A long-forgotten feeling of tension envelops Soyong as she’s left alone with Jo Hwa Jin. They sit across from each other at the low table, waiting for a servant to bring them tea and sweets. Hwa Jin’s stern look is understandable; however, it doesn’t make it any less annoying.
Growing tired from the starting contest, Soyong’s eyes start roaming around the room. It’s well-decorated and Hwa Jin’s paintings are all over the walls. There’s almost too many of them, Soyong thinks. Most of them are paintings of various flowers or portraits. Hwa Jin’s talent is undeniable; it’s especially impressive in the paintings of her husband, Prince Yeongpyeong.
Eventually, they hear the maid’s quiet voice, asking if she can come in. The girl brews the tea for them in a pretty floral teapot before placing the sweets on the table and leaving the room.
“I suppose there is a good reason why Your Highness is not in the palace yet?” Hwa Jin begins the conversation. She gracefully pours a cup of tea for Soyong, and then one for herself. It is apple tea, simple but very fragrant. Soyong takes the cup and breathes in the pleasant aroma before taking a little sip.
“There is,” Soyong answers, placing the cup back on the table. She picks up a dessert fork and breaks into a small cake, taking a large piece into her mouth. “Mmm, this one is very good.”
“That is all Your Highness wishes to say?” Hwa Jin is visibly shaking in her anger. “His Majesty, my husband, and who knows how many other men have been searching for you day and night! And Your Highness has been walking around the city, without letting anyone know you are alright!”
“I apologize for that.” Soyong takes a deep breath, fully aware of how true Hwa Jin’s words are. “I couldn’t go home immediately since I felt so sick. I could barely leave my room without someone else’s help.”
“And what is stopping Your Highness now?”
Soyong takes her cup again, slowly breathes in the scent, and drinks the remaining tea. She takes her time to think about how much information she is willing to divulge. She decides to attempt being honest with Hwa Jin. But if she refuses to help, Soyong will use Hwa Jin’s residual feelings of guilt towards her as a means of coercion.
“The people who saved me after I was attacked are planning treason against the King.”
Soyong places her empty cup on the table and lifts her gaze up to Hwa Jin. She sees fear in her eyes and it’s not groundless. Overthrowing the King means that all his closest people will be either killed or exiled. And Hwa Jin’s husband will assuredly be one of the first to be targeted – probably right after they get rid of Hyun-ki, the heir to the throne. The conspirators would need a puppet for the throne, but an older one is preferable. They would likely turn towards the same boy her own clan chose last year. Soyong visited the boy after those events, and sadly, the boy was so traumatized by the experience that he stuttered at any mention of the palace. She promised to visit him more to help him overcome that fear eventually.
“Your Highness must tell that to His Majesty immediately! What are you waiting for?” Hwa Jin raises her voice in panic.
“But what can he do? Punish a few men I can identify? That’s not enough,” Soyong argues. “I barely know a fraction of the people involved. But I do know they are training men in a secret camp, ready to attack at any moment.”
“You’re afraid that some of them will escape punishment,” Hwajin says, starting to understand the dilemma.
“Or worse, they will regroup and attack later.” Soyong has been running these scenarios through her head for days now. She is grateful to finally have someone to talk it out with.
“So what are you suggesting?”
“They have no idea I’m the Queen. They think I’m a servant with memory loss after an unpleasant incident in the woods.” Soyong shares her plan, placing her elbows on the table and moving closer to Hwa Jin. “I can find out more if I stay close to them.”
“That’s absurd!” Hwa Jin looks at her with eyes wide open. “Those people tried to murder you and they don’t recognize who you are?”
“Oh, this is the interesting part.” Soyong smiles. “It wasn’t them. From what I’ve gathered, they have no knowledge of an assassination attempt. They all think I’m hiding my illness in the royal villa. And I avoided any guests that could recognize me when I was working as a maid.”
“Meaning, someone else sent an assassin after Your Highness?” Hwa Jin asks, puzzled.
“Someone who isn’t part of this conspiracy.”
“I still don’t understand. Why does Your Highness refuse to tell everything to the King? His Majesty isn’t new to planning secret missions.”
“He will stop me from spying on them and say it’s too dangerous. He won’t hear my reasoning that it’s the easiest and fastest way to root out this conspiracy.”
“Only Your Highness can get upset over someone showing concern and affection.” Hwa Jin shakes her head in disbelief.
“I can’t stop now. I started this and I will be part of it no matter what anyone says,” Soyong says confidently.
“If Your Highness has already decided everything, why did you come here? How can I help?”
“…I miss my son.” Soyong lowers her voice. “I want to see him, even if it’s only briefly.”
There hasn’t been a day that she hasn’t thought about Hyun-ki. Her little, precious boy. She wants to caress his soft hair, kiss his forehead, and breathe in his unique baby scent. She wants to hug him tight and apologize for being away for so long. She wants to tell him how she will do everything in her power to protect him. Tears gather in Soyong’s eyes, and when she meets Hwa Jin’s eyes again, she sees sympathy.
“As far as I know, the heir is in the royal villa along with your father and closest attendants.” Hwa Jin explains.
“I knew it!” Soyong joyfully exclaims. “No one would believe that I left the palace without my son!”
“You know His Majesty the King very well,” Hwa Jin says, a smirk forming on her lips.
“I know him better than he knows me,” Soyong notes wistfully, but quickly shakes her head, throwing the sad thoughts out.
“But I don’t know how to get you in there,” Hwa Jin says thoughtfully. “No one leaves the royal villa once they go in.”
“But you will be an exception.” Hwa Jin raises her eyebrows at that. “You are one of the few people outside of the villa who knows the truth. They have no reason to keep you inside,” Soyong explains.
“But they will recognize Your Highness,” Hwa Jin argues.
“They won’t if I cover my face and pretend to be your servant. If they ask, tell them I have a scar and am too shy to reveal it.” Soyong already prepared the cloth to hide her face on her way here.
“They will recognize your voice.”
“Tell them I am mute as well. Anything else?”
“Yes,” Hwa Jin says, sounding somewhat frustrated. “Why should I help you with this ridiculous mission?”
“Because you owe me, Jo Hwa Jin. A lot.”
Hwa Jin shakes her head, looking annoyed as ever with Soyong’s stubbornness. But Soyong would never change her mind about this. She wants to see her son and get back to her plan.
But Hwa Jin is right, it’s dangerous to keep the King in the dark for too long.
“I promise you, if in the next few days I don’t find out anything new, I will tell His Majesty about everything,” she says sincerely.
Her pride will take a blow, but too many lives are at stake, so she will accept the disappointment. Just like she did when she admitted to herself that the spirit gained the King’s affection, and not her.
“Alright.” Hwa Jin finally gives in. “Please make yourself feel at home here while I prepare everything.”
While Hwa Jin goes to collect supplies for their trip to the royal villa, Soyong finds herself outside, on the outer grounds of Hwa Jin and Prince Yeongpyeong’s home. She notices a large tree that has clearly been utilized for target practice, possibly for Hwa Jin’s archery.
Soyong reaches for her concealed pocket knife and aims it at the target. Seo Hwi had given it to her this morning to protect herself if anything were to happen. He was looking forward to accompanying her, but Yul Mu had other plans for him and Soyong was grateful to be spared from making up excuses.
Soyong throws the knife, barely missing the center of the target. She retrieves it and returns to her original spot before trying again. The repetitive nature of the training calms her down. She starts to think that maybe she actually likes throwing knives and has reasons to practice beyond self- defense.
The knife brings her mind back to Bong Hwan again.
He gifted her many things. He gave her more confidence in her abilities and helped her realize courage she wasn’t even aware she possessed. He helped her gain new friends and deeper friendships with old ones. He helped her to improve her relationship with her father by making her bold enough to pour her deepest thoughts to him and later to show him how to be a better person. Bong Hwan taught the King to see her without prejudice. And he gave them peace. Soyong is so grateful to him and wishes she could actually say it to him. But they are separated by time and even if she writes a heartwarming letter to him, she doubts it will reach him in the next two hundred years.
“Shall we go?” Hwa Jin draws Soyong from her reverie. She watches in surprise as Soyong pulls out a knife from the corner of the target and hides it in her sleeve. “What is this?”
“New hobby.” Soyong smiles.
They go to the royal villa on foot and in complete silence. Both of them are lost in their own thoughts. Soyong thinks she was too harsh with Hwa Jin since she also has something precious to lose amid this plot for treason. She makes a mental note to show her gratitude later and apologize for the rudeness.
“You have so many paintings in your house.” Soyong decides to fill the awkward silence. “Very beautiful ones.”
“Thank you,” Hwa Jin replies dryly. “I have plenty of time to paint them now.”
“I see…” Soyong never thought about how Hwa Jin’s life would go on after her deposition. She thought she did a good deed by changing the law and providing a chance for deposed concubines to remarry. But apparently, society still does not have much to offer women who leave the palace.
“Did you know that I opened a school for commoners’ children?” Soyong asks, facing Hwa Jin.
“Your Highness’ generosity knows no bounds,” Hwa Jin responds politely, but Soyong hears a note of annoyance in her voice.
“Well, I noticed you seem to have plenty of paintings…maybe you could donate some of them to the school, to brighten the place,” Soyong suggests. Hwa Jin stops and looks at Soyong in surprise.
“Donate?” Hwa Jin repeats thoughtfully. “I can make whole sets of paintings, perhaps even some with poems on them.”
“That would be wonderful!” Soyong gives an approving smile. “I’m planning to open more schools. They would need decorations as well.”
“I could do more than just paintings,” Hwa Jin notes eagerly. “If you let me.”
“I see no reason to refuse.” Soyong laughs. She did not think that a simple idea could grow into a possible partnership. “Looks like I just bribed you,” Soyong jokes.
“Well, bribery runs in the Kim clan’s blood after all,” Hwa Jin teases lightly.
As they approach the royal villa’s gates Soyong hides her face with her prepared mask. As expected, the villa is well-guarded and they are stopped for questioning.
“My name is Lady Jo Hwa Jin. I’m Prince Yeongpyeong’s wife,” Hwa Jin introduces herself while Soyong stays by her side with her head bowed low. “I am here to visit Great Lord Yeongeun.”
“We are aware who you are, but the order is clear: no one is to go in if they plan to leave later,” one of the burly guards informs them.
“You probably don’t know this, but I know everything about what’s going on. Therefore, there’s no need to stop me,” Hwa Jin insists and the guards exchange uncertain looks. “Would you like me to inform my husband that you turned me away after I came all this way here?”
Soyong thinks she chose the right ally. Hwa Jin certainly knows how to use her authority. The guards look still uncertain, but reluctantly let them in. The first line is passed.
The villa itself is located on a dais, and they climb the slope upward. They go over their plan again in hushed voices. Hwa Jin is supposed to meet Soyong’s father, present him with pastries, and ask for tea. It will distract the servants from their work. Meanwhile, Soyong will slip into Hyun-ki’s chambers. It is around the time for his afternoon nap, and the servants have probably left him alone so they won’t disturb his sleep. Or at least Soyong hopes they did.
“Great Lord Yeongeun!” Hwa Jin greets Soyong’s father outside the house. “I apologize for this unexpected visit.” Hwa Jin approaches him, bowing her head.
“What brings you here, Lady Jo Hwa Jin?” Kim Moon-geun asks in surprise.
“I can’t sit at home at a time like this. I can only imagine how this situation feels for you. And for the poor prince!” Hwa Jin shakes her head and knits her brows together in a show of sympathy. “I can’t do much, but I decided I can at least visit you and show my support.”
Hwa Jin is a brilliant liar; it is no wonder she was able to deceive the King for years. She is definitely a better actress than Soyong – perhaps she should be the one to pretend to be a maid in the Park estate?
“Thank you for your concern, Lady Jo Hwa Jin. You are truly kind.” Kim Moon-Geun’s voice is soft and his eyes are already wet from the sentiment.
Soyong smiles under her mask; she has missed her father so much. He may have been a corrupt official in the past, but with her he was always the sweetest father. Not entirely sure how to raise a girl alone, he showered her with affection, spoiling her with countless gifts. She loves him with all her heart. And of course he’s here, taking care of her son while she’s away. Soyong sniffs a little, inadvertently drawing attention to herself.
“Who do you have here with you?” Soyong’s father turns his attention to his disguised daughter.
“This is my maid. You do not have to worry, she’s mute and cannot write. She cannot tell anything to anyone.” Hwa Jin turns to Soyong. “Mi-Ah, what are you waiting for? Give the basket to Great Lord Yeongeun!” Hwa Jin orders harshly.
Soyong furrows her brows indignantly at the sudden change in tone. But Hwa Jin just grins arrogantly, enjoying every second of her opportunity to boss Soyong around. Perhaps the path to a future friendship is not as likely as Soyong had thought.
Soyong hands over the basket she has been carrying to her father and he looks under the cloth. Inside are pastries from Hwa Jin’s kitchen, some of them with cinnamon, her father’s favorites. Soyong chose them herself knowing how much he loves them.
“Cinnamon?” Kim Moon-Geun breathes in the spicy scent. “My favorite!”
“Really?” Hwa Jin pretends to be surprised. “Do you perhaps have time to share a cup of tea with me?” Hwa Jin suggests and Soyong’s father leads them inside the house. The second line is passed, but the hardest part remains: bypassing Court Lady Choi.