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Title: Servant of the Sun
Fandom: TVXQ
Pairing: Yunho/Changmin
Rating: PG13
Summary: Fourteenth Prince Changmin is sent to serve as an attendant at the shrine of the Sun. He must remain pure and chaste for a full year. He didn’t expect to fall in love.
Notes: AU. For [livejournal.com profile] light_on_oceans, who requested a royalty AU with Changmin as a prince. I am behind on my New Year debauchery but never mind, it was worth it and I’ll have less of a hangover tomorrow. Vaguely inspired by the Heian tradition of sending an imperial princess to the shrine at Ise, and vaguely Heian all around, actually. Happy New Year!


Servant of the Sun

On New Year’s Day, breath sharp in his throat beneath the muffle of his veils, Changmin makes obeisance to his father the Emperor in the great courtyard of the palace. Resplendent in twelve layers of stiffened, padded silk in every shade of the forbidden colours, he bows three times then lies flat on the ground awaiting his fate.

His Majesty reads from an ancient scroll, commanding his fourteenth son to journey to the shrine of the Sun. It is the custom that every ten years a boy of imperial blood must serve one full year as attendant at the kingdom’s most important shrine. Changmin’s purity and chastity will ensure the Sun’s benevolence and a good harvest.

Changmin rises to his feet when ordered to do so. He cannot see his father’s expression behind the curtains of state. Neither can he see his mother amongst the ranks of imperial concubines similarly concealed behind painted screens. His eyes feel heavy with kohl. He adjusts the veil over the rest of his face and turns towards the ox-cart that will convey him to the shrine.

He has never left the capital before, and yet now he must travel the breadth of the kingdom. The idea is more strange than frightening. Changmin sits in the shadowed interior of the ox-cart and listens to the cheers and fanfare as the cart moves through the city streets. Everyone is delighted that a prince will be this year’s shrine attendant. No matter that, as the fourteenth son, Changmin has been removed from succession; he is still the son of the Emperor, a descendent of the Sun, and therefore his presence at the shrine will bring great blessings to all.

Though a cavalcade of palace guards escorts him now, Changmin knows that only two men will accompany him beyond the city gates to serve as his guards at the shrine. These two men-at-arms walk at the back of the cart, discussing the road ahead of them and various other matters. Changmin listens to their conversation, curious.

“They say Prince Changmin is a beauty,” one of the men says. He sounds old, his breath wheezing in the frosty air. “Skin like moonlight, they say, and eyes like a tempest and a mouth that could trouble a man’s sleep.” The soldier cackles and then breaks off to cough.

Changmin sits still despite the jolt and sway of the cart on the rutted road. He doesn’t know if he’s beautiful or not. Certainly no one has ever told him so before. Perhaps if something is veiled and hidden away, others find it desirable and assume it must be beautiful.

He traces his fingers over his nose, which he’s always considered to be too long, and then lets his touch linger over his lips. His brothers closest to him in age used to laugh at his mouth. “Like a fish’s mouth,” they’d said, “always greedy for food!” and in revenge he’d steal from their plates when no one was looking. They always knew it was him, though. He won’t miss them this year. He won’t miss any of them.

The garrulous old soldier has recovered from his fit of coughing and is talking again. “The beautiful ones always tempt the Sun to grant a good harvest. Let’s hope this young prince is more obedient than his elder brother, eh? What a year that was! You’d probably not remember it, sir, not a young feller like you, but it was dreadful...”

Changmin goes rigid. He remembers it, although he was little more than a child. That had been a terrible, shameful year. The Fifth Prince had abandoned his duties as shrine attendant and instead spent most of his time seducing the local girls. The Emperor had not been pleased when the Fifth Prince had returned to the capital with a failed harvest and a rout of angry fathers all seeking places at court for their pregnant daughters.

“I’m sure the Fourteenth Prince is the very model of imperial behaviour,” the second man-at-arms says. He sounds younger, and he has a thread of humour running through his voice.

Intrigued, Changmin draws back the curtain just a little and peeks out at his escort.

The young guard smiles at him.

Changmin lets the curtain drop and settles onto the cushions, his heart beating unnaturally fast. A commoner smiled at him. A soldier smiled at him.

He can’t remember the last time anyone smiled at him.

Changmin twitches at the curtain again.

His man-at-arms is still looking. Still smiling, offering him a smile as warm and bright as the sun.

Though he’s veiled and the soldier cannot possibly see, Changmin smiles back.

*

The shrine is an ancient establishment built upon a small island that twice a day is joined to the mainland by a long cobbled causeway. It is a simple place without any of the ornamentation of the capital. The only stone-built building is the bell-tower. Everything else is made of wood, and the monastery smells of camphor and incense and sea salt.

Monks with shaved heads and grey robes show Changmin to his accommodation in a long, low hall set as an annex to the main temple. The sacred flame burns outside in the white-gravelled courtyard, protected by a curve of black stone and a gilded canopy overhead. It is one of his duties to check that the flame never goes out. Changmin bows very carefully to the sacred flame, swearing an oath to remain pure and chaste all year, before he goes over to his residence.

He steps up onto the veranda, the long skirts of his robes dragging behind him, and then he feels a slight resistance. One of the layered silks has caught on a splinter. Changmin frowns behind his veil and goes to yank the fabric free.

“Your Highness, wait!” His young man-at-arms jumps up onto the veranda and kneels to gently free the silk from the splintered wood. The soldier is handsome, so very handsome, even when he wears an expression of concern rather than a smile, and Changmin doesn’t say anything when the soldier attempts to smooth out the snarled silk with his fingertips. The soldier doesn’t seem aware of the protocol that a commoner shouldn’t touch the Prince’s raiment, but perhaps such palace niceties are unimportant at the shrine.

The man-at-arms looks up. “Your Highness, my apologies. The silk is damaged.”

“I cannot tell.” Changmin tugs at his skirts, whisking the silk away from the soldier’s grasp. They look at one another, and then, full of a longing to know the truth, Changmin lifts a hand to his face. He unveils, lets the layers of gauzy fabric fall, and he gazes at the man-at-arms.

The soldier stares. He tilts his head a little. And smiles.

Changmin doesn’t know what that means. “Thank you for your assistance.” He pauses delicately, a question in his tone.

“Yunho, Your Highness.” The soldier bows right down to the veranda floor. “Captain of the Left Guards, senior fifth rank.”

Changmin nods as if such information was beneath him. As a prince removed from succession, he is only junior third rank himself. The difference between him and Yunho is both very great and nothing at all.

*

The days pass slowly at the shrine. During the first and second month, bad weather seals them off from the mainland. The causeway is flooded and storms batter the island. Changmin frets that he has already failed in his duty to the shrine, but the monks tell him this is normal.

“Imagine living in a place like this all your life,” Changmin says through his screens and curtains one night while the wind tries to claw lumps from the sedge roof. In the courtyard, the gravel hisses like the surf as raindrops pelt its surface.

“I grew up not far from here,” Yunho says.

He’s sitting on the veranda in full armour, his sword in its scabbard beside him and a bow and a quiver full of arrows within reach of his hand. He has a brazier nearby to keep him warm as he sits on duty, and the coals smoulder and sputter, giving off a lazy heat and a gentle glow.

Changmin studies Yunho’s shadow through the curtains of thick linen and the folding screens painted with patterns appropriate to the season. He likes Yunho’s profile. He likes the way the firelight gilds him. Changmin shivers pleasurably, warm within the furs taken from his bed. “Was that why you volunteered to accompany me, because you were homesick?”

Yunho smiles. Changmin can hear it in his voice when he answers: “No. I volunteered because I’d heard the prince was a great beauty and I wanted to see for myself.”

Changmin thinks he should be shocked at such plain speech, but he’s not. He asks lightly, “And do you now regret that decision?”

“No.”

A moment of silence against the howl of the wind, and then Changmin dares to ask the question: “Am I beautiful?”

Yunho is quiet for a long time before he replies, “As beautiful as this storm is wild, Highness.”

It is a clumsy compliment, but Changmin treasures it. He withdraws deeper behind the curtains and wraps himself in fur, and though the storm rages above them, Changmin feels warm and safe.

*

Spring arrives, and the clear weather brings a trickle of visitors to the shrine. Soon the trickle becomes a steady stream, pilgrims coming from all over the land to entreat the Sun’s aid and to ask for Changmin’s blessing. They number so many and are so eager to see him that he unveils and goes out to the people with his head bare, and he lets the sun’s rays touch his face, turning his skin to palest gold.

“The Sun will smile upon us all,” he tells the gathered pilgrims, touching their hands when they reach out to him. They go down onto their knees and ask for his blessing on their homes, their health, their children, their marriages, their crops.

As the weather turns warmer, more and more pilgrims arrive asking for his blessing for a good and fruitful marriage. There are so many people that the monks put up tents in the courtyards to accommodate all the visitors. The shrine is awash with generous donations, and colourful prayer-ribbons flutter from the branches of the trees in the sacred grove.

“It’s because you share yourself,” Yunho tells him when Changmin expresses bewilderment at his popularity. “You’re beautiful, too. They want some of your beauty and kindness to rub off onto them so they’ll have a happy marriage and healthy babies, handsome boys or pretty girls, as the Sun intends.”

“I don’t share myself,” Changmin says, musing behind his curtains. It’s a finer, lighter fabric for this time of year, and the sheer gauze ripples in the breeze borne from the ocean. It smells of salt and cherry blossom. With a measured glance, Changmin looks at Yunho, admiring the handsome captain with his tanned skin and ruffled dark hair. “I wish I could share myself more.”

Yunho turns and looks at him through the curtains. “You cannot, Highness. Your purity, your chastity—this is what will make the year a success.”

Changmin tosses his head. “But still... I want to be touched.” He pauses, slanting a challenging glance through the curtains. “Perhaps it is spring fever.”

“Perhaps.” Yunho turns again, fixing his gaze out into the courtyard with deliberate intent. “Let us pray it doesn’t last until summer.”

*

By summer the longing is like a fire burning beneath his skin. Changmin is consumed with desire for Yunho, a desire stoked all the more for knowing that it is forbidden. Perhaps if Yunho were indifferent to him, Changmin could find a cure for what ails him, but he knows this isn’t the case. He knows Yunho desires him, too, and with each glance, each word, no matter how casual, they plunge deeper into mutual want.

It’s like a sickness, tempting him, and Changmin lies in bed at night and moans with the frustration of having his beloved so near and yet so far. Only curtains and screens and darkness separate them, and yet they do not—cannot—touch.

The other man-at-arms has found a willing widow in a nearby village and spends most of his time away from the shrine. The causeway lies open, its cobblestones dry, the track shimmering with heat haze. The monks drowse through the hottest part of the day.

One afternoon, Changmin decides to bathe. He orders Yunho to fetch water from the well. It takes five trips to fill the wooden tub. Changmin stands behind the curtains and watches sweat glisten over Yunho’s skin as he works. Finally the tub is full of cool, refreshing water, and Yunho bows and says, “Highness,” before he retreats onto the veranda.

Before Changmin disrobes, he makes certain to move the screens and curtains aside just a little.

He takes his bath, dips his head to reveal his nape then sits up straight to wash his shoulders, then stretches out his legs, lifting them from the confines of the tub, and squeezes water from a sea sponge along their length twice before he’s satisfied.

He hums a court tune as he washes. He imagines how Yunho’s hands would feel on his body. He gets so aroused he pleasures himself right there in the tub, noisy and gasping and unashamed, aware the whole time of Yunho watching him.

*

By mid-autumn they’ve settled into a routine that one could almost call courtship. Yunho catches fireflies and imprisons them within a linen bag, then lets them out behind Changmin’s curtains so they can see one another through the thin gauze that separates them. They spend their nights talking to one another, Yunho on the veranda, Changmin inside behind his screens, their arms stretched towards one another, their fingertips almost touching.

“Autumn is for poetry,” Changmin says. “If you were my lover, you would write me poems upon a fan and send them to me.”

Yunho turns onto his side and stares through the curtains. “If I were your lover, Highness, I would write upon your skin with my kisses, and we would have no need of poetry.”

Changmin sits up in his bed and makes great show of plumping the cushions that serve as his pillow. A bell-cricket sings from its hiding place beneath the eaves. The moon is full, its light as sharp as a blade. Yunho’s face is in shadow, his breathing soft in the darkness.

It is a perfect night for poetry. Changmin thinks for a moment, then says:

Like a spider I spin webs to catch you
But like moonlight you cannot be held.

Yunho snorts. “Is this poetry, Highness?”

“Yes.”

“I do not care for it.” His sword in its scabbard slides across the veranda as Yunho pushes himself up onto his knees. “Poetry is too insubstantial. I prefer plainer speech.”

Changmin’s heart clenches. “Go on.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Yunho says, “I want to lie beside you and take off all your veils, all your robes, and I want to touch you the way you need to be touched. I want to kiss every inch of your body. I want to whisper secrets over your skin. I want to taste you. I want to hold you so close our scents combine. I want to share pleasure with you. I want to teach you everything I know about desire, and then let you teach me the same. I want you to lose yourself in me, and when I go into ecstasy I want you to be the one who takes me there. I want to love you, Changmin. I want to love you.”

With an impatient gesture, Changmin shoves aside the screen. It tips over and clatters to the floor. The bell-cricket falls silent.

They stare at one another, their desire a tangible, living thing. “Come to me,” Changmin whispers.

“I cannot.” Yunho sounds broken. “The harvest is close. If I were to defile you...”

“It would not be defilement!” Changmin’s protest is a gasp of frustration. “I want you. I want you so much.”

Yunho bows down to the ground. “But I love you, Highness, and so I must be patient.”

Overcome, undone, Changmin veils himself and crosses the short distance to where Yunho kneels. “I love you,” Changmin says, his breath fluttering the fine gauze of his veil. “I will not be denied, but neither will I break my vow to the Sun.”

They embrace through the veil, mouths hot and wet, their kisses made of silk.

*

Winter comes again, but they’re patient. The shrine never closes its doors to penitents and pilgrims, but as the tides roil across the causeway, few people visit and the monks fall into a lethargy that’s almost like hibernation.

Changmin still carries out his duties. He protects the sacred flame and counts off the days in the almanac.

Yunho wakes him as the old year dies. Together they go out into the courtyard and watch the sky to the east, awaiting the first light of the sun’s rays over the horizon.

As soon as the day dawns, they can touch, mouth to mouth and skin on skin.

A year of longing has almost ended, and they will be free to love forever.


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