Nayeon hadn’t expected that of all things, but it irritates her all the same. 

Be a mother to your own children, first.  

“I already have a mother. I don’t need a second.”

“Do you?” The Queen falters the second she says it, regret darkening her tongue, but it’s too late to take her words back now. Nayeon feels her stomach roll over in anger.

“That crown doesn’t make you better than her, you know.” Nayeon glares hotly at the metal pinned onto her head as if trying to melt it. Jiseum looks ridiculous wearing it outside of ceremonial events, and she’s the only one of the family who insists on its everyday use. “I thought you had more decency than to shame other women because they once threatened your position.”

Jiseum almost rolls her eyes but instead shakes her head dismissively. “She was never a threat to me. I was of royal blood, and she was just a person.”

“We’re all just people when we’re born, and just people again, when we die.”

Her stepmother does roll her eyes this time. “Don’t be so dramatic. She ran an orphanage. She could never have been a Queen without direct connections to the throne.”

“Having a child with a King should be a strong enough tie, no?”

For a moment Jiseum becomes very still. Almost as if she’s in disbelief, though Nayeon can’t be sure of what. She steps back cautiously as she gathers the courage to vocalise her next words, like she doesn’t trust Nayeon not to cross the room and strike her at the sound of them. “If she had a child with the King, perhaps.”

Nayeon feels herself getting hot. “What are you insinuating? That I’m not his real daughter if born outside of his crowning?”

“No, only…” Something changes in the Queen’s posture, giving in to whatever internal struggle she had been battling up until this moment. Her shoulders sag, not enough for anyone to really notice, but Nayeon has had her eyes locked onto the woman for the last several minutes. “She wasn’t your real mother, Nayeon. You were surrendered to her care as a babe.”

Everything goes white.

 


 

“We should get back to Miserth, the night will fall upon us if we don’t,” Sana urges, glancing around the woodlands with alarm in her eyes. 

Nayeon loved the way the air tasted down here, the way the liveliness of the forest seemed to peel open her lungs more with each breath she took. 

Everything has movement amongst the trees. The river churning over rocks along the embankment, the sway of the bushes, rustling, as the wind whips through them. Even life can be found within the diseased bark she has to step over to get closer to the clearing, the fallen tree crawling with wildness.

Nayeon is well accustomed to the smell of dampness, of tree rot and mulch, and once it might have even been enough to repel her from this trail, particularly after such heavy rain as this. She’s grown to tolerate it since then, she realises, as her feet begin to sink beneath the leaf-littered soil, finding herself pushing forward more eagerly.

“But why?” Nayeon questions, glancing back briefly at Sana as they walk. Her lover doesn’t share the same affection for the forest as Nayeon does, occasionally tripping over the roots that coil through the earth beneath her feet. Nayeon holds her hand to keep her upright, guiding her through the undergrowth on a path Nayeon feels as though she’s taken a thousand times now. “What’s waiting for you but orders and chains?”

Sana, taken aback by the dismissal, abruptly parts herself from Nayeon and forces them both to a stop, a pocket of frustration forming in her chest. “I’m not a slave, Nayeon,” Sana snaps, a spike of warning in her tone. “So don’t imply it.”

“It was a metaphor,” Nayeon sighs, looking up into the sky, disinterested in the world around them. They haven’t reached the clearing between the trees yet, but she can almost see the twinkling sky from here. “There’s something beautiful about how small we are,” Nayeon says instead of arguing, taking a moment to ponder upon the mosaic of stars dotted across the evening sky. “Something tragic, though, about how important we feel ourselves to be.”

Sana drills into Nayeon’s side profile with narrowed brows. Nayeon can feel it, but doesn’t do much more about it. It’s unlike Sana in more ways than one, for instance: she exhibits zero desire to take their isolation, peculiarly, as an opportunity to map out Nayeon’s body without the fear of being caught. And secondly, She might genuinely be annoyed at Nayeon’s antics this time, and Nayeon hasn’t had to soothe a bristled Sana before. She’s not sure how good at it she’ll be. 

Sana stands, guarded, studying Nayeon with uncertainty. There’s something unsettling about this walk in particular, something about the way Nayeon carries herself that raises the hairs on Sana’s neck. 

“We should get back,” the handmaiden presses, fearing more than the dark upon their return to the castle. “It’s late.”

Nayeon doesn’t appear to have heard her. “Look at us, Sana, two nineteen-year-old girls, same in almost every way. The only thing that separates us is our last names.”

“If you’re feeling generous, perhaps,” Sana mumbles. She doesn’t roll her eyes, but it’s as if she had. “We are more different than alike, Nayeon. Minatosaki and Im are not the only barriers between us.”

“Yes, maybe,” Nayeon smiles thinly, without feeling, “but it’s still interesting. You’re very high up for a Minatosaki, you know, I had Boram look up your family history.”

Sana’s jaw, usually soft and rounded, sharpens. “I see. And your findings, what were they?”

Nayeon spares her a glance. 

“Nothing you don’t already know. Your mother left Japan trying to escape the life she’d inherited from your grandmother, once she realised she was carrying you inside of her. She’s done well to outrun the family legacy here with us, as a healer.” Sana would usually smile at something like this, but there’s an edginess about her now. “That,” Nayeon continues, “and you’ll be the last Minatosaki to exist once you marry.”

“My mother was not a whor--”

“Sana, I don’t mean to offend.”

The healer scoffs, lifting the trail of her dress up from the ground to shake off the dirt as best she can, just as something to do. There’s a storm brewing in her eyes she’d rather shelter Nayeon from, but she still fails to control her tone when she asks, “What was the point of your enlightening research, then?”

“The Im’s,” Nayeon starts, breathing in the wild, animated air from the forest. “We don’t have a history. Not one my father hasn’t created for us. He invented it all: , our ancestors, our journey across the West Sea.”

Sana wrinkles her nose. “And?”

“And,” Nayeon tugs at the cloak hanging over her shoulders. There was no easy way to say it, so Nayeon is blunt. “Earlier today I found out the woman I believed to be my mother is nothing more than a foster for orphans. I was her first.”

Sana gapes pathetically, sucking in the cold air. Her eyes dart between each of Nayeon’s before Nayeon turns to face away from Sana completely. “But, your mother, you’ve--”

“The woman I lived with until I was seven, Sana, she--” Nayeon sighs, exhaling through her nose. “I rarely saw my father as a child due to work conflicts, he’d say, though perhaps that wasn’t true either… but I was happy with what I believed I had.” 

Sana squints across at Nayeon, angry, but not at her. “I don’t… how can he create a lie like that?”

Sana is offered a small, slow shrug. “When my father smuggled his way into Miserth as a King’s Guard, he took me back from her, took me from my home and brought me to the castle. God,” Nayeon breathes, shaking her head at the absurdity of it all. “He dumped me into her care as a baby so he could plot his way into the castle, and then snatched me away like I hadn’t grown roots.”

Nayeon uses the back of her hand to cover her mouth, trembling all of a sudden. 

“He let me believe she was my mother all this time, Sana,” she tremors, swallowing back the emotion in her voice. 

Nayeon feels Sana approach her from behind, but for once, Sana has nothing more to offer her than this closeness. 

“Im Kyesaeng, he told me,” Nayeon speaks more calmly, transitioning back into that stoic gaze she was known for locking over her features. “But my foster mother’s name was Eunchae. I had Boram look into her history too, and we found only one Kyesaeng she was connected to -- the only Kyesaeng in the entire city at the time, actually. On record, at least.”

“Was she…”

“I think she was an old friend. I can’t be sure. Records weren’t as accurate as they are now, so maybe I’ll never know. But my mothe… Eunchae’s Kyesaeng,” Nayeon corrects, “was a prostitute who died birthing me in secret.”

“Oh, Nayeon…”

“Imagine that,” Nayeon laughs wetly, “You bear the future King an heir to the throne and your legacy is given to another woman. You’re not even respected enough to be remembered.” 

“And Eunchae, is she… alive?”

“Lost,” Nayeon shudders, sucking in a steadying breath. “She disappeared after my father took me back, for obvious reasons.”

Obvious now, perhaps. Sana had been under the same impression Nayeon had -- the story Nayeon had been fed. Nayeon’s mother, foster mother, had become infertile. For any King, a daughter is not enough to cement stability. He simply needed what she could not give him, and they parted amicably. 

Or as amicably as you could when your replacement was a future Queen.

Sana stares at the back of Nayeon’s head, unsure of how she’s supposed to treat this delicate, fragile side of Nayeon. Sana can’t imagine what it must feel like to have almost everything you believed ripped from underneath you. But perhaps one day she would. 

“And your father,” Sana hesitantly approaches, “is he…?”

Nayeon’s voice is somewhat lost amongst the sounds of the river gurgling behind them, but there’s a sure nod that follows. “Biologically, yes. He’s no father of mine in any sense otherwise.” 

Sana’s stomach clenches, almost painfully. Her natural response is to tell Nayeon that her father loves her regardless, but even she questions his ability to love based on the way he treats her, and bites back from vocalising anything. He’s in the midst of selling her, for Christ’s sake, and disregards almost everything Nayeon spoke from her soft, kind lips, simply because her words challenged him. 

Instead, Sana says the next best thing, a truth she would swear her life on. “She loved you, Nayeon,” she says gently, closing the final gap between them. “She would’ve loved you as soon as she knew of you. Inside her belly, she would have told you stories and sung lullabies to let you know she was waiting for you. Until the moment you were born she adored you, and that’s something no one can take away from you.”

Nayeon lets a shaky breath escape her, but the feel of Sana’s fingertips on the bottom of her back only remind her of the loneliness she’ll feel once she returns to Miserth’s gates. “There are people out there that would do anything for you,” Sana continues, her warm, hot breath ghosting the side of Nayeon’s neck. “How do we make this better?”

It’s then, after a moment’s glance across to Sana, with her soft eyes and tender face, that breaks Nayeon in half. She begins to cry, in the ugliest way a person can. Sana clutches onto her from behind, bandaging her arms around Nayeon’s hips and clings there like she’s the only fit. She might very well be, but there’s only more tragedy to be found in that. 

Nayeon has never sobbed like this in front of anyone before, never letting her emotions cripple her whilst in company. She’s cried, of course she’s cried, but the intimacy of falling apart cradled in the arms of the only person she’s ever learned to trust, allowed herself to love aside from the stranger who raised her -- and the mother she doesn’t have -- it’s more vulnerability than she’s ever afforded herself.

(Amongst the whispers of her subconscious, she hears her father call her a fool).

“You are so loved, Nayeon,” Sana hums, swaying with her amongst the forest. Nayeon quickly realises that she’s grown roots here, too. Not where they stand, but in who she stands with. She is irrevocably tangled with Sana and it’s with this knowledge that Nayeon crumbles further. 

Nayeon isn’t sure how much more loss she’ll be able to handle once Sana is gone too. Once Nayeon has been taken away, separated from who, as far as she is concerned, is her once in a lifetime love.

Sana’s hair smells of passion fruit oils from the bath they shared, the skin of her neck milky, coated with an expensive, floral-scented perfume that Nayeon had given her months ago. She’s small but large enough, and brave enough for both of them, and it’s for this reason that Nayeon cannot stop herself from keeling over. 

For what started in grief, emotions split over the torment of her parental relationships, has now tumbled over into a suffocating feeling of stuckness. Nayeon weeps for the two of them, overwhelmed with all that she can’t have, all they can’t have, allowing herself to be struck by it. 

Everything she has ever wanted, all that Nayeon has left, is this very tiny thing holding her together. Not just Sana in herself, but what Sana stood for -- her values, status, and being. And they are all the same exact things that would keep them apart. 

It takes her quite some time to stop crying, the clouds long gone above their heads. The night has fallen upon them, and this forest, carrying their whispers in the wind, now completely encases them in darkness. 

“We should return,” Sana says timidly, her voice slicing through the silence. “You have probably missed supper by now, and your father will be asking questions about where you are.”

Nayeon allows Sana to turn her, and an arm snakes around her waist as she’s guided back through the woodlands. Sana mustn’t know the path alone, but their footsteps are still prominent even in the dark, trampled shrubbery from Sana’s clumsy steps on the way down signalling their route home.

Home, Nayeon thinks nauseously. Where is home?

“Nayeonnie?”

“I feel foolish.” Nayeon starts absently, mindlessly trenching through the undergrowth as Sana leads her on.  “All these years I’ve yearned for affection from a mother who isn’t mine. She was employed to care for me, and I never… I feel stupid.” 

Sana clutches Nayeon tighter, pulling her in closer by the hips. It’s harder to walk this way but it soothes an ache. Sana will have to put distance between them once they’re in view of the palace which doesn’t give them much more time for this softness, so Nayeon nuzzles into her and saviours it.

“Why should you feel foolish? Just because she was tasked with your care doesn’t mean she didn’t also return your love.” 

Nayeon is too weak to have this fight. To have her worries churned into pretty words, to things she might want to hear. She’s used to the routine of people watering down her worries just for the sake of giving her some peace of mind, to serve their Princess, but Nayeon is quickly learning there’s a consequence to such naivety, of allowing the words to soothe her. 

After years of believing a lie, she'll now only tolerate the truth. No matter what sting it brings. 

“Sana, please. You don’t need to--”

Sana huffs. “Need what?”

“I…” Nayeon runs a hand over her face and sighs. It’s not Sana’s fault. She’s a creature of habit, and compassion runs thick in her blood. “Thank you. I know you have affection for me, and that you care,” the Princess offers sincerely. “And although I might not fully grasp why, I want you to understand that I’m grateful.” 

Nayeon stares at her feet. The bottom of her dress is destroyed, and Nari will be furious with her. When she glances upwards Sana is studying her with a turbulent look in her eye, and Nayeon is overwhelmed with the urge to love her. 

“You’ve been good to me,” she continues. “I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”

Sana has an interesting reaction to her gratitude, folding her lips together and pointedly looking away. Nayeon can recognise that her words have struck a nerve judging by the way Sana’s eyes shift from tenderness to defensiveness, but she doesn’t understand why. “What is it?”

“Why is it you never listen to me?” Sana asks angrily, her voice laced with hurt. “Regardless of what I feel, you should still hear what I have to say.”

“You’re upset that I thanked you?”

“I’m angry that you tried to shuffle along the conversation simply because I don’t agree with you. That was dismissive,” Sana points out. “I think we owe each other more than that.”

“I--” Nayeon sighs. “I suppose I did do that. I’m sorry.”

“Whether she birthed you or not, Eunchae was your real mother. Just as much as Kyesaeng. Why should you care that your father paid her?”

Nayeon keeps her head low. She senses the castle ahead of her, but where she expects a coldness to curl around her left side as they swing out of the trees, Sana’s grip doesn’t relent.

“It changes things,” Nayeon mumbles, with quiet resignation in her voice. 

The coldness comes, sharply. Sana has dropped away from Nayeon completely and spins around to face her. Nayeon almost slams into her at the abrupt stop. 

“Changes things?” Sana questions, a sharpness to her tone. “And me? I might work for your family but I’m not paid to love you, I just do . Does that change things?”

Nayeon’s eyes flash. “You just…?”

“Do, yes.” Sana raises her eyebrow in defiance. “I am sorry if that disappoints you. I can be sorry that this is not as easy as you might’ve hoped too, if you’d like, but I am not going to apologise for loving you. Nor will I stop.” 

Nayeon feels a warmth grip her from the inside this time, a rattling bundle of heat soaring up from behind her ribcage, dancing around her heart. 

Sana frowns crossly. “I won’t. Not for anything. Don’t even think of asking.” 

Temples throbbing, Nayeon swallows wetly. “You love me,” she repeats carefully, hoping they don’t sound as undeniable from her lips, too.

“Have I not always?”

Nayeon throws herself forward, slinging her arms around Sana's shoulders. 

“I love you too,” Nayeon says, breathing in Sana’s skin. 

Sana smiles, and kisses the slope of Nayeon’s neck. “I know.”