By the time they gained the outskirts of Hanyang, two of the men who had ridden ahead to consult with the chief eunuch had doubled back and were waiting for them.
“The master is working on a plan for the security of the children in Hanyang,” one of them said. “We’ll work with the army to keep the route from the border clear for them. Oh, and orders for you, sir.” Byeong-yeon took the note that one of the men handed him and opened it; it was signed by Eunuch Jang, but gave an address he remembered well.
“You’re smiling again,” Yeong said in a low voice.
“Going to see a friend,” he said, and showed him the note.
“Oh, friend,” Yeong snorted. “Who are these friends of yours, and how come there are so many? I could cheerfully have strangled that Jesuit doctor of yours. Sauntering in here, with your letter. I thought you were in love with him.”
“I suspect,” Byeong-yeon said, “that it was the other way around. I must go see him, if he’s survived your jealousy.”
“Jin owes his life to him,” Yeong said. “So I suppose I have to be content with hating him in secret.” He eyed Byeong-yeon, looking like he wanted to kiss him, so much that Byeong-yeon had to turn his head away to avoid giving in to the impulse.
“I know I don’t have to tell you,” the king said, in parting. “But: be gentle with her.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Byeong-yeon replied.
The house, when he got there, was prosperous as ever; discreet and polished, its women the picture of serene, elegant accomplishment. There were no women like the women of Joseon, after all, he reflected, walking past the bustling courtyards and the glamorous rooms of the gibang’s favourites. She had moved, it appeared, to a quiet suite at the back of the great house.
“‘All day the clouds drift by, and still the wanderer cometh not,’” Jiang-ti quipped, leaning by her door jamb as he approached. “I feared you were no longer mortal.”
He bowed deeply before she invited him in: not to a professional’s quarters, he saw, but a woman’s home, breathtakingly spacious and simple. He looked over at Jiang-ti, who waved him inwards to the closed courtyard at the back of her house.
And there: there was Sam-nom; small, silvery Sam-nom, who sprang up from her seat under the camellias, and held her arms out, to be swept up and whirled around, before she burst into one of her fits of sudden tears.
“I thought I would die before I saw you again,” she choked, her arms tight around his neck. There was a paleness to her, he thought, as though the illness that had passed had left a kind of shadow behind.
“What would you do that for?” he murmured. “Hush, now, I’m here. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.” They sat down together, her head tucked under his chin. There was no silence to be filled here, no hurt to overcome. The evening flew by as they picked up a conversation that felt like it had never been left off. Time had erased their distances, too. They were eunuch and soldier, brother and sister, friend and confidante. And in the ten years she had gathered with Yeong, and he had spent without, they had also become something other than opposites.
“Kim Satgat,” she said, laughing, “You’ve become famous! And anonymously, which is the most Kim-hyung-like way of becoming famous I ever heard of.”
“No, no,” he laughed too. “Did you figure out it was me through the inscription?” He hadn’t told anyone who the book was for: The poet dedicates these lines to the Flower Scholar. Ha-yeon, when he handed her the epigraph, had only raised an eyebrow and muttered, “À l’unique acquéreur de ces sonnets,” which made no sense to him at all.
She shook her head. “I heard it in his Majesty’s voice. He used to read me a poem every day when I was laid up, and say, ‘Ra-on ah, if you’re better tomorrow I’ll read you one more.’ Tyrant. But I got better quickly.”
He raised his cheek from her hair and kissed her brow without really thinking about it, but she looked up at him, and blushed deeply.
“Kim-hyung, I must know,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You went away so quickly after adopting Cho-hui. It wasn’t entirely for her sake, was it?”
“Yes,” he said. “No.”
“It was for me,” she said, sadly. “So you wouldn’t come in between his Majesty and I.”
“It was mostly for myself,” he confessed. “I got scared. I’m still scared.”
“I’d never had a friend like you before,” she said. “No one like you had ever wanted me to be in their life. But you looked after me, and shared your house with me, even while you were suffering all the while.” She looked up. “I won’t let you suffer like that again.”
“Your husband has delivered me an ultimatum,” he said. “I have some time to think about our life together. Is that something you wish us to have?”
“Yes,” she said. “I have no ultimatums. I’ll wait for you forever, if I must. But you have always been so tolerant of me that I feel like being selfish, and pleading with you to stay. I’m sorry; I know you hate the palace.”
He shook his head, drinking in his fill of the sight of her, adorned now in silks and jewels, but still the girl––the woman––who’d made the end of his old, miserable life possible.
“But you remember what you told me?” she said. “Life is bearable when you find someone of your own there. I thought of that every day before I was married and entered the palace; and then again after my son was born.” She sighed. “I have a son now.” Then she frowned. “I have two.” He laughed, delighted. “I get to see the new one so rarely! I'm still getting used to him.”
"You are a baby yourself," he said.
"Look who's talking," she said. "This one became mother of the nation when you weren't looking."
“I’m sorry I wasn’t looking,” he said, brushing a curl of hair over the pink shell of her ear. “Was it very difficult?”
“No,” she said. “Just a bit difficult. But I’m not alone any more, you see?”
“Were you ever?” he said. “If someone trapped you in a cave for a month you’d come out best friends with the goblins.” She made a face, then hugged him again.
“You won’t be alone, either,” she said. “That’s what I want to tell you. We’ll be with you. You and Cho-hui.”
“And my Yoon-hwan,” he said, and watched her eyes fill up again as he told her about Yoon-seong and his nephew.
“Those poor children,” she said. “Paying for sins they never committed. And the two of you, out there in the world with them.”
“We’ve lived a good life,” he said. “I have to ensure that they continue to live well. Help us––help me to do so, your Majesty.”
She nodded, and then pinched his arm. “I’ll kill you if you call me that when we’re alone.”
“What should I call you, then?” he said. “When we’re alone?” And she blushed again, and let him hold her a little while longer.
“I detest playing go-between, darling,” Jiang-ti said, beckoning him in for a cup of tea after the queen had veiled herself and left. “She’s lucky I’ve always liked her.”
“Your good opinion is a gift,” he said. “But it’s not what you think, between her and I.”
“I don’t think she’s committing adultery,” Jiang-ti said, amused. “As for the rest, I will respect our past connection and refuse to speculate on what she, or you, or any of you, might be committing.”
Over a meal, she filled him in on the things he’d missed. She took only a minimal interest in the affairs of the gibang now, but the political and social intelligence that had crossed her threshold on a daily basis when she was a courtesan appeared not to have ceased.
“I didn’t know about this,” she said, when he described the long-ago attack on the children in the palace, but her expression turned thoughtful. “The new Baekwoon volunteers aren’t like Master Hong Gyeong-rae, or even like you. They’ll be defensive about the idea that one of their number could ever have attempted a crime like that. But didn’t you just meet your best bet at discovering the culprit?”
He nodded; it was one of the things Sam-nom and he had discussed. Sam-nom was Hong Gyeong-rae’s daughter, and a figurehead for the former rebels. She was also the master of the Inner Court, which saw and heard all that went on in the palace, and was the keeper of its private memory.
“And she’s a former eunuch,” Jiang-ti finished. “Ridiculous as it sounds, it has made her the most powerful queen that the palace has had in living memory.”
“Of course,” Byeong-yeon said. “She served with Eunuch Jang himself, and I imagine all her friends are seniors in the ranks now.”
“Her friends,” Jiang-ti said, absently. “Right. Because there was an exodus from the palace after––”
“Eunuch Han died,” Byeong-yeon said. “That’s why they had to have another intake of eunuchs so soon after the previous round.”
“Were many of Eunuch Han’s confidantes Baekwoon sympathisers, then?” she asked. “But I suppose there’s no way for you to know. Goodness, aren’t old men who take secrets to their graves despicable? Luckily for you, despicable old men form almost the entirety of my acquaintance. How do I send you a message?”
“I don’t know how I can thank you,” he said, when he was leaving. “For everything.”
“I have some money to put into a new business, so perhaps you can write me an introduction to the publisher of the White Orchid press,” she said, and smiled when Byeong-yeon’s mouth fell open. ”Cold plum flowering in the snow––a tipsy gisaeng. Did you think you were so unknown to your friends––and lovers?”
“Well,” he stammered. “Yes?” Her smile grew wider.
“You’re very young,” she said. “And your poetry is very unfairly good. And, Master Kim, I shall climb down and say that it makes me proud, as a patriot, that you decided to publish it in our alphabet.”
“This makes it all worth it,” he said. “I’d be honoured to make the introduction, terrified as I am at how well you’ll get along with my publisher.”
He paused at her door, before leaving, and looked back at the elegant, empty house. “Is it good?” he asked. “Living alone.”
“Incomparable,” she said. “Why, is someone offering you an alternative?”
“I think it would qualify as a metamorphosis,” he said.
“How frightening,” she said dryly. But her parting salute was friendly, and she murmured, “I’ll let you have my study if you need it. Once in a while,” against his cheek, before she sent him on his way, a little light-headed, as always, at her splendour.
Then he was out, all alone, in the cold, glittering capital of his heart. It was incalculably different from the place he had left as a young man; it was a world apart from all the cities and capitals he had seen. But in all its streets and walls and people, it was his. He walked for a long time through its streets, avoiding the curfew guards and pickpockets by long and unforgotten habit. He looked for a long time at the dark sloping roofs, whose ridges and hollows he could still feel under the soles of his feet, framed by the bare branches of trees that had sheltered him on his hard and lonely quests. He sat down at a canteen for a drink and a bowl of soup. Finally he sat down by the river and dropped his head in his hands, and allowed himself to feel overwhelmed.
At this time yesterday he had been sleeping in Yeong’s arms. Wake with me whenever you like, from now on, Yeong said. To do that, he would have to let go of the life he knew. There was Cho-hui to consider. His darling girl would never openly forsake him, but it would be up to him not to cause her pain once she knew her true family, and returned to her true home. There was Yoon-seong, with whom he had a family, and could once again build a household. But Yoon-seong had worked so hard at closing the wounds of his sundering from Yeong and Ra-on that he had iron-clad a part of his soul, and to hurt him again would be cruel.
And then there was this: aloneness and wandering. This, he liked and understood. He had done useful work before he left Joseon. He could do it again. Ha-yeon had given him the gift of a readership, but he could write with or without it. Perhaps his friends would not mind if he turned up on their doorstep, once in a while, just to see them, and talk to them. My head on your shoulder, once in a while.
He leaned against the back wall of an inn in an alleyway and dozed, exhausted, for a couple of hours. Then he got up and left town again.
“Byeong-yeon. Byeong-yeon? Master Baekwoon!”
He’d been drinking a long time; the hangovers were more or less rolling one into the other. The sunlight, when he opened his eyes, was a trifle more unbearable than the day before. He opened his eyes and saw Michel––older, greyer, with a rounder face than he remembered––and groaned.
“There is a basin to your left,” he heard Michel say, and he rolled over to perform the necessary expulsion. “I won’t ask,” Michel said, sitting next to him and handing him a cool washcloth for his face.
“Where am I?” he croaked.
“A friend’s house, outside the west gate,” Michel said, and Byeong-yeon got the fleeting impression of the friend as someone young and broad-shouldered, in the same physician's habit as Michel, glowering in the doorway before he disappeared from view. Michel's smile, when Byeong-yeon opened his eyes and looked at him properly, was genuine.
“A woman with the face of the Madonna has given me a letter for you,” Michel said. “And her Majesty has sent you some things to eat. I suppose I should not be surprised that the great ladies of Hanyang are devoted to your well-being.”
“Wait until you see the gentlemen,” Byeong-yeon said, sitting up with another groan. “You look well. Everyone I meet seems to have some sort of heroic story of being treated by the handsome French doctor. We could fill Hanyang twice over if you really did save the life of everyone who claims you cured them.”
“You saved my life,” Michel said, simply. “I have merely tried to preserve the gift. Take some medicine. There is water and soap for you to wash. I will shave you if your hand is unsteady.” And when he had eaten and drank tea, and felt less foul in his own skin, he sat down and took the letter from Michel’s hand.
I hear you are being wildly irresponsible, Jiang-ti had written. Keep it up. There is a network of former members who no longer identify with the Baekwoon society, but consider themselves its authentic progenitors. Among them are expelled troops of the palace guard, known to have worked directly with Chief Eunuch Han.
He had guessed as much. Years ago, in the bars, backrooms and jumble of small trading ventures that made up the unplanned peripheries of Hanyang, Byeong-yeon had founded and run the intelligence network that had helped keep his life as a double agent afloat. After a decade of good fortune and good economic governance, this undercity had swelled, and so had dissatisfaction among its people, who now had more examples of wealth all about them, and so had more to aspire to.
In this ring of the unrestricted town he had been working without pause for the last three weeks, sloughing off the Kim Byeong-yeon he had become as an adult, and regaining the appearance of sullen secrecy that he and so many others here wore like a cloak. He was recognised by very few, and it was not hard to become a familiar type, a disgraced former officer down on his luck. He might have ended up here anyway, without Cho-hui.
A certain Guard Jang, and a scholar seen often in his company named Park, disappeared but were never confirmed dead. See if your new friends can give you directions to these persons.
Above all, do not forget who you are. Your friend, Jiang-ti.
“How can I help you?” Michel asked, after he had coaxed Byeong-yeon into eating the basket of fresh food Sam-nom had sent him.
“Stitch me up if I come back hurt,” Byeong-yeon said. “Contrary to all appearances, I want to live.”
He had the opportunity to contemplate how hard and how boring intelligence work was for a few more days before he cracked the code. It took one drink too many and a hefty bribe, in marked coins that Sam-nom had concealed under his lunch, so that the guard could trace them later. But he finally had an address for the man Park, who had worked as an accountant in Eunuch Han’s office.
“Pointless to go at it alone, seonbae,” Captain Seong said, before he left the city. “Better let us follow it up. You get some rest.” He didn’t quite eye Byeong-yeon up and down, but the impulse to do so was clear.
“It has to be me, though,” Byeong-yeon said. “I’m the spoke in the wheel.”
“Equip him,” said the tall man in a hanbok of plain, rust-coloured silk, who drew aside the curtain at their safe-house and stepped within. “He’s not the type to listen to reason.” Captain Seong bowed and obediently went to retrieve the weapons concealed under a trapdoor.
Yeong came to Byeong-yeon and took his face in his hands. “You look like you’ve had no food or sleep,” he said. “Seo-kyu is right. There are police capable of seeing this case through.”
“The police aren’t traitors to the Baekwoon,” Byeong-yeon said, drawing his lips over the warm hollow of Yeong’s palm. “Stop touching me, I’m disgusting.”
“Traitor?” Yeong said, tipping Byeong-yeon’s face up towards his. “You spent years digging up bean fields, building schools, exposing the corrupt––”
“I upheld the order the Baekwoon society explicitly wished to overturn,” Byeong-yeon said. “Not all of them got the chance to argue with you in person, unlike Master Hong. Not everyone knows you as I do.” Yeong let his hands fall to his sides as Captain Seong came back with a small pile of weapons. “Eunuch Han wanted to see the royal family ousted from power. There was too much history to overcome, he thought.” Yeong nodded, looking unhappy. “There were others who went further, and thought the inheritance of leadership itself an abhorrence. Master Hong betrayed them by consenting to be your father-in-law.”
“It makes a kind of sense,” Yeong murmured. “But why target the children? Because they were both of the Kim clan and Lee?”
“Some people like to hurt the weak,” Byeong-yeon said, and shuffled over to look at the weapons. He raised an eyebrow. “This is a Belgian pepperbox,” he said, looking at the revolver lying on the table. “The imperial elite in the Cantons don't have these yet.”
“Why do you think I issue Cho Man-hyeok all those travel permits?” Yeong said, and then: “Seo-kyu, what did I say that was so funny?”
“I am,” Byeong-yeon said, hiccuping, “thinking of all the women I’ve chaperoned over land and sea in the last five years. Well done; oh, well done.”
“Pay your compliments to Teacher Da San,” Yeong said, looking confused. Then he turned to Captain Seong. “Give us a minute, would you?” he said. When they were alone, he came and put his arms around Byeong-yeon.
“It really doesn’t have to be you,” he said.
“It might be the last thing I do as her father,” Byeong-yeon said. “Let me.”
“I’m not going to steal her away from you,” Yeong replied, exasperated. “I loved his Majesty, but he committed a crime against her––a crime I couldn’t stop. I deserved to lose her.”
“She didn’t deserve to lose you,” Byeong-yeon said and then, “Forget it; I don’t know what I’m saying. I’ll decide what to tell her when I see her.”
“Together,” Yeong said. “Remember what I said.”
He leaned his forehead against Yeong’s. “I never forget anything you say.”
Yeong folded him into his embrace: a warm, secure one. “Yoon-seong’s boat arrived yesterday morning,” he said. “They’ll be here soon.”
Just a little while more, then, he thought. Fucking hell, Kim Byeong-yeon.
It was a night’s journey on foot to a village by the highway. He caught forty winks in the hollow of an old tree on the outskirts before dawn, then wended his way in as soon as the gates opened, and made for the little house of the address he had procured. Accountant Park was a small, hard-faced man: memory returned, dimly, of seeing him around the executive offices back when they both worked at the palace.
“I know who you are,” Accountant Park said, distaste writ large on his face. Well, he was in distasteful shape. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing, probably,” Byeong-yeon said. “I’ve heard the Baekwoon has volunteers in almost every village in the province now. What do you do for them, Master Park?”
“I stay out of their way,” Master Park said. “We are no longer Hong Gyeong-rae’s friends in this household. Please leave.”
“The Baekwoon were suspected in a crime that occurred at the palace ten years ago,” Byeong-yeon asked. He did not want to coerce a suspect even of the kind of crime he was investigating. His hand, however, was itching for the pommel of his sword. “I wonder if you might help me uncover its truth?”
“The only crime committed at the palace then,” Master Park said, “was when Kim Byeong-yeon had the chance to kill the Lee despot, and didn’t take it. My master Han died for that. And the families responsible for his death continue to evade justice.”
It was treason, shocking to be spoken openly. Whatever trap they had laid for those who crossed their threshold, Byeong-yeon thought, must be very close to being sprung.
“I don’t want to fight,” he said, raising his voice to be heard by the ghosts surrounding this bitter, unassuming clerk. He very nearly failed to get a handle on his sword out in time. A blunt, slicing sound came through the air behind him, and a cudgel came flying down, narrowly missing his head. The new entrant, who leapt into the house and came at him swinging a broadsword, was powerfully built and well-trained. This must be the associate, the guard Jang.
“I don’t want to fight,” he said again, and parried the blows. The idea of using the gun tucked away in his belt was repulsive; justice was the king’s to mete out, not his. “His Majesty offered amnesty to our society years ago, and will listen to your grievances.”
Guard Jang snarled, and went on the attack again. “Have it your way,” Byeong-yeon said, and sent him sprawling with a block on the counter-attack. “Did you attempt arson on the attendants’ hall in the year of the Kim trials?” he asked, holding the fallen man at swordpoint. “Confess and submit to the king’s justice.”
“You’ll die by my hand,” Guard Jang spat, as Byeong-yeon squatted to tie his hands and legs together. “For what you did to my brother, you’ll die,” and Captain Seong had been right, after all; Byeong-yeon needed more rest than he’d had in the last few weeks. He glanced up, confused. He was not so dull that he did not perceive the mousy Master Park coming up behind him, but just enough that when he turned to block the blow of the cudgel, he reacted a second too slowly, and took the hit on his shoulder instead. It hurt, just enough that Guard Jang swiped the club from his accomplice’s hands and brought it down on him. This time, it did hit his head.
He was in hell when he woke, disoriented from the blow, his whole body aflame with pain. Someone had beaten him when he was unconscious, though not brutally enough to break his bones, he supposed. His senses were muffled, as though someone had put a thick and scratchy blanket over his head. But his eyes adjusted to the darkness after some time: he was in a large and ramshackle shed, closed off but for a large and high gap between wall and thatched roof, a window for the winter moonlight to pour in.
His breath felt shallow and disrupted in his own lungs.
“I wanted to wait until you were awake,” a soft, thoughtful voice said, and Byeong-yeon turned his head to the side, suddenly certain that he was going to throw up. He knew that voice. He had listened to that voice for a long, long time, and had obeyed it without fail every time: every time but the last. He turned his head and looked at the man holding the lamp up in the darkened room.
“Master Jang,” he said, looking on the face of his foster father for the first time since he had seen it, still and cold, on a bed of straw in the dungeons of the Investigative Office. It was grey now, haggard with the passing of the years, bitterness grooved into the lines around his mouth and eyes. Jang Ki-baek had been his minder, his teacher––no, his handler, the man who had trained him the way the military trained its dogs and horses. He had ordered Byeong-yeon to make a captive of Sam-nom; he had betrayed the Baekwoon to Prime Minister Kim; and he had died in custody of the palace guards, or so Byeong-yeon had thought. Jang Ki-baek was my comrade for years, and yet I ended his life.
“Eunuch Han,” Byeong-yeon said aloud. A phrase from Jiang-ti’s conversation floated through his mind, collapsing under this new attack. Despicable old man.
“I’m not the type to make speeches,” Jang Ki-baek said. “I will put your head on a pike for your king to find, because I hate him. But I’ll make it quick in honour of our old connection. It won’t hurt very much; it’ll be more mercy than you showed me.”
Byeong-yeon remembered the discovery of Master Jang’s betrayal, and the way he’d lost his temper, for perhaps the first and only time in his adult life. An echo of that rage made itself felt now, feebly. Strange and more sharp yet was the pang of shame that went through him.
“I want to know where this is from,” Jang Ki-baek said, and he drew out the pistol, the Liege revolver that Captain Seong had given Byeong-yeon. He looked up, incredulous, and then made an effort to put some distance between the pain in his body and his mind.
“Jang seonbae, this is embarrassing,” he said.
“Tell me,” Jang Ki-baek said, “and I’ll spare the lives of the children you seem so keen to defend. You perceive, we are not far from the highway. The caravan will be passing by soon.”
“You can’t hope to hurt them,” Byeong-yeon said. He had to cough to clear the air in his lungs, and gasp to seek more.
“Perhaps not,” Jang Ki-baek said. “But I have a firearm now. What a gift, from my foster son. Tell me where it’s from?”
Byeong-yeon didn’t, and got beaten more for it: Guard Jang, it turned out, did not share his older brother’s distaste for petty cruelty.
“Is this from Lee Yeong’s armoury?” Jang Ki-baek asked, leaning over him. “Are there more like it?”
“What profit does the information bring you?” Byeong-yeon asked. He was repelled to see Jang Ki-baek laugh.
“What do you think?” he said. “There are agents of the Qing who will pay very well for the tip. Did you imagine I was doing this in memory of the glorious rebellion?”
“Turns out you never did do much for the rebellion,” Byeong-yeon said.
“Neither did you,” Jang Ki-baek said. “What a reason to turn traitor: for that rogue little queen, who sits on the throne you were meant to crumble.”
A scuffle sounded on the gravel outside before Byeong-yeon could answer. Master Jang cocked his head, then aimed the pistol at Byeong-yeon’s heart, just before the door opened, and Yoon-seong kicked the man Park, knocked out cold, over the threshold.
“The company you keep,” Yoon-seong said to Byeong-yeon, with his hands raised: he was carrying a sword and a pistol.
It was a stand-off. “Do what you have to, hyung,” Byeong-yeon said, as he saw Yoon-seong’s expression freeze, at the sight of the gun in Jang Ki-baek’s hands.
“Let him go,” Yoon-seong said, in his low-voiced and icy rage.
“I believe the advantage is mine,” Jang Ki-baek said, and rested the mouth of the revolver on Byeong-yeon’s breastbone. Yoon-seong’s lip curled in a sneer: you had to know him very well to know that he was frightened. The pistol was in his right hand, Byeong-yeon thought, muddled: the one that trembled when he was distressed.
“Yoon-seong,” Byeong-yeon called out, “the children––”
A shot went off before he could finish. Instinct took over: he curled into a ball, cannoning his body into Jang Ki-baek and shoved an elbow deep into the older man’s ribs. Another shove with his head, and he’d split Jang Ki-baek’s head open. One more shot: Yoon-seong had put a bullet in Park’s knee.
Guard Jang, who had fallen to the floor, was bleeding and writhing. Yoon-seong frowned, then ducked out of the shed, pistol cocked.
“For goodness’ sake,” they heard a voice shriek at them from the heavens above, “were you just going to stand around and threaten each other?” Byeong-yeon staggered out into the moonlight, arms still bound, and found Yoon-seong staring up at the bare branches of an oak tree, where a woman was crouched with a rifle in her hands.
“Cho Ha-yeon,” he said, dazed, and lurched into Yoon-seong, who caught him before he fell and untied his wrists quickly.
“I left you with the children,” Yoon-seong said, evidently stupefied.
“You came back to Joseon?” Byeong-yeon said.
“Clearly I was needed,” Ha-yeon said. “Stop standing around and finish tying them up, I’m covering you. The king’s guards are at a hideout behind us, with the children and my staff.”
“Did you––did you shoot that rifle?” Yoon-seong asked, dumbfounded as he had never been in this life or, Byeong-yeon thought, any previous.
“I’m an arms trader!” Ha-yeon yelled. “I know how to shoot!”
“You’re a publisher,” Yoon-seong said, but it was soundless. Byeong-yeon shook his head to clear it, then realised that following orders from the women in his life was the only way he ever got anything done, and went back in to secure the unconscious bodies. It was Ha-yeon who had shot Guard Jang right through the meat of his shoulder, aiming from her post on the tree outside through the tight open space between the thatch and the wall. The honourable mother Cho had clearly not been able to break her daughter of the unladylike habits of fighting and tree-climbing.
Shouts and hooves came thundering up. “We’re here! Seonbae? It’s Seong Seo-kyu!” he heard. “In here,” he said, and though his voice did not rise very high, it did not matter: his men, the king’s men, were flooding into the shed. Strong hands raised him from where he was kneeling on the floor, and someone put his arm over their shoulder. He did not need the assistance, he thought, but his muscles felt wasted as soon as he took the first step, and he leaned into the other person, after all. Outside, Yoon-seong had put away his weapons, and was standing with a hand on the bark of the oak tree, another outstretched to help Ha-yeon down. She threw her rifle to a waiting guard, then skipped and half-slid down the trunk of the tree. Yoon-seong caught her.
“Thank you,” she said, and then flung her arms around his neck and burst into tears.
They stumbled a mile over to a hideout where Seong Seo-kyu assured Byeong-yeon the children were under careful guard. At least, Byeong-yeon stumbled, impatient to get there fast as his legs would take him. Several arms’ lengths behind him, Yoon-seong followed, still carrying Ha-yeon with the air of a man holding a dragon’s orb. Their heads were very close to each other, and the wind did not carry their murmurs over to the rest of the company.
“I’m fine!” he called out, drawing himself up to his full height as soon as they gained the bolthole in the forest, where the two children slipped through the cordon of the guard and came dashing out. “Uncle Yoon-seong and I are fine.”
Cho-hui came to a crashing halt just before she ran into him and looked him up and down. She looked over his shoulder at Yoon-seong, finally setting Ha-yeon on her feet, as if to reassure herself of their presence. Then she turned back and looked at him again, with those big, bold eyes of hers
“Who hurt you?” she asked. The bolt of sheer fury that crossed her face was so like Yeong’s that he lost his breath all over again. She turned to Seong Seo-kyu. “Who hurt my father?”
He was weary, but not so weary that he could not slide down to his knees and take her and Yoon-hwan in his arms. He carried them both like that to the wagon waiting to take them back to the palace, and let them crowd into his lap. He thought he passed out on the journey, but he was awake, and still holding on to the children, when they looked out into the deeps of the cold night and saw, once again, the great gates of Changdeok Palace.
Someone said something about the Department of Justice burning the midnight oil. They did not espy Yoon-seong or Captain Seong, who leapt off horseback to hurry away in the direction of the executive offices. Instead, their guard escorted them to the gates which led into the oldest and deepest parts of the palace, inwards from the shrines and courts and offices that ruled Joseon, and to where it became simply the sublimely austere dwellings of the royal family.
A pain rose in his chest, behind a scar he had put out of his mind for a long time. They crossed one gate, then another. “Master, let me take the children,” someone said, but he was not sure who, and tightened his grasp of their hands. One more gate. Then he saw her, standing at the entrance to the Inner Court.
“I’ve waited to meet you for so long, Miss Cho-hui; Master Yoon-hwan,” the queen of Joseon said, smiling, even though her eyes were shining in the light of the lamps. “What an eventful journey you’ve had. Will you let my sister make sure you haven’t taken any hurt before you eat something? We made a very delicious beef stew today.” A gorgeous young woman came forward, and he blinked and cleared his eyes before he realised who it was: the little lady Yeong-eun. No, her Highness Yeong-eun, no longer the mute child they used to dote on in secret but a sylph of a girl, with kind eyes and a deep, clear voice.
“M-my father needs a doctor, ma’am––lady––Highness,” Cho-hui said, overawed. The queen’s smile widened, though she came forward and put a hand on his arm, soothing.
“The two of you can call me 'auntie',” she said, in a confidential tone of voice. “This elder of yours, you see, is my Kim-hyung; he’s one of my best friends.” She drew him towards her. “Can I take him away to see what kind of help he needs? I promise he’ll be safe with me.”
It turned out he was the one doing the clinging. They went all the way to Jipbokheon, where the nurses were waiting outside Yeong-eun’s quarters, and Yoon-hwan had to tug at his sleeve and say, “We’ll be fine, Uncle Byeong-yeon. You should go now,” before he let go of them, and let Ra-on show him the way to the halls of the king.
He desperately wanted to be alone, and in this, the queen showed him mercy. She let him be, withdrawing after she checked him over for fractures and bruises. A tub steaming with green, medicinal scents awaited him, and he took off his clothes and submerged himself in there. The bath helped to calm him, and loosened up some of the screaming strain of the day. There was the filth of the weeks before, caked like mud at the back of his mind, and he plunged again, to try and shake them loose.
His arms rose indifferently to wet his hair, then stayed there as he sat in the cooling steam, with his elbows on his knees. It must have been some time: the next thing he knew was a pair of careful, familiar hands disengaging them, and tipping his head back against the lip of the bath. He could not object, so her Majesty wet his hair and washed it for him, combing out the tangles and working the tension out of his scalp, letting safety and warmth melt into his skin. When it was time to drain the bath, he found that he could stand by himself, and draw on a covering, and sit where she directed him, by the mirror, waiting as she lit a censer of pine incense and brought it to him, to waft under his hair and dry and scent it, the way her maids did for her.
“All done,” she said, when it lay shining and open on his shoulders. “You know what this reminds me of, Kim-hyung? All those nights at Jahyeondang, watching you take your hair down before you went to bed.”
He smiled back at her. There was joy to be suffused into the memory of those days, after all; there was joy in everything she said and did. She laid a cheek against his hair, then pressed a kiss to the crown of his head. He rested his weight on his wrists and watched her as she combed and anointed and soothed him, and lowered all his defenses. Finally, all the armour came off, taken apart and set aside. As he was falling asleep, she brought him the softest clothes he’d ever touched, and he allowed himself to lean on her as she wrapped them loosely around him, before leading him to the king's bed.
There, he opened his eyes and curled an arm around her waist, as she arranged his pillows. "I know what to call you," he murmured. “Ra-on.”
His hand came up to her face, and he traced its features, before he drew it down against his own, amazed at the love he felt for this old, firefly friend of his.
“My precious girl,” he said, and made her smile once again, before she found his mouth with hers.
The next thing he knew was starting awake to find himself in near-darkness, in a room he could not immediately recognise. He would have panicked, but for the weight of Ra-on’s head pillowed on his chest. That reassured him, and he fell back asleep.
He thought he might have woken once again, in broad afternoon light. Two small bodies had burrowed in on either side of him, and were making themselves comfortable in a way they clearly imagined was quiet. He knew this from stormy nights in Peking, when the thunder scared them; and mischief-making ones, when Cho-hui’s appetite for making up monster stories got the better of them both. It was cosy, and familiar, and he sank into the feeling gratefully.
There was no strength left to drive his mind and body forward without resources. He came to consciousness only to find that he wanted to sleep more. His surroundings lulled him into rest again and again. He did not know when the children left, or if they returned. Someone handled him carefully, pressing on his bruises and aches, leaving cooling comfort in the wake of pain. “Master Baekwoon,” he heard: but there was no way to answer. There was a flurry of whispers around him once, before someone hissed “Out!”. The sound of socked feet tapping over the floor came closer. He opened his eyes and saw a small, serious boy with a book open in his lap, sitting next to his bed. He thought he said “Hello, Yeong,” but could not be sure: it was all happening in dreamless night.
When time regained its meaning at last, night really was crossing above their heads, and the bedchamber was dim with pre-dawn light. Ra-on was asleep on a mattress to his far side, with a baby whose face was identical to hers curled up beside her. Next to Byeong-yeon, Yeong lay dead to the world, his breaths deep and even, and his fingers clasped around Byeong-yeon’s.
The first person he ran into as he crept out of the bedchamber was Eunuch Jang, who peered at him over his eyeglasses, instantly making him blush. Ra-on had put him in something that belonged to Yeong, and the robe trailed over his ankles, and refused to close properly over his chest. “I shall provide you with something more appropriate,” Eunuch Jang said, sternly, but his eyes twinkled, and he broke protocol and gave Byeong-yeon a warm, welcoming hug.
“It’s good,” he whispered. “It’s good you came back, Guard Kim.”
Byeong-yeon repaid the gesture by obeying Eunuch Jang’s assistants as they directed him through the motions of another medical check-up, and then getting ready for the day. His head was unclouded now. The rest had done him good, and he felt more like himself.
He put on the clothes they gave him before he realised what they were: Jang Hoon-nam has put aside a silk from Ilbon in a handsome dove grey for your hanbok. Whenever you can, come. He walked slowly, in the dawn light, to where the children were sleeping, and sat at their doorstep, watching the sun rise.
“What, I can’t wake up early to see my baby owls?” he said, when the children raced out, exclaiming over him.
“You’re sick, and supposed to be in bed!” Cho-hui scolded him.
“He was always the most disobedient of us all,” Yeong said, popping his head over the shrubbery with an insufferable grin for Byeong-yeon’s benefit. “Children, her Majesty wants to collect us all for the morning meal. Yoon-hwan ah, Yoo––that is, your uncle is here: Eunuch Do will take you to see him.”
“I was the most obedient,” Byeong-yeon said to Cho-hui as they set off down the path to the royal residence again, but truth had no currency in the face of glamour: she only looked up at Yeong, to her other side, and snickered when he said, “I swear,” and wrinkled his nose at her. But the mood changed when Yeong touched his shoulder and led them away from the halls of residence, to his reading room. Cho-hui looked between them and sobered.
“What is it?” she said, and tugged on Byeong-yeon’s hand. “Abeoji, what is it?”
In the privacy of Yeong’s library, he got down on his knees before her, and so did Yeong. She copied them, frowning. Byeong-yeon looked at her trusting little face for a long minute, and then cast his eyes down, and opened his mouth to make a start on the words he had been preparing for ten years. Next to him, Yeong pressed a shoulder to his. Let me do it. But it was not a task he could shirk after having given much of his life, and all of Cho-hui's, in preparation.
“Someone tried to hurt you when you were very small, Cho-hui ya,” he began.
She listened quietly as he told her about the attack on the palace, the need to hide Yoon-hwan and her away, and the circumstances of their leaving Joseon. He had never felt more desolate than when she looked at him and said, “It can’t be,” when he told her that he wasn’t her actual father.
“This is where I come in,” Yeong said, steady and strong: a reminder that he wasn’t alone, that they weren’t alone. “You were born to my father and step-mother, Cho-hui, but they were both very unwell, and couldn’t look after you.”
“Your father was the old king,” Cho-hui said, shocked.
“We were not then the kind of court you see about you today,” Yeong said. “It took me a long time to make sure our enemies were gone, you see. Do you know how I could do it? I could devote my whole self to making Joseon and the palace safe, because I didn’t have to worry about you. You went away with a person I trust more than even myself, and he watched over you better than I ever could.”
His heart broke twice over: once at the thought of what it must be to learn what Cho-hui was learning today; and once again in a premonition of the future, when they would tell her––as they had to––of the tragic spite and cruelty that tore apart the families she and Yoon-hwan ought to have had, before they had ever been born. But his girl was made of steel, after all, and she gave them a long, considering look after they had finished telling her this much of the truth.
“Do I have to stop calling you ‘father’?” she said to Byeong-yeon. “Because that’s not possible.”
“He is your father in every way that matters, and you are his little girl,” Yeong said. “Only, Cho-hui, if it’s possible for you to think of me as someone who belongs in your life some day, I would very much like that. ”
“I’m his little girl,” Cho-hui repeated, and then her eyes widened. “I’m your little girl.” She turned to Byeong-yeon. “He wrote you the letter!”
“What?” Byeong-yeon said, blankly.
“He asked you to come back because he was getting married, but he missed you because you had gone away with me!” she said. “Oh! Will I really be tall like Yeong-eun eonni?”
“I,” Byeong-yeon said. “Don’t know.”
“Yoon-hwan and I tried so hard to think of who it was. We almost asked Uncle Yoon-seong, except we got scared of what he would say about reading other people’s letters. But obviously I read yours, abeoji.”
“Obviously,” Byeong-yeon said, disconcerted. He had saved that missive, hidden, somewhere in his papers, but hadn’t looked at it in a long time.
“So you really are friends,” Cho-hui said.
“We’re family,” Yeong said.
She was subdued when they left the library, and kept shooting the two of them thoughtful looks. But she did not seem to be distressed, and even smiled when she saw Yoon-hwan, hanging around two younger boys with the air of infinite patience he had developed after years of living with her.
“Where’s Uncle Yoon-seong?” she asked, and looked over to where he pointed: the walled garden beyond the east doors of the bedchamber, where Yoon-seong was sitting next to her Majesty, deep in conversation.
Jin, the baby, was ecstatic at the sight of a new playmate, and scrambled after her immediately. But it was the elder boy, Heonjong, who stole Byeong-yeon’s heart: a charming, self-possessed child who hid behind his book and studied the new people around him with a half-wary, half-wistful look.
“Thank you,” Byeong-yeon said, crouching by him. “You came to sit with me when I was recovering, didn’t you?”
“Father says you saved his life,” Jeong said.
“That was a long time ago,” Byeong-yeon said.
Breakfast, when it came, was the most informal meal Byeong-yeon could remember eating in the company of others. The children tripped in after the adults, diving for seats next to their parents but interested solely in chattering to each other. Cho-hui, clinging to Byeong-yeon’s hand tightly, sat next to him and affected to eat everything he put in his bowl.
Yeong settled in on his other side, and, stiffly, said, “Come here, Kim Yoon-seong.”
“Let’s not draw this out,” Yoon-seong said, under his breath, but even he could not contain his surprise when Yeong drew a piece of meat from a dish of boiled pork, and laid it over the rice in Yoon-seong’s bowl.
Ra-on, seated at one end of the gathering with her sons about her, smiled and laughed and kept a conversation going with all the children, leeching the tension out of the air, and filling it with love and good humour.
He was aware of a growing and deeply private gladness within him. It was surprising to feel relief after the conversation in the library, but it felt right to let go: yet another secret that he had kept for ten years, now discharged. He was happy at the sound of beloved voices in the air, and grateful to Cho-hui, who had looked at him and decided that he was, for now, still her abeoji. There was something else stirring, too, lazy and inexorable, at the feeling of Yeong’s body next to his. He looked over at Ra-on to see it mirrored on her face, as she smiled and laughed and watched him and Yeong from the corner of her eye.
When the dishes were cleared away, Yoon-seong said, “I’ll take your leave. Yoon-hwan?” They waved goodbye to uncle and nephew, and then Yeong-eun glided in, and asked if she could borrow the children for a kite-flying project, earning her both Jeong and Cho-hui’s whole attention.
“I’m not going far, abeoji,” Cho-hui whispered, when he bent to accept a hug goodbye from her. “I’m just going to fly a kite and think about things.”
“I’ll wait for you,” he promised, and let her go. Then Jin went to his nurses for a bath and a nap, waving and blowing them kisses as he went. And at last the attendants were gone, and the morning’s work was done, and they were all alone, in the middle of the day, in a blessedly quiet room.
He heard Ra-on latch the door behind him as he reached out for Yeong, and walked him backwards, until his back was flush with Byeong-yeon’s chest.
“I thought about your proposal,” Byeong-yeon said, into the hollow of Yeong’s neck, and felt the sigh that left Yeong’s throat at the touch. Before them, Ra-on, now openly giddy, sat down on the bed, and put her chin on her hands, eyes sparkling.
“It was an order,” Yeong said, and reached up to tangle his fingers in Byeong-yeon’s hair, and pulled him forward, lightly, to kiss his cheek.
“I thought about your fervent request,” Byeong-yeon said, and slid his arms around Yeong’s chest. He kissed him softly, ardently, to tell him what words would not suffice to say. When they parted, Yeong’s eyes were overcast, but he turned in Byeong-yeon’s arms, and locked him into an embrace of his own.
“And?” Yeong said. Byeong-yeon squeezed his eyes shut, then held Yeong tightly. Then he opened his eyes and looked over at Ra-on.
“And,” he said, “I don’t want to live without you.”
Yeong was looking at him with that piercing look again. He remembered it from daybreak in the circuit house; it provoked him to desperate shyness, and desperate yearning. They kissed and coiled closer to each other, until by degrees, the yearning overtook the shyness. He opened his eyes and saw them as Ra-on must see them: two bodies in love, and their nearness to each other, working its alchemy like a perfume. His breathing was altered, and the heat of Yeong’s look made him want to look back in the same way.
Yeong kissed him slowly this time, with a hand on his jaw, tongue swiping lightly over Byeong-yeon’s lower lip, making him groan.
"I have a lot to ask of you," Lee Yeong said, when he broke it off, and waited for Byeong-yeon to be able to speak.
“You always do," Byeong-yeon said, and slid his fingers into Yeong's hair, to unwind it of its pins and bands. “I always like it." He drew his head down, and kissed him again.
It was he who led Yeong to their bed, where Ra-on was sitting, dazzling in her beauty and her happiness. She enfolded them in her arms, sheltering them so that they could simply enjoy the beginnings of their closeness for a little while, saying hello and welcome, reassuring each other that there was calm here, and contentment, when they wanted it.
Then she tilted her mouth against Byeong-yeon’s, and kissed him deeply, raking her fingernails over his chest, and he gasped, and fell back on the blankets. “Go on,” she said, rolling off to the side and leaning on her elbow. “I want to see this.”
Suddenly, there was mischief in the air. Her low, husky laugh shot through him with a thrill as he and Yeong undressed in front of her, and kissed and teased and provoked each other until the heat in between them became molten. He took Yeong’s cock in hand, and rubbed it against his own, enjoying the sound of Yeong’s gasp at the feeling, and the shade of Yeong’s body covering his. He opened his legs, and let Yeong thrust against the groove in between them. They fucked, slicker and hotter and more ferocious, until they became wild for each other again, and drew closer, tighter, until they spilled over, shivering at the shock of mutual conquest, and mutual surrender.
All that day, no one came seeking them, and they rested, and made love, and rested again. Ra-on’s body against his was new, but not wholly unfamiliar in its closeness: they had lived together, and she had nursed him through his long convalescence at Teacher Da San's house, through that terrible autumn in which they had all left behind the vestiges of childhood. He had not thought to desire her then, but he was undone now by her kisses and caresses, humbled before her in body and soul.
They fused together, then broke apart, drifting in bliss. Ra-on and Yeong were evidently delighted to discover that they could get him to talk, when he lost himself to the sensation of touch; not loudly, but deliberately, until he was out of breath. It was Kim Satgat’s wayward mouth, he thought: it was filthy and wanton, and it knew how to be loving in a way that Kim Byeong-yeon had not known he could be. And there was more still. He and Ra-on, they found, could suspend even Lee Yeong’s frenetic internal clock, and together they took apart the incessant engine that drove the king to constant, relentless thought and decision. Ra-on’s courteous, considerate husband forgot himself wholly with his head in her lap, sucking lovebites into her breasts as Byeong-yeon gripped and sucked his cock, swallowing him down when he came.
Afterwards, Yeong drowsed, smiling, his eyes blinking open every now and then, as though he couldn’t help but remember that he had something important to look at, and make a study of. He was running his fingers over Byeong-yeon’s back again, light and musical, gently driving Byeong-yeon to distraction.
“I know that smile,” Ra-on said to Yeong. “It reminds me of the days you used to steal my kisses from behind your books.”
“I’m stealing you both from the world,” Yeong said, which made no sense except to the three of them in their infatuation.
"Are you happy, your Majesty?" she asked. Next to him, Byeong-yeon dropped a kiss on Yeong's shoulder, wanting to hear him say yes.
"What do you think?" Yeong said, teasing, and then growled as Byeong-yeon's hand skimmed down his body and danced, also teasing, over the sensitive skin of his hips.
"I think," she said, and she leaned up to brush Yeong’s lips with hers. Byeong-yeon intercepted her, seeking her mouth, and kissed her, firm and just this side of demanding.
"You were thinking...?" he said, when they paused for breath, and she hid her face in the crook of Yeong's arm and laughed at herself. "Sorry to have interrupted."
She looked up, cheeks warm, ready with a riposte. "I think,” she said, and reached out to caress his face with hers. “I love you,” she said. “For yourself, and as myself, and together with our beloved.”
So she got the last word, after all.
The sun was setting when they got out of bed. Ra-on lit the tapers as the men put on their robes, and then Yeong went to help her fasten her clothes, and braid her hair. Byeong-yeon’s collar did not quite cover a mark Yeong had given him, high on his throat, but it didn’t matter; he did not intend for anyone to see. They strolled out, when they could stand to release each other’s hands, and started down the path to Jahyeondang.
“It felt so lonely to go there,” Ra-on said. “Now I think it’ll just be quiet, Kim-hyung. It’s been waiting for you.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and swung her off the steps and to the ground. “Let’s go, then,” he said.
Yeong stopped to pick up a flask the maids had left for them, and they set a wandering pace. Byeong-yeon walked ahead of the king and queen, listening to the mild wind singing through the bare trees, and the familiar rhythm of the conversation behind him. Occasionally he heard a laugh, or the upward inflection of Yeong’s sarcasm; once, he heard her call Yeong by his name, and he smiled.
“I practically broke your wrist the first time we met because you made to touch his Majesty,” he remembered.
“I was brushing a cobweb from his hair,” she protested, laughing.
“I owe you an apology, since here you are now, calling your husband by his name.”
“I like it,” Yeong said. “There’s almost no one left now to do it.”
He stopped in his tracks, and waited for them to come up to him, before he leaned over to kiss and comfort Yeong. They went hand in hand to close the last remaining distance between them and the old, familiar hall of their childhood. Jahyeondang, when it came into his sights, stood proud and remote as ever.
“Did time stand still here?” he murmured, standing under the spreading camphor tree by the deck where they used to gather to eat their late suppers.
“Come,” Ra-on beckoned him, and set out the cups to pour out a drink for each of them; the drink that was the last promise but one that Yeong had made to him. “Come and set it going again with us.”
EPILOGUE: EIGHT MONTHS LATER
“At the Cho house, being spoiled silly,” Byeong-yeon said. “They’ve both fallen headlong in love with Ha-yeon's mother. Why are our children so defenseless against well-dressed women?”
“Who isn’t?” Ra-on said. “How are the celebrations coming along?”
“Inordinately grand and very tiresome,” he said, sinking down to sit at the grass by her feet. “The Cho family were thrilled about getting to organise a party for their spinster daughter and her accomplished painter husband, who it turns out was the very boy they wanted her to marry when she was seventeen. Yoon-seong’s cousins went wild at being able to celebrate the clan’s return to high society. Everyone's tried to outdo each other with banquets and picnics and musical evenings. Yoon-seong was longing to be disinherited all over again.”
“I’m sure he didn't want much of a fuss,” Ra-on mused. “But Lady Cho is so popular, and sociable.”
“Ha-yeon didn’t want to get married at all,” Byeong-yeon said. “Said she no longer saw the point of falling in love only to be transferred from house to house like chattel. The groom had to bribe her into it.”
“With what?” Ra-on said, laughing.
“A trip through Mongolia,” he said. “I saw them off on the boat up north just now.”
“Kim-hyung,” Ra-on stared at him. “I thought the wedding was tomorrow.”
He shook his head, smiling. “They had it this morning. Third State Councillor Cho agreed to the change after they sat him down and argued it out. I think it was to ensure that they wouldn’t outright elope. And the astrologer found an auspicious time on the calendar today, thanks to a little wedding present Yoon-seong made to him.”
“So then they stole out of their homes at dawn, and met in her courtyard. It was just her parents and brothers on her side, and me and the children on his, in front of three town elders, and the registrar. They’ll host a big feast tomorrow evening for everyone else, without the bride and groom. ”
“That is the wildest and most romantic thing that’s happened in Joseon,” Ra-on said.
“Utterly irresponsible,” Yeong remarked acidly, coming through the vines that covered the entrance to the garden. “Little Yoon-hwan would probably act with more sense and maturity.”
“Yoon-seong will be back just in time for your next attempt to recruit him to the executive office,” Byeong-yeon said, innocently, but reached out to smooth down Yeong's collar when he sat down next to him, and leaned over for a kiss. “I missed you,” he murmured.
“What happens to the White Orchid press while Lady Cho’s away?”
“Goes from strength to strength, I think, thanks to her new business partner. I have a rewrite to work on.” He held up the cloth bundle he’d brought with him. “Ha-yeon edited the last few pages in the carriage on the way to the river.”
He couldn’t work on it, after all. Yeong gave in to temptation, for once, and suspended business for the evening so that the three of them could have a drink together, and then, light-headed, fall into bed and get their hands and mouths all over each other. Their first day together was a blazing and cherished memory: he knew, as they had all known, that they would not have many days like that in lives such as theirs.
Still, the heat it had kindled was now a fire banked with him, low and constant. He looked over at their naked, sleeping forms, and felt a sudden longing to kiss them awake. But today it simply would not do. He looked down at his manuscript, and then pinched the wick of his lamp, gathered the papers, and slipped out of the chambers, and the palace.
“Don’t you have a home or two to go to?” his publisher––co-publisher––said, when her handmaiden let him in.
“The house is empty,” he said. “I need the study, please.”
“Empty houses are good to write in,” Jiang-ti complained. “Especially at midnight, when occupied houses are full of people desiring sleep.” But she unlocked her writing room, the place in which he’d come to write draft after draft of his new poems, and ordered him to put his heart into the rewrite as she lit the candles. “The Lady Cho is very indulgent with you, but I assure you I will not be.”
He got a few hours of work in before he put his brush down and stretched out on a sleeping mat to catch some shut-eye. Jiang-ti had had breakfast set out for him when he woke, and he ate and thanked her servants before he set out to the Cho house.
“Oh, it’s been no trouble, Master Kim,” the senior Lady Cho, the combined power of whose looks and sense of style he could withstand only due to prolonged exposure to her daughter, said. “They’re lovely children. I confess I’m amazed that they were brought up by two young men.”
“We had help from the whole world,” Byeong-yeon said, which made her laugh. The children were disappointed to come away, though he noticed that they both tried to hide it from him. The return to Joseon hadn’t been easy on either of them: a new house, and new people thronging through it, to say nothing of their two guardians, suddenly caught up in mending the fabric of their own personal lives.
“I guess we’ll have to go live at the palace now,” Cho-hui said, as Yoon-hwan ran ahead, bouncing a straw ball off his knees. They were walking home over canals and fields, to the large, leafy house on the outskirts of town to which Yoon-seong and he had relocated the children.
“Say that again?” he said, puzzled.
She took a deep breath. “Deputy Governor Cho’s second daughter told Deputy Governor Cho’s first daughter that Auntie Ha-yeon and Uncle Yoon-seong were gone on a bridal tour and that when they came back they would probably want to live alone, not with his step-children.”
“You’re not his step-child,” Byeong-yeon said, feeling a lick of anger flare up. Sometimes, home was just a place where more people had the power to hurt you.
“I told Yoon-hwan that,” Cho-hui said. “But what if they do want to live alone, abeoji?”
“I distinctly heard Auntie Ha-yeon tell you to keep the house safe and well for her to come back and live in it with you.”
“Maybe we’ll just be in her way.”
“Everyone is in Cho Ha-yeon’s way,” Byeong-yeon said. Yoon-seong had had a heartfelt talk with the children before he told them of his wedding plans, and even asked them for their permission before he took his suit to Councillor Cho. They had chosen their house so that they would not be underfoot of each other. It had space for the children to grow and play, and to welcome others who might be born there. But he did not know how to communicate the hopes and plans of three thirty year-olds to an eleven-year old, much less to dispel the fanciful notions that she had absorbed from a silly sixteen-year old.
“Do you want to go live at the palace?” he asked Cho-hui now.
She said nothing. Adjusting to her family secret had been the hardest thing to happen to her since their return, and though she was too dignified to complain, it made her anxious to spend too long in the palace environs. Yeong-eun was the only sibling she had really taken to, and he was glad to see the love growing between the two of them. But Yeong, in spite of their initial camaraderie, had become someone to be wary of, not helped by the fact that he was the high and exalted monarch of the nation as much as he was a man. She was only slowly coming to see him as one of her people, and then more because of his place in Byeong-yeon’s life than in her own.
“We can just go away again,” she muttered, and then cheered up. “Master Michel told me all about the fishing village where we met him, when I was a child. He says the hospital there is even bigger than his hospital here. We can go see the hospital, don’t you think?” Michel and she had become fast friends, mostly on account of Michel’s heaven-sent patience with her questions about sicknesses and medical procedures, the gorier the better.
“We can go see it,” Byeong-yeon said, as Yoon-hwan gave up his ball game, and came back to both of them. “There’s a lot to see in Joseon. A lot to do.”
“So let’s go,” Yoon-hwan said. “Let’s travel all over Joseon. Let’s see all the mountains and all the rivers, and all the islands.”
They arrived at the threshold of the empty house, a sparse and sprawling thing. They were each populating it a little at a time with their belongings, both seen and unseen. In the orchard at the back, Yoon-seong had set up a studio, drenched in natural light and birdsong. Ha-yeon had been talking of founding a school for girls, and they thought they might give up the front of the house, or buy the land next door, to make one. “You’ll have to help me run it,” Ha-yeon had told him, and he’d said no, which was patently ridiculous and futile: he was the only one around here who knew anything about setting up and running schools.
It occurred to him that they might never do the things they meant to do. Perhaps Yoon-seong would want to live elsewhere. Perhaps Cho-hui might change her mind about her family, and want to live closer to Yeong-eun. His own anxious heart might find it easier to do as Yoon-hwan said, and live from one wandering to the next. I want to live with you, he had said to Yeong and Ra-on, but they were still finding their way towards each other, and there were days when he thought he might never be able to give more than the little he'd asked for on the night of his return: not always, but once in a while. My head on your shoulder.
The key turned in the lock. He had a mathematics lesson to teach the children, and then he would sit down and rewrite another poem before feeding them their evening meal. The cooks had put away the side dishes from the dinner party they’d had here three nights ago, but he knew where the jars were. He would soak the rice so it would be ready to cook. Perhaps he could have Yeong and Ra-on over for supper, one night, when they could get away, and they would see the room in which he lived when he was not with them.
He turned to where Cho-hui and Yoon-hwan were standing under a tree with leaves of deep green. Yoon-hwan was peering at the stone bowls he had filled with grain and water and left on one of the lower boughs. Cho-hui was craning her neck to look up at where a turtle-dove was putting the finishing touches on a neat and tightly-spun nest. He let them be for a few moments.
Then, “Come on in,” he said, and opened the doors.
All the world is our home.
All men our kin.
Good and evil
are not caused by others.
Nor are suffering and relief.
We do not exult
that life is sweet
Nor do we cry
That life is cruel.
We know from the vision of seers
that life takes its fated course
like a raft that floats
on a rapid river
roaring among the rocks
during the monsoon rains.
Therefore we neither marvel at the great
nor disdain the small.