Soyong leans on the edge of the bathtub with both hands and tells her story. They send everyone away so only her closest friends will know everything. Predictably, Court Lady Choi grumbles that Soyong doesn’t take her well-being seriously enough, while Hong Yeon looks at Soyong with admiration and a wide smile. Neither of her friends are surprised with her actions, as if it is a natural thing for the Queen to pretend to be someone of lowborn status.
“You never hesitate when you think something is right, Your Highness,” Hong Yeon says and Court Lady Choi begrudgingly agrees.
“So stubborn…” the older maid says faintly. “Your Highness is going back there, are you not?”
“You both know me so well,” Soyong smiles at them. “Do not worry. I will be careful.”
“His Majesty was the one who worried the most,” Hong Yeon notes. “Day and night he searched for Your Highness everywhere. The past two weeks he did everything from court business to protecting the prince to searching for you. Prince Yeongpyeong said His Majesty could barely find time to sleep.”
So that is why he looks so tired. Soyong once again feels remorseful over how irresponsible she was when she decided to take on everything on her own. At the same time, she feels warm inside hearing this about her husband. She must thank him for being so supportive even when she was away. She’s lucky to have Cheoljong as her husband as no other man would tolerate her sometimes erratic behavior.
She would entrust her heart to him, if only he could love her the way she wants, fully, with no hesitation. As she has always loved him ever since she met him.
In her time as the Destined Highness, her love for him grew stronger with every new day, even when he was acting cold with her. She refused to give up, not only because it wasn’t in her nature, but because she saw the uncertainty in his eyes and voice. She believed that something was holding him back, and if the issue could be resolved, he would be able to see her clearly.
But it was her name, the one she was born into, that he hated. And still, no matter how hurt she was back then, and how angry she became later while possessed, she loved him. And to this day, she loves him.
“He is a good man and a great King,” Soyong says sincerely. Even if she is not ready to open her heart to him, she will support him as he supports her. Maybe this conspiracy will help them finally find a solution for their complicated marriage. Maybe they could be partners if they could not be lovers.
“Did His Majesty really hurt you so deeply that you can’t forgive him?” Hong Yeon asks, and Court Lady Choi hisses at her for asking something so inappropriate. “You are also wondering about it, Court Lady Choi!”
“Are you both on his side?” Soyong narrows her eyes in suspicion. Her friends were very supportive of her for the past year and did everything to make her feel better. But did they also think she was in the wrong this whole time?
“We are on the side which makes both of you happy, Your Highness,” Court Lady Choi answers diplomatically.
Soyong ponders if her friends are right. In trying to solve their issue, she made both of them unhappy in the process. But this is something she learned from Jang Bong Hwan: she can’t always sacrifice herself. She must love herself too. She opened the truth to Cheoljong to let him understand her mind, but she closed her heart to protect herself. Is it too late for a second chance? Or a third, or a fourth? She would try as many times as needed.
Soyong dresses up as a noblewoman again today, with an accent of dark emerald on her short jeogori1Jeogori – is an upper garment. Also could be named dangui., and a light sea blue color chima2Chima – a skirt. that matches it perfectly. As a married woman, she can not wear her braid down, so she uses a simple binyeo3Binyeo is a thick pin used to get married women’s hair in a hairdo. to hold it up in a tight coil. She adds a simple yet sharp pin, the type that has already proven to be useful as a tool for self-defense, as her uncle must remember.
She asks Hong Yeon for makeup that is both bold and elegant at the same time. Together they decide on thick black eyeliner and matte red lips. They do not overdo the rest, with no eyeshadow and only a hint of blush. After all, they are going on a trip, and all this makeup will be a nightmare to take off if they are going to sleep in the village, or worse, in the woods. Court Lady Choi meanwhile prepares the minimum essentials for the two-day journey.
Feeling refreshed after the bath and finally wearing her usual clothes, which feel nicer on her skin than her maid’s outfit, Soyong walks out of the villa to meet Cheoljong. He is also prepared for the trip and has changed his hanbok4Hanbok – a general word for clothes. to… a dark emerald one. Soyong looks down at her jeogori that has emerald in it as well, then turns around to face Hong Yeon with raised eyebrows. But her friend only winks at her and smiles.
Unbelievable, Soyong rolls her eyes. She did it to her again!
“I see we have similar tastes,” the King chuckles.
“I would say our servants do,” she corrects him.
“Nonetheless, you look very beautiful, my Queen,” he smiles widely and her heart skips a beat. Damn him and his damned smile! “Did you visit Hyun-ki before leaving?”
“Yes, but he was sleeping,” she pouts. “He looked so serene, I didn’t dare wake him up.”
“I understand. I battled with the desire to interrupt his sleep, but he was too cute,” he agrees with a laugh.
The King offers her his hand again and helps her to get on the horse. Soyong had thought that she would never experience this closeness with him again, but it has now happened twice in one day.
She had been on her way home from the temple with Court Lady Choi when she felt a moment of nostalgia about their visit to this villa back when she was still possessed. It feels like the journey to the temple was ages ago, not two weeks. How could everything change so quickly?
Soon she wishes she will never have to ride a horse again. One short travel to enjoy the view is nice, but several hours in the saddle without break turns out to be torture. Cheoljong assures her it’s better not to waste time on rest and Soyong agrees.
It is still light out when they arrive at their destination, so there is a chance they will be able to make it back to the villa before the next day. Cheoljong helps Soyong get down from the horse, his warm hands lingering around her waist.
“Are you ready, my Queen?” She hears the worry in his voice. She wants to meet her uncle and put him in his place, to show how mistaken he was about her. But she feels so much anger towards him that she’s afraid she might lose her temper. It would only satisfy him to see how he can still hurt her.
“You are not going there alone,” Wonbeom lets go of her only to offer his hand.
Soyong looks him in the eyes, feeling stronger from the confidence in his gaze. She takes his hand and they approach Kim Jwa Geun’s simple hanok5Hanok – a house. together. Today he’s not the final boss but a defeated enemy. Soyong and Wonbeom are no longer weak puppets he can manipulate. Her uncle underestimated her once before and paid for it. He may try to hurt her with his words, but nothing will change the fact she and Wonbeom won against him.
There is only one guard by the hanok, and Wonbeom quickly asks the whereabouts of the second one in a harsh tone. The poor guard gets so scared he starts to stutter, saying his partner is on watch inside. Wonbeom tenses his jaw, and Soyong can see how angry he actually is.
They walk inside to find the frightened second guard. Having probably heard them outside, he falls onto his knees and starts begging for mercy. Behind him she sees her uncle, sitting by the lower table with a Sunjang Baduk6Sunjang Baduk is Joseon version of Baduk (also known as “Go”). It is slightly different from the traditional Baduk game (the final count and the start of the game). board in front of him. Based on the disordered placement of white stones and the calculated pattern of black ones, it’s easy to guess who played with which. Kim Jwa Geun must have grown bored and convinced his guards to accompany him in his games. Baduk is a game that needs full concentration and calculation of moves. But what fun is there in winning against a guard who, apparently, just found out the rules?
“Your Majesty the King,” her uncle greets Wonbeom in a mocking voice. “What a pleasure to see you again so soon.” He smiles and only then does his gaze travel to Soyong, but he continues to address Wonbeom. “I see you found my dear niece.”
“She’s your Queen and you must show your respect.” Wonbeom’s voice is cold and threatening. Soyong squeezes his hand, silently asking him to stop.
“Your Majesty, forgive my uncle, he calls me that as an old habit,” Soyong says in a sweet voice.
“Why don’t you accompany me in a game, Your Majesty? I’m afraid my previous opponent isn’t skillful enough.” He starts ignoring Soyong again. The guard had already run outside, leaving the three of them alone. Still, her uncle seems ready to talk with anyone or about anyone except her.
“Why don’t you play with me?” Soyong suggests.
“Your Majesty, please, don’t humiliate me like that,” Kim Jwa Geun mockingly begs.
“Are you afraid to lose to a woman again?” Soyong laughs. “You used that unfortunate guard to satisfy your need to feel superior. Your win against him means nothing.”
She doesn’t take her eyes off Kim Jwa Geun, but she hears Wonbeom chuckle at her remark. That gives her more confidence.
They sit on the near side of the table, now letting go of each other’s hands, and her uncle starts preparing everything for a new game. All the stones are now in two cups and the wide board is empty.
“Black or white?” her uncle asks. Soyong responds by taking a black stone and placing it in the center of the board. She will take the first move. According to the game’s rules, the first sixteen moves are prescribed, and they begin to put the stones in their proper places before starting the game in earnest.
“I did not know you like playing this game,” Kim Jwa Geun starts the conversation after making his first move with a white stone.
“My father taught me a long time ago. It’s one of the rare activities we do together.” Soyong places the next stone on the board. The first few moves are quite boring; the interesting part starts when the stones are placed closer to each other to try to capture the opponents’ stones and start forming a border.
“Your father always lost to me,” Kim Jwa Geun remarks with a smirk. “What a fool he is, don’t you think, Your Majesty?”
“Father-in-law is more intelligent than you think,” Wonbeom politely answers.
“My father is smart enough not to win against the head of the family,” Soyong points out, smiling sweetly at him. “You were winning only because of your name.”
A long time ago he and others at the palace told her she’s nothing without her name. Her achievements did not matter, as she was the Queen not because she deserved the position, but simply because she was from the Kim clan. It feels nice to return the same sentiment to her uncle.
Her father acts like a fool, and perhaps he is a bit foolish, but he has a phenomenal memory. He was able to recreate the ledger and add even more information for her and the King in the past. And in Baduk, memory is important: after a while, the opponent’s favorite moves become apparent and the strategy changes accordingly. Her other teacher was her orabeoni Kim Byeong-In, the one who surpassed his father in everything, including this game. Soyong never played against her uncle before, but she’s sure she has a good chance to win this game, since she often won against her two very different opponents who were familiar with his tactics.
“You have become more bold, Queen. You look less like a naive child and more like a woman in power.” Kim Jwa Geun almost looks proud. Does he think it is all thanks to him?
“The palace life indeed makes everyone grow up faster. It is a cage full of snakes. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I assure you, Uncle, I’m working on making the palace… enjoyable.” Soyong puts another stone on the board.
They are progressing in the game and every next move must be made more carefully. Wonbeom sits beside her quietly, observing the game and listening carefully. She’s thankful he let her lead this conversation, and his presence comforts her. Knowing she can reach out to him at any moment, take his hand, and see his reassuring smile is a huge help in itself.
“But you didn’t come here to talk about that, Your Highness,” her uncle notes. “You need something from me, so why don’t we go straight to the point.”
“Of course none of us would visit you willingly, Uncle,” Soyong laughs at the mere thought of it. “We need information about one family, former friends of yours, the Parks.”
“Hmm, I see,” Kim Jwa Geun strokes his beard thoughtfully. “I hope you both realize I need something in return for this?”
“You can write to your sister again soon if we finish our business with the Parks,” Wonbeom promises begrudgingly.
“That is not enough, Your Majesty. You will have to try harder,” Kim Jwa Geun laughs at him. “Taking something away and giving it back isn’t a price for valuable information.”
“What do you want?” Soyong feels annoyed with his shenanigans and doesn’t want to waste time trying to guess his wishes.
She really doubts he will suffer if he doesn’t write letters to his sister. Both of them were ready to abandon each other the moment they felt there was no use in one another. He speaks so highly about family but has no remorse about ordering to kill his own son and niece. And he wouldn’t stop there: he would cut down anyone who makes his “family” weaker. But most of the Kim clan is as rotten as him, and sooner or later that “family” would ditch him as the weakest link.
“It might sound surprising, but I miss the company of your father, Your Highness. He’s the only one who was saved from punishment,” Kim Jwa Geun says. “If he could visit me from time to time for a game and tea, I would be grateful enough to share my knowledge.”
Soyong gives Wonbeom a look of uncertainty. It is a tricky request that needs her father’s approval first. Wonbeom would agree to it if she also insisted. His face is a stone mask, but she sees the internal conflict in his eyes. She is familiar with this look of his, when he acts cold and indifferent, but his brilliant brain is calculating all possible outcomes. She finally sees a glimpse of a formed decision and he slowly blinks with a smirk. Soyong turns back to her uncle:
“We will ask my father first, as he might refuse to ever visit you again,” Soyong declares. “We can’t make this decision for him. However, we can find other company for your liking if needed.”
“Fair enough, Your Majesty and Your Highness,” he agrees. “The Parks you were asking about were indeed my friends a long time ago…”
“Tell us what we do not know,” Soyong cuts him off. She doesn’t want to hear a lengthy story of his life.
“Why were they banished? It seems like no one knows,” Wonbeom adds after Soyong. “I doubt you exiled them for corruption.”
“Minister Park was indeed involved in corruption, but Your Majesty is right, it wasn’t the reason.” Kim Jwa Geun nods, seemingly pleased with the situation where they need him. “But he made a mistake: he was smuggling Joseon goods to Japan… I couldn’t forgive such treason.”
“Are you saying you are a patriot now?” Wonbeom lets out a booming laugh, and Soyong also can’t hide her amusement at this ridiculous statement.
“It could have weakened our great country!” For the first time, her uncle drops his mask and shows anger.
“What weakens our country is all your corruption. Who will protect this country if people starve because of suffocating taxes and unfair treatment from officials? What makes this country so great when people work hard to satisfy insatiable greed from people like you?” Wonbeom raises his voice dangerously, showing his authority. Soyong feels proud listening to him giving speeches like this. He is a King the people would choose if they eventually had democracy. “You are the reason why the country suffered, and I can only hope we will be able to restore everything that you and your followers tarnished!”
“Do you have anything else to add, Uncle?” Soyong asks. As much as she enjoyed Wonbeom’s rousing speech, she needs to steer the conversation back on track.
“Nothing,” he snaps at her, but she could care less about his insolence. He lost again, in more ways than one. “I was glad to banish them before we became family. My son was spared from the humiliation.”
“Do not dare call yourself a father after what you did to Kim Byeong-In,” Soyong hisses, trying hard not to lose her composure.
But instead of shouting at him, she wants to win. She takes another stone and is about to place it on the board, but Wonbeom grabs her wrist, stopping her. She looks at him and he slightly shakes his head. Soyong only smirks and yanks her hand free, placing the stone where she wanted. She hears him sigh, but he says nothing.
“You lost your right to call yourself a father the moment you ordered his murder,” Soyong continues, her voice cold.
She will never forget it, and she will never forgive it. She had to bury her brother herself. Her orabeoni7Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in family. who was always on her side, the one who always watched her back.
Whenever she turned around he was there, smiling at her and teasing. She will never see her orabeoni’s bright smile again.
“You have lost…”
It takes Kim Jwa Geun a second to realize she doesn’t mean his political defeat. He looks at the board and realizes he has indeed lost the game. The black stones form an unusual pattern that at first glance do not seem to border a large enough area. But when he finally counts, he understands she’s truly won with two points on top.
Soyong gets up with her back straight and towers over her uncle. His mouth trembles and he lets out an unsteady laugh. What a petty old man he has become, Soyong thinks. She looks at Wonbeom, who now stands by her, and he smiles widely. Soyong feels a bit shy under his admiring gaze. She hasn’t seen him look like this for a while and it feels so nice. Smiling back at him, they walk towards the door side by side.
“Then you can’t call yourself his family or his sister.” She hears her uncle’s voice, and Soyong comes to a sudden stop at the doorstep. “You, who shattered his dreams into dust…”
It hurts, it hurts so much to hear it.
“You are responsible for his death as well, Your Highness the Queen.” His mocking voice hits a wound in her heart that still has not healed. But she can not show it.
Instead, she turns around and leaves without giving him the reaction he wants.
Once she’s outside, Soyong breathes in deeply, bending forward and placing her hands on her knees. He couldn’t let her go without spewing his poisonous words.
And she hates that he is right. Her orabeoni died because of her.
She doesn’t wait for Wonbeom, who’s still inside, and heads towards the nearby shore. The waves are crashing heavily, spraying cooling drops of water against her face. Soyong stands there motionless, the sounds of the sea calming her and stopping her from shouting at the top of her lungs. Tears appear in her eyes and run down her face. She failed him, her orabeoni, she…
“My Queen.” She doesn’t react when she hears Wonbeom’s voice. “It wasn’t your fault, Soyong-ah.” She feels his large palm on her back, soothing her, comforting her. But it’s not enough, and Soyong turns to face him and hugs him tightly. He immediately wraps his arms around her, his cheek warm against her wet one.
“I should have saved him…” she cries, her body trembling in his arms. “I didn’t want to use his feelings and it led him to his death… I should have stopped him… I should have done something!”
“He loved you so much. Nothing you could have said would have changed his mind,” Wonbeom whispers into her ear. “He wanted to protect you no matter what and he did.”
“But…” Soyong tries to argue between ragged sobs. Wonbeom leans back a little to look into her eyes. He places his hands on her cheeks and wipes her tears away.
“You did a lot for him. Otherwise, he would have never sacrificed himself for you,” Wonbeom says, smiling wistfully. “Your impact on his life was so great he was ready to commit treason.” Soyong gives him a faint smile, remembering that her husband did not have a particularly pleasant relationship with Byeong-In to say the least. They fought to the death, and it was a miracle Wonbeom survived back then. And still, he’s standing here and sharing kind words about her brother, giving her the comfort she needs.
“Thank you,” she says, pulling away, but he tugs her in for another embrace.
“It is always my pleasure, my Queen,” he murmurs against her cheek and she smiles back, rising on her tiptoes to hide her face in the crook of his neck.
They stand like this for a while, listening to the waves and not saying anything. Wonbeom draws circles on her lower back, and Soyong wonders how she can ever repay him for everything he has done for her. She was nothing but cruel to him and made him worry so much that he lost sleep.
And still, he does everything to be by her side.
“I want to visit that province where Park Yul Mu worked,” Wonbeom breaks the silence. “My Queen, will you come with me or should I get you back to the royal villa first?”
“I guess I will have to get used to horseback,” Soyong mumbles light-heartedly, still not letting go of him. “We are in this together. I’m sorry I made you feel any other way. Let’s go together.”
Together, as it was supposed to be since the beginning…
I must apologize for the latest chapters as writing probably feels flat and lacking. I’m writing more and more in English without Russian back up and I need more practice. So perhaps my writing has now degraded a bit.
And let’s give a round of applause for Sarah, she has to work extra hard to make this story enjoyable with my too simple writing.
Anyway, this chapter was fun to write. I felt bad that Soyong never had a chance to confront her uncle for what happened with her and BI. The description of the game probably was boring but I wanted to step aside from the tujeon game everyone uses in their fics. Soyong is naturally good in all games because she’s both lucky and intelligent.
In the next chapter, Cheoljong shows what he wants, and Soyong, well, is in her usual denial state. But resisting her clingy husband is getting harder.
- 1Jeogori – is an upper garment. Also could be named dangui.
- 2Chima – a skirt.
- 3Binyeo is a thick pin used to get married women’s hair in a hairdo.
- 4Hanbok – a general word for clothes.
- 5Hanok – a house.
- 6Sunjang Baduk is Joseon version of Baduk (also known as “Go”). It is slightly different from the traditional Baduk game (the final count and the start of the game).
- 7Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in family.