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Thrown in at the deep end

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“You’re not serious about this father?” The Crown Prince's brows are drawn, his unrest palpable.

 

“I am. You must get married before you can be crowned. It is nothing you didn’t know.” King Park Jihwan, who stood by the window of the Crown Prince’s study with his back turned to him, looking out, turns to him with raised eyebrows and curious expression. His tone has a touch of finality to it. Jimin knows this tone all too well. It is often the harbinger of a power struggle between him and his father. He thinks it might be one of the things that trigger him into rebelling against his father time and again but this time it is not a trivial reason such as the urge to resisting authority. This is not a pointless act of rebellion. This is about their people, their kingdom. And if another rebellion is the way to protect them, so be it.

 

“I know that. But you want me to marry a royal from Gimnan!”  He says it like he has tasted something putrid. To be honest, he does feel the need to gag at the idea. His father blinks at him with mouth slightly open like he doesn’t understand the reason of Jimin’s reaction.

 

How naïve can you be? Jimin resists adding. His father should know exactly why he detests the idea so much.

 

“Yes. So what?” King Park shrugs with his brows drawn and Jimin resists the urge to throw something at him or shake him back into his senses.

 

“I hate them. They’re treacherous assholes. The abandoned us not once, not twice but thrice when we needed battle support, leaving our soldiers – our people – to die. King Shin Geon is a snake and you know it!” He spats, absolutely hating having to spell out the obvious, thumping both his hands on the table in front of him hard. His father is unbelievable. He gets deceived again and again by Gimnan’s lies, phony promises of support.

 

In return for several trade tax relaxations, battle reinforcements when they needed it, Gimnan was supposed to show up to help when plundering barbarian tribes banded together against Jinje and a war had broken out on the already vulnerable western frontier nine years ago. Barbarian army had plowed through Jinje’s western guard with unbelievable ease because of two reasons. One was that they caught Jinje by surprise and the other one was that they simply were savages. Ruthless, unpredictable, without a care for battle etiquette or regard for decency, they took no prisoners. They attacked under the cover of night, obliterated the unsuspecting, unprepared guard.

 

By the time Jinje mobilised their forces, they had already intruded and captured many important posts well within the boundary of the kingdom, destroying everything they encountered on their way. Massacring villages after villages, they killed, raped and flayed in a bone-chilling display of cruelty. While facing them in battle, Jinje’s army was out of its element – they were overwhelmed by the savagery and ferocity of the barbarian fighters. King Park had sent a dove to their so-called “ally” King Shin Geon of Gimnan for help. Gimnan’s troops that were nearest to the region were strategically better placed to reach the western frontier quicker than Jinje’s army from the capital. Jinje’s guard units from adjoining regions could not abandon post to help western guard. It would have left their other borders wide open for intrusion. Gimnan could’ve held them back until Jinje’s troops got there and together they could’ve easily quelled the invasion. They had the numbers and strategic advantage to help but the only thing Jinje received was a promise of help. Help never arrived. Gimnan justified that later by saying they had to prioritise suppressing internal rebel activity due to which their troops were held up. Lies.

 

Jinje would have lost western provincial territory and suffered a bigger bloodbath than it already was if not for the strategic prowess of General Jeon Jeonghoon in battle and the unrelenting fortitude of Jinje’s warriors. They won but still suffered great losses. Hundreds of men and women lost to a horrific fate, their heads bashed with bludgeons even after being hacked down with blades until their bodies were no longer identifiable, feeding and fueling the murderous frenzy of their cruel enemy further. An enemy that gouged out eyes, slashed fingers – mutilated the dead – simply because it was fun to defile a corpse. One never recovers from the trauma of witnessing such cruelty. As for the survivors, they won the battle but lost a big part of themselves on the battle ground.

 

At the age of nineteen, it was not Jimin’s first combat experience and he was no stranger to spilling blood – his enemy’s or his own. All battles are brutal in their own way, but this was his first encounter with this particular brand of brutality. He still remembers the last stop on his way back from the battlefront with the remaining troops – victorious but broken, battered warriors – stopping by a village that was rendered a ghost town after the barbarian raid. Rotting corpses of men, women and children attracting hordes of flies and vultures, the repeating, sickening scenery that he had seen village after village, reminiscent of the dance of death that had happened, perhaps days ago, finally broke the young prince. It sent him on a quest for a hidden recess, away from the dreary eyes of his troops so he could finally shed the tears he had reigned in way too many times on his way. In solitude, he wept for all the lives lost of brave men in war, for all the innocent blood of his people, for their unheard cries. He wept for everything that could have been prevented if they just had help.

 

After that there were two more times when Gimnan promised to help but didn’t as opposed to Jinje having provided military support to them on countless occasions. Every time they came up with lame excuses. So Jimin has good reason to not trust them. In fact, he hates the Royal house of Gimnan. His father wasn’t there at the western frontier all those years ago. He was. His father hasn’t witnessed the violence, gore and brutality – the worst Jinje has ever seen. He has. So, his father will have to listen to him. He will not marry into that vile house of snakes.

 

He knows where this idea is coming from though. There are courtiers in the royal court who have vested interest in keeping the trading relaxed between the two kingdoms and benefit from the treaty between them which provides Gimnan first right of trade. Some of them are in cahoots with Shin Geon. It is them whispering into his father’s ears, making him believe they need Gimnan to thwart Namsan’s conquest attempts and that the only way to get their unconditional support is through a royal marriage alliance. It can’t be further from the truth. All this marriage will do is give Shin Geon access to inside information of the court of Jinje. The Crown Prince wouldn’t be bringing a consort into the kingdom, he would be installing a spy for Gimnan at one of the most powerful positions in court. Jimin has been privy to enough strategy council proceedings to know that Shin Geon has his eyes on Jinje’s throne and will strike as soon as he gets an opportunity.

 

“They had valid reasons every time. But once their younger prince is married to you, they will be more inclined to support Jinje.” His father is stubborn, that’s where he gets his own tenacity from.

 

“They will not. Father, don’t you get it? They want Jinje to fall. Do you even read the strategy council briefs that gets sent to your chambers every week?” Jimin throws his hands in the air in exasperation.

 

“How dare you accuse your father, your King, of incompetence?” Turning to Jimin he glares at him, looking outraged. “I do read them, and I do not concur. My sources tell me that Gimnan just needs extra motivation to help us. This marriage will give them that.” He is obstinate, in his words and demeanor with his hands behind his back and chin tipped upwards, almost looking down at Jimin.

 

The prince laughs loudly, humourlessly.

“Your sources? You mean your pet snakes?” His words are laced with derision that he knows will incite his father, but he cannot help it. He walks around his table and stops right in front of his father, close enough for it to be affronting. “Even though they are pets, they’re still snakes father. It’s in their nature to bite. How are you so blind to see it?”

 

“Crown Prince Park Jimin that is enough disrespect to the crown!” His father roars. Seething in anger he demands. “Kneel!”

 

Jimin takes a step back and kneels begrudgingly on one knee, still staring into the King’s eyes which only irks him further. “On both your knees!” He demands again. Jimin is a little shaken. His father and he have never seen eye to eye ever since Jimin has taken up his duties as the Crown Prince at the court. But he has never had to kneel in front of his father on both knees like a commoner while paying his respects to the crown.

 

However, he is not entirely shocked. He identifies power play when he sees it. His father just wants to establish dominance over someone he thinks is a wanton child. Little does the King know that the Crown Prince is not a child. He is the future king of Jinje and he is ready as ever. This minor humiliation is nothing he cannot bear if in the end he gets what he wants. He shifts to both his knees with a smirk and says, “Respectfully, I do not consent to marrying the younger prince of Gimnan. Your Majesty!”

 

The King’s angered expression twists into mockery as he fixes the silk sleeves of his obnoxiously golden robes smugly and says, “You say it like you have a choice son.” He laughs, bends down to face Jimin, his countenance suddenly changing colour to a dangerous hue that tells Jimin to ready himself for a threat. “Prince Manseok is arriving next week to attend the Lunar festival. You will receive him, court him and get engaged with him in exactly three months’ time. It is the royal decree.”

 

Jimin keeps staring at his father undaunted, wordlessly for a few moments that follow. The King’s expression softens up unexpectedly and Jimin’s body goes rigid in apprehension. “Don’t fight me on this son. I am tired of never agreeing with each other. This is good for the kingdom. You will see. Just trust your father for once.”

 

Jimin’s father is not a bad man. He is a very capable King who has just fallen prey to sycophants that have systematically surrounded him. While he has given up on most of court activities because Jimin has slowly taken over, he still makes these outrageous decisions sometimes without consulting any of the trusted advisors of the court or the Crown Prince himself. Jimin cannot stand for it, so he clashes with him often. Contrary to the impression he may have given to his father in his pursuit to do what’s right for his people, he really loves him. This might be time to call a truce, for now.

“Okay. I will receive the younger Prince of Gimnan.” He sighs

 

***

 

“So, you’re going to marry a Prince of Gimnan?” Taehyung asks bug-eyed, leaning back on the purple velvet couch in his chambers where Jimin is meeting with him and Namjoon for drinks. Taehyung is the son of a high-ranking courtier – Jimin’s closest friend and partner in crime since childhood. He is a lightsome, insouciant man with a devil-may-care attitude. Although he is the owner of a thriving silk trade, he believes in living frivolously. It only speaks to his natural business acumen.

 

Namjoon is a court official. He is responsible, wise and clever and it is no surprise that he is the youngest advisor on the King’s advisory council. Jimin has come to respect and trust his judgement slowly becoming friendly with him.

 

“Your highness, you do know you must not agree to that?” Namjoon supplies as he shifts a few times in his seat and forces himself to get comfortable on the couch next to Taehyung. He still finds it hard to be comfortable in Jimin’s presence but is slowly getting better at treating him as a friend. Taehyung offers him a silver goblet of wine with an amused smirk playing on his lips and he awkwardly accepts.

 

“I know. But father is being stubborn, and I don’t know what to do.” Jimin sighs.

 

“Do you want to get married to the Prince? He might turn out to be nice.” Taehyung offers.

 

“Tae you know as well as I do, I will not, in my sound body and mind, put someone with Shin blood that high up in court.” Jimin throws his tired feet on the center table in front of him and leans back against the backrest of the couch. Taehyung sits up swiftly, smirking amusedly.

 

“Is this funny to you?” Namjoon asks quirking a brow at him.

 

“Actually yes. It is a little funny to see him resist a chance at an actual courting. Jimin here is a total romantic. He cannot wait to fall in love with the prince of his dreams.” He chuckles loudly and Jimin groans throwing his hands on his eyes. Taehyung then slowly leans towards Namjoon, winks and whispers, “Me too”

 

Namjoon sits stoically, staring at Taehyung whose face is really close to his now. After a moment of silence, he abruptly looks away from him and towards Jimin to address him.

 

“This proposal is not suitable Your Highness.”

 

“Ugh! Tell my father that.” Jimin sits up and retrieves his largely ignored wine goblet from the center table.

 

“But you need to get married before you can be coronated. It’s –”

 

“The law! Yes, I get it” Jimin nods pensively, absentmindedly flicking his nail on his goblet of wine repeatedly, causing the metal to clank softly. Taehyung observes him with his signature smirk still plastered on his face as he sips from his own.

“This wine is top notch!” He says loudly that tears Jimin out of his thoughts.

 

“So what are you going to do Min?” He casually moves on his next question as he fiddles with the golden tassels hanging by the edges of the couch.

 

“I don’t know. I only know I can’t marry a Shin. It is going to be terrible for Jinje. It is too big of a risk.” Jimin shakes his head, his brain is overworked with the stress of finding a way out of this situation, he just wants to lie down and close his eyes for a bit but in the end, settles on a generous swig of wine instead.

 

“I agree with Your Highness” Namjoon sips on the wine nodding.

 

“Well I don’t know what to do though. Any ideas?” Jimin leaves his goblet on the table and sinks back into the couch gesturing at both his friends.

 

“You could marry someone else.” Taehyung gestures with a flick of a hand, sounding half-bored and half-amused.

 

“Yea? Like whom?” Jimin scoffs.

 

“I don’t know find someone else to get married. I’m sure men and women will be lining up to get married to you.” The way Taehyung chuckles evilly, he is enjoying this way too much. Jimin furrows his brows and sits up to settle his elbows on his thighs, annoyedly he says “Are you done having fun at my expense? Can you be serious for all of two moments now? I am still your Crown Prince for fuck’s sake!”

 

“Okay I’m sorry” Taehyung’s expression sobers up and he suggests, “Look just tell his majesty that you have someone and that you cannot marry another?” Jimin opened his mouth with a rebuttal but he interrupts him again, “Just say it. You don’t actually have to have someone.”

 

Namjoon shakes his head.

“Just saying it won’t work. His Majesty will just tell Your Highness to forget them and marry the Prince if he has already decided.” He glances between Jimin and Taehyung who are both looking at him now with an expression that says You have a better idea? He clears his throat and adds “It can work if you can convince him of your relationship with this imaginary lover. If what I’ve observed in my few years at the court is right, then His Majesty cares about you deeply. It might be worth taking a chance on his love for you.”

 

Taehyung raises his brows and smirks “You mean it might be worth deceiving his love for Min?” Namjoon’s eyes widen in horror at the thought of having offended Jimin, opening and closing his mouth a few times, he tries to find the right words to clarify but before he can, Taehyung announces, “I love it! It’s genius.” He turns to Jimin and says, “That’s what you should do Min. Don’t just say it, convince him you have a lover.”

 

Jimin hooks a finger in his scratchy high collar of his deep blue silk jacket of his robes and tugs at it, evaluating the suggestion and weighing it against the King’s fatherly love for himself.

“Except I don’t have one. And the problem is still the same, who?” He says before an idea strikes his mind. “Tae –”

 

“Don’t even look at me. When we eventually have to fake break-up, too many eyebrows will be raised noticing we are still friends. And it will be worse if His Majesty demands we get married. I’m not risking getting married to you.” Taehyung interrupts and holds his hand up in front of him waving it in a refusal. “I have my eyes set on someone.” He shamelessly stares at Namjoon who avoids his eyes. Jimin’s enthusiasm deflates and he throws his head backwards.

 

“Argh! This is hard. Where am I going to get a lover from now?”

 

“Just telling his majesty that you have a lover might not be enough. We need the person, the whole story. If the King doesn’t believe you or finds out that you are lying, it’s all over. There will only be one chance at this.” Namjoon warns and Jimin knows he is right. It won’t be an easy task to make his father believe he is in love with someone when he isn’t. And that will just be the beginning. After that they will have to make him believe that they broke up at some point. One lie will birth a thousand lies with each one of them having the potential to be discovered – Jimin cannot deny that it is a daunting endeavor.

 

Even after all this in the end, if it turns out that he had placed too much faith in King Park’s fatherly sentiments and he does not budge from his current position of getting Jimin married for political gain, then all the effort would have been for nothing. But Jimin can’t just sit still and accept his father’s decision. His disgust for King Shin aside, as the Crown Prince of Jinje, it is his duty to keep his kingdom and in turn, people, safe and invulnerable to plunder and conquest. And he can only ensure his people’s safety that when Parks have control of the throne. As much as he is predisposed to abide by the laws of the kingdom and buckle under the pressure of a royal decree, his duty to his people calls to him. This marriage alliance will make the Park reign dangerously susceptible to attempts to weaken or overthrow it. Their intention to do so has been constantly reported by Jinje’s spies for years now. To him, Gimnan is an enemy worse than Namsan. At least they’re openly at war with Namsan. His father refuses to believe it because till date Gimnan hasn’t made a move but Jimin knows it is only a matter of opportunity. And they shall not have it if he can help it.

 

***

 

A chant rises in the crowd of spectators in favour of one of the two warriors circling each other in the arena. Both panting and bloody, one warrior’s lip and brow have split open, teeth blood-stained – the other one has several spear cuts over his hands and legs. Both their skins are dirty and littered with multiple painful looking wounds. They have been going at it for an hour now, one contender constantly dominating the fight. However, it is the other one who is more stubborn. The final fight of the yearly duel tournament has taken an unprecedented turn – it has become too intense and now resembles those fight-to-death, blood sports from Namsan that Jimin absolutely detests. The vulgar spectacle of bloodshed disgusts him. To him, blood is precious, must be spilled only when necessary, not for sport. But right now, this match is beginning to resemble a blood sport too much for his liking. He has already registered his protest with his father many times and has prompted him to step in and stop the fight before one of the contenders gets fatally injured, only to be repeatedly dismissed by him

 

“Trust the General” He says.

 

“My general! My general! My general!” The crowd chants and the general’s biceps flex before the rest of his body muscles follow causing the leather of his tight vest to shift. This is an image which would've bothered Jimin if he weren’t so preoccupied by his dismay of the whole situation. The General lifts his spear and launches into an attack. The other warrior, the commander of mounted archers, Lee Hangyeol, evades the spear but falls victim to his opponent’s nimble foot sweep after a quick forward feint towards the ground. He falls flat on his back – his sword, the weapon of his choice, flings several yards away from him – any chance of his recovery seems to be waning fast with every tired, strained breath he takes. The general stumbles to him, exerting himself to stay upright through injury and fatigue, cages his chest between his knees and holds his shoulders down with both his hands saying, “Yield Hangyeol”

 

It sounds like a request but Hangyeol shakes his head and says “No!”

The General’s right hand lifts off the subdued fighter’s shoulder, curls into a fist and he lands a punch on his face before yelling “Yield!”.

 

Jimin feels like throwing up when the other warrior shakes his head in an obdurate refusal once again. What gratification a man lying half dead on the ground must feel from not giving up on what is supposed to be a game? He will never understand this need to win and paying for it in blood. He has to endure sitting through this because this tournament is a long-standing part of the Lunar festival and Jinje’s culture. The fights are often not this gory, they are sparring at best and end quickly when one of the opponent yields. While a few scrapes and cuts are to be expected when sparring, they are never this bloody.

 

This one however has taken a rough turn. Jimin knows there is no way this could go in which the obstinate warrior, Hangyeol would stand a chance against General Jeon. The General didn’t look particularly keen on fighting his opponent too much in the beginning, even going so far as choosing an almost useless weapon in a duel as a spear, but Hangyeol was irritatingly insistent. Too competitive for his own good. He taunted his opponent way too many times and kept coming at him like a rabid animal even when at one point he was ready to forfeit the fight to him. He stirred the beast Jimin knows the General is and is paying for it now. The Crown Prince doesn’t have the same faith in the General as his father. He feels he is too incited to stop and gets ready to step in to stop this disgrace of a duel.

 

The general lifts another fist to deliver what would undeniably be the final knockout blow and the collective breath of the audience hitches. Jimin shifts to the edge of his seat, ready to spring up and intervene when the fist stops mid-way and the general yells once again, spitting a mix of blood and saliva in the air “Yield warrior!”

 

The Prince freezes in his seat not knowing why he cannot tear his eyes away from the tense scene in front of him despite his disapproval for the clearly losing but stupidly adamant Hangyeol and the animal General Jeon has unleashed out of his body. Even though he knows who is to blame for this debacle, he holds the general – the man with more power out of the two contestants – responsible. He chose to let this go on for so long. It is always his fault. Bloody Jeongguk!

 

“No!” Hangyeol collects all his strength to say it loud enough to be heard and that breaks Jimin out of his daze. His heart drops thinking the General could seriously injure the man or worse, kill him. He thinks it is ridiculous that the rules of the game don’t tell them when to stop if it becomes too bloody for what is supposed to be a friendly game. The fight can be drawn if no one yields after five rounds, but it has only been four and it looks like it is at the discretion of the game master or the King. Jimin looks around exasperatedly in hope to find someone who feels the same as him. He sees Gimnan’s younger Prince who is Jinje’s royal guest for the festival week, Manseok, sitting on his left side with a wicked smile playing on his lips. His eyes glint with excitement and his foot shakes impatiently. He is clearly enjoying this way too much. Seated on his right side is his father who is watching the fight with a stoic expression. Jimin decides this is enough, he gets up to demand putting an end to the madness but Taehyung, who is sitting behind him, holds on to his sleeve and makes him sit down forcefully. He turns around to chastise his friend, but he gestures at him to wait patiently and look at the contenders.

 

There is pin drop silence in the arena, anticipation hangs heavy in the air and the spectators expects the final punch to land on Hangyeol’s face, but it lands on to the ground next to his face instead. The general hangs his head tiredly and breathes out “I yield!”. There is a collective gasp from the crowd close enough to have caught that and then a sound of rising murmuring as the gamemaster approaches the two contestants to confirm the yield. He bends to talk to the general quietly, then straightens up and declares loudly “Jeon Jeongguk yields! Lee Hangyeol wins!” The crowd erupts in an indignant jeer about an unacceptable outcome.

 

Jimin sits in his seat aghast at the events unfolding in front of him in a mix of surprise and relief. His father pushes to his feet and starts applauding, the crowd quiets down and slowly follow the king. In a few moments, thunderous applause is resounding in the arena.

“Congratulations to the winner. I appreciate his determination. I would also like to congratulate and thank General Jeon for showing incredible restraint and taking responsibility. He has shown today, once again, that he deserves to be leading Jinje’s forces.” He grins and applauds him once again as Jeongguk pushes off the ground tiredly and bows to him. As he is getting back up from the bow, Jimin’s eyes meet his for a second and he can bet he saw a slight smirk below his heavily bleeding eyebrow. The Prince is unable to desist from rolling his eyes. Jeongguk has been the blue-eyed boy of the king ever since he first defeated Jimin in an impromptu sparring match eleven years ago that he remembers all too well because it had costed him so dearly.

 

Jeongguk and Jimin had trained together ever since they were twelve and fourteen. A starry-eyed boy – he was told he was General Jeon Jeonghoon’s son – joined Jimin’s advance sword training because he was deemed an appropriate training partner for the Crown Prince. Jimin thought he was cute and gravitated towards him instantly. Jeongguk, who looked like a clueless, quiet, shy boy at the first look turned out to be not only extremely skilled, a capable partner but a much formidable adversary who repeatedly one upped him in their trainings and was self-assured to the point of cockiness while fighting. Conceited, in Jimin’s opinion, he was often condescending in the way he spoke to the Prince during their bouts. Jimin’s attraction for him slowly turned into a conflicting, inconvenient feeling.

 

Jimin was undefeated in training among other trainees of his age, always praised by his instructors but Jeongguk demolished his delusions of grandeur one by one. Now all these years later, while he hates Jeongguk for reasons more than just their teenage rivalry, that is one thing that he is grateful for because it taught him to be humble.

 

All the instructors were so impressed by Jeongguk that he was made Jimin’s training partner in all trainings like horse riding, archery, battle formations etc. The Prince spent a lot of time with him, yet he found his obvious attraction for the younger boy hard to accept. He could never accept that he liked Jeongguk, the boy who made him so mad, so often. They could never find common ground required for even becoming friends. At first, they were too competitive, eager to prove themselves better than the other in front of their instructors, constantly being pitted against each other in the name of practice. Then as time passed, they started clashing about various finer things like technique and moral aspects of the war way too often.

 

At the age of sixteen Jeongguk hit a growth spurt and much to Jimin’s chagrin, grew a few inches taller than him. A few too many. Training and working his body day and night, he gained a tremendous amount of muscle. While Jimin too had grown in that time, gained muscle and grown stronger, he was still leaner than Jeongguk. It not only made him jealous but also filled him with an unbridled desire that only made him angrier.

 

With time they found their own fighting styles even though the weapon they both favoured was a sword. Jimin’s sword fighting technique was based on agility, instinct and a perfect deception while Jeongguk’s on brute strength, relentlessness and intimidation, both equally effective but telling of the epic disparity in their temperaments.

 

Once when his father and the previous General Jeonghoon were out for a stroll discussing official matters, they stopped by the training grounds where Jimin and Jeongguk practiced. They thought it was amusing to get the two to compete for a special favour of their choosing from the King that he’d be bound to grant. It was the opportunity that Jimin had prayed hard for – God’s answer to all his prayers in the past few months. He really wanted to win to ask the King for permission to visit his sick mother who he was not allowed to visit due to the risk of infection no matter how much he begged or yelled to see her. Jeongguk won. Jimin didn’t get a chance to see his ailing mother and she passed away the next day. To add to his agony, he heard that Jeongguk had saved the King’s favour for the future. He didn’t even use it. He was cocky and teased him about losing the match, every chance he got.

 

So yes, Jimin now hates Jeongguk. He couldn’t say his last goodbye to his dying mother because of him. Their relationship, which was never entirely cordial to begin with, never recovered from this blow. It was forever lost.

 

To him Jeongguk stands for everything he hates. He is no longer the starry-eyed shy boy who he had instantly taken a liking to. Now he is just a mannerless oaf, an asshole – an arrogant and uncultured brat who cannot wait to make Jimin mad at every possible opportunity. The prince is grateful he didn’t give in to his impulsive, adolescent whims despite the presence of more than enough temptation due to him and Jeongguk constantly being in close quarters during training, even actively trying to get on each other’s nerves sometimes.

 

“Crown Prince? Prince!” His father’s voice brought him out of the past into the present.

 

“Yes father?”

 

“I said, you should accompany Prince Manseok to the lantern festival tonight. He will like it and it will give you two a great opportunity to spend some time together and bond…” His father is leaning towards him, his mouth almost next to his ear, his voice quiet to keep others around them from overhearing. Jimin’s eyes widen and dart to Manseok to his left side who has a pout on his face, looking disappointed at the outcome of the duel. Clearly, he favoured a more violent outcome and the thought sickens Jimin. He had thought it would be difficult to turn the alliance down if the younger Prince of Gimnan turned out to be nice. But so far, based on what Jimin has seen in the past week, he isn’t making it particularly hard for him. He is egotistical, looks down on his attendants and other servants in his vicinity constantly and evident from today’s display, enjoys violence a bit too much for Jimin’s liking. The Crown Prince of Jinje wouldn’t go so far as to say that he cannot tolerate violence and aggression, but he is certainly the last person to enjoy it.

 

He does not think his relationship with Manseok can progress beyond the social requirement of cordiality towards a guest. He can’t even see himself be friends with such a man let alone wed one. The horror of having to spending lone time with Manseok, spurs him into saying the words that have been swimming in his head for a while now, rather recklessly – a first for Jimin who always thinks everything through.

 

“I have someone!” He blurts out and his father leans his head back a little in a manner of surprise. “What did you say?” King Park’s words are sharp, but his voice is still muted.

 

Jimin moves closer to his father and leans in to say quietly, “I said, I have someone. As I have said many times before, I have no interest in courting Prince Manseok Your Majesty!” 

 

“Who?”

 

 Shit. That is the part he hasn’t thought through. He hasn’t been able to come up with a suitable candidate to present to the King as his lover. His mind works rapidly to secure an exit from this situation that his father wants to put him in – he needs it fast. For a moment, he reconsiders telling him that he is in a relationship with Taehyung just so he would stop pressuring him to go out with Prince Manseok. He really doesn’t want to spend any more time than necessary with him, especially when it is bound to feel like a romantic headway.

 

However, Taehyung would kill him if he did that and he is being honest, it will create way too many problems for him. He cannot do this to his dearest friend. But then if not him, then who else would his father, at the very least, consider approving as his lover instead of a Gimnan royal? Jimin’s nervous gaze sweeps his surroundings in what he knows is futile effort. It is not like someone perfect would just magically appear in front of him. His eyes, however, are compelled to stop on the General who is now insisting that the physicians take care of a severely injured Hangyeol first. Even though he is his archnemesis, his heart appreciates the gesture, and his mind supplies the realisation of the perfect candidate.

 

“General Jeon” He utters, in disbelief of the words coming out of his own mouth.

 

“General Jeon? Jeongguk?” The king laughs at first, almost dismissively, but then his expression darkens. “Follow me!” He turns to the commander of his guard and instructs her to get a set of guards escort the Prince of Gimnan to wherever he wishes to head to before turning on his heels and leaving for his chambers, his departure marking the end of the tournament.

 

***

 

“What do you mean you have someone?” The King demands once again as he leans against the backrest of an opulent chair, upholstered with black velvet and golden accents, shifting to straighten his long, brown, silk jacket embroidered with golden thread, that had squished unceremoniously under him while sitting down carelessly. Jimin stands by the fireplace across the room with his hands behind his back, twisting and perspiring in nervousness. He tries to summon his usual confident self in front of him to thwart any suspicion but is not entirely sure he is successfully doing so.

“It means I have a lover father” He feigns nonchalance but feels the exact opposite inside – extremely anxious about what he has just done.

 

“And he is Jeongguk?” His father eyes him dubiously.

 

Jimin gulps as discreetly as possible. “Yes”

 

His father guffaws derisively. “Ha! Do you expect me to believe that?”

 

“What’s not to believe? Why wouldn’t you believe me?” Jimin shrugs not feeling confident about this ruse anymore at all. He still busies himself in straightening the creases of his princely garb, an emerald green ankle length silk jacket with a high collar to project a calm, unperturbed exterior.

 

“Only because you two haven’t seen eye to eye ever. You have squabbled with each other at every possible opportunity and I am extremely sure that you dislike him.” King Park said and Jimin’s heart sinks to his stomach. This is it. His father can see right through him. His lie is about to be found out.

 

Being Park Jimin is both a blessing and a curse. His tenacity is often seen as a virtue but right now it is like a shovel with which he is digging himself a hole. But whatever it is, he has already hit a point of no return. He cannot go back on his word now.

“Well… I changed my mind.”

 

“That easily?” The King raises and eyebrow and Jimin says the next most logical thing he can think of.

 

“Oh not easily. But I did. Why are you so upset father, I though you held him in high regard?”

 

His father nodded, never taking his razor-sharp gaze away from Jimin’s face, like trying to size him up.

“I do hold him in extremely high regard. However, I do not think you are being truthful. I won’t believe it until I hear it from Jeongguk’s mouth.”

 

Of course, you won’t. Jimin rolls his eyes. Why did he ever think that his father would just take his word. His word has never been significant for him. Nothing has changed.

 

“Well he isn’t here is he?” He says like a petulant child although he is glad that Jeongguk isn’t here. He isn’t sure his bluff will hold up well if the General is to be questioned right now, before he has the chance to recruit him for his scheme. A shudder goes down his spine at a vision that flashes in front of his eyes – him groveling in front of Jeongguk . If by some chance he wiggles out of this interrogation by his father and ever gets to a point where he must ask Jeongguk for help, it is going to be difficult and embarrassing.

 

“Oh we shall fix that soon” The King clapped and his attendant came in bowing. “Bring General Jeon to me” Jimin’s fear condenses into a dense mass that drops on him, crushing his whole being. This is it. His father is this close to finding out that he is lying. Jeongguk will tell him the truth and this will be over. His chance at avoiding marriage with Gimnan’s younger prince will be gone.

 

Many long, wordless moments of wait that follow are heavy with apprehension, but he must maintain an unbothered expression because his father is watching him keenly. His heart is both relieved and terrified at the sentry’s announcement of the General’s arrival.

 

Jeongguk arrives, his wounds all tended to, bandaged. He still has lingering swelling on his cheek. He is thankfully fully clothed in his uniform and armour now. Jimin will never admit it but half-dressed Jeongguk is dangerous for him because it stirs a primal, animalistic part of him that doesn’t understand human logic and reason. Minimal coverage of his upper body has inconvenienced Jimin through all of Jeongguk’s duels in this tournament year after year. A sleeveless fitted leather vest does next to nothing to hide the flex of his biceps and the ripples of his muscular body. That bothers Jimin. A lot. So, a fully clothed Jeongguk is good for keeping his wits about him in such a tense situation.

 

“Your Majesty!” He bows to the King and then turns to Jimin to repeats the act. When he gets up from the bow, Jimin is sure he is smirking. “Your Highness!”

 

“General! I have a question for you.” The King says.

 

“Ofcourse Your Majesty”

 

“Crown Prince here tells me of your special relationship with him. Is that true?”

 

“Yes Your Majesty.” Jeongguk eyes Jimin and speaks so surely no one can say he is lying.

 

Jimin has to stop his mouth from hanging open.

What the hell?

 

“Can you tell me what your relationship with the Crown Prince is?” The King interrogates further.

 

Jimin’s heart is palpitating violently in trepidation and he has broken a cold sweat. He stops breathing when Jeongguk starts talking.

 

“We are in a romantic relationship your majesty.”

 

How does he know to say that?

 

“But you two are always arguing” The King remarks.

 

Jeongguk’s head drops, his eyes set on ground, feigning a meekness that doesn’t suit him and Jimin bets he is hiding a mocking smile when he says, “Our differences were no more than the lo – the respect we have for each other.” A scoff escapes Jimin’s lips before he can attempt to bite it back. He is thankful that his father’s eyes are set on Jeongguk and he hasn’t noticed.

 

Is he just playing along? Why?

He is racking his brain for an explanation but is constantly drawing a blank, so he decides to just go along with it for now making a mental note to ask Jeongguk about it later, however annoying the idea of talking to him maybe.

 

“Love!” His father chuckles dismissively picking up on a word only half-uttered. “A sham!” Jimin feels anxious, he knows his father is still not buying the lie. The King stands up suddenly, gives Jimin a suspicious once over before sighing and nodding, “But okay. However, Crown Prince Jimin must accompany Prince Manseok to the lantern festival anyway. The poor boy is expecting it. Let’s get through tonight. Once the Prince of Gimnan leaves tomorrow, I’ll think about what to do with you two.”

 

“What do you mean? Father I have no interest in the Prince. Couples go to the lantern festival to release a lantern. Me accompanying him will give him an impression of romantic advances. Surely royal attendants can escort him.” Jimin is frustrated and tired of repeating the same things to his father.

 

“You don’t have to release a lantern with him, but you will keep up with the appearances of interest in the marriage alliance because I am still not convinced that you and Jeongguk are in love with each other. Even if you are being truthful, I don’t think it is a sustainable relationship and that is why I cannot allow you to court him. You will soon snap out of it when you will find yourself unable to tolerate one another.” Jimin feels appalled at how his father is disregarding his relationship. Granted that it is fake, but it is still telling of how much his father trusts his sensibilities. The hurt of his father not trusting him outweighs his guilt of lying to him and he allows himself to get indignant.

 

“I am not going with him alone.” He snaps.

 

“Well okay don’t. Take your friends – Lord Kim – along. But you must not rock the boat with Gimnan in anyway. Yet.”

 

“I’d like to take Jeongguk along instead.” Jimin sneers spitefully. His father looks surprised at his audacity and takes a moment to reply but nods once again glaring at both Jimin and Jeongguk.

“Okay. Take him if he can spare time.” He says reluctantly.

 

“He can always spare time for me. Can’t you darling?” Jimin puts on a show for the King with his fake affectionate gaze on Jeongguk – his expression fond and voice syrupy.

 

“Uhh of course” Jeongguk sputters nervously.

 

Not so strong anymore General

Jimin bites back a devilish smirk as he basks in the twin pleasures drawn from his father’s annoyance and the General’s rattled manner.

 

The King dismisses them and Jimin bows and takes Jeongguk’s hand, who lets him drag him out of his father’s chambers towards his own, a little taken aback.

 

“Why did you do that?” Jimin asks Jeongguk as soon as they enter his chambers. 

 

“Uhh” Jeongguk eyes their hands that are still clasped. The Crown Prince drops it like he had been holding white hot ember.

 

Jeongguk must’ve caught on because he chuckles evilly. “Do I feel that hot Your Highness?”

 

“General. Know your place. Now tell me why”

 

“Why do you think I did it?”

 

“I am not playing this game. Why can’t you just tell me straight?”

 

“Because it’s more fun this way.” Jeongguk smirks and adds, “Your Highness”

 

Jimin grits his teeth and balls his hands into a fist. “I can have you executed.”

 

“I’d like to see you try my Prince.”

 

“Okay I don’t have time for this fuckery. Just tell me why you are doing this General. It’s an order.” Jimin knows it’s ingrained in Jeongguk’s very being to follow orders. He sometimes cannot understand why he doesn’t use that against him all the time.

 

Jeongguk gives up and chuckles wryly. “Lord Kim told me what happened at the arena between you and His Majesty, and I decided to help. For once, I agree with Your Highness, the prince of Gimnan cannot be allowed to get a position as high as a Crown Prince consort or a King consort in court. They want the Park regime to fall.”

 

“Hmm” Now his behaviour makes more sense. Taehyung must’ve eavesdropped on the exchange he had with his father at the arena.

 “Taehyung?” He asks to confirm, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Yes” Jeongguk nods once “… and Namjoon”

 

“Okay. But don’t, for even a moment, live in a delusion of this being a relationship. I still detest you General. You are to never forget that.”

 

“Don’t worry Your Highness. I won’t. It’s not like you will ever let me.”

 

“Damn right I won’t!”

 

***

 

The moon shines in all its glory tonight. The whole celebration ground that stretches along one side the riverbank is covered in flamboyant hues of red, yellow and green and is dazzling with light. Colourful buntings decorate the trees and lines of vendors stalls, rows of lanterns illuminate the path. A group of festival goers has formed around a couple of busking musicians playing the folk music of Jinje on traditional two stringed fiddle and drums and another one around a woman who is playing a soft melody on the traditional harp. Small groves of people have formed around different food stalls.

Buntings and lanterns also wind up the sides of a wooden bridge at a particularly narrow section of the river that connects the festival fair grounds with more built up part of the capital, which looks equally festive. A prestigious, two story inn looks over the bridge on that side.  

 

Jimin is a absolutely taken by the beauty around him. The full moon is complemented well by the manmade splendor, making the night more glorious than it already it. He is grateful he chose to come to the festival despite the circumstances. He sighs at the irony this outing is for him – lovely place but unpleasant company. Just his luck.

 

He eyes the two men walking on his either sides discreetly, one by one.

Prince Manseok is clad in an ostentatious golden silk knee length open jacket over a saffron undertunic and brown pants tucked into low brown boots, his hands covered in big flashy golden rings in an obnoxious display of opulence by Gimnan.

Totally unnecessary.

Jimin cannot stop himself from rolling his eyes at the showoff. His own attire is opulent too – as expected from the Crown Prince – an embroidered red silk jacket with a high collar, buttoned up over a silk undertunic, dark pants with brown boots. But he likes to go easy on the jewellery when he is out in public, only sporting his dangling silver earrings that he never takes off. There is no reason to rub wealth in the faces of the less fortunate. He cannot bear to look at his so called prospective any longer, so he shifts his gaze to his other side.

 

Jeongguk isn’t wearing his armour but is clad in his usual thigh length dark brown leather tunic layered over a cream coloured linen shirt covering his broad chest, with a leather sword belt cinching at his small waist, a sword hanging by it. His tight dark pants are tucked into sturdy boots. Jimin feels the need to gulp when he notices how tight those pants are, accentuating Jeongguk’s thick thighs at all the right places. His bulging arm muscles with apparent outlines through his leather attire, make for another distracting sight. He looks away and banishes the thought of his arms and thighs at the speed of a blinking eye reminding himself that he is his mortal enemy, a brute, unworthy of the Crown Prince’s attention.

 

He has let the thoughts consume him before though, pleasuring himself in solitude, at night, thinking of Jeongguk. He is ashamed of himself. But that is one and only transgression Jimin has to allow himself because it is too hard resisting the images his mind conjures up in the quiet of the night when there is nothing else to distract him. He is only human.

 

People bow at the Crown Prince and his party as they stroll in a greeting and then busy themselves in whatever they were doing when they pass.

“In Gimnan, all the subjects would be on their knees for as long as a royal is in the vicinity.” Manseok snorts at one point and it doesn’t sit well with Jimin. He has been told that he shouldn’t do anything to create any hard feelings between the two kingdoms, but he doesn’t care. Not really. Just as he is about to open his mouth to say something berating, he hears a familiar snicker. One he has heard a thousand times on sparring grounds and court.

 

“Lucky this is Jinje and the royals respect people here.” Jeongguk ripostes, incensing Manseok.

“General I suggest you do not forget that you’re a meager General” The Prince of Gimnan warns, positively miffed at him.

 

“Might I respectfully remind you – you are just a guest.” Jeongguk doesn’t raise his voice but the jibe hits right where it was supposed to. Jimin’s eyes are wide as he looks at him in astonishment. He knows that he would allow himself to feel gratitude for the one taking the burden of standing up for Jinje off his shoulders if it was not Jeongguk. However, Jeongguk doesn’t deserve his gratitude, he doesn’t deserve anything from him. Prince Manseok on the other hand, deserves an admonishing for looking down on their way of life.

 

Manseok exasperatedly looks at Jimin for support but he shrugs and says “I apologise Your Highness, our General is a little feisty. We do have a hard time controlling him.”

 

The Prince of Gimnan huffs in annoyance “Whatever, I wish to listen to the harp lady.” He orders his attendants to follow him and marches off haughtily, leaving Jimin alone with Jeongguk.