King Taejong greets the birth of his royal son with undisguised pleasure, and all the more so when he sees the soulmark that stretches across Lee Do’s chubby forearm. None of the stubborn blankness that characterizes his second son’s body; and certainly not the clumsy peasant’s name emblazoned over his heir’s heart. No, Lee Do bears an alien, elegant series of swoops and swirls: 장영실. Taejong has not the slightest idea what it means, and he delights in this. To him the unfamiliar symbols signify a new country, whether beyond the seas in India or deep into the Great Desert, with which Lee Do will someday make an alliance. It is inevitable. No matter how foreign the ruler, he must bow to the will of heaven as do all who live on this earth, and give his daughter to Joseon where her soulmark has promised her; and where a royal princess goes, there follows her dowry, and with any luck, trade and defense pacts as well.
His joy is short-lived. None of his scholars, no matter how learned and far-travelled, can identify the writing or its origin. They cannot even puzzle out what the name of Lee Do’s intended soulmate might be, and Taejong flies into a rage. The scholars bow and whimper; Taejong simmers, and eventually his anger gives way to cool reason.
All is not lost. Lee Do’s soulmark can be clearly seen, which saves him from being marked as useless for anything but a religious life as his second brother was. Lee Do’s soulmark is exotic, and more importantly, does not identify a soulmate of common blood, as was the case for his brother. Lee Do has potential. Lee Do can be molded into a King.
It will be easy enough to convince his court that the soulmark is an ornate way of indicating whatever advantageously connected young lady Taejong wishes to make his son’s Queen. A word to a scholar, and he’ll have the man’s assurances that that is the soulmark’s intent—as well as his silence, for fear of facing the royal executioner.
Best of all, Taejong thinks, the outlandish nature of his son’s intended soulmate makes it clear that the two will never meet in this life. What more could a father ask for? He leans back in his throne, satisfied.
Go-sam from Mi-rae, Lee Do repeats to himself, and for the first time in years, allows himself to wonder.
When he was a boy, before his father favored him with ascension to the throne, he had spent hours pestering the Royal Scholars, desperate to find out every language in the known world. It had not taken him a long time to realize that the signs showing his soulmate were in none of them. He had admitted as much to his father, defeated, and had been surprised to see the older man smile. What did they know of heaven, Taejong pointed out; perhaps Lee Do, as King-to-be, had his soulmate written out in heaven’s own script! And perhaps, in that script, one could make the daughter of Lord Shim, who would bring the throne security and wealth. Who were they to prove that she was not who was meant for him as his Queen Soheon?
At first he had been satisfied with that much—and then he had seen his first brother’s happiness with his lowborn wife. There was something missing in the bloodless friendship he felt for his queen, something that Lee Do, as difficult as it was to define it, longed for.
Everyone must follow the ruling of heaven and live happily with he or she who had been selected for them. That was the laws which ruled gods and men. Why else would they have such markings concealed somewhere on their body, if not to make their soulmate easier to be found?
So said the priests, and so said his second brother; but despite how often he had heard it, the words rang uneasily in Lee Do’s ears. Almost as uneasily as the ridiculous rain rituals the court insisted he preside over. But what was it that he wanted? Did he want a soulmate, his true soulmate, or did he scoff at the idea as he did the other prayers of the priests?
These sacrilegious and contradictory thoughts must be why the gods in their wisdom had punished him with such a terrible joke for a soulmark. And then they punished him further by sending him Go-Sam.
The first time the boy crows unmercifully over showing him the strange tricks and ways of Mi-rae, realm of the castrated mathematicians, Lee Do reconsiders not having him sliced to ribbons by Park Yeon. By the time he hoards one of the precious tangerines all for him himself, Lee Do has moved on to regretting not having him sliced to ribbons at first sight.
Lee Do wonders idly, given how Go-Sam appears to be a functional illiterate if perhaps they use a different script in Mi-rae, and then, even more disinterestedly, if it might be the one for which he has sought so long. He hopes not. He holds mathematics in the highest regard, especially after linguistics dealt him such a fatal blow early in life, but even he balks at self-mutilation. He would hope his soulmate would feel the same.
And then his heart flutters when it is time to walk Go-Sam home, and nothing is the same.
”Do they have soulmates in your country?” he asks politely, and Go-Sam (he has no idea what else he can call her; Go-Sam will have to do for now) wrinkles her nose.
”Only in my mother’s sageuks,” she says, whatever those are, and deepens her voice in clear mockery of something or someone from her land, “‘It is heaven’s will that each man and woman marry only whomever their soulmark has revealed - no one else!’ ‘Prince So-and-so, your soulmark is of a commoner. You are disinherited!’” She rolls her eyes. “Bunch of old fogeys!”
Despite the clear provocation, Lee Do keeps a straight face. “Your land is most enlightened.”
”Well, yes - Sej—one of our Kings, a long long time ago, he decided that all of that was nonsense. He made an edict about it or something; love is a choice, he said. We covered it last year in history class. No one believes in soulmarks anymore, unless they’re silly. It’s just something to laugh about with your friends, like reading your Western horoscope in the paper.”
He had never imagined that horoscopes could be a laughing matter. Mi-rae beckons more brightly to him by the day, if more like Go-Sam can be found there.
The thought gives him courage, and before he can think better of it, he turns to her and pulls up his sleeve, exposing his soulmark. “Is this written in any language you can read?” Perhaps it will be. Perhaps it will say her name, in her own tongue, and in that way, he might discover it instead of calling her by the only title he can afford her.
Curiosity is one of Go-Sam’s many sins. She peers at his soulmark eagerly, and when she looks back up at him, her eyes are round. “I…I hadn’t realized you had feelings of that sort, Your Majesty.”
His heart races. He can bear it no longer. He grits his teeth and manages to utter: “Will you tell me or—“
”Jang Yeong-sil,” she breathes, and Lee Do, listening intently can hear the slight unfamiliarity with which she pronounces the syllables. Whosever name it is, it is not hers.
His heart sinks.
All these years, and the one miracle of discovering this long boy-girl who makes his heart pound as it never has before, and his traitorous soulmark reads Jang Yeong-sil?
Go-sam, oblivious as ever to his turmoil, clutches her hands to her chest. “Oh, it’s better than a manga!”
Soheon comes to him one night, and he steels himself to refuse her again. If it made his heart heavy to cause her such grief, it does so now a thousandfold — but laying with her is more than impossible now that he has found Go-Sam.
That is not, however, what she has in mind. With a surprising straightforwardness, and none of her usual simpering, Soheon announces that she had found him a woman. When he demurs, telling her he has no appetite for such things these days, Soheon raises a hand. He will indulge her in this one thing, she says; she is sure he will find pleasure in this woman. She will speak to the Dowager Queen about this matter in the morning, so his Majesty should please not think he could get out of it. He looks in her eyes then, and knows.
They think similarly, he and Soheon. This is why, for a few mad months immediately following their marriage, he had let himself believe that his father was right and she was the one meant for him.
”Thank you.” He inclines his head gravely. “But there was no need to do such a thing. She is not my soulmate.” Someday, he hopes, his voice will not be heavy with misery as he speaks the words. That day is not today.
Soheon’s mouth twists into a bitter smile. “Does it matter? We all live under the tyranny of our soulmarks. Will you, the King, let yourself share such a fate as well?”
He has no answer for her.
”May I see your soul-mark?” he asks instead, and she understands him just as easily as he does her. She does not lift her skirts to show the characters that delicately encircle her ankle; Lee Do realized years ago that they were too precise to have originated from anything from a tattoo artist’s handiwork.
Rather, she pulls up her sleeve sharply to expose a terrible burn that stretches across her forearm. Lee Do has no doubt whose handiwork that had been and no doubt whose name had initially rested there. He has seen enough longing looks between his queen and Park Yeon.
He says nothing but pulls up his own sleeve, letting his marked forearm rest beside Soheon, a mirror to her scars. They sit together in silence.
Will you let yourself share such a fate as well? Soheon had asked, and the answer is: No. No more than he will let his people do the same.
Lee Do has seen enough of the world to know the plight of commoners. They cannot read or write, and for too many of them, soulmarks are meaningless — just one more taunt of things they cannot have because they are not rich. Lee Do knows what it is to suffer in ignorance. He knows enough of letters from his years studying languages to put them together in the easiest manner he knows how, and if the result is not dissimilar to the symbols on his arm, than what of it?
When it comes time to write down the first edict in this new language he has devised, there is only one option. The tyranny of soulmarks, the one thing that kept him from the woman he loves. The heavens might have made him for Jang Yeong-shil, whoever that is. But love is a choice, Lee Do has discovered; he did not fall in love with his troublesome eunuch because his name matched the mark on Lee Do’s body, but for those antics and laughter and well-hidden cleverness.
He lifts his pen and begins to confer a title on his beloved.
It changes nothing, in the end. She returns to the future, and he stands on the beach alone. It is testament of how throughly she has shattered his life that his mind doesn't even question the fact that she was submerged into ankle-deep water. One kiss, and she disappears. When his initial grief fades, he dares a look at his soulmark; guiltily, he half-hopes it might have disappeared.
Jang Yeong-shil, it announces, stark and lonely, and Lee Do closes his eyes. That is her name now; he chose her, not heaven, not anyone else. He will live with the consequences of his decision, whatever they might be.
He returns to the throne. Sejong does Soheon great honor as his queen; she bears his heir. She does him great honor, too, to limit her interactions with Park Yeon to the same longing Sejong feels whenever he allows himself to reflect on what might have been. At long last his time on this earth is done, and he faces his death with something not unlike relief. A broken heart weighs heavy on the soul, and Lee Do is tired of carrying this burden.
Like any other man, he expects the Celestial Bureaucracy to take him to task for his sacrilege, but what he does not expect are the words We ask your forgiveness; there has been a terrible mistake. Accept this as recompense.
Before his soul can puzzle out what that might mean, there is a shudder, and all around him blinks out of existence.
Twenty years the boy grows into a man, with Lee Do slumbering inside of him like a silkworm within its cocoon. The young man knows how take a selca without gaping at the camera, excels in all his college entrance exams except history, and loves to speed down the streets of Seoul. He thinks nothing of the mundane details of his daily life, but dormant, Lee Do delights in all of it.
Then comes the day he meets the girl on the bus and watches her leave her umbrella behind. As he watches out his window, she runs towards her exam, towards the puddle that will take her to the past, towards him. Lee Do awakens.
It takes a year before he finds her again, lost in the rain, and he covers her with her own umbrella. "We've met before, a long time ago," is all he can manage, his voice shaking with joy.
There will be time, he knows, to find the soulmark on her own body, and to share with her his own, unchanged through all his births. Even if it had, it would hardly have mattered. Love is a choice, and he will always choose her.