Jo Hwa Jin lost her title of being a noblewoman in Hanyang, but she never lost her grace. She learned to walk with her head held high and turn a deaf ear to any criticism from the aristocratic families. There is nothing wrong with being a divorcee or being remarried. Her first marriage was a mistake and she’s happy now after wedding the man she genuinely loves. Happiness can’t be shameful.
When she meets with Lady Park Yul Mee, Hwa Jin’s smile is bright and her posture is perfect. She immediately recognizes the arrogant girl from her childhood in the young woman before her. Yul Mee had once looked down on her for being motherless, and she looks at Hwa Jin in the same way now, though for new reasons.
“I am glad you accepted my invitation, Jo Hwa Jin,” Yul Mee says, faking a polite smile.
“It’s a pleasure for me. I have not had any invitations lately.” Hwa Jin slyly smirks back: she knows well enough that Yul Mee didn’t send after her just to catch up on fond memories from their childhood. Especially since they didn’t have any, or at least Hwa Jin did not.
“Still, you could have turned it down,” Yul Mee notes.
“My curiosity was stronger,” Hwa Jin says, forcing a small laugh.
They stroll through the yard as Yul Mee casually boasts about her plans for the estate. It all seems like just an act, filler talk before starting the real conversation. They finally go up to the pavilion where the table is prepared for them and sit down.
“Should I entertain you with unnecessary chatter a bit more, or can we drop the pretense?” Yul Mee blatantly asks. Hwa Jin chuckles at how typical Yul Mee’s behavior is. She can’t even attempt to hide her contempt for Hwa Jin.
“I suppose you had a good reason to invite someone like me here for tea.” Hwa Jin holds up the cup of tea as if toasting with alcohol. “What do you wish to know?”
“The only valuable information you can possess is… how to obtain the King’s favor.”
Hwa Jin is aghast Yul Mee is so shameful as to ask the King’s former concubine about such a private matter. Hwa Jin sighs, shaking her head slightly: this is frustratingly disappointing. In light of the conspiracy with Yul Mee’s brother, her attempt to steal the King’s heart looks ridiculous.
“I will be honest with you, Yul Mee. And you should consider that a kindness.” Hwa Jin gently places the teacup back on the table. “Give up this idea of yours. You will never gain the King’s love.”
“Just answer the question. I’m not in need of your advice on what I should or should not do,” Yul Mee says coldly, with nothing left of the earlier fake hospitality.
“Alright,” Hwa Jin gives in. Why not let Yul Mee humiliate herself in front of the King? She deserves it after all. “You must be kind and selfless. Also, you must show interest in politics and reforms…”
“Of course, a woman must support her husband in the area of his interests,” Yul Mee says, smirking.
“I don’t think you understand. Politics is a shared passion between the King and Queen. The Queen does not need to pretend to share His Majesty’s interests. She believes in the King’s plans to improve the country. You have probably heard rumors from the palace about the King and Queen avoiding each other’s company for the past year, and perhaps you have drawn a false conclusion that their marriage is crumbling. But I will tell you this: even without speaking with each other, they have both managed to carry out reforms for the benefit of the common people.”
Hwa Jin doesn’t know where this passionate speech about her former beloved and her former enemy came from, but she cannot help but feel intensely defensive of them. How dare this arrogant woman think she can judge a relationship she knows nothing about? The King and Queen are still a part of Hwa Jin’s family, and she will not tolerate Yul Mee’s disrespect.
“Do you want to know how I came into possession of the King’s affection? I pretended to be Kim Soyong, but eventually His Majesty saw through my pretense, and our relationship was over. So, you cannot succeed in your plans either. Why would the King want a fake Kim Soyong when he already has the real one?”
“I have heard she does not feel well.” Yul Mee says conspiratorially, in a way that acutely reminds Hwa Jin of Dowager Jo. She looks entirely unbothered by everything Hwa Jin has just said. “If the Queen is so fragile, the King must be devastated. Perhaps he will seek comfort elsewhere.”
“I believe it is more likely he will live the life of a monk in that case. The King is very loyal,” Hwa Jin says, frowning. Something feels off about this meeting, but she cannot place her finger on it exactly.
“He wasn’t loyal to you,” Yul Mee says icily. “If his heart was swayed once, it can be swayed twice. Even if the Queen survives her illness.” Yul Mee smiles brightly, as if she is not speaking about someone supposedly on death’s doorstep. Even with Soyong out of the picture, Hwa Jin can hardly imagine someone as smart as Wonbeom falling for Yul Mee’s simple tricks. “Anyways, why don’t you tell me about life in the palace…?”
The conversation nags Hwa Jin all the way home. It was not just an unpleasant experience: she feels utterly disgusted. Yul Mee was a mean-spirited child, but Hwa Jin never imagined her growing up to be so cruel. Maybe the losses her family endured made her worse over the years.
The scariest thing is Hwa Jin doesn’t know if Yul Mee can be saved as Hwa Jin once was. She used to be so desperate while living in the palace, and she became her worst self. She had tried to find a noble excuse in the death of her loyal servant O-Wol. Somehow, Hwa Jin had rationalized that her death made all of her vile actions justified. Fortunately, when the Queen blatantly told Hwa Jin the truth, she was able to change and find herself again.
She finally reaches her home but doesn’t stay there for long. She heads into her chambers and picks up the portrait she finished just this morning. She hopes she has portrayed the man accurately. Hwa Jin had even asked Gyeong-eung earlier if he had ever seen this man, as he and Director Hong used to search for information about the future Queen before the wedding. But her husband had never seen the man either. Perhaps this mysterious man will remain unknown for the rest of them.
She prepares to head to the royal villa to share the news of her meeting with Yul Mee, even though she did not learn as much as she had hoped. An ominous feeling about the meeting continues to nag her into the night.