Soyong nestles deeper into Wonbeom’s warm embrace, breathing in his scent, a comforting mix of jasmine and fir. Her back is pressed against his chest and he whispers into her ear about all the things he wishes for them to do together.
She feels safe. At peace. Loved.
Soyong wants the whole world to stop for a moment and let her capture everything about the love of her life to memory.
Her fate. Her husband. Her everything, alongside Hyun-ki.
Soyong wants to fall deeper into her love. She now trusts that she won’t crash suddenly; she’s too strong for that. So, she pushes aside the nagging feeling of possible loss. The feeling that fate will yet again say Soyong has had enough happiness and now it’s time to pay.
No, Soyong won’t agree with that. She’s too greedy now.
“Why did a political struggle have to happen for us to clear our misunderstandings?” Wonbeom whispers, nuzzling his nose against her exposed neck and kissing her pulse point.
“I’m not sure,” Soyong says, giggling softly. “Maybe we are incapable of being a normal married couple.”
“Do you think we will get bored if no one is trying to harm us?” Wonbeom’s lips continue to explore her skin, trailing up to her ear. He catches her earlobe into his mouth, sucking lightly and drawing a weak moan from her.
“I’m alright with being bored if it means being bored with you,” Soyong whispers between sharp gasps, barely managing to stay focused on their conversation.
“It’s never boring with you,” Wonbeom chuckles. “If nothing happens, you will create a mess…” Soyong pushes her elbow back, hitting him under his ribs, and he lets out a sharp breath of air.
“Exactly my point,” Wonbeom laughs, catching both her hands in front of her and preventing any further horseplay.
Soyong wants to argue, but unfortunately their bickering is interrupted by Director Hong informing them it is time to go.
The two married couples and (the proudly single) Director Hong leave his office in the outer palace and head towards the Park estate.
Wonbeom wears his gorgeous blue and gold cheolik1Cheolik – fighting garment. At the show, Cheoljong usually wore blue and gold one. that Soyong remembers from their first meeting at the palace. He looks so royal and powerful that she can’t help but admire him. Prince Yeongpyeong is adorned in darker shades of blue and no gold details but still looks very regal with his height and perfect posture. Soyong wonders if the brothers initially chose to color coordinate or if they just have the same taste in clothes to begin with.
Hwa Jin and Soyong on the other hand wear very different clothes for the sake of their task at hand. Her sister-in-law has chosen very bright and intense colors, and even her hairpins are extravagant. Meanwhile, Soyong wears a hanbok2Hanbok – a general word for clothes. borrowed from Hong Yeon, one that is pale in color and made from a simple, coarse cloth.
The group huddles together in an empty alley near the Park estate, away from the noisy streets of Hanyang. Director Hong leaves first to ensure that Seo Hwi and Yul Mu have left for Oktajeong3Oktajeong is a kisaeng house. for their meeting.
The evening becomes chilly as the summer heat dies down once the sun starts to head to the horizon. The anxiety of the long wait grows with every passing minute, but once Director Hong finally approaches them with the news they have waited for, all four of them let out a relieved sigh.
So it begins.
“Remember, we only need the map,” Wonbeom reminds Soyong once again, holding both of her hands in his.
“I know,” Soyong reassures him with a smile, deciding not to tease him. She did try to previously convince him to allow her to get the book with the conspirators’ names as well, but he had a valid point that the book is harder to sneak.
“And please, be careful, my Queen!” Wonbeom repeats for the hundredth time this evening.
“I will,” she answers, but Wonbeom does not look convinced, and his hands squeeze hers tighter. “Wonbeom-ah, this mission is not that hard. You know me… I can do anything,” she says confidently, trying to calm him down.
“That is exactly why I am worried, Soyong-ah!” He holds her gaze, concern written all over his face.
“Ya, love birds, cut it out. We don’t have much time,” Hong annoyingly interjects, making them both sigh in irritation. Nearby, Hwa Jin and Yeongpyeong seem to have a similarly difficult time parting from each other.
“I’ll see you soon,” Soyong says quietly and turns to leave, but Wonbeom catches her elbow and pulls her into his body for a tender kiss.
“For good luck,” Wonbeom whispers as they part.
When she leaves with Hwa Jin by her side, Soyong looks behind her one more time. The three men stay in the empty alley, wearing worried expressions as they send them in for a dangerous mission.
“They’re overreacting a bit, aren’t they?” Hwa Jin tries to joke, but Soyong can hear the uncertainty in her voice.
“Well, your part is the easiest. You just have to talk about how much you hate me. It won’t be anything new,” Soyong glances at her, “Remember that silly novel of yours?”
“You’re not going to forget that, are you?” Hwa Jin rolls her eyes, dropping all formalities between them.
“Write a happy ending for your current novel and I will forgive you,” Soyong suggests. She likes the latest story, but it has grown sadder with every new part. If she can use her influence to push for a nicer ending for the characters, she’s happy to do so. “Enough of the heartbreaks. Let’s be happy.”
They finally stand in front of the gates to the Park estate. Both women turn their heads to look at each other. Soyong gives Hwa Jin a reassuring nod before knocking on the wooden gates. They do not wait long before a male servant lets them into the inner yard.
They find the yard is quite empty as there does not seem to be much to do when it grows dark. The servant recognizes Soyong and she tells him with a cheerful smile that she now has a new job working for Hwa Jin.
Yul Mee comes to greet them soon after, accompanied by the young maid who looked after Soyong after the incident in the woods. The maid eyes her with a coldness Soyong had not before seen from her.
Soyong smirks in her direction: young maids can take a lot after their mistresses, and Soyong can only guess how much Yul Mee complained after she left the estate in unceremonious fashion.
“What a strange surprise,” Yul Mee glances at Soyong with blatant animosity, “You two are the last people I expected to see here again.”
“Did you not wish to know more about the palace and His Majesty?” Hwa Jin asks in a cold tone.
“You told me to give up on that idea,” Yul Mee reminds her. “What changed your mind?”
“Hatred…” Hwa Jin steps forward. “My hatred for the Queen is stronger than my contempt towards you,” she says with a grin. “If you can succeed where I failed, it will make me happy.”
“And why have you brought this lowly scum with you?” Yul Mee shifts her gaze to Soyong again.
“My lady…” Soyong starts.
“Shut your mouth!” Hwa Jin sharply cuts off Soyong. “I allowed you to come with me only because you wanted to visit your friends here. But I will make you wait for me outside if you interrupt us again.”
Soyong lowers her head in an act of feigned shame. There is no trace of the anxiety Hwa Jin felt before they entered the estate. If anything, she seems to relish her role, just like she did when they secretly visited the royal villa.
“It would be wise to get rid of her before she steals your husband,” Yul Mee suggests.
Soyong is happy her head is bowed low as she blanches at the thought. She cannot hold back a small chuckle and attempts to cover it up with a cough. The idea of her “stealing” Prince Yeongpyeong is beyond ridiculous even with their improved relationship now.
“I highly doubt that will happen,” Hwa Jin carefully answers. Soyong does not need to look at Hwa Jin to know that she is also amused by Yul Mee’s ridiculous suggestion.
“Anyways, it seems that you were right,” Yul Mee reluctantly admits. She walks further into the estate with Hwa Jin and Soyong trailing behind her. “I met His Majesty today at the market.”
Soyong tenses, wondering if Yul Mee is not interested in the King anymore. But she continues to lead them in the direction of the raised gazebo in the gardens, and Soyong takes that as a good sign. As long as Yul Mee is not chasing them away, they can stick to their plan. Hwa Jin only has to occupy Yul Mee long enough for Soyong to steal the map.
“Did you know that he has a basket with the Queen’s various things? Ribbons and binyeos4Binyeo is a thick pin used to get married women’s hair in a hairdo.…” Yul Mee glances back at Hwa Jin, who shakes her head in response. “I won’t be surprised if he has a lock of her hair in there as well.”
Hwa Jin’s eyes go wide at the bitterly sarcastic remark, and she glances sideways at Soyong. Soyong only silently shakes her head: she doesn’t know what has happened either. When the night is over, she will definitely speak with Wonbeom about it. Soyong doesn’t know whether she should feel flattered or disturbed about what she has just heard.
“His Majesty is very sentimental. He doesn’t like to let go of people or things that remind him of them,” Hwa Jin says carefully. “It is too bad you are giving up so quickly,” she sarcastically adds and receives the full force of Yul Mee’s side-eye full of contempt in return.
“There are many ways to gain power in Joseon. Therefore, I am not giving up – I will just find another path for myself,” Yul Mee clarifies, tilting her chin up defiantly.
“My lady…” Soyong whispers almost inaudibly so as to pretend she is too afraid to raise her voice again. “May I go and greet the people who showed me so much support not long ago?”
“Seo Hwi isn’t here,” Yul Mee says gleefully. “Your friend is at the kisaeng5Kisaengs were women from outcast or slave families who were trained to be courtesans, providing artistic entertainment and conversation to men of the upper class. house tonight,” she mockingly informs Soyong. “The poor fellow was searching everywhere for you in vain. A sorry sight, really.”
“You may go,” Hwa Jin says to Soyong and then addresses Yul Mee: “You don’t mind, do you? I think it’s best not to have prying ears around us.”
Yul Mee waves her hand indifferently, giving her permission:
“Since you will be wandering around here, tell the servants in the kitchen to prepare snacks and liquor.”
Soyong bows her head low and takes a few steps backwards before turning around and hurrying to the kitchen. She doesn’t stay there for long, taking only a few minutes to deliver Yul Mee’s request and to share a quick story about the new family she works for. Luckily, the servants are busy working to please their hot-tempered mistress and no one questions Soyong’s quick departure.
Soyong heads towards the hanok where she knows Yul Mu keeps his office. He lives with his sister in the main house but prefers to keep his work separate.
Quickly, Soyong looks around to make sure no one can see her. Satisfied, she takes off her shoes and takes them into her hands so no one will know anyone is inside. Her careful steps are noiseless as she pads across the floor in her soft socks.
She cautiously opens the door to his office and sneaks inside, closing the door behind her. Without any candles, the room is in semi-darkness, but Soyong knows the place well from her previous attempts to open the hidden safe in the wall. She slips behind the screen that hides the wall and takes off the panel on the wall that covers the safe. Soyong’s eyes are adjusted to the lack of light now, and she sees the lock she must open at all costs tonight.
Soyong reaches out to the base of her thick braid and plucks out a pin. She bites her lower lip, carefully trying to pick the lock as quietly as possible. She’s so concerned she might fail that her hands start to shake a bit.
It is not working.
Soyong stops what she is doing and takes a deep breath in, calming herself as she closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens her eyes again, her hands do not shake anymore. She holds her breath and methodically moves the pin inside the lock. In the empty room, the clicking sound is loud when the lock is finally opened. Soyong sighs in relief and swallows a hard lump in her throat.
She opens the safe to find the book with all of the conspirators’ names and deeds in front of her. Soyong opens it and flips through the pages before finding the map tucked inside. Hurriedly, she hides the map under her collar and tucks it inside her chima6Chima – a skirt.. Soyong looks down at herself, smoothing out her clothes and making sure there is no visible hint of the concealed map on her person.
She closes everything back as it was and picks up her shoes again to leave the room as quickly as possible. Once outside again in the chilly evening, she finally feels like she can breathe properly. The office had felt so stuffy, or perhaps she had been too anxious and had just been imagining it.
It is completely dark out when she approaches the high gazebo where Hwa Jin and Yul Mee bond over hating her and her husband. The two ladies are chatting casually, even laughing together while drinking.
Alcohol is really the best way to bond even the worst enemies, Soyong thinks. Hwa Jin notices her and Soyong gives her a subtle nod.
“It is very late already, Yul Mee,” Hwa Jin says casually, glancing up at the skies. “I must go or my husband will be worried if he comes home and does not find me there.”
“Already? It’s not like you have anything to do other than wait for your husband to come home,” Yul Mee scoffs.
“Nonetheless, I must go. There are limits to the number of insults I can handle hearing from you,” Hwa Jin answers, coldly looking into Yul Mee’s eyes.
Soon, Soyong and Hwa Jin are outside, walking away slowly from the estate. Neither of them dare to run, though they both struggle to hide their excitement.
“Did you really get it?” Hwa Jin whispers when they are at a safe distance.
Soyong grins, lifting her palm in the air. Hwa Jin looks puzzled, shifting her gaze from Soyong’s palm and back to her face, raising a brow in confusion.
“Just mimic what I am doing.” Soyong lets out an annoyed sigh. Still befuddled, Hwa Jin does as she is told, and Soyong slaps their palms together in a high-five, just like the people of the future do for occasions like this.
“I got it,” Soyong smugly confirms. “It was a hard task, I must say… But I did it brilliantly…” she continues to brag, making Hwa Jin roll her eyes in response.
It’s so unusual for Soyong to be like this, but she feels high-spirited, almost as if she is inebriated. Maybe true success is meant to feel as if one has had the right amount of alcohol to be relaxed but not yet sick.
They continue back towards the same alley where they had left their husbands earlier. But at the nearest turn, someone catches Soyong’s elbow and pulls her into the shadows. She doesn’t even have time to react: her scream is stuck in her throat when she recognizes the familiar embrace and the scent of jasmine tea and fir trees.
“Are you alright?” Wonbeom’s hot whisper burns her ear. Soyong wraps her arms around him, her head nestling in the crook of his neck. She smiles against his skin: her worrywart of a husband couldn’t wait at their rendezvous point and came to meet her just beyond the gate.
“I feel perfect now…” she whispers back.
They part to look into each other’s eyes, smiling as if they have been away from each other for ages. Once again Soyong feels desperate for more time with him after they have finally reunited. She resisted and lived in her state of uncertainty for so long that now all her suppressed feelings have broken through and she can barely keep herself away from him.
With a mischievous smile, Soyong snakes a hand beneath her collar and brandishes the map. Wonbeom looks at her admiringly before opening the map wide. Prince Yeongpyeong and Director Hong come to stand on either side of him to study it as well.
“Well, they chose a good spot,” Director Hong admits. “We would have had to search the forest for weeks before finding it.”
“Yes, no one can find the camp accidentally, apart from the herb collectors who usually live in the mountains,” Yeongpyeong muses, scratching his chin.
“The mountain makes it hard to approach them secretly,” Wonbeom says, frowning.
Soyong and Hwa Jin share a worried look: the mission will be risky even with the element of surprise.
“So it is even more dangerous now?” Soyong’s anxiety spikes again, as she now must let Wonbeom venture into the lion’s den.
“O-ho, my Queen, believe in your husband a little, won’t you?” Wonbeom smiles brightly, and somehow that only makes her feel even more worried. “Don’t forget we had our own secret camp in the mountains some time ago,” he adds, seemingly trying to soothe her agitation, but he fails, just as she had not been able to calm him earlier either.
“We are familiar with this area, and all our men are experienced warriors,” Yeongpyeong says, turning to his wife and taking her hand in his. He raises it to his lips to kiss her knuckles, and Hwa Jin visibly melts at the gesture.
“You two should go back home.” Wonbeom folds the map and hides it under his own collar. He approaches Soyong then: “Right after everything is over, I will be back to you and Hyun-ki.” He takes her hand to kiss it before pressing her palm against his chest where his heart is beating fast. “Wait for me, my Queen.”
“Alright,” Soyong says quietly with unshed tears in her eyes.
Life repeats itself, and she must let him go and be the King of the nation once again while she must wait and take care of their child. This time she isn’t wounded or bleeding, but the pain she feels in her heart is still present.
Soyong reaches up on her tip-toes to brush her lips against his — for good luck, as he had said earlier.
Wonbeom and his brother leave them in the company of Director Hong. Soyong doesn’t move until Wonbeom’s back is out of her sight.
“I will escort you both home safely,” Hong quietly says after a while. “Do not worry much. I am sure they will be back safe.”
They walk slowly and in complete silence, each deep in their own thoughts. Soyong wonders how long the battle will take. She knows she will be anxious all through the night, until they finally return home.
They reach Hwa Jin’s home first, though no one seems to find the words to say anything. “I don’t want to be alone…” Hwa Jin says shakily, a tear running down her cheek.
Soyong suddenly realizes how lucky she is to have her friends and family by her side. The mission is a secret, and Hwa Jin’s family simply doesn’t know she needs support right now. She used to have O-Wol following her around all the time and encouraging her in everything. But O-Wol is gone and her little sister that Hwa Jin cherishes so much is too young to understand what they are dealing with.
“Then come to the royal villa with me,” Soyong offers. “Let’s wait for them there.” Hwa Jin whispers her gratitude so quietly that Soyong barely catches the words.
“Ya, are you telling me we made this huge detour in vain?” Hong asks irritably. “Why couldn’t you two decide this sooner?” He lets out an offended scoff.
Hwa Jin and Soyong can’t help but laugh at their complaining friend before turning to head back out onto the road.
They only take a few steps before they hear Hong’s pained shout and a loud thudding noise. Soyong whips around and finds him lying sprawled on the ground, unmoving. She watches in terror as Seo Hwi lowers the handle of the sword he must have used to knock out Hong.
Soyong hurriedly falls on her knees to check on Du Il: she turns him onto his back and lets out a relieved sigh when she sees that he’s breathing. She lifts her gaze to Seo Hwi, who looks down coldly at her. Not a single ounce of sympathy is left in his features.
She registers a movement in the shadows behind him and finally realizes they are in huge trouble: Yul Mu and another man Soyong doesn’t recognize enter the inner yard of Hwa Jin’s home.
“What are you doing in my house uninvited?” Hwa Jin’s voice is shrill and angry. Soyong is strangely pleased and impressed to see her so confidently face the armed men when she was tearing up in distress just a moment ago.
“Jo Hwa Jin.” Yul Mu’s lips spread into that charming smile of his, but his cold eyes send goosebumps running through Soyong’s skin. He bares his sword and holds it to Hwa Jin’s neck, the sharp blade grazing the skin and drawing blood. “I believe you took something that belongs to me.”
- 1Cheolik – fighting garment. At the show, Cheoljong usually wore blue and gold one.
- 2Hanbok – a general word for clothes.
- 3Oktajeong is a kisaeng house.
- 4Binyeo is a thick pin used to get married women’s hair in a hairdo.
- 5Kisaengs were women from outcast or slave families who were trained to be courtesans, providing artistic entertainment and conversation to men of the upper class.
- 6Chima – a skirt.