Yunho’s eyes were never blindfolded during the travel, but for the first day and night, there was nothing else to see but sand and sparse grass. His kidnapper didn’t speak up again, but Yunho didn’t exactly feel like chitchatting either, so he accepted the silence calmly. His eyes followed the steady gait of the mule, dry sand whirling around its hooves with each thump of its feet. He remained silent and passive, weirdly relaxed as the moment he had feared and been waiting for seemed to never happen.
The man had swiftly led his mule out of the town, straight to the steppe. Even when evening came, the man didn’t pause. He pulled the leash of the mule steadily, Yunho bouncing on its back wordlessly even when darkness became so thick he couldn’t even see the mule’s feet anymore, only feeling the movement.
They travelled throughout the night. Yunho slipped in and out of restless sleep, his arms growing numb and his head heavy. Sun climbed up to its zenith and descended, and only when the ruthless heat of daytime started ebbing away again did the mule come to a stop.
Yunho heard them man discuss with who appeared to be city gatekeepers. Then, they jerked into movement again, no one paying any heed to the bulky man hanging down on the back of the mule, dressed in fine gowns and gold.
Now, there was more around them, but all Yunho could see were the carefully arranged pebbles of the road. There were voices around him too, a lot of noise, more than he had ever heard even at the small town where he had spent his teenage years. It was very loud. The road they took was no back alley, it was wide and there was a lot of traffic.
After what felt like an eternity, the mule stopped again, and Yunho could hear his kidnapper starting up another conversation.
“…finest quality, cannot you see how well fed he is? Muscles won’t be a problem with this eunuch, he’ll handle any commotion or disturbance without so much as a problem. Look at that size! And to top it off, he is as docile as a lapdog—didn’t make any attempt to resist when I took him. Even my mule’s got twice the stubbornness, no, she’s at least ten times as hard-headed!”
An appraising voice answered the man.
“Well well, but look at his complexion, isn’t he a nomad? Doesn’t look like he’s from around here, now.”
“Most probably a bastard of some slave, sir! I am telling you, you can see from his form that he lived with those half-women for a long time, not even a bit of rebellion inside this one. Perfect for the palace! He won’t ever betray you, the ones with the tough pasts make the best servants, do they not, huh? He will be so happy for the shelter and food he will receive that he will be His Majesty’s most loyal subject. Trust me on this, I’ve sold a bunch of these to the palace and never have I gotten any complaints back! I know a suitable one when I see one.”
“Alright, alright, get him off your ugly mule and we’ll talk about it after I’ve seen him.”
Yunho felt someone tugging on the ropes tying him up and soon he rolled off, his whole body aching. His kidnapper tugged him upwards, quickly slipping some gold off his wrists as he turned Yunho around to face the man he had been talking to. With all his blood rushing towards new directions with the suddenly recovered standing position, Yunho would have hardly been able to keep himself upright had the man of the palace not grabbed him as well. He stared at Yunho, his eyes skimming over the young man appraisingly, and Yunho stared back with all he had. It was happening, the thing Jaejoong had always warned him about; he was being sold to someone as a slave, wasn’t he? He knew he was supposed to be scared, or at least trying to free himself—and with his considerable advantage in height he might just have won had he not been so dizzy—but as it was, Yunho only felt curious and slightly confused.
“What is your name, eunuch?” the man asked him after looking him over carefully. Yunho answered his gaze, and then looked over his shoulder, past an expressionless servant standing behind the man, his mouth falling slightly open in wonder.
It was quite the sight. There were high walls with sharp stakes on top of them, but they were standing in front of a half-open gate, a small but still beautifully forged one. There were two palace guards standing on both sides of the gate, faces invisible and intimidating under the white scarves they wore over their heads and faces. Yunho tried peeking though the ajar gate, but all he could see of the insides was a narrow strip. Still, it was enough to dumbfound him. He had never seen anything so green in his whole life.
“Eunuch! Answer when you are spoken to!” the man pushed his shoulder, but despite his harsh words, he sounded amused.
“Let me just take the rest of his, well, yes, you know, sir,” the seller blabbered quickly as he bent down and started tugging the rest of the gold off Yunho’s ankles. Yunho allowed him, raising his foot obediently, much more interested in trying to sneak a peek inside the gates than protecting the leftovers of the eunuchs’ gold.
“What is your name?!” the man from the palace inquired once again, but Yunho just didn’t feel the need to pay him attention, entranced by the grass and the flowers he could see blooming inside. Even flowers? The people who lived in this palace must have had access to all the water in the world.
“Is this bastard dumb?” the man asked the seller, irritated. He jerked Yunho towards himself just when the seller managed to get the last of gold off him. “You ought to have left the gold on him to compensate for the poor quality of this commodity.”
Yunho’s kidnapper blinked before he quickly rushed to deny it.
“No no no, of course not, he is not dumb at all, in fact he’s very smart! He’s just—he’s just, umm, mute! Mute, you see, sir. Excellent servant in delicate situations! Will not sing your secrets no matter what!”
The man looked at Yunho dubiously, but seemed to come into some kind of conclusion as he sighed, nodded and stuffed his hand into his pocket. Pulling out some coins knotted into a string, the man tossed the money at Yunho’s kidnapper who turned away immediately, satisfied. The man from the palace snorted, taking hold of Yunho’s arm again.
“Come on, eunuch, I shall take you inside and we’ll see what we can make of you.”
They stepped inside through the gate held open by a guard, and suddenly the greenness was all around Yunho. There were palm trees surrounded by neatly cut grass and countless beds of flowers, blooming in all the colours of the rainbow. Yunho was stunned by the sight, forgetting his feet and that he was supposed to follow the man, and the man had to keep dragging him after himself a bit forcefully.
When he finally managed to tear his eyes away from the garden, Yunho could finally see the palace itself. It wasn’t very high, one big dome in the middle and a few tall slender towers, but the rest of it looked even more complicated. There were countless buildings, forming something akin to a maze with the narrow alleys between the buildings. Everything was white and glimmered in the setting sun, hurting Yunho’s eyes with their brightness.
Before long, Yunho had completely lost his sense of direction. He was tugged inside one of the more humble-looking houses. There were other men inside, some of them barely glancing at him at their entrance, some stopping what they were doing altogether in order to stare curiously at his form. Suddenly Yunho became painfully aware of the attire he was wearing; the yellow gown that bared his stomach and the scarf around his shoulder.
“Alright, eunuch,” the man who had dragged him inside exclaimed. “You have been sold to the esteemed residence of the High King himself. I am the Keyholder of the western wing of this palace, and you shall be put under my care. It is not often we get new eunuchs in the palace, indeed… We will be putting you into a position right away. Don’t worry, there aren’t many people who can do your job and you will be treated accordingly.”
Yunho stared at the man once again; he felt no reason to answer the little speech he had been given. His fate had apparently been readily decided for him, so what was he to say anything about it? Besides, his kidnapper had already announced him mute in any case. Yunho had truly no interest in bickering with these people. To be honest, it didn’t really matter to Yunho whatever might happen to him. He had absolutely no reason to try to return to the small town where the eunuchs lived; he had danced the streets of that settlement for years, never finding a single trace of Jaejoong. The slaver seemed to have brought him to the Southern Capital, the biggest city within a range of thousands of kilometres. If he was ever going to find Jaejoong, it would happen here. In Yunho’s clueless mind, the probability that Jaejoong had been brought to the city seemed very high. As a child, he had countless times heard Jaejoong tell him the story of his abduction and long travel from the north. He had been sold as a slave in this city, and this city was also were he had first met Yunho. If he had been captured again, the option that he would have been brought to the city to be sold again sounded quite plausible to Yunho.
But just how big was the capital. Yunho rubbed his face with his hands, feeling frustrated. There was only one thing in the world that he wanted, one single thing, but the task of finding it had never seemed so impossible.
“Take off your clothes, eunuch,” the Keyholder ordered. Yunho gave him a dull look, raising his arms to pry his top off his torso. He unwound the scarf around his body carefully, but before he could place it on the ground he noticed a short-statured old man standing next to him, taking the piece of cloth out of his hands. The man gave him a gentle smile, folding the scarf and assisting him with the rest of his gowns.
Yunho peeled everything off himself, only leaving the last layer of cloth, the textile that he had carried against his skin under his clothes for the last few years. It was Jaejoong’s family rug, rolled up tight and tied over his hips.
“That one too, quickly now, eunuch,” the Keyholder rushed Yunho, turning to face away as he rummaged through a cupboard of sorts.
The man next to Yunho made a move to open the knot on his hip but Yunho shook his head, carefully untying the cloth and tucking it under his arm.
The gasp that the old man helping him undress released when the rest of his body was exposed made the Keyholder turn on his heels abruptly. His mouth fell open as he scrutinised Yunho’s naked body. When Yunho looked around uncomfortably, he could see the other men in the room staring at him as well, some of them covering their amused smiles with their palms.
“Well you sure are well-formed,” the Keyholder stated, “that blasted bastard of a slaver. Muscles won’t be a problem with this eunuch, indeed… Remind me to ask for that gold he ripped off you the next time he comes knocking on our door… No complaints, huh?”
Turning around again, he beckoned for the short man to come over with Yunho’s old clothes and then gestured for him to dump them in a tall wicker basket. The Keyholder searched the cupboard for a while longer before moving onto a tall wardrobe decorated with mother-of-pearl.
“I was going to position you in the harem of the wilted flowers but now that… well,” the Keyholder chuckled, “obviously there has been a change in the plans.”
Yunho shuffled on his feet, staring at the Keyholder’s back while the man pulled out a new outfit for him, handing it over to the short man who accepted it quickly.
“Uncle, bring him to the baths,” he instructed, “and after that, you shall bring him back to me.”
Turning back to Yunho, he continued, “I was going to leave you in Uncle’s care… He usually guides all new eunuchs in this palace—” he stopped to spare the old man an affectionate glance, “Uncle has been here ever since before I was even born…”
Gathering his thoughts the Keyholder cleared his throat, gazing straight into Yunho’s eyes. “But you mute, you shall come back to me after you have tidied up. I have different plans for you.”
The palace of the High King might have looked complicated at first sight, but it was even more of a maze once you were really inside. It took Yunho a month before he could find his way from the quarters of the palace guards to the Square of Command, to the Main Gate, or to any of the smaller back gates for that matter. Even after that, he mostly kept following in his fellow guard mates’ footsteps, trailing after them wherever they went, hardly expressing his own needs or wants. Contrasting with Yunho’s previous expectations and beliefs of the royal guard, everyone treated him with nothing but kindness, even if some seemed to do it just out of pity for the unfortunate condition they believed he suffered from. At first, there would every now and then be a man that would speak to him like one would speak to someone feeble-minded, pronouncing each syllable slowly and clearly. Yunho didn’t really care; as long as the others left him alone, he was satisfied. He knew he would have been able to take down most of them, his impressive height making him tower over most of his comrades, but had they ever decided to gang up on him, even he would have had a hard time.
Then, when after half a year Yunho, alongside the other new recruits, was brought to the give the pledge of the palace guards, Yunho suddenly earned a whole new level of respect from his companions. After facing the problem of having Yunho make a vow while he was unable to emit a sound, someone jokingly asked him to instead sign the paper from where their commander was reading the words they were supposed to repeat after.
In complete silence the whole crowd, which had come out to watch the pledge ceremony of the new recruits of the palace guard, watched as Yunho walked forwards, equipped with a pen provided by a dumbfounded scribe summoned there to record the occasion.
Having just called him “mute” until then, it was the first time the people of the palace and his comrades learnt his name, Yunho—two beautiful, neat characters scribbled near the edge of the ancient declaration of the royal guard’s loyalty. But he was never called by that name again, as the day that earned him the admiration of his peers and the recognition of his superiors, also earned him the new nickname of Bookman.
It was strange at first, wearing the uniform of the royal guard. Yunho had only ever been a bit leery of the guards, keeping out of their way back in the day when he used to escape Jaejoong’s tight embrace and run to the nearby town to sell water. The royal guard was not known for brutality nor extensively feared by the citizens, but Yunho had always trusted it to better be safe than sorry. The guards’ effectiveness didn’t peak often, but when it did, they would mercilessly clear out every unregistered peddler.
Moreover, Yunho would never forget when in a moment of desperation the snake had led him to the lake, to a source of water large enough to satisfy his thirstiness for the rest of his life, only to be wrenched off his salvation and back to reality by a member of the golden pledge.
And now, he was a member of guard himself. True, in contrast to the sand-coloured uniforms of the royal guard, the palace guards were dressed wholly in blood red, but the white cloth covering their face and reminding everyone of their position with the words stitched on it was exactly identical to that of the royal guard. Behind their masks, the members of the palace guard were a varied group of people, as the palace mostly employed foreigners as the closest protectors of the High King and the palace. But when they pulled on their headscarves, they were a faceless mass, a force not to be played with.
Day by day, Yunho gradually got used to his new life; he got used to the violent games of the young men, the strict order of the military quarters, and the warm comradeship surrounding each and every one of them. He followed his new companions, he kept his posts, he stood expressionlessly in the rough sun of the south for hours, day after day.
And he never uttered a single word.
To everyone else it might have looked like Yunho had given up; but there was not a single moment he was not thinking of the one he had lost, what now felt like lifetimes ago. Whenever he had even the shortest moment of free time, he’d crouch down in the middle of the square in the military quarters, scrawling the two characters most familiar to him in the sand, one after another.
At first there were curious gazes, and some of his comrades would stop by to inspect his work, but the indecipherable squiggles in the sand could not hold the illiterate young men’s interest for long. After a while, they learnt to leave the Bookman alone whenever he was immersed in his favourite task of carving Jaejoong’s name in endless numbers on the ground they lived upon. After receiving the scare of their lives a few times, they also learnt to avoid the result of his strange manner of meditation while they sparred under the blazing sun, their hollers and groans inaudible to Yunho.
The guards were absolutely forbidden, with the strictly enforced consequence of death penalty, to ever approach the harems of the palace. Even the harem of the wilted flowers, the elderly, retired concubines of the High King, was strictly off-limits. The harem was the realm of women and eunuchs, and many soldiers felt guilty even when just crossing a large square that separated the sandy west wing and the verdant living quarters of the fair sex.
But as one might expect, the hordes of young men residing within the palace walls, trained to fight to death in order to protect their King, hardly valued their life in front of a promise of even the slightest chance of catching a glimpse of one of the legendary beauties of the harem. Nearly everyday there would be a group of foolhardy youngsters defying the most fundamental rules of the palace, setting out on a reckless quest of seeking to sneak a peek at the women living so near, but so far they could have as well have been living on the other side of the globe.
Yunho hardly paid attention to the expeditions, but even so, it was the one thing his comrades were endlessly relentless about. Every single night, they would nudge his sides and pull at his arms, demanding him to accompany them to the dangerous voyage. Every night, Yunho refused blatantly, shaking his head in firm refusal, but even after a whole year had passed with the same result every single time, the youngsters just would not take no for an answer. Even if many a night they themselves hardly managed to sneak out of their own house before losing courage and skipping back with their tails between their legs.
There were nights when Yunho heard stories of success, of the few fortunate mates who come back with stars and planets and whole galaxies in their eyes. The rest of the house would gather around them, demand endless details of the women whose beauty had reached such legendary measures they were nothing short of goddesses in the greedy eyes of the young, lonely men of the palace guard.
Yunho would listen to the endless praise from his own corner, and while the descriptions of divine glory usually made him smile with one corner of his mouth and sigh at the childishness of his comrades, he couldn’t help but think there was one person whom the depictions would have actually matched.
He would sink right back to his own imaginary world where he was together with that person, bring his hand inside his uniform to clutch at Jaejoong’s family rug, the only trace he had left of the one and only centre of his life. And as always, in return the other young men would mistake his glazed-over gaze for the familiar yearning for a woman they felt themselves, and flock around Yunho to poke fun at the slightly eccentric member of their lot.
“Bookman, Bookman, tomorrow you absolutely have to come with us,” one of the mischievous leaders of the young men exclaimed. “The longing for a warm embrace of a woman… I can see it on your face! We can all see it on your face.”
The rest of the youngsters laughed when Yunho only shrugged, turning his head away from the people at his side.
“Don’t you worry about your popularity, women, they like a mystery,” another young man teased him, slamming a firm hand in the middle of Yunho’s back, mistaking Yunho’s averted gaze for shyness. “With you looks,” he continued, bringing his hand up in order to tilt Yunho’s face upwards, scrutinising his reluctant features, “they shall be lining up to have the smallest taste of your wordless lips.”
The men burst into boisterous laughter, hitting each other’s backs and their own thighs, exciting each other into an even more raucous uproar.
The ruckus cut off in a second when a loud knocking was heard from the door, accompanied by a noisy demand of silence after the curfew. The men looked at each other conspiringly, a few quiet sniggers escaping someone’s mouth before a second knocking made them scatter, each searching their place on the floor.
The man who had whacked Yunho’s back observed his dispersing mates before he leant closer and whispered something to Yunho ear, like it was the biggest secret on earth, his to guard.
“You know the crowd control command we have next week,” his breath tickled Yunho’s ear, “I heard a rumour there’s a foreign noble going to be visiting the capital. I heard she is coming from afar… And I also heard they say she possesses divine beauty.”
The man withdrew a little to throw Yunho a meaningful look before leaning back in.
“A nomad… a princess,” he whispered. “Forget about the wenches of the palace… This one is going to be something else.”
He patted Yunho’s shoulder for one last time before scampering away to his own bedding.